Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Derwent River Walks: Alum Cliffs Track

[Part 1 of a series featuring short walks along Tasmania's Derwent River]

What’s the best direction to walk the Alum Cliffs Track along the Derwent? That’s what I was wondering when a fine afternoon seemed to invite me to try the walk for the first time. As I was doing it by myself, a neat solution occurred. I could walk it both ways! That would not only solve the transport issue, it’d give me twice the walk distance.

[Alum Cliffs above the Derwent Estuary near Taroona] 
That sorted I drove to the end of Taronga Road in Bonnet Hill, not far past Taroona’s Shot Tower. The track here is around 100m above sea level, and it wasn’t long before I was getting glimpses of the Derwent between the trees. After about a kilometre of easy undulating walking, the glimpses turned into a full-blown view. From a cleared and fenced lookout I was looking straight across the beautiful, broad Derwent estuary towards South Arm. An old tall ship, a modern yacht and a cargo vessel slipped slowly past, reminders of the continuing maritime story of the Derwent.

[Views toward South Arm across the wide Derwent Estuary] 
The track wound up and down, weaving inland through damper gullies before returning to the drier cliff tops. At various points fences protect unwary walkers from the steep cliffs that give the area their name. The “Alum” part of the name derives from the alum compound that was found in the local rocks.

[One of the wetter gullies along the track] 
The track was now trending downhill as it curved south-west towards Kingston. I tried to ignore the fact that my return trip would be mostly uphill. The views were a good distraction, with a large part of the Derwent estuary and Storm Bay stretching out before me. Below a group of sea kayakers hugged the shore, heading towards the cliffs.

[Looking out to Storm Bay from the track]

[Sea kayaks near Kingston Beach] 
Less than 3km into the walk I could now see Tyndall Beach, best known as the Kingston Dog Beach, below me through the trees. Right on cue a couple walked by with their dog. Two more dogs weren’t far behind. With the popular dog beach below, and parts of the track open to off-lead dog walking, it’s no surprise that the track attracts dog owners. (Some sections of the walk are for “on-lead” walking: signs clearly indicate requirements.)

[Dog walkers on the 'on-lead' section of the track] 
Above the dog beach I again had a choice. One steep track wound down to the beach, while another more evenly graded track lead to Tyndall Rd carpark, and Browns River. I took the steep track down to the beach, where a good number of humans and dogs seemed to be having some relaxing fun. But for me it was time to turn around, and do the walk in reverse.

[Dogs and their people enjoying Kingston Dog Beach]

[Steep steps lead to/from the Dog Beach] 
In total the walk there and back was just shy of 6km, and it had taken less than 2 hours. And which direction did I prefer doing the walk? To be honest each direction has its attractions, and I’d probably do the same again. But if I was walking with children or a group with mixed abilities, I’d be inclined to leave cars at both ends, and do the one-way, mainly downhill walk from Bonnet Hill to Tyndall Beach. If that wasn’t enough, a walk along Kingston Beach – with a cafĂ© stop and a swim – or an even a longer walk on the Boronia Beach Track, would be good add-ons.

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

Friday, 1 July 2016

Overlandish Part 3: "Rescued"

Worse than yesterday” never came. Instead we wake to another dreich, damp Waterfall Valley day. Barn Bluff is playing hide and seek with us, as fresh clouds swirl around the heights, dropping a few careless showers. It’s what you’d expect of winter on the Overland Track, really. As opposed to what we’d experienced, and what had been forecast.

[Not much visibility: a dreich day] 
Some of our hut mates are keen to keep walking south, and face whatever befalls them. They include Melbourne-based Lee, and German couple Manuel and Julia. And suddenly, over breakfast, Mick tells us it includes him too.

We’re not greatly surprised. He’s got friends coming in to meet him at the other end of the Overland Track. They plan to then walk back into Pine Valley. Rather than have to rearrange everything, it’s simplest if Mick sticks to the original plan. And this way, hopefully, he’ll also achieve his first complete Overland Track trip.

We feel strangely parental farewelling Mick, first foisting a tent and then a personal locator beacon on him, “just in case”. I resist checking whether he’s got a hanky. And then we walk our separate ways, Mick and friends to the south, ourselves to the north.

[Ian on the ascent out of Waterfall Valley] 
Leaving the valley, we ascend into the cloud that licks the rim of Bluff Cirque. It is moist though not rainy, and we debate whether rain gear is necessary. Despite feeling like a cooked lobster, I exercise the precautionary principle and leave mine on.

