Monday 31 August 2015

Rocking Cradle 1: Small Expectations

Unexpected gifts, by definition, are not expected. 
You cannot prepare yourself for them.

In the case of weather, no matter how fervently you hope for a particular outcome, or how much faith you put in forecast accuracy, weather is still driven by a chaos engine. Que sera sera!

[Could we hope for weather like this?] 
So in preparing for our recent 3 day trip to Cradle Mountain, we needed to cover all manner of gloomy possibilities. The weather station in Cradle Valley receives just shy of 3 metres of precipitation a year. That falls at least every other day, more often in winter, and average maximum temperatures for August are below 5 degrees. As we’d be staying at a higher altitude, we knew it would be windier, wetter, colder, cloudier and snowier. Over 3 days we’d undoubtedly have rain, and probably snow, sleet and hail.

In light of all this we booked a hut, and made sure we stocked it with food, beverages, books and games. Good conversation and companionable silences in a warm and dry place would help us while away our days if – or more likely when – the weather stopped play.

Add to that mix the previous week’s weather. Heavy snowfalls had blocked the road to Waldheim and Dove Lake, and covered the mountains with thick snow. A day or two out the forecast for our three days was for showery weather, with snow at higher altitudes. That would surely include our hut, which sat at nearly 1100m.

With suitably small expectations, we arrived at a cloudy, showery Waldheim early on Sunday afternoon. That morning Tim D had made himself a pair of snowshoes, and was keen to test them out in a snowdrift near the carpark. I was more than happy to join him, as I’d just procured some second-hand Yowie snowshoes that also needed trying out.

[Tim tests out his bespoke snowshoes] 
As Tim stomped about in the snow I eyed his creations – a confection of lawn mower grass-catcher bits and bread crate cast-offs tied up by wire – with a mixture of suspicion and mirth. Still they passed their (not exactly rigorous) test run, and were soon strapped onto his pack for the 1 hour wander up to the hut.

The boardwalk sections near the start were only partially snow-covered, so snowshoes weren’t warranted. But the whole landscape was cold and icy, with low clouds scudding by, occasionally dropping rain on us. We kept our waterproofs on despite the warm work of trudging up-slope.

I had tried not to talk up the hut to Lynne, but I was hopeful she’d be pleasantly surprised by its level of comfort. A Scout-owned “lodge”, it was opened in 1960, but has been greatly modified and updated over the years. As we trudged through the now deep snow, we were all pleased to see the hut. We ascended the snowy steps that lead from the track to the hut’s deck area and entrance, already impressed by its well-kept appearance.

[Approaching the hut] 
The inside smelled clean. We’d passed the previous hut occupants on the track, and they’d obviously used disinfectant liberally. From my previous visit in the 1980s, I could recall only the hut’s airy feel and pine-lined interior. It had retained those, but the layout seemed neater, better equipped, and the stainless steel lined kitchen was an eye-popper. It felt truly modern and comfortable – not something I would normally associate with mountain huts.

That in itself was something of an unexpected gift. But there was more to come, once we’d unpacked and claimed bunks. Through unspoken agreement we knew we hadn’t yet earned rest or refreshment. Besides, we had snowshoes to test out, and snow to play in. So despite ongoing showers, we put our waterproofs back on and went out to play.

[In search of a good downhill run] 
At the first good snowfield Tim and I put on our snowshoes. To be honest Lynne and Merran didn’t look at all envious, as showers had made the snow slushy. Their realism was soon confirmed when, a few minutes into their maiden voyage, Tim’s creations fell apart. It seems lawn mower grass-catcher isn’t snow-tempered, and it soon parted ways with the rest of the shoe. Tim hid his disappointment – and his defunct snowshoes – and post-holed his way up to a decent snow bank. His flesh and blood toboggan wouldn’t fail so readily.

