Sunday, 28 September 2014

A Walk in the West: Part 1

[A welcome glow!] 

In a climate where it rains almost continually for nine months in the year, mere pack tracks through a boggy soil are not in the best of condition, almost every step taking you up to your ankles in mud, and repeatedly you sink down to your knees in the sludge.

So wrote a reporter in Melbourne’s Argus newspaper during an 1895 assignment to the mines of Tasmania’s Dundas area. Given the hype associated with mining in Tasmania’s west at the time – and the fortunes won and lost on mere rumour - you’d expect to take even weather and track reports with a grain of salt.

But the anonymous scribe’s descriptions proved accurate enough during our recent trip into the area. The forecast had been reasonable a week or so out, but the west coast had reverted to its default position by the time we reached Queenstown. Showers continued as we wound around the curvaceous roads north of Queenstown. We reached what had once been the mining town of Dundas in time for lunch.

The map had led us to imagine we’d see remains of at least a school and a recreation ground. The 1:25 000 Dundas map even had a “post and telegraph reserve” marked nearby. Instead we found not one single building or ruin, only unmarked roads and tracks, a disused gravel quarry, and a lot of rainforest. Rain started afresh as we got our gear out of the car.

[Tim and Jim: on the right track] 
Kitted up in full rain gear we crossed the Dundas River on a log and wire bridge and started our two hour ascent up old mining tracks. Our destination was Fraser Creek Hut. The hut seems to have begun life in the early 1920s as a temporary building supporting King Billy pine milling in the area. Miners used it in subsequent decades, but it was as a Scout hut that it most recently came into its own.

We were to be hosted by Terry Reid, retired park ranger and Scout leader, and an old colleague of mine and Tim’s. A Queenstown local for many years, Terry, along his brother Peter, was heavily involved in the hut’s restoration from the late 1970s onwards. They learned how to split King Billy palings, then passed on some of those skills to Venturer Scouts and other students. The palings were used to restore the hut’s walls and floorboards, and it became a base for those learning wilderness expedition skills.

[Fraser Creek Hut]
Our ascent towards the hut followed a steep 4WD mining track, which soon narrowed to become an even steeper walking track. Although the showers persisted, the ever-changing beauty of the rainforest did its best to distract us. A few routed signs assured us we were on the right track. One marked “Carbine Saddle” was accompanied by a helpful sign saying “Chocolate Stop”. Falling rain didn’t make obeying that a fully enjoyable task, but we did our token best.

[Anyone for chocolate?] 
After the saddle we hoped for, and were blessed with, a downhill track. It led to a creek crossing, helpfully sign-posted with names that would mean more to us in due course. We followed a track that had a remarkably symmetrical set of climbing “steps”, which we guessed were the foundations of a tramway used in mining and logging. Water flowed down the track, but at least there were no knee-deep bogs. Not long afterwards piles of cut logs stacked beside the track gave us the strong hope that we were nearing the hut. Smoke swirling through the sodden forest was the clincher. And we were just in time for afternoon tea!

Terry, Jess and Mel had come up a day ahead of us, and as we stumbled into the hut we were relieved to find the fire going and the kettle boiling. Once we’d got our (very) wet gear off, we relaxed by the fire, downing a cuppa or two as Terry introduced us to the hut.

[Tim and Terry chat inside the hut] 

If there is a timber as fine and versatile as Tasmania’s King Billy pine, I’d like to meet it. With the fire light flickering on the pine-lined walls, the hut exuded a honeyed warm glow. Once we had food and wine inside us, the memories of the sodden walk were banished. Talk flowed, the fire was stoked, and for now there was no better place to be in the world.

Sunday, 14 September 2014


[The perfect place for contemplation] 
Tasmania’s coast is a restless, constant reminder that we are islanders. Living on this heart-shaped island fills us with a restive contentment; an internal tide. Sometimes it tugs at us to leave in search of more, at others it floods us with an ache to return. In between there is the glad, shifting present.

As Seamus Heaney said of his Ireland.

         Come back to this
         ‘island of the ocean’
         where nothing will suffice

[Rock formations, Lulworth, Tasmania]
* * *

We are spending the weekend at a house overlooking Bass Strait, that most solid reminder of Tasmania’s separateness. The Strait is a gap, a filter, both environmentally and socially. That small aquatic separation gifts us the astonishing flora and fauna we treasure. And that disconnection from the main can also give us a sharp perspective on what happens there.

Like the peasant at the edge of the court, we recognise the fragility, folly even, of those closest to the throne. We see clearly that even at the glittering, crowded centre nothing will suffice.

[Treasure and distractions on a Bass Strait Beach]
So we return to our fringe, wiser perhaps. But there is a melancholy here, a sense that – like the Irish – our island’s troubles will continually resurface. A sense that the young, the ambitious, the talented often leave; that we who stay will look over the waters with a longing for those no longer here. Such feelings of separation are universal of course. But somehow a body of water refracts and magnifies them.

And water brings reflection too. Our first afternoon by the Strait is cool. But the unmistakable tang of the sea is not to be resisted. We walk along the shore, not at our normal brisk pace, but at a slow amble. It is partly the soggy sand, the uneven cobbles, the slippery rocks. But it is also what happens when thought and coast meet.

