Sunday 19 May 2013

Moving Feet, Bending Time

I am no wizard. Yet sometimes I seem able to bend time, to tame it momentarily. It rarely happens in my everyday existence. There time is a wild and unruly beast, predictable only in its relentless movement in the one direction.

Along the way it gorges itself on busy-nesses of every kind. I hang on, dizzy, ill even, from its mad rush. There’s a name for that malady – “hurry sickness” – and many of us suffer from it. Even so, we remain addicted to what rushing promises, like the possibility of doing twenty things at once.

So how is it that I came to bend time? Quite simply, I walked. Somewhere along my varied journey, I discovered that moving feet can bend time. Typically if I was doing many things, or none, time would fly by. But in doing just the one thing – particularly this one – I experienced an unaccountable staunching of time’s flow, even an expansion in its quantity and quality.

[A sublime summit moment: Mt Rogoona, Tasmania] 

A Scene: Somewhere in Tasmania

I’m not sure of the hour, it’s probably late morning. There is a cold wind blowing over the small rise between last night’s campsite and our next. We leave the track as we sense – or guess – that our summit route is this way. We drop our heavy packs, put essentials in our day packs, and scramble to the west, mostly up.

There is no track, so we spread out, each picking his or her own way over the rocky terrain. One avoids a thick patch of bush to the left; another to the right. A third stops to examine wildflowers, another presses on. I pause at a small rocky pool, an exquisite tarn-in-miniature. It sits beneath its own doleritic micro-mountains, surrounded by its own micro-forest of sphagnum, pineapple grass and mountain rocket.

[A pool beneath the summit of Mt Rogoona] 

As we grip and grunt our way over grainy, rocky slopes, we slowly pull closer to the high point. After a final sharp scramble, we are there: standing on Mt Rogoona’s summit. The clouds clear, the wheel of the world turns more slowly. We see everything it is possible to see from here.

And more. A wedge-tailed eagle swoops by. It pauses, wobbling imperfectly, almost clumsily, at our eye level. Its tail feathers are a little ragged, not yet fully grown. Is it young, trying out new-found skills? We exchange close, enthralled looks with the raptor.

[A Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle above Mt Rogoona]

Without effort it lifts on an updraft, drifts away. We exchange a few inadequate superlatives, turn to the stunning view, start to pose for photographs. The eagle circles back for another look. Four, five times more the eagle circles, finally satisfying its curiosity – if not ours – before soaring away. How long this has taken I have no idea.

Doing less, yet gaining more: that’s surely a paradox. And as with most such, it tends to fall apart under analysis. Yet how else to explain the high count of solid, vivid memories that I associate with the simple act of bushwalking? Are they like other moments of intensity – love-making, childbirth, peer acclaim, serious illness, the loss of a loved-one – that can suspend the usual laws of time? Does walking seriously rank alongside those other life landmarks?

The online bushwalking forum, Bushwalk Australia, has an active thread with this question: “What does bushwalking mean to you spiritually?” See The thread has been active for nearly a year, and has attracted a wide diversity of opinion. But even the question alone intrigues me, because I have come to see bushwalking as in part “spiritual”. That is, it has spiritual benefits. That’s not to deny physical, biological or psychological benefits. (Not that I draw sharp distinctions between such categories: we are complex, multi-faceted creatures, after all.) But I have come to see bushwalking as having a spiritual side.

 [Good for your soul as well as your soles]
Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama makes some tantalisingly grand claims for walking. He says that our normal walking speed is in fact the speed of love, and thus the speed of God. He references that to the Bible story of God walking with the Israelites through their 40 years in the wilderness.

“Love has its speed. It is an inner speed . . . a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is ‘slow’ yet it is lord over all other speed since it is the speed of love. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice it or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks.” (from Three Mile an Hour God)

If walking is deeply ingrained in our spirit – that part of us that seems capable of by-passing time – then it may start to explain why time sometimes seems to wobble when we don our boots.

