How group travel helped me find my tribe
I'm not exactly sure when I joined Adventurous Women, but Iâ€™m pretty certain Iâ€™ll remain a member until my legs refuse to carry me. They say everyone needs a tribe, and Iâ€™ve found mine.
When the youngest of our four children headed to Perth for school in 2013, we made the decision for me to go too, because we were going to have three in boarding and financially it just wasnâ€™t possible. Our oldest was planning a gap year, but the younger three - two already in boarding - came and lived with me at our Perth house.
At first it was kind of exciting, but I'm not really one to hang out in shopping centres so the novelty of having all that at my fingertips quickly wore off, and it wasnâ€™t long before I felt I'd sold my soul to the devil. And raising three teenagers without the hands-on involvement of my husband wasnâ€™t easy. I certainly take my hat off to those who do it full-time. It's physically and emotionally exhausting.
I missed my husband Bevan, my home, my garden, my pets. I felt like a caged animal in Perth, always rushing about and feeling hemmed in. I would often run along the river or beach just so I could see the horizon. Iâ€™d grown up in Kalamunda, then moved to the farm in Lake Grace when I married, so had always enjoyed freedom, privacy and wide open spaces.
Fortunately, I met some fabulous people in Perth, due to my involvement in athletics through both my coaching work, and, through our youngest daughter, the girls' netball and Santa Maria College - a number of whom I have forged life-long friendships with. But I often just felt out of place. Like a fish out of water, I just didn't belong there.
It was during this time I began looking around for clubs to join so I could get out and enjoy nature and explore Perth and its surrounds. I figured if I was to stay sane and couldnâ€™t beat them, then I had to join them. Iâ€™d always enjoyed exercise, adventure and nature, and Adventurous Women certainly ticked all those boxes. Their "no princessâ€ policy also drew a chuckle and attracted my attention, because the last thing I wanted was to spend my day with people who had tickets on themselves. Give me real and authentic any day.
I think the idea of a womenâ€™s group also appealed to me, not that I'm a man-hater by any stretch. But I just wanted the simplicity of the company of women.
I remember feeling nervous as I rocked up to my first walk with AW. It might have been the Numbat Trail. As the walk progressed, my fears were dispelled as I chatted with a fabulous group of like-minded women and enjoyed the physicality of the walk and the beautiful surrounds. I'm pretty sure my guide that day was Sue Oâ€™Connor - an absolute gem.
Following that I put my name down for whatever I could fit into my schedule, mostly weekend day walks and overnighters on the Bibbulmun Track. With each adventure I met some really lovely ladies and always felt I could just be myself. And there was never any judgment - nobody cared what clothes you wore or car you drove or how much money you had or didnâ€™t have. Itâ€™s very empowering and liberating to be anonymous. If I felt like chatting I could, but if I just needed to immerse myself in nature and be alone with my thoughts, that was also OK. As time went on that became even more important to me.
My first big trip with AW was to the Snowy Mountains in 2019. We'd skirted around the Snowies on a couple of previous trips east, but never hiked the area so I was delighted when it came up. I registered without even thinking through how I was going to make it work, but it was calling me and I couldn't ignore the pull.
It was a January walk, but I knew we'd be finished harvest by then, so that wasn't going to be a deal-breaker. The big issue was that was traditionally the time we'd holidayed as a family, in fact for the past 25 years. After discussing it with Bevan, we decided it was time we went and had an adventure of our own. The kids had all finished school, and we figured they'd probably prefer to spend the summer with their friends than hanging out with Mum and Dad, anyway.
Farm life in the years leading up to 2019 had been pretty tough, both financially and emotionally, especially for Bevan who had shouldered most of the burden during the years I had been in Perth with the kids. We figured we deserved a break.
As luck would have it, the Australian Hang Gliding Championships were being held in Corryong, Victoria, on the other side of the Snowies at the same time as my walk. Bevan was a keen hang glider and both excited and nervous to try out his new intermediate glider on Australia's roof top while rubbing shoulders with and learning from some of the countryâ€™s best pilots.
