Walking across the Western Desert

By Hannah Price 7 November 2013
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One man has walked 1300km through the Western Desert, stopping at Aboriginal communities along the way.

THE BREATHTAKING LANDSCAPES of Australia’s vast Western Desert have been drawing Ken McGregor, a Melbourne art consultant, to the region for almost 30 years. His passion for aboriginal art brought him repeatedly to Indigenous communities in Central Australia and the Gibson Desert, and led to him developing a bond with the Pitunbi people behind the paintings.

Ken’s repeated contact with these communities brought the health problems people face in remote areas into sharp focus. Kidney failure is one serious and endemic problem which can mean that people – even young people – have to be transferred hundreds of kilometres away to the dialysis unit in Alice Springs.

According to the Western Desert Dialysis Appeal , which aims to allow sick people to get dialysis in their home communities: “They live, and then inevitably die, so far away…Senior men and women at the peak of their community influence, become chronically unwell and shift with their families for dialysis to Alice Springs – someone else’s country. They are then asked to guarantee regular attendance at a clinical institution, almost another world, where they sense minimal respect and have very little control of their lives.”

Putting back into the communities

When the opportunity arose to raise money for kidney dialysis equipment in the communities he knew so well, Ken decided to raise awareness by travelling 1300km across the desert in the traditional way – by foot. “It’s my way of putting back into the communities that have been so special and so dear to my heart,” the 52-year-old told Australian Geographic.

Along the way he visited friends, art centres and clinics in the communities of Yuendumu, Papunya, Haasts Bluff, Mt Liebig and Kintore, Ken walked all the way from Alice Springs to Kiwirrkurra with little training and few diversions to keep him entertained.

For up to 10 hours every day, Ken would simply walk. He would leave his two-man support team with their camping equipment and vehicle at 6am, and then put one foot in front of another until he’d reached that day’s destination 40-50km further on. This went on for 27 days until he reached Kiwirrkurra at the end of August, having raised $25,000.

(Credit: Western Desert Dialysis Appeal)

Mental challenge

The mental challenge was almost greater than the physical, according to Ken. “You’ve got to be pretty determined,” he says. “It’s not just a physical thing, you’ve got to be mentally prepared as well. You’ve just got to keep on going; focusing each morning on walking each day.”

“The first week out of Alice Springs was the greatest challenge,” says Ken. The long, straight road into the desert is uphill, with sealed tar sweating painfully hot in the warmest part of the day and with large numbers of road trains thundering past. Each time one of the juggernauts approached he would have to swiftly move 100m from the road to avoid swirling clouds of outback dust.

The large number of signs were also disheartening, he says. “You can’t help but read them…but it’s rather daunting to read “290km to…” because you know that’s where you’re going.”

On Monday Ken told us he was happy to be home safely but was finding it a challenge to slip back into normal life in Melbourne, where he works for Art Series Hotels . “When it ended, I thought; what will I do now?” he says.

Ken is continuing to raise money for the Western Desert Dialysis Appeal. The $25,000 he has raised so far will go towards raising awareness of kidney disease in remote communities and a mobile dialysis truck, as well as the Purple House dialysis clinic in Alice Springs.

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