Saturday 25 June 2016

Overlandish Part 2: Treading Water

After our deluge day on the Overland Track, Waterfall Valley Hut feels like a five star resort. Yes, fifteen soaked walkers and their wet gear squeezed into a small hut with one tiny gas heater would normally rate a little lower than that. It’s just that it’s surprising how cheerful a hut can become when its occupants make an effort to be sociable.

Once our saturated gear is dispensed with – some to the wet room, some to the racks around the heater – we start chatting. We begin with the usual: “Where are you from? Which way are you walking? What about this weather!?”, and soon enough we’re nattering like old friends. One group even moves up to the top bunk so our lot can all fit on the easier-to-exit bottom bunk. (I don’t stop to ask if this is a concession to our age!)

[Getting to know the neighbours: Waterfall Valley Hut (photo: Ian Grant)] 
When I brew up hot drinks, it takes both soup and coffee before I start to feel warm. It hasn’t really been cold, but when you’re soaked, 7 degrees and strong winds can chill you well enough. Card games, more chatter and some sharing of pre-dinner treats are soon warming up the social side of things too.

The south-north walkers have hair-raising tales of walking from Windermere, including knee deep water as they entered this valley. Outside it’s still raining, and it keeps raining most of the night. While that helps to drown out the sound of snoring, it does nothing for our confidence about walking tomorrow. Larry tells us he has a little radio, so he’ll check the 6am forecast.

Some of our hut mates are walking out to Cradle regardless. So the next day they’re up early, and chatting about the weather with Larry. From my warm bag I’m pretty sure I hear words like “damaging winds”, “major flood warnings”, “heavy rain”. But by the time I get to look outside, it’s just grey and showery, and the breeze seems almost gentle.

But we’ve got decisions to make, so over breakfast we ask Larry for his full weather report. Despite the look of things out the hut window, the report is dire. He sums it up for us. “Sounds like today will be worse than yesterday, and it’ll still be wet for most of the week.” Larry tops it off by showing us the barometer on his watch. Apart from elevating his gear freak status, it shows a downward trend in barometric pressure.

[Not more rain? An impromptu creek and Barn Bluff]  
After breakfast I do a circuit of the hut’s exterior. How aptly named is this valley!? There are waterfalls everywhere, near and far and in places I’ve never seen them. There’s even a creek flowing over the grass beside the hut and beneath the water tanks.

Further off I can just make out the imposing Barn Bluff. Today, at this angle, the barn is more a witch’s hat. Its cloudy shroud adds to the spell. Cascades pour from its every cliff, and I wonder what toil and trouble she is brewing. As Tasmania’s third highest peak, sitting high above “The Reserve”, this mountain is in a position to gather any weather that comes her way. The words “worse than yesterday” are the clincher for me. Certainly we won’t be walking on – or back – today. If yesterday was about literally treading water, today we’ll only do it metaphorically.

[A shrouded Barn Bluff from Waterfall Valley] 
Back in the hut we discuss our options. If we’re delayed a day, and have to do a double-length catchup day in such conditions, we’re in for a strenuous and uncomfortable week. Ian has recovered perfectly well from yesterday’s ordeal, but is very certain he doesn’t want more of the same. Larry and I tend to agree, while Mick is prevaricating. He, after all, is the only one of our group who hasn’t walked the Overland Track before.

When one of the exiting group offers to get a message to our friend Tim D. when they get to Cradle, our decision is made. We’ll stay another night here, then turn back to Cradle and hope to meet Tim. He’s planned to come up the Arm River Track to join us on the track that day anyway, so we’re hoping he won’t object to a pickup at Cradle instead.

Decision made, note to Tim written, walkers farewelled and breakfast cleaned up, we settle down for a quiet day in the hut. On queue the showers decrease, the wind fades to nothing, and Barn Bluff makes a semi-convincing cloud-free appearance. We decide we may as well explore the valley while we can, before the “worse than yesterday” decides to show up.

[Peekaboo! Barn Bluff cloud free] 
It’s showering lightly as we make our way towards the lower cliff line that holds the largest waterfalls. I’ve been coming to this valley for over 30 years, but I’ve never seen or heard it like this. Every minor declivity holds a creek, and the actual creeks are showing profound contempt for their banks. We slosh and scrub bash our way towards the nearest edge. While we can’t easily get close to the larger falls, we’re awestruck enough by the small ones.

 [A fraction of the scene: Waterfall Valley]
I ease to the edge of one torrent to take a short video (see below*), thinking in passing that if I fell into the water it would be goodnight-nurse! The normally small creek is a roaring maelstrom careening towards an 80m cliff. With so many waterfalls across a broad landscape it’s difficult to photograph the scene. But just standing there slack-jawed seems a very appropriate response.

[Ian and Mick take in Waterfall Valley] 
Our exercise for the day done, we settle back into the hut for more food and conversation. Those who have walked on have been replaced by a new lot of walkers, so there are more water-endurance tales to catch up on. We ask one who’s come in from the south what the bridge over the Forth River at Frog Flats was like. His simple reply “What bridge?” raises our eyebrows. It seems the whole track through Frog Flats had been thigh deep in water, and he hadn’t even noticed a bridge. It makes us profoundly glad that we’re only treading metaphorical water here in our five star hut.

