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Jatbula Trail – Handling Life’s Curve Balls Like a Pro

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

The Jatbula Trail is a 62km hike through Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. It is a stunning once in a lifetime, bucket list adventure. Churchill co-founders Tricia Velthuizen and Randall Smith, together with Skills Recognition Advisor Amanda Smith (no relation) had been planning, training and excitedly anticipating the hike for weeks. They’d built up their quads, dehydrated food rations, purchased light-weight hiking gear, put in the kilometres up and down the hills surrounding Brisbane, and were all set for an NT adventure… But as life often does, it threw them a curve ball. Tricia tells the story… 

When it comes to the Churchill team, there is a clear divide: those who love the opportunity to head bush hiking, with a tent in their pack, and those who consider a night under the warm glow of the stars to be the annoyance of the flashing ‘No Vacancy’ sign lighting up the room of their 3-star motel.

It is safe to say that until recently, Randall fell firmly into the second group.

Yes, he could do the hiking part but the tent, well, history had taught him that he was not too flash at camping.

Guilted into attending the Father-Son rugby camping weekend about ten years ago, Randall headed to the local BCF with a goal to buy the cheapest tent he could find. Proudly, he headed home with tales of his bargain, packed his little Qantas suitcase, complete with wheels, and grabbed a stretcher bed from the garage before heading off to commune with nature.

You only have to look at the lone photograph of that weekend to realise that Randall’s BCF bargain was in fact a kids’ play tent:

Yes, that weekend he had to make a tough choice – either his bottom half stayed out in the cold or his top half. Notice his little red suitcase, just waiting for the Qantas hostie with the drinks trolley?

The idea of camping was very firmly put to bed for well over a decade.

But if there is one thing Randall hates more than camping, it is missing out.

So, when I announced this year that I was heading to the Northern Territory with friends to do a multi-day, self-sufficient hike across the Jatbula Trail, Randall was torn. The Jatbula Trail is fairly described as the trip of a lifetime – the stuff of National Geographic photo spreads with every day bringing the chance to soak up the beauty and isolation of the Northern Territory and the land of the Jawoyn people.

Randall was in. He purchased all the gear – the hiking pack, the lightweight tent (that he erected at home to make sure it really was going to fit both of us) and the Jetboil.

When the time finally came to hit the trail from Nitmiluk National Park, the three of us, Randall, Amanda and I were ready and raring to go.

Jatbula starts with the quickest ferry ride in the country, but it was a ride we were happy to take, the alternative of a swim with saltwater crocodiles tempting none of us.

We landed and hit the trail eagerly, despite temperatures being in the high 30s.

We were anticipating swims in beautiful water holes, waterfalls and the brightness of starry nights, so when we came to the very first water hole that day, we thought it would be the first of many.

Calling to Amanda to come join us, we quickly realised that there was a problem. Amanda was disoriented and vomiting.

In the soaring temperatures and only hours into the hike, Amanda was suffering from heat stroke and showing signs of rapid deterioration.

As Amanda insisted Randall and I continue on with our hike and that she would return to the river alone, we knew that the Jatbula Trail would have to wait for another year – we came in together, and we were going to be returning together.

She was not best pleased but by this stage, we had realised that Amanda was so unwell that she was not able to make rational decisions, so we ignored her protests that she could manage getting herself back and we turned around.

As we set about walking Amanda back to Nitmiluk Gorge, we knew there was going to be another hurdle to face – how to get back across the river?

With telephone coverage patchy at best, we set about making telephone calls to every number we had – with no answer.

Meanwhile, Amanda was in distress and unable to walk more than a few steps without stopping.

Her feet were dragging and her balance poor. Simple tasks like how to use her hydration bottle were very confusing for her.

Amanda’s conversation was limited but made little sense.

It was time to pull out the big guns!

Randall reached into his pack for the best purchase he has ever made – EPIRB, Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons.

Seriously, I’m not sure I have ever been so relieved as when we heard that voice on the end of the line. The rangers were despatched by boat to locate us, and we continued walking Amanda out to safety, in stretches of a few short metres at a time.

This story ends well – better than you probably even realise

We dodged a swim with the crocodiles on the return journey. Amanda got brilliant care from the rangers and medical team, and she recovered fully – fully enough for us to share some of her funniest responses when the heatstroke was doing the talking.

It is true we were all disappointed that this hike didn’t turn out how we had planned over many months of preparation.

We didn’t spend long in disappointment, though. There was no point.

No, rather than packing up our gear and heading for home carrying a load of disappointment, we chose another response, knowing that we are always in control of two things:

  1. Our attitude
  2. What we do next – heatstroke wasn’t a choice for Amanda but everything that came after it arrived, well, that was a choice. We chose to look for a fresh adventure!

A Fresh Adventure

We had our tents, we had our car, we had a week’s worth of dehydrated meals and we had our swimmers! It was the perfect combination to go camping in Nitmiluk and Litchfield National Park, swimming in every waterhole and hot spring we could find. So, we did.

It turns out that Randall is a camping king!

The man had a grin on his face and Crocs on his feet every day.

…And Amanda had the chance to buy a comfy pillow!

The simplicity of our life for that week together has created magic memories for all three of us.

And as for the lure of hiking the Jatbula Trail, that only grew stronger as we saw the beauty of the Northern Territory.

We all have life’s curve balls come our way. The team at Churchill help people everyday who are facing something hard in life, something they never expected and something that upends their lives.

Find out what you are eligible for

We all wish we could hit an undo or redo switch at some point in our lives.

But there is no way to go back, only the ability to go forward in the absolute best way we can at that time.

Sometimes our best might be shaky on our feet and we may be carrying disappointment with us as we walk forward.

That’s okay.

We just keep reaching for the best attitude we can muster and make the best choice we can see about what to do next.

Even more importantly, surround yourself with the best people you can find … the ones who back you up and help you see the path forward to your next fresh adventure that is just around the corner!

I know Team Churchill is in your corner to help …  just reach out!

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