Sunday 12 May 2013

More Not So Grand Designs

This is my 200th post on “Nature Scribe”. That’s something to celebrate, and I want to do it with a set of images – and some words – featuring some of Tasmania’s humble walkers’ huts.
Thanks for being part of my blogging journey. I always appreciate your comments, whether posted or private. 
In the coming months I’ll be scribing about nature in parts of Europe, from Scandinavia to Paris; Berlin to the Alps. You can expect a few contrasting thoughts and images on the nature that we’re part of wherever we are on this planet.

[clockwise from top left: Ironstone Hut (Lake Nameless), Dixon's Hut (Walls of Jerusalem NP), Mt Kate Hut 
(Cradle Mt-Lk St Clair NP), Basil Steers #1 Hut (February Plains)]
Given that this post celebrates huts, it might seem odd to confess that I have something of a love/hate relationship with them. Actually it’s more of a “quite-like/am-slightly-agitated-by” relationship. The agitation comes in part from my allergies to dust and mold. And let’s face it, most huts are ideal breeding places for both of those. Strike one!

[clockwise from top left: Ironstone Hut (Lake Nameless), Du Cane Hut (Overland Track), Solitary Hut (Walls of Jerusalem NP), Junction Lk Hut (Cradle Mt-Lk St Clair NP)]  
Sharing a hut also means sharing snoring. I both give and take on that front! And I can recommend ear plugs. But even that doesn't prevent a certain level of frustration. I have been in a hut with a (snoring) friend who was woken before dawn by a frustrated hut mate shouting at the top of his lungs “WILL YOU SHUT UP!!” Perhaps that's two strikes against huts.

I have also slept rather too close to a couple who were getting more amorous than most of their hut mates would have preferred. They say love is blind, but in this case it was deaf too! Strike three, surely!

[clockwise from top left: Waterfall Valley Hut (Overland Track), Scout Hut (kunanyi/Mt Wellington), Charles King Hut (Melaleuca), Mt Kate Hut (Cradle Mt-Lk St Clair NP)]  
So is it three strikes and I’m out of there? Out to my nice quiet tent? Well no, actually. Even if I prefer to sleep in a tent, I do love the sociability of cooking and relaxing in a hut. And so much the more if there’s also a fire or heater in the hut.

Those social exchanges around a flame – even a candle will do – are part of a deep species memory. To be out of the elements, belly full, and sharing stories of the day by a flickering light, is surely an ancient contentment.

[clockwise from top left: Trappers' Hut (Walls of Jerusalem NP), Old Pelion Hut (Overland Track), Lk Ball Hut (Walls of Jerusalem NP), Meston Hut (Walls of Jerusalem NP)]  

Sunday 5 May 2013

Not So Grand Designs

Around this time of the year, when the wind roars, and night eclipses day, a bushwalker’s fancy turns to huts. Yes it can be 20 degrees and sunny on the odd day, but snow and gales are also part of the mix. Despite having all the right gear, and being quite happy sleeping in a tent, when the autumn gales start blowing the dog off its chain, and soggy snow plasters the hills, I clearly see the advantages of mountain huts.

[Joe Slatter Hut nestled into the wooded slopes of Mt Rufus] 
Some bushwalkers even make hut finding a bit of a game. In New Zealand hut-bagging, where the goal is to visit the greatest number of huts possible, is a semi-serious pastime. Of course the Shaky Isles do have huts numbering in four figures, with the Department of Conservation alone managing 950 of them!

In Tasmania we’re relatively poverty stricken, having well short of 100 public structures that could – even by generous definition – be called a hut. (The Kosciuszko Hut Association, which maintains information on many eastern Australian huts, has around 100 Tasmanian structures on its database. However a number of these are are private, or no longer standing, or more shelters than huts. See for further information.)

From a practical point of view, a hut’s ability to (usually) keep you dry and out of the wind might seem reason enough to visit one. But there’s also the sheer human curiosity that’s aroused by structures that other humans build. Witness the phenomenal television success of Kevin McLeod’s “Grand Designs”, which mines both the aspirations and the deeper psyche of home builders.

