This is a trip report I did for Wild magazine for a walk I did in the Arthurs range in Tasmania in 2002.
It all starts simply enough. My friend Andrew and I are reminiscing yet again about our epic Federation Peak walk 6 years earlier. The event had left us scared after three of us had been stuck together in a 2-person tent for 3 whole days of rain. Cabin fever had set in badly, and only the 3 books we had saved us from complete madness. Naturally, smiling and laughing with the memory, I suggested that we should go back and walk the Western Arthurs some time.
Even at the time we’d walked to Federation peak, we’d looked at the map and seen that sharp ridgeline, falling off into glacial lakes like Oberon and Cygnus, named after the planets, constellations and stars. As usual the answer was, ‘Yeah, sounds like a great idea’. Often that’s about as far as it gets. We mention it to Barnaby, the other tent victim, and he mentions it to Tessa, the girl he’d travelled through South America with, as well Kate, his current housemate, and then some girl Lucy who he’d met at a Lake Pedder conservation meeting. Suddenly it isn’t just a passing idea anymore. It’s turning into a real trip with 6 confirmed people already, all yearning for 2 weeks of extreme wilderness to save their minds from tedious desk jobs.
The usual machinations take their course; maps and equipment are bought, begged and borrowed, flights booked, food hurriedly organised. With the possibility of 2 trips, or one very long extended trip, we have to organise enough for 6 people for about 12-13 days. At this range, rationing becomes important. Our ‘snap lock bag mentor’ ensures that we divide all our meals into individual units, and our mathematicians calculated our allotment of 7 vita-wheats a day. Somehow our sole vegetarian is sent on a mission to buy lunch salami for the group. She returns with a whole 1.2kg roll of salami, which she refuses to have any part in carrying. We agreed on a rationing process, and compensate her non-salami eating desires which extra cheese rations. In the end though, divided between 5 people over 13 days, we end up with about 1 cubic inch of salmi a day, not a lot when paired with 7 vita-wheats.
And so we find ourselves in a room in a backpackers hostel in Hobart, where we face our first obstacle, actually getting to the track. We arrive on a Saturday, except for Tessa, who’s been doing family duties at her sisters wedding. By the time she comes in on Sunday, the bus for the day to Scotts Peak dam has left. Fortunately, we have a cunning plan. The day before we’d stuck up a bold sign on the notice board at the hostel advertising “FREE CAR HIRE”, with a suitably little “conditions apply” footnote. After plying a few people with the drinks and details of the glorious wilderness, we’ve convinced a Canadian guy and some of his friends to rent a mini-van in his name. He’ll have to spend half a day driving us to the dam, but we’ll pay him for 2 days of hire and reasonable petrol costs. As it turns out, this is actually a bit cheaper than taking the bus even, and like all half-baked ideas, a lot more entertaining.
That is until we discover our second problem. He’s the only one in the group old enough to legally drive the van, it’s a manual, and he’s never driven a “stick shift” car before. Our cheerful reply, “No problem, we’ll teach you”. Thus, while waiting for his friends to pack, we give the world’s fastest lesson in driving a manual car around the fortunately nearly deserted streets of Hobart near the hostel. A few hours and a couple of stalls later, as well as an appreciative cheering after successfully negotiating a hand brake start up a hill, we arrive at the perennially eerie Scotts Peak dam to start our walk.
It’s been some time since any of us have done a serious walk, but it doesn’t take long to get back into the walking zone again. Passing through some low forest and out into the open, the setting sunny provided a golden light across the Arthurs Plains and Western Arthurs range that filled us with expectation about the days ahead. Already the cameras start clicking, preparing for what was later to be an excessive show of slightly different views of the exactly the same high grass plains with rugged mountains in the background. Twilight guides us into our first campsite at Junction Creek.