[Lynne takes off on her waterproof-gear toboggan] 
If getting up to the snow bank took effort, sliding down didn’t. We simply sat on our bottoms, lifted our feet, and slid and yahooed our way down a good 50 metres. Then we did it again. But the effort of climbing back soon combined with a mini-blizzard to cut the sport short. Through icy bullets we mooshed and hooshed our way back down to the hut. We were convinced – in our own minds at least – that this bit of adventure had earned us some rest. Tomorrow, as we would discover, would be another adventure.

[Heading back to the hut] 

Monday 17 August 2015


I have long wondered what it would it be like to unlock my week days; for any day to be the same as the next in the context of getting out and about. That dream has been held in check for many decades by full-time work. My outdoor adventures generally had to wait till weekends and holidays.

[Bleak beauty on the windswept summit of kunanyi] 
It didn’t matter that a plump high pressure system – that signal of stable, fine weather – was about to sit over our island; or that a rare heavy snowfall was slathering the mountains. If those weather windows occurred mid-week I, alas, would be found on the inside looking out. Longingly!

Enter the “flexible” work arrangements that have come with my nominal retirement. Suddenly this weather watcher has become a weather nerd. Add the fact that my usual walking companions are mostly in a similarly “flexible” situation, and you’d think we’d at last be getting our fill of the outdoors.

Alas you’d be wrong. Work may be an ogre, but it alone is not responsible for every ill. There are also obligations, and injuries, and even questions of motivation. And of course there’s the cat-herding act of getting friends together in the same place at the same time. So, six weeks or so into this new regimen, the overnight adventure score is still nil.

What’s to be done? Rather than let the great be the enemy of the good, if I can’t get any grand trips organised, I’ve opted to sneak out of those weather windows for brief periods; to start this new era with what some call microadventures.*

["Are you serious? We go down there?!"] 
My first mini-trip was just a few hours long, and involved three of us making a very steep and rocky descent to a couple of kunanyi/Mt Wellington’s mountain huts. As Jim and Tim had never been to them, I had to lead the way. By looks and words, I could tell they had little faith in my memory of the route. Smarting at their doubt, and wondering just a little whether I actually did know the way, I had a moment of mini-triumph when the first hut came into view.

As we inspected the stone hut the others muttered in mild approval. I assured them the second one had an even better set up, and that we should walk on for “another … um, maybe 10 minutes, I think … er, from memory”. The other two exchanged more of those looks, but I managed to distract Jim by telling him we had a mobile signal here. With him duly engaged in facebook business, dissent was quelled.

[Tim & Jim set the world to rights by the fire]
Of course we did reach the second hut, with its rustic chairs and grafittied table. Crucially it also had the promised fireplace (Jim sometimes needs such motivations). We collected wood, got the fire going and boiled a billy for “real coffee” in my plunger. Over the glow and crackle of the fire we chatted in the relaxed and occasionally mocking manner that we’ve pretty much perfected over the years. Despite the gaspingly steep ascent back to the car, not one of us complained; a sure sign of a successful – albeit tiny – adventure.

The next microadventure involved just Tim and myself. After our recent dump of snow, I suggested we should check out the mountain as soon as the weather settled. Again time was limited, so we agreed to drive up the mountain as far we could, and go the rest of the way on foot. We reached precisely the end of my street before we met a Hobart City Council road block. (A little ice on our roads can lead to the kind of molly-coddling that would cause laughter in places that really have snow and ice.)

[Tim approaches The Springs] 
Snow was sparse at our starting altitude, so we tromped up the steep Fingerpost Track in the hope of getting into the thicker stuff as quickly as possible. We were not disappointed, ‘though certainly puffed, by the time we reached The Springs. The ground was well covered, and trees drooped under the weight of snow, which occasionally plopped down around us.

[Tim and I relax at The Springs] 
With the road closed there were very few others in the normally busy picnic area. One couple skied past, and two or three walkers ambled by. In luxurious sunshine we sat at a picnic table, complete with a snow white tablecloth, and scoffed chocolate washed down with thermos coffee. There was just time for a gloating message to Jim, who had a prior engagement, before we slipped and slid our snowy way back to the car.

