When you fall in love with something exactly as it is, it’s particularly hard to accept, let alone welcome and celebrate, change, even more so when that change is radical and seemingly negative. I’m not good with change at the best of times, least of all when it concerns things and people I love and care about most. This walk highlighted this for me, in quite an emotional way on a number of different levels, and I found parts really quite hard to cope with. But in reflecting, and over the time spent out there, I also found a little bit of rawness and beauty in the desolation and despair, a little bit of strength in the face of a challenge, which led to the smallest glimmer of hope that good things might still come out of painful and confusing change… maybe…
But enough, on to the walk! Mount Alexandra first hit my radar when I was working at Passion8 (Travel and Adventure Equipment), and friend and coworker Simon had mentioned it one day when I was dreaming about a hundred different walks I wanted to do. As is usually the case, as soon as it was mentioned, it seemed to pop up everywhere, and I quickly learnt it had a reputation for being a lovely off track walk, with minimal scrub and stunning views.
Plans didn’t get very far, but after having enjoyed a pretty amazing 6 day trip in to PB and back interest was renewed. Life, as it does, got in the way, and still Alexandra was talked about, but no action was taken. Then Murph put it on the Pandani program, and it was time to go! I was a bit excited, and was really hoping for nice weather. It wasn’t one I wanted to do in whiteout, the views were too good for that.
Having Mondays off meant I originally entertained the idea of staying up an extra night and having a look at the Hippo (such a lovely looking mountain, and one I’ve yet to climb), but the weather quashed that plan immediately. Sunday night the winds were going to pick up, and the rain was to set in. I didn’t want to be camping on an exposed ridge, or walking out, in that. So I reluctantly ditched the idea, and prepared for a two dayer.
It was going to be a big one, with over 40km to walk, so the group was meeting up at 5am. I couldn’t make that early, having to work overnight, and Jess kindly offered to drive up and walk in later with me. I gratefully accepted: any company is always appreciated, and hers is particularly enjoyable.
We made a right pair that morning. I wasn’t sure which of us had had less sleep, and we were both a bit out of sorts, but that was ok. Somehow, the company worked for me, and I was feeling a bit better as we turned onto dirt roads. We found a lyrebird feather as we checked out the entrance and exit to Loon Cave on the way, both of which were pretty cool (need to visit that one!), and then a short while later pulled up behind Andrew’s car at the start of the track.
Jess was more awake than I was, and noticed that there wasn’t a second car, which meant we’d lost another walker (we’d already lost a few to various things). Sure enough, a check in the log book confirmed only 5 had walked in, and we wondered what the story was. Our attention was quickly diverted to a sign attached to Andrew’s spare wheel, and we wondered what OI meant, thinking it read zero one. Again, Jess was on the ball, and twigged that it was an ‘Oi’, aka Bec’s way of saying hello to us :).
That put wide smiles on both our faces, perhaps for the first time that morning. Gear on, last minute things packed and arranged, and we were good to go shortly after 8.30. I figured the others had at least an hour on us, perhaps an hour and a half as we hadn’t left my place till after 6.30, but that didn’t really matter. There were only two of us, so we were likely to move faster, stop less, and eventually, catch up. There was also a lot less talking as we both had things on our minds, and anyone who’s walked with Pandani knows that talking is often the cause for our walking times being rather a lot longer than they might otherwise be!
And so we set off, along the old road, pausing to watch a male lyrebird fly across the path and sit quite close by in a tree. We watched for a moment or two.. I was surprised at his closeness, as most that I’ve seen or disturbed are quick to disappear. Past the old boots and bits, through the river, and into the forest we went.
The always rude introduction to the climb had us both feeling our legs, though Jess’s morning ride and the previous days run probably gave her more of an excuse. But we kept a steady pace, chatted intermittently, and paused every now and again to allow our breath to return. Another lyrebird feather, this time stuck into a mossy log, had us smiling, as we thought it must be another signal from the others.
The reprieve from the climb as we reached the saddle was most welcome, though the flat seemed to pass under our feet all too fast. The next bit of climb didn’t seem so bad, though that might have been that we were slowly getting in to the rhythm of things. We paused to admire with delight the plant life, the fungi, new fern shoots… and with inquisitive revulsion (especially as Jess thought she’d put her foot right in it) some animal’s perfectly dissected entrails (no evidence of the rest of the animal except for some grey fur). Like someone had cleanly removed the stomach and gut and left it in the middle of the path… bizarre!!
It didn’t seem to take long before we could hear Murph and Bec, and knew we were getting close. I took the 5 sheoak nuts from the top of Jess’s pack, and handed them to her. The chatter seemed to suggest they were having a break, so quietness was in order, but it’s pretty bloody hard to walk through the bush without making a sound, it would seem! We stopped just below them, and listened for a while, thinking how funny it would be if they started talking about us. As if on que, Catherine mentioned us, and Jane thought through some pretty accurate estimates of when we’d have started walking, and concluded that we must be close! Spot on!!
Jess took that as an invitation, and we ducked around the corner, one sheoak nut went sailing in the direction of each of the five others! Laughter, hellos, and chatter proceeded… and the warmth of the reception made me feel glad to be with friends. We caught up on the goss, then headed off.
And it was here everything changed quite remarkably for me. Without warning, we stepped out from the forest, and were in heavily charred remains of what once had been scrub. Dense green alpine bushes were now brittle blackened fingers, raw to the red-orange bone. There was very little regrowth, making us think the fire had been recent, except that a friend later mentioned that it had been like that in March this year.
The death, destruction, desolation and loss of what had been only 10 months before hit quite hard and I was surprised at how much this affected me. It was a bit too close to home, on a few different levels, I suppose. As we climbed a little higher, it was clear that the damage extended a fair way along the ridge, to what looked like as far as the bottom of hill 1. I really hoped it hadn’t got the Hobbit’s garden, or Moores bridge/garden.
So I wandered along at the back of the group, a little lost, trying to make sense of the range of feelings I was experiencing. I gave up, and took instead to letting my camera do the work. That seemed to help, and slowly I was drawn to the beauty of what was left, or what had been created. The shapes, colours, textures, reflections and landscape in general all had something different to offer, and I began to listen and to see.
We skipped Moonlight Creek for lunch: it was most unattractive, with natural oil seeping through the boggy ground. We chose instead higher ground, and a bit of a clearing, and ate while gazing at the view. One result of the fire meant that you could see the views all the way along Moonlight ridge. They included a view out towards the end of Bruny Island and the lighthouse, around towards Adamsons, the Calf and Mesa, with Esperance, Snowy and Hartz poking their heads out behind if you were in the right spot, and further around past Hill 1, over to La Perouse and the Hippo.
After lunch we eventually hit the green stuff again, and I started to feel a little more alive. A split in the track, and I chose to take the low road (unfortunately almost everyone else followed me, whoops). It wasn’t too bad, just a little pushing through some overgrown scrub, and a nice scramble up the hill side, but I did gather some people weren’t too happy with the choice! The pad popped out in the middle of the Hobbit’s Garden, and I was most relieved to find it hadn’t been touched by the fire. I do love that spot. I sat and waited while the others climbed, just enjoying the green.
A little bit of light rain and some cloud greeted us, but nothing too threatening. We rounded Hill 1, and, as with the last time I was here, I just loved everything about where I was. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but it’s a particularly favourite spot. This time we had the added bonus of Fedder and PB being out of the cloud. This time, it wasn’t me who was seeing things for the first time, but some of the others, and it was pretty special to see their delight.
I think we all thoroughly enjoyed the walk around the hills, maybe less so the scrubbier section around Hill 2 (but we’d be most grateful for this on the way back). By the time we’d arrived at the side of Hill 3, and were looking down across Moores Bridge, it was 3.30, and we had a brief discussion as to whether we should make camp down by the tarns there, or push on over the hill towards Moores Garden. The decision was postponed until we got down to the tarns, where, despite all of us being sufficiently tired, a vote was cast and we opted for more distance today, so that we had less tomorrow.. A wise call in hindsight!
As we’d walked along the flat, open bridge, Jess couldn’t resist a sit down, right in the middle of it, and I kind of understood. A wander over to the edge to check out the cliffs (but you couldn’t really get close enough without actually going over), a skim of a rock on one of the tarns, discovery of a round little rock that I’d picked up on Pelion West and had been carrying ever since for Jess (but had forgotten to actually give her), and a comment from Jess who was waiting to see a wedgie.
As if on cue, a few minutes later, I spotted one, but couldn’t find the words so just yelled at Jess and pointed. She wasn’t tongue tied at all, and let out a “WEDGIEEEEE”. A second flew into view, and we watched as they effortlessly made the sky their own. It wasn’t long before they were spiralling around one another in opposite directions over Hill 2. What a show :D, that certainly made our day!
A refuel, and time to push up and over the bump ahead. Easier said than done apparently. Andrew (AB) and Murph were in the lead, following what looked like a pad, but it quickly petered out, and we found ourselves in thick scrub. Uh-oh.. we weren’t going to be going anywhere fast through that stuff. I happened to be behind AB, and when he got to what he called a dead end, I explored another direction.. not so great either but move-through-able at least.
Now in the lead, I suddenly realised I had a GPS route I’d found on the internet, and had a look at it. Not having had contact with the source, I had no idea how good or otherwise it was, but figured it couldn’t hurt, and besides, their line didn’t look half as jagged as the track my GPS was plotting, which suggested much smoother progress.
So a bit more squeezing through and around tightly knit myrtle branches, cutting grass and the like and we popped out onto a bit of a clearing with what might (fingers crossed) be a pad. I was eager to see if it was, but first had to wait for the others to make it through. Being small certainly has its advantages in that kind of terrain with a full pack on. One by one the six others popped out of the scrub, and it was time to see if we were in luck.
After about 15 metres it most definitely had ‘pad-like characteristics’ (according to Shaz’s criteria established on the Frankland Range a year and a half previously), and going was much much faster, not to mention more pleasant. On top of the rise and it was like being on top of the world. Flat open expanses stretched before and around us, mountains encircling.. Onwards we plodded..
As we started to descend, we could see a number of larger tarns a distance away, and what looked like a flat sheltered section a terrace down from the main part of the plateau. That, it was decided, was going to be home for the night. A little further on had us realising that it wasn’t quite as close as it looked, as we had to do a dog leg rather than straight line it. But then we spotted two wombats, one quite light in colour, and it didn’t seem to matter so much!
The last half an hour was a tired plod, over flat but uneven ground, and we were all a bit quiet. We didn’t walk too much further than we had to when it came to choosing where to pitch our tents, but managed to tuck out of the wind nicely.
A mix of different dinners came out, from a bite or two, to full blown curry. I hadn’t bothered carting stove and gas for just one night, and I knew I wouldn’t be particularly hungry. Apricot delight followed by birthday ginger cake for desert went down nicely. It was a little early, but mum being mum was just making sure I got some, in case things went pear shaped between now and then, and so I enjoyed it with that in mind. A piece also went Jess’s way, as she shares the same birthday as me.
Jess went off for a wander to a hill she’d liked the look of as we’d approached the camp site, while the others started to prepare their dinners. Night fell, and perhaps prompted by the lighthouse (yes, we could see its light) we sought enjoyment in head torch signalling to Jess, who responded in turn!
On her return, while the others ate, I shared half of Jess’s thermarest and borrowed Jane’s green seat, and we lay under the stars, which were rather shy, but out there somewhere. The satellites certainly were! As we started to get cold, my sleeping bag came out, and made quite an effective blanket. So much so that after sampling some of Catherine’s strawberries and ice-cream (where the strawberries are soft, and the marshmallows are crunchy, but perfect for a sweetness hit – thanks Catherine!!), and saying good night to the others as they disappeared into tents, one by one, Jess drifted off.
