Thursday, July 9, 2020

The North East Highland Way - Mt Victoria to Pyengana, Tasmania

This route is not the 'road less travelled' it is almost never travelled if the directions and markings are any indication. We were armed with an 8 year old blog of instructions by a 'Friends of the Blue Tier' member, some additional notes from 2015 listing updates to the track and ListMap downloads of the area. Let's say that a few things have changed, trees fallen and bracken grown over in that time to make way-finding a challenge. And ListMap, despite being a government mapping authority (or perhaps because it was) failed to list many roads and tracks which were present, and listed some on the map clearly in the wrong place. Good navigation abilities are required and we used the compass more than once. That said, the many detours we took could be avoided with the tips towards the end of this blog. We're hoping to get back to the route soon and tape sections more clearly to increase accessibility. Even then - this ain't no Three Capes.

It's originally listed as a 7-day hike but we planned for 3 and ended up doing it within 48 hours despite getting lost a few times. In retrospect, 3 days allows better appreciation of the area as we did a lot of night hiking over some of the more highly rated areas such as the Crystal Hill and Big Trees sections. After camping the night on the South Esk river outside Mathinna, we parked the car in a 'dogging spot' off the road between Mathinna and Ringarooma at the start of the Mount Victoria walking track. A short way into the track the pink tape started which became the difference between being on 'the route' and being hopelessly lost. It was a big leap of faith but, considering we had no idea how we'd get back to the car from the finish point at Halls Falls at Pyengana, that became the theme of the adventure. Crossing the lower slopes of Mount Victoria we dropped into deep, green rainforest, moss carpets, mist and magical beams of sunlight. Popping out at the Ralphs Falls car-park we had a laugh at the sign above the current cemented in gas BBQ asking for information regarding the theft of the last BBQ. We were a little more worried about where we'd parked the car then. This section and the following one heading past the falls and into Cash's Gorge would make an excellent day walk in themselves. Anyone with half a moss-obsession (#mossboner) would be stunned at the sphagnum and white spongy moss carpets underneath them. The white moss is VERY slippery!

Traversing the Rattler Range we missed most of the perfect weather in the forest but popped out 15 minutes before sunset to boil up some tea and coffee. We decided to push on in the dark taking the descent from the Rattler Hill summit with the vague directions of 'head north'. This ended with a half hour of stumbling around in the thick scrub and piecing together a route of long forgotten fire trails. 8 hours of walking later we pitched the tent at Ma Mon Chin Lake at a 'picnic spot' that hasn't been used in about 20 years. I then experienced my second night freezing using my new sleeping quilt. The idea was sound, giving me flexibility to get my feet out for temperature control. However the sleep mats we used were not insulated enough for anything other than a full sleeping bag. Apparently the Thermarest Neoair XTherm is the business so I've ordered that for next time.

Ralph's Falls

It took a while to get going the next day. Warm porridge and hot coffee helped wash down the ibuprofen. Carrying a 15 kilogram pack while hiking up hills must be the ultimate glute strengthener. It had rained a little overnight and putting on wet shoes is no fun. I was grumpy. Heading up Weld Hill for stage 4 of the route we lost an hour after missing the turn. The fire road looked to be going the wrong direction, but ended up right despite the instructions and the map indicating something very different. After three pieces of pink tape there were no more hints so we navigated onto the fibre optic cable line and eventually dropped down to the road 5 ks from Weldborough. After a short walk along, more pink tape took us down to Harridge Falls, a hidden local gem easily accessed by car for people with more sense. Finding no sign of the alleged track beside the river we walked on the road back to Weldborough to the start of the next leg. We expected the Weldborough pub to still be closed but John needed to investigate the amenities and it would be a good place to put the feet up. It's generally on Day 2 of adventures I discover the 'why' of the suffering. Gratitude for simple things.

Forest porn

After a prolonged period of being cold, sleep deprived and having wet feet, the sun came out. Walking on the road to Weldborough with the warmth on my back it was as if I was feeling the sun for the first time. Everything was new and amazing again. Other amazing things were declared:

When I packed arm warmers by mistake but they turned out to be the best gloves ever
Dry socks
Urinating on moss to minimise splash back
A log to put a foot on to avoid bending over to tie shoes
Bowel movements
Sneezing without covering my mouth and nose

We were getting ready to leave the pub when suddenly Satan appeared to tempt us. He was disguised as John Brakey, proprietor of Weldborough and Branxholm Hotels, and he offered us a room and a warm fire as an alternative to the hours of trekking and, no doubt, sleepless night in a cold tent. A 'couples conference' ensued and we decided, despite the kind offer, that we'd continue with our foolishness. It was interesting, after reveling in the simplicity, suffering and new appreciation of things, how easily we could have given that up for some immediate comfort. It struck me how often we must do this every day in our 'normal lives'. How much more happiness and gratitude are we missing by being distracted by continuous comfort and avoiding discomfort? We did accept a second kind offer of a lift back to Branxholm from Pyengana at the end of our adventure. We now had a schedule and had to be finished by 12pm the following day.

