Thursday 31 December 2015

The Bogs of Heaven

In 1678, when John Bunyan was choosing a landscape in which the hero of The Pilgrim’s Progress might experience despair, he looked no further than a bog.

They drew nigh to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain, and they, being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was Despond.

[In the slough of despond. (Illustration by H.C. Selous from an 1870s edition of The Pilgrim's Progress] 
Since Bunyan’s time much has changed in the world. But whether you call it slough, bog, mire, marsh, mud, swamp or sludge, there are still few who’d name such a place their favourite. And in the case of our mate Jim, there’s certainly no trace of Eeyore*, which is probably why Tim and I haven’t worded him up on our dirty little secret. The truth is we’re determined to visit some bogs in the high alpine zone of Tasmania’s Mt Field National Park.

The three of us have spent our first night in a private hut near Lake Dobson inside the park. A hut situated close to your car has its advantages, including the ability to cart in luxury items. A night of fine food – or in Jim’s case a stale bread roll – plus fine wine and plenty of chocolate, has left us needing some compensatory exercise.

Our morning weather is clear, though rain is forecast later. That rules out the very long day trip to Mt Field West, but also precludes a day sloughing about in the hut. After a bit of pretend debate we choose what Tim and I already have in mind: the Tarn Shelf/Newdegate Pass/Rodway Range circuit. And the highlight of the walk, for us at least, will be the globally significant string bogs around Newdegate Pass.

[Jim & Tim in the alpine zone, Mt Field National Park] 
But first we have to traverse the familiar – and favourite – territory of Tarn Shelf. Pilgrims of a different kind come here every autumn, as the tarn-dotted plateau has one of the best accessible displays of deciduous fagus in Tasmania. We’ve been among those pilgrims many times, but have also visited in every other season. Jim and I chat about previous visits, some shared, some not. We eventually near Lake Newdegate Hut, now in poor condition, and joke that both the hut and our knees have seen better days.

But blustering about our “mature-age” fitness, Tim and I con Jim into heading further up rather than turning around here. We plod up the scrubby slope; totter over the boulder field; amble to the top of the slope, and there we are: among the string bogs that dot the area around the pass.

[Classic string bogs: looking west from Newdegate Pass] 
So what are string bogs? Essentially they are interconnected micro lakes formed when peat and bolster heath plants (such as cushion plants) impede the flow of water in an already saturated landscape. When Mt Field National Park was finally added to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area in 2013, these string bogs were one of the reasons. They are quite uncommon not only in Tasmania, but anywhere in the world.

Bogs they may be, but despond and despair are keeping their distance. Not only do we stay dry-footed thanks to the excellent track work here, but even when we venture off-track for photos and a good look, the ground is far from “sloughy”. At an altitude of close to 1300m, and in a place that was under snow only 6 weeks ago, that’s worth celebrating. So too is the fact that the promised rain is still looking quite some way off.

[Looking towards K Col from Newdegate Pass] 
When such factors coincide, it’s worth dawdling. And given our high level skills in that department, we find seven ways to go not-very-far-at-all, starting with long photographic stops. Next we pause for a lengthy lunch among some adjacent boulders, accompanied by the kind of jokey conversation we like to pretend we’ve perfected by now. As we’re packing up lunch I mention that the watery bogs we’re looking down at are technically known as flark ponds. The hilarity level rises and carries us loudly towards our next destination: K Col.

By the time we’re scrambling up and around the Rodway Range, however, joke levels have declined. It's hard work, and while none of us is exactly despondent, Jim does start talking about it being wine o’clock. We know that, in his case at least, whine o’clock won’t be far behind.

[Jim & Tim on the Rodways, with Florentine and Tyenna Peaks behind] 
Still, there’s nothing for it but to keep walking. Some comical videoing, a little mobile reception to call home, and a visit from a pair of wedge-tailed eagles all do their bit to egg us onward. We know there will be some tangible, edible rewards back at the hut. The intangible rewards of our hours among those heavenly bogs may take longer to work into our memories. But I suspect they'll be the longer lasting.

