Sunday 27 February 2011

Never Truly Lost: Part 2

Off-track: Traversing a boulder field on kunanyi/Mt Wellington (Tasmania)

We are creatures of the grid. It’s written in the landscapes we make; the rectilinear neatness of our footpaths, roads and railways; the cubed containment of our buildings; the maps we use to describe them all. Even our minds, as the digital age bites deeper, seem more and more inclined toward binary ways of thinking.

It’s enough to make you want to go off-grid from time to time, to seek some of the rounded, fecund chaos of the natural world. For me that not only means ‘going bush’, but making the extra effort to occasionally go off-track.

As I stand on the edge of the track, the safe, cairned or posted route, and scan the scrub, I am a sailor staring out to sea. Though I admire the view, and tell all who will listen that I love the ocean, until I push the boat out into the tide, I’m just another land lubber.

When I take that first few steps off the beaten path, I will notice an immediate difference. I will now feel the resistance of untrodden bushes, and will have to scan the ground for secure footing. I’ll notice the pungent waft of plant/earth/water/air; hear the crackle and scratch of undergrowth, the chip and chatter of bush birds.

I will find that I’m no longer merely traversing the terrain, I’m immersing myself in it. It is thrilling, and just a little chilling: an amalgam of newness and danger; freedom and risk.

Out in this sea of scrub, I start to see that tracks and maps and compasses and digital devices give us only an illusory mastery of the landscape. They can help, but I must equally rely on my senses. Wits, weather, maps, companions and dumb luck are all part of the mix when you’re off-track. Losing your way and then losing your head are a short-cut to losing your life.

Tasmania’s south-west wilderness provides many useful examples. The Frankland Range, for instance, has only vague routes and pads, rather than recognised tracks. Walkers tend to rely very much on visual cues and wobbles in topography that vary from the subtle to the gargantuan.

During one trip there, low cloud and phantom walker pads found us having to set up camp in the middle of some low alpine scrub. Only a few hundred metres from a known mountain, we thought that going on into the gloom would be too risky. It was a good decision, as we found out when the cloud lifted late the next morning.

Poor visibility and a series of minor navigational errors – despite proper use of map and compass - had compounded to take us onto a false spur. If we’d continued we’d have gone further in the wrong direction, and deeper into the unknown.

It’s not only cloud that can confound us in high places. The Southwest Cape Range, in the bottom left corner of Tasmania, is another largely trackless area. But here we found the trick was to tell the difference between pads formed by bushwalkers, and those formed by wombats or wallabies. The latter can make very fine routes, although they have limitations. Often a wombat pad continues as a low tunnel through thick scrub, leaving the walker to find their own way around – or through – the same scrub band.

It’s not necessary to be in the wilderness to get this “off-grid” feeling. I’ve discovered the same effect on the boulder streams of kunanyi/Mt Wellington. Although only a few hundred metres from the Pinnacle Road, we were free to choose to clamber over any and every dolerite boulder we wanted to, all the while wending our wonderfully wiggly way towards our destination.

Tenuiramis woodland, South Hobart, Tasmania

Still closer to home I might choose to wander off-path in South Hobart's tenuiramis woodlands, or wade and dally in the Domain's themeda grasslands. And I’ll discover much the same exhilaratioin about wandering off-track there as I will anywhere. It's not so much what our old maps used to warn us: 'Here be dragons'. It feels more like 'Here be fierce peace!'

Sunday 20 February 2011

Never Truly Lost: Part 1

Now Where Is That Track?
A relatively open bit of Tasmanian scrub. 

Never Truly Lost is what Paddy Pallin, pioneer bushwalker and outdoor gear maker, entitled his 1987 memoir. More than 3 decades later, with the advent of GPS, PLB, EPIRB and SPOT*, you might almost believe that Paddy’s wry boast was achievable by any bushwalker.

Going off track in Tasmania’s scrub should convince you otherwise. Scrub is no respecter of technology. I discovered this in the early day of GPS, when a techy friend and I went for a day walk in the Southern Ranges. Wandering off track in search of lyre birds, we entrusted our location to the small electronic brick that my friend had carted up the steep slope.

The beauty of this GPS, he told me, was that it would tell us exactly where we were, when used in conjunction with a map. Eventually, finding ourselves suitably lost, we fired up the device. For some minutes it scanned the sky for satellites, eventually finding enough to reveal exactly where we were. We soon confirmed on the topographic map that we were precisely 300 metres west of the marked track.

