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Adventure

Lowest To Highest Expedition: Part 1

Adventures

No strangers to adversity, Paul Pritchard and his crew of fellow adventurers embark on an expedition to challenge them in more ways than one.

It is said there are three types of fun: type one is fun while you are doing it, type two is not fun at all while you are engaged in it, only after, and type three is fun only for those who are watching the fools doing it. Well, the Lowest To Highest (L2H) Expedition had all three types of fun in equal measure.

We were attempting the first traverse, under purely human power, from the geographical lowest to highest points in Australia. However, this was going to be a little more challenging than your average expedition, because the five members of the team have significant disabilities. Walter Van Praag has cystic fibrosis and only 38 per cent lung function, Duncan Meerding is blind, Daniel Kojta can’t use his legs and so pedals with his hands, and Conrad Wansborough can’t bend because of a spinal injury. I am paralysed down one side of my body and have sensory processing issues.

One early spring day in 2017 we loaded an assortment of trikes and bikes onto the roof of the Troopie on the Greenspeed factory forecourt on the edge of Melbourne. From here it would take four days to arrive at Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre), which at 15.2m below sea level is the lowest point on the Australian continent. The drive up was going smoothly until I fell out of the back of the Troopie, while in a carpark, I hasten to add. We had the generous support of World Expeditions, who had supplied the Troopie and a tattooed driver, Ed Homan, who wasted no time in driving me to Port Augusta Hospital. I was having trouble breathing and X-rays revealed I had cracked a couple of ribs.

BATTLING MURPHY'S LAW

The journey's tagline was “what could possibly go wrong?” and when the Troopie hit an underpass with the tandem on top, disaster truly struck. The answer to the question was fast becoming, “everything”, even though the expedition hadn't started. The trike was wrecked –  the frame was snapped in three places, the handlebar broken off and the luggage rack smashed. The tandem was the only vehicle that Duncan could ride, because of his blindness and together with my ribs, it was looking like the team was already reduced from five to three.

Man welding the-tandem bike

Torsten, a bushman, welding the tandem

This shaky start to the expedition was all being filmed by Rummin, a Tasmanian productions company, who was documenting the journey. I had previously worked with Rummin on the film Doing It Scared in 2016 about my return to the Totem Pole after a climbing accident there in 1998 resulted in my disability. They were delighted (if a little worried) when we found Torsten, a bush welder, to mend the tandem in a firework display of sparks. In fact, so strong was his job that the tandem lasted the duration of the 2152km traverse without any more problems.

There is a spot on Kati Thanda that is 200mm lower than the surrounding lake bed, and this is where the team originally planned to begin the expedition. However, the lake is a sacred place to the Arabana people who asked us not to venture out onto the surface. We did not want to cause offence or begin this ‘white-fella walkabout’ on a bad note so we readily agreed. We would begin at Peake Jones Point at the southern end of Lake Eyre North.

People on a tandem bike on Lowest to Highest expedition

Conrad and Duncan on day one

I was supposed to ride the tandem with Duncan but, being in great pain, was relieved by Conrad for the first two and a half days. Dan was riding his funky hand-trike and Walter rode a fat bike. The ‘washboard hell’ road made it tough going from the outset, so the L2H team made only 20km that first day. The second day Daniel opted out as his sternum was bruised: the hand-trike requires steering with the chest and the heavily corrugated road was causing him great pain. Walter led the team on his ‘fatty’ and pulled into Muloorina Homestead in the early afternoon. As we suspected, the first leg was proving it might be the crux of the whole ride.

Man on a bike on Lowest to Highest expedition

Dan takes five from the corrugations to enjoy the prevening glow

On the third day, every member of the team started and we made good progress averaging 10km/h on the dirt road. As a headwind got up, this momentum was a struggle to maintain.

Man on a bike on Australian Lowest to Highest expedition

Walter led the crew in the early stages

Dan had been suffering with ill health for a few days and the difficult decision to evacuate him was made at Lyndhurst. Ed drove him to Quorn Health Service with a suspected kidney infection where he would spend the best part of a week. He became paraplegic a number of years ago when a shipping container fell on him and literally folded his body in two, backwards (he recalls scraping his nose on the heel of his boot).

The rest of us continued south to Leigh Creek on baby’s bottom smooth sealed road where we sped along at a 27km/h average. What a joy after ‘Corrugation Street’. We talked to 40 kids at Leigh Creek Area School and challenged their notions surrounding disability. We are not  poor victims in need of help, as many adults see us, nor are we heroes succeeding against overwhelming odds. We are just people, ordinary people, working with what we’ve got, as we all do. But there was a lot of excitement and laughter when we asked the students to play a disability simulation game: open a Mars Bar with one hand behind their back and without using their teeth. The students we talked to throughout the trip were open to what we were saying, but many enjoyed sitting on our crazy contraptions a lot more.

THE SALVATION OF BIG W

As we were climbing a particularly rough hill up to Blinman in the Flinders Ranges, the back wheel on the tandem seized forcing us to call Greenspeed and order a new one. As this could only be posted to Broken Hill, about 10 days away, we resorted to cannibalising Conrad’s trike for the back wheel. From now on he would ride Walter’s emergency bike. Conrad was proving his worth at fixing bikes and from that moment on became the expedition mechanic. In the Flinders Ranges, Dan returned and it was good to see him back to his old self.

Sunset at Parachilna Steve Findlay

Sunset at Parachilna, PICTURE CREDIT: Steve Findlay

The reactions to the team from the broader public were noteworthy to say the least and, as one of the reasons for venturing on this ride was to challenge common misconceptions, they were of great interest. For the most part we had positive responses, such as the shearer who had Duncan touch the wool of a sheep. But we still faced institutionalised ableism on an almost daily basis, like the campsite owner who came up behind Dan, who was in his wheelchair, and tucked his shirt into his trousers without asking (we all fell about laughing when Dan told us this). Or the assumption, by many people that we were unable to take care of ourselves. Rumours even got back to friends and family in Tasmania that we weren’t being ‘looked after’. However, mass hysteria was averted by some timely phone calls.

Martin Well Station Steve Findlay

Martins Well Station, PICTURE CREDIT: Steve Findlay

From the Flinders Ranges the team would head out East on the most remote leg of the journey, being accommodated in shearing sheds. We encountered excessive kindness from the musterers and shearers, and severe headwinds on the dirt road to Curnamona Station. Unfortunately, the gears on Dan’s drive wheel stuffed up so he rode in the Troopie into Broken Hill. He wasn't having the best of luck. We hit the Barrier Highway at Yunta and had to do battle with road trains and kangaroo carcasses for three days east. Duncan renamed it ‘The Highway of Death’ because he would gag every 50m when we approached a corpse of a ‘Big Red’. Duncan lost his vision when he was in his late teens to an unpronounceable genetic condition. After a decade and a half he now has a successful lighting design business in Hobart where one can often find him using dangerous power tools, the blades coming perilously close to his fingertips. It is a testament to his dexterity that he still has all 10 digits. Three weeks after we started Team Adaptive (or The Shit X-Men, as one person called us) we had only had one rest day, and our cycles were in desperate need of repair. Ed felt like Moses guiding the blind, the crippled and insane out of the desert, and into Broken Hill ‘Big W’. It was a strange experience for us, and possibly the other customers, seeing five dust laden, dirty, mangled bodies limping and wheeling through the air-conditioned store.

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