What changes we’ve all witnessed, most especially these last few months. Some collective, many individual as well. Why should we be surprised – the only certainty in life (apart from death, but we’ll get to that) is change. I’ve revisited a poem Graham first introduced me to a few years ago, and I’d like to share it with you. It’s titled Allow, by Danna Faulds.
There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt, containing a tornado.
Dam a stream and it will create a new channel.
Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground.
The only safety lies in letting it all in
the wild and the weak; fear, fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of the heart, or
sadness veils your vision with despair,
Practice becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your known way of being,
the whole world is revealed to your new eyes.
The last five lines have played over and over in my head as I’ve tried to turn them from something I can understand on an intellectual level to something I actually feel and trust in. It will come as a shock to many of you who don’t know me in person, that Graham died on the morning of Good Friday. Yep, the strong, healthy, always smiling, super adventurous bushwalker that he was (amongst other things). He had an undiagnosed, completely asymptomatic, perhaps genetic, condition (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy for anyone who is wondering) that lead to a sudden cardiac arrest. And so I’ve spent the last two months trying to get my head and heart around losing my best friend, partner, lover, mentor and fellow adventurer.
Bushwalking in Tassie wilderness was where I first discovered myself, grew a healthy sense of self-confidence, esteem and belief, discovered mindfulness and worked on perfecting the act of being utterly in the moment. It remains the place where I do this best. It was also where I met and fell in love with Graham and where we shared so many magical moments. I was hardly surprised that the one thing I wanted to be able to do was to get away to the mountains for a few days. I didn’t know what I was going to find, just knew I really needed to go. I’d become increasingly restless deep down, not so much that it showed on the outside (I think!). Part of it was having lost all certainty in living a meaningful life. It wasn’t that all the other things in my life besides Graham had lost their meaning or worth, it was that I’d planned them and undertook them in such a way that they fitted in with the overarching goal of sharing as much time with Graham. I didn’t do extra study to move up a level at work, I didn’t play more tennis, I no longer went on solo bush walks. In general, I had much less ambition in those aspects of life because none were anywhere near as important, fulfilling or as special as Graham.
People say it takes time, not to rush, be gentle on yourself. I’m prepared to do that in my grief for Graham. I don’t actually want to get to a point that I can speak about him without tears in my eyes or a waver in my voice. But I’m not very good at floating along without a sense of purpose, something meaningful to work towards and, most importantly, a sense of self-worth. Again, I know in essence who I am and what I mean hasn’t changed to the people who know and love me. In fact, I’ve been blown away by the love and care people have expressed, even those who haven’t spent a lot of time with me. But my perception of my worth has changed regardless. Loving someone in a way that no one else does, being able to make every atom of their body smile whenever you walk into the room, knowing and facilitating all the little things that make them happy multiple times a day – that gives a huge sense of self-worth and identity. Nothing in my life was more meaningful than that. And I don’t know what you do when it’s gone.
So I turned to the mountains, trusting that I’d find myself out there again. John Muir’s words came to mind, Into the [mountains] I go, to loose my mind and find my soul. Where exactly I went didn’t matter (too much!). I did, of course, prefer a mountain I hadn’t climbed before, and one with a high camp. Track or at least easy open walking was probably a sensible option – I already know what a fragile mind and unrelenting scrub in unfamiliar territory can do to my mind! And so the weather window dictated a small, 2 day window. I don’t usually go on overnight walks because I think I can move faster with a day pack and cover the same territory in a day. But I wanted to spend a night under the stars, and was prepared to make any exception to do so.
Koruna it was. Koruna is part of the Wilmot range (thanks for the correction Chris!), which lies to the north of the Frankland range, and is usually traversed at the same time as the Frankland range. The Frankland range was the first big, multi-day walk I did and I found the honour of being invited on a private walk huge. In some ways it marked my acceptance as a fellow, equal bushwalker, even though I was still very much a novice. Time restrictions dictated an abbreviated walk, and so we’d taken a boat ride up to the foot of Coronation Peak, and ascended the range from that point, traversing south. This meant we skipped the two northern most mountains usually climbed to access the range – Sprent and Koruna. I’d climbed Sprent on a day walk early on in my bushwalking career, in celebration of a friend’s birthday. But Koruna had escaped us, and was on our short list of mountains to climb. With a two day weather window in the southwest, it was the only mountain that met all the criteria.
It took a bit to get my head around packing just for me, but we got there in the end. The weather window kept on shifting forward, so a late afternoon walk in on Thursday turned into an early morning departure. I left the suburbs in inky darkness, brightened only by the artificial city lights reflecting on falling drizzle. As I drove on the day turned to misty grey. I listened to an ABC conversation with Cheryl Strayed, on her life and memoir, Wild . It wasn’t planned, but her story touched a few notes with me, and I can definitely recommend it!
