The last of the great adventurers
"Life isn’t a dress rehearsal for anything. It’s about the now" Jon Muir
Posted on 15.07.2019
The last of the great adventurers
Everest, both poles, trudging across Australia solo and unsupported … will we see anyone like Jon Muir again?
When Jon Muir needs a bit of time and space to think, he likes to go for a walk. There’s a lot of time and definitely a lot of space to think about things while walking 2500km from Port Augusta, South Australia to Queensland’s Gulf of Carpentaria. You can think about the entire span of human history and how you’re no different from the people who have survived here for 60 or so thousand years, living entirely off the land. You can ponder how simple and fulfilling life can be out here in the desert as you haul a cart through dry creek beds and over sand dunes and clumps of spinifex, your Jack Russell terrier Seraphine trotting happily beside you, breaking away to dive into rabbit holes, happy just to be with you. But mostly you think about where your next drink of water is coming from. You think about staying alive. You maintain vigilance, processing information about the terrain, your supplies, what the weather is doing, if that wheel nut on the cart is still coming loose, how many bullets you have left, and always where the water is.
Some 128 days later, when Muir arrived in Burketown after becoming the first and only person to walk unassisted across the continent, he felt despondent. Seraphine had died not far from the end after eating poisoned dingo bait; both their journeys were over. But his footprints would forever be represented by a squiggly line on a wall map running the vertical length of Australia, and three small words: Jon Muir, 2001. A centimetre to the right is another line: Burke and Wills, 1861. You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep.
Muir could well be Australia’s greatest living adventurer. When your caper is adventure, the word “living” can really help you stand out from the crowd. He’s survived journeys through the planet’s hottest, driest and coldest continents: Australia and Antarctica. He’s paddled 900km from the Daintree River to the top of Cape York, where the waves threatened to capsize his kayak and drown him or toss him to the crocodiles. He’s walked 1800km alone to the geographical centre of Australia during the millennium drought, when the interior was famished. Bush tucker was down, every animal suffering under the strain of finding water. It’s a journey he still rates as the toughest of his life. He’s skied to the North and South Poles with fellow explorer Eric Philips, the first Australians to do so, and without animal or mechanical support. He’s been struck by lightning three times in one night, while riding out a storm in a bivy bag on top of a mountain in the European Alps. He’s seen climbing partners die in front of his eyes. Then there was that actual near-death experience, the one that changed his life forever. Muir shakes his head when I bring it up. “It wasn’t a near-death experience. It was a death experience. Yeah. Definitely a death experience.”
He recalls the date of his death day — October 10, 1981 — as easily as he does his birthday. He was 20 years old, rock climbing on Mount Arapiles, not far from where he lives now on a secluded rural property bordering Grampians National Park in western Victoria. His climbing partner dislodged a two tonne rock from above where Muir was resting on a ledge. It struck him in the back, broke ribs and punctured his lungs. He remembers being conscious of only two things: He couldn’t breathe. He was dying. His distraught partner held his head as the colour drained from Muir’s face. No pulse, no breathing. He began CPR but all he could feel was crunching ribs and it was no use anyway because Muir was gone. “The next thing I know is I’ve drifted away from my body and I’m looking down on myself, dead on the cliff. I’m floating up and out, and as I get farther away the image starts getting blurry around the edges and I get smaller and smaller. Then it just fades away.”
Doctors told him his body must have made one last attempt to restart itself. He somehow got a pinch of air into the bottom of one lung and started shallow breathing. He was back from the dead.
“Dying was the best thing that happened in my life,” he says, as we sit by a tranquil waterhole outside his home. “It cemented everything I believed to be true. That life is a precious gift and that I had to make the most of it. I knew then that happiness comes from the world you create within yourself.”
Life is just another journey with an end. “I’m usually pretty disappointed at the end of a journey,” Muir says. He knows the end isn’t the aim, it’s what happens along the way that counts. As the great adventurer approaches 60 he knows the physical adventures will one day wind down. But he’ll always be free to journey to that place of beauty inside his own head, the one he’s spent a lifetime furnishing with the rich tapestry of the natural world. “When I’m old I’ll just sit out here and watch the changing colours on the mountain, make a fire. I’m very accepting of the reality that’s around me. That’s part of the journey.”
But he’s not there yet. He’s plotting a return to the big mountains. A glaciated mountain, location: planet Earth. He plans his adventures without fanfare, doesn’t announce ambitions in advance, won’t be goaded into revealing goals. “The goal might be irrelevant,” he says with a wink, “but it’s good to have one. It gets you off the couch.”
He starts every day sitting up in bed watching the morning news. The screen isn’t a TV but a window to the real world. Mostly it’s good news. Past the waterhole that gravity-feeds the garden is the huge, cleared paddock where kangaroos graze. Beyond is the classic dull green of Australian bush that grows like stubble on the lower slopes of the mountains. Muir calls the prominent sandstone peaks that tower over his land the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” To the right of the house is Chicken World, where 40 or 50 chooks have the run of a feral-free utopia among the fruit trees. The vegie garden is turning over good amounts of vegetables — radishes, silverbeet, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, artichoke. Everything is circular here. The beetroot leaves go to the chooks, the manure from the chooks goes to the fruit trees, the excess fruit goes back to the chooks. The 60ha property, Inanna, that he shares with his wife Suzy and their Jack Russells Toby and Charlie is completely off the grid. Rotating solar panels chase the sun and rainwater is piped from the roofs into the waterhole. Life is stripped down to its essentials. They have a fridge, but it’s never turned on. The sheep had to go because preserving the meat meant firing up the generator to power the freezer, which couldn’t be justified. Their protein comes from the chooks and rabbits that Muir shoots, usually when they interrupt his meditating. “My evening meditations often end with a bang,” he confesses.
Muir’s desert journeys, using the template of nomadic hunter-gatherers, have become his blueprint for living. What happens in the desert doesn’t stay in the desert. He’s imported the lessons gleaned from the wild to his home. Live simply, carry only what you need, because anything else is a burden. Be self-sufficient, don’t take existence for granted. Members of the public can come and stay at Inanna on a World Expeditions “Off the Grid” farmstay in November to hear his stories and learn the secrets of surviving off the land in a domestic setting. At 58, Muir’s spent his life guiding himself and others round the harshest environments on Earth; now he guides others around his home.
In a corner of the living room are a dozen moggies repurposed as evening wear. Muir made the cat skin poncho for a fancy dress party years ago. Come as your favourite explorer was the theme. Other partygoers would have been justified going as Jon Muir, but Muir went one better. He chose to go as the first person to cross the Bering Sea — or land bridge, as it was about 15,000 years ago when the first paleolithic hunter-gatherers ventured from Asia to the Americas. It was these early explorers, like the Polynesians who paddled the Pacific seeking new lands, that Muir most models his adventures on. “For most of human history our journey was about going hunting and pushing yourself. Often there were dangerous creatures. You faced great danger and risk, and that was normal. I love that intensity.”
Mountaineering taught him about patience and solace. In the mountains sometimes the only place you can retreat to is the world inside your head, so you’d better make it hospitable in there. Muir’s secret is he’s fashioned a place within himself he can retreat to when times get tough. If you don’t have that place, you won’t get far. “I learnt to be able to retreat into the world inside my mind, and be comfortable there. That world is beautiful, and there are all sorts of places I can go. That place… that place is a place of love. Yeah. Yeah. It’s a place of love.”
He speaks the word “Yeah” in a way that furnishes that bland monosyllable with an emphatic power. It’s spoken slowly, with a knowing rise of bushy eyebrows, as the revelation spreads across his face. His mind constantly searches for truth as he speaks; as words are formed and when the sentence holds true, there it is: Yeah. Yeah!
He rises and lights the fire. There are skulls on the mantelpiece, shells in a glass cabinet, a tiny red toy car that belonged to his English grandmother, a framed photo of his Scottish grandfather on the Khyber Pass in 1896 from his time in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. The spoils of a ripper pumpkin harvest are crammed along bookshelves. In his study are maps, journals, old magazines. His Scottish heritage is displayed in his kilt and a formidable whisky collection. There’s a photo of Suzy sitting up in bed on their yacht, Mystique, wrapped in a purple bed sheet. The house is full of snapshots of moments like these.
Muir picks up a scroll of paper lying next to a dusty bottle. “I’ve found three messages in bottles in my life. The first one was really boring. I was mortified. And I didn’t even open the second one because it was from the same guy. But this one I liked.” He found it on Victoria’s south coast and it’s written in a child’s handwriting. He reads aloud. So what do you do with your time? Though the real question is “what is time doing with you?”
Muir thinks about time a lot, and why it seems we’re always waiting for something, not living in the moment. A journey’s success shouldn’t be measured by whether you achieve the objective. He says some of his most successful adventures were the ones that didn’t achieve the goal. “The summit might be the objective but it’s not the essence. And it’s the essence that I’m interested in.”
Then there’s Suzy. The woman he wakes up to watch the morning news with; the woman who’s taken him on the hardest journey of all, who he fell in love with, who plaited a necklace from her hair and hung it round his neck. Someone who didn’t run with the pack, who took responsibility for her life and is so strong in every way he can’t believe how close he came to losing her. She’s made this place with him.
