Saturday 26 November 2011

Listening to the River

[The Leeaberra Track Part 3]

 Lynne and Tim at "The Growler", Douglas River

And on the third day we rested. I realise God managed to wait till the seventh day, but clearly we are not in His league. We had already planned two nights at the second campsite, so when the rain persisted through the morning, we needed little persuasion to stay in our sleeping bags.

All morning light rain fell, pooling in the tree tops, sending plopping drops, loud and large, onto our tents. The river shooshed along nearby; birds chitted and sang; we chatted, read or dozed, stirring only when bodily urges dictated. There is something profoundly satisfying about this kind of rest after exertion, especially when you are warm and dry and in good company.

Until well into the afternoon, the benignly wet weather continued to give us an excuse not to get up. We breakfasted in our tents, with only a quick excursion outside – during a dry spell – to boil the billy. But by late lunchtime our luck ran out: the showers ceased. Via negotiation hollered from tent to tent, we agreed to emerge for a late lunch and a “leg stretch”.

Rockpool detail, Douglas River 

Our exercise, carrying only day-packs and camera gear, comprised a very slow stroll up the very beautiful Douglas River. Deeply enthralled, we stopped frequently to photograph, share our finds, or just simply watch and listen to this lovely small stream. How perfectly Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” captures the spell that the river wove around us that afternoon!

Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.

At our slow wandering pace, we started to notice detail: the varying sounds of water on rocks, the contrasting textures and colours of rocks, the changing smells from forest litter to waterfall ozone. One small waterfall we dubbed “the growler”, as its particular geometry gave it a deep, resonant “voice”.

A little further upstream we added to the bestiary when we saw a “crocodile”! Joint lines in sedimentary rock aligning with eroded holes to create not one but two stylised sets of croc jaws and eyes. Facing each other, they looked like some sort of primitive bas-relief of crocodiles kissing.

The "Kissing Crocodiles" sit above a coal seam, Douglas River 
Beneath our stylised reptiles, we were surprised again to find a coal seam with evidence of 19th century mining, in the form of an adit, a kind of horizontal shaft. Just how desperately difficult it must have been to mine and move coal from this rugged and enclosed valley is evidenced by the small scope of the extraction.

We noticed other less benevolent aspects of the river. Despite the bed of the stream being wide and well watered, we saw very few shrubs or trees at low levels. Instead we found freshly concussed rock, savagely pruned trees, and mounds of debris and flood wrack, some of it well up the river’s banks. Clearly the floods of the previous winter, and the winter before, had scoured much of the vegetation flat.

On a calm and gentle spring day it was hard to imagine this. But the occasional forest giant, dead, bare and lodged up the bank, gave us some idea of the ferocity of flooding.

A gentle river today, but the gouged tree tells another story
Eventually we wandered, hopped and scrambled our way back to camp. We had plenty to talk and think about. I found it interesting that a few short hours immersed in a place like this could have us noticing and naming features; pondering on significant events and changes; creating a kind of a mental map that meant more to us than the cartographic one. Given several thousand years, would these kinds of thoughts become song-lines? Or part of the dreaming? Was that how it worked for Aboriginal people who lived intimately with places like this for so long?

Whatever the answer, as I settled back into camp for a second night, it was more than the starry sky that had me feeling small – and young.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

And the Weather Gods Smiled

[The Leeaberra Track Part 2]

Ah, the pleasures of walking in spring in Tasmania! You never know what cards the weather gods are going to deal you. In that regard it's much the same as walking here in summer or autumn. Or winter, for that matter.

On day two the vague forecast for this part of the world is for late rain. But by the middle of the day the clouds are already thickening. After our morning being seduced by the cooling waters and other delights of the Douglas River at the Heritage Falls campsite, we discuss staying another night. We end up agreeing that we’ve seen the area's major sights, and convince ourselves that the clouds actually mean it won't be as hot as yesterday.

Consulting the map, we note that our ascent to the next high point is only about one and a half hours: a much shorter time – and smaller altitude gain – than yesterday. Surely it can’t be that bad? We sling our packs up onto logs, wince our way into them, and immediately feel our resolve eroding.

Fresh is a relative term here, but with slightly fresher legs and lungs, we manage to scramble up the slope, around or over numerous windfall trees. For most of the first hour it's sharply steep, but then it levels off accommodatingly. Tim’s theory is that there are always four false summits before you reach the top. We hope he's wrong, but by the time we reach the day's high point - the saddle near Lookout Hill - we seem to have confirmed his theory.

[Tim plunges through the ferns on the Leeaberra Track, Day 2] 

There are, of course, various ways to beat false summits. One is not to walk at all, but that seems lazy, if not cowardly. Another is to drop onto the ridge top by parachute or helicopter. I once did the latter, in the line of duty of course, landing on top of the Ironbound Range, on Tasmania's South Coast Track. After the peace-shattering chopper had left, I sampled the walk from the Ironbounds down to Louisa Bay for some map notes I was preparing. Carrying a day pack and talking into a tape recorder (yes, so last century!), I found the experience surprisingly unsatisfying, despite the stunning scenery. Maybe one of the rules of walk satisfaction is that you have to sweat and toil for your moments of joy.

Certainly at our saddle on the Leeaberra Track we’re sweaty and breathing hard, in need of a long drink and scroggin break. The promised rain seems to have vapourised, and the sun is back again, hot and strong. We don’t bother to find out exactly where the lookout part of Lookout Hill is. There’s eucalypt forest in most directions, and we're doubtful any high point will offer a less interrupted view than where we have stopped.

To the east we can see the long strands of Templestowe and Seymour Beaches. Further south we think we make out the township of Bicheno, tucked in behind hazy hills. As we guzzle water and Sour Squirm lollies, our conversation and imaginings turn towards the town, with its lattes and thick crust pizzas; its hot showers and soft beds.

What are we thinking? These are dangerous musings at such an early stage in a walk! With warning words against the "fleshpots of Bicheno", I hoist my pack and hurry off down the track, brushing noisily through a thick green understorey of hardwater ferns. The sound drags me back to the here and now.

For a time we're into the kind of easy rhythm that sometimes comes on the second day, especially when you're walking downhill. Still, it's a long march, and we're staggering again by the time we reach the next turn-off. I'm inclined to give the side-trip to Nichols Cap and Nichols Needles a miss; anything to get us to the campsite sooner. But I'm soon convinced that I may never pass this way again; may never get to see these unusual dolerite pillars up close again.

[Lynne and Tim on Nichols Cap, with Nichols Needles behind] 
We replace heavy, full packs with light day-packs and almost skip toward what proves to be a surprisingly spectacular sight. I've seen and climbed many dolerite mountains, and yet somehow these smaller siblings hold their own for being in this humbler east coast setting. From the bony prominence of the Cap we look down a quite vertiginous drop between us and the twin spikes of the Needles. But the wind is rising and the cloud thickening. It's time to strap on our engines of torture for today's final push.

We stumble down to the campsite late, but there's time to set up our tents and cook dinner before it's dark. Just as we finish it starts to sprinkle, and by the time we're into our sleeping bags, there's a steady patter of rain to send us to sleep. We're smiling: just occasionally the weather gods are spectacularly benign.

[Consolation: the second Douglas River campsite]