[Tangible rewards back at our hut] 
* Reflecting on where he lived, Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Eeyore said: “It isn't as if there was anything very wonderful about my little corner. Of course for people who like cold, wet, ugly bits it is something rather special.”

Sunday 20 December 2015

Games at Little Throne

Let’s start in the middle. It’s day two of a three day pre-Christmas walk. Tim and I have set off with few expectations, walking to an area neither of us knew and of which we’d heard little. It’s just good to be out in the bush, and on a walk that will allow Tim to test out his injured shoulder without too much risk or effort.

[View from the campsite towards Middle Lake] 
In a case of worst-laid plans going aright, we’d discovered a delightful campsite, sheltered in a stand of pencil pines, just a short walk from a large lake. We’ve had a peaceful night and a lazy morning, and have wandered around the eastern rim of Middle Lake to the shore of Little Throne Lake. Of the hundreds of lakes that dot this part of the plateau, these two are among just a handful with names. The latter lake is named after the humble but conspicuous crag that sits above it: Little Throne.

[Tim spies Little Throne (left back) from Blue Peak] 
And here the games begin. Little Throne Lake has many spiral arms, making crow-flight walking impossible. We check our map; conjecture about possible short cuts; look at short wades that might get us to our destination more quickly. But we end up surrendering to its convoluted shore line, content to take in the ever-changing scene.

At one point we pause to check out a wedge-tailed eagle that’s busy doing the same to us. She rafts on the warm air; circles with a slight tilt of a few feathers; sails towards us then away again: all the while keeping her head still and her eyes at least half on us.

[Broken reed patterns at the outlet of Little Throne Lake] 
A corner or three later we’re entranced by rafts of wind and wave blown reeds that have accumulated at the lake’s outlet. We invoke Van Gogh, Mondrian and other abstract artists. But which of them could have created this incredible work, its pieces not only intricately and artfully stacked, but also undulating due to the water flow beneath them? After several minutes of enchantment we reluctantly depart for the summit of Little Throne the peak.

The previous night we’d spied this knob from the summit of Blue Peak. While it’s lower than the surrounding peaks, its bluffy shape and cleft, gun-sight summit had invited further exploration. And so here we are, ascending through low scrub, on a sporadically cairned route, to the top of Little Throne.

The games continue when we find that there are three contending summits. Fortunately it doesn’t take us long to ascend all three, and then we settle down to lunch with a grandstand view. All around are landmarks that are familiar – the distant Walls of Jerusalem; the nearer Forty Lakes Peak; even our campsite beneath Blue Peak – as well as lakes that are largely unknown to us. Despite its relative lack of elevation, our little throne could just as easily be named Hundred Lakes Peak. I count more than forty just to the west. The count to the east would exceed that easily.

[Panorama west from Little Throne, over Little Throne Lake] 
Tim and I seem to have remarkably similar views on many things. We often come out with the same thought/joke/response at exactly the same time. This has led some believe that we were once joined at the hip. We respond, quite reasonably, that this would have made life remarkably difficult for our mother, given we were born five years apart! Nonetheless, when we come to our final game of choosing where we’ll go after lunch, it proves a short one. We simultaneously express the same preference for walking back around the far (western) side of Little Throne Lake. And so we do.

[Looking north to Blue Peak over an unnamed lake] 
Although it’s a much longer route, the journey back to our tent takes almost the same time as our journey out. We arrive back just in time to get inside the tent before the rain gets heavy. I snooze while Tim meditates (see, we’re not identical!) and the rain stops in plenty of time for cooking.

Afterwards we have another chance to photograph sunset over our unnamed lake, before heading back to the tent to discuss gratefulness. Because whoever has been rolling the dice for this walk, we’re very grateful. Our Blue Peaks/Little Throne sojourn has hugely exceeded our expectations. Who said it can't be all fun and games?

