The Long Hello

‘I’m an activist not a race director.  I don’t have any experience at this. What I propose is that I shout one, two, three, go! Sound okay? Anyone got any tips?

‘One, two, three, go!

Hallo rutted four wheel drive, chocolate button grass, scratchy scrub. Wind that banged and howled so energetically through the night seems spent, its breath a feathery tickle on our cheeks, its gentle stroke trembling the silver dollar leaves the eucalyptus like to wear. I run erratically wrestling off my pre-race clothing as I go. The trees calmly shed their bark in giant potato peels.

Earlier we walked the road guided by moonlight and the translucent pinprick pattern of the milky-way.  I’d glanced across at Alice wondering if living in London she misses the forest animals, this fresh air, clear sky, the Southern Cross. At the Arthur River Visitor Centre runners fidget with their gear, hair and introductions.  Late arrivals bring news the school buses delivering us to the start are trapped behind a blockade of empty white utes. The nearest police are stationed at Smithton, an hour away.

‘That’s Tassie for you’.

‘Should I take some group photos?’ I ask Alice.

‘Good idea.’

Arthur River Visitor Centre

Jen, Campaign Manager for the Bob Brown Foundation has us do a reverse road walk to the nearby campground which has a marquee where the organising team confer and cold runners escape the wind. There’s cell phone coverage here unlike the start where the Patagonia athletes and film crew wonder and wait or in the case of Grant, a fellow Kiwi, take a nap.

Support crew need little persuasion to return for carpooling. We squeeze two extras into Karen’s rental.  James and his girlfriend have recently returned from running in the Annapurna region. Karen has ridden in a mountain bike stage race in the same area. Alice recalls an incredible half marathon in Costa Rica. Hearing I’m soon to walk the Overland Track. James’ girlfriend laughs.

‘James works as a ranger up at Cradle.’

In a couple of days I’ll encounter one of James’ fellow rangers who reveals ‘Jimmy’ came third in the 2019 Cradle Mountain Ultra. The 85km race across the Overland Track held each February.

Through the car window the ghostly outlines of tall trees are coming into focus. They’re close relatives of those we drove through yesterday on the way to Marrawah, Tasmania’s most westerly town.  We could be on the west coast of the South Island on the way to Haast, millions of years ago the two tree sets were one.  

Arthur River

The Aussie version, Takayna/Tarkine is the largest remaining tract of temperate forest in Australia and one of the biggest in the world. A stronghold for the Tassie Devil, a critical habitat for the Wedge-tailed eagle, Spotted-tail Quolls, Masked Owls and Giant Freshwater Crayfish. It serves as a vital carbon sink helping to counter global warming. The area is also a heritage rich cultural landscape significant to the aboriginal people. The isolated coast contains once common but now rare, rock engravings, middens, burial grounds, hut sites and other cultural artefacts.

Crucially this country remains wild, raw and self contained. A wonderful misfit in this age of capture, process and tame. Change is inevitable, but I sense a tipping point. We’re here on urgent business, a small but important skirmish in a much larger, global battle. Soon our actions will determine whether this remote ecosystem and precious cultural landscape will be conserved or irreversibly transformed by more mining, logging, off road vehicle damage and cattle grazing.

Patagonia, the Bob Brown Foundation and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre collaborated to produce a documentary to raise awareness of the Tarkines’ plight. It’s narrated by Nicole, a rural doctor who runs ultra marathons to connect with nature, a passion that morphed into mapping logging operations to document the scale of forest destruction taking place out of sight. The film is the inspiration for the Takayna Ultra an event encouraging people to visit this wilderness to raise funds and awareness. All the money raised will contribute to the Bob Brown Foundation led campaign to get the Tarkine greater protection via a World Heritage listing and return to Aboriginal ownership.

The race briefing is an opportunity to meet Nicole in her capacity as Medical and Emergency Coordinator. She tells us to wear sunscreen, refrain from drinking too much and to leave the animals alone. Bob shares love stories about rafting the Franklin River and Tasmanian Tigers. Lincoln the Race Director talks us through the course.

I’m finally running in real time in a place I’ve only previously seen in pictures, read about and imagined. A long hello.

‘Have you got anything for chaffing?

‘No sorry, they likely will at the aid station.’

The early running should be easy but the ground’s uneven and land mined with hidden holes, prickly bushes and deep but narrow trails. These conditions demand deployment of tiny, seldom used and quickly fatigued support muscles.

