Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Little Lives: Part 2 - The Nattai Wilderness

“Shorty” the campervan was next due to take us to Sydney. Lynne had spent a lot of time and effort getting ready for a reunion there. It had already been postponed twice due to the virus, so we were hoping this would be third time lucky. But, with just a few days up our sleeve, the Coronavirus outbreak in the city was growing. And so we cautiously waited before committing to enter greater metropolitan Sydney. 


For a couple of days we holed up in a Lithgow caravan park, and listened to news of the growing COVID outbreak in Sydney. Perched there on the heights of Lithgow, we felt like Frodo and Sam on the Emyn Muil, waiting to enter Mordor. Our daughter Sally caught onto this and messaged us using Boromir’s words: “One does not simply walk into Mordor!

[Shorty hides out near Lithgow]

We didn’t, and neither did we drive there. Instead we turned tail and sadly retreated from “Mordor” to the rather more friendly town of Mudgee. While there, apart from a bit of wine tasting and bike riding, we learned that the NSW premier had put Greater Sydney into lockdown. Had we gone there, we’d have been there still (as of early August, and counting!)


* * *


Chastened, we re-jigged our plans – again. We’d organised to catchup with my brother after Sydney, when he’d be back from his own virus-dodging trip. So we firmed up that plan, and a few days later arrived at his place in the NSW Southern Highlands. He lives outside, though not a great distance from, greater metropolitan Sydney. It’s strange to run such a filter over every destination, but we had become very used to it. My brother, a retired doctor, is well practiced at it staying Covid-safe too. So once at his place, we hatched a plot to go literally far from the madding crowd: a day walk into the Nattai Wilderness.

[Ian and Lynne start our Nattai walk]

Tasmania has a way of turning we Tasmanians into wilderness snobs. Partly it’s the fact that we live on a substantially wild, mountainous island thrust into the southern seas, away from the fray of mainland Australia, and beyond the easy reach of over-development (though that threat is growing). And partly it’s that around 20% of our island, nearly 1.6 million hectares, is designated as World Heritage Wilderness. 


It’s a vast wilderness I will never encompass, no matter how long I live. But I have taken great pleasure in showing many people, including my brother Ian, just some of the wonders of Tasmania’s wilderness. Now it was his turn to show us one of the hidden gems of his area, specifically the Nattai Wilderness. 

[... let the wilderness begin]

When I've flown into Sydney I have sometimes looked down on a deeply incised wild area and wondered: is that the Nattai Wilderness? Back in the 1970s, when I lived and studied in NSW, I’d camped and bushwalked on the fringe of the area. But I had never knowingly been into what in 1991 became the Nattai National Park. Parts of the park, including where we would walk, were later officially designated as wilderness. Of course for millennia, the Dharawal and Gundangarra Aboriginal peoples called this home rather than wilderness. Our day walk would take us past sandstone overhangs that would have been used as shelter for thousands of years. The country still feels old and remote, despite being relatively close to a large city.


For Lynne and I the sandstone felt very familiar, since we were both brought up on sandstone country. Ian led us first along a fire trail, and then onto a narrower walking track. He was lamenting that we were seeing this country so soon after a massive wild fire. And he was apologetic that the wildflowers weren’t really out yet. Yet somehow we found more than enough to slow us down, oohing over a late-blooming flannel flower here; ahhing over a banksia there. 

[A selection of winter wildflowers in the Nattai]

The country felt similar to the Blue Mountains, and I knew that our track would inevitably lead us to a lookout, although lookdown would be more fitting name. Because, just as in the Blue Mountains, this is more gorge country than mountain country. We reached the edge of the plateau, and could feel the air expand around us before we saw the first bit of gorge beneath us. Ian suggested we push on to the lookout proper, maybe 5 minutes further on. 

[Worth the wait: Ahearn Lookout]

It was worth it. Ahearn Lookout is a grandstand to some vast, wild country. The Lion King wouldn’t have looked out of place posing here, if you accepted replacing savannah plains with vast and steep forested slopes. At the bottom of this defile was the Nattai River, here and there flashing reflections towards us. And beyond that we could make out further gorges, including that of the distant Wollondilly River.