[* if the video doesn't work on your mobile device, please try a desktop or laptop]

Thursday 16 June 2016

Overlandish Part 1: Water, Water Everywhere

We’re staggering as we reach Marions Lookout. It’s the first day of a planned winter trip through Tasmania’s Overland Track, so that’s not surprising. We’ve all been here before, so we're expecting this to be our hardest day, with its almost immediate 450 metre elevation gain. Also our packs are at their heaviest, our bodies at their unfittest, and it’s winter.

[What Marions Lookout can be like on a fine winter's day] 
Yet none of these factors rates a mention. Nothing does. Rather we’re being pounded by heavy horizontal rain and blown off our feet by gale force winds. Communication is brief and shouted at close range, and just moving forward is a solid effort.

I should have seen the signs. First there was our local barometer, that sure predictor of foul weather that is Hobart’s Constitution Dock. If the fishing boats are all tied up in there, you can bet there’s unfavourable weather on its way across the state. That or it’s Christmas.

But being preoccupied with three weeks of full-time grandparenting, in between frantic food preparation for the walk, I’ve failed to notice the number of boats in the docks. So we’re already at Cradle Mountain by the time I read some cautionary weather words from a facebook friend. “Actually its gonna go easterly with a vengeance, according to my fisherman brother”.

[The offending weather map] 
Armed only with the weather bureau’s forecast map, with its two conjoined lows over Bass Strait and talk of “up to 30mm of rain” on Sunday, our attitude has been “how wet could it be?” During Saturday night, tucked up in a cabin at Waldheim, we start to have that question answered. It rains heavily all night, so heavily that even the 50 metre dash from the cabin to the toilet soaks us. There’s wind too, ‘though nothing too frightening.

So on Sunday morning the four of us set off. It’s raining steadily, and by the time we’re climbing past Crater Falls, the water flow is thunderous. As we ascend beyond Crater Lake, the wind is strong enough to make waves on the lake, and it’s buffeting us as we clamber up Marions Lookout. At least it’s coming from the north-east, making our ascent somewhat wind assisted.

[A bit of water: Crater Falls] 
That silver lining disappears as we top out. On the open plateau walking a straight line becomes impossible. At times the wind picks us up and deposits us where we hadn’t meant to go. The rain seeks out any exposed skin, stings our faces, wheedles its way through our waterproofs, into our boots. It doesn’t stop with us. Any surface, any track that isn’t boardwalk, is fast becoming a creek. We invoke Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

We hasten as best we can towards the emergency shelter at Kitchen Hut. There at least we’ll be out of the wind and rain, and able to talk. But shelter turns out to be a relative thing even inside the tiny hut. The wind and rain are forcing their way under the door and through the vent above the window. We have an uncomfortable 10 minute break; grab something to eat and drink; chat about the weather (what else!)

My older brother Ian is a relative newcomer to overnight walking. This is proving to be a baptism of … well, not so much fire, as wind and water. He’s looking none too happy, not that any of us is exactly thrilled with what we’re facing. At least it’s not cold. Larry tells us it’s 7.7 degrees C.

[Unhappy campers shelter in Kitchen Hut] 
Just a little refreshed, we determine to push on to Waterfall Valley, sure that it will be more sheltered – once we get there. But when we open Kitchen Hut’s door, it’s like facing a hurricane. Our resolve immediately wobbles. That’s compounded when, ascending the slope that leads from Kitchen Hut to Cradle Cirque, the track becomes a full-blown creek. Ian let’s out an incredulous “What??”. There’s probably more … along the lines of “We’re going up there??” … but the wind tears away any other words. Mick looks at me with an expression that says "If this is what it takes to get to the hut, this is what we’ll have to go through."

The wind and rain don’t let up for a minute, and this roughest part of the track – even on fine days – becomes a watery steeplechase. Every windswept step is a lottery. Will our foot land on that rock, or will we be blown into the water or into a bush? How long before we twist an ankle or slip into a mire? It’s frightening, exhausting work.

Larry and I had earlier talked about the concept of packrafting. Now I'm seriously thinking that someone could packraft down this track more easily than we’re walking it. If the track is a creek, then every creek is a torrent, and some bridges have water flowing over them. We push on until Larry suggests we stop for a conference. Clearly my brother is unnerved by the conditions, and we talk through the options. Given that the walk back to Cradle would be straight into this gale, we decide to continue on to Waterfall Valley as fast as we can. We’ll be able to assess our situation better when we’re safe and dry.

After much muttering, stumbling struggle, we make the turnoff that leads from Bluff Cirque towards Waterfall Valley. In a preview of the valley, the edge of the cirque is festooned with miniature waterfalls. It's more akin to Fiordland than Tasmania. Some of the falls are being blown back into the air, defying both their name and gravity due to the strong winds.

[Waterfall Valley Hut with an impromptu creek beneath it] 
Finally we make the end of the plateau and start descending towards Waterfall Valley. The tempest around us seems perfect for invoking yet another romantic poem. This time it’s Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred

We hope we’re as wrong about the death part as we are about the number. And so it proves when the four of us finally pull open the very welcoming door to Waterfall Valley Hut. From the dim interior, a dozen surprised faces turn towards us, looking like they’re seeing madmen. They’re not completely wrong.