Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Little Lives: Part 2 - The Nattai Wilderness

“Shorty” the campervan was next due to take us to Sydney. Lynne had spent a lot of time and effort getting ready for a reunion there. It had already been postponed twice due to the virus, so we were hoping this would be third time lucky. But, with just a few days up our sleeve, the Coronavirus outbreak in the city was growing. And so we cautiously waited before committing to enter greater metropolitan Sydney. 


For a couple of days we holed up in a Lithgow caravan park, and listened to news of the growing COVID outbreak in Sydney. Perched there on the heights of Lithgow, we felt like Frodo and Sam on the Emyn Muil, waiting to enter Mordor. Our daughter Sally caught onto this and messaged us using Boromir’s words: “One does not simply walk into Mordor!

[Shorty hides out near Lithgow]

We didn’t, and neither did we drive there. Instead we turned tail and sadly retreated from “Mordor” to the rather more friendly town of Mudgee. While there, apart from a bit of wine tasting and bike riding, we learned that the NSW premier had put Greater Sydney into lockdown. Had we gone there, we’d have been there still (as of early August, and counting!)


* * *


Chastened, we re-jigged our plans – again. We’d organised to catchup with my brother after Sydney, when he’d be back from his own virus-dodging trip. So we firmed up that plan, and a few days later arrived at his place in the NSW Southern Highlands. He lives outside, though not a great distance from, greater metropolitan Sydney. It’s strange to run such a filter over every destination, but we had become very used to it. My brother, a retired doctor, is well practiced at it staying Covid-safe too. So once at his place, we hatched a plot to go literally far from the madding crowd: a day walk into the Nattai Wilderness.

[Ian and Lynne start our Nattai walk]

Tasmania has a way of turning we Tasmanians into wilderness snobs. Partly it’s the fact that we live on a substantially wild, mountainous island thrust into the southern seas, away from the fray of mainland Australia, and beyond the easy reach of over-development (though that threat is growing). And partly it’s that around 20% of our island, nearly 1.6 million hectares, is designated as World Heritage Wilderness. 


It’s a vast wilderness I will never encompass, no matter how long I live. But I have taken great pleasure in showing many people, including my brother Ian, just some of the wonders of Tasmania’s wilderness. Now it was his turn to show us one of the hidden gems of his area, specifically the Nattai Wilderness. 

[... let the wilderness begin]

When I've flown into Sydney I have sometimes looked down on a deeply incised wild area and wondered: is that the Nattai Wilderness? Back in the 1970s, when I lived and studied in NSW, I’d camped and bushwalked on the fringe of the area. But I had never knowingly been into what in 1991 became the Nattai National Park. Parts of the park, including where we would walk, were later officially designated as wilderness. Of course for millennia, the Dharawal and Gundangarra Aboriginal peoples called this home rather than wilderness. Our day walk would take us past sandstone overhangs that would have been used as shelter for thousands of years. The country still feels old and remote, despite being relatively close to a large city.


For Lynne and I the sandstone felt very familiar, since we were both brought up on sandstone country. Ian led us first along a fire trail, and then onto a narrower walking track. He was lamenting that we were seeing this country so soon after a massive wild fire. And he was apologetic that the wildflowers weren’t really out yet. Yet somehow we found more than enough to slow us down, oohing over a late-blooming flannel flower here; ahhing over a banksia there. 

[A selection of winter wildflowers in the Nattai]

The country felt similar to the Blue Mountains, and I knew that our track would inevitably lead us to a lookout, although lookdown would be more fitting name. Because, just as in the Blue Mountains, this is more gorge country than mountain country. We reached the edge of the plateau, and could feel the air expand around us before we saw the first bit of gorge beneath us. Ian suggested we push on to the lookout proper, maybe 5 minutes further on. 