So we enlisted the help of our youngest two to look after the farm, packed the tent after Christmas and hit the road for a wonderful four-week adventure across the Nullarbor to the mountains, celebrating Bevan's 50th on New Year's Day along the way. We called it our second honeymoon.
My time in the Snowies with AW was simply amazing. Breathtaking. Life-changing, in fact. Spending time in such a stunning landscape with some very special ladies was a real privilege and I was well and truly hooked and already planning my next adventure before that one had even finished! Because we were both turning 50 that year, Bevan and I had decided to do something big to celebrate the milestone. I was keen to walk the Spanish Camino with AW and the plan was for Bevan to meet me at the end in Santiago and then travel through Europe together on all those glorious, romantic trains, stopping for hikes along the way before disembarking in Prague to spend time with our son and his wife who lived there. We were saving our pennies and planning with great enthusiasm.
Bevan had always been my partner-in-crime and adventure buddy, but in recent times dodgy knees and hips made it excruciatingly painful for him to stride out and join me on my treks. He often joked that at least nothing hurt while he was flying. Until it did.
Maria and friends on the Camino with Adventurous Women
In February 2019, just three weeks after weâ€™d returned from our trip to the Snowies, Bevan died in a hang-gliding accident during a practice flight on the eve of the WA State Hang Gliding Championships in Westonia. Just writing the words still brings tears to my eyes and that old, familiar lump to my throat and tightening of my chest. He got into trouble while being towed up and was unable to recover, and despite his best efforts nose-dived to the ground and died on impact.
Needless to say my world was shattered in an instant. And the world of our children, his family and many friends who loved him. The dog kept looking for him in every farm vehicle, wondering why his boss and best mate hadn't come home.
In the days and months that followed I think I was on auto-pilot. I had to be to survive. The irony was that in my darkest hour, the one person I needed was the one person I couldn't have. My best friend and supporter for more than 32 years had simply gone in an instant. The man who'd promised to look after me when we got old. I really didn't want to carry on, but knew I had to for the sake of our kids. My own grief was hard enough, but watching them suffer and not be able to make it better was excruciating.
I moved in a fog, and was so busy dealing with the financial, legal and business implications of his sudden departure I really don't think I had time to grieve properly. My old life was gone and I had to learn to navigate this sh..ty new one, somehow. But the thought of spending the rest of my life without him was just too painful to think about. How do you keep on living when your heart has been ripped out? Sometimes you simply have no damn choice but to get out of bed and get yourself through each day as best you can.
The thought of an empty future with nothing to look forward to filled me with dread. Our much-anticipated trip to Europe to celebrate our 50th birthdays was gone, as was everything else we'd planned.
I let Sue Hile know what had happened, along with my other AW friends, and they were all incredibly supportive and compassionate. Sue said she'd hold my spot on the Camino walk for as long as I wanted or needed, which I appreciated. She threw me a lifeline that said "we're here for you if you still want to come but totally understand if you can'tâ€.
To be honest, I couldnâ€™t imagine being in the right head space to head off in September, or even being able to get out the door and leave the farm for three weeks.
As time went on, though, I realised I needed to escape and take a break from dealing with all the legalities and nasty surprises that the death of a loved one throws at you. The fact that Sue O'Connor was going to lead the tour was also a big plus. I swear I could write a book about all the stupid and insensitive things people say and do. Some people have no idea. In all honesty, I guess they can't unless it has happened to them, but some people simply have no ability to empathise. I recall a conversation with a beautiful friend who really stepped up for me, who I shared many tears with, often late at night. I asked her how she did it, how she could pick up the phone and ask how I was going, knowing full well she would probably end up in tears with me. She replied, "Maria, however difficult and awkward this is for me, I know it's a thousand times worse for you.â€ I guess some people just can't push past their own awkwardness to put themselves in your shoes while others can. I've been culling the former from my life. They are not of my tribe.
