Trail Running Australia’s Gruelingest Route: 8 Peaks and 8,000 Miles in 8 Days

Mt Meharry

We can exchange looks and sneak glances at our run­ning watch­es all we like, but Peter Nyaningu moves at a pace you’d expect of some­one on their eighty-third lap of the sun, and he won’t be rushed into anything—least of all a deci­sion such as the one we’ve forced upon him. 

With two expe­di­tion partners—Ben Southall and Luke Edwards—I’m five days into an attempt to set a new speed record by trail-run­ning to the sum­mit of the high­est peaks in each of Aus­trali­a’s eight states and ter­ri­to­ries. We’re right on sched­ule, but now the com­ple­tion of the mis­sion hangs on this Pit­jan­t­jat­jara elder’s approval of our request to climb the next peak.


Ern­abel­la is four hours’ dri­ve south of Alice Springs, but it’s a dif­fer­ent coun­try to the Aus­tralia I know—well off the tourist trail in a place where pass­ing traf­fic is non-existent.

When we rolled into town ear­li­er, we’d been greet­ed by silent sus­pi­cious stares from the adults on the street, and it took a gang of curi­ous kids to final­ly lead us to a bro­ken-down tin shed, where Peter had been wait­ing for us for three days.

PeterHe emerged hold­ing a Hel­lo Kit­ty school­bag, bright white beard spilling over a filthy T‑shirt. It was the scene of a head-on crash between two cultures—one per­pet­u­al­ly rush­ing and tram­pling over every­thing, the oth­er ancient, care­ful and con­tem­pla­tive. Over our shoul­ders, the moun­tain that has brought us togeth­er non­cha­lant­ly looks on. 

Eng­lish explor­er William Gosse named this peak Mount Woodroffe in 1873, but the Pit­jan­t­jat­jara had been call­ing it Ngarut­jaranya for thou­sands of years before that, and they know it as the home of Ngin­ta­ka, a Cre­ation Ances­tor Being. 

At 4,708 feet, Woodroffe/Ngarutjaranya isn’t the high­est or hard­est sum­mit we must scale, but it’s on land sacred to Peter’s peo­ple. To get access we applied months in advance for per­mits, and dis­cov­ered on the expe­di­tion’s eve that per­mis­sion had been grant­ed. How­ev­er, to actu­al­ly climb the moun­tain, we still require approval from the local Pit­jan­t­jat­jara elders. 

Every­one has agreed to our request, except Peter. He rep­re­sents all his peo­ple (both past and present) and is reluc­tant to allow us to expose our­selves to the risks involved with run­ning up their moun­tain. Pit­jan­t­jat­jara believe they’re respon­si­ble for the well­be­ing of every­one they allow onto such sacred turf, and if one of us gets injured—or, worse still, killed—during the climb, the ram­i­fi­ca­tions would be dire. (This is the same rea­son the Anan­gu don’t like tourists climb­ing Uluru/Ayers Rock.) 

Peter shows the way

Our request to climb this sun-sav­aged desert peak—and par­tic­u­lar­ly the urgent way that we require an answer—must seem like a peti­tion from anoth­er plan­et to a per­son who has lived the major­i­ty of his long life with­out own­ing a watch or clock. 

But Peter has expe­ri­enced alien land­ings before. He was a lit­tle boy liv­ing a ful­ly tra­di­tion­al trib­al exis­tence when Pres­by­te­ri­ans mis­sion­ar­ies arrived here in 1937. He vivid­ly remem­bers meet­ing his first white per­son, and knows that the course of his exis­tence was for­ev­er altered from that moment. Now, near­ly eight decades lat­er, our imme­di­ate future is in his gnarled hands.

Peter is a liv­ing link to a dif­fer­ent world, yet we quick­ly found com­mon ground. He’s a nat­ur­al racon­teur with an imp­ish sense of humour and an infec­tious laugh. For hours, as the night deep­ens and the camp dogs nuz­zle into us for warmth, he tells tales about his aston­ish­ing life, explain­ing how he taught him­self Eng­lish and once vis­it­ed Rome as part of an Abo­rig­i­nal musi­cal tour. 

Peter4

My ini­tial impa­tience has evaporated—this encounter is too spe­cial to be rushed—but I’m ner­vous about the out­come. It soon becomes clear, how­ev­er, that he’s not going to call it until he’s heard our sto­ry. And so we tell him why we’re run­ning along the roof of Aus­tralia, and explain what’s hap­pened so far.


It all start­ed with a con­ver­sa­tion in a car with Ben. Two ex-pat Eng­lish­men, we’d been thrown togeth­er on a series of adven­tures through work, part of which involved a road trip. Dis­tances are epic in Aus­tralia, and by the end of the jour­ney we’d cob­bled togeth­er the out­line of a trail-run­ning expe­di­tion. Luke got involved, and with­in a year we were ready. 

Aus­trali­a’s peaks aren’t super high, and they don’t require tech­ni­cal climb­ing, but this south­ern land­mass is a one-coun­try con­ti­nent, and the logis­tics of our mis­sion were as tough as the phys­i­cal challenge. 

To knock off the eight peaks we’d need to trav­el over 8000 miles across three time zones, cope with run­ning in vast­ly con­trast­ing sea­sons and deal with a whole vari­ety of bru­tal ter­rain. Bartle Frere spiderAnd that’s before we start­ed wor­ry­ing about snakes, spi­ders, sting­ing trees, and Aus­trali­a’s var­i­ous oth­er forms of fero­cious fau­na and flora. 

Sol­id plan­ning and good tim­ing was cru­cial. Aus­trali­a’s ter­ri­to­r­i­al extrem­i­ties are almost apoc­a­lyp­tic in their cli­mat­ic sever­i­ty at cer­tain times. Sum­mer trans­forms the trop­i­cal north into a seething hot­house of humid­i­ty and hur­ri­canes, while win­ter cloaks the South­ern Alps in snow. Nei­ther sea­son would allow us to trav­el at any speed, so we opt­ed for spring. 


It began at 4:15am, in a tent on a bone-shak­ing­ly cold April morn­ing in the hills of the Aus­tralian Cap­i­tal Ter­ri­to­ry. Ice flew off the fly­sheet as I threw it open and tried to stir my body into action for an assault on Mount Bim­beri (6276 feet). 

Luke was gun­ning the Jet­boil, while Ben’s cocoon was lit up by his head­lamp and alive with activ­i­ty as he packed in prepa­ra­tion for a speedy escape. Once the clock start­ed, time would be against us—ceaselessly tick­ing away, our neme­sis. Just one missed flight would deal a ter­mi­nal blow to our expe­di­tion; the trick­le-down effect would wreck the entire plan. Every sec­ond would count—down to the time it takes to break camp. 

early start - Mt Bimberi

Brumbies had been nos­ing around our tents all night, and a mob of kan­ga­roos stared as we forced por­ridge into our shiv­er­ing bod­ies. At 5am we syn­chro­nized watch­es, hit the start but­ton and ran into the gloom. 

Kossie descent in darkness Luke and Pat 

The long approach run from the trail­head soon saw us peel­ing off steam­ing ther­mals, while the half-light of the predawn revealed an ethe­re­al mist ris­ing from the sur­round­ing plains.

The ascent required some seri­ous scram­bling through thick bush, but once on the ridge, snaking sin­gle­track led us across an alpine plateau to the peak, in time for a sun­rise that revealed utter wilder­ness in every direction.

Kossie summit BenKossie summit garmin

 

We cap­tured the req­ui­site sum­mit shot and began the run out. From the base­camp, a three-hour dri­ve and a steep run stood between us and the real roof of Aus­tralia, and the clock was ticking.


Our route up 7,309-foot Mount Kosciuszko, Aus­trali­a’s high­est peak, was bru­tal­ly direct. From the ski cen­ter of Thred­bo, we ran straight up the steep flanks of the moun­tain, under the chair­lift. There are pret­ti­er paths, but night­fall was hot on our heels, tem­per­a­tures had tum­bled and we were being strafed by icy rain. 

