Thursday, 5 May 2016

Cycling the Clare Valley: Part 1

We’re driving north of Adelaide on a warm, dry autumn day. The flat, straw coloured landscape is more parched than usual following a long, hot summer. How, we wonder, can a world famous wine district exist in the unpromisingly dry and low hills ahead of us?

[On the Riesling Trail]  
There’s a bright side. The relative lack of hills suggests easy cycling. And that’s one of the main reasons we’re here. That and the wine. After a little more than two hours we arrive in Auburn. It’s not quite sunset, so there’s time to sort out our accommodation before dinner. We’d expected our hire bikes to be at the hotel. But not for the first time, we find arrangements around here are “relaxed”.

The bikes turn up in good time the next morning, and we’re briefed on the cycling trail ahead of us. It goes by the promising name of The Riesling Trail, and follows an old railway route between Auburn and Clare. We’re on a self-guided trip, with bikes, accommodation, luggage transfers and some meals organised by the Tour de Vines company. Once our bikes and helmets are fitted, we’re off into the morning chill – all of 50 metres to the coffee shop. They did say it was self-guided, and Andrew must have his caffeine hit before the day goes on!

["Hard-earned" stop? Our start is visible 50m behind us.] 
The vineyards commence soon after we do. Although the cycle trail is dry and a little dusty, the vines are surprisingly lush. Some have had over 150 years to get used to the region’s Mediterranean climate: dry and hot in summer; cooler and wetter in winter. Despite their age the vines are blushing with autumn colours. We too are red-of-face as we pump our legs and expand our lungs with unexpected effort. It’s strange how an incline of 1.5% can make you work.

It’s strange too how the names of places and wineries we’re passing are so familiar to me, a relative late-comer to wine drinking. We wobble past signs to Leasingham and its vineyards, but don’t resist the turn-off to Watervale. It may not be midday yet, but we’re up for refreshments, which Shut the Gate Wines supply with style. As we stand at the bar for a tasting, we hear the kind of talk we’ll get used too over the next few days.

[Among Clare Valley's blushing vines] 
It’s not just about grape varieties and vintages, but aspects, micro-climates, minerals and more. It also seems “soils-ain’t-soils”. The depth, type and mineral make up of the soils contributes characteristics to the wines which even we can discern. We thank Richard for the informative tasting – which included cheese and biccies – and promise to be back in a few days to buy some wines. We’re not keen to weigh down our panniers with too much just yet.

[The Old Grammar School, Watervale] 
We have to ride uphill to get back up to the trail, although the fascinating buildings of Watervale give us an excuse to do that slowly. Then it’s on to Penwortham. And now the landscape tightens up, and there’s a greener tinge to everything. It’s the high point of the trail, so higher rainfall might be expected.

[Dining al fresco at Skillogalee, Clare Valley] 
Lunch is booked for us at Skillogalee Wines, a bracing downhill ride from the trail. We don’t want to think about what that means for our post-lunch ride, but it becomes a long, languid lunch, and the wonderful food and setting of Skillogalee fuels us for any coming pain. So too does a stop at beautiful Kilikanoon Wines.

[Autumn at Kilikanoon Wines] 
After the pain of regaining the trail is endured, we cross over the high point and make a downhill beeline for Clare. It’s not quite as simply done as written, and it’s not all downhill. But as the afternoon shadows stretch out, we close in on our overnight stop. And stop is what we do, glad in both heart and buttocks! We only hope we’ll be able to ride again in the morning.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Return to Blue Peaks 3: Bluffed

I have a great affection for printed maps. I pore over them in the lead up to a walk. To me they’re a bridge between imagination and place; between mind and foot. And on the walk itself paper maps and a compass are my chief navigation tools. Strange then, and probably significant, that on this Blue Peaks walk not one member of our party is carrying a paper map.

Between us we have at least five devices with digital maps and/or a built-in GPS. And we have backup batteries so our devices don’t become useless lumps of plastic and metal. Of course I can hear voices warning how this could go astray. But ironically, on this occasion it’s actually the lack of paper maps that keeps us on track.

[Jim asks "Where Are We?"] 
What follows then is the tale of two 21st century moments, two literal turning points, that illustrate how bushwalking is changing.

* * *

The first moment comes as our party, walking off-track in search of Fisher Bluff, starts to wander like the Israelites of old. Or less grandly perhaps, like Brown’s cows. Mick and TimO are heading south of our rough bearing; the rest of us are strung out along a more northern route. Somewhere over the humps and bumps ahead is Fisher Bluff. But in this plateau country one high point looks much like the next. So which one is it?

