David Cauldwell initiates himself in the World Heritage Area of Tasmania's Central Plateau on a 6-day, off-track solo hike.
Two black swans glide across the lake’s glassy veneer, as if levitating, necks extending to a clear dawn sky. Upon meeting, they stop and take it in turns to call out. Their salutations echo across the plateau. Apart from my heartbeat, it’s the only sound for miles. Spider webs flutter in emerging sunbeams, silken strands laden with dewdrops. Ice clings to my tent. Mist creeps around the base of Blue Peaks. I sit atop Little Throne Peak. On this palatial plateau, embroidered by a mass of shimmering lakes, I feel monarch-like in the morning light, a wanderer returning to his kingdom, to himself.
I’m on a six-day trek towards the Walls of Jerusalem. Although accessible via an easy three- to four-hour walk further west, I’m taking five days via the more scenic backcountry route. Not that there’s much of a route. The track from Lake Mackenzie, roughly 7km north, ended near the base of the misty Blue Peaks.
To walk the Central Plateau is to drink from its tarns, to scramble up sporadic dolerite protrusions for a lofty view and spy the best way to snake between the lakes. To walk here is to follow pioneering wallabies. Sometimes their tracks stop abruptly and I’m left contemplating how to negotiate tracts of scrub through which they’ve created prickly burrows.
I wend through bristly heaths, past cushion plants, centuries-old pencil pines and lakes of varying size and depth, utterly alone yet feeling the presence of everything. I’m the scourge of spiders, continually breaking their webs as I forge forward.
This silence could be making me hear things, but as I walk deeper into country songs begin playing inside my head, melodies I’ve never heard before. They’re simple and repetitive. I’m singing with each stride. My map and compass may indicate which landmarks to veer towards; however, the finer details, i.e. how I actually reach the points I’m eyeing off in the distance, are guided by these songs.
In this deep silence, accentuated when I stop walking, I swear the land itself is singing. Not in a conventional sense, more so a biorhythmic, vibratory one. Tribal beats intensify as wallaby tracks suddenly cease. Except the tracks don’t stop. The beats are like invisible threads through this landscape of silvery pencil pines all dead and ghost-like, so expressive in their decay. This land is full of invisible lines, contours that segue and usher me into rock-hopping corridors linking marsupial trails. I sing out loud, involuntarily, footsteps falling in time, out of time. It becomes clear this journey isn’t about the destination for I’m arriving with every footstep.
Blurry-eyed and blissful, I sit beside a tarn and watch water and sky transform from grey to a series of nuanced deep-set reds and oranges. Dawn. Mosquitoes skim across the surface like high-powered combustion craft. Mist rolls in, threatening to smother me for a moment, before lifting to reveal a cloudy day.
I scramble up to the nearest peak to get my bearings. I dodge whipsnakes. I follow wallaby tracks and bush-bash, eventually rock-hopping up to the striking dolerite summit of Mersey Crag. Turanna Bluff juts imperiously to the east. Mount Jerusalem sits dome-like to the south. And the distant Du Cane Range, which overlooks the Overland Track, serrates westward. I can see so many lakes – there are over 1,000 on the Central Plateau. Their calmness reflects the still waters within myself.
When I arrive at my wild camp later that afternoon, somewhere west of Daisy Lakes, I take a dip in the tarn beside my tent and nearly lose a leg. The lake bottom is like quicksand. I quickly un-suck it and opt to stay dirty, rather than drown in glutenous mud. I adjourn to a rocky outcrop and watch a scintillating technicolour sunset.
Gum trees whip and scratch my legs as Lake Thor appears sporadically through the melange. I cling to dead logs. Scoparia prickles my groin. This bushbash is steep; there doesn’t appear to be a songline through it. Sometimes though, you have to write your own sheet music.
Eventually I reach the shores of Lake Thor where wallaby tracks emerge once more. I weave through a gum forest strewn with boulders, taking regular compass readings to keep me on track for Mount Ophel, which will herald my arrival into the Walls. I skirt Lake Sidon and drop into Zion Vale, a lush, wide-open valley adorned with red flowers. I climb to a saddle, temporarily flummoxed by thick clusters of bush before finding a way onto Mt Ophel’s plateau pinnacle. I pitch up in a picturesque campspot overlooking the ominous walls of King David’s Peak (1,499m).
LIVING ON THE EDGE
Dawn mottles the sky deep oranges and reds. Grey clouds swoop in defiance of daybreak. A northwest wind has berated my tent for half the night. I’ve been awake since 3am, willing dawn to come so I can embark on a ridge top walk from King David’s Peak to Solomon’s Throne (1,469m).
My first task is to find the clearest route down Mt Ophel and onto the plains below. I track down several ridges before reaching a saddle that descends easily to the plains. There I bump into a local man – the first person I’ve seen for five days. He shows me a steep shortcut up to King David’s Peak. The path zigzags up scrubby slopes, into a forest of gums, and then across scree and boulders. Wind smashes against imposing rock turrets that rise beside me.
And then I’m on top.
