David Cauldwell travels to Tasmania's Western Arthur Mountains to celebrate a birthday milestone, to age in a timeless place.
Protruding boldly in the Southwest corner of Tassie is a mountain range that invigorates one’s sense of being alive. I don’t usually celebrate birthdays, but I wanted to acknowledge turning 40 by doing something that symbolises how I want to approach the second half of my life, how I want to walk towards death full of vitality.
There’s nothing like a foul-mouthed southerly to rattle your bones into life. As my hiking buddy, Steve, and I step onto the range we’re immediately slapped with a gusty greeting replete with horizontal rain. Mist hangs like the Grim Reaper’s scythe. It was almost 40 degrees here yesterday, when we’d arrived at the start of our 11-day walk at Scotts Peak Dam. Today the wind chill is pushing the temperature close to freezing.
Head down, keep moving. It’s the only way to stay warm in the bowels of such weather.
We’re beelining for Lake Cygnus. I open my mouth as we descend to the lake. Raindrops fly straight in. It’s a zero-effort method of hydration, possibly the only benefit of horizontal rain. The path gushes. Walkways to the campsites are flooded.
Morning hail pings off the tent. Wind whistles across Lake Cygnus like a ravenous banshee swan. We’re not going anywhere in this.
In one of the brief breaks in rain, I get out of the tent to pee and pull a muscle in my back. I know instantly that I’ll be out of action for at least a day, possibly longer. I crawl back into the tent feeling a mixture of anger and concern.
RAT SCAT? DON’T FANCY THAT!
In the fuzzy depths of night, disorientated and cold, I’m disturbed by a nibbling sound. Something is trying to get in and eat my food. I bang the side of the tent. Scuttling paws rustle bin bags in the awning. They keep me awake most of the night. As dawn seeps through the canvas, I notice a tiny hole in the side of my tent. My backpack side pocket has been chewed and there’s slimy rat scat everywhere.
It’s time to leave Lake Cygnus and head to Square Lake, from which we can base camp and bag Orion, Procyon and Sirius. My back is better after a couple of days rest, but the weather isn’t. We trudge in mist to the gloomy edges of Square Lake where rain starts pouring. Campsites here are exposed, boggy and uneven, so we persevere to Lake Oberon clambering down a slippery rock face. I waltz with pandanis growing over the path. Again, we’re cold and saturated upon arrival at camp. It’s the fourth day in a row where our walking gear and tents are sopping.
YOU CANNOT BE SIRIUS!
Today is my birthday and I’m getting desperate.
I standing on the misty shores of Oberon watching the sun peek intermittently through the clouds. I climb on top of a rock and start banging two stones together to invoke a sunny dalliance. I soon become self-conscious, so revert to other, more discrete (and useless) hand gestures to coax it out.
Rain tumbles as Steve and I head for the summit of Mt Sirius. Seriously, how long can this rain last? We wait around. The sun teases, periodically poking through mist only to be smothered again. The weather gets worse. We get back to camp.
The rain has stopped so I move outside and sit in Oberon’s misty cauldron. Fog mimics a burlesque dancer hitching up her stocking, tempting me with a view of the Promised Land – the ridgeline – before descending once again. It’s like I’m inside a gigantic lung watching the landscape breathe as mist rises and falls. Disappointment disappears more with each breath. I decide that this journey will become an annual pilgrimage. And the fact I’ve seen none of it means its mystique has been preserved.
Steve’s been out of his tent for over half an hour. It’s 3:30am.
“The moon is out and all the mist has gone,” he says on his return. “It woke me up shining through the tent.”
I stumble outside and marvel at an illuminated Mt Pegasus. The ridgeline towards Square Lake is silhouetted, jagged and dramatic. Everything is calm and clear. I know instantly that our trip is back on.
It’s taken six days, but at last it looks as though we’re in for a sunny stint. We leave camp early and scramble to the summit of Mt Orion, from which Mountains Pegasus and Capricorn appear like the backs of arched dinosaurs.