[Reflecting on a Bass Strait Beach] 
We wander between pools; examine the ever varying rocks; swerve the occasional surge of waves; compare the myriad shells. We think and chat about the aeons of time and the restless patience of the sea that have together produced this present. And like every present, it is momentarily producing a new present, only for that moment to be swept impatiently away by the time and tide that have a reputation to uphold.

Looking over today’s waves has me thinking of particular partings. One afternoon I stood high on Don Heads, well west of here, but overlooking the same Strait. Some dear friends had left on the car ferry to Melbourne. From this headland we watched the ship ploughing into a decent headwind, taking our friends away.

[Looking across Bass Strait from Waterhouse Beach]
That time the tug of the main relented, and they returned, sharing more years with us on this side of the Strait. They left again, as we all must in one way or another. But there is a small comfort in knowing that they carry this island with them. Because once this place has you – as it has me, whether it be my birthplace or not – it holds you wherever you may go.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

11 Dumb Ways to Die While Bushwalking

[Perfect weather for walking, but will it stay that way?]
People die bushwalking. Every year several people shuffle off this mortal coil while shuffling their boots through the Australian bush.

Our bushwalking retailers, bushwalking websites and other authorities issue warnings along the lines that “outdoor activities carry their own risks of injury and death.” They’re trying to tell us that when we lace up our bushwalking boots and hoist your pack, we’re doing something dangerous.

How dangerous? Well, it’s as risky as getting in a car; or catching an aeroplane; or going to hospital; or swimming; or making love; or riding a bike; or sitting on the toilet; or any of the other common activities that kill a proportion of their participants. If we wanted to be really paranoid, since most people die in bed, we might consider avoiding sleeping there.

Having established that most activities carry risk, wise participants will look for ways to minimise those risks. Or some might prefer to learn lessons from those who’ve already made mistakes. I’m in that second category. So I thought I’d offer here my own far-from-exhaustive list of dumb ways to get into trouble while bushwalking.

[A gently-flowing Ronny Creek, near Cradle Mt, Tasmania]
A few caveats: I point out that I have adopted – as one born-to-it – the voice of a dumb (male) walker! Also, although his list applies to bushwalking in Tasmania, it should be transferable to most cool/temperate/alpine walking areas. Here then are: 

11 Dumb Ways to Die While Bushwalking

1. Don’t take a map
Maps are expensive, and I’ve got a perfectly good road map after all. And don’t get me started on how expensive a GPS is! I’ve got my smart-phone, and I’m sure it has GPS built in. Besides the route is easy to follow - she’ll be right!

2. Don’t carry a tent
There are huts on this walk, for heaven’s sake! Why would I bother buying a tent that I won’t even need? Do they think I’m made of money? In an emergency I’ll just use the bin-liner I’ve got inside my pack.

[Who needs a tent: unless the hut is full]
3. Ignore weather warnings
I’m on a tight schedule, so I have to leave today. Besides those bushwalker’s weather alerts are a bit of an over-reaction, I reckon. I’ve got pretty good clothing and my bin-liner will keep stuff in my rucksack dry.

4. Wear denim or cotton clothes
If there’s one thing that drives me crazy about bushwalkers, it’s how incredibly daggy they look in all that expensive gear they get from those rip-off outdoor stores! My good ol’ jeans look SOOO much better, and they’re comfortable. Same with my cotton T-shirt. Okay they get a bit heavy when they’re wet, but since when did a little moisture kill anyone?

[Daggy, but effective for cold/wet weather]
5. Start late in the day
I believe in flexibility. We had planned to get walking by noon, but that early lunch turned into a long – and very pleasant - one. And we certainly weren’t going to leave our beers! Who cares if it’s nearly four o’clock?! We’ve got a warm inner glow, and a couple of torches to match. We’re up for navigating in the dark if we have to.

6. Don’t take a PLB
Here’s another con from the gear stores! A personal locator beacon will set you back hundreds of dollars. And I hear you have to register with some dodgy-sounding international organisation. If worse comes to worst, a good old smoke signal will do the same thing, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

7. Split up from your group
If you’re lost, there’s a better chance to find the track if you all split up and go looking. Many hands make light work, and all that. You can always find each other again by shouting or whistling.

8. When you’re lost, just keep walking
I’ve got a great sense of direction, so I figure if I just keep looking I’ll eventually find my way back to the track. My other rule of thumb is to walk downhill. For one it’s easier, but for another it’ll lead you towards a lake or the sea, and that’s always good, eh!

9. Don’t leave your trip plans with anyone
As I said, I like to be flexible, so I never bother leaving my plans with anyone. Where’s the spontaneity in that? Also, I NEVER sign any of those damned log books. I don’t want the government knowing my personal business!

10. Cross that flooded creek no matter what!
I’ve already told you that a bit of moisture isn’t going to kill you. I’m not one to let a bit of flowing water intimidate me, or stop me from getting to my campsite on the other side. Just plunge on in and keep going, I reckon. Anyway I’m not a bad swimmer.

[A creek crossing: what could possibly go wrong?]
11. Never underestimate your abilities
I take learning seriously. It’s very important to think that you can work everything out on your own. If you stopped to ask for help every time you struck a hard patch you’d never improve your own abilities. What kind of wimp ever admits that he’s in trouble?!

* * *

As you can see, there are a good many dumb ways to die while bushwalking. If you’re as rigorously gormless as my dumb friend, there’s a good chance you’ll never even be bothered by the sound of the rescue helicopter. It’ll all be too late.