The journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step.

Well, actually, this was a journey of 1,000 steps. And like the journey of 1,000 miles starting with a single step, the journey of 1,000 steps started with a single complaint.

If you’re from Melbourne Australia, you might be familiar with the ‘1,000 Steps’ or the Kokoda Trail Memorial walk in Ferntree Gully, within the beautiful Dandenong Ranges National Park, named for one of the most murderously gruelling treks of the Second World War. Walking up the steps in the cool of the surrounding temperate rainforest is a pleasant way to get some huff and puff exercise.

I’m not sure whether there are actually 1,000 steps. Admittedly, I lost count when I did it back in February. Train Wombat assures me that there are 888. I found that there were just enough to reinforce my lack of fitness, but not so many as to prevent me reaching the top with a steady, constant trudge. The handrails came in…handy!

After completing the walk with Hubby Wombat, I conceived a wildly ambitious and equally unrealistic plan to take Dancing Wombat up the steps every weekend. It would be the perfect way to help her get fit. She’d be out of the pollution, in nature, and getting far more useful exercise than she would by merely walking around the back streets near home.

1000 steps Ferntree Gully

Most of her exercise is done “on the flat”. We live in a single storey house. The path to the school bus stop is flat. There’s one solitary hill on our main walking routes. Admittedly, it’s steep, but it’s the only one. Dancing Wombat doesn’t get the type of exercise that comes from regularly traipsing across hilly terrain. The 1000 Steps would, I thought, be perfect.

Well, it came to August. I did the walk in February and hadn’t been back since. Nevertheless, on a recent school-free day, I was determined to get Dancing Wombat up that hill. She had other plans – of course – like a long sleep-in, followed by lots of iPad! However, Book Week assembly for Littlest Wombat put paid to her sleep-in plans. (I’m not comfortable leaving her alone for long periods). Lots of iPad was never an option. My plan would prevail.

Well, I should have guessed. As Scottish poet Robert Burns said, “The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley”. More commonly translated as “oft go astray”. Well, we got a lot of “a-gley”.

Book Week assembly was long. Train Wombat had his school sports day, and was running in three events. Of course, I wanted to support him by going, but this delayed us further. Finally, and frustratingly, an unexpected dash back home with my runner nursing a twisted ankle lost us another hour.

I checked the time. Dancing Wombat’s favourite speed is “snail on tour” – lots of stops, starts and looking around. However, if she walked well, we might just be able to get up and back and still be in time for the after-school pick-up. It would be a close call. I wasn’t confident about her stamina or willingness to persevere. But there was only one way to find out.

In the Beginning were the Words.

To be precise, the words were “can’t”, “hard”, and “my feet hurt”. That was before we’d even reached the steps. The sun was shining and little knots of people passed us, either heading towards the carpark after a successful walk, or overtaking us on their way to the starting point.

The first part was the easy bit. The slope was gentle and the steps hadn’t started. However, the complaints had. I realised I’d need a full tank of patience and encouraging words if she was ringing the complaints line already.

I walked ahead, stopping regularly so Dancing Wombat could catch up, catch her breath, and realise that she could have frequent, short breaks. However, I was also starting to suspect that her complaints were more like a game – a challenge to me and – not completely genuine.

I threatened to dock her pocket money one dollar for every time she made a complaint. Well, I should have known that was a useless strategy. She immediately spouted a string of complaints that halved her weekly pocket money before we’d even gone fifty more steps.

It’s hard, sometimes, to know whether her complaints are real or imagined. Sometimes they are outright avoidance strategies. But I know she does get tired legs. She pronates badly – even with orthotics – which would put a terrible strain on her joints. So every time I cajole her onwards, there’s a little voice at the back of my head saying, “But her feet really might be hurting. And her knees. Try walking like her for a few minutes, Jennie”. And I do. And yes, it hurts. But she can’t not exercise.

In the middle were the steps

Ah, yes, the steps. They came upon us soon enough, as did the first encouragement from another walker.

While I waited at the bottom of the steps, issuing my latest threat to Dancing Wombat, a returning walker called out encouragement to us both. “Well done Mum! You can do it!”

“There you go, sweetheart! You can do it! Show me how. You go first.”

imageSending her first is another strategy that I’ve learned from experience. “You be the leader” is a sing-song chant my mum and I have used with Dancing Wombat ever since our first “girls’ weekend away” at Wilson’s Prom. She has the responsibility of leading the way and we can push her from behind. In all senses of the word. So up she went.

And up. And up. The complaints, surprisingly, grew less. Perhaps she realised that she needed to save her breath.

There were quite a few people out on the steps, but not so many as to be a problem. We weren’t holding people up, nor needing to overtake on the narrow path.

I encouraged, wheedled and cajoled her upwards, setting targets before she could take a rest – steps climbed, corners turned. I tried to anticipate when she would flag so I could rest her before she stopped herself. Returning walkers passed us with kind comments. Time ticked on.

Are we there yet?!”


I wasn’t sure how much further we had to go step-wise, but it was almost time to turn around. The promised iced chocolate might not eventuate. We pressed on.

Step, step, step. Huff, puff, push, shove. One more bend. Ten more steps. Around the next two corners. Surely we must be close?

Two smiling ladies were coming down the steps. I’m sure the whole forest was listening with interest to my conversation, and sympathy for its subject.

“You’re nearly there!” one of them told Dancing Wombat. “It’s not much further!”

“Really?” I queried. “How much further do you think?”

“Only a couple of minutes,” the other lady answered.

“Do you think so?” I asked. “We need to turn around in five minutes – I have two children to pick up from school.”

“Oh, yes,” replied the first lady. “It’s not far at all.”

That was all the encouragement I needed to press on.

In the end was … the end!

“Come on, sweetheart! You’re almost there! Just a few (I hope!) more bends.”

Valiantly, she stepped onwards. Without a doubt, it was a big effort. She was doing well – especially under the double constraint of time pressures and bossy mum.

1000 steps back down 2 Ferntree Gully

At last, we stepped off the final step into the small open area that marks the end of the 1,000 Steps. I paused to let her catch her breath. Unfortunately, there was little time to admire the surroundings, for we had to head back down almost immediately. However, reaching the top had a double bonus. Pride in her achievement (which meant the promised iced chocolate would eventuate) and the benefit of an easier walk down via a wider, flatter steps, or the broad track that ran alongside them.

So, what was the point?

An activity like this has many benefits. For example:

  1. Exercise
  2. Trying something new – often a challenge for people with ASD
  3. Trying something new in a new location – see above.
  4. Teaching strategies to manage anxiety about doing something new
  5. Teaching – and modelling – the value of making an effort
  6. Developing self-confidence, which helps build self-esteem and the knowledge that “new” doesn’t necessarily mean “hard”
  7. Doing things together and out in the community
  8. Being role models for others in the community, demonstrating that special needs people can get out and do things like anyone else.
  9. Getting tangible and immediate rewards for effort, as well as the more esoteric rewards of pride and self-esteem.
  10. This one is for you to fill in – I’m sure there’s something I’ve missed!

It would have been nice if we’d had more time. We could have had a more relaxed walk. However, it didn’t work out that way, which in itself is a learning experience. But the holidays are just around the corner, and so is another walk.

Until next time, Happy Wombatting!