Thursday, 11 August 2022

Happy Places 2: Tasmania’s Central Plateau

The Central Plateau has been dubbed ‘the roof of Tasmania’, and ‘the land of a thousand lakes’; which is about as nuanced as calling Australia the ‘wide brown land’. There’s so much more to this wild and high part of our island state. 


It owes a great deal of its identity to dolerite, and to a massive sub-surface upwelling of that igneous rock during the Jurassic age. Almost equally its identity has since been shaped by the ice sheet that covered the surface during a number of glacial phases. That covering was more ‘doona’ than ‘sheet’, as it measured hundreds of metres thick in some parts. As that huge amount of ice, at least 6000 sq km in area, slowly jostled and crunched across the plateau, it carved out lakes – many more than a thousand – and left sharp peaks and dramatic clefts. 

[A special spot on Tasmania's Central Plateau]

 While much of that ice-age drama is over, the Central Plateau remains a vast area of largely wild high country. It’s roughly bounded by Great Lake to the east, the Great Western Tiers to the north, and the Walls of Jerusalem to the west. To the south the boundary is more vague, but perhaps the Lyell Highway marks a convenient edge. As this post is about my ‘happy places’, it’s probably okay to leave the big picture fuzzy, and focus in on the subject at hand. 


So … where on this cold, high, wet and wild plateau are my happy places? I’m particularly thinking of smultronställe, a Swedish word that evokes that sweet, semi-secret favourite place; somewhere that – particularly during these cold months – makes me smile just thinking about it.

[A sweet end to a lakeside night]

 During more than 40 years of walking in Tasmania, I’ve been privileged to walk across the plateau numerous times, from every direction. I’ve written about some earlier walks here Walking With Ada and here No Lack of Lakes  All that plateau wandering makes choosing particular smultronställe as difficult as naming my favourite child. But if I had to pick just three Central Plateau ‘happy places’, they would be (in no particular order):


1.     The Walls of Jerusalem

2.     Mount Rogoona

3.     Un-named Lakes and Pencil Pine Groves


1) Certainly this choice needs some narrowing down, as The Walls of Jerusalem National Park covers 518 square km! Scattered across this mountain-fringed park are some wonderful campsites, both formal and informal; on-track and off-track. And I could have selected any of those. But because mountains are such a feature of The Walls, I’ve chosen Solomons Throne as my Walls of Jerusalem ‘happy place’. 

[Friends share special times on Solomons Throne]

The peak is not the highest in the park, nor is it the most difficult to ascend. What make it sit so sweetly in my memory is a combination of my experiences here, and the superb vistas from the top. I’ve been up there in thick snow, and relished views outward towards a snow-bound Overland Track, and inward to the nearby pine-fringed lakes and vales. I’ve been there with family, introducing them to the wonders of our wilds. I’ve been there with friends (many times); with first-time walkers; and with international visitors who thought Australia didn’t have mountains. While I will certainly tire during the steep climb up a rocky chute to the peak, I will never tire of sitting on the Throne.

[Looking towards the Overland Track from Solomons Throne ... click to enlarge]


2) The upper Mersey River roughly marks one edge of the Central Plateau. The Mersey Forest Rd also gives good access to one of the sweetest spots on the western side of the plateau: Mount Rogoona. I first heard about this mountain during the 1980s. A group I walked with had been planning a trip there, but a major fire burned out much of the track and surrounding areas, so we walked elsewhere. It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that I finally reached that peak.

[Mount Rogoona from Lake Myrtle]

And what a peak! It sits, sphinx-like, above the waters of Lake Myrtle, its knobby summit giving way to dolerite cliffs that are like a younger, smaller sibling of the Organ Pipes of kunanyi/Mt Wellington. For most visits to Rogoona, Lake Myrtle is the most convenient camping spot. However direct access to the peak is not easy from the lake. I found this out – in reverse – when a few of us decided to return from the summit direct to the lake. I would not recommend it! Rather the track between Lake Myrtle and Lake Meston leads to an easier slant-wise route to the mountain.

[Summit Views from Mount Rogoona]

Rogoona is essentially a small plateau whose summit is near the sheer dolerite cliffs on its north-western edge. So the views from the top are as vast as they are stunning. Steeply beneath and quite nearby is the tranquil Lake Myrtle. But your eye soon wanders west beyond the lake, over the nearby Cathedral Plateau, to the highest mountains of Tasmania, from Mt Pelion East to Mt Ossa and numerous others further south. 


