A thru hike of the 1200kms Heysen Trail had been on our Wish List for a long time but when Covid-19 restrictions occurred it quickly made its way to the top of the list, and Mick Noonan and I began our research early this year. The Friends of The Heysen Trail website became an important source of information, especially for the location and status of the water tanks. Their interactive maps were almost essential for our planning.
Because we had not done many long thru hikes recently but consider ourselves experienced long distance Camino walkers, we were still a little daunted by the idea of a 1200 kms thru hike. We were unsure of our fitness for this walk, or whether we would even like it. No early morning café con leche or menu del dia on this walk!
The free Maps.me app was invaluable. It works offline, and we were able to download the entire trail (available from FoHT website). It was great for planning, but also meant we were never lost. We carried paper maps in case of mobile device failure, but also enjoyed looking at them daily.
The fire season ended 2 weeks earlier in the north of SA this year so we decided to start our walk on 15 April 2021 from the Northern Trailhead at Parachilna Gorge and walk south for 15 days to Wilmington. We then flipped to the Southern Trailhead at Cape Jervis on 2 May, 2021 where Mick’s brother, David, joined us to hike to Victor Harbor. We then walked back to Wilmington, finishing our walk on 7 June 2021, just before some nasty wintry weather, which included snow! This seems to be the best time to walk as weather is usually stable with day temperatures generally in the mid 20s. The most popular time is Spring, despite the thunderstorms and flies. In fact the weather Gods were kind to us for the 41 days we walked, as we only had to don our rainwear once, and then only briefly. It rained, but only at night or on our rest days. While we had very little rain, strong, buffeting winds often proved to be our nemesis.
Food parcels were posted to Victor Harbor, Hahndorf, Kapunda, Burra and Hawker, so we would not have to shop on our rest days. Our food consisted mainly of Back Country dehydrated meals, supplemented with fresh food supplies bought in the many small towns along the Trail.
There was an incredible diversity of landscapes from the remote and some harsh but always stunning Flinders Ranges, private farmland, plantation forests, vineyards and rugged coastal beauty of the Fleurieu Peninsula from Cape Jervis to Victor Harbor. There are no made tracks for walkers except in the many State and National Parks. The area around Burra was the most challenging for us, mentally and physically, because of the bald, ridiculously steep hills (which we called the Steppes), and the strong winds. We enjoyed the interesting climbs up and down waterfalls and mountains (including Arden, Brown, Remarkable, Bryan, Lofty). The total ascent/descent for the Heysen Trail is 23 kms (approx. Mt Everest x 3). The walk is usually rugged and often very remote, so we were surprised to find quite a few solo walkers, including several women.
Typically, we would break camp early and start walking at first light (we both enjoy walking as the sun rises) and walk until an hour before sunset, with several rest stops throughout the day. After setting up camp, cooking/eating dinner it was straight into the sleeping bags and off to sleep immediately. However, because we had no time constraints we would sometimes stop earlier if we found a camping spot we liked or an area we wanted to explore. A flexible schedule also allowed us to stop an extra day in many of the interesting historical townships along or just off the trail, such as Crystal Brook, Burra, Melrose, Wilmington, Hawker and Quorn. We had planned 4 rest days but took 12!
While we enjoyed 15 nights camping on the trail, we took advantage of every bed and hot shower available, whether at hotels, cabins or B&Bs. The townspeople were helpful and friendly. There are also many historic huts, available to walkers, restored by Friends of the Heysen. These were always a welcome respite from the tent and we stayed in 10 of them. A lot of the trail runs through private farmland (thanks to the generosity of the local farmers) where the trail follows the fenceline around the perimeter of paddocks. We were often surrounded by sheep or cattle. There was a dearth of reptiles (1 small snake and 2 lizards), but a surplus of kangaroos and emus, as well as feral goats in the more remote areas. The birdlife was abundant.
We suffered no injuries or foot problems, probably because we kept our pack weight to a bare minimum and used lightweight Altra Lone Peak 5 trail runners. My base weight was 7kgs and was never more than 13kgs with food and water, as this walk is really a series of 1 to 5 day pack carries. Mick’s base weight was 8kgs. My favourite equipment was my Thermarest Neoair Uberlite sleeping mat 250g and Western Mountaineering Alpinlite 20 sleeping bag 880g.
This is a challenging thru hike, not for the faint-hearted, but no technical skills are required. It is very rewarding. It is not a social outing, in fact, it is mostly a solitary trek. Would we recommend the Heysen Trail? Absolutely. We will definitely walk it again as soon as possible.
The Friends of The Heysen Trail volunteers are to be commended for their dedication to the ongoing maintenance and upgrading of this trail. If a thru hike is not your thing, they lead section walks, as well as end-to-end walks split over a number of years. Check out their comprehensive programme on their website.