Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged Overland Track

  • The Real World

    The Real World

    Summer weather comes and I strip the walls from around me. Beginning with a blush of pink on blocks of dolerite, sunshine spans across the broad skies above, throughout all the broad hours. The creeks run weary and dry. The day disappears, colour disintegrating so gradually I barely notice, and then the old stars blink and whistle silently over the whole array of country, my office, my backyard.

    I’m out on familiar tracks, mostly working as a guide. The labour works its way into the sinews of my legs. They feel hard and taut and strong. My mind falters, though, from paying attention to the people around me. I need hours in front of fires or falls. A rill of water will do: I take an afternoon off, stomp off track upon a crispy carpet of parched moss, and find a forest there upon the stones of a riverbed. There I discover a few enormously fat conifers. They’re the biggest pencil pines I’ve ever seen; they honestly may have sprouted when Christ first squawked to life in Palestine.

    Between my six-day stints on the Overland Track for work, I take excursions into the same high country, and make the effort to notice everything I can. Every subtlety in the every scene works over my mind, muscling into my memory. The distant mountains are a nostalgic blue. The late light creates pyramid shadows of the trees. A crown of pale gold sits on the westerly summits at sunset. I have been here before.

    There are red tones in the landscape – the seed pods of a shrub called mountain rocket, and the odd leaf of a eucalypt or tea-tree. I watch a native rosella for a while. At first he chirps as incessantly as a chihuahua barks, but when I stop and watch, it eases off. His eye-mask is a brilliant red; his belly is the yellow of dried-out sphagnum.

    I have absorbed the whole palette. There are is an iridescence within me that corresponds to the colours of these places.

    Back to work. The fifth afternoon: I race up and over DuCane Gap, bootsoles finding their places between the boulders. There are cream curls on the lomatia bushes. The deciduous beech has ripe green leaves: I know they’ll soon be orange-yellow, and then the branches will be bare, and another season will be snuffed out, flickering out like the flame of a metho stove.

    These leatherwood flowers begin to throw themselves on the black tracks. I am sentimental about this too. It all reminds me of something. On day six, I am heading south. I admit that I can feel the tentacles of telephone reception as I head to the Narcissus River and out of the reserve, ever-strengthening rays of faint connection to the rest of the planet.

    Those who aren’t used to remoteness call everything else ‘the real world’. We’re going back to the real world, they say, on repeat. I think that’s lazy talk. Dombrovskis famously said: “When you go out there you don't get away from it all, you get back to it all. You come home to what's important. You come home to yourself.”

    But can’t it all be the real world? Isn’t this all the one life – my life? Yes, eventually the track runs into a road and I’m no longer exclusively on foot. I take a boat across the lake, then I take a bus. I drink a beer in a pub. All the rhythms change. Later, I turn on my telephone, and there is a text message that makes me happy. I read a book about another country. The ache in my muscles goes away. Summer’s finale now reaches out towards me, the tentacles of the future.

    Those leatherwood flowers fade into the heavy soil. But the leatherwood’s whole year is in those flowers; and the growth of those flowers is just a crucial point in the tree’s annual cycle.

  • Birthday Party for a Hut

    Birthday Party for a Hut

    This weekend, this hut will be honoured, a centenary of its existence celebrated. It really is quite a feat that the old hut has lasted so long – fire, snow and neglect have combined to eradicate innumerable high country huts in that last hundred years. (Even in the immediate area: several incarnations of a New Pelion Hut have come and gone at a spot about a kilometre from Old Pelion Hut.)

    Built of hand-split king billy timber, it was constructed in 1917 to serve a mining company, whose copper shaft is still accessible to walkers around Pelion Plains. The government acquired at the cessation of mining operations in 1921. Available for public use, it became advantageous for stockmen, trappers, and early bushwalking guides.
    Graffiti on the interior boards dates back to the 1920s, much of it verifiable to those years.

    The button-grass and white-grass plains around Mount Oakleigh have long lured human activity into the area. Relatively accessible, these plains were certainly used by local bands of indigenous Tasmanians after the most recent Ice Age concluded – their fire regime is evident to archaeologists, and long-occupied shelter sites can be found in the vicinity (such as around the upper Forth River)

    Various fur trappers made the Pelion Plains their favoured haunt – probably starting with the McCoy family – and in 1909, a farmer and prospector named George Sloane drove over 100 head of cattle to this “mostly poor land with a little open grazing country”. After some years of successful grazing, however, wild bulls roamed the plains: tall tales from the highlands speak of close shaves with charging animals. One of the more legendary mountain men, Bert Nichols, claimed to have grabbed a bull’s tail, pulled it around a tree, and looped it over his horn so that the bull was caught – “he went back later and found the bull had sawn down the tree.”

    Today,
    Pelion Plains sits at the centre of the Overland Track, the most well-known hike in Tasmania. Walkers use the newest of the New Pelion huts, so salubrious an abode that it’s colloquially called ‘Pelion Palace’. Most walkers briefly visit Old Pelion, if they come at all. Much smaller and dingier, and a little more frail too, National Parks asks walkers to only use it in the case of an emergency.

    I work as a guide on the Overland Track, and often take my punters down to Old Pelion. Here, over lunch, I’ll spin a few yarns of my own: the history of mining, perhaps, or something about the use of fire throughout Tasmania’s history. We may go for a swim in Douglas Creek, or pick leeches off ourselves in the grass. I have also been there when conditions are as they were one day in the 1930s, as reported by a graffito: “Snowing like hell!”

    Other walkers have scribbled their names and dates in the walls, often obscuring the historical graffiti – although at what point does
    a name take on historic value? This is but one of the questions that Old Pelion Hut raises. What is it that makes us care about such places? And what is more meaningful to us: to maintain it but not let it be used, to use it and potentially destroy it, or to ignore it and let it fall into disrepair? (It is worth noting that Old Pelion has been given a spruce-up since this photo was taken in summer 2015.)

    Another question: what is the meaning of the sign above the door, emblazoned with the word ‘Emhlangana’? It’s a question that was thankfully answered by high country historian Simon Cubit, who passed away this year. It’s a Zulu toponym,
    meaning, ‘meeting place’, and the carved sign was probably erected there in the 1940s by the migrant Wooton family.

    For a while the narrative of National Parks in Tasmania failed to include buildings like Old Pelion Hut, as well non-Aboriginal practices (such as hunting, farming, or prospecting) in the area. At that stage, it seemed that the word ‘wilderness’ couldn’t cope with these more recent interventions. Although I would argue that we still don’t have a helpful definition for this word (and Pelion Plains falls within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, so we’re forced to have a crack at one), we are now able to see that human recreation and industry is deeply woven into this landscape, alongside the activities of burrowing crayfish and broad-toothed rats and marchflies.

    If we don’t understand what we have done in these places, we will be completely unable to honestly comprehend what we are still doing. Whatever it’s worth, we are part of the ecology of this country.

    I have spent five years working here, and probably passed by Pelion Plains fifty-odd times. It’s not so much. Yet even I have more stories from here than I could tell in one night, if you were to sit me on the hard hut bunks and offer me a dram from a smuggled bottle. There will many present who have far longer memories than I.

    Importantly, this weekend will demonstrate that although some restrictions have been put into place to preserve this hut, it’s not a museum relic. I
    t remains a meeting place.

  • A Peep at the Wilderness

    A Peep at the Wilderness

    There are few more significant names in Tasmania’s landscape photography history than J.W. Beattie and Stephen Spurling III. But these two artists had a different view on an iconic region of Tasmania’s high country at the beginning of the 1900s.

    Born at the 57th parallel north, in the “Grey City” of Aberdeen, John Watt Beattie migrated to the Derwent Valley with his parents in his late teen years. Farming didn’t come instinctively to him, but he was drawn to the romantic aspects of Tasmanian landscape – the young Beattie was particularly influenced by landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, whose depictions of this island’s craggy peaks and lake districts, in oils, continues to shape the artistic temperament in Tassie.

    Beattie’s photographic excursions took him to many remote regions of the island, including the nascent mine towns of the west coast. A supporter of the mining projects, he was nevertheless an early and outspoken environmentalist – arguing against forestry activities on the Gordon River, for example, recognising its scenic and scientific values.

    Also an eager archivist, Beattie’s historical awareness, at the end of the 1800s, was quite a long way advanced; his work was moulded by his political and social opinions. His art was popular, and he was extremely well-liked as an individual.

    J.W. Beattie’s journey to the mountainous country around the Cradle Plateau in 1901 left him unimpressed. It may have been the torrid weather his party endured, as they ascended Pelion Plains and headed north; as Beattie wrote in his paper for the Royal Society, day after day brought “furious wind and rain...to be succeeded by heavy snowfalls, and thunder and lightning, making every living and dead thing around in such condition that it was, to say at the least, misery to walk outside the hut...”

    Beattie managed to muster up some positive memories of deep conversations, “yarns and songs” in front of the fireplaces of the high country huts – but generally felt that it was “somewhat of lunacy to come into this country in such weather”. His camera was playing up and the weather offered no respite. Few photographs were produced, although one significant romantic image was titled ‘A Peep at Barn Bluff from Lake Windermere’ (the latter landmark portrayed for this article, albeit taken by a lesser photographer).

