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Misadventure on the way to the Walls

Tasmania, some time in the 1970s.

CLAAAANG! Someone slams the car door and the party sets off into the early evening gloom of the rainforest. A short slope leads  from the forestry road to the Fish River.

Here is the first challenge. The river is perhaps 10 metres wide and too deep to wade, even if anyone would be dense enough to really want to do that on a cold, early-winter evening. But there is a crossing, of sorts. Someone sometime ago felt public spirited enough, probably because they were fed up with getting soaked by wading the stream, to fell a tree across its width. In this they were remarkably precise, or lucky, as the trunk just manages to span the stream. Unfortunately, they were not quite public spirited enough to fix a handrail to help walkers cross, especially in the low light of a wintery evening. Maybe it is more to do with the fact that few hikers are motivated to walk in this place at this time of year at this time of day. Crossing, then, was a matter of balance, balance reinforced by the sight of the foaming waters rushing past below.

Some time after the journey described in this story, a proper suspension bridge, complet with hand rails, was built across the Fish River. Here, a hiker crosses the Fish in its summer flow.
Some time after the journey described in this story, a proper suspension bridge, complete with hand rails, was built across the Fish River. Here, a hiker crosses the Fish in its summer flow.

While it may not be accepted among the bushwalking fraternity to describe the crossing as incomplete without a hand rail – a suggestion which would produce strange looks behind which lay the unspoken epithet ‘wimp!’ – the trouble with the log is that it is round and slippery. This calls for great care in traversing the Fish.

“Keep your pack on but undo the hip belt. That way, if you slip and go in, you can shed the pack – it won’t push you down into the water”, come instructions from the blonde and bearded South African as he prepares to venture across.

This is the art of crossing slippery logs over swirling, cold rivers: place one foot very carefully in front of the other, keeping to the very top of the log; test your step before committing your body weight to it; move very, very carefully and spread your arms straight to the sides in an attempt to keep your balance; you unintentionally rock sideways a little but succeed in remaining standing; finally, breathe a sigh of relief when you reach the other side. Now, watch the others attempt the crossing to see who goes in.

The walk into the Walls of Jerusalum does not always start on early winter evenings, a time when the sane are sitting around living room fires. Nor is crossing the Fish usually so dramatic, it is just that in winter it carries a little more water that is more than a little colder than it is in summer and that enjoys flowing faster.

There is a hut tucked into the eucalyptus at the top of the climb through the forest and it is here that late-starting parties spend their first evening. The climb is warming this winter evening but it can be sweaty in summer – cooling breezes, here in the shelter of the forest, are few.

The open country

“Supurb – the open country”. This, or something very like it, is what the more exuberant exclaim as they attain the plateau and look out over alpine tarn and pine. It probably has as much to do with leaving the close, enclosed world of the forest as with coming into country in which you can see for kilometres, assuming there is no fog and no rain or snow is falling.

Truly, it is supurb up here. The feeling of openess, of being free to ramble over the rocky ground and not having your path prescribed by a track cut through the forest can be exhilerating. The plateau here – it is on the edge of Tasmania’s Central Plateau – is an undulating landscape dotted with lakes. In places, the underlying dolerite breaks through the thin cover of soil. Swathes of open country floored with rock or a peaty, soft and soggy soil provide walkers with leads into the heart of the plateau.

This is the home of the King William pine, renamed by those who know it the “King Billy’, a scrawny tree of modest height and twisted appearance, thanks to a genetic inheritance forged by millenia of adaptation to wind and weather. The tree grows in clumps, usually adjacent to the small lakes and ponds that pattern this landscape.

An occurance of snow

In good weather it is less than a three hour walk into the Walls. Progress is rapid because the rocky ground doesn’t degenerate into boggy tracks as it does elsewhere on this often soggy island.

The track twists and winds across the landscape, around the tarns, past copses of King Billy and up a low rise and – immediately in front – the imposing rampart of the West Wall. The long, flat-topped ridge rises imposingly from the plateau to a peak above Herod’s Gate, the pass through which walkers ascend to attain the inner sanctum of the Walls of Jerusalum.

With the woman doubled in pain, the party stop to discuss what to do.
With the woman doubled in pain, the party stop to discuss what to do.

The Walls appear to approaching walkers as a faded blue rampart simmering under the sun. That is in summer. This is the start of winter. By the time we reach the base of this final ascent we have been wading through snow knee deep, occasionally deeper.  Anybody who has done this will understand how exhausting it is and why walking groups frequently change the leader in these conditions. Trail breaking is tiring work.

When planning the walk we knew we could have snow but this, we imagined, would be only the occasional fall that accumulated to no more than a few centimertres. In deep winter and early spring, lovers of the cold traverse this open country on touring skis, those narrow strips of fibreglass that allow you to stride in that long, easy gliding motion that eats distance.

Visibility falls and we find ourselves in a blizzard. The wind is coming from the west and it is much stronger than when we came onto the plateau. Vision is ten metres, sometimes less. To make matters worse, one of the party sits doubled-up on the snow, holding her stomach. The others stand around in a circle – black silhouettes on white. There is a small hut some distance into the Walls but we have taken so long to reach this point that it may well be after nightfall by the time we reach it. And nightfall, here in these blizzard conditions, is no time to be out. Were we to overnight there, the snow, even were the weather to improve, would be deeper and the going even tougher than today.

Standing in the wind the party holds an impromptu conference – do we pitch tents out here and hope they do not blow away or do we wait to see if the young woman – the consensus is that she is suffering from exhaustion – recovers sufficiently to get back to the hut in the shelter of the forest?

The rest allows her to recover enough, so back to that hut we go. Nobody complains, however, and the feeling is that all are only too happy at the prospect of a warm evening indoors.

The return walk is slow. Someone has taken the woman’s pack and is wearing it to his front, a bizarre site out in this white landscape. We follow the trail broken on the way out. Walking is easier but the light, already lessened by the low cloud and falling snow, is fading.

We’re back inn the hut with the fire going. It is warm. We eat, talk, then sleep. The following morning brings the descent through the forest and across the Fish. No one falls in.

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