Thursday, 22 June 2017

Back to the Arthur Range 1: A is for …

I feel it deep in the pit of my stomach, although I’m not quite sure what to name it. I eventually decide it’s apprehension. Unlike Mick and Eden, the two other walkers in the party, I’ve previously been to the Western Arthur Range in Tasmania’s south-west wilderness. It might have been 35 years ago, but I know what to expect. I remember it as one of the hardest, most epic walks of my life: a rite of passage to an aspiring bushwalker.


[The old H-frame pack, as used in 1982] 
That 1982 trip was only my second proper expedition into the Tasmanian wilds. I was still in my 20s and had only rudimentary gear. I also had barely a clue as to how you prepare for such a walk. Into my old H-frame pack I threw whole potatoes, zucchinis, carrots and onions, plus fresh steak, some cans, and more clothes than I could possibly use. It’s a wonder I survived.

Youthful ignorance notwithstanding, I at least had the sense to be a little apprehensive before we left, especially when the serrated outline of the range reared up at us we neared Scotts Peak. I remember naively suggesting that the track must sidle around the peaks, rather than going over them. A tart “Nup … up and down the whole lot” quickly set the butterflies flapping.


[Surveying the Western Arthur Range from McKays Track] 
Afterwards my main responses to the trip were a peculiar mix of vertiginous joy, stunned awe and fear. We had walked through a landscape that shouldn’t exist in this “wide brown land”, on a route so steep that it hadn’t looked remotely passable.

But back to January 2017, and my renewed acquaintance with both the Arthur Range and my apprehension. The source of the latter is not just my time-eroded knowledge of what’s ahead, but also the nagging thought that my now 60+ year old body is not going to like this. Add a very ordinary looking weather forecast, and you’ll forgive a few butterflies.

We start promisingly. The weather is cool, the cloud patchy, and there’s a strong breeze. That’s better than par, this being the south-west. We make good progress, soon breaking out onto the white quartz of McKays Track. Our path meanders across the wide buttongrass plains that lead to Junction Creek, and the moraine by which we’ll access the range.


[Buttongrass and track near Junction Creek] 
All the way the Arthurs loom ever larger, and the amount of mud increases. By Junction Creek we’re lightly marinated in mud, but the creek is flowing swift and clear, and we clean off a little as we cross to the southern side. With plenty of daylight left, we find some good campsites and put up two tents and a tarp. Mick has chosen to combine a tarp with a bivvy bag as an experiment. As he fiddles with the setup, we offer helpful comments like “What could possibly go wrong?” But we do give him a hand with some of the guy lines, and eventually he looks set.

By morning the clouds have thickened, and they’ve flattened the top of the range. As we reach the toe of Moraine A, showers are scudding by. The track onto the range looks brutally steep, an off-white ribbon winding through tawny buttongrass pocked with quartzy outcrops and bands of scrub. As we climb, the showers come and go. We put on our rain jackets, climb, sweat, take off our jackets, stop, rest, moan a little, eat and drink a little, then repeat the process for the next couple of hours.

It’s plain hard work, ‘though there are some sweet moments. The piping and chipping of the honeyeaters, and the bright glow of the wildflowers that thrive in this harsh environment, are somehow encouraging. And although it’s a couple of weeks after Christmas, nobody has told the Christmas bells. Their beautiful scarlet and gold bells are continuing the festivities, and they too lift my thoughts beyond my aching body.


[Christmas bells and quartzite rock on Moraine A] 
We pause briefly beneath an inadequate rock overhang for a quick, wet lunch. Looking up, it appears we don’t have too far to go. But appearances do what they often do on a bushwalk, and by the time finally top out, we’re exhausted. We flop down in patchy sun on the flanks of Mt Hesperus to rest and drink. When Mick discovers we have a phone signal, it turns into a longer break. Our mobiles are quickly out and we’re checking in with home. I would normally see mobile calls as an intrusion on a wilderness experience, but this time it feels important to talk to Lynne. We’ve had a tough family time over Christmas. Our 12 year old granddaughter from Launceston has had a serious fall, and has broken bones in both her ankle and her jaw. She and her family have had to spend weeks with us in Hobart, with numerous hospital visits, some surgery, and a lot of anxiety.


[Wildflowers near Mt Hesperus]
My usual role in this sort of situation is to be positive, to look for solutions, to jolly everyone along. But a couple of days away from it all has helped me to realise that deep down I too have been anxious about my granddaughter. And I’ve added to that anxiety by taking on this physical challenge in the Arthurs. I get to say this to both Lynne and my daughter, and it feels good to better understand the source of those letter A feelings that have inhabited my stomach.



[Massed flowering of Tasmanian purplestar] 
Our calls complete, we don our packs and meander around and over Mt Hesperus. From there we angle steeply down through a burned-out area. The fires have been kind to some of the plants, and especially the Tasmanian purplestars, which are flowering more profusely than I’ve ever seen. We then sidle around Lake Fortuna, giving it more than one “could we camp there?” glance, before finally reaching the steep descent to beautiful Lake Cygnus. 


[Finally ... Lake Cygnus] 
By the time we get to the lake we’re exhausted again. I take small comfort from the fact that my 30 and 40 something-year-old companions are just as spent as me. Trying to set up tents when you’re in that state makes for comical scenes. After a certain amount of muted hysteria, we get our shelters up. Then it’s a quick meal and some vague chat about tomorrow. While apprehension and anxiety have both accompanied me today, I'm happy to add achievement to the lexicon. And then I succumb to the call of the sleeping bag.
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