Sunday 23 February 2014

Time Travel Without a TARDIS

A little curiosity is a good thing, despite what they say it does to cats. Similarly a little knowledge is probably not as dangerous as they say, so long as we recognise that we have to add to it.

[An outcrop of Permian mudstone, South Hobart] 

For the past 28 years I have lived with the Permian era, or at least on top of land that is underlain by – and derived from – Permian rocks. It has taken me that long to become fully curious about what that really means. Yes, I have always known that our Permian mudstone is very inclined to turn back into mud; that it does not yield rich soils; that the vegetation it supports is seldom lush.

I was also aware of an abundance of fossils in those Permian rocks: some of them literally just out our back door. But it took a visit from our three grandchildren to motivate a little more fieldwork and some more solid background research. They, like many of their peers, have their imaginations fired by dinosaurs and fossils and everything to do with the annals of the former world, as John McPhee called geology. For them it is time travel without a TARDIS.

So, one hot summer's day, we find ourselves on an intergenerational fossil hunt. Attention spans are scarcely troubled. Two minutes up our bush track we are literally tripping over fossils. Spoiled for choice, we are picking up dozens of rocks, discarding most, breaking open a few.

One lump cleaves neatly and the perfect, darkened imprint of a marine bryozoan - its neat lines like a child's drawing of rain - comes to light for the first time in around 270 million years. It is a sunlight brighter than this Fenestella or any living thing would have seen in the Permian. It was an era that was largely cold, often glacial in this part of the world.

[One of my granddaughters holding a Bryozoan fossil] 

It was also an era that saw one of the worst mass extinction events of all time. 90% of all marine species didn’t make it from the Permian into the Triassic. Tectonic plates collided, Pangaea – the all-in-one land mass that preceded supercontinents and continents – was formed. And oceans, seas, and the currents that moved around and between them, were so greatly disrupted that huge pressure was placed on most species. That included shallow-water marine creatures such as the bryozoans and brachiopods we’re finding.

[Fossiliferous mudstone on site in our bush] 

On a quiet Sunday afternoon, wandering through a sunny woodland, it’s hard to imagine such world-changing events. Yet those very environmental changes may be the reason for the abundance of fossils here. Fossils are, after all, the remains of what once lived, and an abundance of them makes you at least wonder about causes.

[Impoverished beauty: woodland on Permian mudstone] 
In the case of the bivalve brachiopods, the process of fossilisation is very plain to see. As I crack open one rock, two sides of a bivalve remain together, like hands still joined in prayer. The shell itself is long gone, but the mud that infiltrated the shell in place of the creature, has preserved the shape of the shell’s interior perfectly.

[A Brachiopod fossil] 
Soon the children depart, along with their little bag of rocks. I turn to identifying the fossilized creatures and some more of the geological backstory. And there, in February 1836, I find Charles Darwin, wandering about our local hills, mountains and shores, collecting the self same fossils. Whether it’s 178 years, or 270 million years, it seems you don’t need a TARDIS to wander through time and space.

Saturday 15 February 2014

A Vigorous Change: Part 2

As much as I love a good map, it’s not the same as a landscape. Its lines, shapes and colours convey only the vaguest hint, even to the map-literate, of what you might experience when your actual feet traverse the actual land.

Nor are weather forecasts the same as the events they try to predict. You might read the words – even mark, learn and inwardly digest them – but you will have only a shape, a glimpse, a hazy impression of what that will mean when you meet the real weather in the real world.

[Campsite before the change, with the green "Storm Shelter" in the rear]

Back in Jim’s tent, the aptly named “Storm Shelter”, we had some time to ponder such matters. As the early afternoon showers settled into steady rain, we began to consider exactly what “vigorous” – the adjective the forecasters had used to describe the change we were experiencing – was going to mean to us here on the Cathedral Plateau, with nothing but a thin skin of nylon between us and the sky. We had a while to wait.

The afternoon leaked away slowly. We snoozed, chatted, listened to the thunder and the rising wind. At first the latter two were not easy to distinguish, but soon flashes of lightning, followed, one … two … three seconds later by crashing thunder, resolved any doubts. The storm was in our vicinity, if not directly over us.