[Sunset from our campsite]

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Marvellous Maria 2: Devils Below, Heaven's Above

It’s tempting to say that that night on Maria Island was a black one; all black even. But that would only be true in a metaphorical sense given that the stars were out in abundance. No, it was my early morning check of the score in the Rugby World Cup final that turned the night “All Black”.

Lynne and I had been in New Zealand during the early parts of that tournament, and we’d even joined locals watching a live broadcast of the game between New Zealand’s “All Blacks” and the lowly-ranked Georgian team. Yet despite my huge soft-spot for our neighbouring country, now that we were playing them for rugby’s ultimate prize, I couldn’t help but want Australia’s “Wallabies” to pull off an unexpected win.

[A young Tasmanian devil near the Penitentiary]
It wasn’t to be. So I was slinking back to my bunk when I suddenly heard a noise that uncannily matched my fierce disappointment. It was devils growling! Some young imps, as baby Tasmanian devils are called, had incurred their mother’s wrath. She was growling and screeching in the fearsome manner that gave these carnivorous marsupials their European name in the first place.

One of the park rangers had told us that a devil family had taken up residence directly beneath our room. They are part of a concerted government effort to re-settle disease-free devils on Maria Island. On mainland Tasmania, the devil facial tumour disease has reduced their population by over 80%. But here on Maria, there’s a chance for healthy devils to live and breed naturally without the threat of the horrible and contagious cancer.

There’s much more information, including ways to get involved, on this site Tasmanian Devils

In response to the mother devil’s screeching, I could hear the panicked imps scuttering along the wooden verandah outside our dorm. Whether they were obediently rejoining their mother in the den or running for dear life, I’ll never know. This rugby tragic had some serious sulking to get on with.

In the morning I masked my sporting disappointment with the busy-ness of preparing for our walk to the island’s highest mountain, Mount Maria (709m). I’d somehow never been there, and the fine warm morning looked ideal for the long trip there and back. With luck we might get some of the renowned views over the isthmus and down to South Maria.

["Not again?" Stefan hits the cloud near Mt Maria's summit]
One of the fascinations of Maria is the wide variety of its landscapes. Over a relatively short distance we had walked through dry pasture, open woodland, tall forest and out onto boulder screes. It had all been uphill, and we were very glad to stop and fill up our water bottles in a small stream in a wetter patch of forest.

Mike and I had kept a running commentary on which birds we were hearing. They too were changing as we ascended: skylarks and cuckoos of the lower country gave way to honey-eaters and pardalotes as we rose, and finally ravens, cockatoos and currawongs nearer the top. By the time we’d reached the scree we were disappointed to see cloud lowering over the summit block. Given the cloud-forest style vegetation near the summit, we shouldn’t have been surprised.

[Group shot with cloud: Mt Maria]
We clambered on regardless, eventually topping out on the blocky summit in thickening cloud and strong wind. We took the obligatory summit shot, grabbed a quick lunch in the semi-shelter of some rocks, then turned around for the scramble down.

That all may sound disappointing, especially for Tim and Stefan, who had suffered claggy summits two days in a row. But it was a delightful walk, and an almost literal example of the journey outshining the destination.

[At least we knew our altitude]
Still, it was a long walk back, and we’d been on the go for nearly 7 hours by the time we staggered back into the Penitentiary’s quadrangle. And there we found our neighbours had become a virtual paparazzi on the lawn outside our dorm. Their target? The mother devil and her little imps were showing themselves off, relaxing in the late afternoon sun near our verandah.

[Butter wouldn't melt: Devil imp and mother on Maria Is.] 
The imps looked rather more relaxed than they had very early this morning. As they gave butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth looks, their bad behaviour seemed just a fading dream. And now that I had walked off my rugby disappointment, I was ready to wake up to this amazing situation. How many other places can you share a quiet moment with such stunning wild animals?

Friday 13 November 2015

Marvellous Maria 1: A Sweet Spot

I’m part of a chain of passengers passing luggage off the Maria Island ferry. I might note how apt it is using a chain-gang to get this job done, given the island is a former convict settlement. But I’m too busy chatting with the man next to me. I’ve discovered he’s a first-time visitor from Melbourne. So, like an over-enthusiastic travel agent, I’m busy selling the wonders of Maria Island.

Interested in wildlife? This place has it in abundance: kangaroos, wombats, devils, rare birds … (and on I go) … Like history? How many other places can you stay in a convict prison – in comfort – while learning all about everything from Aboriginal history to convicts and rogue industrialists … (but wait, there’s more) … Fancy a walk? Where do I start? (He’s probably wondering when I’ll finish!)

I can’t resist going on to mention the island’s amazing geology; its wonderfully untouched beaches; its stunning variety of vegetation. If only I’d be quiet for a moment, he might possibly experience the special serenity of this traffic-free island.

Okay, I don’t work for national parks any more, but it seems there’s no stopping this rusted-on fan from enthusing about Tasmania’s wonderful wilds. And marvellous Maria (pronounced like Mariah Carey’s first name), is one of our great national parks.

I eventually remind myself I’m not at work, and release the captive Melburnian. Our group wanders up to the Penitentiary, where we’ve booked a double dorm room. We claim bunks, unpack our bags, set up our cooking gear (there’s no power in the “Pen”) and make ourselves a cuppa. Then to the serious business: we settle on the verandah and let the quiet seep into us.

Fan-tailed and pallid cuckoos call; wombats stroll by; the sun shines; and in the distance waves whisper on the sands of Darlington Beach. Not for the first time on the trip I find myself believing the hype about this place. Thomas Lempriere, a convict era clerk of the Commissariat Store, called it “one of the sweetest spots in Van Diemen’s Land.” As we recline on the verandah, I wonder if even some of the convicts might have recognised they had it (relatively) better than those elsewhere.

Later in the afternoon we discover that Tim has never been to the top of Bishop and Clerk. So four of us head towards the 620m mountain “just for a look”. But I know two things: firstly that Tim will be determined to get to the top, and secondly that neither Mike nor I will bother this time, given that we climbed it last visit. Stefan’s attitude isn’t yet clear, though we suspect he’ll carry on with Tim.

[Walkers above Fossil Cliffs, with Bishop & Clerk behind] 
The walk first winds through beautifully open grassland, alongside high cliffs with vast views over the sea towards Freycinet National Park. Mike and I are cajoled into walking on “just to the top of the next rise”and then “just to the beginning of the steep bit”. The walk is so stunning, the vistas so grand, the birdlife so prolific, that it’s no trial to succumb. But eventually we divide into two groups, Tim and Stefan for the top, Mike and I for an amble back via another route.

The two of us, both keen birders, are immediately rewarded with a sighting of some swift parrots. Small, swift, green and endangered only begins to describe these lovely birds. The clearing of the forests on which they depend, particularly blue gum forests, is a major reason for their decline. So it’s a privilege to hear their high pitched tinkling call before they sweep off – swiftly – deeper into the forest.

[A wedge-tailed eagle soars overhead] 
No sooner have they gone than we’re visited by a curious wedge-tailed eagle. It circles a few times, before flying off at speed, pursued by a raven. Forest ravens are not small birds, having a wingspan in excess of one metre. Yet this one looks both small and brave up against our largest bird of prey, with its nearly three metre wingspan.

On our way back we stop to observe a common wombat: an animal seemingly at the opposite end of the speed spectrum from a parrot or an eagle. Yet I’ve heard that these rotund marsupials – dubbed the bulldozers of the bush – can, if threatened, run at close to human sprinting speed. To put that in perspective, a wombat can run at up to 40kmh; Usain Bolt can reach 45kmh.

[A common wombat, not running anywhere] 
We’re back at the Penitentiary and have been tucking into wine and cheese for some time before Tim and Stefan stagger back. They’ve made the top of Bishop and Clerk, ‘though the clouds have covered the peak and obscured all but glimpses of the amazing views. We raise a glass to them both, part commiseration, part congratulation. Better luck tomorrow?

[Relaxing in the sun near the convict-era chapel] 
Mountain tops, cliffs, wildlife and a place to relax together: and that’s just our first afternoon. This truly is a sweet spot!

Monday 9 November 2015

A City Remembers its Wild Past

Returning to Sydney is a bit like visiting an old girlfriend. At first it’s all about the former attractions. The eyes and the smile sparkle; there’s an easy familiarity; a shared history; some comfortable conversation. But it’s not long before the other side of things surfaces, and you remember why it didn’t last.

[Sydney's Harbour Bridge from Barangaroo] 
It’s late spring. Sydney’s unmistakeable warmth and humidity enfold me, along with the scent of gardenia and jacaranda and diesel and a thousand other introduced scents. The bird sounds too are from everywhere as well as here. Indian mynahs, English sparrows, European turtle doves and rock pigeons happily mix their calls with homegrown rosellas and lorikeets and currawongs.

It’s an eclectic mix that reminds me Sydney belongs to the world as much as to Australia. Yet though I was born here, she isn’t “mine” any more: not even when the upward, spiralling call of rainbirds (eastern koels) transports me to my former life. The unmistakeable sound rises into the burgeoning cloud, calling up the thunder and rain that locals know will follow.

[A rainbird (eastern koel) calling up a storm] 
Lynne and I sit by the open window of a Vietnamese restaurant, grinning at the coming storm. Are we the only ones enjoying this? We admit that we miss Sydney’s mini-monsoons: the build up, the bullying loom of the clouds, the sudden shock of lightning, and that final chaotic deluge.

Childhood memories aside, I love these storms for their reminder of the wild. Even a city of nearly 5 million has to pause in the face of such power. Pedestrians shelter; cars stop; peak hour is on hold as rain floods the gutters, hooshing leaves and rubbish before it. When it all stops sodden piles of debris, with jacaranda bloom highlights, block the drains. In my childhood the end of such a storm brought the neighbourhood children into the streets to stage improvised boat races in the still-flowing gutters.

The following day we discover a wholly more surprising echo of the wild. We are visiting Sydney’s newest development, Barangaroo. It comprises 22 hectares of harbourfront land nestled between Darling Harbour and Walsh Bay. Most of the area was working dockland, and I recall it as an ugly clutter of ships, cranes and dilapidated buildings.

In reshaping its future, the designers have not entirely escaped that former clutter. Sixteen hectares of it is being transformed into bog-standard high rise office blocks of glass and metal. They thrust skyward the same as do towers in any finance district of any city in the world.

[Sydney's glass towers from Barangaroo] 
It’s the other six hectares that are bringing something both unique and inspiring. The Barangaroo Reserve is new open public space. Those last few words would be rare enough for a city like Sydney, where the dollar and the car so often determine what happens. But this is prime harbourfront land that hasn’t been open to the public for over a century. And now, suddenly, anyone in Sydney has another way to celebrate and enjoy its superb harbour.

The reserve has been opened for less than a month when we visit, but it is already attracting large numbers of visitors. Walkers, joggers, cyclists, parents with strollers, picnickers, and sticky-beaks like us, all join the gardeners and other workers still finishing off bits and pieces.

[Nawi Cove, one of Barangaroo's re-imagined bays] 
The scale and design of the reserve is breathtaking. I have said there’s an echo of the wild, and that’s what surprises us most. The old shoreline has been re-established – or re-envisioned – using thousands of blocks of local Sydney sandstone. The vaguely Lego-like effect is already softening as time and tide do their work. Revegetation work of vast proportions – more than 75 000 individual plants have been used – has started to turn the area into genuine green space. But more than this, by using mainly local endemics, it has come close to showing visitors the kinds of plants that once thrived here.

[Sydney sandstone and a few of the 75 000 new plants] 
Of course it is not meant to be a replica of old Sydney coastal bushland. For a start there are concrete and steel sections, and paths and stairways criss-cross the reserve, partly to honour the industry of the last century. Yet there’s no doubt that the bush, the coastline, and the harbour vistas are the star attractions. They honour a bush past that dates back to the last ice-age, and to the Aboriginal people who lived here throughout the drowning of this former river valley.

And one other aspect of Barangaroo’s “wild” past is hinted at in its name. It seems that the Barangaroo after whom the place is named, was a powerful and feisty Cammeraygal (Aboriginal) woman. One story has her threatening to take a whip to an English soldier after he has flogged a miscreant in front of local Aboriginals. It’s a wild sense of justice we might wish to see more of in our era.

Monday 19 October 2015

A Hawkes Bay Break: Cruisy

Note to self: sleep is essential. Do NOT imagine you can do without it; that by catching a plane near midnight, flying towards the sunrise, and touching down as the sun comes up, you can simply dust yourself off and launch into the new day. Your body knows otherwise.

The time difference between Australia and New Zealand means we are playing out that exact scenario on a recent trip to the North Island. Despite our attempts to sleep during the 3 hour flight, we arrive in Zombie mode. Neither coffee, nor a rousing breakfast in a café full of All Black fans watching their team win (again), is enough to perk us up for the long drive up the island to the Hawkes Bay region.

[Some contented Hawkes Bay cattle] 
Many stops, many coffees, a snooze or two, and a disproportionate number of oddly-timed snack/meals later, we arrive at our rural accommodation in the heart of Hawkes Bay. Dragging our confused bodies with us, we do a hasty reconnoitre, eat a quick meal, and flop into bed around 9pm. Our muddled brains actually think it’s 10pm, thanks to a mix-up over daylight saving. And that feels more than late enough for bed, and the hope of a standard 8 hours of shut-eye.

Our bodies have other plans, and we wake to the sounds of unfamiliar birds and farm machinery fully 12 hours later. Not since university days has either of us slept the clock around. At first we don’t believe our timepieces, but our mobile phones – which seem to know these things automatically – confirm the time.

I open the curtain onto a scene from a child’s painting. A field of yellow flowers is set against a steep and vividly green hill, which is criss-crossed with animal tracks and dotted with placid grazing cattle. A lone white goat and perfect blue sky complete the scene. People told us this is a beautiful part of a beautiful country, and they haven’t exaggerated.

[Our morning view on a Hawkes Bay farm] 

But country isn’t just for staring at. A small shed hides the means of getting closer to it all: two bicycles. Not just any old bicycles, these are cruiser bikes. AND they even have names. We’re accustomed to 21 speed mountain bikes with hard seats and an attitude to match. “Molly” and “Cooper”, our resident cruiser bikes, have a more relaxed outlook on life. Built for comfort, not speed – and not for hills, let alone mountains – these bikes are just right for cruising along the near-level cycle trails that lace the region.

[Lynne cruises a cycle path aboard "Molly"] 

And so to the stop bank that separates us from the river. We’ve not heard the term “stop bank” before, but it’s immediately clear it’s essentially the same as a levee bank, protecting the surrounding land from floods; in this case from the Tutaekuri River. That's one of several rivers draining east from the Kaweka and Ruahine mountain ranges to the west; rivers whose outwash has created the fertile plains that are key to Hawkes Bay’s agricultural bounty.

As with so many New Zealand rivers, the Tutaekuri flaunts its snowy upland origins, flowing swift, grey/blue and braided through the lowlands. Doubling as our local cycle path, the stop bank leads us gently along the river, winding through pasture, forest and fields of apples, and alongside some of the vineyards for which Hawkes Bay is famous. We blow away the cobwebs before finding some very decent coffee in the township of Taradale.

