Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Back to the Arthur Range 3: R is for …

Our weather forecast is dubious. We knew that before we left home; we’ve confirmed it via mobile phone from near Mt Hesperus; we feel it afresh overnight. Strong wind gusts thump against our tents, even here in the sheltered campsite beside Lake Oberon. Mick’s tarp set-up has struggled in the conditions, and even though it hasn’t rained much, some of his gear is wet.

So we make day 4 a rest day. This is partly out of the sheer need for a break, and partly to give us time to decide our next move. There’s a point-of-no-return up ahead at High Moor. If we go that far, we’re committed to the rest of the whole rugged range, and then the long walk back along the plains.

Our guide book says it’s 5-7 hours from here to High Moor, but in this weather, and after yesterday’s snail’s pace, we know we’ll take a lot longer. I’ve been to the moor before, and the main issue is its lack of shelter. I’m dubious about spending a night there in the forecast gale-force wind and heavy rain, let alone tackling the rest of the range in those conditions.

Meanwhile the tents are warm and comfortable, and after a brief conference, we’re soon snoozing again. But when the sky brightens a little, I toss off my sleeping bag, along with my lethargy, and do a circuit of the large basin that holds Lake Oberon. The wind is still strong enough to knock me off my feet, but the clouds have lifted, revealing the enormous crags that surround the site.

[Quartzite crags looming over Lake Oberon] 
Most photographs of Lake Oberon ooze tranquility, but in reality it’s a wild and restless type of tranquility. The small lake sees waves often enough to pound the tough quartzite into sand. And around it the sodden, stunted, contorted vegetation speaks of roaring winds, vicious downdrafts and frequent rain.

In my Parks and Wildlife days I remember speaking with some Japanese tourists who had one day spare in their itinerary. This was in Hobart, and they pointed to Peter Dombrovskis’ poster image of Lake Oberon, and said “so we will walk there”. When I told them it was not possible in one day, their look said that I didn’t know what I was talking about. How could such a beautiful place not be easily reached!?

Now, as a fresh gust hits and I turn back to the relative shelter of my tent, I ponder how that couple would feel if they were here now. The gap between romance and reality is often very stark in Tassie’s south-west wilderness. It’s with that stark reality in mind that I once again raise with Mick and Eden the question of where to next.

[Pencil pine and pandani shelter near Lake Oberon] 
As we struggle to keep our dinner from blowing off our plates, Mick begs a place for the night in Eden’s roomy tent. Quickly, though not without some agony, we realise we’re going to turn around. Tomorrow’s weather will be like today’s: blustery, showery and generally tough. But it’s what’s following these strong nor-westerlies that’s got us more concerned. South-westerly winds of gale force and pelting rain are said to be coming. We can either face that on the highest, roughest, most unprotected section of the range, or have it blow us back the way we came. We choose the latter.

So day 5 sees us packing up and leaving Oberon’s ominous beauty behind us. There’s a mixture of relief and disappointment, but we console ourselves that the Arthurs are not going anywhere in a hurry. Some of us will be back. More immediately our apprehension returns, as we have the steep, slippery climbing gully out of Oberon to negotiate, and then plenty more hard walking before we’re back at Lake Cygnus. The wind continues its brutal barrage, with pellets of rain sometimes added into the mix. But by now we’re walking fit, and we get up the gully without incident. We eventually reach Cygnus by mid-afternoon.

[Mick approaches Lake Cygnus] 
As we’re planning an early escape the next morning, we dry as much gear as we can, and eat an early dinner. Mick puts up his tarp as a shelter for us, but chooses again to bunk in with Eden. He's nestled his tent up against a couple of low-growing myrtles with delightful fresh gold and bronze foliage, which he's decorated with drying clothes. I can't resist dubbing it “The Garden of Eden”.

