By Kelline Linton, Chief Copy Editor
When Stephen Powell handed his ID card to an employee at the “World Famous Bean,” she did a suspicious double take. The longhaired, thick-bearded man in the picture did not look like the clean-shaven student. Powell and Andrew Conway received strange looks, laughs and reactions of astonishment at their hairy appearances before they shaved and trimmed six month’s worth of growth from their faces and heads the first week of the fall semester.
Conway, junior interdisciplinary major from Nairobi, Kenya, and Powell, junior accounting major from Abilene, met when they were children and saw each other at church on and off through the years. Conway lived in Kenya with his missionary parents until college, but visited the U.S. almost every other year. Although both remained acquaintances at ACU and even lived on the same hall as freshmen, their spring’s adventures, trials and no shaving policy finally cemented their lasting friendship.
For the 2008 spring term, both students enrolled in the National Outdoor Leadership School, an organization based in Wyoming but with programs in Australia, New Zealand, Patagonia, Asia and the United States. Each program has different expedition curriculum and skill sets.
For the Australia program the students canoed for 40 days, backpacked for 23 days and lived with Aborigine guides on an island for seven days.
The men heard about NOLS through various friends and found its unusual exploration courses intriguing.
Both wanted to study abroad during college but did not want to do the typical programs.
“I was looking for adventure,” Powell said. “I wanted something a little more untraditional.”
Although Powell was interested in the NOLS New Zealand program, Conway convinced him to enroll in the Australia program.
“As a kid my favorite movies were Crocodile Dundee and Man from Snowy River,” Conway said. “I always wanted to go to Australia and see what it’s like.”
The two applied to the NOLS spring course, writing their essays, filling out applications and submitting to doctors’ physical examinations; NOLS guidelines recommend students be in good cardio- ascular condition before enrolling in its programs. Conway and Powell received their acceptance letters in spring 2007.
From March until May, they attended the school in Australia with two instructors and eight other men from the U.S. After flying 7,408 miles from San Francisco to Sydney then another 2,051 miles across the continent to Perth on the southwest corner, the group flew 1,041 miles to Broome on the northwest coast. They then rode a bus 136 miles to Derby, a small town near the shore, before flying 30 minutes in a small fixed-wing airplane to the Kimberley, an extensive, almost uninhabited wilderness filled with rivers, rocks and hills. The men spent most their time in the Kimberley, a region slightly smaller than California in the northwest part of Australia.
Buying School Supplies
The Australia program had an extensive list of required equipment. Although the two students bought some of their gear, they rented the more expensive and specific equipment from the school, including backpacks, sleeping bags, life jackets and mozziedomes, the oneman tents that protected the men from the multitude of insects inhabiting the area.
“The mosquitoes and flies were awful; they go up your nose, your eyes, your ears,” Conway said. “At one point I counted eight flies in cut I had on my foot.”
When packing their clothes, Conway and Powell considered the Australian climate-hot, dry and arid. Some mornings the temperatures began at 98 degrees.
“It’s so hot, you have to wear hot clothes,” Powell said.
The men wore long-sleeved shirts, hats and sunscreen to protect their white skin from the sun. Powell packed two shirts and two pairs of shorts for the canoe section, but said this was a luxury. For the hiking portion, Powell just wore the same shirt and shorts the entire time and Chaco sandals or gator boots, depending on the terrain.
The men swam everyday but only used soap to wash their hands before each meal.
“You don’t shower for three months,” Powell said. “It’s pretty extreme.”
No one had deodorant and they lost their sense of smell quickly.
One day they found a white flower in a gorge on one of their class forays. The students gathered around the nickel-sized flower and inhaled its sweet vanilla scent. Conway picked it and carried it with him the rest of the day.
“It was the first beautiful scent we’d smelled in a long time,” he said.
Australia is home to almost every bug imaginable, Powell said. One night around the campfire, the men heard a slight scratching noise. Both Conway and Powell’s green eyes fastened on what looked like an oversized ladybug with pinchers pushing a foot-long stick. “This guy is awesome,” Powell said.
The students began playing with the insect, taking his stick away and giving him another stick about a yard long. “He’s got this huge stick and he pushed it,” Powell said. “He was like ‘chuchuchuuuu,’ until he walked into the fire and committed suicide.”
Lesson 1: Canoeing
The men spent the first 40 days of the trip canoeing in pairs on the Drysdale River, or the river of trees.
“You’ll be going down the river, and out of nowhere this forest of trees will appear in front of you in the river,” Powell said.
The river usually is turbulent with rushing waters pushing into the massive trees and large rocks.
“Almost every single day, we would tip a canoe,” Powell said. “It was a good day when your stuff wasn’t wet.”
