Porcupine Gorge Challenge 2017

gorge7Queensland is full of gorgeous gorges no one has heard of. There’s Carnarvon Gorge near Roma in the roof of Queensland, an out of the way place I’ve been fortunate enough to get to many times. There’s Cania Gorge near Monto, like Carnarvon another pristine spot about seven hours from Brisbane. And there’s a place I’d never heard of until 2016: Porcupine Gorge. I’d never been until today when I did the Porcupine Gorge Challenge, an 8km run with a 1.2km hill at the end.  It was a birthday present to myself a day before I turn 53. Or I so conned myself into believing. It was actually one of the toughest things I’ve done in my life. On a par with the Pomona King of the Mountain I did in 2001 which was half the distance, 10 degrees cooler and I was 16 years younger. But never mind. It was time to go further back in time and put on Echo and the Bunnymen:  Porcupine gorge1I was blissfully ignorant of what was ahead when I rolled into Hughenden on Friday night. Hughenden is the nearest town, about 70km south of Porcupine Gorge, and five hours east of Mount Isa ,four hours west of Townsville). I was in Hughenden last year to talk to railway workers losing their former state rail jobs as privatised Aurizon sees them surplus to requirements. It was a tough visit but as we waited to fly back to Isa I saw the Mayor’s car advertising Porcupine Gorge, a local tourist attraction. An amazing place and very beautiful, the mayor told me. I promised her I would definitely look it up some day.gorge9The excuse came with the Great Western Games, a festival of 32 sports from June to July 2017 held in six towns across the north of Queensland from “The Isa to The Towers“. Situated between the two is Hughenden and one of its events is the Porcupine Gorge Challenge. Writing an article for the paper, I found out the challenge is not new. It’s been running since 2001 (the same year I did King of the Mountain) and maybe organisers thought badging it part of the Games would get sponsorship money and extra attention.  It certainly got my attention and taking the “get involved” words of Games organisers to heart, I signed up that day.gorge2After an early night in Hughenden, I left around 7.30am this morning. I headed 70km north along the bitumen part of the Kennedy Development Hwy (an inland back way to Cairns).gorge3Then in the distance I saw the Gorge. It was silhouetted, dark and ominous while the sun struggled with early clouds. I don’t know what the green light is, either a property sign sparkling in the sunshine or an alien warning me to go no further.  gorge6I didn’t listen to the alien and soon arrived at the Gorge. The campsite is near Pyramid Lookout which had a helpful sign explaining the local geology. About 280 million years ago, the creek began eroding the rocks eventually turning it into Australia’s “Grand Canyon”, as a book in my motel claimed.  gorge5That was a big call but it wasn’t a bad one. This photo on the phone (I didn’t want to lug my camera around the track) doesn’t do it justice but it was magnificent to look at. The creek disappeared off into the distance to the north and I would be forced to chase it for several bone-jarring kilometres.gorge4The view south was even more spectacular. Pyramid Hill was sculpted out of the rock as the creek slowly gouged out the ancient savannah landscape. This was my start point so I had to get down there.gorge8But first I had to register. I though my number was appropriate in the last day of my 52nd year. I was wearing the t-shirt I brought not the official one I was getting for entering as they hadn’t arrived when I got there. I made a note to collect mine at the end and set off down the hill.gorge10About half way down I got the first glimpse of the Porcupine Creek trickling through the gorge, lined with melaleucagorge11After a 1.2 km descent, it was a short distance south to the Pyramid.gorge12The Pyramid got altogether more impressive the closer you got to it.gorge13These rocks tell a 280 million story. If only I could read it.gorge14Almost every river system between Isa and Hughenden is empty including the Flinders River at Hughenden. Cyclone Debbie did promise to bring rain but turned south at the last moment keeping Flinders Shire dry. But there was a surprising amount of water at Porcupine Gorge. Maybe they got some recent local rain or the rocks have dammed the water into place.gorge18I was one of the first at the start line but slowly they started dribbling in, including the helicopter dropping off State Emergency Services at strategic points along the gorge.gorge19Not everyone was here to run. This guy had the right idea. This would have been a much more sensible birthday present to myself.gorge20But I was here now with a 100 or so others ready to race, including this mob. I asked where they were from. “Karumba?” I thought they said. No, they laughed, “Columba” they said. That’s Columba Catholic College, a boarding school in Charters Towers, 250km east. I chatted with a guy who looked in his late sixties and who wasn’t racing. “Couldn’t get you to run this year,” I said jokingly and perhaps a tad patronisingly.  No, he said, he was injured but he had done it many times and might do again next year. “Oh,” I said. “Any advice to a newcomer?” Yes, he said. Do up your shoelaces tight, you’ll be going through sand and water and it will get slippery.  I said thanks and rushed away to tighten both laces – twice.gorge21Then the littlies (12 and under) were given the signal. I was jealous of them. They would just run back to the turnoff and up the hill.gorge22The under 16s were next out. They had to run further down the creek but only half the distance as the adults before turning back for the climb. So I was jealous of them too.gorge23Then it was the 70 or so adults, mostly unlike me, in their proper shirts. The guy with the starter pistol in the hi vis vest decided he wanted to count us all but that wasn’t working well after two goes at herding cats. He asked someone did they count them last year. “No,” that person replied, “But it’s a good idea.” Everyone laughed. Eventually someone suggested we should all hold up our hands and put them down as he counted us off. It eventually came to 69 of the 72 registered runners. Dissatisfied but unwilling to hold us up any longer he started the gun for the race.gorge15I didn’t take too many photos during the race so many of these photos were taken beforehand. But this was the terrain at the beginning. I was sucked into a faster start than I would like, despite the danger of falling over if not careful on these rocks. And those early clouds had gone away, so the sun was getting serious.gorge24There was also climbing involved, as well as wriggling between rocks and over dangerous pebbles that could turn an ankle in an instance.gorge16Then it got sandy and while that was less dangerous it was tiring to run in and I was feeling the strain less than a quarter of the race in.  With a big hill at the end of it, I realised my hopes of doing this in under an hour were badly misplaced.gorge25Last but not least it got wet with a couple of expected and unexpected drops into the drink as we criss-crossed Porcupine Creek several times. At least my laces were tight.gorge26The water one and this photo of people walking the other direction were the only two I took during the race. There were markers in the trees that helped you follow the course but I still took a couple of wrong turns. I also wouldn’t believe the guy who told me I had got halfway and was heading up the next gorge before he called me back. Though walking more than running at this stage I was surprised there were many behind me. I was either the slowest runner or the fastest walker. Take your pick.gorge28By the time I got back to the climb I had little left in the tank. Any pretense I had of running up the 1.2km were gone. I was walking, or stumbling. I was breathing very fast.  I was stopping frequently, head bent over for a five second break. At one point I overtook tourists who took one look and said “are you alright?” I didn’t have breath to answer and shuffled past them silently. gorge17Eventually I got to the sign alerting me to the last 200m and I broke in to a run, which barely lasted 50m. Determined not to look geriatric I managed to find one last burst before the final corner and ran over the line. I bent over double for about 30 seconds before I could finally tell someone I was okay. Hell, I was more than okay. I was ecstatic – I had finished it. A time of around about 1hr 15 mins for the 8km course so plenty of room for improvement. Maybe next year I can get a few more tips from old mate when he races again. I grabbed my shirt at the end and posed triumphantly, my first Porcupine Gorge Challenge successfully negotiated.

gorge27

Smash the pig
This pork is mine
I’m pining for the pork
Of the porcupine
I’d best be on my best behaviour
Best behave yourself you hear

(Echo and the Bunnymen 1983)

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