A few days later Lynne and I took advantage of the mountain road being open, and drove to the summit for a little snow play. It was a Monday, one of her non-work days, and we got away early to avoid “the crowds”. We needn’t have bothered. Although the summit was clear, blustery conditions and thigh deep snow kept most people close to their cars.

[Lynne braves the kunanyi cold] 
We walked on a slightly cryptic snow-covered track towards South Wellington before veering off-track to a high point. We were finding it hard to loosen up our limbs, and the wind was bitingly cold. But the scenery was stunning, with views through to the snow-covered Southern Ranges. We had time enough to take a few “hero shots” and explore some of the frozen world around us.

[Frozen ripples on kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 
The only signs of life were footprints – a few human, most wallaby – though we saw not another soul. Without the encouragement of a hot drink, we were soon enough ready to retrace our steps. That’s what I love about microadventuring. Although you don't have to be far away from comfort, you’re still getting a small fix of adventure.

* The term owes much to Alastair Humphreys. More details at

Thursday 6 August 2015

One Scoop or Two?

The last time it snowed like this in Hobart was July 25th 1986. Those old enough to remember – and a few who really weren’t – know it as “The Great Snow of ‘86”. It’s all relative of course. 8cm of snow is hardly “great” by world standards.

[Snow on kunanyi/Mt Wellington, August 2015] 
Yet for Hobart, with its mild maritime climate, snow is a rarity. Yes we can see it at any time of the year on our mountain, 1270m high kunanyi/Mt Wellington. But it’s when the snow comes to the suburbs that we Hobartians really make merry.

In 1986 my sister Liz and her two young daughters were visiting us from Sydney. It was her first winter visit, and she playfully expressed her wish that it would snow. Older and wiser, we assured her it “almost never” snowed down this far. And of course it did. Starting on Thursday night, and then well into Friday the 25th, it snowed hard, right down to sea level.

[Family snap of snow in our garden, July 1986] 
As my sister was only visiting for a short time, I’d already arranged to take the Friday off. Of course everyone in Hobart ended up having that day off. When snow is rare, people aren’t prepared for it. Buses and cars stayed off the roads; schools and some businesses shut down; a few hardy types skied to work, just because they could. But most people rugged up and went out to play.

I witnessed some of the frivolity first-hand because, Murphy’s Law being what it is, I’d run out of film for my camera. I chose to walk the 4km down the snow-bound road to buy some. On that excursion normally staid neighbours called out their glee, a few even taking snow ball pot-shots at me, all in good fun of course.

And so to August 2015. Snow to sea level was forecast for August the 3rd, and we woke to about 5cm of it at home. Our neighbours and their young children were soon out in the yard re-enacting the snow yahooing we’d done 29 years before.

[Morning snow on our garden, August 3rd, 2015] 
Lynne and I, still older and wiser, decided to stick to the usual and go for a walk in our bush. That was about all that was “usual” about the morning. What a different look and feel snow lends to the familiar!

Snow slanted down in flurries, covering our usual tracks, disguising the bush, threatening to disorientate us. Occasionally the icy wind bit hard into any exposed skin, then relented as the sun broke through. In that stillness, amid the muffled squeals of our neighbours and the caaarking of ravens, flakes of snow parachuted thick and slow around us. It was cold, certainly. And we were quite ready to get back to the fire and some hot coffee. But for now, there was nowhere we would rather be.

[Snow flurries in our bush] 
My sister died of a brain tumour too few years after “the Great Snow of ‘86”. Fast forward to August the 5th 2015, two days after this year’s first dump. Again snow was forecast to “low levels”. Given Monday’s dump, and Tuesday’s freezing, wet conditions, you might think we’d have grown tired of this cold interruption. Instead I found myself hoping for lots more. Perhaps some of Lizzie’s playfulness was rubbing off on me, because there was nothing older or wiser about this hope. I felt more like a child clutching a cone at the ice cream van, imploring mum or dad for a second “scoop”.