Your Mind Will Carry You When Your Feet Fail

Tim Horan holds one of his hiking boots with a ruined heel.

The last twelve months made me soft. Since Australia’s COVID-19 story began in January 2020, my sphere of physical activity deflated while my belly ran to fat.

My bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and spare room dedicated to my home office define the perimeter of my geography. A modest universe perfectly suited for work productivity but corrosive for my muscles. Ironic, when the restrictions placed on us are supposedly for our physical health.

A week ago, I reached my limit. I no longer wanted to be a participant in what I felt was a mass social experiment with only two rules:

  1. Always be kind to yourself
  2. Victimhood is to be celebrated

I did the only sane thing I could do to break free. I went for a walk. Because I felt it was time to be unkind to myself, I made sure it was a LONG-ASS walk.

My Plan to Take A Long-Ass Walk Along the Beach

I had three requirements for my journey on foot. First, I did not want to walk beside a main road. Second, I wanted picturesque scenery, and third, the trip must be hard. After twelve months of house arrest, I wanted to know just how soft I had become.

Aerial view of Stockton Beach walked by Tim Horan in January 2021.
I walked over 30 kilometers (20+ miles) along the length of Stockton Beach on Saturday, 30 January 2021. Aerial view of Stockton Beach courtesy of Tourist Destinations.

After an hour spent on Google Maps, I found my walk. Australia’s largest sand mass, Stockton Beach, ticked all my boxes. It stretched for over 30 kilometers (20+ miles) between Stockton and Anna Bay, New South Wales. It would be a long hike, but I thought it was feasible to reach the end of Stockton Beach in a day.

At 4:00am on the morning of Saturday, 30 January 2021, I climbed out of bed and tiptoed quietly through the house to avoid waking my wife and daughters. I slammed down an ice-cold black coffee I placed in the fridge the night before and donned my hiking gear. Black t-shirt, black shorts, a wide brimmed floppy bushman’s hat, and a pair of lace-up boots.

On my way out the front door I slipped my backpack over my shoulders. Damn, it was heavy! 25 kilograms at least (55 pounds). The pack contained my spare clothes, water, snacks, a blanket, a cushion, a roll up mat, and my tent.

With only the streetlamps of my suburb to light my way, I walked to the train station. The start of Stockton Beach was a few hours journey from home by public transport and I wanted as much daylight ahead of me as possible when my boots touched the sand.

Did I Bite Off More Than I Could Chew?

As I sat on the train to Newcastle – the city just south of Stockton Beach – I noticed the heels of my hiking boots were in poor condition. By poor condition, I mean the soles on both shoes were suffering from impressive disintegration. I had pulled them out of storage the night before but did not examine them. The last time they were on my feet was five years prior. My walk had not begun, and my footwear had already failed.

When I arrived in Newcastle just before 8:00am, I briefly entertained the idea of finding a shoe store or camping outlet to replace my boots. The shops were not yet open, and I wanted this experience to be difficult, so I left the credit card in my wallet. A long walk wearing boots with collapsed heels would test me

From the train station, I caught the light rail to the wharf where I met the ferry to Stockton. After a brief trip across the Hunter River, I disembarked from the ferry via the gang plank and felt my ankles strain in response to the weight strapped to my back and the collapsed heels of my boots.

I persevered with my compromised footwear along the concrete pathway from the ferry to the start of Stockton Beach. After a 15-minute stroll in my unstable shoes, I reached the sandy track that descended to the beach.

I slid my pack off my shoulders and took stock of my boots. The heels had accelerated their demise after my short walk from the ferry. An ominous black and yellow sign bore witness to my boot inspection. WARNING. BEWARE OF SNAKES.

A sign at the beginning of Stockton Beach that says 'WARNING BEWARE OF SNAKES'.
My hike would be no pleasant walk on the beach. Wait a minute, it was a walk on the beach! A bad ass beach… with snakes.

It was just after 9:00am. I had been awake for five hours and I was only at the start of my walk along Stockton Beach. There would be snakes… and my boots were ruined. I wanted to go home.

Time to Take Ownership

You want this to be hard, I told myself. A twenty mile walk with no shoes is hard! To quit now would just prove I was soft. I took the boots off and spied a nearby rubbish bin. I would ditch them and go barefoot. After all, I was about to set foot on Australia’s sandiest beach. Surely, I did not require shoes?

