A Hike in Tasmania’s South West
Midday, we are to leave at midday. Our amateur interpretation of synoptic charts of the Deep South suggests a good-weather window over the coming week. Bags are packed and repacked. “I guess we’re ready,” I say, for tomorrow, at midday, our lift from Hobart to Lake Pedder in Tasmania will take us to point A of a planned trek along the Port Davey and South Coast track, ideally skipping out at Cockle Creek on the south-eastern point of the island in roughly 16 days’ time’. We are William, and this is I, James. So tomorrow, midday: the start.
Our lift arrives on schedule: solid beginning. We head west towards looming dark boils of cloud. Today will be clear as per yesterday’s analysis of the synoptic charts, will it not?
Two hours in, we stop to visit the towering swamp gum trees and, you wouldn’t read about it (although you are) – it’s snowing. No shit. Fast forward one-and-a-half hours and we enter the campground of Lake Pedder. A surreal rainbow arcs across the Jurassic landscape, highlighting the fringe of South-West National Park. We wonder whether our weather interpretations might be out, or whether, indeed, anyone can forecast the schizophrenic South-West.
As we pull up, a police helicopter circles and an ABC reporting van drives by. Strange? This is not the Gold Coast. This is not an edgy Melbourne suburb. There is another tent sent up in the area: nice to know we have some fellow hikers pitched in for the evening; some solace in the wilderness to know others are sharing the isolation. The friends-of-friends who drive us in, Lisa and Dave, wave goodbye – a lovely couple. Dave looks near identical to myself. Very queer.
Night comes early. It is bitterly cold. We are in our sleeping bags. The distant whirr of the helicopter still simmers through the dark, cyclical shiverings of atoms as the soundwaves burr and bump from somewhere out in the sky. We are men in our late 20s, yet there is a tangible fear we cannot rationalise. The emptiness – the darkness – is earthen and humbling, but it is something else. Furthermore, our unseen companions in that tent never make a presence.
I wake at 3am, maybe 2. I am simply terrified of the dark eerie silence the wilderness resonates. Surely we have made a colossal mistake in planning this 150-kilometre hike into one of the most remote, rugged areas of Australia. I pull my sleeping bag about me, shiver, and eventually, sleep. May this be a nightmare. I can only hope.
7am sheds light on the tent. I begin to inform William of my epiphany during the early hours of the morning: hitchhike the hell out of there and back to the comforts of Hobart, by a fire in the remarkable Pickled Frog Hostel. He laughs it off in a very unconvincing it-will-be-okay kind of way. As I unzip the tent, a swarm of news reporters and police literally come out of the woodwork – the tent setup adjacent to us belongs to a father and son who have been missing for two nights. We converse with a local police officer who happens to be a real character, so much so that his stoke for living propels us towards our original plan – the trek.
Details on the father and son are sparse. Are they missing? Are they fugitives? Where have they gone? Our first thought is Who has taken them? Is it some kind of Wolf Creek situation? But perhaps more terrifying is the thought that they have not been taken by a who, but by nothing: by the mountains, the rocks, the trees, the Earth. I think once more of the Picked Frog Hostel’s roaring fire, and look at William, but his countenance is set. I don’t mention it again.
So low and behold, us two Hobbits in a Lord of The Rings set trot off into the woods with relatively blue sky and a constant un-fatigued velocity. The first rain falls about one hour into the hike; prior to this, we notice snow has fallen the previous evening along the Western-Arthurs Range. In sync with the rainfall, we come across our first patch of mud along the goat track, reminding one vividly of photographs from the First World War. Surreally, the two helicopters circled overhead trying to figure out who we are and why we are walking along this hellish terrain in such vile weather – are we the missing father and son? No, no we were not.
It’s mid-afternoon when we arrive at our first camp at the foothills of The Arthurs. As we set up our tent a policeman comes out of the trees to inform us that they have found the two missing, describing them as alive, though only just. He and another search crew of six will soon be choppered out, leaving the vast area to us – and what a vast area that is.
An unforeseen (although in retrospect, all-too-predictable) creature soon makes its debut as we fill our water containers in the creek: leeches. These servants of The Count are near impossible to exterminate without fire and will, I repeat, will suck your blood until they literally fall off you as a result of yielding their maximum capacity. Elusive and deceptively fast-moving, the leeches prove to pester us the entire journey. Our mode of transport of an evening is via a large garbage bag, shuffling about. This ensures that 85 per cent of the time, leeches will not latch onto feet and risk contaminating the tent. Obviously the bastards sometimes evade this tactic, and absolute terror reigns.
