Sunday 26 April 2015

Four Lakes and a Mountain: Part 4

If the weather is going to relent, we’re hoping it will be today. Today we plan to climb Mt Rogoona on our way over to Lake Myrtle. It’s our only mountain for this trip. And while we’re putting in weather requests, we’d quite like it to stay fine for our night by the lake shore. It is a sublime place, but certainly at its best when the weather is calm and kind.

[Climbing Mt Rogoona: It's not always like this Long John!]

We wake to an overcast sky. At least it isn’t raining, and hasn’t since early evening. These are hopeful signs. Then as we finish up breakfast, the grey clouds yawn and stretch, and quite soon they’re taking their leave.

With new optimism we slather on sunscreen, shoulder our packs and step outside to start the uphill climb. The sun strikes the still-wet shingle roof of the hut and generates a swirl of steam. By the time we reach the high point of the saddle we’re doing the same. There we drop our full packs, swig some water, and put essentials into day packs. From here it’s off-track and uphill to the summit of Mt Rogoona.

The contrast to our previous days is stark. The rain has been routed, with just a few wisps of cloud clinging to the mountain tops. The sky is an intense cerulean blue, and there is barely a murmur of wind. It would be churlish to complain about the hot climb, but we do have to work hard to gain the summit. If we needed encouragement the intricate alpine gardens, miniature tarns and dappled slabs of dolerite are an ever-varying delight.

[A mountain rocket garden on the slopes of Rogoona]

Rogoona’s is a summit I will never tire of visiting. The views stretch from tonight’s lakeside campsite far below us to the distant peaks of the Overland Track: the Pelions, the DuCanes and even Mt Olympus. As we stand on the sharp-edged summit, Long John and Libby, first time visitors here, are slack jawed, overawed.

[Group bliss on Mt Rogoona] 

Tim, Jim and I are enjoying it afresh, and also reminiscing about earlier visits to the summit. For the three of us a previous highlight was a close encounter with a young wedge-tailed eagle, which had “buzzed” us several times. As we settle down to today’s mountain-top lunch, a shadow falls across our improvised table. The eagle – or another eagle – is back!

[Close encounters with a wedge-tailed eagle]

Can there be such a thing as calm panic? If there is we approximate it, letting out gasps of awe, scrambling for our cameras, and doing our best to take in these brief moments in whatever way we can. The eagle flies directly over us, less than 10 metres above our heads, glides silently away, then circles back a few times. It has striking eye-like markings on the underside of each wing. It’s as though there are four eyes watching us.

Of course the eagle is just doing what comes naturally to a top predator. It is checking to see what is happening in its range. We could represent food, or possibly threat. For us, seeing an eagle at close quarters is anything but business-as-usual. The Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax fleayii) is Australia’s largest bird of prey. It is a larger and heavier sub-species of the mainland wedge-tailed eagle, and has a wing-span of more than two metres. It is among the royalty of birds, world-wide, and we feel deeply privileged to be allowed such an audience. We had merely asked for a fine day on the summit. What kind of excess is this?!

After a few minutes the raptor drifts off westward, and is soon just a dark crease in the blue sky over the Du Cane Range. We return to the banalities of eating and taking group photos, but can’t resist talking about this epiphany all the way back to our packs. Even as we set up beside the still waters of Lake Myrtle, cradled beneath the now more distant peak of Rogoona, we’re reminded afresh of that visitation on the mount.

[Evening reflections, Lake Myrtle with Mt Rogoona]

If our hopes for a perfect, calm evening at the lake are realised, the wee hours bring a return to our earlier weather. In the morning we pack up slowly in persistent rain. It may be inconvenient, uncomfortable even, but having just experienced Rogoona/Myrtle perfection, it’s water off a duck’s back.

We follow a lesser-known route down from the lake to our cars. It is steep and wet, and the leeches make a spectacular comeback, keeping our stops to a minimum. But that’s fine, as we’re on a mission to get the Christmas Hills Raspberry Farm in time for lunch. Our bodies have worked hard, our souls have been filled to overflowing. Now it’s time for some hot food!

