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.

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