[Mick and Tim take their own bearing towards Fisher Bluff] 
If we’d been looking at a conventional flat map, we’d probably have convinced ourselves that the northern eminence is Fisher Bluff. We just need to keep climbing. That’s when Mick’s digital map, with its GPS dot indicating where we are, puts us in our place - literally. It shows us we have to go further south. We do so, some of us contritely. Eventually, high atop a southerly bluff, we see a good old-fashioned trig point – that commonplace of highest points – and our digital hunch is confirmed.

We skirt a large linear forest of pencil pines, blessing its health and unburned state, and trudge towards the trig. It’s uphill of course, but we don’t need any form of map to tell us that.

Fisher Bluff, being one of the western most mountains of the Central Plateau, has broad views south to the Walls of Jerusalem and south-west to the highest mountains of the Overland Track. We also have close-up views of the nearby Mersey valley, one of the epicentres of the recent fires. It’s a brutalised mess of burned and blackened forest.

[Central Plateau fire damage around Last Lagoon] 
Nearer still we can see where the fire has broken out onto the higher plateau. The area around Last Lagoon has been hit hard. We see what we guess to be dead cushion plants and incinerated peat. If there’s any compensation, it’s that the fire got no further into this part of the plateau.

Our second 21st century navigational moment comes the following day. An old Irish folk song has it that “going to a wedding is the making of another”. It’s the same with mountains. From Fisher Bluff we’ve looked out on Turrana Bluff, Turrana Heights and one or two other reachable mountaintops.

Our agenda is set, and in the morning we make a surprisingly early start (for us). We progress quickly towards Turrana Heights which, being the nearest, is our first target. We're fairly sure of where we’re going. After all we’ve spied this mountaintop, shapely and prominent, from both Little Throne and Fisher Bluff. But as we’re climbing towards it, passing a nearby high “lump”, Mick pulls us up again. His digital map tells him the lump is actually Turrana Heights. We each consult our own digital oracle, and come to the same conclusion. We’re heading for the wrong high point. The mountain we’re aiming at has no name.

[Getting closer to the unnamed peak] 
We decide we’re with Shakespeare (“What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”) and keep heading towards the more “fragrant” top. The nameless mountain’s flanks, sloping slabs of dolerite, are steep and challenging, but when we get there the summit offers more than enough compensation.

[Libby and lakes from atop the unnamed peak] 
We settle on top, feeling like royalty on a high throne, lords of all we survey. Below and all around us are thousands of lakes, both near and far. And dozens of mountain tops, from the nearby Walls to the far distant peaks of the south and west, stand out like familiar faces in a loyal throng.   

[Looking towards the Walls of Jerusalem from the unnamed peak] 
Two other things are remarkable to us. The first is that this sweet mountain isn’t honoured with a name, at least not on any map we possess. And the second is that it is still morning! We will have time to visit the “lump” – Turrana Heights – for lunch.

After a long and relaxing visit, basking in bright sun beneath benignly blue heavens, it’s decision time again. Is Turrana Bluff within our reach? Opinions vary from “definitely not/no way” to “we could give it a crack!” Rather than split into two groups along these lines, we delay the decision and wander down from the heights in a vaguely bluff-ward direction.

Eventually the sheer distance involved in getting to the Bluff, let alone getting all the way back to our camp, dissuades even the keen from going there. When clouds start to build and rain threatens, that looks a wise decision. We still split into two groups, the one keen to explore the high rim of the plateau, the other wanting to make a bee-line for camp.

[Libby photographing cushion plant, with pineapple grass in the foreground] 
In the end the “low roaders” are back at camp less than an hour before the “high roaders”. And we’re both there before the rain, which is kind enough to hold off until after dinner.

[As close as we get to Turrana Bluff] 
The wind is another matter. It strengthens all evening, and makes for an unpleasant night. I’ve been trying out my lightweight gear, including a tent with a mesh inner, and a summer weight sleeping bag. For three out of four nights this has worked well. But in the cold windy weather that hits us on the final night, I become a cold and unhappy camper.

Early the next morning shouted, wind-muffled conversations tell me I wasn’t the only one. We decide to break camp and make a run for it, without even having breakfast. Our brilliant run of weather and the magnificent time we’ve had together, have come to a brisk end. Sitting around in this biting wind is an ugly option.

