Thursday, 31 August 2017

Back to the Arthur Range 2: O is for ...

“The track went up and down in see-saw fashion, one moment reaching the heights of a sharp peak; the next plunging down to a mountain lake. To do that sort of walking, carrying a 50 lb. pack, there have to be compensations, and there certainly were. I doubt if I have ever been in more breathtaking country.”

- extract from a letter I wrote after my 1982 Arthurs trip.

[One of my 1982 photos showing the Arthurs' skyline]
In the same letter I reported that we had only one day of rain in a whole week on the range. If the first day of our 2017 trip has me questioning my wisdom in coming with Mick and Eden this time, those earlier words show that it wasn’t solely a case of amnesia.

On day 2 we wake to cloud. Showers are scudding by, and there’s a swirling wind up where we’ll be going today. We move slowly, timing our eating, toileting and packing up around breaks in the weather. Apart from anything else it’s so good just being in this stunning place that hurrying somehow seems out of order. Anyway I’m a little stiff and sore after yesterday, so slow is good.

But after breakfast the degree of purpose grows, especially when a drying wind gives us a chance to pack up semi-dry tents. That done we have a quick look at the maps before hoisting our packs for the climb out of Lake Cygnus. Today is not a long day, just 2½ to 4 hours of “reasonably easy walking”, according to Chapman. That’s if you don’t do side trips to various peaks. And by the look of the cloud levels, we probably won’t be tempted to do that.

[Lunch between Mt Hayes and Square Lake]
That initial climb is tough first thing, but that’s the reality of most days on the Arthurs. By the time we reach the ridge it’s cold and wet, and a keen breeze is whistling around the rocks. Somewhere above us is the cloud-shrouded bulk of Mt Hayes. We have to “sidle” around this, “descend steeply” from it, then “traverse” towards Square Lake. Take these innocent sounding words, mix them with showers, cold, thick cloud and a stiff breeze, throw in a rough and rocky track, and you end up with tough walking conditions. Even in the rarest, fairest of weather, this is not an easy walk.

[Christmas Bells brighten a moody Square Lake]
We shelter behind rocks in a saddle beneath Procyon Peak and have a quick lunch. The sun almost shines a few times, and we get glimpses of Hayes and beyond. But by the time we’re slowly climbing back towards Square Lake, it’s raining again. The ascending traverse from Square Lake to Lake Oberon is slow. Navigation is always tricky in clag. I remember that we have the mother of all “steep descents” to reach that lake, but by the time we reach it, the thick cloud disguises it. There might be a degree of mercy in that. As we peer down, there’s just a swirling grey abyss. A dark cliff blends into the mist on one side, and on the other there’s just menacing mist.

["Seriously, down here?" Eden descends towards Lake Oberon]
It becomes one of those tracks that you start to follow, decide must be wrong because it looks impossible, and look around desperately for a better way. Of course there isn’t a better way, and as though to convince us, we get a few glimpses of Lake Oberon way below us. Mick lets out an “Ah hah”, exultant that we’re getting close to this iconic place. Not wanting to get ahead of ourselves, we quickly re-focus on the immediate task. How do we actually get down?

We talk about taking off our packs, and roping them down. Instead we put on our scrub gloves, to give us better grip on the cold, wet rocks. Then slowly, one at a time, each of us grips, grunt and bum-slides a little further down. We are keeping close to the improbable security of the cliff, which has water dripping from it. At the end of an already taxing day this is wearing, and scaring. In conditions like this we could easily fall and be seriously injured.

[The cloud lifts, and there's Lake Oberon!]
When Eden, who is out front, let’s out a “woo hoo”, our mood suddenly lightens. It’s not the bottom – far from it – but it’s the end of the worst section. As if to reinforce that, we come to an unexpected section of boardwalk, which takes us on a circuitous route through wet forest, then onto rocky knolls, and finally down to Lake Oberon.

[A tiny creek in the Lake Oberon basin]
We’re all glad, but Mick is ecstatic. Like generations of those who love wild Tasmania, he has always admired Peter Dombrovskis’ photograph of Lake Oberon. As we set up our tents in the well-sheltered campsite, he admits that this is something of a pilgrimage for him. And despite – or even because of – the wild weather that’s followed us down here, he’s not at all disappointed with the reality of this place. Oh yes for Oberon!

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