Desirable devices? (from left) A PLB, a GPS and SPOT
The simple solution would be to walk 300 metres east, and voila! we’d find the track. True enough, but the problem was that the intervening 300 metres was dense south-west scrub. On that occasion the scrub was kind, and it took less than half and hour to get back on track.

On other occasions I’ve been less fortunate. Once I spent more than four hours “walking” about 400 metres uphill to a known and visible destination – a banksia tree marking the end of a band of scrub. We had “misplaced” the track, but because we could see where we needed to be, we assumed that pushing through the scrub would be the best tactic. It wasn’t.

Carrying full packs into a wall of bauera, tea-tree and horizontal scrub, we did everything we could to make headway. We crawled; we rolled; we flung ourselves bodily into the scrub; we even climbed metres above the ground on see-sawing branches, feebly imitating Tarzan and Jane. We stumbled, fell, became covered in scratches and bruises, and wore botanical specimens from head to toe.

We cursed, swore, laughed, kicked, screamed and cried, and I came the closest I have ever come on a bushwalk to choosing to lie down and die. Try it for four hours and see if you don’t feel the same!

Somehow we eventually broke through to the banksia. We gave it a feeble hug before falling to the earth for a long, breathless, wordless rest.

This all happened before GPS was a twinkle in some military mind’s eye. But GPS would not have been any help. We knew where we were, we just (almost) couldn’t physically get to where we needed to be. 

As the same Paddy Pallin observed "in the bush, the problems of life are no longer complex." Perhaps not, but they certainly can be stark.

* Glossary

GPS = Global Positioning System

PLB = Personal Locator Beacon

EPIRB = Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon

SPOT = Satellite Personal Tracker

Friday 11 February 2011

Home Sweet Hut: Part 2

Reading the log book in the Friends' Scout Hut

Large huts and small huts are chalk and cheddar. The smaller structures offer a quieter, more intimate group experience. For a start buildings like Ironstone Hut, the Friends' Scout Hut and Junction Lake Hut  can only sleep four or five. And that changes the dynamic altogether.

The Friends’ Scout Hut is hugged to the bosom of some dolerite bluffs, giving it two solid rock walls. That and its snug size make loud conversation seem out of place, apt for a hut built by students from a Quaker school.

On our recent visit, only the wind raises its voice, whistling insistently at the door, tearing in vain at the join between corrugated iron and rock. Our mugs of hot coffee and handfuls of chocolate-laced scroggin taste all the better for that protection from the elements.

I ponder whether the cave-like feel of such huts awakens something primal in us. Time slows, talk is sparse, warmth and light grow in importance. Candles are perfect in huts, casting shifting shadows around the enclosed space, and the most wonderfully welcome glow to anyone coming in from outside.

The welcome glow of candles: a hut essential
Food preparation is unhurried, especially when there’s a fire in use. If we’re hungry there are always snacks being offered. Bench and preparation space is usually scarce, and yet by some unspoken agreement we will still eat our main meal all together. Perhaps it enables us to better carry on the convivial chatter – and mutual mockery – that so often accompany a small group on walks.

The experience of each hut is unique, just as each structure responds uniquely to its setting. Junction Lake Hut, built around 1970 by Dick Reed and friends, sits on a curving bend near the source of the Mersey River, and a little way back from the lake. It is made of pencil pine and King Billy palings, slabs and shingles that were split on site, and has a tin chimney (now closed off).

I was surprised to learn that Dick Reed was already in his 70s when he built this hut. He’d built one at Lake Meston just a year or two earlier, and a number of others in the decades before that. He knew the upper Mersey and Overland Track areas very well, creating his own maps complete with “boil-up” spots marking favoured tea-break stops.

After we’ve eaten and washed up, there’s a civilised jostle for beds. I end up with a top bunk, though whether through being slow or soft I can’t recall. I am content with that until the running river works its bladder-magic in the wee hours. Getting down from the rustic wooden bunk isn’t recommended in the dark, so the necessary scrabble for a torch and my subsequent clattering climb down, wake the other three.

Inside Ironstone Hut in Tasmania's Central Plateau

The need for relief becomes contagious. The next hour or more is taken up with a toileting procession and the humorous talk that follows. When silence eventually returns, I think up a ditty to put in the log book. I forget to take down a copy of my “poem”, but years later I can recall at least a few lines, including that the Mersey has no mercy and something about the watery attrition brings on thoughts of micturition

Huts breed simple pleasures.