[Cloud walking along Bluff Cirque] 
We walk through thinning cloud most of the way back, catching occasional glimpses of valleys and mountains, and even the odd patch of blue sky. The track is still wet, or what we would once have called wet. In comparison with our walk in, it’s luxurious. Kitchen Hut feels that way too. When the sun threatens to break through, we even consider digging out our sunglasses.

[Walking out of the cloud near Cradle Mt] 
By the time we’re approaching Marions Lookout, we’re getting real views again. And when we get mobile reception and can ring Tim D., the weather is as cheerful as his news. He’s on target to meet us at Ronny Creek around 2pm.

[Back safe, at Ronny Creek] 
I’m not sure Tim is used to the kind of reception we give him, unless it’s from his dog. And then, like a pack of dogs, we’re busy exchanging news, talking nineteen to the dozen. We quickly find out how serious and widespread “our” weather event has been. Tim tells us three people are missing, presumed drowned, in the floods. And hundreds of cattle have been washed away, as towns like Latrobe and Longford have gone under.

[Tim our "rescuer", between Ian and Larry] 
On the drive down to Sheffield, where Tim and Merran have kindly offered us a bed for the night, we start to see the flood damage firsthand. We detour around some flooded sections; see numerous fallen trees; and ease past sections where road verges have slumped seriously. Our experience has been mild in comparison, though we soon find that Facebook has told it otherwise. News of our “rescue” from the flooded Overland Track has already hit our fb feed. It seems many people have been quite worried about us, so we quickly reassure them.

Our “rescue” gets very fancy when, after a blissfully hot shower, Tim and Merran break out cheese and wine as a pre-dinner treat. And it feels complete when Tim fires up his pizza oven, and he and Merran deliver an abundance of perfect home-made treats. Eventually, when we can’t eat another thing, and all our tales have been told (a few times), we retire, each to his own soft bed. And if that isn’t bliss enough, there is no snoring to be heard!
* * *

Postcript: What became of Mick?

The day he left us Mick did an almost 7 hour day, walking past Windermere and on to New Pelion Hut. He’d been very concerned about potential flooding at Frog Flats. But, he says, “I was so tired I walked straight through the area without even realising it.”

[Mick contemplates going on: old Waterfall Valley Hut] 
At New Pelion he caught up with Lee, and reunited him with the torch he’d left in Waterfall Valley Hut. Mick and Lee then walked on together over Pelion Gap to Kia Ora, choosing not to climb Mt Ossa in cloudy, showery conditions. The highlight of the next day was the “incredible sight” of a flooded upper Mersey River thundering over D’Alton, Fergusson and Hartnett Falls.

Mick’s adventures didn’t end at Narcissus, as they do for most Overland Track walkers. Instead he picked up a resupply that had been ferried in by friends. Together they headed back up to Pine Valley, along with Lee, Manuel, Julia and other walkers he’d met on the main track.

To top it all off it snowed at Pine Valley, with three inches at the hut, and nearly double that up on the Labyrinth. He had what he described as a fantastic day of wandering in my favourite winter wonderland.

Eventually even heroes have to come home, and Mick did so with “lots of mixed feelings. I dawdled behind the others for most of (the walk out). I wasn’t looking forward to ending what had been a pretty amazing 9 days…”.

There’s always next time Mick!

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Overlandish Part 2: Treading Water

After our deluge day on the Overland Track, Waterfall Valley Hut feels like a five star resort. Yes, fifteen soaked walkers and their wet gear squeezed into a small hut with one tiny gas heater would normally rate a little lower than that. It’s just that it’s surprising how cheerful a hut can become when its occupants make an effort to be sociable.

Once our saturated gear is dispensed with – some to the wet room, some to the racks around the heater – we start chatting. We begin with the usual: “Where are you from? Which way are you walking? What about this weather!?”, and soon enough we’re nattering like old friends. One group even moves up to the top bunk so our lot can all fit on the easier-to-exit bottom bunk. (I don’t stop to ask if this is a concession to our age!)

[Getting to know the neighbours: Waterfall Valley Hut (photo: Ian Grant)] 
When I brew up hot drinks, it takes both soup and coffee before I start to feel warm. It hasn’t really been cold, but when you’re soaked, 7 degrees and strong winds can chill you well enough. Card games, more chatter and some sharing of pre-dinner treats are soon warming up the social side of things too.

