It’s hard to know when it happens but it always does. Ali Murray can start a hike with a "messy brain" but the very act of putting one foot in front of the other works miracles on a brain reset.
"I don’t even know how it happens but I think it’s something to do with the smell of the forest, the sight of the ocean, watching my footing and getting into a rhythm," Murray says.
"It’s like a weight off my shoulders. I’ve learnt so much about who I am and what I want through walking."
Murray, 38, of Kyneton in country Victoria, says she wouldn’t have started bushwalking if not for the pandemic. Her parents walked seriously when she was a child but she preferred not to until her traumatising divorce four years ago; her mum suggested a 30-minute stroll which turned into a six-hour walk.
"I spent the whole time crying and getting things out but at the end I felt so much stronger," she says.
"It’s the impact nature can have on getting those internal screams out and throwing them into the wind, to be sent back with the beautiful scent of eucalyptus."
When COVID-19 struck, she lost 80 per cent of her publicity business in three hours. Then there were the demands of leaving a relationship and helping her seven-year-old son, Alfie, learn from home. Walking was her salve.
"I haven’t been single since I was 17 and I started to feel really lonely, but then I realised I needed to embrace this time on my own, take myself away from the computer, home schooling and the stuff in my head so I started walking," she said.
"My first big trek was for seven hours on a slice of the Ocean Walk between Apollo Bay and the 12 Apostles with only a pair of sneakers."
She has since invested in a pair of hiking boots, describing them as her slippers. She often walks with Alfie or by herself and is gradually building the confidence to buy a tent and camp out. Presently, Airbnb is the accommodation of choice.
"I’m not scared of the bush, spiders or snakes — just creeps," she says. "But I’m getting there."
While the solitude is part of walking's appeal for Murray, Tamara Hutchins set up Melbourne Girls Outside three years ago with friends and fellow walkers when their previous walking group folded.
The 32-year-old, from Richmond, is a group leader who escorts groups of six women aged from their late 20s to 70s.
"It’s the only sport where everyone is on an equal playing field. Privilege doesn’t matter and fitness doesn’t matter," Hutchins says.
"Everyone is there for their own reason. If you don’t want to talk, you’re not judged, but it’s fine if you do. If people have different skill levels, no one gets too far ahead so others have to catch up.
"When you hike, you can feel very vulnerable but not necessarily in a physical way. We’ve had people hike after break-ups. Whatever healing anyone needs on a trail, we can work through it."
For Michael Reidy, 24, hiking is also a social sport but with so many emotional benefits that he makes sure to exercise in a natural environment every weekend.
The stale air of the gym is no match for the trails at Cowan, a 45-minute drive from his home in North Sydney, and what he has learnt on his adventures.
"When you walk in more challenging environments, if the weather comes in you have to run around because you can’t try to control nature and have to respect it," Reidy says.
"It’s humbling in that respect."