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The Path of the Sky

I’ve reached a point of acceptance. As much as I crave the rush of highlining, I need the sense of adventure and yes, the hardship of adventure just as much. Somehow, somewhere, highlining became the reason to have an adventure, not the adventure itself.

I remind myself of this, as I thrash past more thick foliage, en route to another sea stack on the Tasmanian coast. My pack is weighed down with camera gear, ropes and rigging, food for a few days and as minimal a camping set up as I dared risk given the notoriously changeable Tasmanian weather. Despite a frugal approach to packing, our packs tip 30kg each. After a day or two of rest and recovery in Hobart – our base for the three weeks that we plan to stay – we would strike out again. Not all of our trips were as challenging. We had rigged a highline across Gordon Dam, where the concave, smooth concrete walls have a different kind of beauty to the wild, rugged coast. It is hard to believe that humans can create something so huge. We also turned our sights inland, keen to experience the alpine terrain of the Tasmanian interior. After walking for two days, Lukas got injured and we had to turn around and retreat. There were times that it felt like luck was against us, but realistically these moments were as much a part of the adventure as the times that things went according to plan.

Planning and preparation is key for adventures like this, but easier said than done. The team consists of four fit members, motivated to work hard for a couple of steps on a thin line. We are used to carrying big backpacks for long periods of time and are mentally strong, setting one foot after the other even when the body tries to strike. But how prepared are we for this and what is there to expect from this island?

On paper this walk in should be easier. The cliffs are little more than 18km from the road, but while the map clearly shows a path, there is little or no evidence of it on the ground. It is hot, sweaty and deeply uncomfortable work. The undergrowth is so tightly packed that it grabs at our large packs, yanking us back. We repeatedly have to take them off and pass them through tight gaps. The ground is muddy and slippery underfoot; everything about this place seems intent on making forward progress as unpleasant and as tiring as possible. Oh, and this being Australia, there’s the insects and creepy crawlies. Not just the kind we find back in Germany, but big ones, ones that play on your mind. In reality though, it is the small creatures that are most unpleasant; mosquitos infuriate, and leeches feast on us. It’s the kind of environment that wears you down.

“Everything about this place seems intent on making forward progress as unpleasant and as tiring as possible.”

In many ways, the walk in is the polar opposite of what attracts me to highlining; it is oppressive and claustrophobic. Yet, here I am. It would be easy and wrong to say that we are suffering; there is little true suffering going on. This is, well, kind of fun! I enjoy discovering what is around the next corner, the hardship feels like payment, like we are earning what is to come. We wouldn’t be here were it not for highlining, would not choose this as a pursuit in itself, yet, given purpose we embrace the adventure.

Reaching the coast, the view opens out in front of us. After two days of barely being able to see a few metres in front of our feet, the light and sense of space are invigorating. Our body language reflects our environment. Backs straighten, our chests open out and we drop our packs to the floor. That night, we sleep in hammocks, open to the sea breeze, and stare up at the stars, chatting and laughing at first, then in silence as we each quietly contemplate bigger questions.

“I rarely think of much else while I am out there; it is a quiet place.”

Rigging a highline in these conditions requires patience, meticulous attention to detail and once again, hard work. It is not something that can be rushed, and we each enjoy the process, as if we were solving a puzzle. A fishing line is pulled across the gap, bringing across a thicker line, then the webbing that will eventually transport us. Anchors are built and equalised, redundancies built in. Once set up, I watch the others take their turn, crossing back and forth, finding their own flow. The sun hangs lazily in the sky, and begins to stain the sea orange, the wind dies down and calm descends. Then it was my turn.

I’m no longer scared when I highline. Placing one foot, then another onto the webbing my mind is almost clear. I feel emotion, of course; I tingle and bristle with excitement as I step into my climbing harness, nerves fire in expectation as I make my way to the edge. This isn’t fear. Fear brings with it negative feelings, these are wholly positive reactions to my situation. I am torn between focussing on the physical task of maintaining my balance as the highline sinks under my weight and appreciating my current position – poised in midair, strung high above a calm sea. I keep moving forwards. Not just forwards though. This suggests progress in a single direction. While that is my aim, I am constantly moving, even when staying still. I make micro-adjustments as the line moves under my feet. I allow my knees to rise towards my chest as the trampoline-like bounce of the line lifts me. I allow it to sway gently in the ever-present sea breeze. These movements are barely conscious now, yet they must take up much of my mind. I rarely think of much else while I am out there; it is a quiet place.

“Life continues on around me, but I am barely aware of its presence and place one foot carefully and deliberately in front of the next.”

Reaching the middle, I pause, then deliberately bounce on the line. My focus tightens further as I work with the swing, playing with physics, simply playing. At the dead spot, in the middle of a surf, my mind loses focus. A rush of stimuli flood in – the exact shape of the pinnacle that I have maintained my fix on since stepping onto the line; the lighter patches of the sea below, where it passes over barely covered bedrock; the gulls that are swooping below me; my friends dotted along the cliff edge; the sound of the breeze pushing around the fabric of my jacket; a million and one other signs that define exactly where I am. This isn’t a slackline slung between a couple of trees in the park, this feels like exploration. Realising what is happening, I try to snatch back my focus, but it is already too late. My heart leaps as I fall, despite my harness and safety line. Instinctively, I grab for the highline, swinging around it. I don’t hurry back into position. Instead, I allow myself to enjoy my position once more, relaxing and allowing myself to laugh at my mistake. The location is, after all, what draws me and my three companions to these remote places. With a well-practiced heave and flick, I am back upright with my sights locked on the top of the sea stack. Life continues on around me, but I am barely aware of its presence and place one foot carefully and deliberately in front of the next.

“Once again, we discover that the unexpected is everywhere, but more so if you go to the effort of looking for it.”

It was only minutes after I climbed on to the highline that I stepped off. For all of the intensity of emotion, the physical and mental focus, and the sense of aesthetic in this incredible place, these are fleeting sensations. We keep playing, not wanting this evening to end. Not long after the sun has dipped below the horizon and the last of the daylight has bled out of the sky, I notice subtle greens teasing my view, barely perceptible in the darkness. The aurora gradually grows stronger though, shimmering and ephemeral, always threatening to switch off. Once again, we discover that the unexpected is everywhere, but more so if you go to the effort of looking for it.

As I sit beside my camera, Lukas walks out to the middle of the highline, with the aurora firing behind him and the Milky Way above, I can’t help but feel thankful for what highlining gives me. Not just the experience, but the reason to come away and have these adventures; the friendships, the natural wonders and aesthetic gems – be it landscape, body, or the meeting of the two. There are locations in the world where we can find these packages of perfection a short walk from the car. Why then, have we spent the past couple of days hacking through Tasmanian jungle to get to the coast? Why have we spent hours rigging for such a short experience? On the face of it, the logic doesn’t quite add up. Yet, during our three week trip, we will repeat the process again and again.