Saturday 9 April 2016

Return to Blue Peaks 3: Bluffed

I have a great affection for printed maps. I pore over them in the lead up to a walk. To me they’re a bridge between imagination and place; between mind and foot. And on the walk itself paper maps and a compass are my chief navigation tools. Strange then, and probably significant, that on this Blue Peaks walk not one member of our party is carrying a paper map.

Between us we have at least five devices with digital maps and/or a built-in GPS. And we have backup batteries so our devices don’t become useless lumps of plastic and metal. Of course I can hear voices warning how this could go astray. But ironically, on this occasion it’s actually the lack of paper maps that keeps us on track.

[Jim asks "Where Are We?"] 
What follows then is the tale of two 21st century moments, two literal turning points, that illustrate how bushwalking is changing.

* * *

The first moment comes as our party, walking off-track in search of Fisher Bluff, starts to wander like the Israelites of old. Or less grandly perhaps, like Brown’s cows. Mick and TimO are heading south of our rough bearing; the rest of us are strung out along a more northern route. Somewhere over the humps and bumps ahead is Fisher Bluff. But in this plateau country one high point looks much like the next. So which one is it?

[Mick and Tim take their own bearing towards Fisher Bluff] 
If we’d been looking at a conventional flat map, we’d probably have convinced ourselves that the northern eminence is Fisher Bluff. We just need to keep climbing. That’s when Mick’s digital map, with its GPS dot indicating where we are, puts us in our place - literally. It shows us we have to go further south. We do so, some of us contritely. Eventually, high atop a southerly bluff, we see a good old-fashioned trig point – that commonplace of highest points – and our digital hunch is confirmed.

We skirt a large linear forest of pencil pines, blessing its health and unburned state, and trudge towards the trig. It’s uphill of course, but we don’t need any form of map to tell us that.

Fisher Bluff, being one of the western most mountains of the Central Plateau, has broad views south to the Walls of Jerusalem and south-west to the highest mountains of the Overland Track. We also have close-up views of the nearby Mersey valley, one of the epicentres of the recent fires. It’s a brutalised mess of burned and blackened forest.

[Central Plateau fire damage around Last Lagoon] 
Nearer still we can see where the fire has broken out onto the higher plateau. The area around Last Lagoon has been hit hard. We see what we guess to be dead cushion plants and incinerated peat. If there’s any compensation, it’s that the fire got no further into this part of the plateau.

Our second 21st century navigational moment comes the following day. An old Irish folk song has it that “going to a wedding is the making of another”. It’s the same with mountains. From Fisher Bluff we’ve looked out on Turrana Bluff, Turrana Heights and one or two other reachable mountaintops.

Our agenda is set, and in the morning we make a surprisingly early start (for us). We progress quickly towards Turrana Heights which, being the nearest, is our first target. We're fairly sure of where we’re going. After all we’ve spied this mountaintop, shapely and prominent, from both Little Throne and Fisher Bluff. But as we’re climbing towards it, passing a nearby high “lump”, Mick pulls us up again. His digital map tells him the lump is actually Turrana Heights. We each consult our own digital oracle, and come to the same conclusion. We’re heading for the wrong high point. The mountain we’re aiming at has no name.

[Getting closer to the unnamed peak] 
We decide we’re with Shakespeare (“What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”) and keep heading towards the more “fragrant” top. The nameless mountain’s flanks, sloping slabs of dolerite, are steep and challenging, but when we get there the summit offers more than enough compensation.

[Libby and lakes from atop the unnamed peak] 
We settle on top, feeling like royalty on a high throne, lords of all we survey. Below and all around us are thousands of lakes, both near and far. And dozens of mountain tops, from the nearby Walls to the far distant peaks of the south and west, stand out like familiar faces in a loyal throng.   

[Looking towards the Walls of Jerusalem from the unnamed peak] 
Two other things are remarkable to us. The first is that this sweet mountain isn’t honoured with a name, at least not on any map we possess. And the second is that it is still morning! We will have time to visit the “lump” – Turrana Heights – for lunch.

After a long and relaxing visit, basking in bright sun beneath benignly blue heavens, it’s decision time again. Is Turrana Bluff within our reach? Opinions vary from “definitely not/no way” to “we could give it a crack!” Rather than split into two groups along these lines, we delay the decision and wander down from the heights in a vaguely bluff-ward direction.

Eventually the sheer distance involved in getting to the Bluff, let alone getting all the way back to our camp, dissuades even the keen from going there. When clouds start to build and rain threatens, that looks a wise decision. We still split into two groups, the one keen to explore the high rim of the plateau, the other wanting to make a bee-line for camp.

[Libby photographing cushion plant, with pineapple grass in the foreground] 
In the end the “low roaders” are back at camp less than an hour before the “high roaders”. And we’re both there before the rain, which is kind enough to hold off until after dinner.

[As close as we get to Turrana Bluff] 
The wind is another matter. It strengthens all evening, and makes for an unpleasant night. I’ve been trying out my lightweight gear, including a tent with a mesh inner, and a summer weight sleeping bag. For three out of four nights this has worked well. But in the cold windy weather that hits us on the final night, I become a cold and unhappy camper.

Early the next morning shouted, wind-muffled conversations tell me I wasn’t the only one. We decide to break camp and make a run for it, without even having breakfast. Our brilliant run of weather and the magnificent time we’ve had together, have come to a brisk end. Sitting around in this biting wind is an ugly option.

With heads down and the wind still tearing at us, we quickly retrace our steps back to Lake MacKenzie. There’s not a lot of talk, so I can’t be sure. But the chances are we’re all thinking about that big cooked breakfast we’ll have once we’re out. And we don’t need a map to show us where either.