Wednesday 9 March 2022

Cathedral Plateau 3: Highs and Lows

The bright early evening leaked its light slowly. It was that time of day when the world holds its breath, and anything seems possible. And sure enough Tim D went full Shackleton on us, trying to talk TimO into climbing all the way up to the plateau’s edge to watch the sunset. 

[Ernest Shackleton's supposed newspaper ad. for his Antarctic expedition]

TimO is always up for a challenge, but he was also a very tired boy. I stepped in, taking on the (mock) role of his coach/manager – dreadful Michael Caine accent and all – insisting that ‘my boy ‘ere’ would need more than ‘some dubious promise of a flash of sun, followed by an uncertain return, fully in the dark’. Surprisingly TimO followed his manager’s advice, settling instead for Tim D’s tamer challenge: a game of Yaniv. It was a card game TimO knew nothing about, so he clearly still needed his ‘manager’ (who also knew nothing about the game; didn’t want to try it; and would retire to his tent mid-game). To cut a long story short, TimO lost the game gloriously – and noisily – despite his manager shouting from his tent such timeless encouragement as: ‘Go hard son’ … ‘Give it 110%’ and ‘Go up the guts!’. Yet even after the heavy loss, TimO had to admit it beat a stumbling return through scoparia in the dark!

[A Misty Morning at Tent tarn] 

The morning was quieter, a soft, dwindling mist dampening sound and tent alike. We had a less ambitious day planned, with the ascent of Cathedral Mountain itself the first agenda item. This was even via a marked route, with rock cairns making it hard to miss. This beaten-path look was new to those of us who’d been here many times before. My guess would be that it was down to Cathedral’s status as an ‘Abel’, a label that somehow makes one mountain a more desirable goal than a perfectly beautiful nearby one that doesn’t qualify for that designation.

[Jim ascends from Tent Tarn]

Before we’d ascended far it became clear that Jim wouldn’t be going any further than the first summit. He was again struggling with dizziness and a lack of energy. Today that wouldn’t be a problem, as he could station himself on Cathedral and return to camp safely whenever he liked. So while the rest of us walked beyond the peak, down to the plateau’s edge, he luxuriated in a patch of sun that also had mobile reception. Only a hut would have improved how well this suited him. 

[A Panorama from the Plateau's Edge]

The sky had cleared as expected, and by the time we reached the cliff line, the day was a stunner. The views were even better, with every Overland Track mountain from Olympus in the south, to Cradle in the north, clearly visible. We could even make out a distant Frenchmans Cap. These are views that never pall, and we feasted on them for a long time before deciding that a swim in one of the rim pools further along the edge would make a great day even better.

[Looking towards Mt Ossa and the Pelions]

[TimO at the Edge of Cathedral Plateau]

We were spoiled for choice, walking past several lovely looking pools – none of them named – before finding one that had an accessible island and a rock shelf from which we could swim before lunch. I’ve swum in the highlands of Tasmania many times, and it’s rare for the water to be either warm or inviting. Today it was both, and we all plunged in, the Tims choosing to do laps. TimO, despite his delicate Irish complexion, even spread himself on a rock for a micro-sunbake. And from high above we noticed Jim still up on Cathedral, occasionally waving, and (we would learn later) taking distant paparazzi-style pictures of us. 

[Tim D swims in the unnamed pool]

We finished our pool-side stop with a relaxed lunch, and all agreed this had been a rare and sublime episode in an already wonderful day. What could top this, we wondered, as we wandered slowly past a few more pools and then down a ridge towards our home tarn? What happened towards the end of that return didn’t exactly top the rest of the day. But it certainly added an exclamation mark to it!

[What could beat this rim pool scene on Cathedral?]

Our descent was off-track, and mostly through light scrub. This sometimes required us to pick the path of least resistance, so we’d spread out a little by the time we were closing in on Tent Tarn. Tim D, Libby and I had chosen a line down one side of a small scrubby creek, while TimO and Merran were on the other side. Tim D suddenly stopped, and called out “Ooh, a big one!” We knew he was referring to a tiger snake, so Libby and I stopped to see what we should do next. 


