Sunday, 3 May 2015

*Freycinet Experiences 1: Schouten Island

There are moments on the drive between Hobart and Coles Bay in which the whole length of the Freycinet Peninsula is laid out before you. On a fine, clear morning we stop at Spiky Beach to take it all in, along with some morning tea.

Across the blue waters of Great Oyster Bay – a broad inundated gulf between the east coast and the outlying peninsula – we gaze out at what could be a cross-section model of our next four days’ walking terrain. To the south is fist-shaped Schouten Island, itself a small study of the whole rumpled granitic peninsula to its north. Eric shows us where we will be walking, naming hills and beaches, mountains and bays that we’ll soon be seeing close up.

[Aboard the Naturaliste in Coles Bay] 
Within the hour mini-bus driver Gil delivers us to the Coles Bay jetty, where we meet Shep, the coxswain of the Naturaliste. Once we’re aboard he speeds us expertly down the bay towards Schouten Island. We cruise beneath the granite peaks known as The Hazards, then round Fleurieu Point before pausing alongside Refuge Island. Shep points out a white-bellied sea eagle perched atop the low island.

As we near Schouten Island he detours through Schouten Passage, an often rough stretch of water separating the island from the rest of the peninsula. The wide, wild Tasman Sea funnels through the passage to meet Great Oyster Bay. These are rich waters for anyone interested in fish, and we’re soon among plunging gannets, wheeling albatrosses and playful seals. It’s also a place frequented by whales. We turn around next to Slaughterhouse Bay, where southern right whales were once butchered.

[An albatross in Schouten Passage] 
In these more peaceful times, whales can again be seen here, especially during winter and spring. The calmer waters of Great Oyster Bay have always made an ideal nursery and creche for whales pausing on their migratory journey north. I once joined a park ranger as he monitored a mother and calf passing through Schouten Passage. He was supposed to make sure no boats got too close to the whales, but we both knew it was really a work “jolly”.

We land at Crocketts Bay on Schouten in time for lunch. But first Eric has to plunge in for a swim. Two others join him, ‘though the rest of us are dubious about his claim that the water is warm. We’re keener on the post-lunch amble up nearby Bear Hill. But before that we let the island’s extraordinary tranquility seep in. Wavelets lap and shush on the sandy shore; birds call or lollop past; the sun glimmers off the water. We’ve all come from busy places, and welcome this chance to tune in to island time.

[Eric jumps ashore on Schouten Island] 
While most of us set off for Bear Hill, Jodi joins Shep on a fishing trip in the Naturaliste. Our dinner seems to be at stake, and there’s banter between Jodi and Eric. Apparently it’ll be baked beans for all of us if Jodi isn’t successful in the flathead hunt. As with Eric’s estimation of water temperatures, we suspect this isn’t to be taken too seriously.

Bear Hill is bare indeed, so we puzzle at the spelling. There’s not time to reach the very top (mustn’t let the baked beans spoil!) But we do have a good drink stop on a wide slab of granite high above the waters. We breathe in the expansive views and try to make out the Naturaliste, but it’s not until we’re on our way back that we see and hear it returning across the bay.

[Views from Bear Hill, Schouten Island] 
The boat and we walkers arrive back at our beach almost simultaneously. Jodi is smiling broadly from the deck, and calling out “23!” Apparently we will be eating fish tonight after all.

Shep gets us back to the jetty in good time, and we’re soon back aboard Gil’s mini-bus. Hearing about Jodi’s haul he’s keen for his cut of the fish, and “little red hen” type banter is soon being exchanged between the guides and the driver. It seems settled by the time Gil is delivering us to the Friendly Beaches. Jodi takes us through a rough track to the beach, explaining that it’s a 15-20 minutes walk to the lodge. The walk will help us “come into the place” appropriately.

[Nearing the lodge on the Friendly Beaches] 
And again the place does its work on us. The wide empty strand and its brilliant white sand soothe us, and we chat amiably as we wander up the beach. Soon Jodi is guiding us up an indistinct track through the vegetation-covered dunes, and a few minutes later we (just) make out the lodge. It sits discretely within its bushy setting, its wooden structure blending in beautifully.