[The Tutaekuri River near Taradale] 
We then try the cycle path on the other side of the river, which soon passes beneath the impressive Otatara Pä. This series of connected Maori forts on hillocks above the river has fearsome wooden palisades, and we learn later that it was a highly-prized and much fought-over site. Distressingly part of the site was lost in the 1970s and 80s when it was quarried for road metal. Today it’s an historic site managed by the Department of Conservation in consultation with Ngäti Paarau of Waiohiki Marae (local Maori).

[Part of the Otatara Pa] 
On our ride back upstream, we get to try out the three gears on the cruiser bikes. We learn that third gear = “cruisy”; second gear = “almost-cruisy”; and third gear = “still-quite-close-to-cruisy”. Fortunately there are no actual hills, so we are only mildly pink-faced by the time we reach the village of Puketapu. But as it has a famous pub, we decide we’re parched, and stop for an ale in the shade.

New Zealand may be famous for its adrenaline charged adventures, and we’ve had our share of those. But we're learning it also does the cruisy end of things very well. And right now we have no complaints about that.

Thursday 24 September 2015

To the Barracking of Birds

How did I come to have a pardalote for a PT? As a gym virgin – I haven’t set foot in a gym since high school – the idea of a personal trainer is quite foreign to me, let alone one the size of a glue stick.

[A striated pardalote nesting. Photo courtesy of Alex Dudley] 
Yet here I am, working on a post-retirement fitness regime that sees me walking up, down and around our nearby bush each morning. And suddenly I’m the motivational target of a striated pardalote. As I strain up a straggly slope, a bird clearly calls out pick-it-up, pick-it-up! Rapidly, repeatedly, as insistent as a miniature drill sergeant: it’s a striated pardalote tutoring from the treetops.

They say a coach should lead by example. And you’d have to say these tiny birds have literally done the hard yards. Some of our striated pardalotes (Pardalotus striatus) fly as far away as south-east Queensland each winter. And each spring they fly back to mate and nest in our bushland.

Pardalotes are not the only birds out there barracking, ‘though I should use that word loosely for some. A couple of big black ravens fly over. They tilt their heads, lifting their wingtips in what looks to be a rude gesture. Then, like drivers yelling their displeasure from the window, they sledge me at the top of their lungs: Aaaahh-gawaaarn-ga-waaaarrrrrrd! One even alights on a treetop to continue the tirade. And when kookaburras start joining in, it’s clear my fitness efforts are laughable.

[A forest raven calls from a treetop] 
But it’s not all discouragement. Olive whistlers do what they do best, whistling in a cheerful, encouraging manner. Tasmanian scrubwrens sound even more excited, urging me on with a thin, high-pitched cheer. Tasmanian thornbills too express a wild, shrill excitement, and high above a couple of kelp gulls join in, cheering shrilly caaarn c’maarrrn c’maar-aar-aaarn.  

It’s not only the calls. Sometimes my tramping disturbs small amorous groups of brush bronzewings. These heavily built pigeons take off in fright, their wings making loud applause. This sometimes frightens more than it encourages, but the result is still an acceleration in effort. Later my path takes me close to the Hobart Rivulet, and even it seems capable of a demure roar. I feel encouraged, although it occurs to me that I’m probably having aural hallucinations brought on by oxygen deprivation.

[clockwise from top left: bird orchid, yellow dogwood, wattle & pultenaea]  
But it’s when I start wondering if the plants will join in (“Surely the dogwood would!”; What’ll the wattle be saying?”; “Is the eggs and bacon bush egging me on?”; “Is that orchid giving me the bird?”) that I realise I’ve gone deep into fantasy land.

Thankfully the mute bulk of kunanyi/Mt Wellington straightens me out. Just near my turnaround point I see it afresh, the angle of view new, subtly different. Its massive presence is silent, reassuring, a balm to soothe my barmy internal chatter.