We head to Mt Sirius for lunch, to another grandstand view. The Western Arthurs open up before me, seemingly revealing their beauty after I let go of needing to see them. I gaze far below, at a network of streams feeding into Oberon. They create what looks like a Dreamtime tadpole whose head bows before the tannin mouth of Oberon, as if it’s about to fertilise a humungous egg, about to spawn a legend. Pandanis stand out like Tina Turner wigs. Oberon is a bottomless custodian, a portal into mountains that are empowering me beyond words. For out here, emblazoned atop sun-kissed Sirius, I’m the pure embodiment of myself regardless of age and social stigma.
Procyon is our next peak. I feel like a pioneer following vague footpads through bristly scrub, zigzagging up a scree slope before clambering over boulders to reach a windy summit. There’s a ridge top walk back to Mt Orion, but daylight is fading and the route looks complicated. We return to Oberon whence we came where I find a big hole in the side of my tent. I smell a rat. It’s also chewed through a towel, my sleeping bag bag, and through two plastic bags only to discover that it doesn’t like my muesli. But nothing can take the smile off my face. Nothing can detract from this amazing day.
STING IN THE TAIL
They appear suddenly, two stark silhouettes against a creamy dusk sky that swirls with mist. A Belgian couple trudge into camp with drooping demeanours. The woman, cute with blonde hair poking out of her beanie, lost her sleeping bag when the couple took a wrong turn atop Mt Pegasus. They’d ended up tangled in a sheer gully where her sleeping bag snagged on the trees and fell down the mountain.
It’s no wonder they went astray. They have no map, no compass – just an app on their phone alerting their current GPS location. The woman’s partner, a bearded man with belligerent determination in his eyes, bemoans her for strapping the sleeping bag to the outside of her pack. Only now are they realising that this terrain is far more challenging than they’d anticipated. Without checking any forecast, this couple blindly set out to capture “the shot” of Lake Oberon and traverse the range in three days; it takes most competent ridge blazers five or six. Kilometres in the Western Arthur range don’t equate to those on the Belgian flats. But the man has an agenda. And as I watch them plod towards the most technically challenging part of the traverse, the Beggary Bumps, I send prayers for their safe passage. And that upcoming Mt Scorpio has no sting in its tail.
I sit atop Dorado Peak, a conical summit visible from our campsite at High Moor, trying to spot the Belgians’ progress over the Bumps, and out towards the horned summit of Mt Taurus. Their bright red pack covers remain anonymous amidst the greenery. My mind conjures morbid newspaper headlines as the sun dips below the horizon. We’ve moved to Mt Columbia’s summit, just up from High Moor, and watch the sky turn pink, purple and navy blue. Sirius and Orion twinkle overhead, coruscating chaperones on this ebullient journey.
A SIMPLE EQUATION
I’m on constant lookout for stray red pack covers as I negotiate the Beggary Bumps, for signs of an off-track fall. We reach the campsite at Haven Lake and take a side-trip to Mt Alderbaran. I gaze into the tannin depths of Lake Mars far below, at its half-moon beach. Last night I had visions of the Belgian couple lying destitute at the bottom of a gully where no human has ever been, their legs at improbable angles as they fade in and out of consciousness.
After a long trudge off the range, back in the car, I receive a call from an SES helicopter pilot. It seems I’m not the only one who is concerned for the Belgians’ welfare; someone has raised an alarm. The pilot is calling all people from the logbook that may have seen the Belgians before initiating a proper search.
The Arthurs fade and eeriness descends. It’s strange to think I could be the last person who saw them alive, that my birthday bushwalk could also be someone’s death march in February. It’s also strange to think how close we were to aborting five days ago. Since those five mist- and rain-blighted days at the beginning, we’ve had five still, clear and sunny days. It’s the perfect balance, one equalised in only a way the magical Arthurs can.
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