Mick’s decision will save packing time in the morning, and keep the rest of his gear dry if the heavier rain comes early. It doesn’t, but the wind does. About 3am I’m woken by a loud, persistent flapping. Mick’s tarp has come free. I stumble out into bright moonlight, surprised out of my grumpiness by its beauty. Once I get its guys untangled, I roughly fold the tarp and stuff it in their tent vestibule. I resist adding the loud expletives that are top of mind. I figure the patience they’ve shown the oldest party member deserves at least that much.

[Downtime at Lake Cygnus] 
Before 6am we’re up and about, anxious to get off the range before the deluge hits. The sky is a heavy, dark grey, and the wind is strong, but we stay dry for the pack up and ascent back towards Mt Hesperus. Around then our luck ends, and the wild murk unleashes on us. Rain squalls lash us and the wind causes us to stumble drunkenly.

[Mick and Eden between a rock and a hard place] 
For several more hours we walk on, barely stopping because its so miserable. The rain is now constant and horizontal. I’ve been wearing a new rain-jacket, and for five and half days it has kept me dry. Not any more. Water is now blown down my neck, up my sleeves, under my hood, through any gap it can find. We’re all so thoroughly soaked that even our sandwiches – hurriedly scoffed at Junction Creek – are sodden to the consistency of milky Weetbix.

We barely notice how wet the crossing of that creek is. After it I put my head down, slosh through the freshly-reinforced mud, and will the carpark to come. Of course it doesn’t. Tracks don’t shrink in the rain; if anything they expand. This day is surely one of the most miserable I’ve ever spent bushwalking. It takes us nine hours to get from Lake Cygnus to the Huon Campground, seven of them in solid, horizontal rain and gale force winds.

Only as we get towards the end does the rain let up, as though it’s now done with us. A couple of times my hopes are raised as I think I recognise the end of the track. But I should know that a cardinal law of bushwalking is that false hopes must be dashed. It’s another 40 brutal minutes before we stumble up the final forested bit of track and into the carpark. I hear a loud voice screaming “YEESSSS!” and am slightly surprised to find that it’s my own. Mick staggers up behind me mouthing something about the Arthurs having chewed us up and spat us out. At best it’s been a retreat, more likely a rain-soaked rout. But for now we’re happy to feel that R is for relief!

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Back to the Arthur Range 2: O is for ...

“The track went up and down in see-saw fashion, one moment reaching the heights of a sharp peak; the next plunging down to a mountain lake. To do that sort of walking, carrying a 50 lb. pack, there have to be compensations, and there certainly were. I doubt if I have ever been in more breathtaking country.”

- extract from a letter I wrote after my 1982 Arthurs trip.

[One of my 1982 photos showing the Arthurs' skyline]
In the same letter I reported that we had only one day of rain in a whole week on the range. If the first day of our 2017 trip has me questioning my wisdom in coming with Mick and Eden this time, those earlier words show that it wasn’t solely a case of amnesia.

On day 2 we wake to cloud. Showers are scudding by, and there’s a swirling wind up where we’ll be going today. We move slowly, timing our eating, toileting and packing up around breaks in the weather. Apart from anything else it’s so good just being in this stunning place that hurrying somehow seems out of order. Anyway I’m a little stiff and sore after yesterday, so slow is good.

But after breakfast the degree of purpose grows, especially when a drying wind gives us a chance to pack up semi-dry tents. That done we have a quick look at the maps before hoisting our packs for the climb out of Lake Cygnus. Today is not a long day, just 2½ to 4 hours of “reasonably easy walking”, according to Chapman. That’s if you don’t do side trips to various peaks. And by the look of the cloud levels, we probably won’t be tempted to do that.

[Lunch between Mt Hayes and Square Lake]
That initial climb is tough first thing, but that’s the reality of most days on the Arthurs. By the time we reach the ridge it’s cold and wet, and a keen breeze is whistling around the rocks. Somewhere above us is the cloud-shrouded bulk of Mt Hayes. We have to “sidle” around this, “descend steeply” from it, then “traverse” towards Square Lake. Take these innocent sounding words, mix them with showers, cold, thick cloud and a stiff breeze, throw in a rough and rocky track, and you end up with tough walking conditions. Even in the rarest, fairest of weather, this is not an easy walk.

