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.

Friday 4 September 2015

Rocking Cradle 2: A Bluebird Day

The evening is full of exotic sounds and smells. There’s the tish and paff of hail and snow on the roof, and the pop and sizzle of cooking, its smoky whiff blending with that indefinable essence-of-wet-walker smell. But most surprising of all is the whirr of a solar powered extractor fan, doing its best to remove those same whiffs.

By the time we’ve finished dining, the snow showers have cleared and the wind has withered. The hut thermometer tells us it’s already below zero. I shrug on my down jacket and step out for some star gazing. A half moon keeps the stars quiet, but shows up the brilliance of the snowy bush. Apart from the low gurgle of a nearby creek, it is breathtakingly quiet and still.

[A very promising start to the day!] 
I wake early, keen to see if dawn is as clear. Above the dark slope of the land, the sky grades from soft ochre through pale golds into deepening shades of blue. Low in the blue Venus is a bright, imperfect gem. There’s not the hint of a cloud.

As we set of it is still very cold. We’re careful on the steps leading down to the Horse Track. Every surface is frozen, the snow crusted with fresh ice, the wet surfaces now solid and slick. We cross the gurgling creek, past bushes festooned with icicles, and climb towards Crater Peak. Where yesterday we’d been postholing, we’re now crunching across the surface.

[Tim crosses the creek near our hut] 
I give Lynne a go of my snowshoes, and she takes to them immediately. She heads up the hill ahead of us, passing yesterday’s tobogganing slope, and makes for the dark bump of Crater Peak. The sky above is now an impossible blue, contrasting starkly with the monochrome landscape.

[Lynne takes off on the snowshoes] 
We soon find it’s not the snow that will slow us down up here. Many sections of the old corduroy track are covered with ice, the normally sodden surface now a frozen cascade. Without cleats it’s almost impossible not to slip on the track, so we fan out to travel off-track. And now we dawdle, as much because the frozen world is full of small wonders – a rimed bush here; a frozen pool there – as for reasons of care and safety.

[The frozen corduroy track] 
We’re exchanging frequent grins. I’ve heard talk of bluebird days* a few times this winter, and now we’re definitely walking through one. By unspoken agreement we spread out and immerse ourselves in this day. We’re walking in a winter wonderland, too wrapt to be concerned about cliches!

We pause atop Crater Peak, a pile of rock slightly higher than the surrounding plateau, and have a quick snack. We take dozens of photos, finding it hard to stop. Everywhere you point your camera the scene is stunning. Yet it gets better. We now leave the Horse Track, aiming to wander cross-country, close to the rim of the plateau, and enter an extensive field of snow.

[Happy trampers on Crater Peak] 
Lynne hands the snowshoes back, and I take a few minutes to strap them on. But the snow is such easy going for the others that I struggle to catch up, even with my “floats”. As we walk up slope, the bold block of Cradle Mountain, its face thickly daubed with snow, grows larger before us. We see only one set of ski prints in the otherwise virgin snow.

I’ve been up here many times in snow, and have climbed a snowy Cradle Mt a few times. But I have never seen this much snow on the Cradle Plateau. A couple of cornices must be at least three metres deep. As we make for the rim, Lynne and Merran can’t resist having another bum slide down a slope. I content myself with filming the event.

[The snowfield between Crater Pk & Cradle Mt] 
We have a long and lazy lunch on a knoll overlooking Crater Lake. Its surface scintillates, reflecting back the bright sun. We think we can make out small ice floes on the lake. Their see-through shapes drift and shimmy down the sparkling lake, driven by gently persistent breezes. That’s presumably cold air draining off the plateau, because here on the heights there’s barely a puff of air.

[Our lunch spot, high above Crater Lake] 
After we’ve finished lunch we linger at this superb vantage point. It’s even balmy enough for us to stretch out for a while. Soon enough we’ll need to start our descent, but for now we just want to remain immersed in this best of mountain days.
* the term is used by skiers – and others – to refer to a clear, calm day after snow.