From serving in the French Foreign Legion to trekking across Australia with camels in tow, David Mason knowns a thing or two about planning an outdoor adventure.
Many of us may aspire to doing something bold in the outdoors. Maybe you want to be the first person to scale Tasmania’s Federation Peak in winter. Well, too late. Andy Szollosi did that in June 2016. How does being the first woman to sail solo around Antarctica sound? Unfortunately, Queenslander Lisa Blair has already done it, in July this year. From 17 year-old Jessica Watson’s solo sailing around the world in 2010, or Lucy Barnard’s current quest to walk the length of the world from Argentina to Alaska – many of us read about these endeavours in the media and heave a sigh about another missed opportunity to go down in the annals of history with a ‘first’.
So when Outdoor had the chance to spend time with David Mason, who has the title of being the first person to walk solo east-to-west across the widest points of Australia, we figured it was a great opportunity to generate some inspiration. The intrepid adventurer was more than generous with tips on how to turn our bold plans from ‘wouldn’t it be nice to’ to ‘let’s go!’
David’s trajectory from Associate to a Supreme Court judge, to leading three camels across Australia in 1998, is unconventional. David was inspired to undertake the walk during service with the French Foreign Legion in 1990 along the Ethiopian border. There he’d witnessed the instinctive endurance of locals moving across harsh expanses of country with few possessions other than their camels.
The idea of a walk across Australia’s widest points provided the prospect of a positive challenge to motivate him during a period of his life marked by uncertainty and brutality. But once he’d left the gritty reality of service in the world’s most legendary fighting force, the question that faced David was – why should he challenge himself again, on another difficult journey? By this stage he was comfortably settled back in Australia, working as a lawyer. He could readily have dined out on stories of his exploits as a Legionnaire into his dotage. While he was fit and capable of reading a map, David had no natural affinity with camels and no obvious reason to undertake what ended up as a 5500km trip across Australia on foot (in case you’re wondering, we estimate that’s more than 11 million steps – or a half marathon - every day for eight months).
What does it take to commit to a challenge when there’s no obvious reason for it?
Well, I’ve always been up for a challenge. I wrote once that there was a hellion inside me, something that drove me then – and drives me now. That hellion drove me to join the French Foreign Legion and drove me to walk across Australia. But I think it’s more complicated than just having a passion. I wanted more than a comfortable life, fearful of challenge and change. So, I went out of my way to test myself against others and my own understanding of myself.
How do you plan an endeavour of this magnitude?
Ah, a practical question! Well, it takes time and money, and a self confidence that will not be compromised by either the logistical challenges or perhaps the most difficult to deal with, comments from friends and strangers that I was wasting my time, energy and passion to do something that no one was interested in and that had no intrinsic value.
If you want to undertake a challenge you must have the kind of enthusiasm, self-belief and commitment that could easily get you labelled obsessive and selfish. So, no matter what other people think, you must believe in what you want to do. Where possible, find and talk to other people who believe adventure has worth in itself. Fortunately, there are other adventurers like us out there!
What was the most difficult aspect of planning – how did you overcome it?
Well, it was bureaucrats. Let me put that comment in context. We are the lucky country. We are free to move across the continent unhindered – so long as you are not doing anything too unusual. I crossed borders with camels, moved along stock routes, through State and National parks, and through Aboriginal land. I had to have permits to carry a rifle, permits to cross borders and boundaries and, in the end, I had a fat file of documentation that lived in a camel saddle. It wasn’t the need to apply for permission; I get that. What did provide a real planning challenge, however, was the inflexibility of some bureaucrats when faced with something unusual. They simply said “no”.
Let me give you an example. West of Birdsville is what was then called the Simpson Desert National Park (now it’s called the Munga-Thirri National Park). I wanted to take my three camels through the park to Poeppel Corner. But a bureaucrat in Brisbane told me, “Nah mate, you can’t take feral animals, your camels, into the Park”. Of course, I thought this was ridiculous and reminded him that there were thousands of feral camels moving through the Park and anyway, I didn’t want to leave my camels there, I wanted to walk across the continent. So, I had to try a number of other avenues and finally got all the approvals I needed. You must be creative about finding solutions and be very persistent.
What was your purpose in partnering with a charity and what are your tips for successful engagement?
As I said earlier, we are the lucky country. I thought that, if I was fortunate enough to be able to take the time to do something I was passionate about, it would be totally self-indulgent if I didn’t try to help other people at the same time. So, I went online and thought about the kind of charity that would sit well with, or complement, what I was doing. Also, I had to be able to convince the charity that I was credible enough so that if we were linked in some way, I wouldn’t compromise their ‘brand’. For any organisation, including a charity, this is a very important aspect - so you must think about the best way, to put it bluntly, to ‘sell yourself’. Ask, “what’s in it for them?” and “why would they join with me?” If you can answer these questions you’re well on the way to developing a partnership.
In the end, I partnered with the Fred Hollows Foundation and assisted in raising over $1 million, largely due to a donation from Dick Smith who was kind enough to be the Patron of the expedition.
After all of the planning, and the 236 days of trekking, is there a special moment you revere more than others on a quiet night?
There were many, including the birth of Dalhousie to Chloe the camel just short of Dalhousie Springs and meeting Jimmy, an Aboriginal elder, west of Uluru. But can I describe two? One was when a dingo danced for me. I describe what happened in the book I wrote about my walk. Even now, nearly two decades later, I think of those eyes watching me from across the campfire. Next morning as our little camel train moved off west she paralleled the camels and me. I felt she was escorting me out of the Simpson Desert, making sure I was safe. Then, just as the country changed from desert red sand to flatter, less red and more open views, she stopped a few meters in front of me, stood up on her hind legs and did a pirouette. Then she sauntered away.
The second moment is when I saw the Indian Ocean for the first time. I was leading the three and a half camels west (Dalhousie was still a calf) when we came to a rise and we all saw the sea. I stopped in my tracks and collapsed to the ground. Sure, I had lost more than 20 kilos but that was not the reason. The reason was that I had been completely and utterly fixated on completing my journey and here I was, much to my surprise, in reach of my goal. To do something that so many people told me was impossible, to realise and make tangible a dream that I created and planned is an extraordinary thing. And I felt it then. I was only roused by Kabul, my lead camel, and even now I can almost feel his whiskers on my tear-stained face.
In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
Not much. It took me four years to raise the money, catch the camels, get camel training, meet with sponsors and partner charity, secure the insurance and approvals the expedition required. I had the time I needed to plan well.
What words of advice would you offer to other budding adventurers?
Believe in yourself. Believe in your ideas and your passion. Talk to other people who are passionate like you and who may have experience that could be useful to you. Listen to them and take from them what is useful and pragmatic. Write to potential backers and ask for their support. I did – and I was fortunate enough to be sponsored. Any application you make will focus your thinking and planning.
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