Mist flirts with the summit, passing quickly at first before closing in. I search for cairns in the mist. They become further and further apart until I question whether I’m on the ridge top path anymore. The trail has become speculative; it feels as though I’m making it up. I cut across shrub roots to wider tracts of grass. The grass disappears. Boulders everywhere. The wind has died down. It’s nice to not be pounded anymore, but the wind’s absence means I’ve strayed from the ridge edge, my only guide in this mist. I wander onto an eerie moor suddenly feeling very lost.
I’ve taken compass readings for most of the way, using Solomon’s Throne as a bearing, but the terrain seems to be shepherding me away from it. Rain intensifies. Mist hangs heavier. I quicken my pace. Panic gnaws at the edge of my consciousness. I slip on a tree root and nearly fall into a bush. A booming voice inside my head commands me to turn back.
I take a few breaths. In. And out. In. And out.
The only way to accurately backtrack is to reverse my compass reading. Visibility is down to 20 metres, so I aim for unusually shaped boulders so not to lose my way. I take readings every minute. I half-recognise peculiar rocks and unique root clusters. I could’ve passed these earlier, although my brain could be tricking me: it may be appropriating landmarks and convincing me they’re familiar to allay concern.
Relief permeates as I spot a cairn stack. But I’m not out of the woods yet. Now I have to find the place on the ridge where I came up. Have I walked passed it? Did I see that cairn on the way here? Cairn stacks don’t necessarily mean I’m on the right path.
Something is definitely amiss. The cairns vanish and now there are a confusing amalgam of dolerite marbles dotted orange, black and white with lichen. I peer over perilous edges, over sheer slabs of rock. Every part of this ridge has the potential to yield a way down, at the beginning at least. But I don’t want to commit to a route only to reach a sheer slab and strand myself.
More deep breaths.
I’m talking to myself, encouraging trust. I’ve got this. But I’m stuttering. My fingers fumble with the compass. I track the outline of a fuzzy ridge before me. It’s running SSW. I cross-reference this with my map. Wind and rain makes map reading challenging. After several moments I deduce that I’ve gone too far.
My only option now is to systematically check every part of the ridge. This means scrambling off-track, peering over the edge, assessing the situation, and then scrambling back to the track if it’s a no-go. I repeat this for about fifteen minutes before eventually spying cairns and a clear track heading down. This is exciting, but I remind myself I still have to scramble down 300m of slippery rocks.
Halfway down the mist opens out and I can see tarns on the plain below. Mt Ophel and my tent sit misted out. I’ve decided to retrieve it and move to lower ground due to worsening weather, especially when another walker tells me there’s 50mm of rain forecast today.
Beige isn’t the best colour for a tent enveloped in mist and boulders, although I’m so tuned into what I’m doing after King David’s Peak that I reach the tent without drama. I rest briefly in the awning, smashing a block of chocolate before packing up and heading back down to the plain. There’s a hut 5km away. Hopefully it’ll be a good shelter to sleep through the oncoming rain.
I’ve been walking all day when I reach a ramshackle hut ensconced in a misty arena of tall gum trees. It’s spooky in the half-light of dusk. Wind rattles leaves, occasionally whipping through cracks in the hut. My clothes are saturated yet I’ve run out of water. Wild Dog Creek is surprisingly dry. A dehydration headache tap-dances on my temples. Water drips from the roof, so I place my canteen beneath it to catch as much as possible.
Animal snarers used to live in this hut throughout winter. I can’t imagine what that would’ve been like; it’s summer now and pretty cold. Trappers stayed here in colder months because possums and wallabies developed thicker coats to cope with freezing conditions. Thicker pelts fetched higher prices at the annual Mole Creek skin sale.
Wild Dog Creek isn’t quite rabid, but as I open the door of the hut the next morning I find water gushing past the entrance. I’ve got 150mm until the hut floods. It’s not super dry inside either. My sleeping bag and mattress have been dripped on all night due to a leaky roof. My canteen has collected a litre of water.
It’s mid-morning when an Italian man, drenched and anxious, bursts into the hut. We’re both surprised yet glad to see each other. A huge tarp covers his pack; he looks as though he has wings. He hauls out a bottle of wine and takes a large swig.
Nico has had a stressful night. The wind has been ferocious down here, and I feared falling gum limbs crushing the hut. Nico had a similar experience up on the plains near Mt Ophel, avoiding the drips in Dixon’s Kingdom Hut where the weather was worse.
We descend to the Walls car park, philosophising in the mist.
I contemplate the notion of internal rhythms inspired by footfalls, those intuitive beats conducted by the sun. Rising at dawn and bedding down at first dark is intrinsically linked to hearing and cultivating an inner guidance system across any landscape, be it geographic, psychological or emotional. I want to take back the rhythms from the plateau, to integrate them into the symphony of everyday life. But these songs aren’t for taking. They’re artefacts of the landscape. Remembering them is just a matter of slowing down, of walking to the beat of my heart. This is where the real music lies. This is where I’m reminded that the music is everywhere: in the swirling mysteries of mist, in the humdrum of urban streets, and in the call of monogamous swans gliding in the happy isolation of palatial plateaus.
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