[Storm brewing over Cathedral] 

The thunder was impressive. My childhood explanations: God moving the furniture; giants playing skittles; clouds bumping into each other, returned to me. The arguably more prosaic truth, that thunder is a greatly scaled-up version of the crackle made by static electricity, does little to dampen your wonder when you’re enfolded by storm. One clap became a round of applause lasting fully sixty seconds as it rolled and rebounded and ricocheted through the surrounding mountains.

Eventually, around 3pm, the show moved on. But the rain remained, keeping us inside. We had set our tent back towards some rocks and pencil pine trees, which we figured would protect us from the forecast strong westerlies. As the wind began to rise, our exposure to the south became an issue. The wet clouds racing over us were coming from the west, sure enough. But the winds were swirling and careening all over the compass.

A roaring gust now smacked into my side of the tent, bowing the short cross-pole and whacking the tent wall down on me. Startled, I looked up at the pole to see if it had bent. It seemed okay, but the winds didn’t let up. No longer a symmetrical dome, the tent had become a skewed, bellying blob with us inside it.

Another gust hit, and this time the diagonal poles were flattened across me. I held my hand up to them, hoping to stabilise the structure a little. Five, six, seven times severe gusts hit. Some were preceded by a warning runaway-locomotive sound; some came with no warning. After each episode I lay back down, hoping for the best. But even the less-than-vigorous winds were still straining the tent’s fragile structure. From where I lay the triangular vent flap looked like the ravening beak of a huge bird of prey, jabbing and probing towards me with each gust.

This kept up for an unnerving hour or more, eventually tipping me over into action. During a slight lull I got out of the tent and went in search of a more sheltered spot. The last thing we wanted to do – relocate the tent – had finally become the second last thing. Being ripped out of the tent by a gust was beginning to look a worse prospect. I told Jim what I thought. We debated the inconvenience factor: a full tent, with gear strewn everywhere, is no fun to pack up. And especially when the wind and rain are as fierce as they were. We moved anyway, into the shelter of a pencil pine grove.

[Our tent sheltered in the pencil pine grove] 
Putting your tent among trees in a gale may not seem wise. But while pencil pines can be blown over, we felt this very unlikely. Alpine conifers know how to bend, and seldom seem to break – at least in comparison with eucalypts.

The other factor in favour of moving because of wind is Murphy’s Law. Getting out of the wind is highly likely to bring about an abatement in conditions. Indeed there was enough easing of wind and rain for us to cook and eat a quick meal just after our relocation. But we were soon driven back into our tents to ponder why the forecast “occasional showers easing” had turned into several hours of continuous rain, including a prolonged and un-forecast thunderstorm. Jim eased our grumps by reading aloud some Bill Bryson. It worked a treat, and laughter became our only post-lunch exercise.

[Morning in the pine grove: photo by Jim Wilson]
When morning came, the rain had cleared and the sun was back. As we packed and left Cathedral, the superb weather felt like a benediction. Only later, once back in mobile range, did we learn how fortunate we’d actually been. Our phones were quickly full of news: wind gusts well over 150km/hour; blackouts and road closures; at least one tent destroyed (on another mountain); and worst of all a fatality due to a tree fall.

[Sunshine in rainforest near the walk's end] 

There’s nothing like perspective to turn your grumps to gratefulness.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

A Vigorous Change: Part 1

Vigorous is not a word you hear a lot these days, even of people. Strange then to hear it used in a weather forecast.

[Towards the Overland Track from Cathedral, with weather coming] 

Out of curiosity I looked it up. “Vigorous: characterized by or involving physical strength, effort, or energy.” (Oxford Dictionaries) Aha – related to bushwalking, I thought. They added some synonyms: “strenuous, powerful, potent, forceful, forcible, spirited, mettlesome, determined, resolute, aggressive, eager, keen, active, enthusiastic, zealous, ardent, fervent, vehement, intense, intensive, passionate, fiery, wild, unrestrained, uncontrolled, unbridled; tough, blunt, hard-hitting, pulling no punches.” Not MY kind of bushwalking then, I quickly concluded.

