Wednesday 27 February 2013

Visions in the Dark

A Mount Olympus Walk: Part 2

[The sun sets on Mt Olympus' south summit] 

Horizontal is good, very good. So too is being out of range of the flying blood-suckers. We lie in the tent reprising our day, trying to focus on the good things. Our muscles are loudly shouting the other side of the equation.

But we’re Aussies being positive: what better to do than dig deep into the book of cliches? “How’s the serenity?”, “You know you’re alive”, “How often do you get weather like this?”, “No-pain-no-gain”, “We may never pass this way again”, and so on. But mostly we just rejoice in being still and comfortable.

Before long the talk shifts to what we’re missing on this trip. Naturally we start with our respective spouses, and soon follow with our walking mate Jim. But we very quickly agree how glad we are that none of them has just gone through what we have.

More pragmatically we think to add scrub gloves and a length of rope to our “missing” list. On the ascent from Echo Point, as expected, we had come across a few cliff lines. These bands of horizontal sedimentary rock long pre-existed the dark dolerite that caps so much of this part of Tasmania. During the Jurassic era magma had forced its way up through the existing rock, cooling to form a vast dolerite layer on top of the earlier bands. The Lake St Clair glacier had subsequently gouged the valley that formed the lake, crudely cutting through this layer cake of rock.

[Tim surveys one of our "jungle" cliffs]  

What that geology meant in practical terms was that we had to negotiate a few near-vertical sections of sedimentary rock. And without any rope to help us haul our packs. Oops! We’d read that sidling a few hundred metres either side of these barriers would usually yield an easier climb. That sounded great on paper, but when you’re as hot and tired as we already were, sidling seemed a poor option. Especially when there’s was a bit of pink tape at the top of your nasty looking 10 metre “cliff” as good as telling you “this way.”

After a slightly desperate pause, our inventive substitute for rope was to use a trekking pole. I extended one pole fully and inverted it so that Tim could hook its hand loop through a clip on the pack. A couple of hernia-threatening heaves from me (above) and Tim (below) finally saw us – and our packs – on top of our first cliff.

But all that is behind us now. Ahead of us, in the morning, is a 200 metre scramble from our lake up a ridge and onto the Olympus plateau. “How hard could it be?” Tim asks, not caring to hear an answer quite yet.

[Looking towards the north summit of Olympus] 

One thing that isn’t hard is falling asleep. We’re soon purring beneath our tent’s nylon dome while the mosquitoes vent their frustration and fury on its mesh. But then something wakes us around 2:30 am. Just perhaps one us has been snoring, although men of our age might also blame their bladders. I prefer to think it’s the universe calling, because when I decide I may as well go outside for a pee, my jaw drops.

The sky is extravagantly spattered with stars. From one horizon to the other, in every direction, there are stars in the kind of profusion that only a child, or a Vincent van Gogh, might imagine. My gasps bring Tim out, and for a time we just stand there, oblivious to the mosquitoes, taking in that everynight wonder that most of us never see, thinking the night sky simply black.

My late mother-in-law painted a sky like this in her piece called “Cosmos”. Our fortunate guests can see it above the spare bed. It too is extravagant, child-like, wonderful. I’m sorry I never asked her where and when she had seen this brilliantly black vision.

["Cosmos" by Joan Goldsworthy] 
Eventually we fall asleep again, knowing that the clear night sky will soon yield to a clear hot day: our summit day.

Saturday 23 February 2013

The Abode of the Gods

A Mount Olympus Walk: Part 1

The Greeks fancied that their country occupied a central position, and that Mount Olympus, a very high mountain, the mythological abode of their gods, was placed in the exact centre.  – H. A. Guerber in “The Myths of Greece and Rome” (1907)

[Jupiter: Father of the gods, and guardian of Mt Olympus] 

When I was 11 years old, my father bought me a large, dusty and fascinating old book on mythology. Guerber’s “The Myths of Greece and Rome” cost him one pound, a princely sum for our family back then. It was to help with a school project on Greek mythology. It started a life long fascination with myths.

I suspect that each of us carries our own personal set of myths. If they’re anything like those old Greek myths, they’re a chaotic and captivating mix of beliefs, fantasies, ideas and stories that go some way towards explaining who we are, what is important to us, what we strive towards.

For many years, the south-west Tasmanian wilderness has been an important part of my mythology, with Federation Peak the mountain that best symbolises it. Yet when it comes to mountains, a part of me has always been drawn towards the centre of our island State; towards the highest of our mountains; towards those dolerite peaks that dominate the glacier-dissected country that runs from the Great Western Tiers to the Southern Ranges.

And towards Mount Olympus, our own grand, central mountain which looms large above leeawulena, the “sleeping water” of Lake St Clair. In more than thirty years of walking, tramping, rambling and otherwise exploring Tasmania’s high places, I have somehow missed out on climbing Mt Olympus.

[Tasmania's Mt Olympus above leeawulena/Lake St Clair] 

Finding a weather and work window, Tim and I decide on a three day trip. We will catch the ferry to Echo Point, walk a little way up the Overland Track, then plunge into the steep forest that will take us 500 metres higher to a campsite beside Lake Oenone. As there is no track, we have three or four different sets of “notes” about how to get there. None of them is exactly precise; nor do any of them agree. “How hard can it be?” and “What could possibly go wrong?” become our catch cries.

* * *

Tim throws his pack down next to a stream, plunges his face into the water, then scoops more and splashes it vigorously onto his face. “The gods don’t give up their abode easily,” he offers cheerfully. I loosen my pack and flop down in the shade, too stuffed to follow his example.