[kunanyi/Mt Wellington, early morning] 
I’m working hard now, breathing heavily. But it is so good to be out in this bush, clearing the silliness from my head, just taking it in. Really that’s all the encouragement I need. I walk on calmly, happily, and let the birds and bushes get on with their own lives.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Rocking Cradle 3: Bone Clocks

Lying down above Crater Lake, I am wishing that time would stand still. Of course it’s a forlorn hope. Bushwalking might have some ability to bend the fundamental laws of time and space, but in the end even the bushwalker must admit to being just another member of the human race.

[Cradle Mt from Marions Lookout: Who would want to leave this?] 
I’ve been reminded of this all day by the clicking of my left knee, ticking with every stride like a bone clock*. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s a little disconcerting, not only because it tells me all isn’t well with that part of me, but also because it’s a reminder of my mortality per se.

In this mood, I have the sudden desire to prolong my exposure to the plateau’s white wonders; to turn around and go further into the mountains; even to walk the whole 65km Overland Track. But winter days are short, and nights at 1400m in snow, without a tent and food and a sleeping bag, are not advisable. A keenness to prolong my mortal life wins out.

[Merran tests an ice-covered pool near Cradle Mt] 
To break the spell I simply stand up, and suggest it’s time we headed down. Yet even then we make as if we’re just wandering over to Marions Lookout; simply taking a few more photos; only moseying down a little to “see what we can see”, even though we all know we’re on our way back to the hut.

Fortunately the steepness of the descent focusses the mind, and the stunning views of Crater Lake keep the beauty levels topped up. Still, we’re back on the “main drag” now. It’s both part of the Overland Track, and one of the key day walks for short-term visitors. We start meeting other walkers for the first time all day, and the contrast is jarring.

[On the descent from Marions Lookout to Crater Lake] 
Some are dressed for a stroll through an urban picnic ground. One young woman is crunching through snow in high heels, with matching fashion dress and hand bag. More sensibly, one of her companions is wearing a day-pack. But as he approaches we hear loud music coming from a device hidden in the pack.

Yes, we’re undoubtedly in the transition zone between the wild and the tamed. But we’re in the mood to keep celebrating the wild. We slide and shoe-ski down some of the snowier sections, sharing a laugh with groups struggling their slippery way up the same icy sections.

[Buttongrass through snow near Ronny Creek] 
We keep up the celebratory mood back in the hut, with shared food and wine, and animated discussion about everything from pilgrimages to cuisine. And when Tim reads us some of Michael Ende’s rather chilling novel “Momo”, we exchange thoughts on how we use time. We wonder at the metaphors we use, such as spending time and saving time.

I read later that Norway’s then Prime Minister, Thorbjorn Jagland, referred to “Momo” in his 1997 New Year’s speech. He reflected that to many people, time had become the scarcest resource of all. In the story, he reminds us:

People are persuaded to save time by eliminating everything not useful. One of the people … cuts out his girlfriend, sells his pet, stops singing, reading and visiting friends. In this way he will supposedly become an efficient man getting something out of life. What is strange is that he is in a greater hurry than ever. The saved-up time disappears - and he never sees it again.

We drift off to sleep with deep timey-wimey thoughts going through our minds. And in the morning, it seems we’re unhurried as we prepare to go our separate ways. Tim and Merran have more time to spend on the plateau, while Lynne and I will have some time with our daughter and family in Launceston.

[Tim and Merran departing the hut] 
Whatever we’re planning, our stay at Cradle has been a good reminder that hurrying won’t slow the passage of time. Yet somehow being deliberate, being present to others and to the moments we share with them, noticing and celebrating wonder, opening ourselves to silliness and the wasting of time: those ARE things that seem capable of changing the flow of time.

* The title of David Mitchell’s 2014 novel “The Bone Clocks”, derives from the contemptuous name given to mere mortals by some of the book’s immortal characters.