Monday 23 June 2014

Gullible, Me?

[Something light for a change]

Did you hear theyve taken the word gullible out of the dictionary? Of course you wouldn’t fall for that old one, but millions have. Apparently the people at the Oxford English Dictionary regularly receive letters complaining about this. Or so I have read!

Gullibility is an old and rather endearing human trait, and one that keeps the outdoor gear and bushwalking world ticking. Its a world where science and magic meet; where woofle dust is as potent as truth; where the carefully crafted words of catalogues, online blurbs, or sales staff, can tip you from rational to impulsive.

Take these words, used to sell a popular outdoor product.

Light output is optimized to guarantee the chosen burn time. The wide, mixed or focused beam gives lighting that can be adapted to any situation, from close-range to distance vision.

Is this describing the lighting system for an FA-18, or a Porsche Cayenne? No … its for a head torch. A torch that will set you back around $175 (batteries not included)!

Or consider this piece of outdoor apparel.

The fabric upgrade takes the update of a classic utilitarian design to a new kind of utility—shelter against severe weather but guaranteed comfort during dashes between locations or longer outdoor experiences.

Despite this whole new level of “utility”, it seems you shouldn’t use it for TOO long in some conditions. Its only suited to “regions that evade winters full onslaught.” Disappointed? Maybe this will sway you. “In line with the more dynamic approach, a map pocket that is easily accessible on the go replaces the traditional chest pocket.” Yep, Id certainly be glad of being able to access a map in my $1000+ raincoat!

Im intrigued too that the search for waterproof footwear hasnt stopped at waterproof boots and shoes. You can get “waterprooof” sandals from several companies. Their definition of waterproof is a bit “special”. They use woofle terms like hydrophobic mesh lining and waterproof upper materials but ignore the elephant sitting in the puddle. These are, after all, open-sided sandals, as waterproof as fingerless gloves. Your feet will get wet, folks!

But wait …” I hear you say, “what if I have waterproof socks?” To which I reply: thats another whole exercise in the fantasy that moisture only comes from outside. The bad news here is that we sweat, even through our feet. Stroll carefully across wet grass, wearing waterproof socks and sandals (and putting aside, for the moment, any notions of fashion), and your feet will stay dry. Gumboots would do the same job, as might plastic bags. But try any proper walking, in rough, wet, muddy conditions, for an hour or more, and your feet will become moist. And smelly too.

Woofle has invaded the sleeping zone too. My mate Jim is eyeing off a new super-duper sleeping bag. Ive seen the Toad of Toad Hall look in his eyes as he scans the glossy photos, and reads the hypnotic blurb that tells him the bag has:

A permanent* Nano-level water repellent polymer treatment applied to a high loft, high quality down. The Nano-thin treatment vastly improves the downs reaction to water without effecting its weight or loft performance.

So the $600+ bag apparently dries 60% faster than normal down. I remind Jim that he usually uses his bag in (dry) huts. I then stress the wisdom of him not getting his bag wet in the first place. But a dangerously glazed look has come over his eyes, and I fear that the words “poop poop” are on the tip of his tongue.

For all of my steely resolve to remain unswayed by the type of hype that has infected Jim, I will confess that I’m not immune. There's one item of news that is close to winning me over. It concerns some truly wondrous-sounding Japanese underpants. The blurb tells us that these undies are:

coated with ceramic powder to absorb all kinds of less-than-pleasant body odors, from sticky perspirations to gaseous emanations. Metal ions in the powder break down malodorous compounds. . . . Up to 80 percent are eliminated within 30 seconds. They remain effective even after being washed 100 times.

Having walked a lot with Jim, I can see a genuine need for these little beauties. Ill be seeing Jim tonight. If hes not glad of the news Im sure there are others in our walking group who will be. I might even pass the hat around.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Familiarity Without Contempt

[The Acropolis and part of Mt Geryon from Lake Cyane on the Labyrinth] 

I hear myself saying it. “We’re only going to Pine Valley”.

We’ve been chatting with another group of walkers in the Derwent Bridge Hotel, and I’m responding to news that they’re going to the King William Range. I’d been there in the 1980s – in high summer – and it was a hard enough walk then, even with long days and youthful legs. I am wide eyed that they would tackle the range in winter, with days lacking both length and warmth.

Certainly in comparison a three hour amble, an altitude gain of just 100m, and a cosy hut with a wee coal stove sound soft. But comparisons are odious, and I am soon castigating myself for belittling this walk. As we leave the southern Overland Track and enter the magical, dimly-lit forests of the Cephissus Valley, I feel afresh that sense of awe that hits me every time.

[Deep in the Cephissus Valley] 

Outside noises soften, conversation falls away, and bird calls seem muted as we move through the fair forest. Even the showers that have followed us up from leeawuleena/Lake St Clair recede.

Pine Valley is named for the King Billy and celery-top pines that thrive here. Such conifers, with links back to Gondwanan days, are rare in an Australian context. It’s not just the conifers, but the whole raft of associated species that mark out the forest’s uniqueness. Mosses and lichens of every green shade cover the forest floor; smother downed trees; climb up living trunks; and join with leaves and epiphytes to tint the very air. Brilliantly coloured fungi, from sulphur and fluoro-green to lollypop reds and oranges, offer sudden bursts of contrast.

[Fungus and lichen on a tree trunk, Pine Valley] 

Pine Valley Hut sits deep in this forest in the upper section of the Cephissus valley. We’re not surprised that it’s cold and wet for our arrival: it is winter and the shade is deep. But lunch, a hot drink and the coal stove soon fix that. And as we settle in the weather continues to improve, a hopeful sign for our planned day up in the Labyrinth.

Light is slow to seep into this deep valley in the morning. The cold night promises a clear sky, and after breakfast we start to see blue sky through the trees. The Labyrinth is a remarkably beautiful dolerite plateau that sits a few hundred metres above our valley: another reason for visiting Pine Valley. The plateau is full of lakes and tarns, the result of ice-scraping during the ice ages. Its thin soils hold dogged patches of Gondwanan vegetation, including pencil pines and deciduous beech.

[A pencil pine, a pool and Mt Geryon: the Labyrinth] 

Although the initial climb from the valley is only about 300m vertically, the track is at times brutally direct. I took the late great English writer Roger Deakin up to the Labyrinth some years ago. I recall his tart question about the track builders as we grunted up one particularly steep bit: “Hadn’t they heard of switch-backs?” There’s an appreciation of Roger and more about that trip here

We gain the top in brilliant winter sunshine. The only thing resembling cloud is a rapidly dissolving layer of misty cloud over leeawuleena. A few wisps kiss the cliffs of a distant Mt Olympus, but nearer to us all is clear.

[Reflection, walkers and part of the Parthenon on the Labyrinth] 

We almost have to remind ourselves that it’s winter, until we start slipping on occasional icy patches. That and the low angle of the late morning sun as we walk northward across the plateau. We exult in the incredibly still conditions; enjoy a leisurely lunch; wander about the lakes; chat, take photographs, and generally poke about for an hour or more.

[Pencil pines, Lake Cyane and the Acropolis: the Labyrinth] 

In the six to eight times I’ve been up here, these are the best conditions I’ve ever seen on the Labyrinth, summer, winter or any other season. A memorial plaque in the Pine Valley Hut is a reminder of how brutal conditions can be up here. 20 year old Clare Hutchison disappeared on the Labyrinth in a summer snow storm in December 2000. A life as short as a winter day.

We return to the hut by 3:30pm. Already the day is darkening, and we’re glad of the hut’s warmth, and the promise of wine and food. Tomorrow we’ll be leaving Pine Valley after yet another wonderful visit. I hope to return again soon. And next time there will be no “only” about it.

[Waiting for the ferry at Narcissus, leeawuleena/Lake St Clair]

Sunday 1 June 2014

Child's Play

[Snow play on kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 

A Childhood Scene

It starts with watching twigs wash down a rain-filled gutter. Next we’re inventing our own version of pooh sticks, damming up the flow with mud and leaves, crafting ice cream sticks into boats, then breaching the dam and cheering on our sticks in their rush towards the stormwater drain.

[Starting early: toddlers learn by interacting with the world] 

From there it’s a logical leap to head for the creek, where surely the thrill of a greater flow will multiply our fun. And so one rainy day we’re clambering over my friend’s back fence and slipping down to the creek. The rain has been steady all day, but a heavy thunderstorm seems to have brought it to an end. There’s even a hint of sunshine.

We’re expecting a good flow – that’s why we’ve chosen a wet day – but as we get down to the creek we’re distracted looking for good racing “boats”. Everything is sodden, from the squelching, fragrant leaves of the eucalypts and turpentines to their dripping trunks.

[Creek play: chucking a rock, of course!] 
As the two of us search through piles of wet sticks for something dry enough to float, we hear a sound that’s out-of-place. How can wind be roaring in the trees when the air is still? Besides this has a deeper, growling edge. We suddenly realise it’s coming from the creek, only metres from us. Just upstream we see a brown, frothing, debris-filled torrent rushing towards us. It’s a flash flood.

We quickly clamber to a safer spot, then stand wide-eyed watching our quiet neighbourhood creek transformed into something capable of killing us. Still, we’re more excited than afraid. Although we’re no more than 11 or 12 years old, we do know how to take care of ourselves.

We’ve been rambling this bush all of our short lives. We know where the tracks and short-cuts are; know not to drink the creek water; know about snakes and spiders; know which trees are okay to climb and which aren’t; which plants scratch the worst; which neighbourhood kids we need to avoid.

* * *

[All senses engaged: Russell Falls Track, Mt Field NP] 
Many pooh sticks have bobbed down the creek since that day, and many things in everyday life have changed forever. It’s enough to make me wonder, on reflection, were my friend and I in serious danger that day? Was our bush in general a dangerous place?

If I had to answer “yes or no”, I would say “yes”. Playing in the bush has its dangers. But after that admission I would have to add a series of hefty “howevers”.

[Three generations of walkers on Tarn Shelf, Mt Field NP] 
Here are some of my "howevers":

·      Many studies show that being out in nature is good for us [1]
·      Nature play boosts creativity, imagination and problem-solving abilities [2]
·      We learn through doing as well as thinking; through our bodies as well as our minds
·      We are part of the natural world, not distinct from it
·      Staying inside can lead to over-eating and obesity [3]
·      Device addiction is a real risk [4]
·      Divorce from nature is bad for us, and bad for nature [5]
·      It is no bad thing to be dwarfed, even a little intimidated, by nature
·      Risk is inherent to life, no matter where and how we live it

So it’s not enough to simply say children playing in nature is a good idea. We need to positively promote such connection with nature. If that sounds counter to our culture, it probably is. If it sounds onerous, it’s actually child's play! Look at this list, created by Nature Play SA. It’s enough to make me me want to have my childhood all over again.

[with acknowledgement to Nature Play SA] 

[1] See, for instance
[2] See also
[3] for a light-hearted take on this, see
[5] “If kids don’t have some kind of connection to nature that is hands-on and independent, then they are probably not going to develop the love of nature and vote for parks and the preservation of endangered species … Unless you know something you are unlikely to love it.” Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods.