The Abels sit on the margins of Tasmanian geography; an Abel is a mountain summit over 1100 metres in height, of which there are 158 of these on the island. Tasmanian bushwalker Bill Wilkinson came up with the concept in the 1990s, modelling it on a similar idea in Scotland’s high country. He has since edited several volumes of guidebooks about climbing the Abels, replete with information on access to the trailhead, track conditions, campsite locations, vegetation types and history.
The bushwalking guidebook is perhaps the quintessential Tasmanian literary genre, and Wilkinson’s The Abels series has all its features. Moments of candour and whimsy punctuate the text’s staid practicalities, which generally do a fine job of getting walkers to their destination successfully.
Recreational bushwalking is an essentially purposeless quest, and countless back-country routes exist in Tasmania. For some, then, having a finite challenge gives direction to an otherwise formless activity.
My friend Zane Robnik is attempting to climb all of the Abels within an 18-month period, before his 25th birthday, which would make it the quickest conquering of these mountains, by the youngest person to do so. But Zane is not a conquering type, and one gets the feeling that his project is a motivation – or an excuse – to keep him in the mountain districts on weekly outings.
Of course, walking for leisure is a fairly recent invention, as far as human activities go. Even today, for much of the world’s population, walk is equated to work, or else to a natural nomadic rhythm, often associated with seasonal migration. Pushing through Tasmania’s stubborn, spiky, wiry scrub – and clambering up stepped rocks of quartz or dolerite with a heavy canvas rucksack clinging to the walker’s shoulders like a parasite – must seem a strange and masochistic hobby from the outside. Let’s not forget that less than two centuries ago, colonial surveyors deemed much of this mountainous country as TRANSYLVANIA: a dark, wet, impenetrable terrain, riddled with dangers and best avoided. It is likely that much of the high south-west regions were largely abandoned by Aboriginal groups as the last Ice Age diminished and lower land was accessible.
Yet here we were by own our free will, when we could have been doing anything.
I am not a mountaineer, but I like mountains. My eye is drawn to the Tasmanian panorama – the layers of light blue and mauve on the hills, the olive-green and sedge-straw of a heath landscape, the gradations of green in forests as seen from above – but I am as interested in the intricate detail of the mountainside ecosystem. Like Scottish writer Nan Shepherd, I can pick a path upon some range ‘merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him’.
Equally, as with Roger Deakin, I believe going for a walk is an excuse to dress in costume and eat junk food.
On top of Mount Wedge this past weekend, one of our party connected to his social media. We discovered that on that day Bill Wilkinson, originator of the Abels, was celebrating his birthday. A packet of Savoys was devoured rapidly, and we danced. Many things are acceptable on a mountain summit that would otherwise be inappropriate. Perhaps the Tasmanian peak-bagger is just trying to find the right context for their silliness.