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.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Derwent River Walks: The Colours of New Norfolk

[Continuing a series featuring short walks along Tasmania's Derwent River]

[The Derwent River at New Norfolk] 
Any time of the year is a good time to try the short walks around New Norfolk. But could there be a better season than autumn, when the poplars and willows colour up; the winds calm down; and the broad Derwent seems in no rush to get to the sea?

I planned to do a circuit walk, so left my car at Tynwald Park, just on the Hobart side of town. An inviting gap in the golden poplars revealed a pedestrian bridge over the Lachlan River. This led to the Bicentennial Track, which follows the river upstream. I sampled the track for a while, then walked across town to access the New Norfolk Esplanade.

[Autumn colours in Tynwald Park] 
A 1km trail goes right along the southern bank of the Derwent. There I paused to chat with an angler (no, the fish weren’t biting) and to photograph some of the deciduous reflections in the beautiful, calm waters.

[Steep steps on the Derwent Cliffs Walk] 
I continued along the Esplanade north-east to the start/finish of the Derwent Cliffs Walk (it can be walked in either direction). I climbed steep stairs around some riverbank cliffs, before topping out some 20m above the Derwent. The sandstone cliffs offered great views both up and down the river, and was the perfect place for a scenic drink break. A few ducks were feeding busily on the river, and some lapwings “ack-acked” along the bank. But otherwise all was calm and quiet.

[Ducks on the Derwent River] 
As I continued downstream from the cliffs, I met the first of several dogs being walked around this popular track. Much of the well-made, multi-use track is also suitable for prams and bicycles. The cliffs had finished on my side of the river, but large cliffs still dominated the far bank. A popular walk to Pulpit Rock can be accessed via the Boyer Rd opposite this track. I’ve heard the views are great: that’s one for next time.

[The view from Derwent Cliffs] 
As the track curved around the river bend it flattened out. Now there was water on both sides of the track, the river itself to one side and some billabong-like ponds on the other. Waterbirds, honeyeaters and other smaller birds chatted and flitted all around. After a very leisurely hour and a quarter I was soon back at Tynwald Park, walking again alongside the tiny Lachlan River rather than the mighty Derwent.  

[Alongside the Lachlan River] 
I decided I still had time to drive to the Peppermint Hill Lookout for a view over the town and valley. Finally I wanted to walk across the main bridge over the Derwent. On such a calm, fine day, close to the peak of the valley’s autumn colouring, it was a perfect way to round off my visit. But as usual I’d found plenty of reasons to come back for more.

*This series was prepared for the Derwent Estuary Program and Greater Hobart Trails

Saturday, 20 May 2017

A Long, Slow Journey 8: Further In

On our last day’s walk up to Santiago it rains. As pilgrims we’ve learned one camino mantra well: it is what it is. As Tasmanians we’ve also learned to embrace “atmospheric” weather, recognising that rain begets rainbows. And sure enough, as the sun tentatively lifts above the horizon, a beautiful bow arcs its promise across the sky.

[A promising start to our final day] 
Santiago is a city, and like all such it sprawls untidily. If we feared that would mean an anticlimactic last day slogging through suburbia, we are pleasantly surprised. Using some clever rerouting and a less-than-straightline approach, the way manages to get us close to the centre via relatively quiet and greenish paths.

[Approaching Santiago de Compostela] 
When we eventually reach the inner city, where concrete, stone and cars dominate, we’re within sight of the cathedral spires. Still, that last kilometre is slow, and the grand Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela proves surprisingly coy for such a huge edifice. We trudge up the narrow lanes of the old city, craning our necks to see our end point. Each of us is simultaneously bone-weary and elated. Lynne is limping, but the rest of her is buoyant. So too are Tim and Merran.

There’s a false “summit”, of course, when we walk into the side courtyard of the cathedral. But a minute later it’s clear that we’re coming into the main cathedral square. Multi-coloured marquis tents and stalls crowd the central area. Everywhere else there are people, laughing, embracing, wandering, crying. A woman in a wheelchair pumps her fists in emphatic jubilation. From one corner of the square comes the sound of Galician pipes. And the tune? Thrillingly, it’s Aires de Pontevedra.

