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.
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