Things bode well with clear skies and a relaxed group atmosphere. The usual first night camp fashion parade of newly acquired gear draws appropriate looks of envy from each other. We break the snap-lock seal on our first SMU-nit (Standard Meal Unit - our so nicknamed army style blocks of rice/pasta, dried vegetables and flavourings), the results of which we down with gusto. Even our short first days walk seems to awaken Harold, the nickname we give to the previously dormant tape worm in Barnaby, who eagerly prowls for signs of leftovers in any other persons bowl.
Dappled sun through the trees wakes us, and subsequently the first call of nature as well. As each person tramps off, paper under arm towards the signed toilet, they return with a curious “I’m not sure I reeeeally just saw that” kind of look on their faces, and jokes of abduction by aliens. As it finally becomes my turn, I walk with slight trepidation up the narrow path. A Parks Tasmania sign greets me describing their efforts to reduce damage to the Arthurs range with the installation of “fly in, fly out” toilets. Was this some kind of order for users? Make sure any flies that get in, you get them out? But no, I see what had spooked them all, a large green slightly disc shaped fibreglass container with a screw top lid, obviously anchored to the ground only temporarily. Returning to the group, we can’t help but joke about visions of helicopters flying them out, and accidentally loosing them over some town for the most horrific ‘unidentified flying object’ imaginable. One day in and we’ve already reached toilet humour level; puns could only be just around the corner.
A flat track across button grass plains takes us straight to the base of Moraine A. In a classic case of over compensation, we psych and psych about what looks like an endless and increasingly steep climb. A rest on some rocks half way up, and before we know it we’re on the ridge top. We eat lunch, filling our lungs with the cool fresh air, while below we survey the plains and impossibly thin track we walked on to get here. The ridge of sharp peaks we’ll be walking the next week heads to the southeast, falling away to green plains and the site of calm Lake Fortuna. The warm afternoon sun guides us over the gentle saddles, and we descend to the bowl of Lake Cygnus, take off our shoes and enjoy dipping our feet in the water. While our feet already disgust us, it seems that thousands of tadpoles disagree, wriggling in to take occasional tickling nibbles. Eventually the mountains swallow the sinking sun and it’s warmth, forcing us to quickly cook dinner and retire.
The sun is barely up, and already we can feel sweat forming. The gentle saddles of the day before have already disappeared and the track is steeper and rockier. Twisted and melted looking rocks surround us like something from a Dali painting, clearly the heat had got to them already. A languishing lunch at Square Lake detains us, before the long climb to the saddle next to Mt Orion. And then just as we’re ready to take a break, Lake Oberon comes into view. Pandani plants litter the green slopes and grey crags, before falling into the dark, dark blue water below. Everyone scrambles for their cameras, determined to take the definitive photo of the scene before them. Having successfully kept some film companies in business, we climb down to the lake and set up camp. In one of those peaceful moments on a walk, we sit quietly and contemplatively by the creek, collecting water from a small trickle. Around us there is only the gentle distant sound of a breeze through trees.
The track notes tell us that we’re now entering the hardest section of the walk, and from Lake Oberon it’s immediately a large climb over rocks and slabs and through narrow gaps. Disaster strikes when the nalgene bottle full of sprouts Kate has been diligently growing is knocked off her pack, sending the bottle and half grown sprouts tumbling down rocks. Luckily most are caught, and enjoyed for lunch a few days later. Unfortunately the track does not let up. Steeper and steeper sections ensue. Rocks slip underneath, packs have to be hauled, people have to duck. We reach the next camp area High Moor thoroughly tired, sore and worn out. We pitch our tents and grimace while a group coming the other direction tell us that the next section is just as hard as the part we’ve done.