After keeping dry socks all morning we were up to our knees in creek crossings on the Old Blue Tier climb. Well, John was up to his knees while I had to take my pants off. Reaching the top just after sunset we settled in to some more night time navigation with success equal to the previous night. After more vague instructions and over-shooting the track we found the old aerial haulage route and headed down. Old mine shafts were taped off on either side of us with plenty of 'Danger' signs and mining machinery relics littered the trail. The instructions said to head down then West but neglected to say at what point we turned. After following tape going in the right direction we were bush bashing through bracken and well off track. All the adventure books say, at this point, the best strategy is to make a brew and think. We cooked up some couscous in the forest on the steep slope, threw a bothy bag over us for warmth, and thought. We then almost set the bothy bag on fire while trying to boil water for our brews. Kicking back, quite warm, content and well fed we thought that staying here wouldn't be too bad if we had to wait until morning to get out. Then we saw the leeches climbing up the bothy bag. Exit, stage left.

Eventually we retraced our steps, ignored the directions and followed more tape straight down the mountain, miraculously popping out at the right spot on the fire trail. After those frustrating hours it felt like a small victory to still be on the route after seriously contemplating skipping the whole section via the road. Back into more tape on Crystal Hill down the Groom River which was quite well marked and looked like a regular tourist haunt. After crossing the river the tape dried up and we eventually elected to just head up-hill in southerly-ish direction and hoped to hit the Blue Tier Giant Walk, which passes the widest living tree in Australia. After reading some blogs, post-adventure, there is apparently a very clear path from the Giant Walk down to the Groom River that we were unable to find close to midnight. After 14 hours of hiking we finally pitched up on Lehner's Ridge Road under a perfectly clear sky and full moon. All leeches were left outside.

Here leechy, leechy...

The alarm was a rude awakening but we didn't want to miss our ride. After 5 ks of fireroad we bashed around in the scrub for a bit more trying to find the track along the Groom River to Halls Falls. Having lost most of our patience and running out of time we got back out on Anchor Road and walked the long way around to Halls Falls making the end of the route within 48 hours with 3 minutes to spare. Curiosity got the better of us and we looked for the trail along the river from the Falls end. There was pink tape waving defiantly at us. Argh! We know it's out there and we'll be back to find it! As we gathered our packs in the carpark John Brakey drove up the dirt road as promised.

After fouling his car with our unwashedness (even the dog was appalled), we savoured a hot shower at the Branxholm hotel. Real food got added to our list of amazing things - a burger with the lot at the General Store in Derby and the Sunday pork roast at the pub. All washed down with many beverages with the locals until the wee hours (OK, it was all over at 8pm but it FELT late). And then bed. Beds that are warm, and that you don't have to inflate are so amazing.

The rest of Sunday was spent checking out the Little Blue Lake at South Mount Cameron and strolling gently around Lake Derby. Sadly the new floating sauna is not yet operational. This hike is a cracker and we saw so many things we never would have known about. Next time you're headed to Derby and Weldborough, it's worth doing some digging on the local treasures and history.

Little Blue Lake. Old tin mine. Looks nice but very acidic and polluted. 

A massive thank you to John Brakey for literally being our knight in shining armour. You really made our adventure. We encourage everyone to support local business and people like John who are getting back on their feet after a rough few months. The Branxholm Hotel is open for business and the Weldborough Hotel is scheduled for a September opening and we hope to see the visitors flocking back then.

Finished!! A proper adventure
Route tips:

1. Aerial photos from Google Maps are better than ListMap alone. Particularly on the route from the Trig point on Rattler Hill. There MAY be a taped track through the Star of Peace forest, but if you follow the Ma Looey road down it will put you out at the right route to hit Mt Paris Dam Rd.

2. Take a hiking partner and a PLB. There is no phone signal and no one will ever find you if you get into trouble.

3. Trust the tape on Weld Hill. As you're climbing (well before the official summit) the first fireroad with tape looks wrong but keep following it down. Look out for the start of the optic fibre line on your right and hop on it ASAP. Follow the road and drop down to the falls when you see pink tape again.

