Friday, 8 April 2011

Returning to Rhona (3)

Part 3: No Substitute Heart



An aerial photo of Lake Pedder, summer 1971. The beach, here at its summer maximum, is around 700m wide. (photo by Lands Department, courtesy  "The South West Book", eds. Janet Fenton and Helen Gee, 1978) 


"I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.” – Vladimir Nabokov.


It's late 1971. The Vietnam War is grinding on, protest is in the air, and the straggles of my first beard are appearing. School's out forever, and some mates have invited me to Tasmania to climb Federation Peak and see Lake Pedder.

I am keen to test myself on Australia’s wildest mountain, and roused to anger by the impending destruction of this stunning lake. But I am also a penniless student, and ultimately I decline the invitation. It becomes one of the few regrets of my life, a mere lack of money now looking a feebly thin excuse.

By the time a job and money have come along, and I get to see the south-west, it is 1976. Lake Pedder, “the heart of the south-west wilderness”, is 20 metres beneath a hydro-electric impoundment. The new lake is becoming a fishing destination, its amazing golden/pink quartzite beach entombed in water, its new shoreline a beach-less scar haunted by skeleton trees.

To this day Federation Peak and Lake Pedder remain central to my personal iconography. Surely to anyone they could justly represent a wild, post-Pleistocene, dynamic balance; exemplary remnants of Tasmania’s timeless struggle with ice; the yin and yang of our wilderness. The one resistant, forbidding, defiant; the other yielding, welcoming, constantly changing.

It’s in this context, a decade or so after the damming, that I first visit Lake Rhona. Those who lead the walk are partly motivated by the supposed resemblance between Pedder and Rhona. There is still a keen grief at the loss of Pedder, ‘though some talk of the existence of Rhona as some kind of consolation. “Come and see what Pedder was like”, says one old-timer.

I can admit a fleeting, superficial resemblance between the two: both the results of glacial action; both possessing beautiful quartzite sand beaches. Yet as a student of earth science I know that the geological and geomorphological provenances of the lakes are very different. Pedder is in a basin at less than 300m altitude. It is broad, expansive, occupying an out-wash plain with the Frankland Range set back. Rhona sits at 900m, a compact alpine lake occupying a glacial cirque, tightly beset by the tilting Denison Range.

But forget the science! Hear what artist Max Angus says about the experience of Pedder.

No description, however detailed, could remotely convey the sense of awe and wonder felt by those who saw this magic place … the overwhelming sense is of space and light … you look at an infinity of sky and mountains reflected all around in the impeccable surface of the lake.” (from “Lake Pedder”, The Wilderness Society, B. Brown (ed), 1986)

Contrast that with my first experience of Rhona. We stagger down to the lake by torchlight, our group hopelessly optimistic and horribly delayed. We set up tents on a beach that is narrow, set about by trees and surrounded by what we guess to be vast heights, even in the dark. We are so exhausted we barely notice.




Lake Rhona: dark perfection and quartz sand beach nestled beneath the Denison Range 


And in the morning we know that we are in the presence of a beauty that is perfectly its own, and no substitute. Comparisons are odious, although the grief behind them is to be encouraged. In the presence of this small gem, it is fair, for a time, to feel the loss of the great jewel. Even if some future generation pulls the plug on the dam, I feel that it is unlikely I will ever see Pedder. I had my chance, and missed it: a double grief perhaps.

But Rhona remains, and I will not allow it to be diminished by asking it to be a substitute heart. Since that first visit, nearly 30 years ago, I have unrolled my magic carpet and journeyed to this perfect place four more times. Here it seems possible to join Nabokov in ceasing to believe in time.
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