Sunday 12 April 2015

Four Lakes and a Mountain: Part 3

Former Tasmanian Premier, Robin Gray, famously referred to the Franklin River as a “brown leech-ridden ditch”. This was rhetorical flourish on his part rather than first-hand knowledge. He was not one for deep engagement with actual wilderness.

We on the other hand can personally attest to the flourishing of leeches here in the Mersey River headwaters. Each time we venture outside the Junction Lake hut it takes only seconds to discover one, two, ten leeches either on our legs or making their way towards them. One or two even find our upper limbs and faces.

["I vant to suck your blood!" - a common leech] 

Leeches are annelids, so are related to earthworms. But as worms go they’re rather specialised in that they’re sanguivores – in plain English blood-suckers. Tasmania scores well in the world of leeches, owing to our high rainfall and relatively dense vegetation cover. Leeches require moisture on their bodies to assist respiration, and vegetation cover provides both sun protection and prey.

There’s been plenty of moisture everywhere we’ve been walking, and the warmth of our blood is a constant attractant for these little suckers. The leeches getting attached to us now are the most common species in Tasmania, Philaemon pungens. They reach about 20mm in length, and can grow as fat as a child’s finger after a good feed.

Tasmanian bushwalkers sometimes tease visitors with tales of enormous, striped leeches called tiger leeches. Despite the exaggeration of the stories, tiger leeches actually exist. Individuals of the species Philaemon grandis can reach towards 60mm in length.

[Tempting the leeches, Junction Lk Hut. Photo by Libby] 

I join the majority of humanity in not being a big fan of sanguivores. While I’m happy to grant leeches, mosquitoes and ticks their place in the ecosystem, I’d prefer that place wasn’t on my actual person. That certainly turns out to be the opinion of one of our hut companions when a large patch of blood is discovered inside their sleeping bag. A stifled squeal is followed by a hurried shimmy out of the bag.

Mysteriously the culprit is never found. As we’re wondering where it might have gone, I spy some of the large cracks in the hut’s floorboards. The sated creature, I conjecture, could easily have slipped through one of these and might now be happily sleeping off its meal beneath the hut. We picture it creeping out one night in the not-too-distant future to insanguinate itself afresh on some poor unsuspecting sleeper.

Thankfully it’s now morning, so we leave the hut and its crypt-dwelling blood-suckers to the next party. It’s still raining, but we don’t have too far to walk. A couple of hours up valley should get us to Lake Meston and its hut: another Dick Reed four-bunker. Our original plan had been to walk to the far end of the long lake to camp on the shore. It’s one of the loveliest campsites in the area. But in weather like this it would be a lot less charming, and the lure of another hut is strong.

[Lake Meston Hut in its forest setting] 

The hut might bear the name of the lake, but it’s high above the lake shore. And at best the lake can only be glimpsed through trees. Still, it’s dry and very welcoming by the time we get there. We’re all cold and wet, and though it’s mid-afternoon, we are soon getting into our sleeping bags.

[Views of Lake Meston 10 minutes above the hut ]
The exception is Tim, who has again volunteered to sleep in his tent. So instead of getting into a bag, he dons his jacket, sits in the hut and picks up a book. Jim is talking about having a nana-nap, but the rest of us are keen for Tim to read to us. We’re soon laughing out loud, first as Tim reads some hilarious passages from Bill Bryson’s “Neither Here Nor There”, and then as Jim breaks into snoring.

 [Storytime with Tim: Lake Meston Hut]

The grey afternoon has eased gently towards a rainy evening before we clamber out of bed to make dinner. We finish it off with a wee dram of port supplied by Tim. And then it’s time for more Bill Bryson, with Jim taking up the reading duties. He’s puzzled to find the bookmark further on than he remembered. So we fill him in on the lost pages – and laugh afresh at his expense – before he continues the reading.

If it has to be a wet walk, there are worse ways to spend it than lying and laughing; reading and snoozing in a comfy, dry and (relatively) leech free wooden hut.

