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Sarah Marquis faces her toughest test on epic Australian adventure

So many steps, so many adventures were needed to answer the single question: Why do I walk? The explanation is so simple as to be almost logical, pragmatic. My life has been a mix of excitement, sweat, pure adventure, wild creatures with unpronounceable Latin names, hairy, bare chests where I rested my head for an instant — all mixed with enough danger to keep me alert. This existence has also been full of choices. I am recording it so as to leave a testament that tells of freedom — the freedom to choose one’s life.

I’m lucky to have been born into a household in the heart of the Swiss Jura Mountains, where a wild childhood spent climbing trees and watching birds gave me a taste for adventure and for walking. I now have 20 years of experience in this field. In the early years I worked to make money to fund my walks, then sponsors helped with costs as I walked in South America, across North America from Canada to Mexico and in 2002 spent a year and a half walking 14,000km around the Australian Outback.

In 2010 I began a three-year journey which took me 17,000km through six countries, starting in Mongolia, to China, Siberia, the Gobi Desert, Laos and Thailand. I endured nightly harassment from men on horseback in ­Mongolia, crossed the Gobi on my third attempt, and survived bad fever and a chance meeting with drug traffickers in Laos.

I finished that trip with another visit to ­Australia. In May 2012 my feet finally touched the ground in Brisbane, a staging point before heading to Cairns. I became aware that, for once, I melted into the crowd. No one gave me judgmental or questioning looks. I breathed deeply; I was among my own people. For the first time I intimately understood my belonging to the ­ethnic group known as Caucasian. The good humour and smiles of the people here did me good; I’d ­forgotten how welcoming Australians are.

This time I walked first across the Top End, from Cairns to the Adelaide River, near ­Darwin, and during this leg of my journey I turned 40. I crossed the Misty Mountains, then passed through Ravenshoe, Normanton, Burketown and kept heading west. Australia is made for those who love the bush, nature in its raw and violent form, as it can often be out here.

My long days of solitude were interspersed with giant trucks with double trailers full of live cattle. I heard them from far away, and had enough time to leave the cart I travel with on the side of the road and run into the bush to avoid the ­enormous cloud of red dust that their passage kicks up. This powder already permeated all my gear, including my toothbrush.

The final stage of my journey started in Perth, walking the 1000km Bibbulmun Track to Albany and then heading east to Norseman, where the Nullarbor Plain begins. I hoped to see there a twisted, solitary western myall tree I fell in love with on that first journey here, many years ago. I promised it I’d be back.

I’m in Perth and I can’t seem to recuperate the way I’d like. The doctor’s diagnosis is a generalised fatigue, the consequence of my physical efforts of the past two and a half years. I have daily massages with an osteopath while I prepare for departure, and at the health food store I buy spirulina, acerola vitamin C, cold-pressed oil, magnesium and calcium pills, organic almond butter, energising tea, omega-3 gel caps, iron pills, and more. I also buy mangoes, avocados, lemons, bananas, sprouted grains and packets of coffee-flavoured energy booster.

The Bibbulmun Track starts in the Perth Hills. I won’t have to worry about finding water while I’m on it, and that will allow me to focus on managing my physical effort. I’ve walked it before and I know I can’t take the cart with me; I’ll have to carry a 30kg pack. I’ll follow the ­Bibbulmun with pleasure, but that doesn’t mean it will require less effort.

There are few people on it; most of the time I’m alone. But one night, as darkness falls, the sound of footsteps on dried eucalyptus rises on the night air. I’m in my tent, set up beneath the shelter of a tarp that gathers water. The footsteps come closer; I see sweaty skin and the top of a backpack. The biped ducks under the ­shelter and puts down his belongings. I stifle an “Oh my God!” without being able to keep myself from laughing. It’s a man in his prime, built with pectorals clearly visible and well-­defined, and a perfectly hairy chest. Yet his face is deeply marked by sun and by life, and that’s all I’ll say about it, except that he hurries to put his clothes on. “I didn’t think there’d be anyone at the campsite,” he shyly apologises.

Now I can’t sleep. I decide to make some tea. He explains that he practically lives on this trail, that he only leaves it to visit his ageing father and to resupply. I don’t remember his name, but I remember the story he told me by the light of his headlamp about the night he put his hand into his first aid kit and drew out a deadly tiger snake, almost a metre and a half long. I drink my tea and look at him. He’s still visibly shaken.

