Monday 27 January 2014

Nights by a Highland Lake: Part 3

After a day in the mountains and an invigorating swim in Lake Myrtle, our lakeside campsite felt close to paradise. The low sun lay a bright sheet of light on the water. The wind raised only the quietest of whispers, and a second Mt Rogoona slept, perfectly twinned, in the lake.

[Panorama: Lake Myrtle, Mt Rogoona, Tasmania] 

Does there have to be a fly in the ointment? Apparently so. The sandflies that we’d noticed earlier had come back with reinforcements. As we prepared dinner, hundreds hovered around our faces; dive bombed our drinks; got caught in our hair; bit our neck, ears and any other piece of exposed skin.

They had seemed quite harmless at first, but we were soon quoting The Lord of the Rings movie: “What do they eat when they can’t get hobbit?!” Our assumption that these sandflies were only pale imitations of the fierce New Zealand ones was coming back to bite us. And this despite our use of a New Zealand insect repellent especially formulated to combat sandflies.

Later I found out that our sandflies come from the Ceratopogonidae (biting midge) family, while the Kiwi ones are Austrosimuliidae (Sandfly/blackfly). Was that why they showed contempt for our repellent? Whatever the facts, we were to find that subjecting your skin to their bite would lead to similar results. I had written about the gory details of NZ sandfly bites previously here We would only re-learn that itchy lesson later, once the full effect of their bites became obvious.

[Models of NZ sandflies at Milford Sound] 

Meanwhile, back at Lake Myrtle, we had to walk around as we ate our dinner just to make the midges work for theirs. Although it was still bright and sunny, an early night in the sanctuary of the tent seemed the best solution. Even then our scurried tent entries took dozens of the little critters in with us. We had to perform the invertebrate equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel before we could sleep in peace. And still the thousands of desperate midges left outside our tent clamoured and hammered as loudly as rain on the nylon exterior. (Perhaps this is why they call it a tent fly?)

“Midges can be active at night!” became my unwelcome new learning, and “How’s the serenity?” my next movie quote. Somehow, eventually, we found sleep. But the beasts had not finished with us. At 4am a loud clanking of pots told us our outside “kitchen” was being raided. I staggered out of the tent (yes, the midges were STILL awake) and shone my torch on a fat, black possum. He was licking nonchalantly on the muesli we’d been soaking in a pot. The clank had been him removing the hefty rock we’d put on the pot’s lid as defence against just this sort of raid.

[Forensic evidence from the night before] 

I supposed that the damage had been done. Certainly the muesli wasn’t salvageable, but we did have a spare. So I scowled at the possum, scanned for anything else that might be edible, and crawled back into the tent. In the morning I found that our thief had also taken a liking to my trangia bag, and had taken it off for afters.

Despite an extensive search of the surrounds, we didn’t find the bag. What, I wondered, would a possum do with a metal Trangia lid, a strap and a home-made pot cosy?  Would stories be handed down the possum generations? Would the shiny green pot cosy be worn fez-like by the boss poss, as he told tales of bravery and bircher muesli?

[Modelling the pot cosy as a fez on an earlier walk] 

As for me, I would return from the walk in need of a new strap, screw-cap lid and pot cosy. But there’s always a bright side. Thanks to the beasts, my burden would be lighter by the contents of that Trangia bag, not to mention a syringe or two’s worth of blood.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Nights by a Highland Lake: Part 2

The lake says nothing. Nor do the trees, the birds, the mountain. Even the sky is quiet, showing the sun to bed; the moon and stars to their posts.

[Early evening at Lake Myrtle, with Mt Rogoona behind] 

We fuss around getting comfortable, as you must in a tent, before the silence begins to settle on us as well. It is a profound thing to be horizontal and quiet in such stillness.

We surface slowly in the morning; taking our time over breakfast; enjoying the superb scene from the campsite. It is calm and lightly overcast, a perfect morning for walking … and for sandflies. They hover around us in increasing numbers. We don’t have the terror of them that we would in New Zealand, as we’ve not known them to be nearly as fierce in Tasmania. But they are enough of a nuisance to get us thinking about moving.

Our recovery from the previous day’s walk has been good. Although we’re not rushing to heed Mt Rogoona’s “here am I, climb me!” siren call, my optimism is chattering away inside my head over breakfast. Lynne’s is less vocal. She feels good, but a pre-existing knee niggle is lurking.

We decide to go for “a bit of a wander towards” Rogoona. To me that’s code for getting to the top, but I don’t want to push it. We ascend the saddle between Lakes Myrtle and Lake Meston, taking our time, finding much to distract us, from flowering berries to a quickly-disappearing tiger snake.

[Cheeseberry (Cyathodes straminea) in fruit and flower]
At the saddle a cairn marks our turnoff. Once off track I’m prepared to follow my nose. This is my third time on the mountain, and the weather and destination are both clear enough. But we find large and obvious rock cairns on our route, and start to lock onto these. I relate to Lynne my tenuous faith in cairns: they may only tell us where somebody else was when they were lost. But being a newbie off-track walker she’s ready to see them as signposts.

[Pool with pencil pines near Mt Rogoona]
We slow down as the cairns become sparser and the going a little rougher. Our pace is slow, and we seem to spend as much time searching for cairns as actually walking. My for-once-clear memory of the ascent of Rogoona is that it is quite drawn out. And at the top I’m almost sure there’s one of those “oh no … surely not!” extra little scrambles. We reach a high point and sit down for a break. It turns into lunch, and quickly thereafter into our turn-around point. Lynne’s been doing the maths – with an increasingly sore knee in mind – and she realises it’ll be many hours before we get to the summit and back.

