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]

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