[Worth the wait: Ahearn Lookout]

It was worth it. Ahearn Lookout is a grandstand to some vast, wild country. The Lion King wouldn’t have looked out of place posing here, if you accepted replacing savannah plains with vast and steep forested slopes. At the bottom of this defile was the Nattai River, here and there flashing reflections towards us. And beyond that we could make out further gorges, including that of the distant Wollondilly River.

[Looking south down the Nattai Gorge]

We perched on the edge of this vastness, 1 million hectares of wild country stretching all the way to Kanangra Walls, the Blue Mountains, the Wollemi, the Colo, and beyond. In such a place our quiet consumption of a humble sandwich and a coffee somehow felt like a feast. I was never great with equations, but here I could work out that place + movement, over time equalled deep satisfaction. And especially when that place was a wilderness. That's when a day can feel like another little life.

[Special thanks to my brother Ian for introducing us to the Nattai Wilderness.]

[The perfect spot to feast on wilderness]

Monday, 26 July 2021

Little Lives: Part 1 - Tumbarumba

My argument went like this. “Shorty”, our VW campervan, our tinyhouse on wheels and additional access to adventure in these covid-constrained times, would allow us to effectively move house whenever we fancied. Want a house by the sea? We just drive to the coast and make it our short-term home. Or a cabin in the mountains? Simply drive into the hills and stay awhile. There we could experience “little lives”, snippets of “what-if” life, in places we’d always wanted to be.

["Shorty" has a practice run]

I thought it sounded good, but Lynne wasn’t so convinced. She’d always thought we’d move by the beach after retirement, and my “little lives” idea sounded like a fob off. (I guess we’ll be having that “move to the coast” discussion for a while yet.) In the meantime we agreed that some adventures in “Shorty” were overdue. We had acquired a short wheelbase VW Transporter van, and had it converted into a campervan by the good folk at Achtung Camper in Geelong, Victoria. Being the SWB version, we nick-named it “Shorty”, and so far the name has stuck.

[Sheep near Tumba living contented little lives]

After a series of shakedown trips within Tasmania, we felt ready to venture to the “big island”, mainland Australia, via the Spirit of Tasmania ferry. A reunion in Sydney with people we shared our youth with some 45 years ago was the impetus. Around that event we planned some cycling, some walking, some beach bumming, and some family visits. But Sydney, in late June: let that sink in! 


Right from the start we sensed this would be a different trip in terms of forward planning. Melbourne was in partial COVID lockdown when we arrived, but we were permitted to transit Victoria, stopping only for food, fuel and toilet breaks. So our plan for a leisurely trip to some Goulburn Valley wineries, and a few days sipping, riding and living the “little life” dream of being winemakers, went west. Actually it went north, as we made a bee-line for the NSW border. We didn’t stop until we got to Tumbarumba.  

[Yep - Tumbarumba]

Of all the border towns on offer, why Tumbarumba? Well, to be fair the Riverina Highlands are lovely, and they do have vineyards. But the main attraction for us was a new 21km rail trail from Tumbarumba to Rosewood (or “from nowhere to nowhere” as someone unkindly put it). Tumbarumba’s beauty is on the subtle side. It nestles in some pretty hills, though calling them “highlands” would be a stretch. Its fame is somewhat meagre too, although a 1959 vernacular poem by John O’Grady has made it memorable for some. Its famous line is about a bloke who is “up at Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin' kanga-bloody-roos.”

[Pretty wooded hills near Tumbarumba]

[Low hills with vine-covered slopes]


The local roos would certainly have needed their winter coats, as overnight the temperature plunged to minus 4. I was glad Lynne had made sure our doona had been given a feather reinforcement a few weeks before the trip. The only other incumbents in the wee caravan park found their water had frozen overnight. 