I lay there for a little, enjoying the dark and the shadows Murph’s head torch cast as he went about cleaning up after dinner, wondering if I should let Jess sleep or wake her before she settled in properly. But the dew solved that, and so after a little bit we also retired to our tents, saying good night to Murph. The conversation we’d been having earlier continued electronically (crazy, I know, but good, too), until my phone was almost out of battery. Probably a good thing, or we’d have never got to sleep, and we had an early start!
The wake up call went out shortly after 5. Tents were to be packed and all of us good to go by 6. And we probably all were, except that the timing coincided with the muted rising of the sun, which by unspoken mutual agreement was enjoyed first, each in our own time. I wandered up to the plateau and found a nice rock in the middle of one of the tarns to sit on, and after a little bit Jess wandered over to join me. Fedder had our backs, as we sat and faced east, watching the little bit of pink in the sky.
Bec came over and disturbed the peace, and, obviously thinking Jess smelled a bit, gave her a shower in tarn water ;). I do rather like the company I keep! Soon we were all assembled, only 15 minutes late, and off we headed. The walk was pleasant, open and easy, though a little guilt ridden as you had no option but to walk over the expanses of cushion plants. A few slightly scrubbier spots, a bit of a climb, and we were on top.
A not so impressive summit relative to the walk, as it consisted of a small cairn on a bare patch in the middle of scoparia, but the views were just as fine as they had been the whole way out. We found a less scrubby spot and sat/lay facing PB, munched on snacks, and shared the last of Murph’s very well aged and well travelled chocolate.
And then that time came.. the turn around time.. and as always, I didn’t want to. But of course, it wasn’t an option, and we made our way back, retracing our footprints. I was lost in my own thoughts, walking together but alone. Jess’s spotting of another furry friend pulled me back for a bit and we watched him wander about the plateau until he caught scent of us and headed for the bushes.
Back at the packs we had a lie back in the sun for a moment, waiting for everyone to make last minute changes, or top up water, then started the long walk back. We strung out, each walking at our own pace. Occasionally coming together to chat or check how someone was going, but otherwise (for me at least) having some private time alone.
The wind started to pick up, and gusts had us walking somewhat drunkenly at times. As it got stronger, and when there were times we had to walk into it, it was impossible not to resist the temptation to stretch arms out, and just lean on it.
The wind set something off in me, the part of me that likes to rise to a challenge, the part of me that kicks in when I get angry. I didn’t think I was angry, but looking back, probably I was.. at life, at change, at loss, and at vulnerability that comes with caring and loving and forming meaningful attachments. The wind was something I could understand, unlike all that other stuff, it was a physical and mental challenge I could meet. And so we had a duel. I don’t know what I was trying to prove. And I knew full well that the wind could blow all day and night, without tiring, and I couldn’t. But that didn’t matter, that wasn’t the point.
We walked on steadily, laughing at our antics, shaking heads at the surf on the tarns on the plateau, and discovering that Jess could squirt water out of her drink bottle standing up wind and hit her target (me, of course) with great accuracy, without even aiming at it! A break back at the tarns on Moores Bridge gave us an idea of how strong the wind could be, as it blew Jane’s pack into one of the tarns. Jess and I took precautions after that, and got a bit inventive so that we could still share squirms without getting up, and without risking losing half the pack on its journey through the air between us.
If that hadn’t been warning enough, the spray racing across Reservoir Lake in the distance should have been. It was quite something to watch! But I don’t think any of us thought anything of it, other than that it was windy. And so we climbed up and around the side of Hill 3 and it was here, waiting for the others to catch up that I started to realise that just the act of standing was taking rather a lot of energy. So I sat on a rock, and Jess joined me shortly. AB and Jane were next, and while AB fought the gusts of wind on his feet, Jane sunk to her knees on the ground – no wasting energy there.