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Four Lakes and a Mountain: Part 2

Camping beneath a waterfall, in a dank forest, at the bottom of a deeply cleft, lake-filled basin, proves good practice for the wet day ahead.

Lulled by the dull roar of the waterfall, we have surfaced slowly. By the time we get over to the “kitchen” we discover icicles dangling from the tarp. Tim tells us we’ve just missed a brief snowfall. We dress warm and waterproof for breakfast, by which time there’s just persistent slushy rain.

[In the forest above Cloister Lagoon]
In theory we won’t have a long day. But only Tim has taken the route we’ll follow from Chapter Lake down valley via Cloister Lagoon to Junction Lake. Like Tim, it sounds a bit vague in places.

Counter-intuitively we start by going back uphill (north) before heading south down the valley. But we’re soon following a discernible route, well-enough trod and - for now - reasonably well marked. You know you’re in the land of a thousand lakes when there are decent sized lakes that haven’t yet been named. We pause at a couple on our way to Cloister Lagoon. 

[Tim checks out an unnamed lake] 
The lagoon is over 2km long, and fills the bottom half of a deep, glacier-gouged valley. That valley peters out a few kilometres before Junction Lake, leaving us guessing which way the water flows. It’s hypothetical anyway, since water is flowing every which way after the persistent overnight rain.

Persistent too are the leeches, which start latching on as soon as we stop anywhere. The worst spots are the valley bottoms, especially amongst the soggy coral ferns and buttongrass. It’s good motivation to keep moving, as is the rain, which is returning in fits and starts.

[A soggy walk through coral fern] 

The route occasionally meanders up slope, through dripping wet forest. Towards the end of Cloister Lagoon we descend through a thicket of fagus. A few leaves hint at autumn colour, ‘though most are still their vivid summer green.

As we finally leave the lagoon we climb a little; proof that the water runs north out of Cloister and down to Chapter Lake. We struggle to get our head around the idea that we’ve been walking up the valley. A quick check of our maps confirms it, before rain sends us on our way again.

[Definitely going down valley]

And now we are definitely heading down valley, following an ill-defined path beside a flowing creek: a creek that is part of the headwaters of the Mersey River. We may be coming closer towards Junction Lake, but we’re having to slow down as we search about for a clear way through the scrub-choked creek.

Eventually the valley widens out onto Mayfield Flats, a large, intermittently marshy area. Buttongrass flats are interspersed with forested patches. Ahead we can see an upland area, which we take to be the Mountains of Jupiter. According to the map they stand above our destination.

[near Mayfield Flats, with views of some mountains] 

Junction Lake is a fair sized body of water, perhaps 500m across at its widest point. And the hut we’re heading for is called Junction Lake Hut, which you would think would be close by that body of water.

It’s perhaps my fourth visit to the hut, but on every previous visit, there’s always been a frustrating period of wandering about before the hut reveals itself. And so it is this time too! It’s not actually on the lake, but is tucked into a bushy bank above the upper reaches of a “young” Mersey River.

[Junction Lake at sunset] 

The four-bunk pencil pine hut was built by Tasmanian pastoralist/bushwalker H. R. (Dick) Reed in 1969/70. He was a hardy bushwalker, frequently taking long distance walks across the Tasmanian highlands. His view was that “if you don’t come alive at 1500 feet then you’ll never come alive”. His hut building was an expression of that attitude, and he built several others, including the Lake Meston hut which we’d reach tomorrow. Astonishingly he was in his 70s when he did this work.

[Cooking al fresco at Junction Lake Hut. Photo by Jim Wilson] 

The hut is small and humble. The wooden door creaks as we open it, revealing one simple room with wooden floor boards, and two small glass windows. Two bunks face the door, and there are two more on the wall to our left. Next to the door is a raised fireplace with a rustic mantelpiece. There are some crude shelves beneath one window, and a couple of basic chairs.

It may be humble, but it’s a very welcome shelter from the rain. Four of us have chosen to try the bunks out for the night, while Tim is content to pitch his tent and tarp nearby. Once we’re settled in we boil some brews, which soon lead on to dinner. It’s not even 5pm, but we’re cold, wet and hungry, and we go with the flow.