Jon Muir grew up in Wollongong, south of Sydney, and an early indication of his fragility in coping with emotional stress came in his second year of primary school when he was separated in class from his twin sister. He immediately fell behind in his schooling and never caught up. So he turned his gaze outwards from the classroom. The climbing bug hit at age 14 after he watched a documentary about a British expedition to scale the south-west face of Everest. He started climbing the brick veneer walls of the family home before dropping out of school at 16 to devote his life to the mountains. He started rock climbing on nearby Mount Keira before progressing to the bigger mountains of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. His reputation as a tough, dedicated climber grew, and he was soon pioneering new routes on the peaks of Europe and the Himalayas. Within a climbing community then stereotyped by middle-class, private school boys with a hint of old England, Muir was a maverick. He was rough, a larrikin who climbed routes no one else thought of attempting, with a ragged jumper, a bottle of whisky and a broad ocker twang.
In 1984, two Australian expeditions were attempting to be the first Aussies to climb Mount Everest by different routes. One ended in triumph, the other in tragedy. Tim Macartney-Snape and Greg Mortimer reached the summit via a new route up the north face while Muir and his team were making their way up the west ridge. The next day two members of Muir’s team, Craig Nottle and Fred From, slipped and fell to their deaths as Muir and expedition leader Peter Hillary watched on helplessly. The team immediately abandoned the climb and went home. The deaths made Muir question people’s motivations for high-risk adventure and showed him the consequences of striving to achieve the goal at all costs. He finally reached the summit of Everest in 1988 as part of Australia’s Bicentennial expedition. The 18-member team was climbing without assistance from Sherpas and had fractured under the strain of the mission. Muir was the last man standing. He made the final summit push alone, celebrating in typical Muir fashion by having a smoke on the top of the world. He’s scathing of the mass tourist experience that Mount Everest has become; the mountain crammed with climbers who require no skill other than the ability to clip a carabiner onto a fixed rope and trudge obediently upwards in the footsteps of the hordes before them. That’s not mountaineering.
Macartney-Snape went on to become one of Australia’s most lauded mountaineers. He describes Muir as a world-class survivalist, someone who can completely tune in to his surroundings. “He’d make it anywhere. Muir has this ability to make the toughest situation feel like home. He’s humble and he doesn’t take life too seriously, but mostly he just has a knack for feeling at home, wherever he is.”
The changing nature of climbing, coupled with a hellish 12-day ordeal in 1990 on the rarely attempted south face of South America’s highest mountain, Aconcagua, led to Muir walking away from mountaineering. A storm lashed the team — which included his then wife Brigitte — relentlessly, but still they pushed on, climbing 2200m through horrendous weather before retreating. “It took us three days to get off the mountain, down-climbing, abseiling — technical, scary stuff. It was raw survival.”
He spent a lot of the 1990s facing his greatest fear — water. “We’re terrestrial creatures, not marine. Water is not our environment. You can’t survive there without equipment. Mentally that was a huge challenge.” The solo sea kayak trip from the Daintree River to Cape York was partly to practise hunting and gathering, but it was also an exercise in understanding your own fear. Muir jokes that he’d like to change the famous T-shirt that says “No Fear” to “Know Fear”.
For Muir, the antithesis of struggle is complacency. To push through real struggle and survive is life’s great reward. In extreme situations you can’t pretend to be someone you’re not. There’s no Facebook facade to present to the world, and you can’t put up a pretence against nature, because nature is a mirror, and the reflection is sharpest when you’re alone. “People have been cold and wet through the ages,” says Muir. “Did it kill them? Well, sometimes. What am I going to do? Overcome it. Yeah. Stay on task. Yeah. Push on through it. Yeah. Yeah. Life’s good like that. Yeah. Life’s good.”
Fear manifests itself in insidious ways in the bleak expanse of Antarctica, and Muir’s South Pole trip in the summer of 1998-99 became an 84-day exercise in positive framing. “It depends on how you look at the environment. Is it this white turmoil that you’re hauling your sled through and that’s trying to freeze you to death, or are you in a magical landscape of glistening white, where there’s infinite variety in the snow crystals, and rainbows that form round the sun and hang there endlessly, or an extraordinary ground blizzard that drifts over your feet as you march through this dreamscape where reality and imagination blur, not just in the landscape but in your own mind? Antarctica was both heaven and hell.” Hell was other people.
The team included Eric Philips and Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund Hillary and his companion on the tragic 1984 Everest attempt. The trio was trying to do what Captain Robert Scott had come so close to doing before perishing, 72 years earlier: ski unsupported from Ross Island to the South Pole and back, nearly 3000km. Even with the advantage of modern technology and gear the trio took two weeks longer than Scott to reach the pole, where they bailed out and flew home, shell-shocked and in silence. Philips and Hillary had developed a toxic distaste for each other, with Muir frequently caught in the middle.