As we continued on, the winds got stronger. It started off quite funny, and we’d laugh at one another and ourselves as we were picked up and plopped on the ground, or overestimated a gust of wind and went stumbling in the other direction when it unexpectedly let up. Sitting at the back or walking out the front and turning around to watch was hilarious. It was like the line of us was on a string, being controlled by a puppeteer, and when a gust blew everyone would dance the same tune!
The first hint I had that the wind was starting to lose its funny factor was a look on Catherine’s face as she was dumped down yet again. She was already exhausted, had been from the start of the walk, and it was wearing her down. Her history means she’s lucky enough just to be able to walk, and balance seems to be a small price to have had to pay for that, but in those conditions it was crucial. And not only was it wearing away at her energy, but also, quite understandably, her confidence.
Murph was also being tossed around a fair bit more than the others, another downside to being built like a beanpole and carrying a large pack (silent thanks here to my little legs). In fact, the wind caught him so well that Bec might just have likened him to a kite. Jane and AB plodded determinedly on at their own pace, occasionally taking a tumble or face plant, and I hoped that neither fell in such a way as to worsen current injuries further. Bec was steady as a rock, and also put it down to being short in stature. Jess was doing just fine, and like me, was more worried about Catherine than herself, but knew there wasn’t a lot either of us could do but to offer moral support.
As the wind worsened, our stops became much longer, the distances we crabbed, crawled and stumbled our way across got shorter, and the fun seeped out of it. A few expletives were muttered, or yelled. I wasn’t the only one getting concerned. We had to get around the hills and out of the wind, as bivvying up there wasn’t an option. And yet we were moving so very slowly, and it was only getting worse.
Through trial and error we discovered that having a hand to hold made things much easier and faster. And so wherever the track allowed for walking two abreast this is what we did. Everyone helped out where they could, when someone went down, whoever was free came to give them a hand if they needed it. I enjoyed this bit, and discovered that without a pack on, it was much easier to keep balanced in the wind if you ran/skipped rather than tried to walk. And so the duel with the wind went up a notch, and the wild bit in me was unleashed ;).
At one spot I’d gone ahead, and the wind played havoc. I turned to find that Jess, who had been helping Catherine, must have lost her balance in a gust and had taken a tumble, subluxing a previously dislocated shoulder and banging up a knee. With Catherine ferried to the next stop point, I went back to Jess, who also had Bec with her. I think both of us felt helpless, and we waited while Jess took a moment to let the pain subside. Checking as best we could that Jess was otherwise ok to go, the three of us worked our way over to the others.
We were all very much aware how dangerous serious injury could be, though I think Jess was just pissed off she could no longer help in the way she had been. But that didn’t stop her, and instead she did a fine job taking the lead and moving us along at a steady pace.
We had a brief reprieve as we rounded Hill 2 and were in the scrub. What has always been the least favourite section around the hills quickly became my favourite (amazing how perspective changes!). But it was with apprehension that we approached Hill 1, as we knew the wind would be the worst up there. On the saddle between the two hills the camera went away.. a sign that there was no longer any room for enjoyment, just survival. I noticed too, there were no longer any glances back at PB or Fedder, they were forgotten for the moment.
The wind hit hard, like concrete, as we climbed up Hill 1 and onto the plateau. I was getting tired, and found it increasingly harder to help people with my pack on, so I told Jane I was going ahead to dump my pack, and would come back to help out. Not far, I was told, but there wasn’t much chance of that. The wind was wild, and moving forward was at times not actually possible. I headed for a bush near a soak, and for a moment thought I might end up in the water when a particularly strong gust of wind hit. I was lucky, but I wasn’t going any further. Pack down and I glanced back. We were scattered about, like we’d been hit by a bomb, and yet the distance I’d covered was maybe only 30 metres.
