– Hon. President Chantal Bronkhurst (first outing)
– Pete Harvey (avoided last year’s event by hiding in AFRICA, Jo take note)
– Mitchell Isaacs (Navshield #4)
– Tom Murtagh (Navshield #4)
– Many people in other teams, coordinating the event, farming nearby etc

This year’s Navshield was supposed to be different. We had a lean, sleek new team, well-rested, at the top of our respective games and with a couple of spare compasses packed, you know, just in case. There would be no midnight navigational shenanigans. No 4am crash. No hissy fits or things said that couldn’t be un-said.

Well, that was the plan. If nothing else Navshield can be relied upon to supply an annual dose of reality, good and hard. Within ten seconds of the starting klaxon our team’s banter turned to some quite disturbingly explicit bodily threats, minutes later we were inching our way through ridiculous scrub-choked jungle, and by lunchtime we were dodging rockfalls, each nursing the usual assortment of not-quite-debilitating-enough-to-bail injuries.

Last year’s Navshield was supposed to be different, too. Looking at my notes I see it was “far less scrubby than usual”, which isn’t the sort of thing that sticks in your mind. I do remember though that we were worried that the lack of scunge would act as a handicap against our team of battle-hardened scrub bashers, which was why we were so excited when this year’s venue was announced as the Colo River. “HAHA! We go there for FUN, like … actual bushwalks!”, remembering fondly the masses of lawyer vine and the space-filling curves of cliffline unmarked on any map. “They are playing right into the bauera-scarred remains of our hands!”

In any event this year’s course included only fleeting glimpses of the Colo Gorge from rare high points that happened through some twist of biological warfare or botanical witchcraft to have scrub coming merely to shoulder height. The checkpoints were in the bushland just north of Colo Heights, the course split roughly evenly by the Putty Road with the Parr SCA to the east and the Wollemi NP to the west holding most points. Because of the scrub the course was significantly smaller than usual, and we were assured that there had been no attempts to “hide” checkpoint flags. These courtesies were much appreciated.

We planned on an ambitious tour of the course, starting with the hilly, chossy, scrubby devilry to the west, then polishing off the presumably trivial duck-off-the-firetrail dance-through-the-open-forest checkpoints to the east of Putty Road. Mitch had done the maths and had us clearing the Wollemi by mid-afternoon, then presumably riding our unicorns home to our spacepod orbiting Jupiter. In reality the scunge was as bad as any you’d find in the northern Blue Mountains, which made even the relatively low terrain heavy-going.

Early in the course was our first “decoy”, a doppelganger for a nearby checkpoint, worth a fraction of the points. These delights were introduced this year by the course-setters with the off-hand justification that “we think you’ve had it too easy”. So, we were extra super careful in our approach to the few decoyed checkpoints and made really ultra sure that the terrain matched the vague lies hinted at by our maps’ tantalisingly sparse contours. I do hope the decoys are here to stay, as they’re certainly in keeping with the navigational aims of Navshield: maybe in future we won’t know which points are decoyed. Maybe the fakes could be electrified! There is a wealth of possibilities.

For the most part however we were able to get away with our usual slipshod point-the-compass-and-frown seat-of-the-pants style navigation, brute forcing our way through the western horrors of the course and seeing only one other team all day. Sometimes the creeks were quicker than the spurs, and sometimes the opposite, but mostly the scrub was just … everywhere. Awful. I don’t like to harp on about the flora, but, oh man. A couple of the farther-flung flags required some genuine lateral thinking and reverse bearings off indistinct high points, but by late afternoon we were still ahead of time on the pace-setting 80-points-per-hour metric required to clear the course, albeit several days behind Mitch’s fanciful estimates based on flat terrain with each bushwalker modelled as a perfect sphere.

Night fell while we were in a creek, and we spent an infeasibly long time climbing a ridiculous unending spur back to our first road since early morning, just near a radio checkpoint with its delightful promises of a fire and dinner. But, some fool pointed out, there was a 70-pointer just off the road, so we decided to grab that, you know, save us some time later. Of course, having crashed around a few questionable spurs to do that, Pete pointed out another checkpoint also itchingly nearby. So …. The pattern played out a few times. Hours on we were hungrily cursing up and down a dry creek festooned with lawyer vines, far past any sensible bedtime.

At last we laboured up yet another hill to the distant thuds of music playing at base camp many miles away. That subwoofer kept us company — as it had the previous night — well into the wee hours, like a mother’s heartbeat. We devoured a late dinner next to a magnificent fire at radio checkpoint Alpha with our sworn enemies from the Sutherland Bushwalkers (shakes fist), then slow and tired we set off into the long night.

Importantly, so far, we had found every checkpoint that we’d aimed for. We now thrashed around in a solid wall of assorted scungey terror finding a piddling little wiggle on the map for a handful of points, headed over a hill then wasted just the most amazing amount of time not-finding the next flag, scouring an enormous area for every “rocky ledge 20m back from cliff”. Now, from my comfy chair it’s obvious that we took the wrong spur down to the creek, but at the time we were just incredibly frustrated by the vagueness of that little note. How big a “cliff”? What do they mean by “rocky ledge”? Some rocky ledges are above cliffs, are those ledges or cliffs? The other hints are quite specific, why do we get a freaking zen koan for this one?! “Top of imperceptible gully”. “Taste of laughter beside odd-shaped pebble”. “CONTOUR LINE NEXT TO TYPOGRAPHIC ERROR, HAVE FUN!!”. We spent about two hours just searching, refusing to concede the points until at last, well, we had to. It was just stubborn pride, if we’d already missed an earlier checkpoint we would have moved on much sooner. All told it was about four hours between checkpoints on either side of that unpleasantness, time far better spent elsewhere. We crawled up out of the creek, tired and disappointed, bagged a couple of easy flags, and popped back out on the Putty Rd just on dawn.

The contrast in walking conditions between the east and west sides of the road was quite astonishing. Parr SCA contains gentle slopes with nice, open forests, and we skipped with delight (i.e., trudged, but let out some appreciative relieved murmurs) through the early morning air. Buoyed by our success in following direct bearings we proceeded to the far east of the course and completely overplayed our hand with a bearing through a cliffline and an enormous paddock of steel-enforced banksia, followed by a brutally misguided bash down what was clearly a ridge from the western side of the road that has been misplaced by lazy cartographers. We shuffled out to another radio checkpoint for a quick late breakfast then back to base, picking up only the easier flags just off the firetrail. The relative ease of finding these points did not make us feel a whole lot better about the amount of time we’d wasted several hours before.

At the finish we were delighted to learn that we’d not fallen prey to any decoys, and even more delighted that we’d won the coveted Navigation Shield, not a result that we had at all expected in our dour state of mind. Indeed it was a very successful outing for SUBW as the club’s other team won their category in the One Day event (well done Helen, Chee and Ang!). It would be fantastic to see even more SUBW teams next year. In my experience there is absolutely no better way to get your navigation up to scratch.

So, lessons for next year? Sugar is good. Everyone kept their glucose levels high for 29 hours and nobody crashed. Precooked sausages are nature’s superfood for grizzled walkers. Maybe we can bring a machete or secaturs or an exorcist for the scrub? Most importantly though we need to learn triage — when to cut and run from a search for a checkpoint, or even on the approach to a checkpoint if it’s too slow-going. But I think we talk about fixing that every year. Maybe next year will be different.