The morning brings our first bad omen. Clouds have come in and the wind has picked up. Just as we start walking, the first drops of rain begin to hit our faces and basically continue on and off for the day. A complex route winds us through the Beggary Bumps. Near vertical ups and downs with steps cut into the peat ground by the thousands of feet before us. Every now and then, we encounter a completely collapsed section of track, having to lower ourselves down on the exposed roots. We reach the ominously named Tilted Chasm, now basically a dangerously eroded scree slope, and Lovers Leap, a short cut 4m drop to a long gully down and up climb. The track opens up a bit more, and after a long and strenuous day, we find ourselves at Haven Lake. Despite the name, the wind still howls, sending ripple patterns swirling across the lakes surface. We feel a small sense of relief knowing that the hardest part of the walk is now behind us.
All night the wind blows a gale, and there’s no rest in the morning. The sun darts in and out of the clouds for a while, before disappearing completely. However being able to walk rather than scramble like the previous days makes a welcome change. By 3pm, we are at Promontory Lake, but the rain has begun to seriously set in, in a way only Tasmanian rain really feels like it can. It’s at times like this that the weaker members of any group suggest setting up camp and waiting it out. “Let’s camp here and wait it out”, I pipe up. Nobody seems to seriously disagree.
When you get into camp early and it starts raining, there’s generally not a lot to do. Your two main choices are reading your book or playing cards. While playing cards is the most social, it of course has it’s own problems. Five-hundred is the game of choice, and you end up depressed by having what you are sure is the world’s longest losing streak, especially when your opposition decide for a kamikaze style of playing, including authenticate calls of ‘Banzai’ as they bid 9 hearts off apparently nothing, and then somehow make all 9 tricks.
To seriously play 500 you need 4 people in the same tent, and inevitably cabin fever starts to set in. Suddenly no position is comfortable, and those exceedingly smelly feet somehow always end up being stuck in your face. From there the only place left to go is food talk. What’s left to eat, who has got the blocks of chocolate, who ate all the crispy M&M’s and cashews from the scroggin bag, and finally, what’s for dinner tonight.
Being in a tent feels very disembodied; you can’t see anything, but you can clearly hear what’s going on nearby, like two ships would passing through a fog at night. “What should we have for dinner” I call out to the other tent. “I’m thinking the rice sounds good” “Not the rice, lets have pasta” “rice” “Pasta” “RICE”. I have to get out of here for a while. I perform, the socks on, pants on, jacket on, cold, wet boots on ritual, and wonder outside to look around.
While many sections of the walk offer sweeping views of untouched lakes and ragged peaks, sometimes walking can just feel like trudging step after step. Either it’s raining and your jacket makes you understand what it’s like for a horse with blinkers, or the fog provides all the clarity of a political party policy statement. If it’s not too steep, your mind wonders and people start talking about all sorts of weird ideas. At one point we discussed the idea of making up a person. Like the tales of the Yeti, and the abominable snowman, we’d create a mystical figure, a lone hiker in the mountains like no one had ever seen. He’d be the Göran Kropp of the Tasmanian wilderness, making the impossible appear normal. For those that don’t know, Göran Kropp was a Swede who in 1995, carrying over 100kg of supplies and equipment, cycled from Sweden to Nepal, climbed Everest with no Oxygen, and just to prove a point, then cycled back home again. And then suddenly, we don’t have to make him up anymore, because he was actually there.
As I wonder out of the tent, I am surprised to see that we have a visitor. He’s arrived quietly and is quickly setting up his tent. He comes from Perth, and his name is Tristan. His first impossible act is to walk what has taken us a day of 9 hours, and then a half day of 5 hours, in a mere 5-6 hours. From High Moor to Haven Lake in 5-6 hours, impossible I think to myself. I wonder back to relay my discovery to the others. “Impossible”, they all say, but you can hear the doubt in their voices. We start cooking dinner, and our mystery man comes over to join us. By the end of the evening, we have ourselves a new friend, walking companion and storyteller. He camped at High Moor the night before, but hadn’t got any sleep. The wind had been so strong it had snapped one of the guy wires on his Macpac Minaret tent. His mission is to make it to Federation peak, so he could climb it on his birthday in 4 days time, no easy feat, but he has a secret weapon, walking poles. We’re sceptical, but by the end of the evening he has us convinced that the extra stability and leverage they offer allows you to walk significantly faster up and down any slope.