A masochistic idea took root in my mind. I would not trash the boots. I would take responsibility for my lack of preparation and carry them with me as a reminder of my foolishness. There was no room in my bag, so I tied the laces of each boot together and hung them on the outside of my 25-kilogram backpack. They would lazily swing from side to side for the duration of my journey. A ridiculous public decoration to shame me for my poor attention to detail.

Tim Horan's hiking boots with ruined soles.
My boots were dead on arrival at Stockton Beach. Both soles ruined before I began my walk. I made myself carry them barefoot for 35 kilometers to remind me of my poor preparation.

I applied sunscreen to my legs, arms, neck, and face. Then, barefoot, I stepped past the snake sign and followed the track to Stockton Beach. My long-ass walk had begun.

The Beautifully Brutal Beach Kicked My Ass All Day

When I planned this journey, I imagined the sand would be firm enough for me to walk on at a constant pace.

I was wrong.

The ocean, grey and unsettled beneath an overcast sky, had scooped the sand away. The water met bare rocks which I now stood on. Where the beach should be, enormous sandbags had been piled high by the local council until they reached the grassy strip that overlooked the water.

Weighed down by my heavy pack, I climbed up the sandbags and gingerly walked across them as I followed the coast. My progress was slow. It started to rain. Lightly at first, then a downpour.

The eroded beach was soon bisected by a rocky break wall and the sandbags ended. I climbed to their summit and found myself on Stockton’s beach front esplanade. I continued to follow the coast; heavy water droplets made my wide brim hat droop over my eyes.

On the other side of the rocks that rudely interrupted my progress, I saw the sandbags recommence their vigil against the ocean. I left the esplanade and walked along them once more. The rain stopped and an actual beach (with sand!) appeared at the base of the enormous bags.

Bluebottles… So Many Bluebottles!

The beach was so soft it felt like I was on a treadmill. To complicate matters, the sand was covered in obscene washed up piles of bluebottles, as far as my eye could see. These once floating terrors could still sting me if I put a foot wrong.

For the first hour of my walk, I navigated the beach as if it were covered in unexploded land mines. My foot sank, and I swayed from the weight of my heavy backpack, while I carefully examined where I should place my other foot. The vivid blue of the gelatinous sacks was a siren call for my feet. More pleasing to my eyes than my stubby toes, dull seaweed and bare sand but displeasing to my tender flesh if I surrendered to the beauty of the long electric blue tendrils engraved in the sand.

Progress was painfully slow. I looked back over my right shoulder and was dismayed to see the Hunter River, Newcastle, and Nobbys Lighthouse loom large behind me. At this rate, it would take me a few days to get to the end of the beach.

Soon it was no longer viable to continue my demented dance through the bluebottle field. The sand yielded too much beneath my feet and the ocean had ferociously scooped the shore away to form fragile sand cliffs to my right. My only option was to wander into the dunes on my left.

Tyre Tracks Test Me

My feet sank even deeper into the base of the first dune I reached than they did on the beach. A little further from my position were two tyre tracks from a now absent 4WD. The sand within each track was firmer than the dune, so I made one of the tracks my path.

The width of a tyre track is narrow for a person with a heavy backpack. I had to carefully place one foot in front of the other which made my pace slightly faster than an athletic snail.

I spied twisted and low vegetation atop of the dunes ahead of me. The local flora formed a carpet over the sand, and I left the tyre track to try my luck. My spirits lifted when I discovered the plant life was thick enough for me to walk on without sinking into the sand beneath.

My speed doubled… until a sharp pain stabbed the sole of my left foot. I remembered the warning about snakes but thankfully it was a thorn, not a reptile. More thorns hidden beneath the vegetation multiplied and painfully stopped me. I switched back to the narrow tyre track. I was on the verge of exhaustion when I braved the growth on the dune again.

For two hours I alternated between the thick growth and the tyre track. When the spiky flora became too much, I relieved my feet in the soft tread marks. When the loose sand made travel too slow, I switched to the carpeted dune.

This solution – weaving between the tyre track and plant growth – murdered my progress. It was almost noon and I could still clearly see Newcastle behind me. Had it receded at all?

An Unlikely Oasis

The dunes on my left petered out and I saw a fence emerge. Its wooden posts and rusty wire protruded from the sand like a revealed shipwreck. I was unsure what its purpose was as Stockton Beach paid little regard to this arbitrary barrier.