[Tim refreshes himself on the ascent] 

We’re nearly three hours into our ascent, and I’m thinking – or is it hoping – that by now we should be coming up over the lip of the climb and finding our lakeside campsite. Instead we plunge onward and upward into thick ti-tree, bauera and scoparia scrub. It is hot, difficult work, and progress is slow. Whatever else this is, it is not fun.

With every stop – and they are coming more frequently as the heat and our fatigue both increase – we are swarmed by march flies. The father of the gods, sitting atop Olympus, has been known to resort to this before.

Summoning his faithful Pegasus once more Bellerephon rose higher and higher, and would probably have reached Olympus’ heights, had not Jupiter sent a gadfly, which stung poor Pegasus so cruelly, that he shied viciously, and flung his too confident rider far down to the earth below. (Guerber, op. cit., p 259-260.)

So for another hour or two it’s stop, swig, swat, swear, set off again. It’s little comfort to know that only some of the 400 plus species of march fly in Australia actually bite, and then only the females. I tell Tim that they prefer the nectar of flowering plants, and that the blood, which the females acquire by using their mandibles to bite into your skin, is only used to help them produce eggs. Despite his Buddhist leanings, this doesn’t seem to comfort Tim. To restrain ourselves from squishing them, we get moving again.

In all it takes five hours to reach our goal, much longer than any of our notes had suggested. Our uncertainty has made us ultra cautious; the heat and our weariness have made decisions agonizingly slow. But when we finally walk into open sub-alpine meadows, with pencil pines and pools dotted about, and a dolerite wall ahead of us, we know we’re near. At last, just over a peaty lip, we see the twinkling waters of Lake Oenone. We don’t let our tardiness dampen our celebration. We’ve learned the hard way that the gods really don’t give up such places easily.

[Sunset on Olympus South, reflected in a tarn] 

And what a place it is; a flat site close to the lake, with fagus and pencil pines our neighbours, and columnar walls of dolerite watching over us. When the tent is up - a Macpac Olympus tent, we note - dinner follows quickly, with neither fuss nor enthusiasm. When the march flies finally leave for the night, they’re replaced by mosquitoes. For a moment we wonder what’s so wonderful about our blood. We quickly decide that what'd be truly wonderful would be to be inside the tent and in a horizontal position. Tomorrow, with or without Pegasus, we're aiming for the top of Olympus.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Where There's Smoke ...

[Bushfire smoke billows above Kunanyi/Mt Wellington]

The cloud was rising from a mountain -- at such a distance we couldn't tell which. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long "trunk" from which spread some "branches." I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash. The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand. 

So wrote ancient Roman, Pliny the Younger. The event he evokes is the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August 79AD. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, died that day while seeking his closer scientific view.

Today a large plume of smoke is rising from the mountain behind our place. The sky has an uncanny, jaundiced hue, and the citizens of Hobart are on edge. As much as I admire Pliny’s scientific curiosity – many of his contemporaries simply cowered in fear at this “wrath of the gods” – I will not be emulating it. Today, for the third day in a row, Hobart and surrounds are swathed in thick bushfire smoke. Satellites, helicopters and the internet tell me exactly where the fires are. And I have studied enough to know how they behave. I have no desire to see this fire close up. 

We have had a summer of savage bushfire all over our island State. On January 4, 2013 Hobart reached 41.8 degrees Celsius. That’s more than 107 degrees Fahrenheit. For a cool-temperate island, derided by mainland Australians as sub-Antarctic, that’s impossibly hot. And it’s the kind of weather which makes fire impossible to control. On that January day around 200 houses in south-eastern Tasmania were incinerated, along with countless livestock and wildlife. Incredibly, no-one was killed by the fire.

I was driving home from the north of the State that afternoon, dodging fires, listening to the car radio to find the safest route home. The heat was so intense that sections of bitumen on the Midland Highway were melting. Ash and smutty embers were drifting out of a hellish sky.

[Map of a SW Tasmanian fire, January 2013. The blue sections indicate burned areas. Its "dragon" shape, more than 50km long, appears ready to swallow the Western Arthur Range.]  

Smoke from those fires persisted for days. For me, as for many Australians, such smoke elicits two opposite, primal responses. Gum leaves, and the wood from gum trees, make the very best of fires, whether in the fireplace or at an overnight campsite. For me those are hugely nostalgic settings, home to some amazing memories. A whiff of that smoke transports me to a happy place. But the same wood’s combustible qualities make wild fires in eucalypt forests and woodlands some of the fiercest, most frightening fires on earth. That smell on a hot day is the antithesis of nostalgia, especially when combined with strong winds and the judder of helicopters overhead.

[Thick smoke all but obscures the mountain]
Older Hobartians only have to hear “1967” and they shudder. In February that year conditions similar to those of January 4 this year caused the State’s worst ever fires. 62 people lost their lives, nearly 1000 were injured, and around 300 dwellings and buildings were destroyed. If I wanted the horror brought home, I need only recall that thirteen people in our street died. Our local landmark, the Cascade Brewery, was gutted, and 163 South Hobart houses were lost.

[A Tas Fire Service image of South Hobart after the 1967 fires]
A few days after the January 2013 fires it rained. Not hard, not for long, but we got a medium soaking. I walked outside and caught a different eucalypt whiff, one with no downside. It was the scent of wet gum leaves, and there are few smells as heavenly: sharp-tanged, clean, spirit-lifting. With this latest Vesuvian cloud still hovering over us, that is the smell I am wanting more than any other.