When Natasha Dawson is out walking along trails near her home on the Limestone Coast, her contentment is palpable and it isn’t any wonder she describes this landscape as her first love. Now, she wants to show off these trails to others.
Walk this way
“Good morning!” Natasha Dawson directs her warm greeting skywards, towards the red-tailed black cockatoos flying above as she strolls along Stoney Point Hike, a well-worn track in the Naracoorte Caves National Park.
Annual counts estimate there are only 1500 of the endangered birds left in the wild, and the national park – South Australia’s only World Heritage listed site – is one of the rare places where the species can still be spotted.
The park’s combination of roaming wildlife, ancient caves and fossils is one of the many reasons why Natasha describes the Limestone Coast nature hotspot as her “first love”.
“The Naracoorte Caves is the first place I came to in the South-East when I was studying eco-tourism and palaeontology and I just fell in love with the place,” she says.
“When I finished my degree, I came back to work as the site interpreter and then met my husband Andrew who was a park ranger here. I feel like it’s a landscape that just keeps giving. There’s so much to learn and it’s so diverse.”
Now, through her company Walk the Limestone Coast, Natasha gets to share her favourite parts of the region, via her favourite way of travel – foot power.
Launching in early 2022 as the world was emerging from the global Covid pandemic, Natasha saw a strong niche for people seeking outdoors, nature-based experiences.
“People aren’t waiting to retire, they’re prioritising life now and multi-day walking has just exploded across the world post-Covid,” she says. “(The pandemic) forced us to slow down and a lot of people realised slowing down in nature is so beneficial for us.
“Here on the Limestone Coast, we have an amazing landscape, which is also a really easy walking landscape. Australia is adding more multi-day walks constantly and I thought, ‘we need to jump on that bandwagon’.”
Already organising and guiding weekly walks for local women, Natasha drew on her eco-tourism degree and started thinking about how visitors could experience the region differently.
“By foot is the best way,” she says, with a smile. “If you look at hiking versus a car trip, people just miss so much, which on foot gives you those opportunities to pause and soak it in.”
Although the Limestone Coast may be lacking the elevation of the neighbouring Grampians in Victoria, or the wide-open vistas of the Flinders Ranges, Natasha says it makes up in beauty and change around every corner.
“It’s got a real diversity of landscape – rich farming country, sinkholes, volcanoes, limestone outcrops, wetlands and redgum and pine forests,” she says.
The sheer range of scenery on offer is the main aim behind her “Caves, Cabernet and Coast” walk, which takes walkers to the very rim of dormant volcanos to the Coonawarra’s lush vineyards.
Swinging from Natasha’s well-worn backpack is a scallop shell, a symbol instantly recognisable to those who have undertaken pilgrimages and caminos across the world.
Considered the badge of honour for those who have completed the Aussie Camino, the unique turquoise symbol on Natasha’s shell features an entwined A and M, which stands for Ave Maria.
Developed by Melbourne man Luke Mills in 2014, the Aussie Camino is a 10-day pilgrimage from Portland in Victoria to Penola in South Australia, inspired by the life of Australia’s Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop and her mentor, Father Julian Tenison Woods.
This year, Natasha will take two groups along the South Australian section of that Aussie Camino trail, beginning at Port MacDonnell and meandering across farmland and Boandik country to end at Penola’s Mary MacKillop Interpretative Centre, a journey that will take five days.
Aside from genuine religious interest in the story of Australia’s first Saint, Natasha believes the walk appeals to people for many reasons.
“There’s that reward from going: ‘I’ve walked all the way from Port MacDonnell to Penola’ and saying: ‘I’ve done that’,” she says. “There are long days of walking involved in the camino, so I find the interest may be more challenge-based or even people experiencing trauma or grief and just needing some space.” she says.
Walking in nature has been instrumental in helping Natasha overcome difficult times in her life, including the body chaos of peri-menopause and also, a double family tragedy.
“My father and stepmother came down to visit me for my 40th and they never made it back home to Adelaide,” she said.
Sadly, a car accident took their lives, leaving a devastated Natasha “in a heap”.
“My world closed in so much I had to work out what was going on with myself,” she says. “Some days, I would go out and lie on the lawn for hours, feeling that connection to earth.”
Now, when one of her walkers is quieter than others on the trail, Natasha waits, understanding there may be a story waiting to unfold.
“When I hike with people, I am observing everyone,” she says. “It may not look like it, but I check how everyone is going, their body language, what’s going on there. When they’re ready, will they open up about it, or not?”
Hiking in such close proximity together, Natasha says personalities are revealed and close friendships formed that endure long after the walk is finished.
This year, Natasha has her own hiking goals to conquer, with firm plans to finish South Australia’s famous Heysen Trail with friends, completing the final third through the Flinders Ranges, but in reverse from Parachilna to Wirrabara.
When the daypack and hiking boots appear in Natasha’s house, her husband and her 13-year-old son know it’s her time.
“They know that me hiking minimum twice a year is non-negotiable. I’m going away for a full week without you guys,” she says, smiling.
Far from just getting from A-to-B, it’s Natasha’s time to “kick back a few gears” among nature and trails less travelled.
“It’s an important part of my wellbeing. It makes me a better wife and mother.”
This article first appeared in the July 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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