[What lodge? The Friendly Beaches Lodge is well hidden]
The first thing I notice is the tall candles lighting up the dining table just next to the entrance deck. Almost as glowing are the smiles of Hannah and Daniel, our lodge hosts and chefs. Wafts of wood smoke blend with the smell of cooking as we’re welcomed into this special place. We’re all smiles: this looks like being a special four days.

[Dinner in the lodge, and it's not baked beans!]
[* I walked the Freycinet Peninsula as a guest of The Freycinet Experience Walk]

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Four Lakes and a Mountain: Part 4

If the weather is going to relent, we’re hoping it will be today. Today we plan to climb Mt Rogoona on our way over to Lake Myrtle. It’s our only mountain for this trip. And while we’re putting in weather requests, we’d quite like it to stay fine for our night by the lake shore. It is a sublime place, but certainly at its best when the weather is calm and kind.

[Climbing Mt Rogoona: It's not always like this Long John!]

We wake to an overcast sky. At least it isn’t raining, and hasn’t since early evening. These are hopeful signs. Then as we finish up breakfast, the grey clouds yawn and stretch, and quite soon they’re taking their leave.

With new optimism we slather on sunscreen, shoulder our packs and step outside to start the uphill climb. The sun strikes the still-wet shingle roof of the hut and generates a swirl of steam. By the time we reach the high point of the saddle we’re doing the same. There we drop our full packs, swig some water, and put essentials into day packs. From here it’s off-track and uphill to the summit of Mt Rogoona.

The contrast to our previous days is stark. The rain has been routed, with just a few wisps of cloud clinging to the mountain tops. The sky is an intense cerulean blue, and there is barely a murmur of wind. It would be churlish to complain about the hot climb, but we do have to work hard to gain the summit. If we needed encouragement the intricate alpine gardens, miniature tarns and dappled slabs of dolerite are an ever-varying delight.

[A mountain rocket garden on the slopes of Rogoona]

Rogoona’s is a summit I will never tire of visiting. The views stretch from tonight’s lakeside campsite far below us to the distant peaks of the Overland Track: the Pelions, the DuCanes and even Mt Olympus. As we stand on the sharp-edged summit, Long John and Libby, first time visitors here, are slack jawed, overawed.

[Group bliss on Mt Rogoona] 

Tim, Jim and I are enjoying it afresh, and also reminiscing about earlier visits to the summit. For the three of us a previous highlight was a close encounter with a young wedge-tailed eagle, which had “buzzed” us several times. As we settle down to today’s mountain-top lunch, a shadow falls across our improvised table. The eagle – or another eagle – is back!

[Close encounters with a wedge-tailed eagle]

Can there be such a thing as calm panic? If there is we approximate it, letting out gasps of awe, scrambling for our cameras, and doing our best to take in these brief moments in whatever way we can. The eagle flies directly over us, less than 10 metres above our heads, glides silently away, then circles back a few times. It has striking eye-like markings on the underside of each wing. It’s as though there are four eyes watching us.

Of course the eagle is just doing what comes naturally to a top predator. It is checking to see what is happening in its range. We could represent food, or possibly threat. For us, seeing an eagle at close quarters is anything but business-as-usual. The Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax fleayii) is Australia’s largest bird of prey. It is a larger and heavier sub-species of the mainland wedge-tailed eagle, and has a wing-span of more than two metres. It is among the royalty of birds, world-wide, and we feel deeply privileged to be allowed such an audience. We had merely asked for a fine day on the summit. What kind of excess is this?!

After a few minutes the raptor drifts off westward, and is soon just a dark crease in the blue sky over the Du Cane Range. We return to the banalities of eating and taking group photos, but can’t resist talking about this epiphany all the way back to our packs. Even as we set up beside the still waters of Lake Myrtle, cradled beneath the now more distant peak of Rogoona, we’re reminded afresh of that visitation on the mount.

[Evening reflections, Lake Myrtle with Mt Rogoona]

If our hopes for a perfect, calm evening at the lake are realised, the wee hours bring a return to our earlier weather. In the morning we pack up slowly in persistent rain. It may be inconvenient, uncomfortable even, but having just experienced Rogoona/Myrtle perfection, it’s water off a duck’s back.

