Sunday, 1 March 2015

Forbidden Fruit

It’s the time of the year for scrumping. Twice this weekend we’ve been into the bush – officially owned by our local brewery, but effectively open space used by the whole neighbourhood – to hunt for blackberries.

[Ripe blackberries: irresistible!] 

The dictionary characterises our activity as a form of stealing, but we perpetrators prefer to see it as the prevention of waste. Somewhere deep in our hunter-gatherer DNA is an aversion to leaving food to rot. And that’s what would happen to the fruit if we good citizens didn’t go about our business.

We could even argue that picking blackberries is a form of environmental action. That may be a bit of a stretch, but it is true that every blackberry kept from a bird’s gullet is one less bundle of seeds released into the bush.

In truth blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) are a scourge; officially a “weed of national significance” in Australia. Apart from being horribly prickly, they choke up great swathes of bush; infest river banks; take over otherwise productive land; and provide food and shelter for pest animals. On top of all that, they can grow very rapidly (50–80 mm a day), spread easily, and are extremely difficult to eradicate.

That’s not what we’re thinking about as we amble along the back track. Our hunter-gatherer eyes are solely focussed on finding the semi-hidden black fruit within the rambling brambles. It’s the sweet fruit that’s the undoubted prize of the hunt. And, I wonder, is the fruit also one possible reason for land owners sometimes being half-hearted about eradicating blackberries?

[One for us, not the birds!] 
Seeing berries is one thing; picking them is another. I remember childhood scrumping expeditions that involved a corrugated iron sheet, which we stored in the bush. Each picking season we’d uncover it, and use it as a ramp over the brambles. It gave us access to some otherwise unreachable fruit.

Lynne and I lack the corrugated iron, and have to rely on care and stealth. Sometimes the brambles seem to see us coming, and their prickles turn to face us. Even through my shirt I take the odd flesh wound, while Lynne is spiked in the thigh through her jeans. But it’s our hands that suffer the most. One especially savage thorn spikes my little finger, which spurts like Snow White’s.

The damage is all worth it. We carry home 2kg of fruit and a pair of smiles. We freeze some berries for later, and turn the rest into a pair of truly wonderful cobblers. Simpler and quicker to make than pies, and every bit as delicious, cobblers were often promoted during times of food shortage. They use less butter and less flour than a traditional pie. And somehow, if you’ve picked the blackberries yourself, the cobbler tastes even better! That “forbidden fruit” aspect of scrumping is surely one of the attractions.

[A load of new cobblers! Fresh from the oven.] 

But the proof of the cobbler is in the eating, so here’s our recipe.

Blackberry & Apple Cobbler Recipe

  • Prep time: 35 minutes
  • Cook time: 30 minutes
  • Makes: 1 large cobbler, 7-9 servings.


Berry mixture:
  • 3 cups blackberries, rinsed clean
  • 1 cup tart apple, peeled and cut into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup white sugar (less if your fruit is very ripe, or you prefer your cobbler less sweet)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp cornflour

Cobbler topping:
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten

·      Put the blackberries, apple, sugar, lemon zest and juice, cinnamon and cornflour in a 20cm X 20cm baking dish. Stir to combine everything and make sure that the berries are all evenly coated with the sugar. Leave for 30 minutes or so till the berries ooze juice.

·      Preheat your oven to 175°C (350°F). Whisk together the flour, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, the baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture using fingers or a fork until it looks like coarse crumbs. Make a well in the center and stir in the milk and beaten egg. Mix together until the dough is just moistened.

·      Scoop up the dough in a large spoonful, and drop spoonfuls roughly evenly over the berries in the baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes at 175°C, or until the berry mixture is bubbly and the topping is lightly browned.

·      Serve with natural yoghurt (or cream or ice-cream, if preferred).

Sunday, 22 February 2015


Grounded: (adjective) sensible and down-to-earth; having one's feet on the ground; (verb) to confine (a child) to the house as a punishment. (Collins Dictionary)

For the past 6 weeks I’ve been grounded. In the aftermath of our Mt Anne “epic”, and the ankle injury I sustained there, I’ve had to be very sensible about how I put my feet on the ground. And it has involved enough confinement to make it feel like a punishment.

[Let me outa here! I need to walk!] 

