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What the River Taught Me

Interview with Hayley Talbot

In May of 2017, 31-year-old Hayley Talbot, wife and mother of two, set off to hike to the furthest source of the Clarence River in NSW, Australia and paddle her kayak back down to the sea at Yamba. She would go solo and unsupported, surviving entirely off the land and the river. 

This 400km journey was the culmination of two years of planning and preparation. Its tributaries motherhood, a career in Maritime Law and all the glitz and glamour that comes with a marketing career in the fashion industry. Her experience on the river has enabled her to kickstart a career in promoting the remedial power of nature, challenging the rigidity of modern living and inspiring young women to better connect with themselves in nature. 

1. How would you describe your connection with nature prior to embarking on this entire journey?

It was always a part of who I was, which is why I think this journey has been a process of returning rather that arriving. I have powerful revelations in nature, which is why it is important to me to go solo. It is so much more than a personal challenge or physical undertaking. Nature is my church. My connection runs very deep. It’s where I go to be spoken to and instructed, forgiven and renewed.

2. You did a huge amount of preparation, why?

My trip was a serious undertaking for an amateur. To go out into, and to survive in the Australian bush, with no food or water, is not something one can responsibly set out to do with no knowledge or experience. I absolutely owed it to my loved ones, to do everything in my power to anticipate every risk as best I could and to cover that risk off with prudent preparation. It’s important to impress that this was not a snap decision that I made and then went off and did. When I had the idea to do the expedition I had never kayaked a stroke. I dedicated myself to becoming everything I needed to be to be successful. I did this with dedication and application, education and strategy, discipline and commitment. This was a big part of the example that I wanted to set for my sons. That, if you discipline yourself and apply yourself, you can set your mind to and achieve anything you want.

3. Besides becoming physically fit, what were some of the additional skills you had to learn?

How to source water, how to forage and find food, how to build shelter and fire. How to give myself an anaesthetic and stitch myself up, stabilise broken bones and treat snake/spider bites. How to be calm under pressure and how to move intuitively in the bush and on the water. I had to learn how to navigate, read the weather, how to kayak and I had to practice in the wild to really understand wilderness common sense, which is quite often counter-intuitive to civilised common sense.

4. Tell us about your physical training and who helped you prepare?

I started off by just filling my baby carrier with sacks of rice and hiking in the bush. I bought a $150 kayak and started paddling. My physical training then involved adventure specific strength and conditioning coaching, and numerous kilometres on the water in varying conditions and locations. I tested myself going long periods without sleeping and eating (which motherhood in general had helped conditioned me for!) and I played around with my training to see how my body operated best. I put on 6kg of muscle so that I would have the strength to haul my kayak and equipment, but I disliked the heaviness that came with that strength as it compromised my agility. I would also find muscle wasting within days in the bush, so fat was a better energy store. I put a lot of time into paddling as often as possible, and heading out into the bush, listening to my body. Additionally, I am blessed to have many dear friends who double as experts in their fields as athletes and explorers, so I had access to great minds and advice in the lead up to my trip.

5. What exactly did you take with you?

I took my trusty Storm Break 1 by The North Face which is a small, one-woman tent, a down sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, an air pillow, two knives (my Leatherman Signal multi tool for fine work and repairs, and a larger machete style knife for clearing vegetation and protection), Trangia stove, medical provisions, head torch and several back up lights, a wet and dry set of clothes, maps, go pros, navigation equipment, fishing rod and small tackle kit, and my journal.

6. What did you eat on the trip?

Mostly wild lettuce and other various types of vegetation growing the entire length of the river. I basically had salad every day! It was a smorgasbord of edible greens. I was on the river for 14 days, and humans if they’re knowledgeable, can survive in the wild without food for around 26 days. I slipped into survival mode almost immediately. I had learnt how to trap birds and rabbits, eels, turtles and fish, crabs, various grubs, lizards etc, but on my actual trip I had to do barely any of it. Several times I met kind folk as I got lower down the river who, without knowing I wasn’t carrying food or water, insisted on giving what they had. I came home with food! Water was the most important aspect and I was able to drink straight from the river rapids. Interestingly, I also drank far less water than I usually would at home. It was a very powerful lesson in how very little we need to sustain ourselves.

7. Where did you sleep?

I slept by the river every night. Anywhere that was flat and dry. A couple of nights I found myself in some questionable situations. One night I camped in the riverbed next to a waterfall because I was at the top of a section that I wanted to pass through undetected. The waterfall covered any noise I might make, the tangle of the riverbed camouflaged my tent, and I didn’t have a fire or cook anything that night so my scent didn’t travel.

8. What did it feel like to be completely alone on the river for those few weeks?

The feelings come in waves, because the nature of survival mode is that you are intensely in your senses. You’re not in the mind chatter that peppers civilised life, when our needs are met and we have an apprehension of safety. Because of this, the feelings are very intense. Overwhelmingly, gratitude hits. When you have the space and the silence to tune into your surroundings, it is quite overcoming. It’s incredibly empowering to know that when everything is stripped away and every decision is your own and is determining your next move, so that you can sustain yourself. As a woman and as a mother, it gives me great confidence to know that I can provide for myself and for my family.

9. Describe one of the best moments of the trip?

There were so many highlights. One night I fell asleep to the sound of dolphins herding fish into the bank, beaching themselves mere metres from me. It was pitch black, I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear them and feel them. It felt like they were in my tent. It was magical. That was the last night before I paddled in to finish the next morning, so that was a very special experience.