I walked along the carpeted depression between the fence and the dunes on my right until I came to an unusual sight. About 50 meters beyond the fence was a miniature lake fed by a large plastic pipe protruding from the dune beyond it. Several 4WDs were parked along the lake’s edge and a marquee was erected on the shore. Children splashed in the shallow body of water while their parents supervised them.

I removed my pack which landed with a heavy thud and sat with my back against a timber post as I watched the lake’s inhabitants enviously. I bit into one of my muesli bars. It was as dry as the sand beneath me. To eat it was hard, uninspiring work for my jaw. I washed the starchy mess down with a tiny mouthful of water from one of my three water bottles.

I wondered what the people at the lake would think if I climbed through the fence and threw myself into their unique pool to cool off? I let the thought sit there unacted upon and retrieved my pack. To slide the straps of a 25-kilogram backpack over my shoulders while I sat on soft sand was difficult. So much so, I made a note to think twice before removing it again.

A Sandy Highway

I trudged on. A mechanical orchestra welled up from behind me and I turned to see half a dozen motorbikes rocket past me. Soon they were tiny dots on the sandy horizon. I felt beyond slow and I could still spy the outline of Newcastle behind me.

When the sound of the bikes faded, the beach began to widen on my right. It was criss-crossed with motorbike and 4WD tyre tracks. Clearly, I would encounter a lot of traffic on what I previously thought was a deserted stretch of sand.

To my left, white billowy dunes receded into the interior. This was more desert than beach. The sun was directly above me now and the heat from the fiery orb reflected off the sand and onto my face.

My naked feet were cooking like chicken breasts on a hot plate. I kept moving but now I did not have the thorny vegetation to support me. I wandered along the twisty tyre tracks. If you traced my path on a map, it would have looked like a plate of spaghetti. Sandy, hot spaghetti.

Big black 4WDs, gleaming and angry, roared over the inland dunes and made their way to the beach. They accelerated and sprayed sand as they fishtailed past me. I felt vulnerable and exposed. The entire beach was a highway with no refuge.

I thought it odd that none of the drivers slowed down or acknowledged my presence. Was my solo journey in this hot wasteland with nothing but the hat on my head and the pack on my back too unbelievable to consider? Or were the occupants of the 4WDs simply unsympathetic assholes?

A Rest Stop I did Not Deserve

Based on the position of the sun, I thought it was 1:00pm. My velocity was poor because I was relying on the tyre tracks to steady my feet. Ahead of me I could see a corrugated iron shelter fixed to a square block of concrete embedded in the sand.

I was exhausted after walking for four hours on unstable and unfriendly ground. My feet were cooked, and my back was aching. The pack was too heavy. Did I really need to carry all this stuff?

I slid the backpack off my shoulders and laid flat on the concrete beneath the metal roof. I wanted to sleep but thought better of it when I noticed that I could still see Newcastle behind me. It was less distinct now – more mirage than city.

My rest was interrupted by a low rumble. I sat up to see a procession of quad bikes enter the beach from the inland dunes. They lined up on the sand and I could see each rider was a child, except for the last, who was an adult wearing a high visibility shirt. He parked his bike at the end of the line, climbed off and walked back past each young rider. I could see by his manner he addressed them like a drill sergeant, but I could not hear what he said.

Once satisfied, he returned to his bike. One by one, each quad bike departed single file back into the dunes they arrived from. I was jealous of the ease they moved over the sand. It dawned on me I felt sorry for myself, so I made myself move. I did not deserve this rest. I had not come far enough. It was dishearteningly hard to slip my heavy pack on again.

A New Way to Walk

With my back and shoulders aching, I shuffled through the soft sand where the quad bikes were parked minutes before. More 4WDs appeared from the north-west and snaked onto the beach. I gritted my teeth and kept my head down as they raced up and down the shore like giant alien cockroaches.

If I did not speed up, I knew I would be stranded on this beach come nightfall. I desperately needed solid ground to walk on so I could make up for lost time.

Ahead of me I saw the action of the waves no longer scooped the sand away and now washed over the shore like a regular beach. I walked to where the foam receded. Hope kindled within me when my feet found hard packed sand beside the line of wet sand from the waves. Even better, the firm sand was cool!

I forgot my soreness and tiredness. I had new purpose supported by stable ground. I soon descended into a meditative rhythm. Just keep walking… just keep walking… just keep walking.

I Play A Little Game to Make Progress

When fatigue overtook me, I played a little game. I would look off into the distance and find the furthest dune at the edge of my vision that met the beach. Just keep walking until you get level with that dune, I told myself. When after what seemed an eternity, I reached the dune, I introduced a new goal to wring as much distance out of my tired body. Well done, but you can only rest when you reach those seagulls ahead of you.

I did this for several cycles when the storm hit me. Slate grey cloud formations, severe as a mountain range, rolled in from the interior and began to pelt me with fat, cold rain droplets. Thunder cracked the sky open and the droplets became a wall of water.

With my head down, I continued to walk but this time I could not play ‘reach the furthest dune’ because the visibility was obscured by the precipitation. The storm lasted an hour. My backpack was heavy from the soak and I collapsed on the beach, soggy and miserable.

I opened my pack and saw my blanket and cushion were saturated from the rain. My phone was wrapped in plastic, so that was safe. I turned it on to check the time. It was 5:00pm. I looked back in the direction I came. No evidence of Newcastle behind me but also no evidence of my destination ahead of me.

This Beach Is Too Dangerous to Sleep On

This journey on foot was now 8 hours old. How much longer? I was tempted to check my location on Google Maps but the task master within warned me that might discourage me. Plus, I needed to conserve the already low battery charge. I switched the phone off as two 4WDs, driven in a lunatic fashion, hurtled by me toward Anna Bay.

I was alarmed that neither one slowed down when they saw me. Instead, as I faced the ocean, one swerved to go behind me and the other moved to the right to pass by in front of me. I briefly caught sight of unsympathetic faces through the windows of each vehicle.

Fatigue washed over me. I was tempted to break the tent out and continue the walk in the morning. I resisted the temptation, doubting I would survive the night with these 4WDs using the beach as their playground. In the distance, back towards Stockton, I could see headlights racing in my direction. It was too dangerous to sleep on this beach. The vegetation on the dunes above had become sparse and 4WDs raced along the top of them too.

I checked my water. Not much left. I ate my second and final muesli bar of the day and stood up from the sand. My back and shoulders howled in pain as I slid the pack on. Both feet were in agony, each one was red and swollen.

C’mon Tim, you can do this! For your safety, you must get to the end of this beach! I coached myself along the sand. Each step elicited a wince. At 5:15pm on the evening of Saturday 30 January 2021, I recommenced my long-ass walk.

If I knew my trek would continue for 5 more hours, I might have cried.

Not Everyone Is an Asshole

I walked and walked. I acknowledged the pain but tried to ignore it. The sun dipped behind me. When it kissed the water, it fired orange rays across the ocean and sky. I swore it was the greatest sunset I ever bore witness too. For a heartbreakingly short period, my whole world was painted in primary oranges and blues. I regret not capturing it with my phone, but I was bone tired and did not want to endure the trial of removing my pack to find it.

In the twilight that followed nature’s spectacular show, I saw a white 4WD ute parked in the distance. A man and his son were standing close to it, each one fishing from the shore with tall rods.

When I reached them, the man introduced himself as ‘Dean’ and wanted to know where I had come from.

“Stockton,” I said.

“Christ! Do you walk this far often?” Dean enquired.

“No. First time.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“To test myself.”

Dean laughed and offered to drive me the rest of the way. I thanked him for his kindness but told him I had to finish the walk under my own power.

“There is one thing though. Do you have any water?” I asked him.

Dean and his son planted their rods in the sand and rummaged around the back of the ute. Dean cursed.

“Our water container tipped over and most of it leaked out into the tray,” Dean observed as he held a blue foam water container aloft.

“There’s some left in the bottom.” Dean handed me a plastic cup and poured the remaining water into it.

“I can’t accept this, it’s all you have left,” I protested.

Dean insisted. The water flowed between my parched lips and his act of kindness gave me fresh impetus to finish my journey. I waved goodbye to Dean and his son and wished them well as I walked off into the gloom.

My Feet Fail

I had walked for 30 minutes when I heard another vehicle approach from behind. I turned my head to see Dean’s white ute slow down beside me. Dean’s happy face was leaning out the window as he shouted.

“Mate! We found a spare bottle of water. Here, it’s for you!”

Without stopping his car, Dean handed the bottle to me and I accepted it like a baton passed between runners in a relay race.

“Thank you!” I screamed as the rear lights of Dean’s vehicle slipped into the distance.

I greedily sculled the water without breaking my stride. After another hour, my steps became erratic and I would often wander from the firm sand into the water. The crashing waves would momentarily wake me up and motivate me onto drier ground.

It was pitch black, so I reached into my pocket to pull out my tiny torch. I used the pool of light to ensure I stayed to the left of where the tide met firm sand.