Still the words “vigorous westerly change” were part of Sunday's forecast. I suppose I should have got the picture that the middle day of our walk could be challenging. But there were no formal warnings for bushwalkers, graziers, motorists, or any of the other usual out-of-doors suspects. And the change was only expected to bring infrequent showers to the highland area that was our destination. Just in case we took the precaution of planning to camp somewhere that was protected from the west.

We began our walk remarkably early (for us) on the Saturday morning. Weather came into that decision too. It was expected to be sunny and hot, and we had 500m of altitude to gain: not a welcome prospect in hot weather with a full pack.

[Respite from the heat: forest on the way to Cathedral Plateau] 

In the end it made little difference. The exertion of the climb created its own heat, particularly the steep pinch from Chapter Lake up beside an almost waterless Grail Falls. By the time we reached Chalice Lake, the first camping spot on the Cathedral Plateau, the three of us were as parched and exhausted-looking as the plateau’s plants. We would happily have put up our tents at Chalice, a place we’d stayed a few times. But we were meeting two friends at another lake, and were bound to push on into the hottest part of the day, with little or no tree shade.

[Drought-parched vegetation, Cathedral Plateau] 

“Tent Tarn is only 30 minutes on from Chalice” a bushwalker friend had told me. In our fatigued state, that became 50 long minutes. “A cold beer, a Sauv. Blanc, or a cheering cup of tea” was Jim’s request on meeting our already-ensconced friends. “In order of preference”, he added, optimistically.

10 minutes later (yes, they had a Jetboil), we were all sipping tea and swatting march flies like old hands. After a half-hearted search for tent sites, we settled on a flattish spot, and turned to the more important business of catching up with Tim and Merran, our Sheffield-based friends, over food and wine.

[Jim shares out the wine meticulously] 

Somehow pooling our appetisers and drinks worked to perfection, and under blue skies and high, wispy clouds we began setting the world to rights. We eventually caught our friends up on the vigorous forecast, but still made tentative plans to head up Cathedral in the morning, unless the weather shouted otherwise.  

It didn’t. Despite a rising breeze and an overcast sky, we all agreed it was a good day for being on a mountaintop. And on the Cathedral Plateau you're spoiled for choice. The place namers have had an ecclesiastical field day here, with cathedral, spire, dean, bishop, chapter, chalice, grail, cloister and more church-related titles gracing the plateau and surrounds.

We decided on the high point of Cathedral Mt itself first. Taking in magnificent views over large sections of the Overland Track – and well beyond – Cathedral is a grandstand for the highest parts of our mountain-rich island.

[Walking party and pool, with distant Du Cane Range ... and my boots] 

There is a kind of triangulation of memories when you’ve walked in these mountains for half your life. On Cathedral you’re looking back on several places from which you’ve viewed Cathedral. I have vivid memories of camping near Wadley’s Hut in the Mersey Valley, looking up at Cathedral as it was monstered first by black clouds, then by lightning and thunder. And there have been numerous times on the Overland Track, whether from Kia Ora or Du Cane hut, when I’ve looked across at the hugely impressive cliffs and massive rockfall that mark the western side of Cathedral.

This day, for a little variety, we wandered across to one of the Twin Spires via a couple of delightful pools. Twin Spires are a little to the north of Cathedral proper, and actually a little higher. While the view from them was no worse, the wind was starting to get up, and the clouds were starting to thicken between distant sunny patches.

[Clouds thicken over Mt Ossa, from Twin Spires] 

We had lunch sheltering behind some rocks, and exited the mountain just as thunder started rumbling. While dry to start with, it was soon spitting, then raining. We quickly got back to our camp and headed into our tents, happy to have summitted, happy to have earned some horizontal time in a dry tent, while it rained in a proper though certainly not vigorous manner.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Topping It All Off

“A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.” – P. J. O’Rourke

[A few years worth of head coverings] 

If you dont know your trilby from your fedora; your boater from your bowler, youre not alone. Hats have always been something of a mystery to me and to many of my peers, especially men.

