At age 82, legendary Australian orienteer Alex Tarr says the thrill of his sport is “running on the edge of making a mistake”.

It’s a mental and physical challenge but he is not giving up any time soon.

He is still quick enough mentally and physically to post competitive times in the middle of the field, outclassing many of the younger runners.

“It’s all about the mental challenge,” Mr Tarr says.

Orienteering is bouncing back from COVID lockdown years, and nationally there are about 4,000 Australians who compete with 20,000 children involved in school programs.

Orienteering courses on Eyre Peninsula quite often feature bushland and spectacular views.(Supplied: Lincoln Orienteers)

One of the best

The Melbourne-based Mr Tarr has been orienteering for more than 50 years, including competing at world championships in the 1970s in Denmark and Scotland.

He says he often travels interstate to compete.

He was one of the oldest competitors at the South Australian State Orienteering Championships held at Broccoli Hill, near Coffin Bay, this month.

He says it is more important to be able to read the contours and features of the landscape than to run fast, and the trick is to read enough to know your route.

“You can read everything [on the map] but it will take you longer,” Mr Tarr says.

Alex Tarr is a legend in orienteering mapping circles.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Amelia Costigan)

But he says missing some details leads to costly mistakes and wasted time.

“Every now and again you’ll go over that edge,” he says.

Mr Tarr says the key to fitness in his seventies and eighties is to keep at it.

“Over 70 is the telltale sign — you walk up the hills,” he says.

“But I’m definitely running down them and on the flats as well.”

Mr Tarr completed the 4-kilometre Broccoli Hill course in 63 minutes, navigating through rocky limestone and bush.

But he admits there were about 15 minutes of errors in that time, with a fence line getting him back on track.

Competitors head off on the course with a map and a compass.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Amelia Costigan)

From the Yarra Valley Orienteering Club in Melbourne, he competes in the 80-85 age group.

At the National Championships hosted by Adelaide at Easter there were 17 men in that age group.

“At each five-year age group from 70 years onwards the numbers who compete halve,” Mr Tarr says.

It’s still a high number compared to many other sports in Australia.

But nationally, orienteering is not a high participation sport.

Leith Soden and Toby Cazzolato have represented Australia.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Popular overseas

South Australians Toby Cazzolato and Leith Soden, both 20, represented Australia at the Junior World Orienteering Championships in Romania last year.

“It really is a global sport … from the Scandinavian countries,” Mr Cazzolato says.

The pair competed in an event called the Swedish Five Days in 2022 where there were more than 20,000 competitors.

They say there are lots of opportunities for young orienteers to get into the sport in Australia as there are no age or ability restrictions.

Lincoln Orienteers mapper David Winters says he began orienteering for the running but soon developed a love for the mental challenge and has gone on to become the premier mapper for the club.

It took David Winters six months to update the vegetation areas for the Broccoli Hill map.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

He enjoys the problem solving skills required in the sport. 

“And you get to go out in the bush, in the natural environment, and it’s just beautiful,” he says.

“I just loved interpreting the physical environment onto a 2D piece of paper that people could then use to navigate. 

“It was a challenge to do that.”

Complex landscapes

Mr Winters says he knows the local terrain intimately.

“I can go back to a place I mapped 20 years ago and tell you which limestone rocks have bee hives in them,” Mr Winters says.

“I grew up in the bush in New South Wales, on a cattle station, so finding your way and knowing where you were in the bush comes naturally.”

Reading the map and running is sometimes a difficult balance.(Supplied: Lincoln Orienteers)

“An orienteering map is one of the most detailed maps going because every feature out there — that somebody sees when they’re travelling at speed, or walking through an area — has to be interpreted on the map using orienteering symbols.

“So when they see something its on the map and that reassures them that they’re in the right place and it helps them to navigate.”

It took him three and a half years to map the 12-square-kilometre area that included Broccoli Hill.

“It is really complex country that has a lot of detail in it,” he says.

The recording system allows for a printout of time splits.(Supplied: Lincoln Orienteers)

Mr Winters says it was great to have Alex Tarr at the SA championships.

“Alex Tarr is probably one of Australia’s foremost mappers and he’s done a huge amount of mapping in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, WA, and here in SA over many, many years,” Mr Winters says.

“And he’s still running faster than me at the moment.

“Alex Tarr five years ago beat me in the 200m finishing chute of the Australian Relay Championships.

“He was 15 years older than anyone else who ran. He’s like a hare, incredible.

“He’s just an extraordinary athlete and map reader.”