Seven months after Bevan's passing I somehow made it out the door and on to that plane to Spain, despite a major melt down at home and nearly missing my flight because of a traffic jam on Stirling Highway while trying to get to an appointment with my lawyer before I flew out.
I think I cried most of the way from Perth to Leon. Cried because I was exhausted, cried because I hated my new life, cried because my kids would never have a dad again, cried because I was doing this without Bevan when he was meant to be sitting next to me and now I had to sit next to strangers, cried because I was scared of the future, and mostly just cried because I missed him with every fibre of my being. At least when you're on a plane you can just put on a sad movie and let people think that's why you're crying.
But I knew this was something I had to do.
Walking the Camino from Leon to Santiago was cathartic. The group comprised ladies from across Australia, as well as an American, all there for their own reasons. During our first group meeting we went around the room saying a little about ourselves and our reasons for walking. I didn't say much apart from the fact that it was my 50th birthday present to myself, but another lady in the group said her husband had died the previous year and she needed to cheer herself up. â€Bingo,â€ I thought, at least I have something in common with one of the ladies!
With each step I learnt to breathe again. I reminded myself to be present and take in the beauty around me, And every now and then even let myself smile. I might have even laughed. It had been so long I'd forgotten what it felt like to have a rush of endorphins coursing through your body.
I slowly came back to life, one step at a time. I could finally feel something other than pain.
Along the way, sometimes I spoke about my life, other times it was too hard and I just wanted to walk and not think. I was tired of thinking and worrying about everything. In the months preceding there were many days when I felt my head or heart would simply explode and couldn't take any more. So I just let myself walk, with no expectations. It was such a relief to let the rhythm of the walk soothe me like a balm to the soul. The hardest decisions I had to make each day were what to wear and what to eat. Hell, I could manage that after all I'd been through!
As the days turned to weeks I found all the ladies gradually revealed a little more of themselves. I think walking in nature does that. Also feeling safe and valued in a supportive and inclusive group. It is said that everybody has a story, and it's true that every lady in our group had something in their life they were dealing with. I like to think that we all played some small part in helping to heal each other.
The final walk into Santiago de Compostela was extremely emotional. My friends and family who had been by my side since Bevan's passing were messaging me their support which meant so much to me and made me feel like I wasn't alone. Iâ€™m not a religious person anymore, but there was something very powerful and moving going on when I entered Santiago with my new AW friends.
I cried again. For many of the same reasons I had when I stepped on that plane, but also with relief and pride that I'd achieved something big. We all laughed, hugged, cried, took photos and dumped our backpacks on the ground with relief.
To this day Iâ€™m still in touch with many of those ladies - Paula and Nikki from Perth, Michele from Adelaide, and my crazy dancing partner, Teresa from Tassie. We share a bond that cannot be broken and know things about each other that others may not.
Since then I have embarked on many AW trips - from hiking the Cape to Cape and Grampians to kayaking and four-wheel-driving in the Yeagarup Dunes, with each adventure meeting new people and learning new skills. Growing stronger, more resilient, learning about myself and finding some joy in life again. Enjoying the camaraderie of like-minded adventurous women who simply want to get out and enjoy life, despite often having to deal with their own demons.
In the pipeline are a camel trek in the Flinders Ranges, SA, a 4WD adventure from Cairns to Cape York and a hike along the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria. Bring it on.
I've lost friends since I lost my husband, people who I thought would stand beside me but couldn't handle my grief, people who didn't invite me places and tried to hide it from me, people who tried to take advantage of me because I didn't have Bevan to defend me. It's been hard and it's been very hurtful. But for every person who has let me down, someone else has stepped forward and shared my load and offered me their friendship. Many of these have been AW ladies, because sometimes those who have endured hardship themselves are the most understanding and supportive.
This post was originally published on 23 November 2021 in the West Australian Newspaper