Would you agree to trek 32 kilometres a day across a desert in over 40 degree heat with no access to a shower or phone for eight days? Of course not – no coffee, no comfy bed or social media! But Channel Nine News Presenter Melissa Downes has done just that.
Hers is the trusted face that is beamed into our lounge-room every evening delivering the news with polished perfection. Yet underneath this façade lurks a backbone of steel, for Melissa has just completed a gruelling 250km walk across the Simpson Desert to raise funds for Youngcare – an organisation which helps young people with high care needs by providing facilities so they can live with people their own age.
Melissa best describes her journey as a cross between being on Big Brother, Survivor and I’m a Celebrity Get me out of Here. The epic adventure was documented every step of the way by the Channel Nine team.
Preparation for the trek
The team of 18 (including seven women) trained by doing hill runs, trekking through the sand dunes on Stradbroke Island, and preparing themselves as best they could for the mental and physical challenges ahead.
But Melissa says she realised on day one of the ‘adventure’ that nothing could really prepare them for what was to come.
Reality strikes – day one
The worst part was not leaving behind her beautiful daughters—as it was “only for eight days and they were in the good hands of her partner and both sets of grandparents,”—it was on the very first day when doubt set in, and Melissa and fellow walkers began to think ‘what have I done?’
“We had walked for the first half-day but it was very hot—38 degrees—which felt like 60 degrees with the radiant factor,” says Melissa. “Some people couldn’t carry their packs, some had pins and needles, and others had cramps.
“After struggling on, bunny hopping from tree-to-tree in search of shade, the doctor decided that was enough for the day,” she says.
“There was an experienced trekker in the group who had done many treks—13 along the Kokoda track alone—and to put it into perspective, he said it was the hardest day trekking he’d ever experienced.”
A valiant first day effort and Melissa confesses that everyone was nervous the next morning.
“By 4am it was 33 degrees!” she says. “Then suddenly a southerly change came through at 10:30am and cooled it down to a manageable 30 degrees.” Courtesy of weather presenter Gary Youngberry, perhaps?
Out of Melissa’s control
Throughout sections of the walk, decisions were taken out of the Trekkers’ hands, leaving them feeling out of control in order to mirror the plight of young people with high needs, and further highlight the need for the work of Youngcare.
Melissa says in the documentary, footage of the trek is interspersed with stories from young Queenslanders whose decision making and rights were taken away from them.
“You will meet Julie – she has MS [Multiple sclerosis] and went into hospital only to be told she was being moved into aged care … no choice was given.”
It made the challenges the Trekkers faced seem manageable in this context. Another adjustment for Melissa was being disconnected. “It is rare in our modern world to experience such complete isolation,” she says.
While it was a mixed team, the girls bonded in their own camp every night and were nicknamed ‘Camp Sheila’, or by the end of the trek, ‘Camp Shewee’. The Trekkers are all now bonded as lifelong friends who shared laughter, embarrassing moments, and told stories that are only told under the most extreme circumstances.
“All modesty goes out the window and everyone is in the same boat,” Melissa says. “We all had to wee behind the bushes.”
Melissa says a touching moment was at the halfway mark when they formed a circle and were given cards and letters from home. “It was nice to be told you were loved, and how proud you had made your family… a very emotional moment.”
You can only imagine after the heat and struggle, the joy of making it back to civilisation – to Birdsville where some of the trekkers’ families had travelled to meet them.
Melissa says she was joyful for her fellow Trekkers seeing partners and family on arrival, but hadn’t expected her family to be there.
“I saw a woman shaped like my mum holding a camera, and then I thought she has shoes like Mum, too!”
Of course it was Melissa’s proud Mum; better keep those tissues handy when you watch the documentary.
The trekkers raised a staggering $ 650,000 for Youngcare – well over their original target, and a sizeable contribution to assist Youngcare with building a new facility in Albany Creek.
Youngcare is an organisation which helps young people with high care needs by providing facilities so they can live with people their own age. Previously, the only other option was living in aged care facilities.
Melissa has been a supporter of Youngcare for many years and says she decided to take part in the Simpson Desert Challenge “to raise much needed funds, to test myself both mentally and physically, and to begin regular training again after having two beautiful daughters.”
Melissa herself says it best: ‘It was only eight days, but there are thousands of young Australians with high needs living in aged care every single day.” Let’s help to give them a choice.
Melissa, Team Sheilas and your fellow trekkers, we take our hat off to you!
Freelance writer, wife and mother of three sons, occasional supply teacher and aspiring romance author, Michelle Beesley can be most often found in a coffee shop chatting with friends or beside a rugby field cheering on her favourite teams.
Michelle is a prolific—albeit reluctant—traveller, keen walker, bookworm and yoga enthusiast who loves anything pink or sparkly (including champagne!).