Sunday 24 November 2013

The Bishop and the Ballerina

[Looking over Darlington Bay, Maria Island]

The first time I got close to a bishop I was around 15 years old. Apart from his “funny hat”, I remember the meaty weight of his hands, as he laid them on my young head and intoned “Defend O Lord this thy child …”. Since then I’ve been on friendly terms with a couple of bishops. Yet until recently I had somehow avoided meeting one particularly solid Tasmanian example.
Bishop and Clerk is a mountain, or more accurately a cluster of dolerite spires, that rises 620m straight up from the Tasman Sea at the northern tip of Tasmania’s Maria Island. Its name derives from a supposed resemblance to a processing bishop and his attendant clerk. From Darlington it’s a sometimes cloud shrouded backdrop, picturesque and prominent but never intimidating. It has always struck me as an easy peak to reach. Perhaps that’s one reason for us never having met, despite my dozen or so trips to this beautiful national park. Perhaps it’s also that the island holds so many other wonders.

But sometimes the ducks line up. A long weekend; a break in the weather; a few other walkers who’d never been to the Bishop, saw a group of us wandering up towards the stony cleric.

[Looking towards Bishop and Clerk] 
 620m doesn’t sound much. After all most Tasmanian peaks worth aspiring to are double that height or more. But I should have remembered my previous experience with Mount Rugby, in Tassie’s south-west. It rises just 771m above sea level: but sea level is the crunch here. Most Tasmanian mountains are climbed from foothills that are already several hundred metres high. With Mt Rugby and, I should have realised, Bishop and Clerk, you start at sea level. You have to gain the whole of its height using leg power.

[Looking towards the Freycinet Peninsula from Maria Island] 
For much of the way Bishop and Clerk is actually a stroll, and a spectacular one at that. You amble along through open pasture, climbing gently. To the left of the track are the spectacular drop-offs of the Fossil Cliffs. To the north are distant views of the mountains of the Freycinet Peninsula. Ahead are the rocky pillars of Bishop and Clerk, oddly slow to come any closer.

The track steepens, the woodland thickens, and still no summit. Finally the familiar sight of dolerite scree offers the hint that you’re getting there. You shouldn’t get your hopes up: there are more twists and turns to this summit bid than a Stephen King thriller. As we get close to the top of the scree, one previous summiteer reckons it’s only five minutes to go. Thirty minutes later, lathered in sweat, we grunt up the last airy boulders and we’re there. And I’m immediately wondering why I haven’t got acquainted with this bishop earlier.

[Sermon on the mount? Mike takes in Bishop and Clerk.] 
The views are superb: vertiginous beneath us, expansive and grand in most other directions. During an early lunch on the summit, it’s hard to choose where to look; difficult too to do justice to it photographically. Forest, cliffs, sandy beaches, glittering ocean and sea birds all contend for attention.

The descent feels even steeper than the climb, especially when one of our party loses footing and tumbles and rolls for several metres. Fortunately she suffers nothing worse than bruising and a big shake-up. We travel on a little more circumspectly, giving us time to take in even more of the island’s other wonders.

Ruins from the convict and industrial eras are everywhere evident, though some are being reclaimed by the bush. Wildlife is also abundant, and often quite unconcerned by human presence. On the way back a flock of Cape Barren geese flies in and lands nearby. I watch closely, intrigued by their spectacularly unlikely colour scheme: a grey and black body offset by hot pink legs and a fluoro-lime bill.

[A Cape Barren Goose on Maria Island] 
I am amused too by their shape, the flouncing ballerina bustle accentuated by their dance-like steps; deliberate, precise, a demi-pliĆ© perhaps, followed by a turnout. The wary eyes betray the possibility of a pas de chat when frightened. The bird’s gaudiness is such a contrast to the bishop’s dark and sombre tones. Yet somehow the two typify the amazing contrasts that are Maria Island.

A part of me can’t help wondering what the bishop might say to the ballerina.

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