Monday, 20 December 2010

Thoughts from the Overland Track: Part 3 - Transitions

Lake Will, with Barn Bluff behind (Cradle Mt-Lk St Clair National Park, Tasmania)
To live is to be in transition. And for me, extended walking is both a metaphor for such change, and an opportunity to reflect on it.


On the Overland Track, with the clutter of urban life on hold, transitions become clearer. For a start there is the weather. It comes and goes in all its swirling, inconvenient, thrilling, inexorable and transitory glory. And for better or worse, you’re out there with it.


On day two we leave Waterfall Valley with cloud shredding from the summit of Barn Bluff. By the time we reach the turn-off to Lake Will, hardly an hour later, the spring sun has burned the cloud away. For the first time in many visits to the area, I will see Lake Will in still and brilliant sunshine.

The lake is shallow, formed in an ice-scooped depression left behind by the last glaciation. If the lake has any frozen memories, it is keeping them to itself today. It shimmers and scintillates beneath the darkly handsome bluff. Yet the next day the cloud will return, and the day after that Barn Bluff, along with all the higher peaks along the track, will have a light cloak of new snow.

We are noticing other transitions by then. Before and after Lake Windermere, we begin to conjecture that buttongrass rules here. The high, wide and gently undulating valleys are covered in the sedge and its associated species. They give the area such a tawny gold hue that some European explorers envisioned vast livestock herds grazing here.

But then, quite suddenly, as we draw close to Mt Pelion West, we dip into wet forest. The mountain draws moisture to itself, even here on its leeward side. That combined with the easterly aspect and the steep slope, lays the foundation for a forest of myrtle beech, sassafras, king billy pine and celery-top pine.

"Gondwanan" wet forest in the Pelion area, Overland Track
In human terms buttongrass’s dominance is ancient, partly the result of Aboriginal burning over perhaps 40 000 years. But the wet forests which have retreated to the soggy slopes and gullies are another order more ancient still, dating back to Gondwanan antecedents that originated maybe 100 million years ago.

Here in the Pelions the interface between wet forest species, and grasses, sedges and trees such as eucalypts, represents an evolutionary frontline. It is the transition zone between ancient moisture-loving, fire-sensitive plants and those which ultimately benefit from fire and drought.

If you combined the patience of Job and the life span of Methuselah, you would still struggle to witness this botanical changing of the guard. But if – as seems likely – we are in transition from cooler and wetter to warmer and drier climate, it’s a change that looks irresistible.

All the more reason to love what we have while we still have it.

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