Mark Scholinz's walk along the Great Wall didn't go to plan.
IT IS 1am and the wind is howling. Sand whips through the air in all directions, coating every unprotected surface and filling every crevice with a layer of coarse brown powder.
The only object standing fi rm in the torrent of wind and sand is a wall, sprawling across 5000 kilometres of rugged, remote Chinese landscape, as it has for more than 2000 years.
Nestled in an alcove in the wall, his sleeping bag zipped up to his eyes in an attempt to keep out the sand, is Mark Scholinz.
When the wind dies down, he will snatch a few precious hours of sleep before waking, and continuing to walk - the length of the Great Wall of China.
Scholinz had long dreamed of combining his love of the outdoors with a project that would raise funds for charity.
Being made redundant provided him with the opportunity to put his dream into action.
"I first thought about doing a trek like this a couple of years ago," he says.
"Suddenly there was a space in my life and I could do it. With the Beijing Olympics coming up, and the Great Wall being such a well-known icon, a trek along the wall seemed like the best idea."
The aim was to create a website that would allow people to track Scholinz's progress across China. A blog, photographs, a video diary and satellite maps would give people a window into another part of world, and hopefully inspire them to make a difference, by making a donation to Oxfam via the site.
Over three months, Scholinz gathered equipment, and publicised the trek as much as possible.
Sponsors provided clothing, camping equipment and a satellite modem, and Scholinz bought a laptop and camcorder.
He began the website development himself, before a friend in Canberra offered to create and manage the site free.
Prior to his trek, Scholinz completed training in trekking and rafting, and a six-week solo trek in Alaska.
"I knew it was a huge task, but I felt ready and able to tackle the wall," he says.
But he soon discovered that the maps were inconsistent, the wall made several uncharted loops, and that in some places it was so badly damaged he couldn't see its path.
"When I fi rst looked at the maps, I thought the trek would be just over 3000 kilometres.
So at the 1000-kilometre mark I stopped and had a little celebration, thinking I was a third of the way through the trip. But I soon realised I wasn't even close."
In 276 days, between March and December last year, Scholinz walked an incredible 4780 kilometres. He was carrying an average of 30 kilograms of supplies and equipment, and with no one for company or conversation, it was, he says, "a hard slog".
"I just had to make myself walk as far as I could - through the desert, through sandstorms, high winds, and freezing temperatures - you just have to push yourself to keep walking." The extreme weather and rugged terrain were only part of the trip, however. Scholinz found himself in several unusual situations - including a detainment by the Chinese military.
"I wandered onto an air force base - I was just following the wall and it led me right up to the base. But they soon figured out I wasn't a threat. They ended up feeding me and playing cards with me; they were very curious."
Scholinz says the hospitality of the Chinese people was one of the highlights of the experience.
"The people I encountered in the villages were so ready to welcome a stranger - they were the friendliest and kindest people I've ever met. They didn't have much, but they offered me their food and water; they would invite me into their homes. I couldn't have made it without their assistance."
But the greatest shock was not the poverty he witnessed. "I was more amazed at the devastation of the countryside. I expected a pristine environment, but there was pollution everywhere."
Scholinz's video diaries and photos allowed him to share his experiences with people back home in Australia and around the world. But despite his efforts, the fund-raising aspect of the trip didn't go according to plan. Scholinz aimed to raise $100,000 but made just over $1000.
"I now realise that there is a lot more to fund-raising than just a good idea," he says. "At work people are quite inclined to throw in their spare change, but on the net there is no real obligation.
"We had over 5000 people following the trek. If everyone who was following the trek had thrown in $20 we would have made the $100,000."
In the end, the trek cost Scholinz $30,000 more than he expected, partially because uploading data onto the web via satellite modem was so expensive - around $7 per megabyte.
"I'm still paying for it now," he says ruefully. "Maybe I can finish paying for it in another three or four months - if I'm careful."
His hip pocket isn't the only thing feeling the effects of such an adventure. Six months later, his feet still hurt.
"I haven't been able to run, which has been the biggest surprise since I came back. I saw a specialist a few weeks ago, and apparently the strain of carrying that weight for such a distance has taken its toll. It's going to take time for my feet to improve."
It wasn't until recently that Scholinz realised he may be the only man to have walked so far along the wall in one continuous trek, completely unaided.
"Before I left I assumed that someone had done it before. Then I discovered that the furthest anyone had walked was about 3800 kilometres; but that left out several loops the wall makes. And no one has ever done the entire length in one go; it's always been in stages. I've accomplished something that probably hasn't ever been done."
Since his return, Scholinz has begun a new job working as a psychologist for a private company. But he has also booked several motivational speaking appointments, and is in discussions about making a documentary of the trip.
While his trek was "one hell of an experience", Scholinz says it hasn't changed the way he looks at life.
"There's a rule I've had since I was a teenager - I call it my old man rule. It's all about how you want to look back at your life," he says.
"You don't want to have regrets, so you should aim to do things you feel happy about, and that make you feel like you've achieved something.
I've always had that approach, so I'm always happy to take a risk, whether it be in my employment, or with something like the trek. You don't want to have regrets."
Aussie's long march
Multimedia: Along the Great Wall - 4780 kilometres in 276 days, carrying 30 kilograms.