Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Returning to Rhona (4)

Part 4: Wasting the Wilderness

Autumn 2011. Trip number 5 to Lake Rhona starts in the kind of summer weather we've not seen during summer itself. We cross a summer river, walk up a summer valley, feel the peat-bound heat of summer reflecting back at us fiercely. We climb that final summer hill and promise we'll slake our thirsts in the deliciously cool summer cup that is Lake Rhona.


Lake Rhona, with Reeds Peak behind. An idyllic scene, but the dead standing pines tell a story  

On every bushwalking trip I carry baggage. I don't mean the sort that fits inside my pack, but the emotional kind. On trips to Lake Rhona, the memory of the tragic loss of Lake Pedder is the heaviest of these, no matter how much I insist that Rhona and Pedder are completely distinct from each other.

I lost a sister to cancer at a tragically young age. To this day her now-adult daughters always remind me of her. That's not to say they don't each have their own unique and treasured identity. It's a simple acknowledgement of what gets caught in memory's net.

To walk through any part of the Tasmanian wilderness is to be reminded of its past: what it has lost; the threats it has faced; the threats it continues to face.

For me it starts with a loud absence: that of Tasmania's Palawa. In the 1830s escaped convicts, Goodwin and Connolly, reported seeing many Aboriginal huts in the Vale of Rasselas. Within decades they and their occupants had either died or been driven from the area.

Ironically the absence of their fire use opened the area to greater fire risks. Aboriginal burning was generally small-scale and out of peak season. Its main purpose was to clear localised hunting grounds. European burning was less judicious, and too often of a timing and scale that brought landscape-wide devastation.

Early on this was for exploration, mining and grazing. But later forestry burning had a huge impact too. Even Ernie Bond, who was not averse to burning his grazing grounds, was aghast at the effect of post-war forestry fires in the Gordon, Florentine and Rasselas valleys.

On my first trip to Rhona there was another piece of heavy "baggage". The summer before a hazard reduction burn in the Florentine had gone drastically wrong. The fire had escaped, burned through the Vale of Rasselas, and found its way up to a defenseless Lake Rhona.

The great majority of the stunning King Billy pine forest that lined its northern shore was burned and lost. Dead stumps still stand there today, the pines' residue resin keeping them preserved from rot, vertical but lifeless. Nature abhors a vacuum: eucalypts have largely filled the void, with just a few King Billys left alive to remind us of our folly.


A King Billy pine clings to life on the shores of Lake Rhona 

Meanwhile, back in autumn 2011. Exhaustion and a late arrival prevent us from keeping our promise to drink Rhona's cup dry. But on the way up we've also been discussing the touchy issue of toileting in this area. It has started us thinking about the quality of the water in the lake. By our back-of-the-envelope calculations, bushwalkers deposit around 1 000 "number twos" around the lake shore every year. This being an alpine area, we've learned that decomposition of solid waste is very slow. Essentially most bushwalkers here are "pooing in their own nest", to borrow some technical ornithological terminology!

Our inspection of the area immediately behind the campsite confirms some fairly squalid toileting practices. Solid waste and toilet paper are not hard to find. Some has been buried in shallow sand, an easy find for the wildlife. The presence of a bold - and very plump - native rat (probably Mastacomys fuscus) at the campsite has us speculating in a very ugly direction regarding its diet!

By mutual agreement our party has decided to walk the 100-200 metres out of the catchment area to do our "number twos". Another solution would be to use "poo tubes". This combination of biodegradable bags and large tight-lidded plastic "pots" (approx. 10cm in diameter) for storing and carrying human waste, is the ultimate "carry in, carry out" practice.



Lake Rhona water: as cool and clear as iced tea ... we hope!

Some find the thought of this as gross as considering the Rhona rat's diet. Many would prefer someone else take responsibility for removing their waste, hence the popular call for a fly-in-fly-out toilet to be placed behind Rhona's beach. Personally I hope we can learn from our wilderness mistakes of the past, and start to take a deeper responsibility for removing unnecessary traces from these wild places.
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