[Pilgrims embracing in the Cathedral Square, Santiago]  
The four of us embrace, hardly believing that our camino is over. For some time we just stand there, smiling, laughing, searching for words that won’t come. Instead we walk around in front of the cathedral just trying to take it all in. I’d read a few accounts of pilgrims feeling a sense of anti-climax here; of their arrival at the cathedral being a let down. It’s far from how we’re feeling right now. (Perhaps in the next hour and a half, while we stand in a long line waiting for our official compostela, we’ll come a little closer to that.)

* * *

And now that we’ve completed our pilgrimage, what was it all about? What have we taken home from the journey? And did it serve any spiritual purpose, or somehow bring us closer to God?

[Happy Pilgrims: Lynne and me outside the Cathedral(photo Tim Dyer)] 
Before this journey began, I would certainly have said that you don’t need to go on a pilgrimage, or enter a church, or climb a sacred mountain in order to draw near to God. Nonetheless I was stunned by the beauty of some of the magnificent church buildings we visited along the way. And the quiet inside them certainly allowed for a sense of the holy. I was humbled along the whole journey to experience landscapes and cultures that have been profoundly shaped by long exposure to the Christian faith. And on our final day I was both thrilled and gobsmacked to witness the 53kg incense-filled botofumeiro whooshing through the aisles of the Cathedral in Santiago during our Pilgrim Mass.

[Inside Igreja Matiz, Ponte de Lima, Portugal] 
But for me it wasn’t in those settings, not even in that concluding Mass, that I felt closest to God. Rather the still small voice of God seemed clearest on the journey itself. More than anything the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other helped me sense that God was as close as my next step, my next breath.

Walking everywhere, every day, became a discipline; an act of obedience. We submitted to the way, moment by moment, regardless of the difficulties. And there were some. At times I was brought low by rain, by heat, by blisters, by muscle strains. I felt befuddled by language barriers, and sometimes by my own mental state. Just because it’s a pilgrimage doesn’t mean the pain is accompanied by a compensatory choir of angels!

These hardships, according to Quaker writer Parker Palmer, are not accidental but in fact integral to pilgrimage.

Challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for the true self to emerge.

Control is always illusory, but that illusion shreds more readily when you’re far from your everyday props and routines. And, as 16th century Spanish mystic John of the Cross put it, God may be the closest when we feel we have lost control. Reaching the end of my resources did nudge me towards a greater dependence on God, even if through gritted teeth, and after the kinds of “frank” exchanges that sometimes pass for my prayers.

Getting beyond that grumpiness was important. Australian pilgrim and researcher, Lucy Ridsdale, pondered

whether walking pilgrimage might be transformative, by way of enabling a deep shift from an attitude of entitlement towards the world, to one of gratitude, as one’s fundamental orientation. 

When things didn’t go to plan, it was tempting to grouch, and reach into the bottomless bag of entitlement that comes with being well-off westerners. But we found that the graciousness of locals, the flow of the walking, and the pilgrim mantra “it is what it is”, all helped us to become more real, more present to the moment.

If God could tone it down to a still, small voice, we might do the same with our demands. We could instead take pleasure in the simple things, like water, food, conversation, a soft bed under a solid roof, and coffee (of course). We could smile at the wag of a dog’s tail, admire the skill of long-gone builders, enjoy the symmetry of a ploughed field, savour the fragrance of ripe fruit, or rejoice in the colour of tiles. And just once or twice we could laugh at Merran breaking into an exuberant twirl mid-walk.

[Merran does a twirl between Lynne and Tim] 
In all of this we began to identify with early 20th century pilgrim and writer, Hilaire Belloc, whose robust conclusion was that

the volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience.

For me as a Christian, that intensity was magnified by the fact that Jesus himself was a pedestrian and a wandering teacher. Walking past vines, sheep, shepherds, and widows in black; watching fields ploughed or harvested; smelling crops of corn or mustard, was like inhabiting Jesus’ parables.

[Ripening fields in Galicia] 
And now it’s over, except … There’s that question, the one that almost every pilgrim asks you. “Will you be going on another pilgrimage?” While I wouldn’t rule that possibility in or out, for me there’s another thought that lurks behind it. And that is the notion that life itself might become an ongoing pilgrimage.

[A mysterious doorway into an abandoned building] 
I can’t help thinking of a mysterious doorway we passed on our last day. A narrow leafy path leads up to the doorway of an old abandoned building. Beyond the entry I can see a winding staircase that leads further up. I half expect to hear the voice of Aslan saying

Come further up, come further in!