Hillary says Muir’s strength is his ability to be self-contained in the face of extraordinary hardship and personal frictions — two things the polar regions readily provide. “Being isolated and cold is hard, but it’s the sensory deprivation that does it to you. You lose your connection to your normal way of doing things. There’s no way out, just spindrift across the feet. As far back as Scott’s expeditions you find people writing venomous stuff in their diaries about each other. The whole history of polar travel is littered with people struggling to deal with each other and themselves.”
Muir’s feats are remarkable, says Hillary. “He achieved the top level in the alpine world, but it’s the diversity of trips he’s done since then that has really made him quite unusual. He lives very simply and very well and he loves what he does. I think more of us need to do that.”
In 1989 Muir received the Order of Australia for services to mountaineering. His unassisted traverse of the continent earned him the Australian Geographic Society’s Adventurer of the Year in 2002. He supports himself by guiding clients on adventures and by public speaking. I ask him why mountaineers are always giving motivational speeches to businesspeople, but it never happens the other way round. He laughs. “Because mountaineers don’t have any money.”
He’s unfazed by the prospect of age slowing him down. “When I get old the adventures will just scale down. That’s part of the journey. I’ll still go for little wanders in the bush because I’m addicted to the natural world and the physicality of life. There doesn’t have to be an ultimate goal; it’s irrelevant. It’s about what happens along the way. And that’s the journey of life, isn’t it?”
Night falls over the Grampians. The smell of chicken and roast vegetables mingles with wood smoke. Toby and Charlie lie curled on the bed like two puddles. Muir cooks by the light of a head torch as Suzy arches over a yoga ball in the corner. The only sound is the clink of the saucepan lid as the broccoli bubbles on the stove. Everything we eat was grown here: the chicken, potatoes, pumpkins and radishes. “Do you want cutlery?” Muir asks. “I don’t use it, personally.”
He tears chicken from the bone and wraps it round the vegies, licks the grease from his fingers after each mouthful. He wipes his plate clean, brings it to his lips and drains the last of the juices. “One of my mental health strategies is to acknowledge how lucky I am to have food, shelter, a loving partner, these beautiful dogs. I don’t take any of this for granted. I do understand the gnawing pangs of hunger.”
Muir and Suzy got together in 2002, the same year his marriage to Brigitte ended. He spent three months alone at the house, walking in circles through the night in the back paddock. “It worked a treat. I was strong here. I knew that the separation was going to be good for me, and that the marriage had not been good for me.”
Suzy moved in and as the house and garden became self-sustaining, so did their relationship. But their world was turned on its head the day Suzy found the lump. It was breast cancer. She was 42. “It wasn’t a good prognosis,” says Suzy. “The cancer had metastasised and I was told if I didn’t have chemo I’d die.” She declined chemotherapy, opting for alternative treatment such as intravenous vitamin C. Suzy says the years she spent re-establishing a healthy balance for her mind, body and spirit were the most difficult of her life, but with it came a deeper self-understanding and acceptance of her place in the world. “I feel absolutely mortal. There’s no delusion that I’ll live forever, and that changes everything. You’ve only got the moment you’re in, and if you don’t make the most of that moment life will pass you by.”
For Muir, dealing with Suzy’s cancer and the effect the illness was having on their relationship put him under severe emotional stress. “That’s my biggest weakness. My emotional stress comes from the anchors around me, not from within. When something happens to someone I have a strong emotional attachment to… I struggle to maintain my clarity, my calmness.” Suzy says the hardest thing for a person experiencing cancer is the emotional state of the people close to them; you end up carrying their weight as well. She looks across the table at Muir and smiles. Her latest scans show no sign of cancer. “You did a really good job.”
Whatever the future brings, Muir and Suzy know they have seen magic. In 2011 they paddled kayaks down the Warburton River until it spat them out into Lake Eyre, catching the tail end of Cyclone Yasi as it flooded Channel Country to fill Australia’s largest salt lake. Ninety kilometres of paddling lay before them, so they kept going into the dead of night. The pink-eared ducks that had followed them all day flew off to sleep and the wind died to nothing and it was just the two of them in the middle of Lake Eyre. The stars blazed in their millions and were reflected on the surface of the glassy, black lake. There was no horizon, no border between the earth and the sky, just stars all around. They stopped paddling and let the momentum carry them, drifting in silence through the galaxy, two lovers floating through space.
The essence is life. That message in the bottle reads like it was written for Muir, like something in the universe conveyed it across the Southern Ocean to wash up at his feet. He reads the final lines: Will life pass us by as we wait for time? It may not come again. It may be quick. It may be slow. Then again, who knows how long life is? So have you the time… for life?
He rolls the message and slides it back into the bottle.
“That’s the thing isn’t it? Life isn’t a dress rehearsal for anything. It’s about the now. It’s a wonderful thing to be this living, breathing, moving being on this extraordinary planet. I just want to live and breathe as much I can. Yeah. Yeah.”
The Weekend Australian
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