The south-north walkers have hair-raising tales of walking from Windermere, including knee deep water as they entered this valley. Outside it’s still raining, and it keeps raining most of the night. While that helps to drown out the sound of snoring, it does nothing for our confidence about walking tomorrow. Larry tells us he has a little radio, so he’ll check the 6am forecast.

Some of our hut mates are walking out to Cradle regardless. So the next day they’re up early, and chatting about the weather with Larry. From my warm bag I’m pretty sure I hear words like “damaging winds”, “major flood warnings”, “heavy rain”. But by the time I get to look outside, it’s just grey and showery, and the breeze seems almost gentle.

But we’ve got decisions to make, so over breakfast we ask Larry for his full weather report. Despite the look of things out the hut window, the report is dire. He sums it up for us. “Sounds like today will be worse than yesterday, and it’ll still be wet for most of the week.” Larry tops it off by showing us the barometer on his watch. Apart from elevating his gear freak status, it shows a downward trend in barometric pressure.

[Not more rain? An impromptu creek and Barn Bluff]  
After breakfast I do a circuit of the hut’s exterior. How aptly named is this valley!? There are waterfalls everywhere, near and far and in places I’ve never seen them. There’s even a creek flowing over the grass beside the hut and beneath the water tanks.

Further off I can just make out the imposing Barn Bluff. Today, at this angle, the barn is more a witch’s hat. Its cloudy shroud adds to the spell. Cascades pour from its every cliff, and I wonder what toil and trouble she is brewing. As Tasmania’s third highest peak, sitting high above “The Reserve”, this mountain is in a position to gather any weather that comes her way. The words “worse than yesterday” are the clincher for me. Certainly we won’t be walking on – or back – today. If yesterday was about literally treading water, today we’ll only do it metaphorically.

[A shrouded Barn Bluff from Waterfall Valley] 
Back in the hut we discuss our options. If we’re delayed a day, and have to do a double-length catchup day in such conditions, we’re in for a strenuous and uncomfortable week. Ian has recovered perfectly well from yesterday’s ordeal, but is very certain he doesn’t want more of the same. Larry and I tend to agree, while Mick is prevaricating. He, after all, is the only one of our group who hasn’t walked the Overland Track before.

When one of the exiting group offers to get a message to our friend Tim D. when they get to Cradle, our decision is made. We’ll stay another night here, then turn back to Cradle and hope to meet Tim. He’s planned to come up the Arm River Track to join us on the track that day anyway, so we’re hoping he won’t object to a pickup at Cradle instead.

Decision made, note to Tim written, walkers farewelled and breakfast cleaned up, we settle down for a quiet day in the hut. On queue the showers decrease, the wind fades to nothing, and Barn Bluff makes a semi-convincing cloud-free appearance. We decide we may as well explore the valley while we can, before the “worse than yesterday” decides to show up.

[Peekaboo! Barn Bluff cloud free] 
It’s showering lightly as we make our way towards the lower cliff line that holds the largest waterfalls. I’ve been coming to this valley for over 30 years, but I’ve never seen or heard it like this. Every minor declivity holds a creek, and the actual creeks are showing profound contempt for their banks. We slosh and scrub bash our way towards the nearest edge. While we can’t easily get close to the larger falls, we’re awestruck enough by the small ones.

 [A fraction of the scene: Waterfall Valley]
I ease to the edge of one torrent to take a short video (see below*), thinking in passing that if I fell into the water it would be goodnight-nurse! The normally small creek is a roaring maelstrom careening towards an 80m cliff. With so many waterfalls across a broad landscape it’s difficult to photograph the scene. But just standing there slack-jawed seems a very appropriate response.

[Ian and Mick take in Waterfall Valley] 
Our exercise for the day done, we settle back into the hut for more food and conversation. Those who have walked on have been replaced by a new lot of walkers, so there are more water-endurance tales to catch up on. We ask one who’s come in from the south what the bridge over the Forth River at Frog Flats was like. His simple reply “What bridge?” raises our eyebrows. It seems the whole track through Frog Flats had been thigh deep in water, and he hadn’t even noticed a bridge. It makes us profoundly glad that we’re only treading metaphorical water here in our five star hut.

[* if the video doesn't work on your mobile device, please try a desktop or laptop]