[Looking south down the Nattai Gorge]

We perched on the edge of this vastness, 1 million hectares of wild country stretching all the way to Kanangra Walls, the Blue Mountains, the Wollemi, the Colo, and beyond. In such a place our quiet consumption of a humble sandwich and a coffee somehow felt like a feast. I was never great with equations, but here I could work out that place + movement, over time equalled deep satisfaction. And especially when that place was a wilderness. That's when a day can feel like another little life.

[Special thanks to my brother Ian for introducing us to the Nattai Wilderness.]

[The perfect spot to feast on wilderness]

Monday, 26 July 2021

Little Lives: Part 1 - Tumbarumba

My argument went like this. “Shorty”, our VW campervan, our tinyhouse on wheels and additional access to adventure in these covid-constrained times, would allow us to effectively move house whenever we fancied. Want a house by the sea? We just drive to the coast and make it our short-term home. Or a cabin in the mountains? Simply drive into the hills and stay awhile. There we could experience “little lives”, snippets of “what-if” life, in places we’d always wanted to be.

["Shorty" has a practice run]

I thought it sounded good, but Lynne wasn’t so convinced. She’d always thought we’d move by the beach after retirement, and my “little lives” idea sounded like a fob off. (I guess we’ll be having that “move to the coast” discussion for a while yet.) In the meantime we agreed that some adventures in “Shorty” were overdue. We had acquired a short wheelbase VW Transporter van, and had it converted into a campervan by the good folk at Achtung Camper in Geelong, Victoria. Being the SWB version, we nick-named it “Shorty”, and so far the name has stuck.

[Sheep near Tumba living contented little lives]

After a series of shakedown trips within Tasmania, we felt ready to venture to the “big island”, mainland Australia, via the Spirit of Tasmania ferry. A reunion in Sydney with people we shared our youth with some 45 years ago was the impetus. Around that event we planned some cycling, some walking, some beach bumming, and some family visits. But Sydney, in late June: let that sink in! 


Right from the start we sensed this would be a different trip in terms of forward planning. Melbourne was in partial COVID lockdown when we arrived, but we were permitted to transit Victoria, stopping only for food, fuel and toilet breaks. So our plan for a leisurely trip to some Goulburn Valley wineries, and a few days sipping, riding and living the “little life” dream of being winemakers, went west. Actually it went north, as we made a bee-line for the NSW border. We didn’t stop until we got to Tumbarumba.  

[Yep - Tumbarumba]

Of all the border towns on offer, why Tumbarumba? Well, to be fair the Riverina Highlands are lovely, and they do have vineyards. But the main attraction for us was a new 21km rail trail from Tumbarumba to Rosewood (or “from nowhere to nowhere” as someone unkindly put it). Tumbarumba’s beauty is on the subtle side. It nestles in some pretty hills, though calling them “highlands” would be a stretch. Its fame is somewhat meagre too, although a 1959 vernacular poem by John O’Grady has made it memorable for some. Its famous line is about a bloke who is “up at Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin' kanga-bloody-roos.”

[Pretty wooded hills near Tumbarumba]

[Low hills with vine-covered slopes]


The local roos would certainly have needed their winter coats, as overnight the temperature plunged to minus 4. I was glad Lynne had made sure our doona had been given a feather reinforcement a few weeks before the trip. The only other incumbents in the wee caravan park found their water had frozen overnight. 

[Ready for the ride: Tumbarumba to Rosewood]


The temperature didn’t encourage an early start, but the sun soon enticed us up the hill to the start of the cycle trail. We’ve been on plenty of cycle trails in Australia and New Zealand, but this would be the first time we’ve ridden one that is sealed the whole way, in this case in bitumen. There are reassuring hints that this was once a rail line, with old-style station names, the remains of old platforms, plenty of cuttings, and various bits of rail paraphernalia. Crucially, as with most rail trails, the incline is quite merciful. Trains are generally not able to climb a slope of more than 2 degrees. So while the vibe is retro, the surface and the infrastructure (think bridges, fences, crossings, toilets, sign posts, interpretive panels) are all shiny new. 

