Sunday 23 March 2014

Frenchmans Cap 1: Echoes of the Past

Memory is a distant and shattered mirror, reflecting only a fragmentary, distorted version of the past.

[A distant view of Frenchmans Cap (right) from the new track]
Which has me wondering, on the eve of my second trip to Frenchmans Cap: was that first Frenchmans trip really as bad as memory has it? At the time, early January 1983, I wrote effusively to friends of our arrival at the summit.

We climbed out of a cool, cloud-filled valley only to be greeted by still and balmy conditions, and an ethereal glow from the thin sun on thick snow. It was a tremendous wilderness experience … made all the keener by the knowledge of the battle still going on below us, over the Franklin River.

[Crossing the Franklin River near the start of the track] 
I also noted that then Opposition Leader, Bill Hayden, had landed on the same summit by helicopter two days later. I added “half his luck to avoid 27km of Tasmania’s hardest walking!

The letter sets a little of the historical context. But that fragment about “Tasmania’s hardest walking” is more a reflection of my trip memories than a defensible fact. I had started under-prepared and flabby following a big Christmas. A couple of kilometres into the walk a member of the group had realised he’d forgotten some vital piece of equipment, and I’d volunteered to escort him back to collect it. “We’ll catch you up” I’d assured the rest.

That set the pattern: walk hard to catch up; stop for a much-needed rest; have the rest of the group immediately leave. You don’t want to meet the Loddon Plains in a state of exhaustion. Very accurately called “The Sodden Loddons”, this long section of flat, boggy track runs from the Loddon River more than 6km up Philps Lead towards the first hut.

[Tim and Nick at the start of the Loddon Plains] 
Its mud is as unavoidable as its depth is unpredictable. I recall plunging several times into thigh-deep bogs, heaving myself out of the boot-sucking mud only with great effort. Such exertions already had me staggering, but when I managed to find a chest-deep hole, it was too much. I just lay there, imprisoned in the chocolate brown ooze, as others gathered around to “help” or just to gawk. One “helper” reckoned they should start the “Loddon-Below-Peter-Grant” hydro-electric scheme right there.

But all that was more than 31 years ago. Now it’s March 2014, and I’m back to lay the ghosts of that walk to rest. I’ve heard, for starters, that “The Sodden Loddons” are no more. In a remarkable display of philanthropy, business man and keen bushwalker Dick Smith has donated $1 million over 10 years towards the upgrading of the track. The only proviso is that the Tasmanian Government has to come up with half that again, in total a $1.5 million makeover!

[Some raised boardwalk bridges a section of boggy track in the Loddon Plains] 

Six years into the Frenchmans Cap Track program, the biggest and best improvement is a long section of new track that bypasses the Loddon Plains. But after crossing the Loddon River, Tim, Nick and I are still on old boggy track, and we’re beginning to wonder when the new will begin. We then meet two trackworkers who tell us it’s just a couple of hundred metres ahead.

While it’s no magic carpet ride – you still have to actually walk it! – the new track does make a big difference. It meanders and sidles its way up towards the steep end of Philps Lead, but always at a moderate incline. The trackies have used a mini excavator, a motorised wheel barrow and a lot of sweat to create a track that will soon sit gently within the landscape.

Much of the track itself is raised and markedly convex, with drainage ditches on either side to minimise erosion in this high rainfall area. Nick tells us it’s a track technique that’s been working well since Roman times. Nonetheless we’re still surprised to see tread marks from the trackies’ “chariot” – the motorised barrow they use to deliver the locally-derived quartzite gravel that makes up the durable track surface.

[Tim checks out a new section of the track]  

For me the sweetest part of our hour or so on the new track is its lack of bog. Gone is that all-consuming effort to negotiate – and inevitably fall into – the wretched mud. Having a secure surface allows time for thinking, and time for talking. Time to consider, for instance, whether it’s always a good thing to put up with the mud that’s thrown our way.

30 years before his current track philanthropy, Dick Smith had stood up against the Gordon-below-Franklin hydro-electric scheme. He’d used his helicopter to drop radio equipment to protesters hidden in bush camps near the proposed dam site.

Today’s mud and murk can be the literal kind, and we can throw money and effort towards its defeat. But it can come in other forms too, the kinds that want to dam rivers or fell forests or un-declare World Heritage status. There are some fights that must continue. The still-wild Franklin River that borders our walk on three sides reminds us of that.

No comments: