Thursday 30 July 2009

Federation Peak - Part 14

[part 14 of a 15 part series decribing an ascent of Tasmania's Federation Peak]

14) Further Down

Bechervaise Plateau to Paperbark Camp, Friday February 8th, 1991

During the night I dream vividly. I am late, hurrying to get to the top of a massive and impossibly steep mountain. I’ve become separated from the rest of the group. I turn one way and see the top of the mountain far above, fast disappearing beneath thick dark cloud. I turn the other way and there, well below me, I see someone taking a wrong turn. But it’s no-one from my group. It looks more like my sister Liz. I call down to warn her, but my voice won’t work. Do I go on or go back? Lightning flashes in the distance, back where we should be camping.

I wake up to the applause of rain on the tent. It is still dark, but the sound of water teases my full bladder. I roll over, try to ignore it, try to re-enter the dream. But by the time light leaks into the tent I give up and wriggle out of my sleeping bag. I poke my head out of the tent and look around. The rain has eased, but shreds of wet cloud are all around, and there is no mountain. I bother to put on my rainjacket and boots before walking a few metres from the tent. I unzip and piss extravagantly on the already sodden grass. Jim hears and calls out “Put that thing away!” as he usually does. I answer by loudly passing wind in his direction. I wait for the retort, which is usually “Give ‘er a bit more choke and she’ll start”, but instead Jim too unzips his tent and goes with the flow.

The call of nature answered, Jim and I stand out in the cloudscape for a couple of minutes. Bill joins us. There’s so much we could say to each other about how we feel, but in blokey fashion we focus instead on trivia and practicalities. The other “stuff” will come out more obliquely, perhaps while we’re walking. But now Jim tells a good joke, which reminds me of another that I botch in the retelling. We all laugh anyway. Then we’re on to practical matters such as how long we’ll take to walk out and when we should leave. We’re about to settle on a deadline for leaving when the clouds open again, and we rush back to our respective tents.

We stay tent-bound all morning, with minor excursions between showers to exchange food, jokes or card games. Against my better judgement I get talked into a game of four-handed 500 in Jim and Bill’s tent, with the Doc joining in. It’s very snug, the deck isn’t the right sort, and the game soon turns to farce, especially when Jim starts losing. I choose my moment to exit with trowel and toilet paper. It’s still raining, and an appropriate toilet spot is some distance away, but somehow it appeals more than a bickering card game.

The heavy showers ease around lunchtime, ‘though the wind returns, shredding the clouds and revealing Fedder for the first time since yesterday afternoon. It looks vast and yet disembodied without sky behind it. Instead cloud in several tints of grey sets it off dramatically. I stare at it in disbelief. Have I really climbed up there? Despite the wind and cloud, the rain stays away, so we drape tents around the nearby foliage in the hope that they’ll dry out before we leave. Everything is wet and cold, and packing up is messy. We eat a hasty and not-so-tasty lunch before folding the still damp tents and adding them to decidedly lumpy-looking packs. Then without ceremony we leave Bechervaise Plateau and plunge once more onto Moss Ridge.

The downhill going is every bit as difficult as the uphill, and the heavy rain has made parts of it quite treacherous. But it is faster, especially as we have a new-found feeling of invulnerability. By late afternoon we reach Cutting Camp, pausing for an ironic toast to “Hanrahan”, who was wrong. We’re basically down now – the hardest walking done – but if we’re to get out at a reasonable time tomorrow, we need to be further on tonight. Walking always seems to ask this “extra mile” of you, yet this time I don’t mind. I take to botanising, something Ray Spedding got me interested in years ago. Often in the midst of a walk he’d stop, drop to his knees with a sharp exclamation, and closely examine some plant or other. Inevitably walkers would gather around, and next thing we’d be learning about the finer points of (say) a trigger plant’s amazing pollination trick. At times I’d thought it just a convenient excuse for a rest – and it did seem that the older he got the more he took an interest in plants. But I also found myself thoroughly sucked into the fascination of plants, and why they grow where they do.

Here between Moss Ridge and the Cracroft I start to notice the colours changing. The deep greens of the higher altitude rainforest are seguing into the grey-greens of the more eucalypt dominated forest. The soil too is losing clay and gaining sand. We are heading east, where drier gum forests rule. As it turns out, the Eucalyptus nitida forest around Paperbark Camp is fairly typical of western-style forest, and we still have plenty of south-west buttongrass and dripping forest to pass through yet. But as we reach the camp that afternoon it feels as though we’ve crossed a border and are into more familiar territory.

It adds to the more-than-usually cheerful atmosphere that’s been on us all day, and the camp that night is full of jokes and good-natured banter. Even Marg takes to joke-telling, a talent she’s hidden from us till now. And to cap off the night Jim pulls out his wine bladder, which still has a couple of drams of port in it. He spares a few drops for those who want some. But when he goes on again about its authentic Spanish origins, we all chant together “as used by shepherds in the Pyrenees”. Jim takes the hint and cuts the story short, but not before muttering a few mock-churlish words about us all being “ingrates”. Whatever the wineskin’s origins, the contents prompt Bill to recite a couple of lines of poetry, including some of Said Hanrahan. That in turn elicits my groan-worthy accusation that things have gone “from bladder to verse”.

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