Having a birthday on a walk can be an extremely rewarding. Not only do you get to spend it in one of your favourite places with friends, but generally people also decide that they’ll cook dinner and clean up for you as a present. If someone is actually planning ahead, you might get a special birthday treat for dinner as well. While it may be 4 days till Tristans birthday, today is Andrew’s birthday, and I’ve packed one of those “no cooking, all you need in a box” lemon cheesecake mixes. Unfortunately as we pull out the various packets to make it and read the instructions, it quickly becomes clear that “all you need” doesn’t include such obvious basics as butter and sugar. Time to improvise, hmmm, maybe we can use peanut butter instead of plain butter. More sceptical looks all round. I remember someone telling me that you can sell just about anything to people, as long as you give it a catchy name. “Let’s just call it Peanut Brittle”, I suggest. Still no takers. We resort to powdered milk and honey, which certainly yields a successful result judged by everyone’s plates.
The next day brings more of the same wind and rain, only now it is colder wind and wetter rain. While our initial plan was to only walk the Western Arthurs, our initial good progress led us to believe that maybe we could string together all of the Arthurs, including a Federation Peak ascent. Thus, despite my whiny protesting, we pack up camp and head off to across Centaurus Ridge in the wake of Tristan.
The Alan Daley School of humour surmises that any statement can be made funny, the only thing you have to do is make it ironic enough and repeat it often enough. We’d joked about how every walk description in John Chapman’s notes for South West Tasmania mentioned the phrase “This area is subject to some of the worst weather south-west Tasmania has to offer”. Now, trudging through the bitter rain and cold, repeating this phrase becomes one of those cathartic jokes, one of the few things that gives us small tinges of pleasure while distracting us from the situation at hand.
Things hit a low at lunch, trying to huddle in a small cave in the rocks in complete white out. Everyone is putting on all their layers of clothing, but it still isn’t enough to stop the shivering. We walk on, completely failing to see anything of the craggy rocky formations we were going over, only annoyance at each stumble, and a feeling of ‘about time’ when we reach a flat section. But then suddenly, the cloud lifts a bit, and in scattered beams of sun the crags expose themselves, along with our seemingly lost smiles. We take our first photos in days, and march down the hill and off the Western Arthurs with a sudden new burst of energy. By the time we reach Lake Rosanne, Tristan is already there, set up camp and waiting. With limited campsites in the scrub, a few of us set up tents on the small beach of the lake, thinking that it will be the flattest most comfortable campsite so far. That is until someone points out that with all the recent rain, wasn’t the lake likely to rise? We place a stick at the waters edge and determined to check it again in a few hours. Of course, while eating dinner in the scrub, one who shall remain nameless decides that it would be a fun joke to move the stick 1 foot into the water. He decides to tell us just as we start to remove the pegs from the tent to move it.
The next day, we reach the track junction, and have to decide whether to return across the Arthur plains, or continue on with the Eastern Arthurs and Federation peak. By this point, it has been decided that the full trip is on. We gather our strength at the base of Luckmans Lead. Andrew, Barnaby and myself are strangely quiet, remembering back to the struggle we’d had last time we climbed Luckmans Lead. The general feeling of dread spreads to the rest of the group, and we set off in blazing afternoon sun with a stance of long slow determination. Of course yet again, we have over compensated. Before we know it, we have reached the area just below the summit we refer to as “the worlds best camp spot”, a small area perfectly sized for one tent, surrounded on one side by a massive boulder, and on the 2 others by a large protective scoparia bush. An hour or so later, we arrive at the boarded camp area at Stuart Saddle, including our now usual welcoming committee, who has kindly convinced some other recent arrivals to move on to Goon Moor.