[The rail trail is paved and smooth all the way]


Lynne was still recovering from a cold, and we were both short on riding practice. More than that, we’d had a rushed and stressful trip across Victoria, after a sleepless night on the ferry. Sometimes you go for a walk or a ride not so much because you really want to, but more because you know you need the brain re-set that being out in the fresh air gives you. And so we rolled down the smooth track through hilly open woodland, before breaking out into wide, gently rolling hills dotted with eucalypts, sheep and cattle. It was quietly, gently exhilarating, the perfect way to ease us back into the present. Our coffee stop at a little wayside seat added some needed caffeine into the mix, and also some humour. While we had a thermos of hot coffee in our packs, we’d forgotten cups. All we had was a urine specimen container that we use to carry milk or condiments. So we took turns to sip micro-brews from our little yellow container, in between giggles.

[Lynne pours a "specimen" cup of coffee!]


[We found a ewe and lamb warming themselves on the track]

Our minds soon turned to the future. If we went all the way to Rosewood, we would then have to ride all the way back. The total trip would be close to 45km, rather more than we had planned. But I was quietly confident we could do it, especially given we were riding our e-bikes. We’d learned that Rosewood had a café, encouragingly called “Gone Barmy”. With the offer of another coffee there, this time from an actual cup, I convinced Lynne we could do the full return trip.

[We got there - and rested at Rosewood Station.]


And so we did, the return ride being just as delightful as the outward journey. Even the feared uphill to the Tumbarumba station proved a toothless tiger, and we were soon back with “Shorty” ready for a shower and rest before heading to the pub for a well-earned dinner. Our little life in Tumbarumba had been short but surprisingly sweet.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Central Plateau Variations: Part 5

It was the light that woke me. Not just the slow leak of dawn light, but something far stronger. I emerged from the tent to a veil of high cirrus cloud that radiated a rich, warm pink. Blissful weather one day, stunning sunrise the next? Not business as usual for the Central Plateau then! 

[Sunrise at Lake Tyre]

By the time I’d fetched my camera, golds and reds were joining the display, lighting up the lower clouds. The whole was then reflected back at us off the lake. As the others emerged, we wandered in wonder around the shores of Lake Tyre taking photos, or just soaking up the beauty. If we thought we were in for another beautiful day, we’d forgotten the highlands’ capacity for tricks. I’d left my tent up while we ate breakfast, hoping the rising sun would dry it a little. But as we sipped our tea, a thick mist rolled in, hiding the sun and dampening hopes of carrying out dry tents. 

[The mist rolls in: Photo by Jim Wilson]

[Larry packs up in the mist: Photo by Jim Wilson]

Reluctantly, with raincoats at the ready, we packed up soggy gear in the clammy chill. As we left the camp site the mist was thinning, the day’s air beginning to mix. But above us Mount Jerusalem, which had been roiled in thick cloud, now sent that cloud rolling down towards us, like a stern angel driving us out of the garden.

[Cloud follows us down Zion Vale: Photo by Larry Hamilton]


Our Plan A for the trip was well out of kilter by now. Instead of spending a night at Tiger Lake as originally planned, we would now bypass it and walk out to the Walls of Jerusalem carpark in one go. Tim and Merran had done this on our last walk together here, when they had to leave a day early to get back for appointments. They assured us it wasn’t difficult, though given their walking prowess, one or two of us may have taken that with a grain of salt.


[Tim leads us towards Officers Marsh]

Still, if there’s one thing that motivates bushwalkers in the transition to the finish of a trip, it’s the craving for cold drinks and hot food at walk’s end. There are unspoken rules: it has to be something you can’t get in the bush, and it has to be prepared by someone else. Grease and beer are perennial favourite ingredients, but as we walked we considered a plethora of other post-walk possibilities.


