“It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too.”Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
“Did you see many snakes today?” I asked my newly acquired kiwi and aussie friends at Brahminy Walkers Camp on the Cooloola Great Walk.
“No,” they shook their heads, “we didn’t.”
“Oh! Well, I saw six, maybe seven today… four brown, two black.”
“Six!! Really?! That’s a lot!” They exclaimed.
“That’s really unusual, actually,” piped up one woman, who from all accounts was a seasoned hiker in the area.
Before embarking on the five day hike in Queensland, Australia, my number one fear of hiking solo had been snakes. Growing up in New Zealand, we were imbued with the knowledge that Australia was overrun with an endless list of menacing wildlife: crocodiles, sharks, dingoes, snakes, spiders. Danger lurked everywhere. Snakes are scary. 140 species of land snakes dwell in Australia, and while many are incredibly venomous, deaths from snakes are rare – on average between four and six people die each year. Be that as it may, I did not want to become one of these statistics!
Instead of letting scary things deter me from exploring the outdoors, I decided to embrace my fear. Gathering copious first aid supplies including a snake bite bandage (and knowledge of what to do if I was bitten), along with other safety paraphernalia such as a personal locator beacon, maps and sufficient food for five days, I began walking the 88km trek across the Cooloola sand mass in the Sandy National Park.
My preoccupation with snakes, along with ensuring I had all the necessary equipment and supplies to be self sufficient for five days, meant that I didn’t properly consider what my main challenges on the walk might be. I wasn’t worried about five days of solitude nor my physical ability to walk from Tewantin to Rainbow Beach. I was primarily focused on what I might need to do if I got into trouble while walking alone.
Of course, my fear of snakes presented on the first day of the hike. As the autumn sun baked the sandy track that threaded through the scrubby vegetation, I could hear creatures rustling in the foliage, the vibration of my footsteps sending them into a frenzy.
The first snake, a thick brown one, which is apparently one of Australia’s most dangerous, was sunning itself on the track slightly ahead of my stride. Upon realising I was almost upon it, the snake darted swiftly for cover in the grass that tightly flanked the track. Five more graced my presence that day, each seeming more frightened of me than I of them, silently slithering out of my way before I could glimpse them properly. Others, unseen by me, left long, smooth indents in the sand, like a bike had glided softly over the path.
Curiously, after the first day, I stopped thinking about snakes and didn’t see anymore either. I became focused on more pressing matters: the weight of my pack (heavy) and the consequent pain it was inflicting on my shoulders; the blisters on my heel and toes from my well worn boots; the sound of the intense rainfall and thunderstorms (very loud) punctuating my tent for a couple of nights; the mysterious ‘hiker’s rash’ which rendered my feet, toes and ankles swollen and blotchy. These various annoyances became the challenges of my journey.
This trip taught me that confronting your fears is paramount; in reality your fear may not materialise into your greatest challenge. The real challenges to be overcome may be different from expected and require you to mobilise different strengths to combat them. Being physically tested by my heavy pack and sore feet, required great mental strength and perseverance to continue each day to reach my destination. Being alone made this more mentally demanding for me. My fear of snakes didn’t develop into disaster. However, dealing with the unexpected physical and mental hurdles strengthened me and enabled me to learn from the experience.
It is clear to me that each test of adversity (whether chosen or not) helps to extend us to further realms of possibility. What fear would you like to confront? It’s likely that once you do it, it will be less scary than you think. Go for it.