[Ready for the ride: Tumbarumba to Rosewood]


The temperature didn’t encourage an early start, but the sun soon enticed us up the hill to the start of the cycle trail. We’ve been on plenty of cycle trails in Australia and New Zealand, but this would be the first time we’ve ridden one that is sealed the whole way, in this case in bitumen. There are reassuring hints that this was once a rail line, with old-style station names, the remains of old platforms, plenty of cuttings, and various bits of rail paraphernalia. Crucially, as with most rail trails, the incline is quite merciful. Trains are generally not able to climb a slope of more than 2 degrees. So while the vibe is retro, the surface and the infrastructure (think bridges, fences, crossings, toilets, sign posts, interpretive panels) are all shiny new. 

[The rail trail is paved and smooth all the way]


Lynne was still recovering from a cold, and we were both short on riding practice. More than that, we’d had a rushed and stressful trip across Victoria, after a sleepless night on the ferry. Sometimes you go for a walk or a ride not so much because you really want to, but more because you know you need the brain re-set that being out in the fresh air gives you. And so we rolled down the smooth track through hilly open woodland, before breaking out into wide, gently rolling hills dotted with eucalypts, sheep and cattle. It was quietly, gently exhilarating, the perfect way to ease us back into the present. Our coffee stop at a little wayside seat added some needed caffeine into the mix, and also some humour. While we had a thermos of hot coffee in our packs, we’d forgotten cups. All we had was a urine specimen container that we use to carry milk or condiments. So we took turns to sip micro-brews from our little yellow container, in between giggles.

[Lynne pours a "specimen" cup of coffee!]


[We found a ewe and lamb warming themselves on the track]

Our minds soon turned to the future. If we went all the way to Rosewood, we would then have to ride all the way back. The total trip would be close to 45km, rather more than we had planned. But I was quietly confident we could do it, especially given we were riding our e-bikes. We’d learned that Rosewood had a café, encouragingly called “Gone Barmy”. With the offer of another coffee there, this time from an actual cup, I convinced Lynne we could do the full return trip.

[We got there - and rested at Rosewood Station.]


And so we did, the return ride being just as delightful as the outward journey. Even the feared uphill to the Tumbarumba station proved a toothless tiger, and we were soon back with “Shorty” ready for a shower and rest before heading to the pub for a well-earned dinner. Our little life in Tumbarumba had been short but surprisingly sweet.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Central Plateau Variations: Part 5

It was the light that woke me. Not just the slow leak of dawn light, but something far stronger. I emerged from the tent to a veil of high cirrus cloud that radiated a rich, warm pink. Blissful weather one day, stunning sunrise the next? Not business as usual for the Central Plateau then! 

[Sunrise at Lake Tyre]

By the time I’d fetched my camera, golds and reds were joining the display, lighting up the lower clouds. The whole was then reflected back at us off the lake. As the others emerged, we wandered in wonder around the shores of Lake Tyre taking photos, or just soaking up the beauty. If we thought we were in for another beautiful day, we’d forgotten the highlands’ capacity for tricks. I’d left my tent up while we ate breakfast, hoping the rising sun would dry it a little. But as we sipped our tea, a thick mist rolled in, hiding the sun and dampening hopes of carrying out dry tents. 

[The mist rolls in: Photo by Jim Wilson]

[Larry packs up in the mist: Photo by Jim Wilson]

Reluctantly, with raincoats at the ready, we packed up soggy gear in the clammy chill. As we left the camp site the mist was thinning, the day’s air beginning to mix. But above us Mount Jerusalem, which had been roiled in thick cloud, now sent that cloud rolling down towards us, like a stern angel driving us out of the garden.

[Cloud follows us down Zion Vale: Photo by Larry Hamilton]


Our Plan A for the trip was well out of kilter by now. Instead of spending a night at Tiger Lake as originally planned, we would now bypass it and walk out to the Walls of Jerusalem carpark in one go. Tim and Merran had done this on our last walk together here, when they had to leave a day early to get back for appointments. They assured us it wasn’t difficult, though given their walking prowess, one or two of us may have taken that with a grain of salt.