4. Do not go to the summit of Australia Hill. Follow the Summit Mine sign, toward the aerial haulway. Once descending for some time, tape will lead you to the right. Follow it but KEEP LOOKING for tape which starts going down hill again soon after. If you're up to your armpits in ferns, you've gone too far.

5. We didn't find the official route from the Groom River to the Big Tree. Following the river along until just below the tree and head up. You can use ListMap with GPS without a phone signal.

6. No tips about the last leg along the Groom River to Hall's Falls. The track is definitely there. I'd stay as close to the river as possible after going around the hill.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Pine Valley, Tasmania - Last chance training

Get up, eat, run 20ks to appointment, run 10ks to post office, run 11ks home. This is how I fit in my last long run before Gone Nuts 50. It would have been ‘ideal’ to do the whole run continuously. But I don’t live in ‘ideal’ right now. I live in ‘do what you can, when you can’. Once home I threw all our pack-hiking kit in the car, grabbed left overs from the fridge for dinner on the run, and picked up John on the way to Lake St Clair. The BOM had forecast average weather but it was our first weekend without kids and without me working for months. We have to grab opportunities like that with both hands, especially with the Tasmanian summer receding quickly. However, there were no signs of that recession as we sweated our way through the two-hour night hike to Echo Point cabin and put up our tent quietly just after midnight. Apart from a few surprised possums and magnificent wedge tailed eagle on the way to the park, all the other wildlife was sleeping.

Salt and vinegar rice crackers. Essential for any proper adventure.

 Despite clear signs in the park cabins to be courteous of other campers, I was woken in the morning by a woman with a hyena-laugh who was apparently talking to the most hilarious man in the southern hemisphere. She was American. Figures. But it was 8am so it was time to porridge then trek the 12km to Pine Valley where we planned to leave our packs and do some lighter traveling up the mountains. About halfway in we stopped for hot beverages and found out that our gas cannister was empty despite John’s calculations that we’d not used anything close to the 24 boils cited on the can. Apparently we should have used this website’s advice instead of having a philosophical argument about what constitutes a boil. John seemed slightly nervous that I wouldn’t be able to make coffee for the next 24 hours. His nervousness was justified.

John's "oh shit" face. My "you're a dead man" face. Slightly more difficult to pick.

My legs were a bit fatigued from the 50+km the day before but up to The Acropolis we headed, feeling quite ‘bouncy’ with only our light running packs, jackets and some snacks. The jackets turned out to be unnecessary (but ALWAYS taken anyway) as we scrambled to the northern point of the summit overlooking Mount Geryon. Just, wow. A clear day surveying the bowl formed by the Du Cane Range, with its jagged dolerite has got to be one of the best views in the country. I’d recommend a morning foray to get the sun’s rays bringing the quintessential Tasmanian rock into relief. The air was so still and we struggled to remember when we’d lingered on a summit without thermals. Oh yes. Frenchman’s Cap. But we try not to relive that day.

Mount Geryon from The Acropolis. Breathtaking.

We half ran, half fell down the steep descent and, back at the hut, managed to trade some phone charging from our power pack for some gas to heat our dehydrated meals. We’d started chatting to two sisters and their friend from the Queensland Sunshine Coast who were almost finished the Overland Track. They were very well-prepared with home-made dehydrated meals and sufficient chocolate stores. Once finished they were renting a campervan and then hitting the Three Capes track. We had some furious rounds of Uno with them before hitting the bunk beds. There was only one other sharing the very modern hut so I was reasonably confident of getting a good night’s sleep. However, the temperatures plummeted with the clear skies so some more bodies and associated heat might have been useful. I’m considering bringing a pressure gauge to ensure the correct PSI of my sleeping mat for that ‘Goldilocks’ experience. So far, the test is to sit on my mat and let just enough air out that my bottom touches the floor. This means I’m lying IN the bed instead of bouncing on top. And who brings +10C sleeping bags to the Tasmanian Highlands?

Overlooking the Labyrinth. Not sure what John found so interesting about those rocks.

