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How Maree's remarkable challenge helped 222 people in need

Posted: 7am 23 Sep 2021

The figures are remarkable but only tell part of the story of Maree Stephenson’s epic 10 Desert Challenge.

After 127 days, the 54-year-old from Griffin has completed her 10 desert, 10 tracks, $10,000 cycle ride across Australia and back to Queensland.

Ms Stephenson rode 8777kms on her bike ‘Banjo’ and is believed to be the first person to ride the 10 Australian deserts unsupported in one journey.

Having suffered from anxiety, her target when leaving Woodford on May 2, was to raise money for Beyond Blue, the mental health organisation.

That was achieved with donations from people she met and those inspired by her daily blog. The figure is currently $11,045.09 … and still rising.

To donate visit https://the10desertchallenge.com/

Maree Stephenson's route which kept changing with COVID border restrictions and track closures.

“You have helped 222 people seek support from a mental health professional by either phone call, web chat or email through Beyond Blue’s 24/7 Support Service,” the team said.

"And for that we are so grateful."

However, it was also months of admiring and battling the outback, emotional and physical highs and lows, unexpected generosity, fear and sadness.

The challenge finished with a huge sandstorm forcing Ms Stephenson to take refuge at a council depot 80kms from her finish at Birdsville.

“It’s blinding and its frightening,” Ms Stephenson said of the storm.

The endless corrugations of the desert track

The council crew not only gave her a hot meal and bed for the night, but also drove Ms Stephenson to Birdsville the next day.

“I was mentally and emotionally worn down, pretty exhausted by the end,” Ms Stephenson said, describing the council team as her “guardians”.

“As we walked into the campgrounds at Birdsville, a lady from reception came out and said ‘You must be Maree’.”

“Kylie and the crew have shouted you a deluxe cabin for you and your family tonight."

Ms Stephenson said: "All I could do was burst into tears!”

Glorious setting in the outback for Maree's first "wild" camp on the Birdsville Track.

It was another example of human kindness which became a feature of the challenge and has had a lasting impact on Ms Stephenson.

“When conditions are more exposing, we become more connected,” she said, “I found that a phenomenon.

“Tougher conditions, the more open and more unconditional the giving, without judgement. We seem better when we have less.”

The countless acts of kindness included help with punctures, food, water supplies, free accommodation, chocolate and friendship from strangers who are now firm friends.

There was sadness when Nigel Harris, who stopped to help with Banjo’s first puncture, was killed days later watching a desert rally.

Maree on the desert road

Concern (and determination) when having to sign a safety waiver in order to use a desert track and then hiding behind dunes, bushes and walls on night camps.

Terror at Marble Bar in Western Australia, at a figure looming over Ms Stephenson in the entrance to her small tent in the middle of the night.

She shouted and pushed the figure away. “I’ve never called out for help,” she said, "but I dragged my tent to the people I had set up away from.

“When that person came, I wanted to be part of the pack. Without condition or judgement, I wanted to be in a crowd and open to those people.”

And how they responded to Ms Stephenson and Banjo pedalling alone across Australia's vast interior.

Over 127 days, drivers of cars and giant road trains constantly stopped to check on Ms Stephenson and offer drinks, chocolate or a sympathetic ear.

Journey's end, Maree with partner Dawn Cruickshank and Dylan.

One took water ahead to lighten her load, another left a box of bottled water behind a marked tree for Ms Stephenson to collect on her way through.

Camp sites gave free accommodation, campers offered meals and coffee, one women drove for hours to find Ms Stephenson and take her to Alice Springs ahead of a possible lockdown.

Scores made donations, some pressing cash into Ms Stephenson’s hands or going online. One Main Roads team gave almost $500.

Then, there were the remarkable deserts, so full of colour, wildlife, flowers, stunning sunrises/sunsets and star-filled night skies.

Ms Stephenson hopes to write a book about the challenge, with proceeds to Beyond Blue ... and has not discounted another epic journey!

For more on the challenge visit the10desertchallenge.com and Ms Stephenson’s blogs visit facebook.com/the10desertcyclechallenge/

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