We’d left early again. There was ground and time to make up if we were going to get to lunch in time. Fortunately, whether it was because we were walking downhill, or walking towards that promised lunch, or just because we were headed for home, Jim was the most sprightly he’d been all walk. He said he still felt crook, but he was determined to get the job done.


I noticed other transitions too. Descending towards Zion Vale, we first had to cross Officers Marsh, a buttongrass-fringed boggy area. We picked our way across it, keeping to less boggy higher parts where possible. The land felt fat with water, holding onto the plentiful rainfall not only in its many pools, but also in its deep and spongy peat soils. Wallaby scats and pads, and a wombat burrow in some higher ground confirmed it was also good grazing land. 


[Wombat burrow, Officers Marsh]

As we descended, the land grew leaner, the steeper gradient aiding faster water flow and impeding peat development. Now in places the water cut down to bedrock. The flowing water was finding its voice, chattering and chuckling among the stream-bed rocks, while calling currawongs and chittering honeyeaters sang their harmonies.


It wasn’t all downhill, of course. The highlands reserve the right to put an uphill in your way, just to keep you honest. So at the end of Golden Vale, after the junction of the Fish River and Wild Dog Creek, there was a short but steady climb towards George Howes Lake. Knowing this was coming, and feeling the warmth of the day finally asserting itself, we sat on a grassy bank for a break. It was a place a few of us had stopped before. In fact, Libby reminded us, it was almost exactly 8 years ago that she’d first met us in the Walls, joining us for a day walk past here to Tiger Lake. These days we don’t feel our walking group is complete if “Possum” (Libby’s nom de randonee) isn’t with us.


On the uphill section the sun and our physical effort squeezed the day’s first perspiration from us. After the turnoff to Tiger Lake our route once again trended downhill. And now the valley was tightening even more, squeezed between the uplands of the Walls to the south, and the outliers of Clumner Bluff to the north. To avoid a steep, bluffy descent, we left the river side and took a diagonal route through scrubby bush and forest towards the main Walls track. 

[About to leave the valley]


Eventually we met that track at Trappers Hut. And here we met the first other walkers we’d seen all trip, another surprising transition. For them the hut marked the end of their major ascent for the morning. For us it was the start of the highway home: a fully-formed track, easy to follow if mildly steep. It was tempting to just put our heads down and will the carpark to come. But for a change we were now meeting, and exchanging pleasantries with, other walkers. I’m sure our words for those nearing the top – an “almost there” or a “the worst is over” – were welcome. As we got further down, it was better to stick to “where are you from?” or “what are your plans?” Sometimes the brutal truth (“You’re looking stuffed. Sorry to tell you you’re not even half-way”) is best avoided.


Such “games”, if that’s the right word, eased us to the end of the track. Even so it seemed to take longer than I expected, even though I’ve walked this track 15-20 times. It didn’t help that I’d almost run out of water as I trudged into the very full carpark. A warm mouthful from the bottom of my Camelbak didn’t quite satisfy.


Once we’d loaded the cars and made it down to Earthwater Café near Mole Creek, all that was forgotten. We’d made it in time for a cooked lunch, and there were plenty of good choices in both food and drink. To spare other diners our malodorous presence, we sat outside at a long table set beneath some large deciduous trees. If this was a compromise, it’s one I’d choose every (fine) day. 

[Happy campers at Earthwater Cafe]


For most of us it had been a great walk, with some neat variations on our last walk on the Plateau. The fierce, wet winds that blew for 48 hours or more now seemed a distant memory. More prominent was the honour we felt to have found and followed substantial parts of Ritters Track at last. Larry and Tim were especially happy about that. Their judicious use of the sometimes dodgy GPS data was superb. And if Jim’s illness had partly spoiled the walk for him, we had to applaud his guts (pun intended) in making it to the end. Besides, with a beer in hand and fish and chips on the way, he looked as happy as, well, Larry – and everyone else.