Footsore in Primeval Tasmania

Property 181 – Tasmanian Wilderness, Australia

I think it was around lunchtime on the second day that I started to regret my poor packing decisions. I was scrambling up the side of a scree-covered slope that might as well have been a mountain, because I was laden with a hiking pack full of ephemera and the weight of my own shame. I had come to Tasmania to hike the famed wilderness with some friends from work, and I was suffering.

A lot.

Kieran was bounding ahead as usual. He is a kind of human\goat hybrid with an alarming ability to accelerate under weight up a hill with seemingly no effort. He does this regularly, allegedly to get map bearings, but probably to make the rest of us feel bad.  Alex, with his usual boundless energy, was hugely stimulated by the scenery and kept agitating to climb nearby hillocks for the view alone. I hated him, wholly out of envy. Finally Dave, endlessly cheerful Dave, plugged away at much the same pace as me, only occasionally drifting ahead. I should have felt happy about this, but Dave is ten years older than me and I was theoretically “fit”. I think he was keeping his speed low to be kind.

We had flown down from Melbourne to Hobart on the lunchtime flight and thrown our gear into the back of Kieran’s knackered station wagon before heading for the hills. Hobart feels like the end of the earth most days, mainly because it is. South of Hobart the next biggest party is a bunch of penguins. However it felt like a teeming metropolis once we’d been driving into the bush for a couple of hours. Our only company was the odd logging truck and the six pack of beer we’d picked up for our end-of-hike drink.

The plan was to spend four days and three nights walking through the depths of the Tasmanian wilderness. We were following a particular route, but to be perfectly honest the passage of years have erased the name from my memory. You could apply hot pokers to the soles of my feet and threaten me with dismemberment but I genuinely don’t know where we were, other than within 2 hours drive of Hobart.

But what a drive! Within minutes we were out of the city and passing through small logging towns. Tasmania is one of the last relatively untouched places on earth that aren’t covered with ice. The Aboriginal people have lived there for many thousands of years, and Europeans for around the last 200, but the majority of the state is protected forest of one kind or another, and barely half a million people live on the island in total. That’s a lot of trees and not many humans.

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After parking the car on the side of the road (to my alarm) we threw on, or in my case, climbed under, our packs and set off. A flat path initially seemed easy, and our evening campsite among paperbarks on soft dry earth was idyllic. But the second day showed me what I was really made of, which is to say mostly jelly. We broke camp and almost immediately began climbing a series of mountains. Just as we crested one peak it revealed another one slightly further on, and with less reliable terrain. I realised far too late that a hiking trip doesn’t require an iPod, a bottle of whisky and a heavy paperback. By the time lunchtime came around I was covered in slate dust, bleeding from where I’d slipped, and too exhausted to eat. Alex and Kieran, recognising that I was both knackered and too proud to admit it, decided “on a whim” to summit a nearby hill leaving me to gather my strength with a cup of tea and a lightning nap.

When darkness began to fall that night I was alarmed. No manicured campgrounds could be seen and we were on the top of a rocky mountain ridge. Dauntless Kieran calmly suggested that we just pitch our tents in a small patch of snow in the shadow of the hill.

Snow.

Camp in snow.

Are you mad?

It turns out that he wasn’t. Apparently the technique of camping on rocky sites involved using the rocks to anchor one’s tent cables, because driving pegs into solid basalt was unlikely to work. Once the tents were up I recognised that I had to urgently lighten my burden – there was no way I was going to walk for three days with everything I had on my back. I disgorged my load – a kilogram of marinated kangaroo meat and the bottle of single malt scotch. We annihilated both as the sun set and a chilly breeze set my teeth on edge.

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Insanity

After a surprisingly uncomfortable night, the second day saw us cresting the last of the ridges and following it along its length for some distance. The dusty, rocky scree gave way to the most extraordinary vistas of deep green, mountain pools and verdant streams cascading down from snow-covered mountains. It was astonishing. I spend ages messing around with my (excessively heavy) camera trying to get the shot before giving up and just soaking it in. The distinctly blue-brown tint to the foliage betrayed it as an Australian landscape, but the richness of it went deep into my retinas. I felt like I was the first human to ever see that view, and it occurred to me that it probably hadn’t changed in the last 10,000 years. Probably longer. Even normally garrulous Alex was awestruck.

 

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At length we tore ourselves away and proceeded along a ridge entirely overgrown with foliage, but which formed a tunnel that one could walk through. Another change – from idyllic alpine views we were now deep in a primeval forest. Ferns dripped, moss fermented, and small crawling creatures planned ambushes which they later reconsidered. I felt like a dinosaur could be around any corner, but only one of the small chicken-like ones. It was claustrophobic but also deeply familiar, almost reassuring. Perhaps this kind of environment is encoded into our genes somehow, because it seems to scratch some kind of very primal psychic itch.

Camp that night was on the side of a tarn (a mountain lake) which was filled by snow-melt run off. I was hot and tired, but nowhere near as hot and tired as Alex and Kieran, who decided to go for a swim. Fearing hypothermia I declined, but I regret it now. Swimming in that kind of utterly beautiful mountain environment with close friends would have been a remarkable experience, even if I risked frostbite in my peripheries.

The final day was upon us, and there was yet another change in environment. This time we dropped down the other side of the valley and found ourselves in a swamp. My admittedly slow progress was hampered further by being knee- or waist-deep in sludge most of the time. Dave made the most of the experience and took to swamp-diving, having accidentally done it once and deciding he rather enjoyed it. The novelty of mud wore off quickly and after a while it became simply a slog. Again, Kieran and Alex powered ahead and I followed behind rather bad-temperedly. We gradually made our way onto more solid ground. The mud on our lower extremities began to dry and flake off.

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Our return to Kieran’s car was celebrated by taking our beers and dunking them in a nearby stream to cool down. They were still too warm when we drank them, but I regret nothing. The Tasmanian wilderness is quite something – incredibly unforgiving for the under-prepared, but hugely diverse and endlessly satisfying on a deep level. I was footsore and worn out by the end of our walk, but I still think about it now, nearly ten years later.

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