Tuesday 24 December 2013

A Ben Lomond Traverse: Part 1

Travel Tasmania’s Midland Highway between Launceston and Hobart, and only fog – real or metaphorical – will stop you from noticing the Ben Lomond plateau. It vaults above the relatively flat northern midlands, a dolerite island more than 18 000 hectares in area, most of it over 1300m above sea level.

From the highway its southern edge, Stacks Bluff (1527m), looks like a giant loaf looming over the Fingal Valley, its enormous dolerite slices seemingly caught in a frozen topple. At its northern end the plateau tops out at Legges Tor, at 1572m Tasmania’s second highest point.

[Walking south across the Ben Lomond Plateau] 
The plateau is named after the Scottish Ben Lomond: Beinn Laomainn in Gaelic, (which translates as “Beacon Mountain”). It sits above the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, in the south of the Scottish Highlands. At 974m it is nearly 600m lower than its Tasmanian namesake. Scots do homesickness well, having also “found” Ben Lomonds in New Zealand, California and Trinidad.

During the 1980s I had seen plenty of the northern part of “our” Ben Lomond, as I scrambled around Legges Tor and the nearby crags, and snow-played on its ski slopes. I’d missed out on trips to Stacks Bluff, though I knew plenty who had been there. Curiously I knew no-one who had ever walked the length of the plateau, just a few skiers who had done the nearly 30km return run as a day trip.

I began to ponder what it would be like to walk through that high country for a couple of days. I’d walked and camped at altitude in Tasmania many times. But in my experience most of our country above 1400m is narrow, steep and peaky. You pick your way up and around boulder fields, through steep, scrubby creeks, over high, ruckled moors. But the Ben promised to be wide open and big-skied.

I wondered if it might be a little like the Central Plateau, although few sections of that are much above 1200m. And the extra altitude of Ben Lomond robs it of two of the Central Plateau’s features: trees and substantial lakes. I next thought about other large, flat-topped mountains in Tasmania, like Mt Massif on the Du Cane Range, and the Olympus Plateau above leeuwuleena/Lake St Clair. They certainly reach similar altitudes to the Ben, and are substantially above the tree-line. But next to Ben Lomond they are pygmy’s knuckles to a giant’s fist. Ten minutes walking would see you across Massif, and even the longest section of Olympus would take only a few hours. To traverse the Ben Lomond plateau would take near enough to two days of walking. It promised to be a high walk in a league of its own.

So to the research. I needed to consider where to start and finish, where to camp, and the state of walking tracks. The last was the easiest to answer. What walking tracks? Between the ski field and Stacks Bluff there was no regular track, just some ski poles at the start of a cross-country trail that was now rarely used. On the other hand there was no forest, and supposedly little scrub. It looked like being an open, off-track alpine ramble.

Transport was another “interesting” consideration. From the ski field road to the road beneath Stacks Bluff was about 130km by road, yet hardly 15km on foot. We decided on a car shuffle, with cars to be left near Storeys Creek, beneath Stacks Bluff, and at the Ben Lomond ski field. 

Is it ever quick and easy coordinating walkers from both ends of the state, meeting up, organising tents and food, doing a car shuffle, and finally getting to the actual start of the walk? When you also take a “long-cut” there (aka getting lost), it should be no surprise if you don’t get as far as planned on the first day.

[Scoparia in bloom: pretty, but best avoided 

In reality we didn’t get away until very late in the afternoon, in very hot late-January sunshine. We followed the ski poles for the first short while, but very soon we were sweating and huffing as we picked our way, on a rough compass setting, through low but surprisingly persistent scrub.

We were to skirt a little east of a straight line between the ski field and Stacks Bluff, roughly down the Meadow Vale. This was to help us avoid thicker scrub between Giblin Fells and the scarily-named Little Hell. Regardless one of our party was soon struggling with the heat and a lack of walking fitness. When he stumbled and fell, we thought it best to camp wherever we could find water and a flattish spot.

You know you’re staying somewhere original when there are no signs of humans even around a water source; when your tents sit on thick, springy vegetation; and when the local invertebrates are curious enough that they come right into your tent for a good look.

The next day started warm and still, and promised to grow hot. We checked the map, did our best to guess the least scrubby route, and set off towards Lake Youl. The plan was to camp there for a few days, explore the southern end of the plateau, then descend via Stacks Bluff.

You have to grant that scoparia, while best avoided, does offer compensations to its prisoners, at least at this time of year. After some close-up views of scoparia, and some artful dodging of more, we climbed up a small rise and there was the lake.

[Looking west across Lake Youl] 
Lake Youl is a large, shallow lake trending north-west to south-east. It’s shaped roughly like a funnel, which is apt given that the strong winds have concentrated wave action so heavily here that there are pebble dunes at the lake’s southern end. These extraordinary features rise more than a metre above the shore of the lake, providing the only hope of a sheltered campsite.

Having settled into the campsite before lunch, we spent the afternoon splashing about in the lake. I would have said swimming, but that would have required water deeper than the 20cm we found, even 100m from the “beach”.

[Clouds threaten a storm over our Lake Youl campsite] 

Late in the afternoon clouds piled up and blackened around us. Lightning, thunder and squally showers sent us to our tents for a time, but these cleared in time for dinner and another “swim”. The wind dropped away as well, undoubtedly a good thing given the evidence of its strength here in the form of wind-blown pebbles and rocks all around us.

[Lake Youl's sediment and dune system] 

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