I went back for Catherine. Given her balance issues, she was, in my estimate, the most likely to fall, and therefore the most prone to serious injury. I knew she didn’t like feeling like she was a nuisance, which she wasn’t, and I tried to explain, but I don’t think I did a very good job. Safely at the bush, I checked on the others. AB was fine, his pole seemed to be most handy too. Jane likewise, and when I passed she told me to give Jess a hand, so I did, grateful to be told and not to have to make a choice of who to go to next. Bec was good as gold.
One more trip for Murph. I was beginning to wonder just how long we could go on like this, and how long it would take, when AB came over to us, and I linked my free arm with his. The load was immediately lessened, and when he mentioned we’d have to buddy up, I agreed completely. All together again, we quickly discovered that linking the whole group wasn’t going to work, so on someone’s suggestion of a three and a four, we tried that.
After a bit of a hitch with our three, we finally all got upright, linked, and moving, in kind of the right direction (much easier said than done) . It was almost impossible to hear a full volume yell even at the closest of quarters (the wind positively screeched), so much of the communication was about feeling what the others in the human chain were doing, and responding in fashion.
But it was working. And the spirit started to lift. At times we were in little pockets where the wind wasn’t so strong. I heard Bec chuckle at one quieter point, and remark at the ridicularity (yes, I know it’s not a real word, but I like it) of walking hand in hand across Hill 1. Earlier she’d let out a ‘Man, this weather blows’.. Got to love her, always one to make light of a serious situation, but in a befitting manner :)!
We didn’t stop again, the whole way round the side of Hill 1. As we neared the Hobbit’s Garden, which I think we all hoped would be much more sheltered, the wind was suddenly at our backs, and we violated Murph’s rule of no running on his walks (though he was to clarify that that wasn’t running, more like wind propelled walking). I’m not sure we quite mastered the new wind direction, but somehow we managed to steer towards the track without going straight over the edge, in a manner much like what I imagine landing an aeroplane might be like for the untrained..
Seeing the other group of four had stopped, I thought they’d just decided to take a break and wait for us now that they were out of the worst of the wind, but arrived to find Catherine deep in a bush, over a little bit of a drop. But she came out smiling, if absolutely wrecked. That girl’s got courage! Pretty sure the worst of it was over (we just hoped it wasn’t too windy given that the whole ridge was burnt out), it was like we all let out the breath we’d been holding (or rather, that the wind had been forcing down our lungs – it did that, just as it whipped saliva from our mouths if we opened them in an attempt to talk/yell, and made our cheeks flap).
Now, we were in a keep-plodding-till-we-get-to-the-end-of-the-ridge mode, because we knew once in the forest we were as good as home and hosed. Not having the wind to concentrate on meant the tiredness seemed more acute, but that was one thing each of us had to bear on our own.. though the last of the chocolate and some of Jess’s squirms might have helped a bit.. I zoned out completely, concentrating on the feet in front of me, and trying not to run into sharp bits of burnt tree that poked holes in everything it could.
As we neared the end of the ridge a rainbow appeared over the end of Bruny, which seemed fitting. Once in the forest, at the first spot on the track where 7 of us could sit down reasonably comfortably, we stopped for a very belated lunch. It was sometime after 4. Slightly better for the food, but stiff and clumsy after the rest, we descended through the forest with care, and spent the time reflecting on our experiences of what had just happened and what we’d been feeling and thinking. It was a good little debrief, and I know I had come out of the experience with greater respect for the people I call friends and the way they meet physical and mental challenges, both personally and as a team. I was glad I was with who I was with.
It got dark as we descended the final bit towards Mystery Creek Cave and the quarry, and head torches came out. Some of us were determined not to use them, though the night was as good as pitch black and had we been alone we would have needed them. The rain increased as we plodded along the road, just wanting to get back, but none of us cared. We’d have all taken a pelting without flinching after the wind we’d had.
Back at 7.35. Though I hadn’t wanted to leave earlier that morning, which seemed a week ago, I was now most happy to be heading home!
It had been a challenging weekend, perhaps slightly scary in light of how easily things could have gone wrong, but really quite rewarding.
All up: 41.9km, 2208m ascent.