Wednesday 16 February 2022

Cathedral Plateau: Part 1

As you traverse Tasmania’s Overland Track, a walk so renowned for mountains, few peaks are as constant and commanding as Cathedral Mountain. Throughout the middle days of the walk the 1400m mountain variously lurks, looms and towers to the eastern side of the track, its 800m buttresses as much gothic fortress as cathedral. Yet despite this prominence, Cathedral is one mountain that Overland Track walkers never summit. It’s not that it’s all that difficult to climb, but if you were trying it from the Overland Track, any stage Irishman would tell you “I wouldn’t be startin’ from here!

[Cathedral Mountain from the Overland Track, near Kia Ora]

Rather than a single peak to be “bagged”, Cathedral is actually a substantial plateau, and one to be savoured. It’s almost unique in the highlands of Tasmania, being a virtual mountain/island, with steep access on all sides. (Only the Ben Lomond plateau compares.) Like some vast dolerite cake, albeit one that’s collapsed towards its eastern edge, Cathedral's cliffs guard it against casual tasters.


With this in mind, a group of us planned to spend five days exploring the plateau, coming at it from the more accessible north-eastern route. Once that was settled, organising it should have been easy, but for one word: pandemic. In the lead up to the February walk Covid hovered over the party, eventually hitting one of our group. Fortunately Libby’s case was mild, and her recovery swift enough for her to join us on the walk, though not without a warning us that she might be slow. That suited the rest of us, who already ceded her about as many years in age as we did kilograms in weight. 


Most of us had been to Cathedral before, though not in ideal conditions. There’s more of that story starting here But crucially TimO had never been there, and his strong inclination to always explore new places made this a must-do. Another plus was the large high pressure system that looked like floating over us for most of the walk, promising perfect plateau wandering weather.


The four of us from the south first spent a relaxing night at Tim D and Merran’s cottage in Sheffield, getting fuelled up on Tim’s famous homemade pizzas. The next morning we started out fresh and early, as there was no disguising that we had some hard work ahead of us. The walk starts at around 600m altitude, and our first camp, at Grail Falls, is around 1000m. At least the weather was cool, with a solid cloud cover yielding occasional drizzle. We hoped this was just the tail of a cold front, and that it would soon give way to that promised high.

[Jim, Tim and Libby ascend through myrtle forest]

The walk started in a scrubby, weed-infested former logging coupe. Jim added some ‘colour’ by sharing an ear-worm with us. It was an old Marty Robbins song, but the only words he knew were part of the chorus: “cool, clear water.” Even that he managed to misquote, adding a jovial note to our climb. Soon we were walking through more pleasant sclerophyll forest, the drizzle persisting, but not enough for rainjackets. As we gained altitude the colours changed from the grey green of eucalypts to the deep green of myrtle rainforest. Our lunch stop was supposed to be at a small tarn we’d visited before. But if we’d been hoping to top up our water, we were in for a disappointment. The ‘tarn’, empty of water, was instead a large grassy bowl. Still, this “disappearing tarn” was a welcome stop after the steepish climb.

[Jim confirms the tarn is dry]

Following the break it was a pleasant surprise to soon find ourselves descending towards Chapter Lake and Grail Falls. We’d have been even more delighted had the route been a little less knee-jarring. “Just think, we’ve gotta come back up this!” Jim moaned, and we all filed that away in the “worry about that later” box.


Once we’d set up tents in the stunted myrtles near Grail Falls, TimO started grappling with Tim D’s inReach satellite phone. As Tim and Merran D. would be coming in late, after their work day, they’d suggested we use their sat. phone to send a message about where we’d stopped for the night. We had dobbed TimO in for that job, though using it proved easier said than done. The rest of us had a little mirth at TimO’s expense as he tried to work out the cryptic menu system. “You had ONE JOB Tim!” we called out encouragingly as he fruitlessly pointed the device towards the heavens. 

[TimO tries to get the satellite phone to connect]

The next surprise was our consensus that a little tent-bound nap would go down well. This seemed fair enough for Libby, who was only just back into exercising after Covid. For the rest of us, our justification was that there was no point in eating dinner too early, as Tim and Merran were probably coming in late (though, as we reminded TimO, he hadn’t had any inReach confirmation of this). Also the drizzle was now verging on rain. On the personal level, I realised that for the last few weeks I’d had background anxiety in organising this trip, especially in relation to Covid. But now my whole being was beginning to relax into this wonderfully peaceful place. 


Next thing I knew an hour had passed, and Jim was calling us out of our tents for pre-dinner nibbles.  Despite our best intentions, pre-dinner soon became dinner, and we would have been ready for bed by 6:30 if we hadn’t decided to explore the nearby lake and falls. We had never seen the falls this dry, with only a small flow tumbling over the precipice. On our last visit the falls were thundering, making conversation difficult.

[Libby at the base of Grail Falls]

[On the shores of Chapter Lake]

After our wander we started a ‘book’ on when we reckoned the other two would arrive, chivvying TimO from time to time to see if he’d got a reply to his inReach message yet. He kept muttering in the negative, and gradually, one by one, our guessed times passed. Eventually, around 8:30, we decided we may as well give up and go to our tents. We’d let them rouse us when they got here, if that transpired.

[Tim and Merran arrive early the next morning]

As it turned out, that ‘rousing’ didn’t happen until just after 7 the next morning, when Tim and Merran walked into camp before we’d even got up. Their story tumbled out over breakfast. The short of it was that they’d been delayed, and had decided to camp part way in rather than trying to get up here in the dark. We were glad to have the six of us together, without too much drama, ready to walk up to the plateau proper. And as for their reply to TimO’s inReach message, it had apparently gone astray. It seemed it was through no fault of TimO – though that didn’t stop us gently ribbing him about it for the next day or two.

No comments: