10 minutes with… hiking guide Caro Ryan

Growing up in the ‘burbs of Sydney, in a family that didn’t camp, Caro Ryan never thought she’d spend her days kicking up dirt and collecting scratch marks from adventures in Australia’s Blue Mountains. But this self-proclaimed “unexpected outdoors chick” is not only “at one” with the often harsh but beautiful Australian environment, she’s helping others feel comfortable in the outdoors too through navigation courses and bushwalking tours, and she’s inspiring even more still through travel writing (she blogs at lotsafreshair.com) and videography.

The Wild Ones Media caught up with Caro in between hikes to hear all about her dream gig.

Q. What has been your best outdoor adventure so far?

CR. As my outdoor skills, experience and fitness have improved over the years, there’s been many ‘best’ adventures. The one that sticks in my mind though was relatively early in my hiking life. It was a 12-day off-track bushwalk through Kakadu National Park (in the Northern Territory). It wasn’t a guided trip… just a bunch of friends from the Sydney Bushwalkers Club with a solid plan and a permit. We followed waterways on the plateau above Twin and Jim-Jim falls, sleeping on white sandy beaches and ochre-coloured rock platforms warmed by the sun, marvelling at rock-art sites and the ancient land we wandered. I returned to my stressful day job floating on air – I was completely new.

Caro Ryan looking down Kanangra Gorge, NSW.

Q. How about your gnarliest misadventure?

CR. Ha. Yes, that was a chortle… followed by a cough. I have something of a reputation in devising cunning routes on topographic maps that don’t appear to have been done before. It’s when I’m later leading a group through thick scrub, up steep, gnarly, mountain spurs – covered in scree, unmarked cliff-lines and using hand lines, moving no faster than 250 metres an hour, that I think “yep, this is gnarly and I can see why no-one’s been here before”. A particularly memorable trip was crossing from Kings Tableland (Wentworth Falls, NSW) to Glenbrook (the Blue Mountains). The kind of trip you only do once.

Q. Have you ever felt intimidated or worried about your safety on a trail?

CR. Yes, twice. Each time it was because I was relying on someone else as the leader. First, was a two-day trip in Kanangra-Boyd National Park (NSW), where the sun had gone down and the leader was taking us off the track and down what I perceived to be a dangerous descent to a riverside campsite. He wouldn’t listen to suggestions that he might be going the wrong way (which later he acknowledged he had). Due to the small group size – just three of us – I couldn’t mutiny as it would split the group. I didn’t have the confidence in my gut instinct to stand my ground and went with the white-knuckle, twilight descent.

The other experience was at about 5000 metres on the Huayhuash Circuit in Peru and part of a small commercially led group. I had chronic headaches, blue lips and other symptoms of altitude sickness, including cognitive changes, but the leader kept telling me not to take Diamox and that I will be fine. After five days of getting worse, I ignored him and took the medication – I was immeasurably better. These experiences were the encouragement I needed to improve my wilderness skills and capability, to give me the confidence to rely on my gut instincts and training.

Caro Ryan setting off from Govetts Leap, Blue Mountains, NSW. Credit Scott Sinton

Q. You spend many of your days exploring your backyard, the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains. What are your three must-carry items when venturing into the valley on foot?

CR. As most of the places I explore in the Blue Mountains are out of mobile coverage (which is nice), I always carry a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). It’s no bigger than the size of a cigarette packet and a total game changer when things go wrong. (Also) a map and compass.

Q. Since launching your Blue Mountains navigation course, what do you find is the biggest obstacle people have with navigation?

CR. There are people who will tell you that with modern GPS technology you don’t need to read a map or know how to use a compass. However, GPS isn’t fail-safe and, thankfully, you never have to replace the batteries on a compass. But it’s deeper than that. I’m passionate about connecting people to wild places in meaningful ways. Learning to read and interpret a topographic map opens up our minds to the land, to “country”. Seeing landforms and features all around us and being able to work out the best way of getting from A to B is about awareness and being fully present to your surrounds. I call it switching on our “NavHead”.

The number one excuse I hear from people not wanting to go bushwalking is that they’re afraid of getting lost. This excuse teamed up with the sadly commonly held belief that navigation is tricky or technical or worse – ‘something that blokes are better at than women’ – holds many people back. Learning to navigate can give you great confidence in your place on the land and equip you with the skills and knowledge to know that you’re never truly lost.

(Main image: Caro Ryan in the Blue Mountains. Credit Jake Anderson (this photo has been cropped from the original).)

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