The backstory can be found here Mt Anne Epic Part 2But to put it simply, politely, I badly sprained my ankle. According to the physiotherapist I probably tore my soleus muscle. This lurks somewhere beneath the Achilles tendon, near quite a few other equally unpronounceable bits and bobs. And I didn’t confine the damage to that muscle. The harm from the initial twist spread to quite a few other unnamed parts, thanks to the steep, rough and hot 10 hour hobble back to the car. It all hurt, and I could barely walk for two days after getting home.

So while the summer variously sizzles and fizzles itself out, I’ve been slowly recuperating. It has involved more “thou shalt nots” than “thou shalts”. I can do some simple (and boring) physio exercises and I can wear an ankle support brace. But I can’t run, and I can’t walk anywhere too rough. Nor can I walk very far or carry much weight on my back. And that has meant no overnight bushwalks since early January.

So what does a passionate walker do, at the height of the walking season, when that activity is curtailed? For a start I dream of walking. I pore over maps, plotting and planning walks that I WILL DO when … I also walk vicariously, listening to friends talking about their trips, reading others’ accounts of their walks.

My dreamwalking is always being fed by books. But during my recent confinement, Tom Carment and Michael Wee’s “Seven Walks: Cape Leeuwin To Bundeena” has happily filled a void. As well as its beautiful and artful presentation, I am enjoying its spare, wry observations about bushwalking in Australia. I laughed, for instance, at Carment likening the randomly gathered walkers on the Overland Track to “the cast of their own six-day play.”

English poet Simon Armitage’s “Walking Home” is a delightful take on the long distance Pennine Way. Armitage walks from the Scottish border to his Yorkshire home, giving poetry readings each evening in return for his bed and board. It’s probably only the English weather that creates any semblance of adventure here. But this book is more about the characters and places Armitage meets along the way than it is about the walk itself.

“Tramping: A New Zealand History” by Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean is a monumental – and beautifully illustrated – account of tramping in New Zealand. This is a book to dip into endlessly, whether to learn the origins of the word “tramp”; to hear of the unique place of huts in NZ walking; or to admire the feats of pioneers crossing the Southern Alps. I managed to bring the book back from New Zealand late last year as “hand luggage”. If you want to try the same, I’d suggest you do some arm strengthening exercises. This wonderful book weighs in at almost 2kg!

Despite this wealth of indirect experience, I've concluded that it’s only actual walking that is properly good for your body and soul. So last weekend I donned my boots – and my ankle brace - and fought off my growing cabin fever via an exploratory walk on the mountain. It involved some steep, rough slopes (don’t tell my physio!), but the reward was the discovery of two mountain huts I’d never been to. I survived the walk well enough to imagine that my next book just might be a bushwalker's log book!

[Log book in a hut on kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

A Walk in the West: Part 2

[... continuing the Fraser Creek Hut story from last winter]

[Luxuriant West Coast rainforest] 

It’s like the shipping news for bushwalk huts. Always mornings in huts seem to commence with a comparative report on snoring levels. The men – this writer included – seemed to score at least reasonable decibel ratings during the night. But gender equity came into it, with at least one of the women also snoring to measurable levels.

That formality dispensed with, Terry got us up and going by boiling a billy. He had what sounded like a packed program for the day – a couple of waterfalls, a few mines, a bit of off-track walking, and maybe a mountain – so he was keen to get us out there. Since it was all new to most of us, we were happy to be guided by Terry.

The weather was typical west coast: cloudy, showery, with the odd patch of brighter sky. Regardless, even if the rain held off, we would need our rain jackets and overpants. The rainforest’s dripping undergrowth would ensure we’d be soaked within the hour.

[Terry tutors me in King Billy paling splitting] 
At our first stop Terry gave us King Billy pine splitting lessons. Using an adze-like device, with its sharpened edge perpendicular to the handle, he showed how a length of downed pine could be split into palings. We each had a go, surprised at the workability of this beautiful honey-coloured timber.

We then continued up through the wet forest to a small clearing, our high point for the day, before continuing across the slope. Soon we were in thick and luxuriant rainforest again, everything a shade of green or hazel.

[In the forest, near our high point] 
We were walking in misty cloud, but had the feeling that empty space was off to our left. Then there was a lift, and we found ourselves staring down the steep and slippery decline that would take us to the Curtin-Davis mine.