Tim D cautiously walked to the far side of the bush into which the snake had disappeared. Completely without warning the 5 foot long snake darted out of the bush at full speed, straight towards Libby and me. I let out a sharp expletive and rushed to escape in the opposite direction. Instead I stumbled over my trekking pole, falling heavily on my arm. What?! On the ground with a tiger snake just metres away from me?! In complete panic I struggled back to my feet, only to fall again, expecting the snake to be right there where I’d fallen. My heart racing, I eventually scrambled back to my feet to find Libby still standing where I’d last seen her, and Tim D coming cautiously towards us.


Apparently the snake, spooked by Tim’s footsteps, had turned to escape from him only to hear/see another walker (me) crashing to the ground in front of it. The snake had then slipped straight by Libby’s boots as she stood still, “like a rock, like a tree”, as she later told us. Fortunately for me, my attempted escape had been both noisy and diagonal, and the snake had made for the scrub elsewhere. We all stood there for some time, adrenaline pulsing through our bodies, before quietly and cautiously resuming our walk back to camp. We had quite a story to tell!

[My bruised upper arm - photos by Jim Wilson]

[Snake Bite? No, but enough for Jim to beat up a story.]  

What really happened here? I’ve replayed the incident in my mind many times. I am not fearful of snakes. I admire them, and have a healthy respect for them. I would see a couple of snakes every summer when I’m out bush, and have never had an ‘adverse’ encounter with one. But all I can say is that, given this situation 100 times over – a snake coming full pelt, straight at me from 2-3 metres away – I would react exactly the same. Why? Because my reaction to the threat was involuntary, involving my sypathetic nervous system. This is often given the shorthand of “fight, flight or freeze”. Obviously my reaction, “flight”, might not have been wise. All I can say is that it was completely instinctive.


But why was Libby’s reaction so different? She explained to us that she heard the voice of her grandfather, who had experience in handling snakes. If one threatens you, he’d advised her, “be a rock, be a tree”. This sounds like a conscious choice, rather than a “freeze” response, as mentioned above. I can only say I’m astonished by her reaction, which was both wise and effective. In my own case, I’d have to say that my conscious mind was not in play in my own initial response. 


As we told the others our story back at the campsite, we again showed our different emotional reactions to the adrenaline that was still coursing through our systems. I gabbled out loud, retelling the story over and over, while Libby had a quieter emotional moment. Over dinner we continued to reflect on a day of amazing highs and literal lows (for me at least), before Tim D brought out some port to settle us for the evening. 

[Another Misty Start at Tent Tarn]

The next morning, our last, saw us up very early. Our plan was for most of us to walk all the way out in time for a latish lunch at the Mole Creek pub. Libby was staying one more night, taking advantage of the great weather and the chance of a bit of solitude. It was misty again, and our tents were wet. But with no time to dry them, we simply bundled them away. In theory last day packs are lighter, but ours were wetter and lumpier. Finesse isn’t always a priority when you need to get walking by 7am.

[Tim and Merran's Tent Fly shaken in the sunrise] 

As we waved Libby farewell, the mist was already lifting, and the views we soon had over Chalice Lake were a sparkling delight. The (theoretically) lighter packs and the gently downhill track made everything feel easier. That was until the very steep descent to the Grail Falls campsite, and the similarly steep ascent out of that valley. Steeply down became the theme thereafter. And if anyone thinks that’s always good news, they haven’t tried a rapid descent at this gradient, with a full pack and ageing knees. 

[Farewell to Chalice Lake]

It was an enormous relief to finally break out at the carpark. It was hot, and we were exhausted and thirsty. But if we felt a little sorry for ourselves, we were sorrier for the two walkers we met at the carpark. They were about to walk in the way we’d just walked out. It was just after 1pm, and they had their sights set on reaching Tent Tarn that afternoon. We wished them well, before getting changed into street clothes and driving out to Mole Creek.


Alas our vision of a luxurious hot counter meal and a cold beer was dashed. We arrived just 10 minutes after the kitchen had closed. There was nothing for it but to enjoy that cold beer with a pie from the bain-marie. Somehow though, after five days of bushwalking food, that managed to seem enough of a feast. I certainly wouldn't count it as a low, not when compared with falling down in the path of terrified/irate snake! 

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