Friday 17 April 2020

A Long-Awaited Reunion: Part 1

Walks can take a little time to organise. Who’s coming? Where are we going, and when? And then there’s transport, food, tents, weather, contingencies. The list tends to go on. But for eleven years? That does seem excessive! Strange but true, this walk had its genesis back in 2009. Five of us – Tim O, Jim, Mick, Lynne and me – were on an extended tramping trip in New Zealand. 

[In the Beginning: (L to R) Mick, Peter, Lynne, TimO and Jim, 2009] 
That trip went down in legend as the start of the “pirate captain/cabin boy” nonsense that we’ve maintained to this day. While that’s another story, its relevance for the February 2020 walk was that in March 2009, we met an Austrian backpacker named Brita. At the time we were walking the Routeburn Track. While Brita was much younger than all of us, we got on very well. Importantly she was quite tolerant of our pirate accents and general silliness while walking … or resting, or cooking, or eating!

[1st Meeting, Routeburn Track 2009. L to R: Jim, Brita and Ranger John] 
This was in the early days of Facebook, and that plus email enabled us to keep in touch. Our on-going contacts confirmed that Brita was a keen traveller, and an adventurous soul. So we weren’t surprised when, having qualified as an osteopath in 2018, she decided to work in New Zealand. For a European that felt like just next door to Tasmania, and she expressed interest in “popping over”. So for the next year or so, Jim sold Brita the concept of a reunion walk in Tassie with us. We’d be able to offer free accommodation, sight-seeing and socialising on a grand scale. I’m not entirely sure Jim didn’t also promise steak knives.

Skip forward to February 2020. Most of our original 2009 group could make the reunion walk, although Mick had followed his heart to Darwin, and couldn’t join us. But our group did expand to include our regular walking friends Libby, Tim D and Merran. The question then became: where would we be taking Brita? She was keen to walk the Overland Track, having succumbed to illness on a previous attempt. Most of us had done that trip multiple times, and thought we should go somewhere a little more adventurous.

Two years earlier we’d had a brilliant off-track adventure, walking from Lake Mackenzie through the Blue Peaks and overland to the Walls of Jerusalem. (You can read more here, then here, and finally here.) A variation on that walk firmed as the early favourite before logistic issues, the need for some early departures, and Jim’s fondness for huts led to a rethink. And given that the trip was Jim’s baby more than anyone else’s, we caved in to his suggestion. And that was that we walk in to Pelion Hut (bending towards Brita’s Overland Track wish, and Jim’s love of a hut), via a new-to-us side track (bending towards Tim D’s adventurous navigator impulse, and Tim O’s love of new routes), and base ourselves in the heart of the highest part of Tasmania, with many mountains to climb, and some beautiful ancient forests to "bathe" in (a plus for everyone).

[... And beautiful mossy forest] 
You’ll see now that we do try to accommodate as many preferences as we can. But you’ll also guess that there can be a certain amount of cat-herding involved. Once the miaowing had died down, we met for a very early departure one Friday in early February. The plan was to meet our northern-based friends, Tim D and Merran, at the turn-off to the Arm River Track. This provides a well accepted way into the middle of the Overland Track at the Pelion Plains. But we weren’t going via the Arm River. Instead Tim had found another way into the same destination, which he assured us was less steep and probably easier. (According to Jim “he lied!”, but more of that later.) Certainly it’s fair to say we were innocent as lambs as we drove up the long dirt road to the start of our walk.

[At the start of our 2020 walk to Pelion] 
The weather was warm and sunny, and the march flies had found us well before we’d slapped on sunscreen and laced up our boots. We snapped the obligatory departure photo, and hoisted our too-heavy packs. We were keen to leave the march flies behind, although soon enough that keenness receded as the climbing began. We’d started at the edge of an old logging coupe, which soon graded into forest. Our ascent was a steep, diagonal sidle, following a route rather than a clear track. Regularly we were clambering over fallen logs and up mossy banks, which was energy sapping work. As some of us hadn’t eaten lunch, we signalled to the front walkers to look out for a good shady spot near water. We soon regretted being too prescriptive, as Lynne and I were already sore and sorry after only an hour of ascent.

[Will this do for a lunch stop?]
Half an hour later the perfectionists up front finally stopped. To their credit their choice of lunch stop was excellent. In the cool, mossy shade of a beautiful myrtle beech forest we drank and ate and rested. As we chatted with Brita we learned a bit more about the mysteries of osteopathy, and also heard her confession that she hadn’t done overnight full-pack style walking for some years. In short, she wasn’t finding the going much easier than we were.

[Will Tim fall in the mud?] 
The good news for all was that we weren’t too far from the top of the main climb. After lunch the track duly levelled out, and the optimist in me started to feel we were over the worst. I was wrong, of course. We still had to get to the junction with the Arm River Track. And that was well short of half way to Pelion. What made this realisation harder was that Lynne was limping, struggling with knee pain.

[Lynne and Tim O in forest before Lake Ayr] 
The two of us adjusted our speed, as did Tim O, out of sympathy rather than his own need. We walked slowly, rested frequently, and kept hydrated. Lynne also practised stretches that Brita had suggested, and they seemed to help a little. So the afternoon wore on, the miles went slowly by. It remained very warm but the sky had grown hazy with smoke from the horrific Victorian bushfires. 

["I die here!" Lynne rests near Lake Ayr] 
The route now trended downhill through forest towards Lake Ayr. We rested in sight of the lake, a milestone that made us feel we were in the Pelion neighbourhood at least. An hour later we finally plodded into Pelion Hut. It was after 7pm, and we’d been walking for more than 6 hours. 

[Nearly at Pelion, with Mt Pelion West behind] 
To our surprise the fastest of our party had been at the hut for only half an hour. Everyone had found the going tough, particularly because of the hot weather and the very early start. Our hut champion, Jim, had managed to sequester a few bunks for us in the hut. We had planned to put up tents nearby, and leave the hut bunks for Overland Track walkers (who had paid for the walk). Jim’s argument that we too were fee paying park pass holders held some sway. But sheer tiredness was an even more powerful argument to leave the tent in the pack.

And so, after a quick meal, and a slower cup of wine, Lynne and I joined Jim and Brita in one of Pelion Hut’s bunkrooms. “Tim D. lied, you know” said Jim as we settled into our sleeping bags. “That was a lot worse than I remember the Arm River Track being.” Tim D and the others were safely ensconced in tents, so there was no comeback from them. And, despite our experiences of the day, Lynne and I were more inclined to invoke a pilgrim saying we’d learned: “It is what it is.” Although on this occasion, I’d have been glad to say “It was what it was”, and hope that the return journey would be another story altogether.

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