It's midday and 75-year-old Mike Pauly has already been walking for 7 hours. He's 60km outside Fitzroy Crossing in the scorching Kimberley savanna. With only his trusty cart for support his knees become beset with pain and mouth dries with each step. Severely dehydrated he stops beneath a tree and waits for help. Hours pass and he pushes on before collapsing near an Aboriginal community. They rush to their stored water supply and call an ambulance.
“They saved my life,” Pauly says. “I was hospitalised twice for dehydration. I never wasn’t going to complete it though. I would have crawled on my hands and knees.”
Pauly began walking around Australia from Fremantle three years ago. His aim was to raise money for men's mental health. The journey took two years and covered 16,600 kilometers. He is one of only five people to have ever walked around the country unaided.
“I started walking for my health but I thought I could also do some good for others.”
Pauly was hit by a car at 17 and diagnosed with osteoarthritis and has since amassed a number of health problems.
"I've been diagnosed with pernicious anaemia, hypothyroidism, graves disease, high blood pressure, obesity and pneumococcal. There's more," he laughs, "but you'll think I'm a hypochondriac."
Walking, he says, cures everything.
Each day Pauly walked 30 to 40 kilometers, only stopping for breakfast and lunch. He subsisted on a vegetarian diet consisting of dried fruit and vegetables, nuts and protein powder.
“It’s good for weight loss,” he laughs. “The more weight you lose the less strain on the knees.”
After Pauly’s second hospitalisation in Halls Creek he was diagnosed with a double hernia. During the stay back in Perth for the operation he was hospitalised again for a blood clot the size of a golf ball resulting in three operations instead of one. Before he was about to head back north to resume the journey he encountered another tragedy.
“During that period my daughter died,” he says. He becomes silent and stares out onto the street for a long time. “My stepdaughter.”
“I prayed for help, used plenty of mantras, positive affirmations. You have to use the power of the mind. Once you get through the pain the endorphins from the walking make you happy.”
“I was preparing mentally, consciously and unconsciously, for a long time. A lot of it is about survival, trying to make yourself as comfortable as possible when it’s inevitably uncomfortable.
Pauly donated most of his donations to fund a mental health recovery initiative by The Freo Men’s Shed in partnership with Alma Street, the mental health wing at Fremantle Hospital. The program involves The Freo Men’s Shed teaching 10 people for 10 weeks wood and metal work.
According to Dr Ellie Fossey, a Researcher at the Department of Psychiatry at The University of Melbourne, participation in the community is integral to mental health recovery. It facilitates the personal process of rediscovering a strong sense of identity to participate and contribute to the community.
Bill Johnstone, The Freo Men’s Shed President, says, “the program has been very effective. It has been amazing watching the social benefits in the community.”
The Men’s Shed movement began as a community and men’s mental health initiative. It is a platform for men to come together, work and create relationships.
“Men don't talk about things. They keep it to themselves and think if I rub it with a brick it will go away,” Johnstone says.
“Mike’s a terrific ambassador by example. He has made a huge contribution over the years and is good to have around the shed. He’s a very positive person and a good raconteur so he keeps a lot of people entertained.”
Pauly timed his walk to coincide with the Australian Men’s Shed Association (AMSA) conference in Newcastle and was invited to speak. After the conference the men’s sheds from around the country offered to help.
“He brought a lot of sheds and people together”, Johnstone says.
Brian Durrant, one of the conference attendees, after hearing Pauly’s story offered to help.
“I was just amazed that a bloke at his age with crook knees was taking on a task like this with no support. I could not let him go any further without some sort of assistance.”
Durrant followed Pauly with a GPS device and called him once a day and blogged a post on the AMSA website on where and how he was travelling. Additionally, Durrant would call up the local men's shed before he reached a town to organise accommodation and food. Durrant's help was a reason Pauly returned "a couple of kilos heavier", Johnstone laughs. "He was doing it too easy."
“The generosity of some people is amazing,” Pauly says. “I met mostly good people, some bad.”
Thieves in Derby stole all Pauly's belongings including all the donations and in Kalgoorlie robbed his camera with all 1500 photos from the trip, photos he aimed to use for an art project. It is a loss he hasn't fully recovered from, he says.
“The recovery period since being back was really difficult. I’ve found it difficult to get back involved with life.”
Now at 77 Pauly continues to be an active volunteer in the community and walks most days. He has a studio in Fremantle for his art projects but believes being an aspiring artist is not enough reason to live. He aims to do another walk when he turns 80 much to the displeasure of his wife, Mary-Ellen McDonald.
“When he told me I said I’d divorce him,” she laughs. But I’m reconciled to it now.”
Pauly sits back in his chair smiling. “It will only be from Fremantle to Melbourne,” he says.