[An earlier summit trip, Mt Rogoona with Lk Myrtle below]
I’ve been to the top of Rogoona twice in recent years, so I’m only disappointed that Lynne won’t get to see that wonderful view. On the other hand it’s starting to cloud over again, so we’re not even assured of a view. I make one condition for my surrender: we won’t return via cairns. We’ll take what I’ve always called “the pretty way”. Family legend is that as a young child I used to nag my father to drive home via waterfalls or forested gullies. “Can we go the pretty way Dad??” Some things never change.

By going the pretty way and abandoning cairns we’re soon reaping rewards. The rocky, undulating flanks of Rogoona have been scoured and scooped during the ice ages. At intervals this has resulted in small pools, some fringed with pencil pines.

[Signs of hope: young pencil pines, Mt Rogoona]
For the next hour or more summits, cairns and knees are forgotten as we slowly wander from pool to pool. If we’re “lost”, it’s only in wonder. Each pencil pine discovery is like a significant find. Many hundreds of pines were killed by the 1980s fire in this area alone.

When we find a large mature stand in a sphagnum-filled hollow it feels like a triumph. Upwards of twenty thriving, conical trees are clustered together in perfect conditions. But at the margin of the grove we find several large dead trees. Their blackened trunks signal how close this fire got to taking out the whole stand. Further on we find a few young pines, and are glad at this sign of slow recruitment of trees where conditions are right.

[Pencil pines: survivors alongside victims of fire]
Reluctantly we leave the mountain and wander back towards the lake. But by now we have our eye in, and the return trip is slow, punctuated by stops to take in scoparia here, mountain rocket there, skittering skinks everywhere.

[Scoparia blooms] 
The bonus on our arrival back at the lake is the time and energy for a soak in its immaculate waters. We’ve learned, yet again, that just being among mountains can be as wondrous as being on top of them.

Sunday 12 January 2014

Nights by a Highland Lake: Part 1

[Mt Rogoona above Lake Myrtle] 
Launceston,1982. I’m one of the leaders of a group planning an overnight bushwalk. Being newish to this part of the state, I’m listening more than talking. We discuss potential destinations, place names that seem ripe with promise, rich with story. Places I too will come to cherish, ‘though that’s in my future.

When the name Rogoona is mentioned, keen looks turn suddenly sad. “No … it’s been burned out. Tragic. No point going up there.” There’s a bit more discussion; some speculation about the fire’s cause; talk of pencil pine groves destroyed forever.

[A burned pencil pine grove near Lake Myrtle] 

It’s the era of the Franklin Dam dispute. Lake Pedder is not long drowned. Nuclear weapons seem to hover over us. We share the pervasive feeling that all that is precious can be threatened, even a mountain like Rogoona.

Fast forward three decades, and I’m headed for Mt Rogoona; my third trip in recent years. In the intervening years much has changed, much has not. We’ve raised three children, and are well into the wonderland of grandparenting. But I always said I’d catch Lynne up on some of what she missed in those years. This beautiful mountain above a glittering lake is high on that list.

One of the positive changes in that time has been weather forecasting. For all that we complain when they get it wrong, forecasters today are able to give us just that: a casting-ahead – even a week to ten days ahead – of likely weather conditions.

So for this trip our weather is looking as sorted as anything driven by a chaos engine can be. Unfortunately my memory is also chaotic. From my previous trips I recall “a little bit of uphill” getting to Lake Myrtle. Pedantically the map insists there are 457 metres of it, but my memory is still more of sidle than grunt. Of course after 5 minutes of sidle, it’s steep for the next hour. And then you’re still not there. Too late I remember that there is a series of false summits – faux plateaux – as we had dubbed them on my last trip.

[Contemplating "a bit of up"] 

Optimism and faulty memories are largely helpful allies in bushwalking. Otherwise we might never leave home. But as we break out of forest onto the buttongrass of Blizzard Plain, with Mt Rogoona in view at last, I resist expressing my “almost-there” thoughts. “Not-even-half-way-there” is actually more accurate. After some buttongrass bog there’s the little lake foretaste provided by Lake Bill. It’s a very pleasant mountain lake, but an ugly step-sister in comparison with Lake Myrtle. It’s only a few minutes off our route, but we’re too tired to drop in on the second-rate sibling.

[A distant Mt Rogoona, with glimpses of Lake Bill]  

Quietly cursing too much Christmas pudding and an unreasonably early start, we stagger on up the slope. We pass a wonderful array of wildflowers, gushing waterfalls, and glimpses of Rogoona without giving them the enthusiasm they deserve.

I’m concerned about our levels of exertion; concerned that I’ve built up the beauty of our Lake Myrtle destination to such an extent that Lynne will be disappointed. I worry too that there will be multiple tents there already, with the best spots taken.

We finally arrive, though only after a tricky last-minute creek crossing, and my optimism returns. The campsite is both beautiful and empty. We slump down on unreasonably soft lake-front grass in bright sunshine. Mt Rogoona sits lofty and sphinx-like above the shining waters. Lynne is beaming through her pain. I’m guessing that in a few days, perhaps weeks, her memory too will become as unreliable as mine.

[Lake Myrtle reflections]