In a repeat of the Eastern Arthurs middle section, the trek from Goon Moor to Thwaites Plateau is comprised of steep rocky sections, but in an added twist, unbelievably sharp and scratchy scoparia bushes surround it all. Gaiters seem to provide little protection, instead offering a perfect opening between their tops and your short bottoms for the scoparia to attack at. By 4pm we are at Thwaites Plateau. With clouds beginning to threaten again, we decide today is probably our best chance to make it up Federation Peak. We scoff a late lunch, pack some essentials and head to the direct ascent route. Just as we arrive at it’s base, who should come virtually bounding down from the summit to greet us but our intrepid West Australian, who without a moments hesitation decides he’d quite like to go back up again. With only one confident rock climber in our group, having another one to go ahead and guide others up proves a godsend, making the entire climb straightforward despite the extreme exposure to heights involved. We sit on top and enjoy just being able to survey the country we have come across. For Tessa though, the climb has been a poignant reminder. Eight years earlier her brother had died climbing Federation Peak, leaving behind his devastated family and newly pregnant wife. I think by being where it had happened, and writing some thoughts in the logbook, she has managed to settle a few ghosts in her, and her families lives. With a mix of joy, satisfaction and sadness, we return to the plateau for the night. And not a moment too soon, for the rain starts to pound down again.
From here it should all be fairly straightforward, skirt around the southern traverse of Federation peak, and then down Moss Ridge. Of course, we haven’t actually organised any transport for the end, since we didn’t know when and where we were going to be. The best we’d done so far was to ask some people we’d run into to phone the hikers bus company in Geeveston to tell them there’d be 7 hikers at Moss River in 3 days. How likely was that to work? No matter, first we have to get there. Our first surprise comes as we pass the ascent route to the summit. Lucy jokingly calls out to Tristan, who had left earlier as usual, that he could come down from the summit now. This turns out to be no joke, for a few moments later, he does come down from the summit. Despite fog and pouring rain, he’d said he wanted to climb the peak on his birthday, and what was the weather to deny him that? Even after the summit climb though, the skirting southern traverse offers even scarier moments. Thin ledges, dodgy clumps of vegetation and scree slopes all with large exposure are scary at the best of times, add rivers of freezing water flowing down the rocks and seizing up your fingers, and you’re asking for trouble. A rock edge and failing grip forces me to make an extremely uncomfortable leap at one point, leaving me white and shaking and everybody else behind nervous. We pass packs, and steady ourselves. Fortunately, a final gully climb leads us out of the traverse and onto more open territory.
By the time we reach Bechervaise Plateau, we are still seriously spooked and decide we have had enough for one day. Luckily we have raised wooden platforms to camp on because it rains hard all night and by the next morning we are literally on an island in a 5-inch lake of water. Tristan in typical style decides he has had enough, hell or high water he was going to make it out today. We struggle on at our own pace, encountering more steep peat and step covered slopes, before entering the aptly named Moss Ridge. Roots threaten to trip you from below, while fallen trees push you down from above. All signs point to someone spraining, slipping or hitting something badly; somehow we all avoid it. And then we are on the plains again, discovering how in Tasmania track and creek are really just synonyms for each other, or more for “deep mud pools amongst button and sword grass”.
We are on the final stretch of the walk now. The plains open up, and then close amongst trees again. We reach Farmhouse Creek, and our map tells us that we’ve only got about 5km to go. Our pace picks up, two weeks of walking has been great, but at the moment, the thought of reaching the end is even greater. After the apparently endless 5km, we reach the bridge that crosses Farmhouse Creek to mark the end of the track, and our walk. Everyone is happy, and slightly relieved to have finally made it. We take an obligatory ‘after’ photo, and set up camp on the road. We’re out of the South West Tasmania wilderness area now, and next to the road is a square kilometre of bush that has been slashed and burned. How different from where we’ve just been. The next day the bus does come for us, apparently Tristan’s doing. Yep, he made it from Bechervaise plateau, down moss ridge and out along the road in one day. Look out Göran.