I could see the lights of Anna Bay in the distance. Unlike the game I played in daylight with the dunes, the distances were too hard to judge. A light at night can sit affixed to the horizon for hours before you get close to the source.

Each step was an ordeal. My legs buckled and I was suddenly on my knees.

I can’t do this.

Yes, you can.

I’m in too much pain.

You don’t have a choice.

Leave me alone!

Get up, you worm!

I do not understand how, but my mind vetoed my swollen feet and the lancing pain in my back and carried me on. Part of me whimpered when I saw no evidence of the lights of Anna Bay get closer.

My lurching stumble caused my derelict hiking boots to swing wildly from the back of my pack and kick my ass like an angry phantom. I wanted to cry.

To distract myself from the pain, I would constantly change the position of my hands. Sometimes I held the straps of my pack, other times I clasped them in front of me. I switched my distraction game up by turning off my tiny torch. That was a mistake.

Two large dogs materialized out of the blackness, and ran at me, snarling. The canines had come from the first of the bright lights in the sand dunes I was now level with. I could just make out a campsite and 4WD parked beside it. The dog’s owner was screaming at them to return. I snapped the torch back on and waved it at the angry dogs.

“Sorry about this, mate!” A voice apologized from the dunes.

“No worries!” I yelled back. I could not blame the animals. Why wouldn’t they try to attack a lone stranger wandering Australia’s largest sand mass at night?

I made soothing noises at the dogs as I drunkenly staggered under the influence of exhaustion. They soon lost interest when they realized I was no threat.

The next set of lights were close now. I thought I could make out illuminated houses and parked cars. My legs stopped and I fell on my butt. I was still on the beach, panting and dizzy.

If you can reach those lights, I promise to find you a safe place to unroll your mat so you can sleep. My mind’s final gambit worked. I was on my swollen balloon feet again and lurched forward, animated by my desperate will.

On Top of a Sand Dune Beneath the Stars

I was almost at the base of the lights when the sand rose beneath my feet and I found myself walking up a dune covered with vegetation. Beyond the dune were streetlights, houses and bushland. I had reached the end of the beach.

I slid the backpack from my shoulders and retrieved my phone to send a belated message to my loved ones to let them know I was alive. It was 10:33pm.

I unrolled my mat and placed my damp cushion on it. I slid beneath the soggy blanket and looked straight up at the stars before I passed into unconsciousness.

Epilogue

On Sunday, I awoke covered in morning dew and two horse-flies siphoning blood from my leg. I brushed them off and looked across the dune into the township of Anna Bay.

The hardest part of my journey was over. I had walked 35 kilometers (21 miles) for over 13 hours. My trek was much harder and slower than I expected. I assumed before I started that my walking pace would be constant. The fact I did not reach stable ground for at least four hours delayed me terribly. The soft sand combined with an unreasonably heavy pack gave my enterprise a masochistic edge.

Tim Horan's journey on foot along Stockton Beach.
The dark green line on this map traces my 35-kilometer trek on foot from Stockton to Anna Bay. It looks easy on a map!

I mulled over my achievement and went to a local cafe for breakfast. I treated myself to eggs benedict with smoked salmon. It was cooked perfectly, and I savored the first bite. Almost immediately, my throat swelled up and I could barely breathe. I have never had an allergic reaction to food before, and it was frightening. But damn, the food tasted so good and I deserved it, so I waited for the swelling to go down and finished every morsel.

Afterwards, I purchased flip-flops at the local supermarket for my bloated feet and made my way to Nelson Bay. I found myself on a dangerous and twisty sealed road, with no safe place to walk alongside. A lovely middle-aged couple stopped beside me in their black Mitsubishi. They expressed their concern for my safety and insisted on providing safe passage for the small remainder of my trip. It was hazardous for them to even stop, so I gratefully accepted. They dropped me at a caravan park where I stayed in my tent for a night before I caught the bus back to Newcastle and then the train to Sydney.

As I gazed out the window of the train, I felt numb with disbelief. I am not an athlete; how did I even manage it? I was ready to give up at 5:00pm the previous day but I continued to walk for five and a half hours more. How so?

Each of us possesses miraculous potential thanks to the strength of our minds. Try it sometime. When your feet, hands, or motivation fail, your mind will pick you up and carry you to success.

Note: If you attempt to walk the length of Stockton Beach, take plenty of water and leave early. Better yet, walk with a companion!

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