By the time I’d arrived at Strathgordon (Serpentine Dam) the sky was largely blue, although the sun stayed hidden behind a cloud bank. I put on boots, donned my pack and set off. Straight up. The log book was brand new, put in place in September last year. I was the first entry. This shocked me, then I realised there had been fires and then COVID-19, so it made sense after all.
The track was much as I remembered it – steep, the kind of overgrown that gets you dipping wet if the scrub is damp, and more like a rivulet than a track! It’s pretty badly eroded, such that the boards that were put into place to act as the front part of steps are still there, but the dirt behind them that you step up on to is often boggy and not much higher than the step below. In this way some of the steps are less of a step and more of an obstacle to have lift your feet up and over (and not trip up on!). It didn’t seem like having 9 months off from the pounding of boots had given the land much time to heal. In places, boots had worn away so much and the trench was so narrow it was hard to pass one boot in front of the other. In other spots people had decided it was all too hard and had braided off to one side, starting a new section of track that would in time become just as eroded.
The forest quickly gave way to an open, flatter section, where the views north and east started to open up. It was sunny but the breeze had a winter chill to it that turned a sweaty shirt into an ice pack if you paused too long to take a photo and fingers felt permanently painful. I drunk it in deeply, fresh air filling my lungs. I felt alive, if incredibly unfit! It was definitely good to be back in the southwest wilderness.
A bit more overgrown track – the kind where the scrub was only knee to thigh high but because the track was an eroded channel you found it up to your chest or shoulders (if you’re short like me!) – and then back to the lower stuff with lovely views. I stopped a lot to take photos, I think because I didn’t have anyone with me to share the moment in person. And finally, a last little climb and I was on top of Sprent for the second time in my life. It was just over 2 hours after starting out and I knew my glutes and thighs would complain about it in due course, they were well out of shape (turns out my foot, back and shoulders wanted in on the complaining too!).
The views were much better than last time, but the company lacking. And there was no cake or fresh raspberries to indulge in. I didn’t linger long, it was still cold and I’d decided to camp high in a nearby saddle, then scoot off to Koruna. This was a last minute change of plan that had materialised as I had started walking, and had grown out of the axiom to make hay while the sun shined. It was lovely weather, rare enough at this time of year in the southwest, and there was something about the way the forecast had changed over the course of the week that had me not trusting that Friday was going to be the better day after all. It was quite a distance to cover (more than I realised, actually) and because I’d meandered around and hadn’t driven down to start walking at the crack of dawn I wasn’t going to have a lot of daylight with which to play.
Thankfully there wasn’t much wind forecast, because I like choosing exposed camp sites for the views they offer! I pitched the tent, ate a sandwich (no need to go light weight on a 2 day walk, yeah?) and set off at 12:30. After an hour of walking I knew I was going to be walking in the dark on the return leg. Koruna was something like 7.5km from my tent in a straight line, and I was only averaging 2 an hour (obviously you don’t ever walk in a straight line!). Early on Graham used to get upset at me informing him of the number of ‘bushwalking kilometres’ we had to go to a set point until he got used to the idea that a bushwalking kilometre was much closer to a mile than a kilometre!
The walking was beautiful, open, ridge-top walking. The terrain shifted seamlessly between alpine grasses to low scrub, and the odd rocky outcrop. The Frankland range has some of the best ridge-top walking in Tassie, and that was true of the Wilmot range too. I remembered back to advice we were given before our traverse 7 years ago – if you find yourself in scrub and you’re not on a pad, you’re in the wrong spot. Unfortunately I remembered this about an hour in, when I was standing in waist high scrub about to descend to a river and back up the other side! It was too late to go searching and I pushed down, through and back up the other side, cursing my stupidity only a little bit. I didn’t have time to spare on unnecessary scrub bashing. Up on the ridge I walked straight onto the pad I should have been on, and resolved to follow it on the return.
I continued along, forcing myself to slow down, enjoy the moments as they rolled into one, and take photos. I had an unusual urgency, knowing deep down that if I was going to climb Koruna I’d be walking back in the dark for 2-3 hours. I told myself my turn around time was 3, when I could just turn around wherever I was and make it back as dusk was falling. I think I knew that wasn’t an option I’d seriously entertain for too long. I kicked myself for not carrying the tent further, thereby reducing the distance I’d have to return today. And so the rest of the walk was an interesting experience in examining the unease, almost fear, I was feeling at the thought of walking in the dark. It seemed ridiculous – I’ve done it numerous times before. Solo and with others, on-track and off-track. I remember some times being really excited by the challenge – the Loddon range was one example! Even through scrub. But perhaps I’d just become so used to sharing all these things with Graham and being wholly comforted by his presence, the unwavering sense of protection he gave and having him there to bounce thoughts off. Either way I was still the one who had to do my own walking. Again, the practical reality hadn’t changed much, but my mindset and internal dialogue certainly had – food for thought.