After two months of walking with my ­backpack, the 30kg weight has aggravated an old injury. Before I get to Albany, and my cart, I encounter bushfires, snakes and more snakes, then finally, the sea and its eternal enemy, the sand dunes. I draw from nature the energy that heals my invisible wounds. Caring for my body also includes the psychological, so I stop as many times as it wants, drink as many teas as it desires and still cover the distance. I wish for everyone one day to walk Bibbulmun Track. There’s no better way to explore this land.

It’s April, the start of cooler weather, when I pick up my cart in Albany. This region of ­Australia is exposed to the ocean’s whims. The cold of the sea steals onto the land, accompanied by gusts of rain. Day after day I hope that the next one will be soothed by a ray of sunlight that will dry my belongings. But none of that happens. At the end of the first week my body has already had enough.

I camouflage myself beneath the branches, not to keep from getting wet but so as not to hear the sound of the rain against my tent. It’s driving me crazy. The damp is seeping into my body, giving me cramps. In the middle of the path one day my cart gets stuck in the mud. I try to get it out but the handle snaps off. The rain courses down my face. It’s time to do something! I find some boards that must have been used as part of a shelter for a tractor. In two minutes I’ve put up my tent, keeping it dry. I stay there, drinking tea and watching the rain fall. I realise I don’t have a choice — I’m going to have to ­continue with just one handle.

By the time I reach Esperance and see a sign that reads “Albany 483km”, I’ve completed half of that route with just one handle. I’m as focused as when you pass the finish line of a race. Soon I’m in front of a motel on the coast. I leave my cart, remove my backpack that’s now just a sponge, take off my Gore-Tex jacket that’s dripping everywhere, smooth my hair and open the door, hoping they won’t refuse me a room. Despite my exhausted state, I smile.

After two nights there, I start to feel better but my muscles still worry me. I manage to get the handles fixed and take the same road north again. Everything hurts, and I realise that by pushing my cart with one hand I had twisted my body a bit. This explains my current state. But it gets worse. I realise that with the shorter handles, my position pushing the cart isn’t at all the same as before.

After three days of walking, the sun reappears and an explosion of colours and forms opens up before my eyes. My favourite eucalyptus tree, Eucalyptus salmonophloia [salmon gum], is in bloom. I’m euphoric. When I walked across this region 10 years ago I fell in love with the glistening, copper-coloured trunks that change colour depending on the time of day and season.

In the mornings it takes a long time to get moving. I do a few yoga poses, gently stretching, and exclaim, “I’m going to make it! I’m going to make it!” I talk to my body. “You’re going to have to keep going.” I have 300km left before I reach my little tree.

It’s the end of a long day when I enter the town of Norseman, which marks the limit of this long plain that connects Australia from the south to the west. On my little BlackBerry are lots of ­messages of encouragement. I quickly take care of the logistics — there will be a ­photographer, a cameraman and helicopter pilot looking for my arrival — and spend the rest of the time in the shower. My muscles ache badly. I also get a text message from a cowboy who befriended me when I did the Cairns to Darwin walk last year, who says that he’ll be passing through here, without saying when.

When I leave, there are moments when I’m already overcome by nostalgia. I savour each moment, stop a little more than usual, let myself be lulled by the whisperings of the bush. I slip a leaf of saltbush, Atriplex, under my tongue. I do this automatically, no matter where in Australia I come across it. When you place one of its leaves on your tongue, an explosion of salty essence spreads throughout your mouth.

I delight in these moments of pure harmony until I’m fewer than 100km from my point of arrival. One morning, my legs don’t want to move anymore. They tremble uncontrollably. I massage them and my feet with the essential oils I have left, and swallow more magnesium. They stop trembling. But what’s going on? You’re not going to give up on me now? I look at my map. I’ll swing through Balladonia, a popular stop for truckers. The Nullarbor Plain may be almost uninhabited, but there are roadhouses.

I barely make it. I ask for a small room, pay and go back out, walking like an obese penguin. In front of my belongings a cowboy is smoking a cigarette. He slowly lifts his eyes from beneath his hat. It’s good to see a familiar face! He smiles. “I was in the area, so I looked at the latest news on your website. Figured I’d find you around here.” He’s brought fresh fruit and vegetables. “I thought this would help you in the home stretch. While I was waiting I went to see your little tree. It’s still there!” I smile. It’s a joke that he’d made back up north, with his buddy, around the fire. He’d teased, “And what if your little tree isn’t there anymore, what will you do?”