One canoe led the expedition, while another acted as vanguard. The rest drifted in between the two, sometimes closely grouped and sometimes shouting distance apart. Two men sat in each canoe with their gear placed securely in the middle.
Conway and Powell frequently canoed together. They also swamped their canoes and ran into obstacles together.
At the beginning of the expedition, one student wrapped his canoe around a tree and tore his knee against some rocks in the river. After five days of excruciating pain and attempts to continue the trip, he was evacuated by helicopter on the eleventh day. Although the students had no phone service and could not communicate to anyone outside their group, the instructors kept radios in case of emergencies.
“I never missed home,” Conway said. “It was more a missing people kind of thing.”
Sometimes the river was so low the students carried their canoes on their backs and walked across the rocky bottom. Other times, the river just ended in a pile of gray boulders, and the men once again carried their canoes and belongings until finding a new water source.
Underwater currents combined with uneven rocks led to frequent falls and an epidemic of stumped toes.
Conway still does not have feeling in one of his big toes from banging it so many times.
Canoeing was not physically tiring for Powell’s muscular body but rather mentally tiring.
“You do anything for 40 days and you are going to get tired of it,” Powell said. “But running rapids was one of the biggest rushes I’ve ever had in my entire life. I miss that river.”
The last four canoeing days, the men waded through saltwater crocodile territory. Although the students already swam with the gentle freshwater crocodiles, their eyes were open to possible vicious attacks from the more aggressive relatives.
“We would pull our canoes to the side, set up camp and go for a swim but only with the freshwater crocs,” Powell said.
The men canoed in a pod, or tight group, to intimidate the saltwater crocodiles. The larger they appeared, the less likely the reptiles would attack them, Powell reasoned. The river was bordered by beach-like sand and grey slick rock, polished and flattened by years of rains and floods.
“We beach camped a lot; we were beach bums,” Powell said.
Canoeing began about 9 a.m. and ended by 3 p.m., leaving them plenty of time to make camp before sunset. After finding a suitable camping site, they separated into groups. Each three-man team boasted a tarp, three mozziedomes and a cooking setup with a gas stove, pot and frying pan.
Throughout their journey, the men ate rice, pasta and bread cooked on tiny camp stoves. Breakfasts and lunches usually were hurried affairs consisting of a handful of cereal or other light snack. The main meal was dinner.
“We were in a constant state of hunger,” Powell said. “You went to bed hungry and woke up hungry.”
They drank river water after purifying it with iodine pills. Water was a necessity and determined their course, meaning the students never veered too far from a water source.
After making camp, they built fires, cooked supper or just relaxed for the remainder of the day before drifting to sleep. Every morning before the sun rose, cockatoos awoke the students with screeches as they flew overhead.
“It was amazing to be awake for every sunrise and every sunset,” Conway said. “To sit there and enjoy it, to watch it happen.”
Sunsets in Australia are bright red; skies burn and everything appears on fire, including the two men’s shaggy, dirty blond heads.
Conway and Powell usually explored their surroundings, discovering rock art, new bugs and scenic nooks. Whenever given the chance, they swam in the nearby streams and fished.
Fishing involved a makeshift line and hook and whatever baits they could find. Once they caught supper with just a leaf, other times it was peanut butter or an orange peel.
“The fish were so plentiful, we probably could have put a blank hook in and still caught something,” Conway said.
The students traversed almost 140 miles of river before arriving at a designated GPS spot in the middle of the wilderness.
Lesson 2: Backpacking
The men dropped their canoes at the specified location, and a helicopter brought them new instructors and more rations for the backpacking section.
They loaded their 65-pound packs, slung them on their backs and immediately began the second leg of their journey.
Each day the hiking began at first light, about 4:30 a.m., to escape the worst of the sun. As they moved away from the Drysdale River, the tall trees dwindled into thorny shrubs.
“You don’t want to hike during the day in Australia cause you’ll die,” Powell said. “It is so hot.”
Powell found his weak ankles giving out daily as he hiked.
One day he completely dropped and slammed his knee against a rock. Conway helped him back to his feet, but Powell still bears a reminder on his shin-a large pink scar.
Backpacking was slow going; the hikers covered limited distances in the wilderness each day, forcing themselves through rough terrain and thick bush, before making camp about 9 a.m.
Their usual campsite was a gorgeous waterfall or deep swimming hole where they swam or relaxed near the waters.
Sometimes Conway and Powell sat beneath the waterfalls for hours, sharing their dreams and life goals.
Powell would ask his friend, “What do I want to do when I get back? What kind of impact do I want to have on people? Should I change my major? What direction is my life going to go?”