Not once, but twice I’ve had that view ‘interrupted’ by a wedge-tailed eagle flying over. I’ve written in more detail here Eagle, but suffice it to say that being buzzed and eye-balled by the largest raptor in Australia is one of the greatest privileges of being in remote Tasmania. 

[Close encounter with the Rogoona Eagle]

After you’ve had that kind of mind-bending, time-stretching summit visit, there are few better places to sit and contemplate it than by the shores of Lake Myrtle. I’ve written about one particular experience here Myrtle 1, here Myrtle 2, and here Myrtle 3.

3) If the preceding ‘happy places’ would be easy to locate, the third is deliberately vague. Un-named Lakes and Pencil Pine Groves is a category of smultronställe that invites you to do your own explorations; make your own discoveries. And there could be few better places to wander in search of lakes and pencil pine groves than the Central Plateau. 


I once started the eye-watering job of trying to count the number of lakes just on the 1:25 000 Ada map. I gave up after counting 350 in one typical 10 sq km strip. Given there were 19 such strips still to count, it’d be fair to estimate between 5 000 and 7 000 lakes on the Ada map alone.

[So many lakes! A small part of the Central Plateau]

Obviously the number of lakes alone makes searching the plateau for sweet spots a lifelong task. But once the search begins, it becomes more subtle than you’d think. Lakes mean water, and many lakes mean a lot of water. That in turn means often waterlogged ground, and camping in such places isn’t much fun – not to mention the impacts it can have on that environment. In my Central Plateau wanderings I’ve seen many spots that looked great from a distance, but turned out to be unsuitably sodden once you got there and looked for tent spots. 


Happy Place searchers also have to consider another weather factor apart from precipitation, and that’s wind. The often fierce winds here further narrow your camping options. What may be a perfect site on a calm night can turn perilous when the wind gets up. Shelter is paramount, which is why pencil pines are often your friend. But there are complications here too. Many pencil pine groves are so dense that there’s no room for tents. And if there is room, the ground is often covered in dense, soggy sphagnum and/or gnarled tree roots. 

[Boots off and relaxing at a secret campsite]

 So … have I found some ‘Goldilocks Zone’ campsites on the Central Plateau? Of course I have. And I’ve spent some of my most blissful days and nights between a lake and some pencil pines. Am I going to share their locations here? Sorry, I’m not. What I can say is that if you haven’t searched for your own version, then you have a baffling, frustrating, but ultimately sublime quest ahead of you. If you have found such sites - or you recognise some of the ones pictured - I’d suggest you share that information sparingly. Let others have the thrill of the quest. Some places just shouldn’t be on Instagram.

[Does wild camping come any better than this?]

Tuesday, 2 August 2022

Happy Places 1: Smultronställe

In the (relatively shallow) depths of a Tasmanian winter, I find myself daydreaming of other places and other seasons. Take Sweden in summer as an example. Why Sweden for goodness sake? (you may ask.) Haven’t you watched enough Scandi noir to know Sweden is a place of constant snow, rain and grey weather, all bundled up in a flat and dreary landscape?

My simple answer is this. Before you judge it, spend one week of summer in Sweden. That is unless you object to VERY long, mild days, beautiful forests, meadows full of wildflowers, and stunningly intricate waterscapes of lakes and sea. And that’s not to mention the Swedes themselves, who in summer throw off their Scandi gloom, and become all frisky and fun-loving.

Take, for instance, one of their linguistic delights: the Swedish word smultronställe. It literally translates “place of wild strawberries”, but is most often used metaphorically to mean a semi-secret favourite place; a place that makes you happy. English phrases like “sweet spot” or “happy place” feel linguistically pale in comparison. If you've eaten wild strawberries, you'd surely agree. Smultronställe is a word forged from dark winters, scarce sun, and the utter delight at the sweet return of light and flavour. 


So it’s not unusual in Sweden to be asked for your smultronställe. What is your special place in the outdoors? It’s a question that resonates very much with me in relation to bushwalking in Tasmania. I’m often asked, especially by those who are not bushwalkers, or by people from other parts of Australia or the world, what my favourite bushwalking spots are. My plan for what remains of winter is to write about some of these in a series of blog posts; to share a bit of my daydreaming about places I'd rather be. However I should warn – and it’s probably in the spirit of smultronställe – that my posts might be a little geographically vague. If places are semi-secret, maybe it’s best that people discover their sweetness for themselves.