Scrub and eucalyptus give way to sand dunes as the first glint of sunlight on water catches my eye. The vast expanse of blue-grey southern ocean confronts us as we veer straight into the path of the resurgent westerly. The wind is bored with harassing rocks, seaweed, Oystercatchers and shells, eager for new playthings. It greets us with enthusiastic face slaps using white sand and salty spray. With my tongue I can feel grit coating my teeth. Squinting I fall into step with a bearded guy. As we chat he keeps his eyes downcast then slows and drops to pick up a pebble but his hips are stiff, it’s a struggle, he hesitates and pulls back up.

‘My wife collects heart shaped stones but that one wasn’t quite the right shape.’

Temporary relief from sanding comes in the form of the four wheel drive tracks at Bollock Hill. On the uphills I pass then repass an agile, long haired runner. He’s moved here from Perth, Western Australia, (there’s another Perth in Tasmania). Agile Guy is recovering from a knee injury. The up-hills and flats are fine,  the downhills painful. I ask him how long he’s lived here.

‘Three years. They say if you last three years you’ll stay for life. Guess that makes me a lifer.’

I hear footsteps behind me, turn and smile at Chaffing Girl.  She grimaces back pointing to the plaster flapping ineffectually against her moist arm. I sip on my camelbak tube, nothing.  Almost immediately I spot a small dam of undrinkable water dotted with dead tree trunks. I confess my plight to Pink Shorts.

‘How far to the aid station?’

She consults her watch.

‘Three kilometers. Congratulations we’ve run a marathon. I have plenty of water you’re welcome to take some.’

Together we scan the dunes for course markers. They have appeared at regular intervals till now. On one hand we’re confident we are heading in the correct direction, on the other we’re addicted to the security afforded by their presence.  Pink Shorts pulls out her phone and logs into the race app confirming we’re on course. Later we learn some markers were removed by locals. For now spotting a scrap of pink tape fluttering from a fence delights us. In the distance we see the Edge of the World Aid Station.

Among the volunteers greeting weary runners I spot a bearded figure in a long sleeved plaid shirt and khaki shorts, the same clothes he wore in the track marking videos, the race briefing and for checking my compulsory race gear.  With one hand I stuff a slice of watermelon into my mouth, with the other I pat Lincolns’ forearm.

‘Good track marking.’

The edge of the world. Where the Arthur Rivers’ tannin stained water flows under a modest bridge into the embrace of the southern ocean.  An ocean stretching without interruption to Argentina, 15,000 kilometers away.

Waves rise up part wrecking balls part roller coasters, curling before crashing into sand, onto rocks, pulling back then crashing again. In the distance runners clamber over giant logs that river and ocean have swept up and stacked on the beach. It’s been done with more artistry than heavy machinery in a busy port. Markers tease our weary legs up a rocky outcrop then invite them to scramble down the other side. Orange lichen coats the renovated rock formations, the wind has sandpapered, painted then varnished. Beach sections are interspersed with narrow trails winding through the dunes. The dunes are landscaped with banksias, wattles, epacris and heath.

The beaches are more mentally taxing than the dunes. Sand marches in beige uniform for long kilometers marked only by the ocean’s ebb and flow and the fading footprints of runners who’ve already said hello. In the distance a couple of figures lug surf boards back up the beach.  Agile Guy runs past me for the last time his arms lifted in delight, a picture of fluidity and grace. As I add my footprints to the collection I think of the friends who have supported my journey and the Tarkine campaign by donating through my fundraising page.

‘I don’t explore much, so am happy to support others that do, like you.’

‘Heal the world one running step at a time.’

Glancing inland I spy the comforting white beacon of the Bluff Hill lighthouse.  It serves as a useful pacer as I gradually draw level with it then move past leaving it to harvest the last of the afternoon light.

Bluff Hill Lighthouse.

This time yesterday race participants, organisers and supporters received a welcome to country from the local aboriginal group. Speakers shared stories connecting them and their ancestors to takayna/Tarkine. We were asked to close our eyes and recall a special place we particularly liked to visit with family or friends. While we thought about this place our hosts sang a beautiful song.

For the last few kilometers I feel happy, at peace. The welcome to country waiata plays across the memories I’ve accumulated here. Memories intermingled with flashbacks to the craggy cliffs of Tawharanui Regional Park near where I grew up, the site of some of my training for the race.

This run to save wild places took me most of the day to complete but the experience and connections made will stay with me forever. I’m hopeful our actions will ensure Takayna/Tarkine survives. What if running could save a rainforest?