Tuesday 24 October 2017

Back to the Arthur Range 3: R is for …

Our weather forecast is dubious. We knew that before we left home; we’ve confirmed it via mobile phone from near Mt Hesperus; we feel it afresh overnight. Strong wind gusts thump against our tents, even here in the sheltered campsite beside Lake Oberon. Mick’s tarp set-up has struggled in the conditions, and even though it hasn’t rained much, some of his gear is wet.

So we make day 4 a rest day. This is partly out of the sheer need for a break, and partly to give us time to decide our next move. There’s a point-of-no-return up ahead at High Moor. If we go that far, we’re committed to the rest of the whole rugged range, and then the long walk back along the plains.

Our guide book says it’s 5-7 hours from here to High Moor, but in this weather, and after yesterday’s snail’s pace, we know we’ll take a lot longer. I’ve been to the moor before, and the main issue is its lack of shelter. I’m dubious about spending a night there in the forecast gale-force wind and heavy rain, let alone tackling the rest of the range in those conditions.

Meanwhile the tents are warm and comfortable, and after a brief conference, we’re soon snoozing again. But when the sky brightens a little, I toss off my sleeping bag, along with my lethargy, and do a circuit of the large basin that holds Lake Oberon. The wind is still strong enough to knock me off my feet, but the clouds have lifted, revealing the enormous crags that surround the site.

[Quartzite crags looming over Lake Oberon] 
Most photographs of Lake Oberon ooze tranquility, but in reality it’s a wild and restless type of tranquility. The small lake sees waves often enough to pound the tough quartzite into sand. And around it the sodden, stunted, contorted vegetation speaks of roaring winds, vicious downdrafts and frequent rain.

In my Parks and Wildlife days I remember speaking with some Japanese tourists who had one day spare in their itinerary. This was in Hobart, and they pointed to Peter Dombrovskis’ poster image of Lake Oberon, and said “so we will walk there”. When I told them it was not possible in one day, their look said that I didn’t know what I was talking about. How could such a beautiful place not be easily reached!?

Now, as a fresh gust hits and I turn back to the relative shelter of my tent, I ponder how that couple would feel if they were here now. The gap between romance and reality is often very stark in Tassie’s south-west wilderness. It’s with that stark reality in mind that I once again raise with Mick and Eden the question of where to next.

[Pencil pine and pandani shelter near Lake Oberon] 
As we struggle to keep our dinner from blowing off our plates, Mick begs a place for the night in Eden’s roomy tent. Quickly, though not without some agony, we realise we’re going to turn around. Tomorrow’s weather will be like today’s: blustery, showery and generally tough. But it’s what’s following these strong nor-westerlies that’s got us more concerned. South-westerly winds of gale force and pelting rain are said to be coming. We can either face that on the highest, roughest, most unprotected section of the range, or have it blow us back the way we came. We choose the latter.

So day 5 sees us packing up and leaving Oberon’s ominous beauty behind us. There’s a mixture of relief and disappointment, but we console ourselves that the Arthurs are not going anywhere in a hurry. Some of us will be back. More immediately our apprehension returns, as we have the steep, slippery climbing gully out of Oberon to negotiate, and then plenty more hard walking before we’re back at Lake Cygnus. The wind continues its brutal barrage, with pellets of rain sometimes added into the mix. But by now we’re walking fit, and we get up the gully without incident. We eventually reach Cygnus by mid-afternoon.

[Mick approaches Lake Cygnus] 
As we’re planning an early escape the next morning, we dry as much gear as we can, and eat an early dinner. Mick puts up his tarp as a shelter for us, but chooses again to bunk in with Eden. He's nestled his tent up against a couple of low-growing myrtles with delightful fresh gold and bronze foliage, which he's decorated with drying clothes. I can't resist dubbing it “The Garden of Eden”.

Mick’s decision will save packing time in the morning, and keep the rest of his gear dry if the heavier rain comes early. It doesn’t, but the wind does. About 3am I’m woken by a loud, persistent flapping. Mick’s tarp has come free. I stumble out into bright moonlight, surprised out of my grumpiness by its beauty. Once I get its guys untangled, I roughly fold the tarp and stuff it in their tent vestibule. I resist adding the loud expletives that are top of mind. I figure the patience they’ve shown the oldest party member deserves at least that much.

[Downtime at Lake Cygnus] 
Before 6am we’re up and about, anxious to get off the range before the deluge hits. The sky is a heavy, dark grey, and the wind is strong, but we stay dry for the pack up and ascent back towards Mt Hesperus. Around then our luck ends, and the wild murk unleashes on us. Rain squalls lash us and the wind causes us to stumble drunkenly.

[Mick and Eden between a rock and a hard place] 
For several more hours we walk on, barely stopping because its so miserable. The rain is now constant and horizontal. I’ve been wearing a new rain-jacket, and for five and half days it has kept me dry. Not any more. Water is now blown down my neck, up my sleeves, under my hood, through any gap it can find. We’re all so thoroughly soaked that even our sandwiches – hurriedly scoffed at Junction Creek – are sodden to the consistency of milky Weetbix.

We barely notice how wet the crossing of that creek is. After it I put my head down, slosh through the freshly-reinforced mud, and will the carpark to come. Of course it doesn’t. Tracks don’t shrink in the rain; if anything they expand. This day is surely one of the most miserable I’ve ever spent bushwalking. It takes us nine hours to get from Lake Cygnus to the Huon Campground, seven of them in solid, horizontal rain and gale force winds.

Only as we get towards the end does the rain let up, as though it’s now done with us. A couple of times my hopes are raised as I think I recognise the end of the track. But I should know that a cardinal law of bushwalking is that false hopes must be dashed. It’s another 40 brutal minutes before we stumble up the final forested bit of track and into the carpark. I hear a loud voice screaming “YEESSSS!” and am slightly surprised to find that it’s my own. Mick staggers up behind me mouthing something about the Arthurs having chewed us up and spat us out. At best it’s been a retreat, more likely a rain-soaked rout. But for now we’re happy to feel that R is for relief!