[Tim leads us towards Officers Marsh]

Still, if there’s one thing that motivates bushwalkers in the transition to the finish of a trip, it’s the craving for cold drinks and hot food at walk’s end. There are unspoken rules: it has to be something you can’t get in the bush, and it has to be prepared by someone else. Grease and beer are perennial favourite ingredients, but as we walked we considered a plethora of other post-walk possibilities.


We’d left early again. There was ground and time to make up if we were going to get to lunch in time. Fortunately, whether it was because we were walking downhill, or walking towards that promised lunch, or just because we were headed for home, Jim was the most sprightly he’d been all walk. He said he still felt crook, but he was determined to get the job done.


I noticed other transitions too. Descending towards Zion Vale, we first had to cross Officers Marsh, a buttongrass-fringed boggy area. We picked our way across it, keeping to less boggy higher parts where possible. The land felt fat with water, holding onto the plentiful rainfall not only in its many pools, but also in its deep and spongy peat soils. Wallaby scats and pads, and a wombat burrow in some higher ground confirmed it was also good grazing land. 


[Wombat burrow, Officers Marsh]

As we descended, the land grew leaner, the steeper gradient aiding faster water flow and impeding peat development. Now in places the water cut down to bedrock. The flowing water was finding its voice, chattering and chuckling among the stream-bed rocks, while calling currawongs and chittering honeyeaters sang their harmonies.


It wasn’t all downhill, of course. The highlands reserve the right to put an uphill in your way, just to keep you honest. So at the end of Golden Vale, after the junction of the Fish River and Wild Dog Creek, there was a short but steady climb towards George Howes Lake. Knowing this was coming, and feeling the warmth of the day finally asserting itself, we sat on a grassy bank for a break. It was a place a few of us had stopped before. In fact, Libby reminded us, it was almost exactly 8 years ago that she’d first met us in the Walls, joining us for a day walk past here to Tiger Lake. These days we don’t feel our walking group is complete if “Possum” (Libby’s nom de randonee) isn’t with us.


On the uphill section the sun and our physical effort squeezed the day’s first perspiration from us. After the turnoff to Tiger Lake our route once again trended downhill. And now the valley was tightening even more, squeezed between the uplands of the Walls to the south, and the outliers of Clumner Bluff to the north. To avoid a steep, bluffy descent, we left the river side and took a diagonal route through scrubby bush and forest towards the main Walls track. 

[About to leave the valley]


Eventually we met that track at Trappers Hut. And here we met the first other walkers we’d seen all trip, another surprising transition. For them the hut marked the end of their major ascent for the morning. For us it was the start of the highway home: a fully-formed track, easy to follow if mildly steep. It was tempting to just put our heads down and will the carpark to come. But for a change we were now meeting, and exchanging pleasantries with, other walkers. I’m sure our words for those nearing the top – an “almost there” or a “the worst is over” – were welcome. As we got further down, it was better to stick to “where are you from?” or “what are your plans?” Sometimes the brutal truth (“You’re looking stuffed. Sorry to tell you you’re not even half-way”) is best avoided.


Such “games”, if that’s the right word, eased us to the end of the track. Even so it seemed to take longer than I expected, even though I’ve walked this track 15-20 times. It didn’t help that I’d almost run out of water as I trudged into the very full carpark. A warm mouthful from the bottom of my Camelbak didn’t quite satisfy.


Once we’d loaded the cars and made it down to Earthwater Café near Mole Creek, all that was forgotten. We’d made it in time for a cooked lunch, and there were plenty of good choices in both food and drink. To spare other diners our malodorous presence, we sat outside at a long table set beneath some large deciduous trees. If this was a compromise, it’s one I’d choose every (fine) day. 

[Happy campers at Earthwater Cafe]


For most of us it had been a great walk, with some neat variations on our last walk on the Plateau. The fierce, wet winds that blew for 48 hours or more now seemed a distant memory. More prominent was the honour we felt to have found and followed substantial parts of Ritters Track at last. Larry and Tim were especially happy about that. Their judicious use of the sometimes dodgy GPS data was superb. And if Jim’s illness had partly spoiled the walk for him, we had to applaud his guts (pun intended) in making it to the end. Besides, with a beer in hand and fish and chips on the way, he looked as happy as, well, Larry – and everyone else.  

