By Ruchira Talukdar
Photo Credit: David McLean
I recently walked the rugged and remote Western Arthur Range in Tasmania’s South West Wilderness National Park with a group of friends and came back with a head full of ruminations. This article is inspired by my experiences on the hike.
There is so much romanticism attached to Tasmania’s rugged and remote south-west wilderness. Some of it should chafe an environmental activist such as me with a quintessentially “Southern” core. Its isolation from human civilisation is its virtue. Unlike the Himalayas, that challenge and dazzle the human spirit and are yet comfortingly peopled, these weathered and very old glacial landscapes at the southern tip of the Australian continent have been protected for good from human activity through green fights and government laws.
But I suspended all critical judgement and went with the pure passion for walking and the lure of the wild, as I donned my pack for a four-dayer with a group of four other friends at the tail end of 2016.
The Western Arthur Range in this iconic nook of Tasmania is considered one of the hardest and most scenic walks. It is a glaciated landscape with innumerable lakes and steep cliffs. Planets, moons and constellations inspired these features of the landscape, with names such as Lake Oberon, Mount Sirius and Lake Cygnus dotting the map.
What their original stories and names are, we will never know. That knowledge, coming from a lived landscape of native people, has sunk, like the original Lake Peddar nearby. In a new age, the rugged cliffs and glacial tarns have been reimagined, instead, as the wilderness.
Too many coffee stops and last minute food shopping delayed our trip from Hobart to the car park at Scotts Peak dam so much, that we had to relent to walking the very first section in the dark. After a seven o’clock dinner, we set off towards Junction Creek, supposedly seven kilometres away, across knee-deep mud on the spreading buttongrass plains.
As a rule of thumb, add an hour to the amount of time “conservative estimates” for any Tasmanian walk provides. Ours was three, and I ended up taking four to get to the campsite at Junction Creek. There was no moon in the sky and negotiating the bog with a full stomach, fully loaded pack, and flat-white torchlight, after hours of sitting crammed in the car, was tough. I panicked in a few places when my feet sunk knee-deep, squirmed needlessly and ended up falling face down in the mud.
Mud on my face and eyelashes, in my teeth and gums, started to make me angry. But the treacherous bogs needed all my attention and anger was getting in its way. I felt frustrated at having the shortest strides of all in the group. And in that pattern, I battled with unsteadiness both outside and inside me for four hours on the first night. Crossing over Junction Creek, I just about had enough enthusiasm remaining to pitch my tent, wash my face, and get inside. On average, the mood was sullen that night. Perhaps the most noise we made that night was through our chorus of snores.
The creek is the junction for two walking tracks; a practical name for a location. Ours heads in the south-west direction and winds its way along the plains till the foot of the Western Arthur Range. And then, it becomes the steep slopes of the ranges itself. The second day we climbed for four hours along with the day’s temperatures.
Yes, the Himalayas, where I have honed my heels, have steeper inclines and longer climbs. But they also offer a human ecosystem of services for urban hikers, including porters and guides, who keep my personal pack weight down to half of what I struggled up with that day. With frequent groans and grunts, I hauled myself and my seventeen-kilo-load up rather high steps, and paused after every fifty steps for a large inhalation. Hours passed in this repetition of toil. Looking up felt depressing, because the vertical challenge seemed unrelenting. The last two hours proved the steepest.
But to rise steadily above the range of hills in front of us brought a sense of elation. We were a group of five, a mixed bag of stamina and stride-length. I was the shortest and the slowest and had no qualms about it. One day I endeavour to write the slow girl’s antidote to John Chapman’s walking guides for Tasmania. It is my natural pace, and allows me enough time to gaze and reflect on my walks. To look at water and marvel how clear it is, to startle at the ripples on its surface, to drink from it, to look as far up the rushing stream as the canopy will permit, to be transfixed by the green-moss-lichen-water-rocks enveloping me. To guiltlessly daydream.
The rest of the party had nearly cooled off by the time I reached the top. There was no scrambled egg Maggi and black tea waiting, Himalayan style, either. In its stead, I munched on a muesli bar and drank staminade-water. From then on, the ridge top walk framed by craggy granite clusters and lush green alpine meadows on both sides, proved comfortingly undulating. Orchids, maroon alpine lilies and myriad little odourless and sturdy flowers bloomed in large patches around the edges of rocks.