My mus­cles com­plained bit­ter­ly after the morn­ing’s half-marathon and the invol­un­tary cooldown in the cramped car, but at the sum­mit we were reward­ed when the cloud lift­ed, the rain ceased and the sky burst into flames. From the con­ti­nen­t’s high­est point, a day we’d wit­nessed being born went down in a blaze of glo­ry. It was a gold­en but short-lived moment, and dark­ness chased us all the way back. We fin­ished under head­lamp-light, with just time enough for three hours’ shut­eye before climb­ing back into the car and head­ing south. 


Bogong, the name of Vic­to­ri­a’s high­est peak (6,515 feet), means Big Fel­la in the local Indige­nous lan­guage, and the free-stand­ing moun­tain looked suit­ably intim­i­dat­ing as we approached in the autumn morn­ing light. 

We’d done a full moun­tain marathon the pre­vi­ous day, and had spent twice as much time dri­ving as sleep­ing, so our joints were stiff and our eyes were bag­gy as we entered the foothills of the Vic­to­ri­an Alps. The Big Fel­la soon shook us awake, though, with the apt­ly named Stair­case Spur, a beau­ti­ful, tor­tured, sin­gle­track trail that demands a steep toll of sweat. 

The kalei­do­scop­ic colours of the low­er for­est slow­ly thinned until only the hardy alpine snowgums remained, and even­tu­al­ly we ran out the top of the tree­line alto­geth­er, and hit the bald peak. 

Bogong exiting treeline

The cold can be a killer here, as a memo­r­i­al to three hik­ers who died in a bliz­zard just below the sum­mit attests, but we’d scored a blue­bird day for our sky run, and at the base we jumped straight into a creek to cool off. 

Bogong descentBogong run2

With five hours in the bank for the dri­ve to Mel­bourne Air­port to catch our flight to Tas­ma­nia, the mood was buoy­ant. The three high­est peaks were now in our rear-view mir­ror, but on the oth­er side of the Bass Strait lay the tough­est phys­i­cal test of the entire expedition. 


Ultra-remote Mount Ossa, Tas­ma­ni­a’s tallest peak, stands 5,305 feet high, but climb­ing it is the easy part. The moun­tain is locat­ed halfway along the famous Over­land Track, a five-day hike.  From the clos­est trail­head, the return jour­ney to the start of the ascent demands a marathon-dis­tance run. 

Splash­ing though an inky ankle-deep pud­dle into Cra­dle Mountain–Lake St Claire Nation­al Park, we began run­ning in predawn dark­ness and tor­ren­tial rain. Arm Riv­er Track took us to the inter­sec­tion with the Over­land Track, where we turned towards Ossa. Despite the del­uge, the run was stunning—all sin­gle­track with Mount Pillinger and Mount Oak­leigh form­ing the back­drop. It was cold, but we estab­lished a com­fort­able cadence and reached New Pelion Hut ahead of schedule. 

Our appear­ance in run­ning shorts attract­ed side­ways looks from shiv­er­ing hik­ers tak­ing refuge from the rain. “Where are you head­ing?” asked the hut ranger. Ossa, we told him. “Good luck with that,” he replied, in the dead­pan man­ner Aus­tralians reserve for when they’re talk­ing to idiots. 

Ossa bridge

By Pelion Gap, where the track forked and the climb began, the rain had turned to sleet and we were lit­er­al­ly run­ning along streams and up water­falls where trails once lay. This stretch was very exposed, and a wicked wind blast­ed in from the Antarc­tic south, freez­ing us to the core.

Seek­ing shel­ter beneath a rock ledge to assess our posi­tion, I realised we were get­ting hypother­mic when an argu­ment broke out over a deci­sion to don anoth­er lay­er. It was get­ting dangerous—we had to keep mov­ing, either upwards or in retreat.

Ossa running through waterfalls Luke

Ossa has a false sum­mit, which we’d skirt­ed, but in these con­di­tions it was impos­si­ble to see the real peak even though we knew it was close. The wet rocks were slip­pery, the wind was fero­cious, and some seri­ous scram­bling was required, with real con­se­quences for any mis­placed footing. 

Ossa tree run

Just as I thought we might become can­di­dates for a Dar­win Award, we hit the top—only to dis­cov­er there was no sum­mit cairn to sat­is­fy our search for the high­est point. Vis­i­bil­i­ty was down to a few metres, but we final­ly locat­ed the tallest boul­der, got the GPS read­ing we need­ed, and began the long run out. 

Ossa leechesBy the time we hit the car park, car­ry­ing sev­er­al swollen leech­es as stow­aways, we’d been run­ning for eight hours and the rain had­n’t let up for a second.

We’d com­plet­ed the cold com­po­nent of the chal­lenge, though. Ahead lay the red dirt domes of Cen­tral and West­ern Aus­tralia, the humid hills of Trop­i­cal North Queens­land, and our meet­ing with Peter Nyaningu. 


By the time we fin­ish telling Peter our sto­ry, he’s decid­ed to let us climb, but it’s the mid­dle of the night and we have to sleep on it. The next morn­ing he accom­pa­nies us to the trail­head, and sud­den­ly it’s just the three of us again, with a moun­tain to climb and a thou­sand thirsty flies suck­ing the mois­ture from the cor­ners of our eyes. 

Woodroffe con­tin­ues to be prick­ly. It’s cov­ered in sav­age­ly sharp spinifex plants, nests of por­cu­pine quills that repeat­ed­ly punc­ture our flesh, and with­out gaiters we’d be skinned alive. The view from the sum­mit, though, is sur­re­al­ly magical—a red sea of sand stretch­es all around, with Ulu­ru and Mount Con­nor vis­i­ble as land islands in the distance. 

Woodroffe BenWoodroffe Ben and LukeWoodroffe summit vista BenBen and Errol

Time is tight, and we attempt a quick­er route down, fol­low­ing a dry creek bed. All goes well until the non-exis­tent creek plum­mets over a water­less fall. I lead, free climb­ing down the ver­ti­cal rock face to a ledge, from where I spot a safe route out. Behind me, how­ev­er, Luke and Ben decide it’s too sketchy and try anoth­er route.

Woodroffe descent

We part ways, meet­ing at the car just in time to get back on the main road to Alice before dark.


The fol­low­ing day, we’re not so lucky. A wrong turn dur­ing the three-hour dri­ve north from Alice means we don’t begin the ascent of 5,022-foot Mount Zeil, the North­ern Ter­ri­to­ry’s high­est peak, until much lat­er than planned. Worse, after nego­ti­at­ing numer­ous false sum­mits and tra­vers­ing fero­cious fields of spinifex to reach the spec­tac­u­lar peak, we dis­cov­er that we’ve only got one head­lamp between us. 

Mt Zeil racing the dying light2 Mt Zeil racing the dying light

It’s a school­boy error and a sign of grow­ing fatigue. We descend at a reck­less speed, suf­fer­ing numer­ous falls while leap­ing between rocks, but sun­set still wins and by the time we hit flat ground dark­ness sur­rounds us. It’s a 2‑mile run around the base of the moun­tain to the car and we’re not alone. The howl of din­goes punc­tu­ates the night and there are move­ments in the shad­ows. With­out a word, we each pick up a rock…just in case. 

Mt Zeil sundown


At an out­back road­house on the dri­ve back to Alice, we meet an Irish­man who makes our efforts look puny. Tony Man­gan is run­ning around the world. He set off in 2010, after doing the Dublin Marathon, and plans to fin­ish back where he start­ed, by doing the 2015 Dublin Marathon. When we meet him he’s 18,650 miles into his odyssey, run­ning over 35 miles a day through the Cen­tral Aus­tralian desert. 

It takes two plane jour­neys and a 100-mile dri­ve to reach Mount Mehar­ry in the burnt red Pil­bara of West­ern Australia—which puts the scale of Tony’s chal­lenge into per­spec­tive. This vast coun­try is just one leg of his expe­di­tion, which must feel endless.