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Central Plateau Variations: Part 4

You can’t bargain with Tasmania’s highland weather. It’s pointless arguing that you’ve suffered so much tough weather that “tomorrow it shall be fine!” Still, hope springs eternal, and the signs were good. At the end of day 4 of our Central Highlands walk, the wind had dropped to a whisper. Indeed, for the first time on the trip we could hear the night-time snores from neighbouring tents.

[An optimistic spider web at Pencil Pine Tarn]

So we began day 5 with the same optimism as the spiders that shared the pencil pine grove with us. They’d been busy spinning webs, anxious, I imagine, to catch some food after a few days of wind famine. And now the sun shone on web and tent alike. The wind a mere memory, the sky brilliantly blue, the weather angels singing: it was a perfect day to retrace some of yesterday’s wander on Ritter’s Track, and go beyond into the Walls of Jerusalem.

[Tim looking towards the Walls of Jerusalem]


We got away uncharacteristically early – for us – thinking we had a long day ahead, especially with Jim still feeling unwell. We took our time, ambling through a landscape that was now blissfully benign, soft underfoot, dotted with pools and tarns rimmed with sphagnum and pencil pines. It’s a country that’s wonderful in any weather, but this day, after those that preceded it, was one to savour. Even if it were possible for the grand scene to overwhelm, the small things could still give their quieter joy. I kept noticing, for instance, scatters of tiny yellow berries and similarly small red berries. It was as if careless wee folk had upset their applecarts.

[Gaultheria tasmanica berries ... or are they wee apples?]


Out front our two “navigational nerds”, Tim and Larry, again steered us along Ritter’s Track via the now familiar cairns. Once we passed the point we’d reached at the end of yesterday’s reconnoitre, our leaders focussed on quickly finding the next few cairns. By now Jim had slipped to the back of the group, his tank already low on fuel. When a helicopter flew over, he looked up longingly, as if it might be possible to flag a lift. It didn’t help that every time he caught up with the group, the leaders would start off again. Hearing Jim’s mutterings, I decided I’d join him at the back. Two voices might have better luck moderating the enthusiasm at the front of the group.

[Merran takes in the blissful scene]


After a couple of hours we passed between the aptly-named Long Tarns and Lake Butters, neither of which we could see. But we did find a delightful smaller lake, and paused there for scroggin and water. On our last traverse of this country, we’d been further north. I remembered that getting across Richea Ridge, west of Long Tarns, had been rough and quite scrubby. We were hopeful that this time, being further south and “on” Ritter’s Track – if you could ever truly say that – we might find an easier route, perhaps avoiding Richea Ridge altogether. 


No such luck. The cairns were now as sporadic as they were dubious. There was nothing for it but to take a rough bearing west towards Lake Tyre. That took us up, over, around and through some rocky, scrubby bush. The fact that it was riddled with Richea scoparia strongly hinted to us that we hadn’t avoided Richea Ridge after all. 

[Yes, there was NO WIND!]


[Getting closer to Mt Jerusalem]

It was hot, sweaty work on this warm, sunny afternoon. We were glad when we finally began to descend towards the valley flanking Mount Jerusalem. We were tempted to stroll down the now clear valley towards Zion Gate. However we’d learned on our last trip that we had to stay one valley east. This necessitated a bothersome trudge up a bushy hill which earlier in the morning would have seemed nothing. We had some reward at the top in the form of a view of Lake Tyre’s south-eastern shore. The sting in the tail was that our preferred campsite was on the north-western shore, another few hundred metres away, and through some scrub.

