Saturday, 21 January 2012

Nor Isobars a Cage

South West Cape Walk, Part 1

The track between Melaleuca and New Harbour 

It doesn’t pay to indebt yourself to the weather gods. After an unseasonally warm spring walk described here I had high hopes for our long-planned summer walk in the far south-west.
Yes, east is east, and south-west is south-west, and never the twain shall meet, in weather terms at least. But I was smiling as Christmas merged into New Year, and warm, dry weather patterns continued. With our group of five confirmed, we booked the light plane from Cambridge to Melaleuca for Monday the 9th. And almost immediately the long-term forecast started to go pear-shaped.
I’m a keen watcher of weather maps, having studied climatology for two years. It has made me wary of long-term forecasts, but as the day approached the forecasters unfortunately looked like being vindicated. Formerly bold high pressure systems suddenly became shy, shrinking like children at their mother’s skirt – in this case mainland Australia.
Isobars tightened as a series of cold fronts began to push up over Tasmania from the cold Southern Ocean. Four fronts in two days, gale warnings, forecasts of snow, swells to 7 metres off the south-west, winds over 100km/hour at Maatsuyker Island. These are NOT ideal precursors to a walk in the south-west!

Rain on the Plain, Melaleuca, Tasmania 
On Monday the 9th, after an almost sleepless night listening to wind howling through the trees, I was not surprised to get an early morning phone call from the airline saying our flights would be delayed till at least the afternoon by “unseasonally strong winds”. It was disappointing, but certainly not surprising.
What to do in the face of such news? My response was to go forecast shopping, as if to will the weather to recover from its ill disposition. I huddled over various different internet weather maps, checked ground observations, watched trends, assessed wind and precipitation projections. And of course I debated the future of the whole trip with other members of the party, some of them not all that keen to continue.
17th century English poet Richard Lovelace, once imprisoned for his political views, wrote the well known lines:

Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.
I tried to convince the group that a little wind and some showers need not stop us getting out there, changing Lovelace’s words to “nor isobars a cage.”
We agreed to set Tuesday afternoon as our flight deadline. Each of us had other commitments, and only a finite number of days off work. While we waited we cast around for other walks, all of them "softer", and all of them still prone to the very same weather pattern that seemed determined to engulf the state.
Around Tuesday lunchtime the call from the airline came, almost at the last possible minute.  We would be taking off at 1:30pm. We conferred, and agreed that this should give us enough time to arrive at Melaleuca, get organised, and walk to the New Harbour campsite before dark.

Rain on the Plane, Melaleuca Airstrip 
A few of the group popped airsick pills with our hurried lunch, and just before 2pm we lifted off into the showery and blustery beyond. Taking the coastal route via Cockle Creek and the south coast, we turned inland at Cox Bight and landed at Melaleuca during a light shower. Yes, the forecast was for further showers, and possibly storms with hail, but I still found that prospect better than the terrible cabin fever that had gripped me for 30 hours or more. As traveller Paul Theroux puts it, being kept waiting is the human conditon. So how good it was to be waiting no longer, and to be out in this wild and beautiful place!

Some of the planks on Tasmania's South Coast Track 
By 3pm we were walking the South Coast Track, the first few kilometres of which took us towards our own wilder, less-travelled track. By 3:10pm Jim, one of our most experienced walkers, had slipped and landed on his face and ribs on one of the first sections of planking. Bleeding and shaken, but still in one piece, he convinced us he was okay to continue. His ribs even coped with the mirth caused by our warnings against further “planking”. Still, it was not the happiest start to what was already a fraught trip.
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