Magnetic pull of tropical trails

TrailRunMag 27.03.2012

Melbournite and Associate TRM Editor, Pat Kinsella, heads north, to the tropical climes of Far North Queensland, where it’s perfect trails one day, stunning trails the next…mind the wildlife.

On my first day of trail running proper in Far North Queensland, I slammed my foot down about two inches from a brightly coloured snake that, thankfully, decided not to punish my clumsiness with a couple of poison-laced punctures.

We were running around Dunk Island (pictured right), an idyllic isle a short boat trip from Mission Beach. It would have been slightly less idyllic on that same date exactly one year earlier, when Cyclone Yasi screamed through the area, turning trees into twigs and reducing concrete and metal structures to dust and debris. I’ve seen pictures of the immediate aftermath and it looked like a war zone.

The island hasn’t fully bounced back yet  – many of the villas are still roofless and ragged, a lots of palm tree are headless – but vegetation grows quickly in the tropics and it is beautiful again, despite its scars. Maybe even a little bit sexier because of them.

People running this trail as part of the Ona Mission adventure race in September will aid the recovery effort still further, but when I was there the track hadn’t been used for at least 365 days, and it was pretty overgrown. Hence I didn’t see the snake and, for its part, the somnambulant serpent had become accustomed to sunbathing without fear of trampling.

Running with me was Richard Blanchette, the post-cyclone recovery officer for area. Richard, a fit Kiwi with a background in triathlon, had jumped at the chance to go and inspect part of his patch via a trail run. “What kind of snake was that?” I asked him. “Ah, deadly venomous, those ones,” he grinned. “But they don’t bite tourists…”

Encounters such as this are enough to keep you on your toes and enliven any trail run, and they’re not that unusual in this neck of the woods, where it’s easy to escape into the arms of true tropical wilderness after running just a few hundred metres from your front door. In fact, sometimes the wilderness comes to you – the previous evening Richard had recounted a story about rescuing one of his kid’s new pet kittens from the jaws of a three-metre python that had let itself into the family’s house in Mission Beach.

Also with me was Ben Southall, the English guy some people may remember as the winner of the World’s Best Job competition in 2009, when he scored a year-long gig working as the caretaker of the islands of the Great Barrier Reef. Ben, who has since completed kayaking and diving trip along the length of the reef and who now works for Queensland Tourism, has enjoyed some pretty cool days in the office over the last few years, but he reckons he’s never happier than when he’s out running trails.

Around the very next corner the grin was momentarily wiped from his chops, however, when he nearly ran face first into a spider the size of a man’s hand that dangled in a monstrous web across the trail. There’s never a dull moment up here.

The second time I go trail running proper in Far North Queensland, I lose so much fluid from my body I don’t piss for 6 hours, despite constant attempts to keep rehydrated, and when I do have a squirt it looks like orange juice.

This time we were running around Magnetic Island in the middle of the Wet season. It was 6am and the humidity was unnerving – it felt like a warm, moist flannel was wrapped around my lungs. On this particular day bath-temperature rain was falling and it was so humid that it became hard to work out whether I was running or swimming. To add to the all-round moisture fest, I was sweating from parts of my body that I didn’t even realise had sweat glands on them.

And I loved every second of it. I was trail running in the Wet Tropics, where there are snakes bigger than me in the undergrowth and 5-metre crocs in some of the creeks. The air tastes and smells so different to home, and the singletrack wends through jungle. Real jungle. Within 15 minutes of running out of the door of my hotel, I was having a full-on adventure.

There’s nothing more exciting than running trails somewhere that is so utterly different to where you live, and this is as utterly different to suburban Melbourne as you can get.

It put its hooks in me, and I’ll be back for more. In fact, I’ll be back this very weekend, to have a crack at the Magnetic Island Adventurethon, an adventure race that involves 22km of trail running (plus 26km of ocean paddling, 29km of mountain biking and a whole lot of sweat and tears).

And that’s what happens when you end up in the pub while still on a post-run euphoric buzz, and you get dared to do something by the race organiser and ultra-enthusiastic running ambassador Ben Southall, who is also racing this weekend.

But I was easily press-ganged. The pull of the tropical trails was too strong to resist and I can’t wait to get back on that jungle singletrack to sweat it out.

Magnetic Island Adventurethon: 31 March–1 April,

Ona Mission Adventure Race: 9 September 2012,