For us, the pull of the fin­ish is get­ting stronger. Cross­ing Aus­trali­a’s emp­ty quar­ter to reach Mehar­ry is the hard­est part of this sec­tion. The 10-mile climb to the 4,110-foot peak, is the eas­i­est run­ning stage by far, even if the tem­per­a­ture is push­ing 100° Fahren­heit in the shade (not that there is any shade). 

Mt Meharry Mt Meharry3

From the sum­mit cairn it’s hard to believe that this angry red pim­ple is the high­est point in a state that’s near­ly four times the size of Texas. We gaze east, across the Mad Max–style waste­land. Out there, some 3000 miles away, our final peak awaits. 


Dur­ing our overnight three-plane com­mute to North Queens­land, we assess our sit­u­a­tion. Pre-expe­di­tion, we con­sid­ered it logis­ti­cal­ly impos­si­ble to climb all eight peaks in less than 10 days. Now, with­out a sin­gle missed flight and hav­ing suf­fered no cat­a­stroph­ic inci­dents, we realise we can knock this off on the eighth day. 

It means push­ing straight through on no sleep, and we risk get­ting caught out after dark on the top of Bar­tle Frere, the 5,321-foot sum­mit of which requires a tech­ni­cal rock scram­ble, but we’re up for it.

Trop­i­cal heat punch­es us hard the moment we land in Cairns. The mer­cury drops slight­ly as we dri­ve into the foothills of the hin­ter­land and away from the shim­mer­ing coast, but with­in min­utes of start­ing the run we’re drenched in sweat. 

Bartle Frere steep

With the fin­ish almost in touch­ing dis­tance, we set a fierce pace. Too fierce. Dur­ing a creek cross­ing, Ben rolls his ankle and hits the deck. We strap it and he gulps down painkillers. There’s no stop­ping now. 

Bartle Frere post ankle roll

Bar­tle Frere soon slows us any­way, turn­ing up the ele­va­tion so dra­mat­i­cal­ly that at times the run is like a lad­der climb, with the roots of trop­i­cal trees form­ing rungs. Humid­i­ty hangs heav­i­ly on us like a warm wet blan­ket, but the vision that greets us when we pop out of the jun­gle canopy close to the top is worth every drop of sweat donat­ed to the mountain. 

Bartle Frere summit rock scramble

This peak is cloud free for only a hand­ful of days each year—and we’ve scored one. Ver­dant North­ern Queens­land lies below, fringed by the rolling expanse of the Pacif­ic Ocean, where atolls of the Great Bar­ri­er Reef are vis­i­ble like patch­es of marine green on a bril­liant blue blanket. 

The thrill of the boul­der hop to the top pro­vides an excit­ing cli­max to the ascend­ing part of the expe­di­tion, but then it’s a race against time to get off the moun­tain before nightfall. 

Exhaust­ed, I take numer­ous tum­bles on the descent and blood streams down my leg. Dark­ness over­takes us well before we reach the trail­head, and my head­lamp begins to fail. Oth­er sens­es kick in, though, and I hear a cacoph­o­ny from the car park. 

We emerge from the trop­i­cal night into an explo­sion of blind­ing lights, and sud­den­ly I have one child wrapped around my leg and anoth­er in my arms. Unex­pect­ed­ly, the clear­ing is full of peo­ple con­grat­u­lat­ing us, includ­ing my wife and daugh­ters who have made a 1,700-mile trip to sur­prise me. 

Some­one breaks out beers and we sign off the expe­di­tion with a toast: to Eight peaks—eight states—eight days—8,000 miles; to an Irish­man who is still run­ning, and an 82-year-old Pit­jan­t­jat­jara elder who does­n’t under­stand the need to rush up moun­tains but loves a good sto­ry nonetheless.


In Novem­ber, Pat, Ben and Luke will take up an even big­ger chal­lenge when they attempt to run (and pad­dle) New Zealand’s nine offi­cial ‘Great Walks’ in just nine days.

These trails are all designed as mul­ti­day expe­ri­ences, and they range from between 20 and 90 miles in length. One of them – the Whanganui Jour­ney – isn’t a walk at all, it’s a riv­er chal­lenge to be done by canoe or kayak.

Fol­low this 340-mile adven­ture race live here: http://theglobaladventurers.com/