The narrow stony path disappeared over the gentle curve of one ridge top, and upon crossing it another, and then another, till both tiredness and repetitiveness started lulling the mind. After possibly two hours of such walking through scenery evocative of Wuthering Heights, we finally descended down a steep track to Lake Cygnus, our resting place for the night.
All through my Himalayan sojourns, the last few steps of the day would be consumed with warm imaginings of smoky rice and dahl and steaming vegetables that the cooks would have ready and simmering as we set foot into camp. But here, I made mental calculations of the time it would take to chop, boil, simmer and finish making dinner as I crunched down the steps to the wooden platform for camping and cooking.
We ate in silence as the light drained from the southern skies. I felt proud of having put an extra thought into the meal; I had carried the magical mysterious middle-eastern ras el hanout to sprinkle on top of the mushroom-TVP-tomato gravy that I served over big portions of couscous. There was a strong possibility of rain in the next few hours. We washed up, got into our tents, thoroughly zippered ourselves in, and waited for it to descend over the Western Arthurs.
“There is shit everywhere! It reminds me of India!” The conversation began to get strained on the third day of the walk. The toilets were overdue for a fly-out. We had decided not to press on to Lake Oberon in the steady rain, and perhaps that has been a mistake. There was nothing left to do than lie crammed in our tents, or walk to the pink sand-rimmed black lake and back across a million puddles. And throw barbs at one another.
“I had severe gastro when I travelled through India”, piped in another. The slate coloured sheer cliffs in front of me looked ominous in the greyness of the rains.
“What a grim place this would be to die in!” I remarked.
“Yes!” agreed another.
Topic changed for the time being, I relaxed and tended to my persistent migraine. The rain seemed to ease a little. We even saw flashes of the blue sky.
“Too cold for a swim in the lake?” I wondered aloud cheerfully.
“The overflowing shit from the toilet is draining into the lake Ruchira!” the first person hissed back.
Oh no! I had inadvertently opened another can of shit! I needed to get out of there before another India and gastro resurfaced in the conservation and provoked my migraine.
At the shores of Cygnus, stormy waters lapped restlessly on pink-grained sand. Tiny fish played along its shallow edges. Several streams that had sprung from the overnight rain were gushing down to the lake. As was the one flushing past the toilet that was overdue for a helicopter haul-out of human faeces.
Dinner that night was a generous mix of rainwater with pasta and bolognaise; the fly above us swelled and fluttered like a sail waiting to be released, and sent water cascading down below on us. I thought fondly about the lavish meal of the night before and the stomach growled in reflexive satisfaction. Once again, we returned to our damp, cocoon-like tents to wait out the rain and darkness.
Back to the mud
By the fourth morning, the puddles under our tents had already started drying. The steady beat of the rain had lulled me to sleep and I didn’t notice when it stopped. Blue skies smiled at us. We flapped our tent flys, scattering droplets in the warm air. Lake Cygnus appeared nowhere near as intimidating as the evening before, with the blueness of the skies robbing its tannin stained waters framed by slate coloured cliffs of some of its characteristic darkness. Still, a swim was not feasible.
But that was perhaps the smallest of compromises we had to make on the hike. We were turning back without seeing the next big lake, Oberon, a serrated ridge-top and a few steep gullies away from Cygnus. I’ve seen photographs of the place. And on that day, I walked out of the Cygnus campsite carrying the weight of a dream unvisited.
As we climbed up to the ridge-top and pink-fringed Cygnus, way down below, shrunk, I had irresponsible urges to walk in the opposite direction. Rarely before have I not seen the destination of my walks.
The inexhaustible walk up Moraine A from the second day, was, on the downhill, over before we realised it. But not without draining the legs of energy expended in exercising extreme caution and control to avoid hurtling down the precariously steep inclines.
Cleansing and cooling off at the moss-encrusted stream at the foot of the range only a few hours after starting from Cygnus, thoughts of finishing the walk were foremost on our minds. And before us, yet again, stretched the endless boggy plains.