Conway would share his dreams. “We talked about the passions and ideas in our hearts, how this is such an amazing experience, but we could do anything with our lives.”
The two always took time to explore for hidden treasures. Their greatest find? Ancient rock art. They found Aborigine art as old as 10,000 years and other rock paintings by unknown artists as old as 37,000 years. Some of the well-known sites were marked on their maps, but some were hidden gems-a few red circles or outlined hands on a small overhanging cliff.
During their journey through the wilderness, the students met for class under a tree or in a cave. Instructors drew diagrams in the sand or on their own bodies and discussed biology, risk management and leadership skills.
Sometimes they used markers and a white trash bag as a dry erase board and other times they acted out their lessons.
“It’s one thing to read about a lizard in a textbook; it’s another thing to see that lizard running by you,” Conway said.
Students also took turns teaching class. Conway dressed as an Aborigine when he lectured about dingoes by the flickering light of the campfire; howls of real dingoes echoed nearby.
The students’ final exam was an independent hiking expedition. They separated into small groups without instructors, were given a map, a compass and coordinates and told to meet at a specific destination within six days.
“I learned more in those 75 days than in my two years at ACU,” Conway said.
They earned 15 to 16 semester hours in three months, paying about as much for them as a semester at ACU.
About two months into their schooling, the group chose to participate in a time of solitude. For two days the men separated and set up individual campsites, spending the occasion in reflection and fasting.
“We digested two months in two days,” Powell said.
Although they were not supposed to read books during this time, Conway and Powell decided the Bible was not a book, and both read Scriptures for hours.
They pitched their tents near each other and walked the mile back to the main campground together at the end of the two days.
“We didn’t say anything,” Powell said. “It was an unspoken, spiritual moment.”
Lesson 3: Fishing
Sixty-three days after the students saw their last human being outside the group, they finished their backpacking and hiked into a cattle station; civilization greeted them with cold Coca-Colas.
“I hadn’t had anything cold to drink in two and a half months,” Powell said. “It’s cold, it’s sugary, it’s carbonated. Everybody remembers that first Coca-Cola.”
A bus drove them from the cattle station back to Derby, where they camped for the night. The next morning the men rode the bus to the beach before venturing into the Indian Ocean on a small tin dinghy, or boat, for the 20-minute ride to Sunday Island, the last stop in their schooling.
The Aborigines own this island and call it home.
“It was a dream island. It was gorgeous, beautiful, phenomenal,” Powell said.
Blue water, banana trees, passion fruit and white beach sand defined the island’s tropical setting.
For this final leg of the journey, the students decided their own activities. Conway and Powell fished with the Aborigines.
One time Powell watched as a 65-year-old Aborigine woman caught a shark with a hand line and physically dragged it onto the shore. Conway and Powell made spears with tree limbs and large nails and used them to spear fish.
When the tide went out, they gathered octopi and clams from the exposed reefs and used them for bait. They waded with sea turtles and stingrays in the shin deep water and speared a ray among the fish.
“It tastes like chicken,” Powell declared after the stingray meal.
The students also ate the ray’s bones, which they described as somewhat crunchy and perhaps a little tougher than a gummy bear.
Based on average restaurant prices, they ate $600 worth of fish and crab during the seven days, Powell calculated.
The Final Lesson: Simplifying
After leaving Australia, Conway and Powell flew to New Zealand for a week of relaxation and sightseeing before returning to Abilene and going their separate ways. Powell stayed with his family, while Conway traveled around Texas with his parents who flew in from Kenya for the summer.
After days in the wilderness, Powell said they did not experience culture shock. They encountered “civilization shock.”
The Sunday after Powell returned home to Abilene was Father’s Day, so he drove to Wal-Mart to buy his dad a card. He lasted two minutes in the store before rushing outside.
“I could not handle it. I could not handle the noise; I could not handle the people,” Powell said, so he made a card instead.
Powell only showered once a week for the longest time and could not eat dairy products or meat without a stomachache.
“We didn’t have much of these foods during the trip,” he said.
Conway could not sleep in his bed for more than a month because the floor felt more comfortable. When he and Conway get together nowadays, they talk about Australia, about their adventures and about simplicity. They ask themselves: Where else in the world do you use a waterfall for your dishwasher?
Where else in the world can you go to class with no shoes or shirt?
“Being away from civilization for so long is therapeutic,” Powell said. “It’s a completely different mindset. Everything makes sense.”
They said their Australian lives were peaceful. Their biggest worry of the day was where to find water and what to cook for dinner.
“We weren’t roughing it out there,” Powell said. “We had everything we needed to have; we had water and we had food. That’s all you need.”