The idea for a walk across Australia at its widest points came to me in 1990. I was a French Foreign Legionnaire on the Ethiopian border. It was a place where life could depend on the whim of a stranger and the tensing of muscle on a trigger. It was in the face of such uncertainty that I wanted to create something positive; the dream of an adventure that would sustain and motivate me through my remaining years in the Legion. I thought that to conceive, design and then execute a plan would be to give a life to a dream of my own. It would be a contrast to so many of the things I experienced in the Legion. As far as I knew it would be something that no other person had ever done. So, on a rocky hilltop looking into Ethiopia, the idea for the adventure was born. I would catch and train some camels; trained camels and I would walk across Australia.
There was also one very important person to convince. I met her on the lawns of the Australian National University Law School in early 1994, a few months after I had returned from the Foreign Legion. It was late summer, the air was golden with wattle dust, and the irrigated grass just outside the main entrance was plump and green. Like me she was studying for Admission to practice as a lawyer. We spent time together, became lovers and eventually moved in together. From the start we loved each other though we feared what the other was thinking.
In the years leading to the start of the expedition there were practical things I decided early. I approached a number of charities to ask if they would like my help. Some never responded. In the end I chose the Fred Hollows Foundation, and they chose me, because of their connection with the Australian Outback, the desert, and the help it gives to Aboriginal people with cataract blindness. I set up a web site to promote the trip and the Foundation.
Another decision was to take female camels. According to many written accounts they were far easier to deal with than bulls or bullocks and so were preferred as members of camel trains. The impact of this particular decision would not become apparent until I was almost half way across Australia - and it nearly cost me my life.
There was no support crew delivering ice creams, massage tables, made beds or beer. It was one man, a swag, three camels and my hopes.
So David was the first person to walk across Australia at its widest point. In the course of that expedition he also was the first recorded person to walk solo east-west across the Simpson Desert and its 1100 dunes. In completing the journey Dick Smith wrote to David and told him that in part at least, he had been motivated to donate $1m to the Fred Hollows Foundation because of David’s inspirational walk.
When I arrived at the rise overlooking the Indian Ocean, I saw the light. In many ways it marked the close of a journey. In my solo walk across Australia, there were times when I did not see a fellow human for many days, when I felt the warmth and the darkness of Australia’s interior, and a silence that can be heard.
But I did meet Australians, men and women, white and black, who took time to share their stories with me. They shared their ideas, and their understanding of the land that moves me now. Meeting people, talking with them and having them share their thinking with me, gave my trip context and meaning. It gave meaning to my journey and the journey that is my life.
People give meaning and understanding to land. We learn to live with the land, move on it, survive and thrive, if we learn from people who know the land. Without the magic of the people my journey could have easily become nothing more than a brutal marathon.
Australia is my country, my home, my land. I have fought for it, lived with it, bled on it and told stories about it. In walking across its skin I wanted to learn more about myself and my country; its colours, its moods and its stories. Especially its stories, told by people who believed they were Australians too.
David works in the Department of Defence as a lawyer, is an Army Reserve Officer in the Australian Army Legal Corps, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and has served tours as a civilian adviser in Bougainville, three times in Iraq and as Legal Officer to Special Forces in Afghanistan. He is the only Australian to have served on operations as a Foreign Legionnaire, Defence Civilian, Private Contractor and as an ADF officer.