[Tent set-up at Lake Tyre, with Mt Jerusalem behind]

Still, we reached the campsite by mid afternoon. We may have been hot and tired but, in the words of young Mr Grace, "
we’d all done very well". Once we’d put up our tents, drunk a litre of water, and settled into our Helinox chairs (if we had them!) our day 5 optimism started to look justified. Some rare days in the highlands go just as you hoped they might.

Friday, 16 April 2021

Central Plateau Variations: Part 3

[Who else has walked here?]

It’s rare to walk the Earth and not be following in the footsteps of others. At our first campsite, we’d sat relaxed and content – when the weather allowed – and imagined the Palawa, Tasmania’s Aboriginal people, doing much the same over tens of thousands of years. The shelter, the water, the hunting, the clear views, would all have made this a wonderful summer place. What stories, songs and dances must they have shared here, and passed on for countless generations?

[A place of contentment]

For the Palawa, European invasion stopped all that, whether though disease, forced eviction, or deliberate killings. Others would now eye off this high country for their own purposes, and they did so quickly. In the 1830s, when G. A. Robinson (the so-called protector of Aboriginals), travelled through the Central Plateau to round up any remaining Aboriginals, he noted that “wild cattle was seen grazing … and several young calves appeared among them”. 

So this “empty” Central Plateau became a favoured place on which to summer livestock. It’s estimated that between 1860 and 1920, up to 350,000 sheep and 6,000 cattle were summered up here annually. This is tranhumance on a grander scale than I’d ever imagined. Gradually cattle became more highly favoured than sheep, and by the late 1870s, settlers from the Mersey Valley and surrounding districts had acquired cattle grazing leases on the plateau. They built tracks such as Higgs Track, Warners Track and Dixons Track so they could drive stock up to the high country each summer.

But as we were discovering first hand, the “warmer” months on the plateau can still be harsh, making navigation difficult. Around 1913 a farmer from Meander named Charles Ritter, who had leases in the Walls of Jerusalem area, thought to make a safer all-weather drove route from the top of Higgs Track/Ironstone Hut area to the Walls. It was probably completed by 1918, and became known as Ritters Track. While it was called a track, I had long wondered whether it was ever more than a series of large rock cairns that could be followed even in rough weather. On our fourth day, we were hoping to find out for ourselves.

[An old sketch map by Keith Lancaster, showing Ritters Track]

The night had been exceedingly windy, and none of us had slept much. Jim wasn't feeling great after a poor sleep punctuated by some unwelcome toilet trips in the dark. We’d already decided to adapt our schedule, allowing for another night here at Pencil Pine Tarn, and a short wander today. That meant Jim could stay back and “keep our camp secure”, which he generously volunteered to do. The rest of us would pack lunch and a day pack, and go in search of Ritters Track.

Three years earlier we’d half-heartedly looked for some cairns between here and Long Tarns. That time we’d only had some rough, third-hand notes, and our explorations hadn’t allowed us to say with any certainty that the cairns we found were part of Ritters Track. This time, we had not one but two lots of GPS data indicating the supposed locations of Ritter’s cairns. The only thing against us was the weather, which remained showery and ferociously windy: in short exactly the kind of weather Ritter hoped his track would deal with.

[Tim contemplates the route]

Tim and Larry, our two GPS-bearers, lead the way, at first taking us almost east, seemingly back to where we’d come from. I expressed my surprise, but Tim assured me we’d soon swing south. And once we’d picked up a cairn, we’d start heading more south-west. 

Before long one of our navigators signalled us to join him. According to his GPS, we were within 20 metres of one of the cairns. But what were we looking for? A pile of rocks in a landscape made of rocks? And rocks that have been glaciated, ice-shattered, and scattered about willy-nilly over aeons? The five of us wandered about, a little clueless, until someone finally had their eureka moment. 

[Surely a Ritters Track cairn?]

We hurried over towards an obviously human creation: four or five rocks piled high atop a large boulder, forming a rough and wonky pyramid. If the cairn’s size wasn’t the clincher, the mop of long, grey/green lichen on the rocks was. This indicated it was no recent or random cairn, but one put here deliberately, and many decades ago.

