Tuesday 25 June 2019

The Secret Highlands 2: Broken and Ugly

In the chill of the morning, while some of us were pulling sleeping bag hoods around our ears, Libby was up getting the fire started. The night before we’d decided there was no urgency about getting going in the morning. That, at least, was my excuse for staying √† bed. But the warm flicker of flames that lit the hut proved the ultimate in gentle alarm clocks. How we humans are drawn to the flames!

[Drawn to the Flames!] 
After brekky we were in Tim’s hands. He suggested we pack lunch and head south, towards the February Plains. We were keen to explore this undulating plateau, with its grandstand views over Cradle Mountain National Park to the west, and the Walls of Jerusalem National Park to the east. But there was still cloud about, and views might be better with the clearer weather that was forecast for tomorrow. Besides, Tim’s agenda for today had a touch of the train-spotter about it.

In 1895, E.G. Innes and team had surveyed and cut a potential rail route between Mole Creek in the north and Rosebery in the west. Although the railway line never eventuated, some parts of his cut route can still be seen, including on a section of the Overland Track west of the Pelion Plains.

[Across the plains, with fire aftermath around us] 
Innes’ official report spoke of the landscape near here as “broken, ugly country”. After reaching what he called the Mackenzie Plain – probably part the February Plains – he “turned again south …. (and) skirted the side of the hill at an easy grade, through a country covered with a dense growth of myrtle and pepper tree.

Tim was keen to find evidence of Innes’ Track, especially where it “skirted the side of the hill”. Innes had presumably tried to take a line below and to the east of the highest country in order to avoid the worst of the weather that can lash this area.

So after walking south for a short while, we swung east and began to wander up a broad, open valley. The only thing remotely “broken” or “ugly” about it was the widespread fire damage from the Mersey Forest fires of summer 2016. There was stark burned forest on the valley fringes; burned scrub and buttongrass in the valley floor; even cracked and blackened rocks. The same fires had burned east around Lake Mackenzie and the Blue Peaks, and south-east through parts of the Mersey highlands. They were started by dry lightning, a phenomenon thought to be one of the local outcomes of climate change. I’ve written about these fires here http://www.naturescribe.com/2016/02/a-tasmanian-catastrophe.html

As we neared the edge of the upland, we began to get partial views east across the deep Mersey Valley towards Clumner Bluff and the Walls of Jerusalem. Tim had marked on his GPS that this was where we might find traces of Innes’ work. The fires had made our search both easier and harder: easier because we could see further, and walk more easily through the fire-cleared undergrowth; harder because many windfall trees blocked our way and obscured the kind of evidence we were searching for.

[Searching for Innes Track] 
After a couple of hours of off-track scrambling, we admitted defeat. We’d seen hints of cut lines, but nothing that was continuous and unambiguous. For our troubles we were sweaty and blackened, so we sought the compensations of lunch and a view on a high rocky knoll. We scored better. A large wedge-tailed eagle graced us with its presence as we ate. It perched for some time in a bare tree just above us, then took off, circling above for a final look. In its honour we dubbed our lunch hill “Eagle Rock”.

[A wedge-tailed eagle at "Eagle Rock"] 
We decided we’d return to the hut a different way, just for variety, but managed to collect even more scratches and black stripes from having to push through thick burned scrub. It had been two and a half years since the major fire here, yet there were only glimpses of good recovery. The clich√© that all Australian bush was made to burn, and recovers well from burning, looked far from true up here in the sub-alpine zone.

Wildflowers were fairing best, taking advantage of the increased light, decreased competition, and a bed of ash for germination. Orange everlasting flowers (Xerochrysum subundulatum) particularly stood out against the blackened trees. Some of the eucalypts and other alpine trees showed only sparse and sporadic regeneration. Many trees stood stark and dead. But we were surprised at one point to find a clump of myrtle beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii) shooting from the base of their burned trunks. I’d heard they could survive light fire by sprouting from basal epicormic shoots, but this was the first time I’d seen it. Presumably the fire was less severe in the wet lee of the hill where we found them.

[Orange Everlasting flowers thriving after fire] 
Our via the cape return trip ended mid afternoon, in time for us to collect more firewood. It promised to be a cold night, so the fire would be very welcome. But alongside our anticipation of a good fire, we felt a strong sense of irony. We’d seen some of the dreadful havoc that fire could wreak in this alpine country. And we knew too that the various types of human-caused fire – whether through deliberate ignition, or anthropogenic climate change events like dry lightning – had burned out acres of beautiful flora up here, and especially large stands of superb pencil pine. It’s hard to shake the feeling that fire will continue to push some of these species to a brink that would be truly “broken” and “ugly”.

1 comment:

Paul Arnott said...

Thanks Peter. Beautiful writing about a beautiful place.