An 1895 report on the mine doesn’t exaggerate when it says “the approach to Curtin's tunnel is extremely precipitous”. The writer went on to report "good surface shows" of iron and copper ores, ‘though he was possibly more enthusiastic about the potential for mine operations to harness the copious water of the area.

At the time of my visit to the mine a large body of water was leaping over this magnificent mountain gorge. The whole of the area … is covered densely with myrtle, sassafras and leatherwood trees.

We stared out over that very scene, and had equal admiration, if dissimilar ambitions for its future. Then, having descended, we had to climb a little, with the aid of some fixed rope-lines, to reach the entrance to the old mine. There we donned head torches and carefully picked our way into the horizontal mine shaft.

Terry took care to warn us about the large gaps in the floor, and once we were on solid ground, we stopped and looked around. There were two surprises: first the flashes of colour on the mine walls (what looked to me like copper oxide); and then the invertebrate that had made the shaft a comfortable home. The latter was a very large Tasmanian cave spider (Hickmania troglodytes), complete with its sizeable egg sac, hanging like a frozen tear drop from a thread of silk. This remarkable spider can live nearly as long as we humans can. And its nearest relatives are in Chile, meaning its ancestors date back to Gondwana. That makes it ancient in more than one sense. 

[A Tasmanian Cave Spider with egg sac, in Curtin-Davis Mine] 
I’d seen one of these spiders before in a cave, but had not expected to see one in a mine. I had to chuckle that even in this human-made environment, I was focussing more on wildlife than engineering achievements. I’d done the same once in Parliament House in Canberra, giving most of my attention to the Bogong moths that were flying around the chamber’s enormous lights, rather than the political pomp.

At the base of the slope the North-East Dundas Tramway once ran. It took ore from this and other mines back to the town of Dundas. It remains a remarkable engineering feat, given the steep and sodden nature of this place.

Even though the line and most of the bridges are no longer extant, the former tramway provided a wide and level means of reaching Montezuma Falls. Given the amount of rain that had fallen, we were keen to see this apparently spectacular waterfall. We weren’t disappointed. A prodigous amount of water was pouring over the 110m drop, enough to make us glad of our head-to-toe waterproofs as we gawped from the viewing deck.

[Montezuma Falls, Tasmania] 

Back in the 1920s, before the line was closed, rail trips to the falls were a feature for tourists. A late 1920s Mercury story tells us:

This little railway is a “show” line of the highest order, for it dives quickly amongst the mountains, brushing the fringe of the forests, and at one point giving a near view of the handsome Montezuma Falls – so near that the spray actually dashes at times against the carriage windows.

[Montezuma Falls with train] 
Today walkers, mountain bikers and a few experienced 4WD users still use the track. Where the bridges have gone the challenge for 4WD and MTB users is considerable. We stopped to watch as a couple of vehicles tried to cross one creek. By the time we left the score was Creek 1, 4WDs 1. One vehicle had decided – after two attempts – to give up on the crossing.

[Sheltering from the rain in an un-named mining adit] 
Our own (new) challenge was to leave this easy, broad track and take to the steep slopes that would lead to our next destination: Fraser Falls. We soon found out why it’s a seldom-visited waterfall. First we had a long, uphill, off-track steeplechase, just to get near to the falls. Then we had a slippery, muddy, nasty descent to get somewhere near to seeing the noisy-but-hidden falls.

With much grumping, slipping and sliding, we eventually reached a point where the falls could be seen. Smaller than Montezuma, but still high, impressive and very full, the falls were surrounded by thick, wet forest. Once we’d got near, a couple of us had to find “the” photographic view of the falls that would make the trip worthwhile. Naturally that involved some more scrambling, and negotiating slimy rocks above a swiftly-flowing stream. By the time we got there we were exhausted. But we took our photos, then slowly gasped and grunted our way back to the descent point.

[The seldom-visited Fraser Falls] 
It would be great to say that Fraser Falls, being on Fraser Creek, was within cooee of the hut. It wasn’t. So it wasn’t “soon” that we finally pushed open the door to the hut. But I can end by saying that we did sleep very soundly that night, whatever the decibel rating of the snorers.