In the end, the reckoning with the mud swallowed up every other large and small experience on the walk. Steep climbs through scrub in the hot sun, covering miles of undulating ridge-tops, quadriceps locking up while tackling precipitous descents, narrow white trails disappearing in the swirling mist, speckled granite cliffs framing pink-rimmed lakes, rippling black waters mirroring stormy skies, craggy cliff tops and bristly heath, calves burning from striving uphill before the morning muesli had started doing its work.
All these trials and triumphs of the last few days floated like mere feathery wisps over the boggy fields of exertion that spread all around us on the afternoon of the last day.
But it was scarcely one homogenous experience. It offered myriad ways of beholding the environment of mud. Cool caking mud, or mud bubbling in watery pools. Silt and water churning in rocky pools. The hum of bees and the sweet smells of white grass flowers. Knee-deep bogs in forest clusters. Gurgling brooks, so many that I stopped counting.
Bearded tree trunks near mossy banks of streams. Leech, slime, and grime on our boots. Mud the colour of chocolate. Muddy water swimming inside thick woollen socks, flushing the toes with every tread. Twig and stone chips, grains of sand, pricking and chafing. Hot soles, heavy boots, and an outbreak of blisters on soaked feet. Blood thumping in the veins. Breath like warm vapour. The body was close to overheating.
Mud the colour of chocolate. Muddy water swimming inside thick woolen socks, flushing the toes with every tread. Twig and stone chips, grains of sand, pricking and chafing. Hot soles, heavy boots, and an outbreak of blisters on soaked feet. Blood thumping in the veins. Breath like warm vapour. The body was close to overheating.
The sky had changed in aspect several times that afternoon. The promise of blue had appeared and disappeared under myriad sheets of obfuscation, ranging from optimistic silver to intimidating grey. But then the light started fading. Time was short, and so were my strides. Scattered clouds were tinged with red in the dusk sky. The evening star appeared in its place. The cicadas were low and shrill. Soon, their drone would amplify to make up for the loss of sight on the marshy plains. We whipped out our head torches.
The torchlight was flat and I couldn’t tell the difference between deep and shallow mud. Brief boardwalks ended abruptly in the mire, offering no deliverance across insufferable bogs. We plodded, trudged, lunged, splashed and heaved across the solitary plains. An eerie last glow appeared in the sky. The horizon was a continuous silhouette of sharp angles. Time broke its bounds and stretches in one long thread like the slippery track with no beginning or end. The further we marched, the more the track seemed to unspool.
Drops of doubt began to condense on the mind. Wrong way? Go back? There is only one way! How long? Time became oblivious of itself in that sea of rustling meadowgrass. The stars were silent. Lighting flashed in the distance. No thunder. The sky was brooding. All the aches and pains of the past days, all the highs and lows of the other parts of the trail, now held their breath on the endless buttongrass plains. Here, it was easy to lose my way. It was easy to lose myself and all the cares and worries I had been carrying around my shoulders.
All the streams that the rains had sprung in the mountains finally drained into these marshes. All the stony trails, along gullies, valleys, ridge tops, past glacial lakes, moraines and tarns, eventually come down to this muddy, grassy expanse. We crossed it in the beginning, optimistic and bursting with enthusiasm for a trail unexplored. And we crossed it at the end, desperate to finish, not caring enough to avoid wading through the deepest puddles.
Pushing through the continuous boredom of mud was more punishing than I imagined. But there was rhythm in it too. A rhythm had to be sustained at any cost. Without asking for how long, or how far. The mind half slept and half watched in the dimness. The legs paced on of their own mechanical will. The veins pumped hot blood. The body, wearing a bulky pack, remained propped up despite the gravity of fatigue. Light and shadow, black and white, soft and hard, repeat, repeat, and repeat…a rhythm, a trance, a dream!
Ruchira Talukdar is a PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research compares the discourses of environmental politics in developed and developing countries. She comes from an environmental NGO background, across India and Australia, where over the last ten years she has worked to address a range of environmental challenges from climate change, genetically modified food crops, toxic waste pollution, river restoration and oceans protection. She is also a nature lover and never misses a chance to take a long walk in the mountains.