When it comes to huts, there’s the whole deeper layers of its history. Who made it? When? What did they use? How long did it take? Why did they build it in the first place? It’s enough the stir the dormant historian; the nascent archaeologist; the just plain curious walker into investigating.

[The facade of Joe Slatter Hut declares its origins] 
 And so I am visiting Joe Slatter Hut, on the side of Mt Rufus in the Lake St Clair area. For years I’ve walked all around the area, and have known of, but never been to this particular hut. We’re not here just out of curiosity though. We’re on a working bee, doing some much-needed repair work on Joe’s old hut.

Burdened by ferociously heavy packs – wooden posts, car jacks, buckets of nails and pots of paint are cheek-by-jowl with all our normal walking gear – we head off uphill. It’s raining, of course. But given that our group of a dozen or more includes children who are also happy labourers, I suck it up and trudge on.

Over the weekend I get to hear many stories about the hut. It began in the years immediately after World War 2. These were the golden era for hydro-electric development in Tasmania, and highland villages like Tarraleah, Bronte Park and Butlers Gorge each housed hundreds of workers and their families, many of them European immigrants. One naturalisation ceremony in 1949 was attended by 6 000 people!

Coming from Europe, many of the villagers were used to snow. And with snow conditions far better than they are at present, skiing was a favoured recreational pastime. As there were no skiing facilities, these very practical people decided to make their own. Mt Rufus was considered the best of the local ski slopes, so they formed the Rufus Ski Club. Joe Slatter, as resident engineer in the Hydro village of Butlers Gorge and a keen skier, became president of the ski club. He was heavily involved in its planning and construction. By the early 50s the two room hut, that now bears Joe’s name, had been built. All the labour was volunteer, and done in spare time. Every piece of material was carried in by hand, albeit with some help from ponies.

[Autumn bark on Eucalyptus subcrenulata, near Joe Slatter Hut]
The club had grand designs. The lower hut could accommodate up to twenty people, with bunks, benches, cooking utensils and a fireplace. Further up the mountain, the smaller Gingerbread Hut – which got its name from the colour of its early cladding – was built as the base for a ski tow that would allow skiers access to the upper slopes.

A recent log book entry (from “Kris”, February 2011) gives a flavour of the hut in the 1950s.

My mother remembers coming here on an expedition with some friends from Tarraleah to go skiing. She remembers starting the walk at 01:00am and arriving at the hut as the sun was coming up. They were carrying their skis and all their gear through the snow. She remembers having to cross a large creek over a log which was particularly difficult with ski gear.

Despite such hardships – or perhaps because of their determination to push through them – it seemed to club members that Mt Rufus would be the next big thing for southern Tasmanian skiers.

It didn’t turn out that way. From the mid 1950s hydro-electric construction waned, and the population of the highlands melted away. Snowfall became too irregular to maintain the skiers’ enthusiasm. Admitting defeat, the Rufus Ski Club amalgamated with the Wellington Ski Club, which now maintains both of the Rufus huts.

Skiing is now a relative rarity on Rufus, and even then skiers are unlikely to stay in Joe Slatter Hut. But occasionally walkers visit the hut. They might marvel at its straw filled mattresses and pillows; wonder at the 200m hose that once delivered creek water to the hut; ponder the floor’s lack of horizontality; turn their noses up at the inevitable animal droppings; and even make a donation to its upkeep.

[Always time for a brew, even during a busy working bee] 
And just maybe they might wonder who Joe Slatter was. For there is a sad twist to the naming of the hut. It was named in honour of the ex-Rufus Ski Club president after he was struck and killed by a train in Melbourne in the 1950s.

When we 21st century volunteers learn that, it feels all-the-more fitting that we should add a lick of paint, and have a go at re-stumping and generally tidying up Joe’s old hut. It’s never going to be a palace, but it would be good to think the tradition of Joe and other hut building pioneers can be carried on a little longer, even if their grand skiing schemes have melted away.