Ally Durr may rightly be claimed as a regional ‘hero’ as well as a local one. The Carwoola schoolgirl who attends Karabar High scooped up the honour of Queanbeyan ‘Young Australian of the Year’ in January. Karen Lovatt tells us why.
Picture this: a 16-year-old girl, on a trail across mountains, with 36 days of walking ahead of her until she reaches comfort and home.
Mists and rain, smoke and sun, a trail that weaves in and out of existence, spanning over 600 kilometres of some of the most rugged terrain in Australia.
What could push Ally Durr to chase such an achievement?
“Hannah is in a wheelchair full time, and she almost died from it,” Ally explained. “She can’t really do everything she wants to do, and I’m fully able to do whatever I want to do, so I just wanted to do something to help them out.”
“It” is Lyme disease, a little-known bacterial infection that humans contract from tick bites. Few Australians understand its dangers.
Ally’s childhood friend Hannah has suffered from debilitating fatigue and pain associated with Lyme disease for many years. She contracted it after being bitten by a tick at a youth event in Sydney.
After the Lions Club sponsored Ally to take part in an Outward Bound course she gained confidence in navigating the outdoors. Already fit, thanks to her love of equestrian pursuits and race walking, Ally decided to take on some more challenging hikes to raise awareness about the dangers of Lyme disease.
Her first trek was a hike along the famous Kokoda Trail in July 2012, with her brother, Jack, and her father, Greg.
“Ally was always ahead of the group, thanks to her race walking experience,” Greg remembers. “The group jokingly nicknamed her ‘Black Caviar’ because she was faster than everyone else.”
Taking on the Australian Alps Walking Track
After the thrill of Kokoda, Ally wanted her next adventure to be big. She set her sights on the Australian Alps Walking Track, a 650 km route that winds from Walhalla, Victoria to Tharwa, ACT.
The frequently unmarked track is a challenge for even the most experienced bushwalkers. It requires plenty of planning and forward thinking, and not just in the physical sense.
The AAWT is so long that walkers must arrange food drops at regular intervals. Though hikers can drink from the streams, on the ridges water is so scarce that it must be carried from the last food drop or water tank.
“One of the water tanks really saved us,” Ally remembered of a stretch she did with brother Jack. “We’d only just got the last food drop from Dad, but I didn’t do the lid on the bladder up properly. The water leaked everywhere. We only had about a litre left when we found the tank.”
Toughest part is mental
The toughest part of the AAWT is the mental aspect that has discouraged more experienced hikers. For half of Ally’s 36-day trek she was completely alone, walking up to 30 km per day. She did have an early crisis of confidence and it was decided that her younger brother Jack would accompany her on some stretches.
““I had hoped to do it solo but Jack came along because it was so hard,” Ally said. “You were just thinking of the same things over and over and over again, because there was no-one else, and it was just you walking.”
Asked if she was ever frightened at night alone in her tent, she said she was too tired to be scared! But she did have one encounter with a wild dog snooping around. Her hiking sticks came in handy to shoo it away.
Hiking over Christmas
Ally and Jack set out on 8 December 2012, and immediately ran into challenges. “In Victoria, some of the paths were completely overgrown and hard to see,” Ally said. “There were markers, but we got lost plenty of times.”
On one occasion the pair criss-crossed the same area for several hours searching for the established trail. Ally carried a satellite telephone, lent to her from the Australian Federal Police, also GPS and mobile phone (with surprisingly good reception for much of the trip). Plus she carried a Spot Tracker, linked to the home computer. Her mother Tracey watched Ally’s progress – and saw when they were lost, but at times no-one could help with directions immediately.
Crossing into NSW the going became easier with many sections running along maintained fire trails. Christmas was spent walking the trail. Ally was still on the trail when Queanbeyan selected her as Young Citizen of the Year.
“Mum actually told me over the sat phone,” Ally said. “It certainly gave me something new to think about for a few days!”
Then, with just three days and 80 km to go, Ally was pulled out. Severe fire danger weather forced the closure of several National Parks, including the last leg of Ally’s journey. “We had to actually come back home for two days because it was the only place we could go.“ That was a “weird feeling” before she went back and finished her trek.
Lots of community support
“I had lots of support from my family and friends, and even strangers,” Ally said. “The Lions Club sponsored me with the Outward Bound course. The Queanbeyan Tigers Club and the Captain’s Flat Bowling Club also sponsored me to get all my gear because it was all very expensive.”
With the great adventure over, Ally now has her focus set on completing Year 11 and 12. She will divide her time between studying and race-walking.
But the bush may yet call her back for another adventure.
Lyme disease in Australia
The presence and prevalence of tick-borne Lyme disease or something similar in Australia, is still being explored in public health and research circles.
With bacteria the culprits, early administration of antibiotics is the key to a cure which means people need to understand what early symptoms might mean.
Find out more about this disease and its possible spread in Australia at www.lymedisease.org.au.
The NSW Ministry of Health also has a factsheet. Whether Australian ticks cause the very same infection as Northern Hemisphere ticks or cause something similar requires more research.