Sunday 30 October 2011

A Good Walk Spoiled

[The Leeaberra Track Part 1]

Below Heritage Falls on the Douglas River 

The obsessions of youth often signify something more than the object of the obsession. Girls and horses is one that’s been well explored, but there are many others. I, for instance, was obsessed with golf. By my late teens I had become good enough to play off a single digit handicap. Once I even completed an 18 hole round in one under par. This secured me a trophy whose uselessness was profoundly amusing. A cut crystal sherry decanter was not the perfect prize for a (then) teetotal 17 year old.

By my early twenties I had lost enthusiasm for golf, and was developing some sympathy for Mark Twain's summation of it as a good walk spoiled. Even at the height of my obsession I was at times distracted from golf by the flora and fauna on view on my home course. I remember staring boggle-eyed at spawning eels; pondering the amazing semi-submerged life of mangroves; being transported by the warbling of butcher birds; laughing at the acrobatic antics of galahs. It didn't bode well for my golfing future, but was certainly a pointer to interests that now predominate.

I was reminded of all this when we recently walked the Leeaberra Track in Tasmania's Douglas-Apsley National Park. The three day walk normally begins at Thompsons Marshes, inland of the east coast town of Bicheno. But severe flooding in recent years had taken out two bridges on the access road. Without a four wheel drive vehicle to get us to the track head, we were forced to walk an extra 5.5 kilometres up old logging tracks. It was like having to play golf off the back marker.

To add to our handicap, it was one of those rare October days that gets uncomfortably hot. The walk – from near sea level to 400 metres – proved cruelly, sweatily tedious. We had estimated it would take us between one and a half and two hours. It took nearly three and a half. We arrived at Thompsons Marshes late in the afternoon, thirsty, sweaty and feeling as though we had already done our day’s work. Welcome to the start of the walk!

Tim and Lynne at the "start" of the track, 3 and a half hours after starting!

A good campsite can cover a multitude of sins, and when we finally got to the first night’s camp beside the Douglas River, it turned out to be one of those. Nestled high on the river bank, beneath a canopy of tall trees, the site had most of what you could ask for, including some useful lounging logs.

The hot clear day had turned to a cool clear night, and after a welcome meal, and an even more welcome wash in the river, we relaxed against our logs. Stars pricked the dark above us. Robbed of some familiarity by the trees that blocked our view of their companions, the stars’ beauty and mystery seemed to multiply.

As the river shushed, and currawongs bugled a cheery last post, I contemplated getting out my tripod and trying for a long exposure shot of the canopied stars. But the physical and mental effort needed felt beyond me. Instead comfort, inertia and sore muscles prevailed. After a little more lounging and yarning, we stumbled off to our tents, and slept like our campsite’s logs.

From very early the birds were up and active. A tuning orchestra of calls drew me into consciousness, from the clink of currawongs, the ding of green rosellas, and the cheeeerr of fantailed cuckoos; to the chip of crescent honeyeaters, the weeee of firetails and the dizzy-dizzy-dee of grey fantails. You realise how tuned to birds you’ve become when you’re identifying their calls before you’ve even registered you’re awake!

The morning was set aside for waterfall visits. If you hanker after high mountains and expansive views, the Leeaberra Track would probably not be your first choice. But if you can’t get enough of running, tumbling, gushing, falling or tranquil rock-cloistered water, it’s near enough to perfect.

Tim takes a shortcut down the Douglas River

We picked our way down steep and sometimes slippery tracks – and non-tracks – to the two falls that neighboured our campsite: Heritage and Leeaberra Falls. This was as far as I had been on previous visits to the north of the park. I remember being surprised to find waterfalls of this height and volume in the “dry” east of Tassie.

Flowing water has always entranced me, and although the flow over the falls was more modest this time, it was still impressive enough to still conversation. Each of us wandered around the falls, photographed, or just sat contemplating the ever-changing interplay between fluid and rock.

We knew we soon had to return to the campsite and put those heavy packs back on. Yet somehow the night’s rest and our exposure to this beauty had already started to unspoil this good walk. We were ready for day two.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

The Seeing-Nose Dog

Our dog "Noo" enjoying the bush 

Quadrupeds are not meant to trip. So it is a little unsettling that our dog, Noo, has started tripping over on our walks through the bush. That she is also barking at shapes and shadows, and has a tell-tale milky film over her eyes, is enough to convince us of the hard truth. At almost fifteen years of age, she is starting to lose her eyesight.

She is going deaf too, seeming to ignore our normal whistles and calls, and only responding to loud claps and yells. I haven’t clapped while walking since we were advised to do this in the Alaskan bush, as a way of alerting bears to our presence. I’m still not entirely sure it wasn’t a joke they play on visitors, as they also told us to sing and talk loudly, and to wear “bear bells”. When you’ve behaved in such a loony fashion while walking, a little clapping and shouting seems quite ordinary in comparison.

When I was young my sisters and I used to debate which would be worse: losing your sight or losing your hearing. As my eyes age and glasses become an essential part of life, I admit to tasting slightly the grief of that power fading. If I was unable to hear music or birdsong or soft conversation, that grief would grow terribly.

Yet somehow I cannot project such grief onto our dog, even as I holler and clap my way through our daily walk. She sheds the years every time we are out, bounding puppy-like through the bush. Although she may stumble over the odd stick or rough spot, I would still back her to find her way home blindfolded. Nose to the ground, scanning territory like an ill-disciplined minesweeper, she has her number one sense fully and joyfully in operation.

"Noo" reads the bush through smell and taste 
I am a pauper in this smelling game. Deploying my mere five million smell receptors from 1.75 metres above the ground, Noo puts her 200 million receptors right onto the subject. She also uses 40% more of her brain to smell than I do. So rather than mourning her declining capacities, or metaphorically putting her out to pasture, I really should engage her as my seeing-nose dog!

I fancy, for instance, that she could tell me a great deal about the cast of characters that have had this bush as their stage all night. Here a pademelon or a family of possums; there a goshawk or a frogmouth. And she’d doubtless fill me in on the plot too: a dispute in this tree; a scent marking on that bush; an owl's pursuit and kill over there; plus the ordinary munch, scratch, hiss and growl of everynight in our bush.

While my life with dogs did not start auspiciously – my first childhood dog was a neurotic people-biter – I have since had four long-lived, characterful and faithful dogs. They have sometimes been hard work, as most worthwhile things are. But time spent with them in the bush has taught me new ways of looking and feeling and smelling and hearing. And their joyful dedication to the present tense is something I am constantly striving to learn. 

Dog tired! Our 1980s dog "Wup" shares a rest with me during a bushwalk (photo - KDM)