Sunday 1 February 2015

A Mt Anne Epic 4: The Walking Wounded

At dawn the light is dull, sluggish. I’m the same, but make myself go out with my camera to check out the show. The valley is filled with slowly swirling cloud, but the tops are clear. It will be a fine, warm day once the sky shrugs off the valley’s blanket.

[Morning cloud burns off beneath Mt Lot & Lots Wife]
Tim and I wander across the shelf, looking for angles. I’m also testing my ankle, which feels walkable, ‘though the thought of carrying a full pack is daunting. We try not to linger over breakfast – there’s a long day ahead – but we rarely seem capable of breaking camp quickly. Apart from our desire to dry our tents before packing them, this place has a gravitational pull that makes it hard to escape.

It’s 9-30am before we wander up the slight incline towards the point where North-East Ridge meets Pandani Shelf. On the way we stop and chat with the only other people we’ve seen up here: two men with high-end photographic gear. We glean a couple of valuable tips, firstly how long they’ve taken to walk up from the road (6 hours) and secondly that they’ve taped their route with blue tape (which they intend to remove on their way back).

[Tim starts the descent. The road is just visible in the background. (Click to enlarge the image.)] 

We do a quick calculation of our return time, estimating 8 hours. That’s based on their fitness relative to ours, and how much injury and inexperience may slow us down. Just before plunging steeply through the forest we take a short detour to see if we can find Anne-A-Kananda, once the deepest known cave in Australia. (It has since been surpassed – only slightly – by Tachycardia and Niggly Caves, in the Junee Florentine system, a little further north of here.)  

[The Anne-A-Kananda sinkhole, with Lake Timk and Lots Wife]
The viewpoint gives only a hint of the huge hole beneath, and we don’t have the time to explore further. But we are still awestruck by the scale of the work done by mere H2O on this limestone ridge. We try – mostly in vain - to capture some of it photographically.

The “track” we’re aiming for – sometimes called the Bombardier Track – indirectly owes its existence to limestone. In the late 1960s a solo bushwalker went missing in this area. A caterpillar-tracked vehicle known as a bombardier, used by both the Hydro and mining companies for exploration, was co-opted to aid with the search. Unfortunately the walker was never found, and was presumed to have fallen into one of the numerous sinkholes in the area. However the track remains visible in some places, and the route is occasionally used by walkers like us.

[A 1960s bombardier, with HEC staff. (Ashton/National Library of Australia)]
The descent is long and steep, very steep. Trekking poles – just one for most of us - are extended. I’m using mine as an emergency brake, keeping some of the weight off my ankle. The rainforest is dense and deep green, with light filtering through myrtle beech and sassafras overtowered by old and gnarled King Billy pine. The pines have deposited a soft brown layer on the forest floor, and the undergrowth is mostly sparse, at least at first. We are making reasonable progress, although the downhill plunge is hot, hard and thirsty work. We welcome the shade, and take frequent drink stops. Outside this green haven the day is becoming warm and sunny.

[Tim finds shade on the descent through the forest] 

We stop for lunch somewhere towards the bottom half of the slope, ‘though not as far down as I’d hoped. After lunch the interminable downhill plunge continues, and the scrub thickens. The walk starts to become a tactical battle, a mental game for each of us as individuas, and as a group. Finding the route, now sparsely marked with blue – and pink and yellow – plastic tape, has become more of a task. Some of the tapes lead in contradictory directions. Lina is in the lead for a time, her first go at route finding. We’re pleased to be able to congratulate her on not getting lost.

But this victory is overshadowed by sounds of disgruntlement from elsewhere. Mick is having a hard time. Stumbling and grumbling, at one point he falls over outright, cursing loudly. We pause to help – once we’ve taken some photographs – and make “we’ll soon be at the bottom” type promises.

[Mick takes a tumble ... and we take photos!]
Eventually we do reach the toe of the slope, but it’s clear Mick is not well. He goes off to dig an emergency hole, returning a while later still not looking great. He’s clearly exhausted, as we all are, but we guess he’ll be okay. With that we plunge out of the forest and onto the buttongrass plain.

Five minutes into our 4km slog along the plain, Mick stops, drops his pack, and starts vomiting. There’s not much we can do but put a hand on his shoulder and mutter sympathies. After a few violent episodes, he manages to swig some water, take a few deep breaths, and gradually get to his feet. It’s the start of a long and almost impossibly hard return walk for him.

He is sick several more times. We pause often on a slow and seemingly endless march across the plain. Actually it’s anything but “plain”. At a few points there are creeks and scrub bands that interrupt the buttongrass. At these points the twin bombardier tracks, which were at times plainly visible, are suddenly unfindable; either overgrown or otherwise obfuscated.

[Paola on the Bombardier Track, with Anne Range behind]
Given that the tracks are at least 45 years old, we probably should be surprised that we can see any of them. The wider scene is quite stunning, even if we’re not in a position to really appreciate it. The whole north-western flank of the Anne Range rears up out of the surrounding plains and forest. She is imperious, majestic, this Queen Anne.

Tim and I talk about going ahead, finding the car, dropping our gear and returning to carry Mick’s gear. But each time he manages to rally enough to shrug the suggestion off, and to walk on for another few hundred metres. I’m wearing my GPS and can measure both our progress and the distance to the road. Our advance is agonizingly slow. Not for the first time I wonder whether it’s best not to know.

The afternoon heats up, and we beat on into the face of the sun. We keep trying to persuade Mick to just stop and let us come back for him and his pack in a short while. But he’s made of stern stuff – not to say somewhat stubborn – and he keeps finding a way to walk on.

When we finally agree that Paola and I will go ahead and come back once we’ve reached the road, we don’t manage to shake off Mick’s pursuit. As we enter the last little bit of scrub (of course there has to be something nasty before we finish!) we turn to see the rest of the group only 200m or so behind us. Mick’s going to do it all under his own steam.

Barely ten minutes after we reach the road, the rest stagger out of the bush and onto the road verge. If Mick is the crookest, no-one else is in great shape. Lina walks out, and lurches off to find a quiet spot. She is utterly spent, and not yet up to celebrating an incredible effort: her first excursion into some of the toughest country in a truly wild part of the world.

[Tim, Mick, Lina and Paola at the road]
It’s 7-30pm. We’ve been on our feet for 10 hours. We’re a long way from feeling elation. We’re just relieved that we’ve managed to hobble, stagger and persist our way out of the bush under our own steam. Next time we might try something straightforward.

No comments: