WHEN: 2-3 July 2011
WHO: Jo Boyd, Mitch Isaacs, Tom Murtagh, Pete Raines WHERE: Mt Werong and surrounds
HOW: walking, shuffling, some somnambulation

BWRS Navshield snuck up on us again last weekend — basically, 29 hours of running around in the trees, squinting at compasses and freezing your giblets off, in the hope of taking home the prized Navigation Shield. It’s like a rogaine, but you carry full overnight packs.

SUBW fielded the same team as previous years’, minus one Pete Harvey who took the extreme measure of moving to Africa to avoid the event. Last year we actually won the thing thanks to some pretty handy navigation, dumb thuggish scrub-bashing, and the simple foolish expedient of staying awake all night. Obviously I can’t recommend this strategy, but you can’t argue with results and anyway none of us had a better idea so we went with it again this year.

The event was in the west of Kanangra-Boyd NP, around Mt Werong, and not a million miles from the recent snowfields at Oberon. It was a cold, cold weekend. We stormed off with the dozens of other teams on Saturday morning, hitting the path at a trot, eyes on the prize, planning as usual to clear the course with a couple of days to spare, flatten the mountains with our feet, etc, etc. We boldly strode into the bush for the first checkpoint, whereupon I snapped my glasses in two and we spent half an hour hunting for the flag which ended up at shin height hidden behind a large tree. Not a great start.

We’d all taken one look at the map and decided to tackle the ridiculous hilly eastern section while we were still fresh, with its juicy prospect of big points loosely strung in a through-route of sorts, even if it called for a lot of up-and-down and seat of the pants nav work with no options to bail to a firetrail midway. As the day went on it became clear that this was not the “obvious, only choice” because we saw almost no sign of other teams until late into the night. We were working hard but spirits were high, and talk often returned to Bear Grylls and which of his ridiculous survival techniques we could use in the field (“this wood spider, you don’t want to mess around with him, because he’ll take your arm off, but he could be useful later, as a precious, life-giving, catheter”). Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.

This year’s course was far less scrubby than usual, the sort of statement that should be taken with a big thumping grain of salt given the scrub-seeking skills of the SUBWs. We seethed through dense ferny jungles and tight copses of young eucalypt and icky pooey scratchy swamp scunge, up and over ridges and spurs and subtle knolls, round and down dodgy gullies and fairweather creeks. The generally open terrain did allow more dead-reckoning than usual though, and we did a pretty bang-up job of polishing off the eastern checkpoints. We set down the sharp knife-edge ridge to Limeburners Flat on sunset and it was just magnificent, definitely a highlight. We grabbed the final 90-point checkpoint at dusk and calculated that not only had we bagged the most inaccessible flags, we were still on target to completely clear the course on a points-per-hour basis — a metric that is not mathematically rugged or even particularly useful, but nevertheless easy to calculate when running around with your bum hanging out of your pants.

Night fell, the temperature plummeted. We took care of some miserable dinky little checkpoints in the far south of the map and took much, much longer than we should. The maps were old and some of the watercourses had shifted (no, it’s true!) but mostly we were getting really tired. We shrugged off the prospect of a backtrack to grab a nearby 80-pointer and lumbered in to radio checkpoint Bravo a bit before 10pm, learning that we were only the second team they had seen all day. A few more teams rolled in as we coldly procrastinated, and one or two of them in particular were looking very strong. That was when The Fear set in. We quickly made our goodbyes and plunged into the frozen winds, away from the easy pleasures of the fire.

We now started cautiously culling checkpoints, mainly based on how much climbing we’d have to do. There were some efforts made to be scientific about this at least at first but honestly we were just buggered. Luckily we were finding every checkpoint we aimed for, but one particularly tough flag was hidden INSIDE a scrub. Really. This is not a healthy way to spend your four AM. I found myself falling asleep repeatedly while walking downhill, even after dosing up on sugar, and on the roads we all staggered zigzagging in various levels of REM. Finally as we took our awesome shortcut back to the western side of the course, Den Mother Jo pretty much insisted that we take a half-hour powernap so that we wouldn’t sleepwalk off a cliff, about the best idea I’ve ever heard. We managed to stuff up the alarms, but miraculously Mitch woke us up anyway, otherwise we would certainly still be asleep on that cold open ridge. We headed out, very slightly refreshed, just as the sun came up.

The next few checkpoints just fell into our laps, but after that there were hard questions about which of the many available checkpoints would need to be abandoned, and we made a series of bad decisions leaving less time to do fewer checkpoints still. I hit the wall a few times over the weekend, but this was the death of a thousand cuts, it really knocked me around — only a few hours to go and so many points that we were just writing off completely. About now we realised that the eastern route was a red herring, and the better tactic was to collect everything but, as several other teams had done, and we’d kinda stuffed up.

Our calculations suggested that if we focussed on one last cluster of waypoints then we could at least scrape in for an honourable mention, but we wasted half an hour and failed to find the first one, and discovered that a very useful road marked on the map was no longer extant, so it was hard to be stoic about it. We cut our losses, grabbed one last flag after a dirty brute-force search and headed back to Base cross-country, our legs no longer steel traps but instead pulverised meat, like the mechanically-recovered stuff left over after even the guys who make Spam and sausage rolls have had a crack at it. We managed to gurn for the cameras when we got into Base, but it was just such a low point after such a great start. Don’t believe the captions on the photos, we were under no illusions. We schlepped about moodily and rehydrated resignedly and shuffled politely over to the awards presentation and with the greatest surprise and barely-restrained delight discovered that we had in fact won the event, a little bit comfortably. The general vibe was that the course was massive, bigger and hillier than previous years — certainly, pointswise, the checkpoints were about the same effort-for-value as previously, but the total possible point tally has climbed alarmingly.

So — lessons. Next year, we will plan to have a sleep; it’s not just the safety aspects, it’s also the basic uselessness of shuffling drunken zombies trying to follow a faint spur. Also, we need to work out a better way of pruning, or at least pre-plan our point-pruning, rather than go with vague hunches and whoever feels most strongly about the thing (I’ll let you know how that goes at five in the morning, shall I?). But the most important lesson of all is something about teamwork, and getting outdoors, and how the longest journey of all begins with a really long drive and then afterwards you still have to get all the way back to Sydney through the Sunday evening traffic. Extra-special thanks to Claire for being support crew and driving three prostrate stinking corpses back to Sydney. Thanks of course, too, to the hard-working volunteers who make the event so enjoyable every time (it’s the tough-love kinda enjoyable, you’ve gotta work at it). Oh, and thanks to Mitch and Jo and Pete for the great bushwalk, hope we’ll all be on speaking terms by next year.

I’d recommend this event to anyone, SUBW should definitely field a couple more teams next year.