With heads down and the wind still tearing at us, we quickly retrace our steps back to Lake MacKenzie. There’s not a lot of talk, so I can’t be sure. But the chances are we’re all thinking about that big cooked breakfast we’ll have once we’re out. And we don’t need a map to show us where either.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Return to Blue Peaks 2: Slow and Steady

Travel, walking, sadness all take their toll, and none of us is ashamed to be heading to our tents by 8pm. Currawongs call reveille, but otherwise our camp beneath the pines is quiet. A deep stillness settles on the nearby lakes, which mirror twin hills. The peace of being here bears me swiftly towards sleep.

[Twilight beneath the pencil pines] 
The zip of a tent wakes me. I fumble with my torch, learn it’s 4am. That’s 8 hours of sleep, my fuzzy mind calculates. A good night’s rest, it continues. When it starts to add that perhaps we should all be up and about, I quickly hose down the idea. Instead I get out to relieve myself, and find Jim doing the same.

It’s cooler now, though not cold. The sky is filled with stars, but they’re oddly muted, untwinkling, as though seen through gauze. It must be mist or high cloud.

Our friend Tim D will be joining us later this morning. He’s estimated he’ll arrive by 10am. But as he’s never been to this place, I wonder if it could be closer to 11. So it’s back to the tents for a lie-in.

I lie a lot, doze a little, until voices start exchanging greetings and weather reports. I have a low-level glimpse of the lake out the end of my tent, and see what’s either low cloud or fog. Eventually I unzip the tent and emerge to find a breaking fog, and a couple of boiling billies.

We’re slow over breakfast, knowing we’ll be waiting for Tim D before we go anywhere. Tim O enthralls us with his adventures in breakfast cuisine. This time it’s bhuja and scroggin-infused muesli topped with liquorice, chocolate and milky tea. The less adventurous brew straight tea and follow it with some coffee, which in turn requires “second breakfast”.

[Happy campers on a slow morning] 
Eventually Jim gets restless and decides he’ll go out to check on Tim D. It’s just as well. He finds Tim a few hundred metres east of our site, in the act of walking on towards the next lake. It seems a photo I sent him, which was meant to indicate the rough vicinity of our camp, was of somewhere else entirely. Ooops – mea culpa!

I brew a compensatory coffee, and help Tim find a good spot for his tarp/tent set-up. By the time he’s had a rest and got himself set up, the sun is out and it’s almost lunch time. We consider eating that first, but shame ourselves into at least starting our walk. Putting lunch into our day packs, we set off for an afternoon stroll to Little Throne.

For a change we wander west around our lake, and Middle Lake, towards Little Throne Lake. Before we get to that last lake, we need to do some running repairs on Mick’s right foot. Despite trusty old boots and not much walking, he’s developed a nasty heal blister. He’s fussed over for quite a while, and comes out of it with an improvised bandage. This lasts all of twenty minutes, by which time he suggests he’ll go back to the tent and rest his foot.

[Over-servicing? Mick gets blister treatment.]  
The rest of us make for Little Throne, which again proves surprisingly far away and slow to reach. But it also rewards us. From the top we gaze out on thousands of lakes, the in-filled hollows resulting from the vast ice sheet that once covered the area. It’s the kind of perch from which anything seems possible. A map is one thing; this bird’s eye view is something altogether more tantalising. Tim D and I figure out some reachable mountains, and hatch a quick plan for tomorrow’s walk. Jim looks down at a nearby watery short-cut across Little Throne Lake, and announces a plan of his own.

The shallow crossing proves a little more involved than it appeared. Tim D offers to try it out, slips off his boots, socks and trousers, and eventually gets across the water. 

[Tim D. pioneers the lake crossing] 
We’re shamed into following. It’s not especially cold, but the bottom is alternately mud and sharp rocks, and our barefoot progress is slow and cautious. Libby gets across with minimal drama, then remarks on the unmanly squeals coming from some of us, most particularly the plan’s originator. We point out that a long-legged woman has certain advantages over shorter-legged men, one being her height and the other being … how shall we put this … an “anatomical absence”, perhaps?

After a deal of laughing, videoing and whinging (from some), we’re all safely over. Once there and dried off, everything is fine again. Despite his earlier whinging, and the fact that our short-cut has saved us all of two minutes, Jim declares “his idea” a winner. We hear about its marvels much of the way back to camp. And lucky Mick hears a much-expanded version when we’re re-united, even though certain video evidence takes the edge off Jim’s alleged heroism.

[Mick captures the triumphant return]