10. What did you learn about yourself and your place in nature as a human being?

You learn very quickly that you’re not at the top of the food chain, you’re in it, like everything else. I mean that abstractly, in the sense that at the end of the day, everything alive is just trying to live. Snakes aren’t out there hunting for a human to bite. Sharks aren’t waiting for us to take a swim so they can eat us. Small butcher birds can kill our most venomous snakes. Our swans eat the funnel web, the most dangerous spider in the world. Even the things that terrify us the most have things that prey upon them, that are not only harmless to us, but creatures that we consider quite beautiful and serene. You learn that perception must be challenged, that fear is futile, and that heightened awareness is a better use of energy. This exposure, and this reminder, that we’re part of the eco-circle and not at the top of the ego-pyramid, is a powerful metaphor for how we should conduct ourselves in civilised life. The place where our decisions most impact our precious natural world, and of course ultimately, ourselves.

11. What was your most challenging moment or experience?

There were many challenges, but the biggest one would have been when I completely sunk my boat on the morning of the second day. It was a disaster. I hadn’t wanted to take a canoe because they’re too heavy, a raft was too unreliable because of how virtually impenetrable the vegetation growing in and over the river is, and a standard kayak with a spray deck was too heavy and restrictive given how much I’d need to be climbing and porting. I ended up choosing an Orukayak based on its impressive light weight and ability to fold up into a back pack. I was ridiculed for this choice of craft, as it is made from flimsy looking corflute plastic, but I am a small woman, I needed something I could manoeuvre easily and could get in and out of quickly, if I got into trouble.

On the morning of the second day, I came to a rapid and was bumped off my line by a submerged rock. I had to get out quickly because it is very easy to be pinned under a craft in such situations, where you cannot fight the flow of the water. Being by myself, getting pinned wasn’t a risk I could take, but in prioritising not getting caught and with the adrenalin pumping I unknowingly injured my arm. It took me at least 2 hours to salvage my boat and I was lucky I was able to, given the flow of the water and the weight that was in it fully submerged, and the damage I’d done to my arm. The brilliance of the design of my boat was that with a lot of patience and with plenty of wiggling I was able to loosen the ratchets along the top of the hull while it was underwater to flatten the boat back out, releasing the water weight. Unfortunately it came off a little damaged but I was thrilled it still floated. I paddled the rest of the river on a ‘sit on’ kayak.

The next challenge was probably my arm. I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. I massaged it vigorously that night in my tent thinking it was just a haematoma from a knock, but the next morning it was double the size, with two big lumps and was red, inflamed and very hot to touch. I strapped it up and ignored it, adjusting my stroke so that my other arm was doing the most work, but over the course of the trip it just got worse. That was a bit challenging mentally, but ultimately it didn’t stop me, I just dealt with my arm when I got home. Four months later the power has almost fully returned to my grip, but my arm is still pretty grissly and niggly from the soft tissue tears, a small price to pay all in all.

12. What does nature and wilderness mean to you now? And how much a part of your life has it become?

It is my reality. It is my every day. It always was, but it is so a part of me that I feel suffocated if I can’t touch or be a part of my natural surroundings every day. I’m more passionate than ever about raising my sons with this perspective, and this value, and the freedom to simply be, that nature affords us. It accepts us for who we are, completely unconditionally, which I think empowers us to similarly accept ourselves and others in the same way. Nature can be harsh, but she is fair. Nature grounds me, it gives me perspective, it makes me grateful, it makes me a better person.

13. Why do you think it is so important for people to spend more time in nature and why should we as humanity fight harder to protect it?

With an increasingly digitalised experience of life, I feel it has never been more important to stay connected to nature. I feel so many of us exist in alternate realities, we live our lives buried in avatars of ourselves, removed from our natural surroundings, separated from purpose and meaning, meeting social agendas and ticking the boxes of the status quo. As individuals, particularly on a mental health level, we need nature to balance us and slow us down so we can fully live. As a collective, we’re asphyxiating at the hands of our apathy. I believe if we can get more people to break the patterns of these boxed in lives by venturing into and experiencing the beauty of nature, we can begin to break the cycles of greed and apathy that are causing us to burn through the earth’s resources with impunity.

14. What message do you want to send to people? And who do you hope to inspire most?

I hope to challenge rigidity. I don’t seek to inspire so much as to lead by example. I hope to show another way. A philosophy that ultimately champions a love of nature and of one another. I always considered myself a humanitarian first. I was raised in nature, so being environmentally conscious was a given, but the river taught me that you can be an environmentalist without being a humanitarian. Seeing what humans do to nature and to one another, it’s easy for our hearts to harden. But I’ve felt how it feels to go completely wild and it made me realise that I love being human, that I love humans, and that’s what drives me as an environmentalist. Nature isn’t going to save nature. The shift has to be human. I hope in the space I have the capacity to colour in the world, that I can help show the beauty of the things we are destroying, so we can be better compelled to make more conscious decisions.

15. What’s next?

I have my first book coming out. I’m very excited about it. It’s full of the things I was writing before I took the words off the page and paddled the river. I filmed my trip and have a documentary of it being produced. I’m launching a nationwide love letter campaign for teenage girls to help them connect in a way they may not have connected before, and I’m working on content to show families how to live a more adventurous life together. I have several adventures coming up abroad which I’m excited about, but ultimately I just want to do more, give more, share more, grow more, create more, adventure more. To live passionately. To use my time to give. To offset my carbon footprint of being by contributing. To set that example for my sons. If I can do that every day, in nature, I’m happy. I don’t need anymore than that.