Day two begins swimmingly, purely because we are alive. We tramp around the western side of The Arthurs in awe of its rugged beauty and the drastic harsh lines that outline the range whenever the clouds momentarily lift, opening out towards a view of the south and valleys to the far west. Areas that have seen near-zero human intervention, scattered with Ent-like trees and surely, surely Tasmanian Tiger colonies. While I try to paint a picture of sheer visionary beauty, the wind and rain lays us down in torrents. The ground feels like mud, looks like mud and squelches like mud. It is mud.
We arrive at camp two in the fall of the afternoon by a creek that seems to have a hidden bridge in order to be crossed. It soon becomes evident that ongoing rain has been a contributing factor towards the destruction of a log bridge sometime in the past. William loses paper, scissors, rock, and determines the depth to be an average of knee-height at its centre – no worries for the following morning.
It is the morning; the rain has refused to cease. In fact, the creek levels have risen, and the current looks deceptively strong. It is my turn to be the test dummy. I am naked; the water mark flows above my belly button en route to just below my third nipple hair, the stones on the bottom are ever-so-slippery, and yes, the water is so damn cold. Somehow, with our bags above our heads and all of the concentration we can muster, the other side is reached. We set off once again just as the rain picks up – the heartless, unforgiving rain.
Very little is said for the next few hours. I believe we both go into a deep, subconscious, autopilot state, pondering topics at great randomness: what is actually happening when we dream? What would I prefer on a piece of toast right now, if push came to shove? Hunger brings us back into the current realm of existence, and we gorge on tuna and crackers with lightning speed, ruthlessly hungry.
Tramping is hard – hot damn it is hard. To put things into perspective, William and I brewed up this pipedream a few years back and came to lock it in only three months prior. Of course, back then we promised ourselves an intensive training regime leading up to the big dog. This did not happen.
The following few days are a savage slog through absolutely, well-and-truly horrendous conditions – horrendous. Nature consistently tears us apart, whether it’s the uneven boggy mud sucking our soul into the Earth or trees arching at right angles to catch ahold of our grotesquely large backpacks. You are entirely correct and hold such a valid point when you ask the simple question: “Well, why did they do it?” We too asked this exact question repeatedly, and to this day continue to digest it.
I am on a boat. William rows, the wind is fierce, and why are our bags containing the EPIRB (emergency beacon) across the other side of the channel? I notice William’s facial expression change dramatically from a chirpy Sound of Music scene to Armageddon in a matter of seconds. I jump on one oar to help; we row in a sliding, zigzag fashion towards the other side. Three trips are made in this fashion with high wind at the run of the tide. Yes, it could have been very pear shaped if we were blasted into the abyss, which we were alarmingly close to doing, but we make it.
With blown-out shoulders, we lug our gear towards the end of the Port Davey track towards the home of the great Denny King in Melaleuca. Here, we rest our bodies and minds for a day, smoke tea and search for the endangered Orange Bellied Parrot. We break into the rangers’ hut, eat their peanut butter and shit in their thunderbox. We are invincible. That is until we wake up the following day and come to terms with the fact that we must continue another seven days of walking in order to reach our end point at Cockle Creek.
The far-south coast greets us with its salty air; oh how we have missed the sea and its shells by the sea shore. A light drizzle follows us along to our campsite for the evening, to where we will soon meet another three imbeciles just like us, walking in the rain. The tall man, Neil, gave up smoking one-week prior. Dazed and beaten to a pulp, he swears at the forest and curses at the heavens. His sister-in-law and wife, Judith, have dragged him along. He confesses to us later that he honestly thinks his wife is trying to kill him, the last holiday being shark diving and before that a brutal trek in the Himalayas. The South Coast track has proven to be another physical and mental hurdle that no bastard can train for.
Now, I could go into detail of each day along the track, each momentous event, but it will bore you. From weaving through endless tree roots on a 45 degree pitch of mud with sleet and horizontal precipitation for hours on end, to hiding one’s faeces under rocks (because fuck digging a hole with your bare hands – it’s too cold), to hundreds of mutton birds dying around us, literally taking their last breaths in the cyclonic conditions. There were moments of glory when the sun would pierce through the clouds and we’d close our eyes to face the fireball and realise the need for much less in a society that craves much more.
It was on the 14th day that we emerged out of Cockle Creek, signing an end to our journey through the extreme South West. Our muscles were utterly exhausted. We limped, we shared our last Freddo Frog and we met our hitchhiking ride out: a gentleman by all means who would feed us by a fire and not drug us in an Ivan Milat style fashion.
Would we do the trek again?