It’s been a difficult few weeks, adapting to the changes in the weather and walking. Walking is my escape, it refreshes, revives and gets me through the week of work. Only for the last little bit I’ve been doing less of the overnight stuff, and for a few reasons it’s just not been the same. Often I come back as tired, or more so, than when I left. It’s also harder to look forward to a weekend of walking when the weather forecast is pretty foul! Donning cold, wet clothes and boots each morning, and packing away a tent in the rain or snow with frozen fingers is about the worst bushwalking can get.
Last weekend was supposed to be a ‘big one’, camping up high to enjoy either one or more of sunset, stars and sunrise, and a fairly significant mountain to climb (for my 400th peak bagging point – the point at which I become Peak Bagger Extraordinaire, apparently :p!!). The weather didn’t agree. It was forecast to be horribly wet and windy anywhere good, so plans were scratched and replaced with a two day wander round Freycinet. It was old territory, as were the three mountains we climbed, but there were lots of new things to enjoy, including hermit crabs, iridescent worms, a flock of 8 or so plovers, helmet orchids and yes, the sun as it set and rose. It turned out to be significant in ways other than planned, which was perhaps more fitting anyway.
That meant this week was now going to be the one, if we got to the top. I was organising a Pandani trip to the Sticht Range, which I knew very little about, just happened to see photos from other friends on Facebook and decided that they looked good, and we should go! So on the program it went, with little further thought. By Thursday the weather was looking pretty good, cloudy, but no rain for when we’d be walking. I was happy, and getting a bit excited. Friday was a lesson in not getting hopes up, with a revised forecast that promised to be wet and cloudy – great! But the weather was no better anywhere else, so there was no use enacting a plan b. A last minute pull out, and the group was down to 7, probably more ideal given the weather we were expecting.
A night hard at work, knock off at 5am, and a sneak peak at the forecast lifted my spirits just a tad – the likelihood of rain had decreased, but we were still likely to be getting wet. Oh well, I had a great group of people coming, who all knew how to laugh in less than comfortable conditions, so I figured we’d be ok. The drive up had us going through rain and clag, but also showed promise with patches of lighter sky, and it was hard to tell just what we’d get. Again, I was most appreciative of the two who had volunteered to drive – very much aware that it would have been dangerous for me to be driving given how sleepy I was. I zoned out, listening to Urszula and Graham fixing the “world’s” problems, including everything from Tasmania’s health system to proposed federal changes to university funding. That sorted, I asked that they focus on the comparatively smaller issue of the weather… but Graham seemed rather a lot more reluctant to touch on that subject!
A regroup at Derwent Bridge, then at Queenstown, where we worked out how to use the unattended petrol station, found the loos, then came across our second car, in which the driver and three passengers were gorging themselves on vanilla slices (or snot blocks, as they are more familiarly known as!). The looks on our faces had them in tears laughing, a sound Queenstown seemed to need. Then we were off towards Zeehan, turning right onto Anthony road, and a short while later right again, onto the gravel road where we parked our cars in front of a locked gate.
It wasn’t raining, and we even had some blue sky and sunshine to start out with. That was exciting! We were aware that all this could, and probably would, change, but that just made us more grateful for it. And so began the 6km road walk. The weather remained favourable, cloud concealing the tops of mountains, including Murchison, but still giving us enough to be excited by. Some hadn’t ventured that far west at all, a fair few more of us not having done as much out that way as we’d have liked, and so we all had reason to smile as we took in the wilderness and wildness.
It was wetter than I’d expected, with a few unexpected waterways to cross on the road, that had half of the group wet footed relatively early on. Keeping dry feet turned out to be irrelevant, however, as it quickly became apparent that crossing the Anthony river was going to have us all wet footed! But first, we needed to find somewhere to camp. I’d not given this much thought or done any special research… figuring we’d find a place, and knowing from photographs that there were some corrugated iron sheds somewhere out there (but where, I realised, I had no idea!).
Bec’s wandering feet stumbled upon them though, and the decision was made to use them as our base camp (referred to, given a slight resemblance, as our concentration camp). The guys pitched inners in one bunker, three of the girls took the second, and two of us opted for a bit more air and room, and camped outside. There was another, which became our dining room. A very big thank you to the Rosebery Anglers Club, it was nice to know there was shelter to cook, eat, sleep and pack under if the weather became foul (and even when it wasn’t)!!
It was after midday, so we ate a quick lunch around the outdoor picnic table, made the acquaintance of some cheeky leeches (at least Urszula did!), and then decided we better get moving, given we reckoned we only had 4 and a bit hours of daylight left. A quick recce before lunch to see if the river was going to be easily crossed further north had been answered with a definite NO, and so we wandered back south down the road, to a wider spot, where the water flowed more gently (but still with a bit of pull in places). Up to the knees, we now all had puddles in our boots – oh well!
There was some flat, and small patches of lighter scrub, but otherwise it was quite ok going through the button grass, thanks to decent leads by Ben and Graham. I think they’d both noticed I had hit a wall (pretty sure, given one’s ‘are you ok?’, and the other’s one-armed hug round my shoulder), and had stepped up to take the lead, but still consulted on whether I was happy with the line they’d picked. It was kind of unnecessary, I’m sure they both know I trust them implicitly when it comes to route finding/choosing, but it was thoughtful and nice to be included all the same.
We continued up in a stop and start fashion, pausing to enjoy the views and regroup whenever necessary. Not having walked in large groups for a while, I was reminded of the need to stay closer together, that everything takes longer as there are 7 people who need to do any one thing, rather than just one or two, and that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. I became increasingly worried about walking back in the dark as it became a greater certainty. While it’s not something I mind at all, I was aware others might not be as comfortable with it, and was conscious that it was still supposed to rain, that it would likely get colder, and that walking in the dark is always slower, especially in a group.
I began to worry that we wouldn’t (or rather, shouldn’t) make it, and I knew I wasn’t the only one making calculations about time, pace and possible conditions. I had the added worry of knowing that the high point I had marked on my GPS was the one on the peak baggers list, but I was pretty sure that there was a higher point to the north. The only problem was, I didn’t have its coordinates, and knew that if the mist dropped just a little bit further, we’d not be able to see it, and could potentially be walking around blind, trying to find a needle in a haystack. Oh well, I figured, somewhat fatalistically, what happened would happen.
Once over the steepest bit of climb, which happened to coincide with a slightly thicker bit of scrub too, the going was much easier, and we eventually found ourselves on the southern end of the range. We could see that the northern end was definitely the higher point. It was 3.30, 2.20hrs after we’d started out, and we only had about 2 hours of light left. We figured we had two choices, either all turn back then and there.. or have those that wanted to go for a run across the last 800m to the high point do so while the rest waited out of the wind.
It was a decision that had to be made by the group. I felt uncomfortable enough for asking, being of the ‘where we go one, we go all’ kind of belief, but equally being selfish enough to want to celebrate 400 points with some really good friends, rather than on my own somewhere. And again, I was made aware of what good friends I do have. Ben and Graham were up for a run, and Catherine, Bec, Meredith and Urszula were all generous enough to urge us on, while they sheltered out of the wind.
I felt somewhat conflicted: guilty and wrong for wanting and asking to do something that not everyone could or would want to do, but touched that they were happy and kind enough to allow it (or join in in the craziness). I can remember all too well the disappointment of not reaching or continuing to a summit due to nightfall on a few of my earlier club walks, and it’s not something I want anyone to feel on the walks I lead.
Part of that could have been avoided through better planning and more research, but an element of the unknown is something I love about going to new places so I tend to resist doing a lot of research (and perhaps I’m also just a little lazy, and don’t like pestering others for too much information). It seems the real key is to have a good group of people around you, who are prepared to come for a run, or to sit and wait, to walk back by head torch with the threat of possible rain, and to place complete trust in your ability to follow a red line on a gps screen. People who remain happy even when they’re past being tired, who keep laughing and joking, sometimes singing, even if they might be concerned about something, people who you can rely on to play certain roles.. people who look out for one another, who praise, encourage, motivate and help as needed. I’m lucky enough to know and walk with friends like this, both on this trip, and almost every other trip I’ve been on.
So, the decision made, off the three of us we trotted…at what was supposed to be a sustainable pace! The going was relatively flat, but you don’t realise that when you’re running, even slight rises feel like hills, and you suddenly realise that even the flatter sections were far from it – every step you either hit a hard bump sooner than expected, or fell half a foot deeper than you thought you’d go. Not good for the two sore knees and a sore ankle between the three of us, but there were more important things to worry about! We did slow down for the final climb, and to negotiate a few metres of waist high light scrub.. oh, and the odd face plant from me (sometimes it’s easier just to go with the flow than to resist, especially when there’s a helping hand to get you back upright!).
9 minutes after having left the others we were standing on the summit, two rocks marking the high point. We heard a yell from the others, Graham spotted a camera flash, and I sent back a whistle. 2 minutes for a precarious group hug standing around the cairn, some photos that are better left without an attempt at explanation, and back down we ran. Another 9 minutes, a glance or two back as the summit retreated behind a white cloud of mist, and we were back with the others, puffed, a little sore, but mission accomplished! A celebratory mini Mars Bar each and it was time to retreat as fast as we could.
We made pretty good time back down, until we were left without sufficient natural light and on went the head torches. It still hadn’t rained, for which I was immensely grateful, because not only would it have made things even wetter and probably rather miserable, we were already having enough trouble staying upright on slippery ground! In one spot four of us who were a little further ahead than the other three went down one by one in the space of a few seconds!! But we were still having fun, and it was really lovely to be out at night in the mountains.
The constant lack of control over footsteps and movement did get a tad tiring, and I know at times I certainly felt like I imagine a drunk trying to walk in a straight line would feel! It was with relief that we arrived back at the river, where we found it a little calmer, but still strong enough in one spot. Across, water collected for dinner, and a short walk back to the cabins/concentration camp ;).. we all squashed in around two tables and cooked our respective dinners. Plenty of well meaning and parentally advice was given out in good humour but with a hint of seriousness, Miso soup was offered and gratefully accepted, and the banter continued.. Trangia meditation, food with numbers..all sorts of random topics.
I was exhausted, my eyes would barely stay open, so I sat back and listened, enjoying the sound of happy contentment. This, much more than the 400 points, was the highlight of my day, and perhaps a gift I’m not sure any realised they’d given.
The following morning I awoke and enjoyed a thin fingernail moon sitting low over Sticht, and the Milky way overhead, during a brief call of nature and wander around. An hour later, and a few spots of rain (but nothing more!), the cloud was in and the stars were hiding, but the mountains stood proud under the white blanket. It was nice to see their tops. We had a lazy start, woke up properly when it came time to put our feet back into cold and wet socks and shoes, and set off shortly after 9. The road walk was leisurely, interrupted by frequent stops to enjoy the perfect reflections of mountains in Lake Plimsoll, to take photos, to regroup, or just to keep on chatting. It was nice to have no urgency, I really wasn’t in a hurry to be going home!
Less than 2 hours later we were back at the cars, dressed, and enjoying a mixture of lunch, chips, chocolate and nuts. A long drive home, again very grateful not to be driving, a wedgie up close and a swamp harrier too (?)… there are lots of things to smile at in life :).
All up: 21.6km, 1016m ascent, 10 hours.. and some very awesome people to call friends.