    But Stephen Spurling III, who was the self-described “pioneer photographer” of this area in March 1898, was miffed by Beattie’s deprecation of this landscape. He likely did create “the earliest extensive record of the Cradle Mountain and Western Tiers area,” according to the Companion to Tasmanian History.

    A third generation photographer, whose would also include photographic forays around Ben Lomond and the Franklin and Gordon rivers, Spurling believed these landscapes “compare in scenic excellence with any part of Tasmania, and will amply repay the tourist for any hardships he may endure in getting there,” as he wrote in a letter to the 
    Examiner responding to Beattie’s report.

    Stephen Spurling III would certainly to this part of the world, taking images of the Western Tiers in heavy snow, and later producing motion pictures of the highlands of the upper Mersey. He photographed the magnificent Hartnett Falls days after it was first witnessed by a white visitor, and named Lake Lilla (near Cradle Mountain) after his sister. 

    And indeed most would say that Spurling was right in this debate with J.W. Beattie: the country that Beattie shrugged his shoulders over are part of the Overland Track, one of the world’s most famous multi-day bushwalks.

    Though they bickered over this area, their work complemented each other, and the two pioneering artists (as Richard Flanagan has written) “jointly produc[ed] a vision of the Tasmanian wilderness that was definitive and which has endured more or less intact to the present day.”

     

  • Confessions of a Bushwalking Guide

    Confessions of a Bushwalking Guide

    I’ve hardly read a book and barely written a word in the last weeks.

    Instead, I’ve been working as a bushwalking guide. On an almost constant rotation, I am taking visitors on a six-day itinerary through Tasmania’s highlands, through a World Heritage Area, on the famous Overland Track.

    This summer, we’ve had snow and we’ve had fire.

    We’ve had gales blowing over Cradle Plateau, hours of swimming in Lake Windermere; we’ve clambered up Oakleigh and Ossa, and come down hundred of metres to the buttongrass plains in order to play impromptu cricket games. We’ve stuck their noses into leatherwood flowers – it was a bad season for waratahs, but there was myrtleheath flowering galore in January.

    In a patch of remnant rainforest, wedged between the moors, I have gone with colleagues – dear friends – to drink booze drenched in the scents of sassafras and celery top, the plasticky scrape of pandani fronds, soft sphagnum and curly ferns absorbing our irreverent noise, clandestine.

    It’s been about a hundred years now that tourists have come to the Tasmanian forests to be guided and receive hospitality from the idiosyncratic characters of these remote places. Paddy Hartnett, Bert Nicholls, Gustav Weindorfer and Bert Fergusson are among the oddballs who boiled the billy with the visitors and pointed out the features. They kneaded dough and told jokes and said a thing or two about the way forests work or how geological formations came to be. And they were part of the landscape, somehow embodying a mythos of the place.

    We get to Frog Flats, above which are some mountains that the classically-minded George Frankland gave Greek names. Pelion, Achilles and Thetis sit next to Paddy’s Nut. It’s neither Greek nor classical, but an act of homage to the chummy, illiterate, alcoholic who worked as a trapper, prospector and guide before the drink did him in, to be survived by a wife and too many children with aching memories.

    To fistiki tou Patrikiou, I translate into Greek, trying to bring the outside world into this thin ribbon of tracks cobbled together for sixty-seven kilometres from the Cradle Valley to Lake St. Clair. It gets a weak laugh.

    I sleep beneath the stars, watching icy spears slice through the darkness and distance; aurora australis appears like a silent giant on the horizon, pale white bands shimmering, then disappearing.

    I try to find time alone, squatting down to watch the jackjumpers, scooping up dark creek water in a bamboo cup, watching rosella green suddenly appear in the branches of a white gum.

    I have a long black in the ranger’s hut, and he tells me Umberto Eco has died, and I walked on down the track to be picked up by the Idaclair and ferried to the bar at Cynthia Bay. When I get to Nicholson’s Bookstore in Launceston the next day, I buy Foucault’s Pendulum, but I’m back on the track in two days and I won’t be reading dense works of fiction in between damper and billy tea (or peppermint hot chocolates).

    But the leatherwood petals have begun to scatter themselves across the rich dark soil of the rainforests, and it seems it won’t be long now until the summer is well and truly ended; I’ll be off the track, and I’ll have to choose whether to stay in the bush alone, or go off into the world and join companions somewhere else.




    Previously, we imagined that Van Diemen's Land was a colony of fish.
    Elsewhere in the Overland Track's history, explorers came upon Barn Bluff.