[Tim and Larry spy out the next cairn]

The next couple of hours saw us slowly following our navigational nerds from cairn to cairn. Sometimes the next cairn was visible from the current one, but at other times we were glad to have the GPS data. This was not the sort of “track” that, once found, you could easily follow. Apparently Ritter didn’t choose a straight-line route towards the Walls of Jerusalem (which today was clear to see ahead of us). Rather he kept to higher, less boggy ground, winding around the plateau on ground over which cattle could more easily move.

[A clear view towards the Walls of Jerusalem]

Another matter sometimes confused us. We found multiple other cairns dotted across the landscape. Some we considered Ritteresque: good copies, but not originals. Others were mere wannabes: poor imitations that lacked size or age, the creation perhaps of bushwalkers or anglers. Our rule of thumb was that a true Ritter cairn would be substantial, vaguely pyramidal, made with care, and bearded with lichen. We came to admire the labour that Charles Ritter, presumably with the help of his fellow drovers, had put into building the many dozens of cairns. The heavy rocks would have taken some effort to move, and the conditions for doing that work would seldom have been ideal.

[Libby inspects another genuine Ritter cairn]

As we walked, we imagined driving cattle through this terrain. How different it would have been to walk or ride here accompanied by the sound of hoofs and mooing; the steam from their breath; the swish of their tails; the slop of the slush beneath their hard hoofs; the smell of dung and drover alike. We could admire, celebrate even, the hard labour of these cattlemen, without wishing that this was still happening. Clearly driving and grazing cattle between here and the central Walls – where the best grazing was found – made a mess, and altered the landscape hugely. The unsustainability of the practice, both environmentally and economically, led to grazing being prohibited above the 3000ft contour (914m) in 1973. 

[Tim and Merran at our lunch stop]

While it had been fascinating to follow the footsteps of Ritter, after lunch it was time to complete our off-track loop back to the campsite. We were beginning to wonder how another grey-bearded fixture was doing. We found Jim relaxing in the sun, which had finally made a welcome return. As Tim placed his small solar panel in the same patch of sun as Jim, I remarked that we now had two solar collectors. Then, over a relaxing afternoon tea, we swapped stories of our day. Jim noticed that a couple of us were red in the face, and when we conjectured that a combination of windburn and sunburn might be to blame, he was all the gladder for his rest day.

[Two solar collectors hard at work]

When the shade from the pines started overtaking us, we followed the sun up the hill. It was good to gain a little altitude, to change our perspective, and to feel a windless sun after 48 hours of gales. Eventually we wandered back down to the camp, and we were soon off to our tents. How good it felt to be in that now quiet space, without wind tearing my every thought away.

[A calm Pencil Pine Tarn]

In that calm state, I began to ponder on our walk, and to think about the footsteps we had followed to this point. Whether it was those of the Palawa, those of the cattlemen, or those of the pioneer bushwalkers, the ones who were here before us are now gone. Without feeling at all morbid, I apprehended afresh my own impermanence. None of us – grey-bearded or not – will hang around even as long as Ritter’s cairns. Sooner or later each of us will follow in the footsteps of those who are gone. 

It was in a time of pandemic, nearly 400 years ago, that poet John Donne reflected so powerfully on this. 

No man is an island, 

entire of itself, 

every man is a piece of the continent, 

a part of the main; … 

any man's death diminishes me, 

because I am involved in mankind,  

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 

It tolls for thee. 

Friday, 9 April 2021

Central Plateau Variations: Part 2

[Once more into the Central Plateau]
"I live my life in widening circles 
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one

but I will give myself to it."

- Rainer Maria Rilke

Over time our walks across the roof of Tasmania have developed a sense that, like Rilke, we are travelling in ever widening circles. It’s a place that invites you to walk to the horizon, just to find out what’s beyond. If, on our last walk, we’d only half-heartedly looked for traces of Ritters Track, this time we planned to give ourselves fully to the search, this time with GPS-assistance.

But Rilke’s metaphor begs another question. When do you know that your latest “widening circle” is to be your last? Or to put it into our context, how do you know that you’re on your last big bushwalk? I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but thoughts like this were going through Jim’s mind as the six of us slowly roused ourselves from our tents the next morning.

It had been a rough night. Strong winds and squally showers had disturbed the sleep of most of us, and I was only woozily awake when I heard Jim’s voice outside my tent. “Cap’n, cap’n, you awake?”* Without waiting for an answer he went on. “I have a cunning plan. You seen the weather?”

I unzipped the tent and poked my head out to find that we’d been enveloped in cloud, our long views replaced by a close grey murk. The wind was shaking the pencil pines, and Jim was in his rain jacket. Welcome to the Central Plateau! As for Jim’s cunning plan, he was suggesting a retreat. We could head back to Tim and Merran’s place, and base ourselves in the warm, dry comfort of their cottage, and do day walks from there.

[Gaultheria berries thriving in harsh conditions]
Certainly I’d seen more encouraging walking weather, but Jim’s response to it seemed disproportionate. If we followed the original plan, and walked to our next sheltered campsite, we only had to brave these conditions for 3 hours or so. I questioned Jim a little more, and found out that he was also feeling “a bit off”. Considering he has a chronic health issue that means he often lives with a degree of nausea and/or dizziness, this didn’t sound like a walk ending scenario.

It didn’t take long for the rest of us to convince Jim that we should stick with our original plan. He toyed with the idea of walking back to the car solo, and coming to pick us up at the end of the trip, but in the end he went with the majority. As if to reinforce our decision, a few patches of blue appeared between squalls. We slowly packed up, and walked off into strongly gusting winds, but only intermittent showers. As we got into a rhythm, I was pleased to hear Jim having a good, loud catch-up conversation with Tim. Perhaps his mood would improve, and he’d be his normal life-of-the-party self. 

["Gimme Shelter" - any rock will do]

Meanwhile the weather continued to challenge us. For a time our off-track route took us into the sheltering lee of higher ground. But for much of the walk the wind was so strong it threatened to blow us off our feet. I find this kind of feral weather, its sheer ferocity, strangely exhilarating. It’s a reminder that, for all our ingenuity, we’re not in control here. Still, being blown over was NOT the kind of uplifting experience we would have wished on Jim in his current state. As we took a break, I photographed Jim against the background of our morning’s route. “Jim’s last walk” he muttered into his beard.

[Jim's last walk? Not a happy camper.]

Having reached the pass leading into the next valley, we turned west and found a sheltered lunch spot among our friends the pencil pines. As we ate, we even had some warm sunshine, and the day looked suddenly benign. It didn’t last, of course, as we soon had to reenter the maelstrom. 

[Lunch among the pines - pic courtesy of Larry]

The constant wind was energy sapping in the extreme, and everyone was relieved to finally see our pine-dotted tarn up ahead. We’d sheltered there from a strong wind 3 years ago, and it looked as though history would repeat itself this year.

We soon sussed out our tent spots. We were a little surprised that even here, deep in a substantial pine glade, the wind still managed to shake our tents. It was also cold by now, and we quickly decided that an early dinner and bed time made a lot of sense. As we cooked Jim still seemed lethargic, not wanting to bother getting out his cooking gear. Instead he asked around for any spare boiling water, scoring a hot cup-a-soup from me, and a bit of hot dinner from someone else. We were all finished and ready for bed by 5:30.

[Almost ready for bed: Pencil Pine Tarn]

All night the wind roared, the pines giving it a piercingly strident voice. At one stage I looked – in vain – for ear plugs in my first aid kit. It wouldn’t be snores from my fellow campers that would keep me awake tonight.

* Back in the mists of time some of our regular walking group had taken to addressing each other as “Captain”, usually in a growly, pirate-inspired voice.