Sunday 30 March 2014

Frenchmans Cap 2: Fires on the Mountain

If progress towards Frenchmans Cap is measured in altitude gain, the efforts of the first day’s walk haven’t got us very far. We have left the highway at maybe 385m above sea level, and by the time we stagger into Lake Vera Hut, nearly 7 hours later, we’re only at about 552m.

We’re not inclined to do the maths just then, but that means we still have 900 odd metres of up to do before we get to the 1446m summit. For now the hut is enough. Despite our fatigue, we can’t help noticing how “kempt” it looks; bright, painted, swept and cheery. We recognise the hand of former ranger Terry Reid, who has acted as a part-time track ranger here since his retirement. Little bags with fire lighters, freshly-chopped kindling, a full bin of coal briquettes, spray surface cleaner and cloths, candles in holders, and a wonderfully informative log book: these little things add to the feeling that we’ve come to a place that is cared for – and that we’re welcome to.

[The lovingly kept log book, Lake Vera Hut] 
The feeling carries on to the welcome from the walkers already in the hut. Rather than the grudging grimaces and reluctant gear shifting that can greet you when you enter a hut, the incumbents smile, welcome us, and show us which sleeping platforms are free. Along with the warmth from the fire, it sets the tone for a night of good – and surprisingly deep – conversation with some of our hut-kin.

Some of our conversation is even about bushwalking, from which we learn of the summit disappointments of those soon to head out from Lake Vera. Weather and bodily struggles have both played a part here, underlining to us that the major challenges of the walk are still ahead of us.

Still, the only way to climb 900m is one-step-at-a-time. It’s helped by the fact that many of the steps beside and above Lake Vera are through some of the most beautiful – if steep – rainforest anywhere in Tasmania. Some of those steps are literally made from the rainforest. Several fallen trunks have been turned into ladders, with notches cut out to fit walkers’ feet. A few muddy sections even have Huon pine rounds in them, an extraordinary extravagance if you consider only the “city” price of that wood.

[Tim ascends one of the "log ladders" above Lake Vera] 
Tree-ring dating of Huon pine around Lake Vera shows that some began life here nearly 2 000 years ago. The same dendrochronolgy reveals some of the climate and fire history in the region, with significant fire events few and far between. This relative stability has encouraged the growth of complex, implicate rainforest with superb examples of high altitude King Billy and Huon pines alongside myrtle, sassafras, pandani, ferns, flowering heath and a wealth of fungi. The forest has a still and timeless beauty, dulling our desire to keep sweating our way up to Barron Pass. Or perhaps you could put that down to fatigue and a full pack.

[Climbing Heath (Prionotes cerinthoides) in flower] 
It’s only as we finally break out at Barron Pass that we start to see what happens when fire does burn through this mountainous country. A fire lit by linesmen near the Lyell Highway in 1966 burned up through this area, devastating groves of King Billy pine, incinerating the Lake Tahune Hut, charring a vast area around Frenchmans Cap and beyond.

From Barron Pass through Artichoke Valley and on to Lake Tahune we see hundreds of stags of burned King Billy pines. For a tree with a limited range and a seven-year-long reproductive cycle, this was a catastrophic blaze. While the pines won’t return to their former glory in our lifetime – and possibly never will – it is encouraging to see some young King Billys along the track.

[A King Billy pine sapling beneath Nicoles Needle] 
While we’re contemplating fires in the mountains, it is raining, of course. We shelter for lunch in a very welcome cave beneath the quartzite spire of Nicoles Needle, then squelch our way across and down to Lake Tahune. The hut there was rebuilt five years after the 1966 fire. It is smaller hut than Lake Vera’s, and more humble, ugly even. It was prefabricated off-site, flown in by helicopter in two parts and positioned on Huon pine foundations. Poor ventilation, along with the frequently cold, moist air and often soggy bushwalkers, make it inclined to mould.

[A humble hut in a majestic setting: Tahune Hut] 
But it is in a spectacular setting, perched on a small forested shoulder beside the lake, with the sheer cliffs, rocky knuckles and steep passes of Frenchmans Cap directly above. In the weather that prevails we only see hints of this, ‘though later we will appreciate it more fully. In the meantime we appreciate the warmth – ironic given the fire history – of the hut’s little coal stove. We will soon be warm and dry and ready for tomorrow. That’s planned to be our summit day.

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