Tuesday 14 June 2011

Table Service

There are mountains, and then there are mountains. Even if we don’t know much about them, we know what we like.

Undeniably beautiful: Tasmania's Cradle Mountain, reflected in Dove Lake  
Cradle Mountain, for instance, seems to have a universal appeal. Stand at Dove Lake on the right kind of day, with the shapely mountain reflected in the lake’s tranquil, tannin-tinged waters, and you’ll be hard to please if you aren’t enraptured.

Table Mountain is not that sort of mountain. For me, for the 30 plus years I’ve been driving Tasmania’s Midland Highway, Table Mountain has been one of those mildly interesting landforms I’ve acknowledged as I’ve driven past.

It’s a flat-topped, doleritic eminence that draws the eye only because of its remarkable flatness – hardly a characteristic we’d attribute to beautiful mountains. And yet the explorer in me has always pondered what it would be like up there; how you would get there; what you’d see from its flat roof.

Such seeds usually germinate. So, when a cold winter’s night broke into the sort of clear morning that sang “climb a mountain today!”, I decided Table Mountain’s turn had come. We knew little about the access, just a road number and a property name about 20 minutes north of Bothwell. But both were obvious, as was the steep-sided, flat-topped slab of Table Mountain rising out of the forests to our east.

Tasmania's humble Table Mountain, as seen from the Bothwell-Interlaken Rd 

The farmer whose property we would have to traverse was a man of few words. Cautious, and possibly suspicious of our intentions, he finally thawed enough to show us the recommended farm track. But he still made us walk all the way rather than take the car any closer through his property.

Snow had fallen earlier in the week, and patches persisted in the shade beside the farm track. We quickly pulled the mountain closer, surprised that legs and lungs working hard can do this! Once, when studying ancient Hebrew as part of a theology degree, my professor used a phrase that has stuck with me. When he thought me impatient he would say “Al regel ahat”. It translates literally as “on one foot”, and he meant that I wanted to learn it all in one quick hit.

The implication was that I needed to take it one step at a time. The words have now become something of a mantra for me while bushwalking. No matter whether you’re fast or slow, a streaker or a snail, you can only get there by putting one foot in front of the other. Al regel ahat.

Of course a track helps too, and for this walk there wasn’t one, just a maze of forestry and fire trails, and a very obvious cliff-line in front of us. Fortunately the line-of-least-resistance route to the top was also obvious. With a little slipping and sliding, and huffing and puffing, we soon stood on the 1095m table-top.

The mountain's flat top probably derives from a combination of geology and geomorphology. Geologically it looks like the top of a broad sill created when rising molten dolerite hit resistant layers and spread out beneath. Its geomorphological history would have involved a stripping away of that overburden, and a bull-dozing flat by ice sheets over a few ice ages.

I suppose I'd imagined that, as a result of these forces, the top would be rocky and flat; perhaps not billiard table flat, but at least clear and open. Instead we found a stunted, snowy forest, on gently undulating ground, with only the cliff edges clear.

But the views were every bit as good as I imagined. North-west were Great Lake, with the distant Walls of Jerusalem behind. West we could see many of the peaks of the Cradle Mt-Lake St Clair National Park; south the Wellington Range, and between them the snow-clad peaks of Mt Field National Park.

Dolerite table service, on Table Mountain, Tasmania 

We found ourselves a perfect table-like rock for lunch. In warm sun, with clear skies and hardly a breath of wind, only the snow on the peaks around us hinted at winter. That and the lengthening shadows which, even by 2pm, reminded us to be off the mountain and back to the car by 4pm. Without a tent and warm overnight gear, you would not want to be benighted out here.

Still the sun was so beguiling that we dallied on the return walk, finding a sun-filled meadow among tall but sparse trees. While we soaked up some gentle vitamin D, a South American mountain was helping to add a spectacular end to the day. Volcanic ash in the stratosphere was not only delaying 20 000 Aussie plane travellers, it was catching the sun's final rays and reflecting them back at the earth. Little compensation to air travellers, but unforgettable to those on foot.

A perfect ending to a wonderful day out walking 

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