We follow a lesser-known route down from the lake to our cars. It is steep and wet, and the leeches make a spectacular comeback, keeping our stops to a minimum. But that’s fine, as we’re on a mission to get the Christmas Hills Raspberry Farm in time for lunch. Our bodies have worked hard, our souls have been filled to overflowing. Now it’s time for some hot food!

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Four Lakes and a Mountain: Part 3

Former Tasmanian Premier, Robin Gray, famously referred to the Franklin River as a “brown leech-ridden ditch”. This was rhetorical flourish on his part rather than first-hand knowledge. He was not one for deep engagement with actual wilderness.

We on the other hand can personally attest to the flourishing of leeches here in the Mersey River headwaters. Each time we venture outside the Junction Lake hut it takes only seconds to discover one, two, ten leeches either on our legs or making their way towards them. One or two even find our upper limbs and faces.

["I vant to suck your blood!" - a common leech] 

Leeches are annelids, so are related to earthworms. But as worms go they’re rather specialised in that they’re sanguivores – in plain English blood-suckers. Tasmania scores well in the world of leeches, owing to our high rainfall and relatively dense vegetation cover. Leeches require moisture on their bodies to assist respiration, and vegetation cover provides both sun protection and prey.

There’s been plenty of moisture everywhere we’ve been walking, and the warmth of our blood is a constant attractant for these little suckers. The leeches getting attached to us now are the most common species in Tasmania, Philaemon pungens. They reach about 20mm in length, and can grow as fat as a child’s finger after a good feed.

Tasmanian bushwalkers sometimes tease visitors with tales of enormous, striped leeches called tiger leeches. Despite the exaggeration of the stories, tiger leeches actually exist. Individuals of the species Philaemon grandis can reach towards 60mm in length.

[Tempting the leeches, Junction Lk Hut. Photo by Libby] 

I join the majority of humanity in not being a big fan of sanguivores. While I’m happy to grant leeches, mosquitoes and ticks their place in the ecosystem, I’d prefer that place wasn’t on my actual person. That certainly turns out to be the opinion of one of our hut companions when a large patch of blood is discovered inside their sleeping bag. A stifled squeal is followed by a hurried shimmy out of the bag.

Mysteriously the culprit is never found. As we’re wondering where it might have gone, I spy some of the large cracks in the hut’s floorboards. The sated creature, I conjecture, could easily have slipped through one of these and might now be happily sleeping off its meal beneath the hut. We picture it creeping out one night in the not-too-distant future to insanguinate itself afresh on some poor unsuspecting sleeper.

Thankfully it’s now morning, so we leave the hut and its crypt-dwelling blood-suckers to the next party. It’s still raining, but we don’t have too far to walk. A couple of hours up valley should get us to Lake Meston and its hut: another Dick Reed four-bunker. Our original plan had been to walk to the far end of the long lake to camp on the shore. It’s one of the loveliest campsites in the area. But in weather like this it would be a lot less charming, and the lure of another hut is strong.

[Lake Meston Hut in its forest setting] 

The hut might bear the name of the lake, but it’s high above the lake shore. And at best the lake can only be glimpsed through trees. Still, it’s dry and very welcoming by the time we get there. We’re all cold and wet, and though it’s mid-afternoon, we are soon getting into our sleeping bags.

[Views of Lake Meston 10 minutes above the hut ]
The exception is Tim, who has again volunteered to sleep in his tent. So instead of getting into a bag, he dons his jacket, sits in the hut and picks up a book. Jim is talking about having a nana-nap, but the rest of us are keen for Tim to read to us. We’re soon laughing out loud, first as Tim reads some hilarious passages from Bill Bryson’s “Neither Here Nor There”, and then as Jim breaks into snoring.

 [Storytime with Tim: Lake Meston Hut]

The grey afternoon has eased gently towards a rainy evening before we clamber out of bed to make dinner. We finish it off with a wee dram of port supplied by Tim. And then it’s time for more Bill Bryson, with Jim taking up the reading duties. He’s puzzled to find the bookmark further on than he remembered. So we fill him in on the lost pages – and laugh afresh at his expense – before he continues the reading.

If it has to be a wet walk, there are worse ways to spend it than lying and laughing; reading and snoozing in a comfy, dry and (relatively) leech free wooden hut.