3pm came, Koruna was the next mountain in front of me, but still more than a kilometre away. Of course I was going to climb to the top, couldn’t turn around so close having come so far! I might have been feeling uneasy, but I had a point to prove to myself, especially on this first trip back out, and turning around short of a mountain has never been my strong suit. The pad took me to the base and started circling around to the left. I imagined the track just continued on to the rest of the Frankland traverse. I couldn’t see evidence of a pad heading up to the summit. And so I took to the scrub and rock for one final climb. That part slowed me down a lot. Especially the rock. I’d already had an uncharacteristic slip coming off Sprent, just as I was musing about how I’d shake my head as Graham would tell me the rock was slippery and to be careful! The rock here was quartzite, which can be especially slippery in the wet. All of a sudden my 3:30-3:45 summit time became 4pm. I told myself that was ok, it wasn’t going to change much.
The views were spectacular, the light lovely as the sun started to hit the cloud on the western horizon. I took as long as I dared to savour it. I donned overpants, rain jacket and warm gloves in preparation for the 3.5-4 hour walk back to the tent. The head torch came out. And I began the walk back. The darker it became the more comfortable I got, mostly out of resignation to the fact. I’d made the choices, so I might as well enjoy the experience. I settled into a steady plod and was surprised at how indistinct pads suddenly seemed easier to follow by head torch. The water that sat in puddles over areas of high tread appeared to link up, forming a black line leading into the darkness. I was surprised that even out here, parts of the track were more rivulet-like than track-like.
The stars slowly came out, the sky turned pitch black, and the bite of the air grew crisper. The scrub underfoot went from squelching to crunching as it froze. Shards of ice formed in puddles. The whole world glittered. At one point I turned off my head torch and leant against a bit of scrub, looking up at the millions of stars and the Milky Way. It had been such a long time since seeing stars without artificial light around. It brought back memories of other times lying under the stars, trying desperately to stay awake to hold the moment for just a little longer. I felt connected, safe and home. I was in one sense alone, but I wasn’t exactly lonely. The cold drove me on, although I kept glancing up.
As I got closer to the part where I’d gone for my short scrub bash I grew increasingly nervous. I’ve always been one for retracing steps because you know what you’re in for, and if it’s scrubby then you also have a bit of a bash to follow. I was tempted to do this, but decided to follow the pad and see where it lead instead. My concern here was that it wasn’t always present or obvious, and if I lost it hunting around for it or reading the terrain for the best route forward was risky business in the dark. But the pad was decent, and I followed it a long way north. It sent me on a completely different route to the one I’d taken over, which increased my unease, because now I didn’t have the option of reverting to my old route easily enough. And sure enough, the scrub disappeared at the next knoll and I didn’t know where to go. I used the GPS for a rough direction. There was a rocky and scrubby rise ahead and I decided to check out the left hand side, as all the others had been traversed to that side. Bad idea, I found myself in steep thick scrub, concerned that I’d end up walking off the ridge. A bit of back tracking and some more cursing at the scrub and I walked straight back onto the pad! Phew, I’d just mentally prepared for a maximum 300m scrub bash (the distance between me and my mapped route). As it turned out I just had nice open walking back to the tent, albeit a bit steep. I took one last look at the stars, zipped open the frosty fly, and plonked myself down, suddenly very stiff and sore!!
Wet clothes came off and I got some dinner cooking, even if the cold doubled the time it took for water to boil! Anything important and wet came inside – I wanted to be able to put my boots on the next morning instead of battling with frozen gear. A cup of soup, red curry and hot chocolate all helped warm me (and the tent) up. I read for a bit then called it a night. By now the moon was up and I could have walked anywhere without a head torch!
As it turned out, the decision to wander over to Koruna on the Thursday was a good one. Friday morning was spent in the midst of a drizzly cloud, true southwest weather, and was much better suited to reading, thinking, being and writing notes. So that’s what I did. I didn’t need to be anywhere else, and it was only a few hours walk out and a slightly longer drive home. By early afternoon I figured I should think about making a move, so I packed up and got dressed for a wet day of walking. The inside of the cloud stopped drizzling in time for me to pack the tent up, and in another 10 minutes I was back on Sprent. It was a grey, but not miserable, day, the kind where the view is constantly changing as the mist swirls around, hiding and revealing glimpses of what lies beyond. Typical southwest weather, just enough to remind you gently that you were at the mercy of Mother Nature! I loved it, and I walked somewhat reluctantly down the mountain, back to the car. I saw two lyre birds on the way home, they made me smile at their frantic scuttle to get off the side of the road.
I’m not sure quite what I found out there, but I returned all the richer for it.
All up: 29.1km, 12:15hrs (over the two days), 2018m ascent