For centuries hats were an essential article of dress, and that certainly continued till my fathers day. I wince to recall my own teenage angst as I travelled on a train with my hat-wearing father. I felt embarrassed certainly, but it was made worse by my feelings of disloyalty. No-one else wore hats anymore, so why did he have to? And he even doffed them when greeting a woman!

Decades passed, my father retired, and took to wearing a cloth cap or a grandpa-style sun hat. He also had a few skin cancers removed. “Slip-Slop-Slap” arrived, and hats made a comeback. I grew up, moved to Tasmania, and became very aware of the need to wear a hat. And particularly when I was out of doors doing what I loved: bushwalking.

So began the long, slow and as yet unfinished search for the perfect bushwalking hat. Consider the list of requirements. It should protect you from the sun while being lightweight, comfortable, durable, breathable, water-resistant, and good to look at. I hesitate saying "fashionable" for that last requirement, as I've long since discarded the idea that you can look fashionable while slogging and sweating up a hill, swishing at flies and grumping about the weather, the slope, the heat, the cold, the rain, the snow, the visibility ... you get the picture. Still, there's no reason your headgear should actively frighten anyone.

I began with a classic, a woollen tam o'shanter, as worn in dreich Scottish weather. It fitted right in with my Scottish heritage, and with any dreich weather I met while walking. But it wasn't strong on sun protection, and was too hot for our better-than-Scottish summer weather. It also itched like a midge-bitten highlander! I now bring it out only on ceremonial occasions. 

[Sporting a tam o'shanter, and carrying a bairn in the 1980s] 

Next came a couple of Aussie classics. First was a Drizabone felt hat, which started off looking awfully prissy until I'd squished it into my pack a few dozen times. Lynne then added a chin-strap for me, and I had a good few years of wear from it. But its advantage (it was made from the fur of feral pests) also became its disadvantage (it was made from the fur of feral pests). After its umpteenth soaking with rain, that rabbit fur eventually shrank, and the hat with it.

Next came an Akubra "Territorian". It was made for the tropics, and was inclined to become a kite in Tassie's not infrequent wind squalls. Cleverly Akubra came up with its own Tasmanian adaptation, adding a thonged leather chin-strap. It was good, but rather stiff looking, and a little too heavy for my liking. I now bring it out only on ceremonial occasions.

A few trips to New Zealand convinced me that I might add one more requisite to my hat wish-list. Could a hat also help protect you from sandflies? My mates Jim and Tim joined me in buying a hybrid cap known as the "Kalahari". While its apex looked like that of a baseball cap, its flanks drooped over our ears and neck like a legionnaire's hat, but could also be worn shorter. It worked a treat against both sun and sandflies, and kept us cool to boot. However its wet weather performance was dismal, as it soon felt as though you were wearing a wet towel.

[The adaptable "Kalahari": a good hot weather option]

While tramping in New Zealand we came across a couple of young Spanish walkers who wore what looked like a hijab (a type of veil worn by some Muslims). But they explained that it was widely used outside Islam, and that they used it for both warmth and cooling, and for sun and sandfly protection. Essentially just a large rectangle of fine merino wool, the trick was in the folding. They demonstrated it and allowed me to try one on. I was surprised at how cool and non-itchy it was, and how comfortable it felt.

That got me thinking about superfine merino (ironically Spanish in origin, but perfected by the Kiwis), and before long I had settled on an Icebreaker merino beanie as my preferred cool weather hat. It remains my go-to in cool, wet or windy weather.

There still remained the need for a head covering that would function in both sunny and wet weather. Gore-tex reared its promising head, although I had been suckered by its sweet talk before. Waterproof, breathable, broad brimmed, comfortable: Sea to Summit's "Java" is my latest try-out. It's showing promise, 'though it must be said that in the "good to look at" stakes, questions are still being asked. 

[Me trying out the "Java" in Switzerland, while Lynne wears a jaunty cap] 

Perhaps it comes down to whether I'm willing to take this advice from Neil Gaiman.

“Some hats can only be worn if you're willing to be jaunty, to set them at an angle and to walk beneath them with a spring in your stride as if you're only a step away from dancing. They demand a lot of you.”