[Christmas Bells brighten a moody Square Lake]
We shelter behind rocks in a saddle beneath Procyon Peak and have a quick lunch. The sun almost shines a few times, and we get glimpses of Hayes and beyond. But by the time we’re slowly climbing back towards Square Lake, it’s raining again. The ascending traverse from Square Lake to Lake Oberon is slow. Navigation is always tricky in clag. I remember that we have the mother of all “steep descents” to reach that lake, but by the time we reach it, the thick cloud disguises it. There might be a degree of mercy in that. As we peer down, there’s just a swirling grey abyss. A dark cliff blends into the mist on one side, and on the other there’s just menacing mist.

["Seriously, down here?" Eden descends towards Lake Oberon]
It becomes one of those tracks that you start to follow, decide must be wrong because it looks impossible, and look around desperately for a better way. Of course there isn’t a better way, and as though to convince us, we get a few glimpses of Lake Oberon way below us. Mick lets out an “Ah hah”, exultant that we’re getting close to this iconic place. Not wanting to get ahead of ourselves, we quickly re-focus on the immediate task. How do we actually get down?

We talk about taking off our packs, and roping them down. Instead we put on our scrub gloves, to give us better grip on the cold, wet rocks. Then slowly, one at a time, each of us grips, grunt and bum-slides a little further down. We are keeping close to the improbable security of the cliff, which has water dripping from it. At the end of an already taxing day this is wearing, and scaring. In conditions like this we could easily fall and be seriously injured.

[The cloud lifts, and there's Lake Oberon!]
When Eden, who is out front, let’s out a “woo hoo”, our mood suddenly lightens. It’s not the bottom – far from it – but it’s the end of the worst section. As if to reinforce that, we come to an unexpected section of boardwalk, which takes us on a circuitous route through wet forest, then onto rocky knolls, and finally down to Lake Oberon.

[A tiny creek in the Lake Oberon basin]
We’re all glad, but Mick is ecstatic. Like generations of those who love wild Tasmania, he has always admired Peter Dombrovskis’ photograph of Lake Oberon. As we set up our tents in the well-sheltered campsite, he admits that this is something of a pilgrimage for him. And despite – or even because of – the wild weather that’s followed us down here, he’s not at all disappointed with the reality of this place. Oh yes for Oberon!

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Back to the Arthur Range 1: A is for …

I feel it deep in the pit of my stomach, although I’m not quite sure what to name it. I eventually decide it’s apprehension. Unlike Mick and Eden, the two other walkers in the party, I’ve previously been to the Western Arthur Range in Tasmania’s south-west wilderness. It might have been 35 years ago, but I know what to expect. I remember it as one of the hardest, most epic walks of my life: a rite of passage to an aspiring bushwalker.

[The old H-frame pack, as used in 1982] 
That 1982 trip was only my second proper expedition into the Tasmanian wilds. I was still in my 20s and had only rudimentary gear. I also had barely a clue as to how you prepare for such a walk. Into my old H-frame pack I threw whole potatoes, zucchinis, carrots and onions, plus fresh steak, some cans, and more clothes than I could possibly use. It’s a wonder I survived.

Youthful ignorance notwithstanding, I at least had the sense to be a little apprehensive before we left, especially when the serrated outline of the range reared up at us we neared Scotts Peak. I remember naively suggesting that the track must sidle around the peaks, rather than going over them. A tart “Nup … up and down the whole lot” quickly set the butterflies flapping.

[Surveying the Western Arthur Range from McKays Track] 
Afterwards my main responses to the trip were a peculiar mix of vertiginous joy, stunned awe and fear. We had walked through a landscape that shouldn’t exist in this “wide brown land”, on a route so steep that it hadn’t looked remotely passable.