But before I start on my Tasmanian smultronställe, it’s only fair that I mention at least one favourite Swedish place. And that is Ängsö National Park, on the eastern coast of Sweden, about an hour’s drive north-east of Stockholm. I’ll let these images be a little taster of this beautiful place, and a reminder of all that was sweet – and accessible – before the pandemic. Let’s hope that such places will be within safe reach again in the future.

[Scenes from Ängsö National Park, Sweden]

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

Cathedral Plateau 3: Highs and Lows

The bright early evening leaked its light slowly. It was that time of day when the world holds its breath, and anything seems possible. And sure enough Tim D went full Shackleton on us, trying to talk TimO into climbing all the way up to the plateau’s edge to watch the sunset. 

[Ernest Shackleton's supposed newspaper ad. for his Antarctic expedition]

TimO is always up for a challenge, but he was also a very tired boy. I stepped in, taking on the (mock) role of his coach/manager – dreadful Michael Caine accent and all – insisting that ‘my boy ‘ere’ would need more than ‘some dubious promise of a flash of sun, followed by an uncertain return, fully in the dark’. Surprisingly TimO followed his manager’s advice, settling instead for Tim D’s tamer challenge: a game of Yaniv. It was a card game TimO knew nothing about, so he clearly still needed his ‘manager’ (who also knew nothing about the game; didn’t want to try it; and would retire to his tent mid-game). To cut a long story short, TimO lost the game gloriously – and noisily – despite his manager shouting from his tent such timeless encouragement as: ‘Go hard son’ … ‘Give it 110%’ and ‘Go up the guts!’. Yet even after the heavy loss, TimO had to admit it beat a stumbling return through scoparia in the dark!

[A Misty Morning at Tent tarn] 

The morning was quieter, a soft, dwindling mist dampening sound and tent alike. We had a less ambitious day planned, with the ascent of Cathedral Mountain itself the first agenda item. This was even via a marked route, with rock cairns making it hard to miss. This beaten-path look was new to those of us who’d been here many times before. My guess would be that it was down to Cathedral’s status as an ‘Abel’, a label that somehow makes one mountain a more desirable goal than a perfectly beautiful nearby one that doesn’t qualify for that designation.

[Jim ascends from Tent Tarn]

Before we’d ascended far it became clear that Jim wouldn’t be going any further than the first summit. He was again struggling with dizziness and a lack of energy. Today that wouldn’t be a problem, as he could station himself on Cathedral and return to camp safely whenever he liked. So while the rest of us walked beyond the peak, down to the plateau’s edge, he luxuriated in a patch of sun that also had mobile reception. Only a hut would have improved how well this suited him. 

[A Panorama from the Plateau's Edge]

The sky had cleared as expected, and by the time we reached the cliff line, the day was a stunner. The views were even better, with every Overland Track mountain from Olympus in the south, to Cradle in the north, clearly visible. We could even make out a distant Frenchmans Cap. These are views that never pall, and we feasted on them for a long time before deciding that a swim in one of the rim pools further along the edge would make a great day even better.

[Looking towards Mt Ossa and the Pelions]

[TimO at the Edge of Cathedral Plateau]

We were spoiled for choice, walking past several lovely looking pools – none of them named – before finding one that had an accessible island and a rock shelf from which we could swim before lunch. I’ve swum in the highlands of Tasmania many times, and it’s rare for the water to be either warm or inviting. Today it was both, and we all plunged in, the Tims choosing to do laps. TimO, despite his delicate Irish complexion, even spread himself on a rock for a micro-sunbake. And from high above we noticed Jim still up on Cathedral, occasionally waving, and (we would learn later) taking distant paparazzi-style pictures of us. 

[Tim D swims in the unnamed pool]

We finished our pool-side stop with a relaxed lunch, and all agreed this had been a rare and sublime episode in an already wonderful day. What could top this, we wondered, as we wandered slowly past a few more pools and then down a ridge towards our home tarn? What happened towards the end of that return didn’t exactly top the rest of the day. But it certainly added an exclamation mark to it!

[What could beat this rim pool scene on Cathedral?]

Our descent was off-track, and mostly through light scrub. This sometimes required us to pick the path of least resistance, so we’d spread out a little by the time we were closing in on Tent Tarn. Tim D, Libby and I had chosen a line down one side of a small scrubby creek, while TimO and Merran were on the other side. Tim D suddenly stopped, and called out “Ooh, a big one!” We knew he was referring to a tiger snake, so Libby and I stopped to see what we should do next. 


Tim D cautiously walked to the far side of the bush into which the snake had disappeared. Completely without warning the 5 foot long snake darted out of the bush at full speed, straight towards Libby and me. I let out a sharp expletive and rushed to escape in the opposite direction. Instead I stumbled over my trekking pole, falling heavily on my arm. What?! On the ground with a tiger snake just metres away from me?! In complete panic I struggled back to my feet, only to fall again, expecting the snake to be right there where I’d fallen. My heart racing, I eventually scrambled back to my feet to find Libby still standing where I’d last seen her, and Tim D coming cautiously towards us.


Apparently the snake, spooked by Tim’s footsteps, had turned to escape from him only to hear/see another walker (me) crashing to the ground in front of it. The snake had then slipped straight by Libby’s boots as she stood still, “like a rock, like a tree”, as she later told us. Fortunately for me, my attempted escape had been both noisy and diagonal, and the snake had made for the scrub elsewhere. We all stood there for some time, adrenaline pulsing through our bodies, before quietly and cautiously resuming our walk back to camp. We had quite a story to tell!

[My bruised upper arm - photos by Jim Wilson]

[Snake Bite? No, but enough for Jim to beat up a story.]  

What really happened here? I’ve replayed the incident in my mind many times. I am not fearful of snakes. I admire them, and have a healthy respect for them. I would see a couple of snakes every summer when I’m out bush, and have never had an ‘adverse’ encounter with one. But all I can say is that, given this situation 100 times over – a snake coming full pelt, straight at me from 2-3 metres away – I would react exactly the same. Why? Because my reaction to the threat was involuntary, involving my sypathetic nervous system. This is often given the shorthand of “fight, flight or freeze”. Obviously my reaction, “flight”, might not have been wise. All I can say is that it was completely instinctive.


But why was Libby’s reaction so different? She explained to us that she heard the voice of her grandfather, who had experience in handling snakes. If one threatens you, he’d advised her, “be a rock, be a tree”. This sounds like a conscious choice, rather than a “freeze” response, as mentioned above. I can only say I’m astonished by her reaction, which was both wise and effective. In my own case, I’d have to say that my conscious mind was not in play in my own initial response. 


As we told the others our story back at the campsite, we again showed our different emotional reactions to the adrenaline that was still coursing through our systems. I gabbled out loud, retelling the story over and over, while Libby had a quieter emotional moment. Over dinner we continued to reflect on a day of amazing highs and literal lows (for me at least), before Tim D brought out some port to settle us for the evening. 

[Another Misty Start at Tent Tarn]

The next morning, our last, saw us up very early. Our plan was for most of us to walk all the way out in time for a latish lunch at the Mole Creek pub. Libby was staying one more night, taking advantage of the great weather and the chance of a bit of solitude. It was misty again, and our tents were wet. But with no time to dry them, we simply bundled them away. In theory last day packs are lighter, but ours were wetter and lumpier. Finesse isn’t always a priority when you need to get walking by 7am.

[Tim and Merran's Tent Fly shaken in the sunrise] 

As we waved Libby farewell, the mist was already lifting, and the views we soon had over Chalice Lake were a sparkling delight. The (theoretically) lighter packs and the gently downhill track made everything feel easier. That was until the very steep descent to the Grail Falls campsite, and the similarly steep ascent out of that valley. Steeply down became the theme thereafter. And if anyone thinks that’s always good news, they haven’t tried a rapid descent at this gradient, with a full pack and ageing knees. 

[Farewell to Chalice Lake]

It was an enormous relief to finally break out at the carpark. It was hot, and we were exhausted and thirsty. But if we felt a little sorry for ourselves, we were sorrier for the two walkers we met at the carpark. They were about to walk in the way we’d just walked out. It was just after 1pm, and they had their sights set on reaching Tent Tarn that afternoon. We wished them well, before getting changed into street clothes and driving out to Mole Creek.


Alas our vision of a luxurious hot counter meal and a cold beer was dashed. We arrived just 10 minutes after the kitchen had closed. There was nothing for it but to enjoy that cold beer with a pie from the bain-marie. Somehow though, after five days of bushwalking food, that managed to seem enough of a feast. I certainly wouldn't count it as a low, not when compared with falling down in the path of terrified/irate snake!