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.

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