Google ‘The Simpson Desert’ and ‘deaths’ and there are plenty of harrowing tales about lost bushwalkers who came a cropper.
But just over 18 months ago, aged just 18 and shortly after his mother’s death from cancer, former Katoomba High student Milo Morrison-Jones decided to give it a go anyway.
He set off alone in the winter of 2017 from Old Andado in the Northern Territory on an unsupported walk for 17 days to Birdsville in outback Queensland.
He had 32 litres of water before his one and only drop of supplies in the middle of the epic 400 kilometre adventure.
For 11 days he saw no-one, by walk’s end – 17 days later – he had spoken to no-one. He had been totally alone and survived daytime temperatures of 30 and then zero degrees at night.
Milo recently wrote his story about the expedition.
In it he described “the ups and downs of life, and here, the endless rise and fall of one sand dune after another”.
He goes further to ask “what brings me to travel through, of all places, the Simpson Desert? The world’s largest area of parallel sand dunes in what is the driest region of Australia. What made me choose to don the backpack and cross the very heart of such an ‘empty’ place? Am I crazy? Do I want to die? Those are the sorts of questions asked of me before making the journey last winter, and many times since.”
The walk echoed many walks completed by his parents – well-known Blackheath ecologist Wyn Jones and his environmental activist mother Sue Morrison.
“My parents, though separated as long as I remember, took my three siblings and I into the bush from before we could walk. We visited their special places in the Blue Mountains, and became familiar with our own.
“My mum was as impassioned activist as they come, tackling the big environmental issues with her heart and soul – knowing the future would be her children’s to bear.”
Milo spent seven months researching the project, spurred on by his parents’ sense of wonder about the world.
“Mum passed on to me a couple of adventure books that my grandma (her mother) had lent to read. One in particular, on an unsupported walk across Australia, got me thinking.
“I told Mum my plans to take a gap year and make a solo west-east crossing of the desert. She couldn’t have and wouldn’t have said no. After all, it echoed the kind of spiritual journey both her and dad undertook during the Great Blue Mountains Heritage Walk of 1992.
“I guess what I was trying to assure her was that I intended to get up and do something meaningful with life. I wanted to have the strength and resilience she had shown and taught all the way to the end.”
For his journey Milo credits the invaluable help of Mountains adventure risk consultant Lucas Trihey, himself a veteran of many adventures.
In 2006 Trihey, then aged 44, was the first person to walk unsupported across the Simpson Desert since the Aboriginal people roamed there. The 400km walk took 17 days and he carried all his gear, water and food in a specially made cart that he pulled behind him.
Mr Trihey said Milo seemed to have different motivations to others he knew who had walked across, or attempted the Simpson Desert.
“He told me he wanted to be enveloped in the sandy wilds of the world’s biggest parallel sand dune desert and to discover more about himself and I could tell this was more important to him than a record of some sort.”
“It’s a challenge to be alone for 17 days and when Milo walked out of the desert into Birdsville we met up and he was pretty quiet. He seemed a bit overwhelmed by the bright lights and all the people but he also had an inner peace and self-assuredness. I guess it’s pretty natural to look at the world and yourself a bit differently after such a wild experience.”
Milo took an emergency beacon, a compass (“heading mostly east’), a GPS, a phone, a ‘spot tracker’ to send ‘okay’ messages and his location to family each night and survived on rations of mostly rice, instant mash potato, weetbix, dried peas, muesli bars and a little bit of the desert saltbush.
“I took the spot tracker and sent them an okay message at 7 each night, I was running late by a few days at the end … I was more worried that they would be worrying.”
Milo said he “wanted the feeling that everything was far away – it’s really different to what I’m used to in the Mountains”.
“What so many people don’t realise is that the very sand out there is my friend. The spinifex out there is my friend. The rattle-pod grevillea, the hopping mouse and lizard, the dingo and grasswren are my friends.
“We just happen to speak different languages – unless you learn to listen. The icy nights, the searing days, cloudless skies, the wind and rain – all good companions of mine.”
Milo had plenty of time to think – he was alone but not lonely, just as his Dad had predicted in a letter he wrote to him before they parted ways in western Queensland
“It was sort of more later I kind of realised that it [the walk[ was a little bit of a tribute to Mum, just a recognition in my own way of her.”
“One of the last things I said [to her before she died] did include: “Love you mum, I’ll see you in the Simpson Desert.”
Milo, with his triplet brothers Kalang and Tallai, has regularly participated in walks for charity, raising $ 5000 for Trek for Timor in the last few years.
My mum was as impassioned activist as they come, tackling the big environmental issues with her heart and soul – knowing the future would be her children’s to bear.
He also took on another unsupported walk in Tasmania earlier this year – trekking more than 250 kilometres in 23 days in the Southwest National Park around Cockle Creek and surviving nearby rampant bushfires.
“It’s a second education from my perspective [the walks]. I want to get a broad range of environments, learn the plants, the animals, the weather.”
Milo is studying conservation biology at Wollongong University and hopes to work in environmental education. With his father Wyn, he will once again present at the Poets Breakfast at the Blue Mountains Music Festival this weekend (March 16-17).
“I don’t look at anything as impossible. I could say today maybe I will walk for 50 kilometres and I know I can. The more I walk, the more I want to walk.”
Milo kept a journal of his travels and hopes to eventually turn his story into a book.
“I came back feeling not too different, maybe a little older, a little scruffier and a few more stories. I suspect others looked at me somewhat differently though; maybe it’s my far-away look, that extra twinkle.
“But I am not alone – throughout history adventure of all kinds has been sought by a passionate breed of people who set out to chase the unknown. If it weren’t for the boundless curiosity of humanity we would not be in such an age of great creativity and discovery as we are today.”
- Milo has written about his journey for The Big Fix magazine’s youth edition.