 [Reflections in the shallows: Junction Lake]

After dinner there’s still a lot of daylight left, and we’re enticed out to the lake by an improvement in the weather. A few of us wander down for a closer look at Junction Lake, catching some wonderful reflections and a hint of colour as the sun sets. We’re above Dick Reed’s 1500 feet. And yes, we’re feeling very much alive.

[Junction Lake - click pic for full panorama]

Saturday 4 April 2015

Four Lakes and a Mountain: Part 1

[Ready at the start of the track] 

Five days, four lakes, one mountain: it’s a neat equation. It’s also an equation that might hint at a certain proportion of wet to dry; of sloppy to solid.

On day 1 that discovery is still ahead of us. For now the overcast, dry, cool weather looks perfect for walking. For me, after a summer largely spent recovering from injury, the prospect of being out walking again is bliss.

Four of us have left Hobart at a civilized hour, travelled up the Midland Highway, then on through Mole Creek, making for the end of the Mersey Forest Rd. Ahead of is “a bit of a climb” for a few hours. We’ll be taking the Moses Creek track to our first lake, Chapter Lake.

There we expect to find Tim D, who has promised to walk ahead to claim the campsite and “repel all other comers” in piratical fashion. But it’s a Wednesday during school and uni term, and Chapter Lake is not the most sought-after campsite in the state, so we’re thinking Tim won’t have much swashbuckling to do.

Our group is mostly old hands, the only newbie being a Victorian named Jonathan. He’s a friend of Tim O, and comes as his surrogate. Tim O had long planned to be on this walk, but sadly a severely frozen shoulder means he can’t even raise his arm let alone a pack.

["Long John" gets into his stride]
We quickly dub Jonathan “Long John”, not because he’s especially tall, but because it fits in with the pirate nonsense we carry on with on these walks. Jonathan has done some walking in Tasmania before, but never in this area.

Our walk starts on an old logging track, wide and easy, though choked in a few places by regrowth and tree falls. It’s almost an hour before we are clear of the regrown forest and climbing steeply into the Walls of Jerusalem National Park. I keep finding bits of track that remind me of the more popular routes in that park. At one point I even say “this is just like the Walls” before realising it technically IS the Walls, albeit a less-walked part of that park.

[Pink coral fungi (Ramaria sp) along the track]
The steepness tests my recovering ankle and knee, and I am soon travelling slowly. I resort to distractions. Apart from the usual scroggin and water stops, there’s always botanising. And here “Long John” helps, being full of questions, as he’s unfamiliar with the area’s natural history. Flora aside, it’s almost peak fungi season too, and when you add some geomorphological oddities (glacial erratics and a disappearing tarn), our progress slows admirably.

[Fruit of the mountain blue berry (Billardiera longiflora)]
Jim has been the main planner of this trip, and he’s happy to be reminded it’s supposed to be a “hands-in-pockets” walk. That’s partly in compensation for the epic Mt Anne trip that saw my early-January injury, and partly because Jim prefers this kind of walk. Keep the walk times short, throw in a hut or two, and Jim’s a happy man.

Suitably distracted by our surrounds, we top out surprisingly quickly. I’m always amazed that no matter how many times I walk a track – and this is at least my third time on this one – I can never accurately predict when such points will come. But I welcome it, and start the descent to Chapter Lake. The growing sound of Grail Falls, which flanks the campsite, tells us we’re close.

[A glimpse of Grail Falls near Chapter Lake camp]
We are soon greeting Tim D in the forested campsite near the lake. He has set up camp, and repelled boarders, as promised. We set up our tents then gather at Tim’s kitchen set-up. It has good log seats with a sheltering tarp above. There is rain forecast, and a couple of us recall the word snow getting a mention, so we’re glad of a tarp to gather beneath.

[Together under the tarp at Chapter Lake]
After dinner we retire to our tents and slip into sleep to the accompanying roar of the waterfall. That may make it hard to know when or if the rain has come – which may be no bad thing. Let tomorrow take care of itself.