But back to January 2017, and my renewed acquaintance with both the Arthur Range and my apprehension. The source of the latter is not just my time-eroded knowledge of what’s ahead, but also the nagging thought that my now 60+ year old body is not going to like this. Add a very ordinary looking weather forecast, and you’ll forgive a few butterflies.

We start promisingly. The weather is cool, the cloud patchy, and there’s a strong breeze. That’s better than par, this being the south-west. We make good progress, soon breaking out onto the white quartz of McKays Track. Our path meanders across the wide buttongrass plains that lead to Junction Creek, and the moraine by which we’ll access the range.

[Buttongrass and track near Junction Creek] 
All the way the Arthurs loom ever larger, and the amount of mud increases. By Junction Creek we’re lightly marinated in mud, but the creek is flowing swift and clear, and we clean off a little as we cross to the southern side. With plenty of daylight left, we find some good campsites and put up two tents and a tarp. Mick has chosen to combine a tarp with a bivvy bag as an experiment. As he fiddles with the setup, we offer helpful comments like “What could possibly go wrong?” But we do give him a hand with some of the guy lines, and eventually he looks set.

By morning the clouds have thickened, and they’ve flattened the top of the range. As we reach the toe of Moraine A, showers are scudding by. The track onto the range looks brutally steep, an off-white ribbon winding through tawny buttongrass pocked with quartzy outcrops and bands of scrub. As we climb, the showers come and go. We put on our rain jackets, climb, sweat, take off our jackets, stop, rest, moan a little, eat and drink a little, then repeat the process for the next couple of hours.

It’s plain hard work, ‘though there are some sweet moments. The piping and chipping of the honeyeaters, and the bright glow of the wildflowers that thrive in this harsh environment, are somehow encouraging. And although it’s a couple of weeks after Christmas, nobody has told the Christmas bells. Their beautiful scarlet and gold bells are continuing the festivities, and they too lift my thoughts beyond my aching body.

[Christmas bells and quartzite rock on Moraine A] 
We pause briefly beneath an inadequate rock overhang for a quick, wet lunch. Looking up, it appears we don’t have too far to go. But appearances do what they often do on a bushwalk, and by the time finally top out, we’re exhausted. We flop down in patchy sun on the flanks of Mt Hesperus to rest and drink. When Mick discovers we have a phone signal, it turns into a longer break. Our mobiles are quickly out and we’re checking in with home. I would normally see mobile calls as an intrusion on a wilderness experience, but this time it feels important to talk to Lynne. We’ve had a tough family time over Christmas. Our 12 year old granddaughter from Launceston has had a serious fall, and has broken bones in both her ankle and her jaw. She and her family have had to spend weeks with us in Hobart, with numerous hospital visits, some surgery, and a lot of anxiety.

[Wildflowers near Mt Hesperus]
My usual role in this sort of situation is to be positive, to look for solutions, to jolly everyone along. But a couple of days away from it all has helped me to realise that deep down I too have been anxious about my granddaughter. And I’ve added to that anxiety by taking on this physical challenge in the Arthurs. I get to say this to both Lynne and my daughter, and it feels good to better understand the source of those letter A feelings that have inhabited my stomach.

[Massed flowering of Tasmanian purplestar] 
Our calls complete, we don our packs and meander around and over Mt Hesperus. From there we angle steeply down through a burned-out area. The fires have been kind to some of the plants, and especially the Tasmanian purplestars, which are flowering more profusely than I’ve ever seen. We then sidle around Lake Fortuna, giving it more than one “could we camp there?” glance, before finally reaching the steep descent to beautiful Lake Cygnus. 

[Finally ... Lake Cygnus] 
By the time we get to the lake we’re exhausted again. I take small comfort from the fact that my 30 and 40 something-year-old companions are just as spent as me. Trying to set up tents when you’re in that state makes for comical scenes. After a certain amount of muted hysteria, we get our shelters up. Then it’s a quick meal and some vague chat about tomorrow. While apprehension and anxiety have both accompanied me today, I'm happy to add achievement to the lexicon. And then I succumb to the call of the sleeping bag.