I explain that my legs are on strike. “You’ll make it,” he says. “I’ll resupply you. I’ve got a week before I have to go to a cattle sale.” I’m moved by his kindness. I let the profoundly restorative water of a shower run over my body. I stretch my legs, massage them until I fall, exhausted, on the bed. I look out through the open door; I hear the bush murmur “it’s not far”. I’m already feeling the first pangs of separation.

I get dressed in time to join him for dinner. I still can’t believe he’s here. The next day I wake very early, massage my legs, take another hot shower and set off. I don’t stop; I can’t take the risk of my legs stiffening up. Around 1pm, a vehicle passes me and stops in front of me. It’s him. I smile. He’s brought hot coffee and fruit, and a fresh pancake. I feast.

When it’s time to get going, my legs won’t move and I’m in incredible pain. I say aloud, “I don’t believe it, you walk for almost three years and now you can’t get me to my tree? I hope you’re joking!” The cowboy looks at me strangely. “So you’re talking to your legs, is that it?”

Alone, I continue to walk until twilight; it’s so pleasant in the bush as night falls. However, my humour turns downright sour when I see him far ahead, on the side of the road. I catch up to him. “What do you think you’re doing here?”

“Do you think I’m going to leave you in this state in the bush?” he retorts. He attaches an empty orange juice bottle to a tree to mark the place. “I’ve reserved a room and a meal for you at the roadhouse.” Then he adds, “Your legs are going to give up before you get there. Come on, get in, I’ll drop you off at your room and bring you back here at day’s first light. You’ll be able to take care of your legs, at least. I feel sorry for you, you know! And it takes a lot for me to feel sorry for anyone, believe me.”

What if my legs refuse to take me to my tree? I absolutely have to get there. When I wake in the little room in the back of the roadhouse, it’s still dark. On the steps of the room next door, the cowboy smokes his first cigarette. A steaming cup of coffee is sitting on my stoop. “I made you some coffee, Sleepyhead, you need it.” Then he says, “Departure in 15 minutes.”

I somehow make it out of my room in the glow of the new day. A dozen roadworkers I passed yesterday greet me with “Good morning!” and encouraging applause. I smile. “Thanks, guys!” We arrive at the empty bottle, which the cowboy detaches from the tree. He takes out all my gear, and hands me another hot cup of ­coffee. There are moments when words are ­useless. He helps me so generously. The collective spirit of Australians can be found right here.

My legs don’t get better, but don’t get worse, either. I realise, while studying my map, that my tree is a day and a half away and I only have a day left to walk. I messed up in my calculations. I’m going to have to walk at night. Suddenly I realise what this means, and tears run down my cheeks. I’m like a kid in a fit of despair. But I’m finally going to arrive at my little tree! All my pains, all my battles flow from my body at this moment. I get up, emptied but lighter. I put my pack on my back and throw myself into this day that I know will be interminable and, above all, the last.

My legs now move jerkily; they’re giving everything they’ve got. Meanwhile, at the roadhouse, the cowboy receives the cameraman and photographer; the helicopter will show up five kilometres before my tree. I push into the night that’s just begun to fall.

At dawn, I’m barely standing when the resupply arrives: coffee, pancake. I eat standing up; I’m afraid my legs will refuse to move again. Then I’m off. When I get to five kilometres from my tree, it’s 2pm. I fall to the ground. I’m an hour early. Perfect timing! I inhale the bush deeply, dig a hole, collect a few twigs and light a fire. I place my teapot on the fire and watch the scene as though hypnotised. It’s my last tea. I’m bidding goodbye to the bush; I miss it already.

An hour later, I stand up and promise my legs that these are the last few kilometres across this open plain. A kilometre and a half further on, the helicopter flies over me like a bird of prey. Soon I can see my little tree, as beautiful as ever. My legs astonishingly take flight. The sun is setting behind me; I turn around to see the dazzling show. I turn again and my little tree is 450m away. Tears flow. I’ve made it! I touch its bark with my hand. “I’m back, darling.” I sit down and let the ­emotions pour from my heart.

I don’t need things or a house. But I need the wilderness. Its sounds, its scents are part of me always, even when I’m not there. To find myself there again is a greater joy each time, even with my tired body and the extreme temperatures. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone.

Postscript: Sarah Marquis returned to Australia last year and was dropped by helicopter into the remote Kimberley. Her aim was to walk while surviving off the land. Three months and 750km later she emerged, emaciated but smiling.

Edited extract from Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis (Allen and Unwin, $32.99)

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