After two days of heavy pack walking, soaking feet in ice cold creeks and no phone reception, I’ve discovered the true meaning of peace. I could imagine spending a lot more time in that area, with warmer sleeping gear of course. We met two rangers over the weekend and both where very friendly and resources of information. We learned what Devil poo looks like which is important. One ranger also commented on the different experiences that people call camping. The camping that’s often observed in holiday parks involves basically bringing your home outdoors. Sinks, refrigerators, televisions. And usually a lot of booze which seems mandatory and the at the root of most of the negative camping experiences I’ve had. I’ve commented to a few people that Derby, which used to feel very safe and family-friendly, now seems overrun with young men under the influence of alcohol who roam through the campsite at midnight with their ‘doof doof’ at maximum decibels. At other ‘car camping’ locations I’ve also dreaded sun down as the temporary inhabitants fall further under the influence of the JD and coke UDLs they’ve been consuming since midday. I can’t imagine anyone like that venturing out into the mountains. Sure, the Overland track is heavily trafficked and not considered ‘extreme’ by most mountain people. However, it is still a wild place and things can go really wrong if people aren’t prepared. Rangers at the start of the track assess people and turn them back if it looks like amateur hour. At any rate, UDLs weigh too much to cart 65k through the mountains. I’m sure people have many different reasons to venture out to these remote locations, but I do wonder at the similarities between them when it comes to the appreciation of nature, silence and respect for the quiet enjoyment of others.

Waiting for the boat back to Cynthia Bay. Inhaled about 30 March flies while trying to nap.

I do believe there are very good reasons to keep some places less accessible and only for those who are willing to put in the effort to get there. Instead of changing the landscape to suit us, we might better consider how the journey can change and develop us as human beings.

The Labyrinth. Didn't make it through. Next time.

Flight Centre
Wild Earth
Infinit Nutrition
Ride Mechanic
NS Dynamics

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Good Day

When I came to Hobart in April 2017, it was the start of a new life. Different state, new partner and future friends. I also had to re-establish a business in a town where I didn't know many people. I was lucky that, through my racing, quite a few people knew me. I had delivered skills training as part of national development training camps, but teaching absolute beginners wasn't something I had a lot of experience in. But there was so much demand for it in Hobart. It is literally a mountain biker's paradise but there were scant coaches and those that were here had other full time jobs to balance.

Reconnecting with an old friend, Russ, led to the YMCA MTB program being established in 2017. It was literally over a coffee we decided that Hobart really needed a kids mountain biking program. It was designed to run the duration of a usual school day and cost about the same as holiday care to make it a valid alternative. So we kicked off the program. We've had frost, sideways rain, heatwaves and glorious days in the sun. The sessions built; sold out; we created more sessions. We added venues which proved to be a challenge with the steep terrain and lack of toilet facilities.

Today, in our third year of the program, we had 19 first-time attendees at Tolosa Park. We keep coming back to Tolosa due to the facilities and trails. They're not the flowiest, jumpiest or more groomed. But they offer varied riding experiences, easy climbing and the open terrain makes it easy to supervise 19 kids. Also, having a shelter to come back to for lunch and clean toilets makes the experience better for all. It was a great day. Hot, but no flat tyres and all the blood stayed on the inside of the riders.

The smallest girl today would have been barely eight years old. She was struggling up the climbs with a bike with plus size tyres. Sure it rolled over things like a tractor, but those tyres are heavy for a little girl to ride all day. I walk at the back with her. She wants to stop. Her legs are tired. She doesn't like being away from her mum for this long she tells me. I listen. And then we keep walking up the climb. Moving forward. She rides when she can and walks when it's too steep. The kids asked me about my tattoo. It's a shark with the word "incesante". I ask them if they've seen Finding Nemo and remember the part where Dory says "just keep swimming"? I say that's what it means. And this girl is doing that. Just when I think she's about to give up she says "You know, sometimes you have to earn it. The fun stuff. We'll have fun riding down the hill but we have to earn it going up." Such wisdom from an 8 year old.

At pick-up time at the end of the day, some of the kids chattered excitedly about the day to their parent. Some were just ready for a big nap. It's quite a big day for them. Eventually Russ and I are left at the shelter together. We started remembering the start of the program, the progress we've made as coaches. And tremendous buzz we get from seeing progress in the riders. Every session there's one or two kids who we wonder "are they going to make it through the day?" They are usually the ones we beam about afterwards seeing how they progressed from nervousness and tears to riding with confidence. But it's bigger than riding bikes. We thank the more confident kids for their patience to allow the less confident to learn. We give kids responsibilities to teach them about looking out for each other. We let them push their own bikes to give them a feeling of self-efficacy and determination. Earning the fun stuff. A girl told me today she really "pushed outside her comfort zone". I felt honoured that we had created a space where she felt safe to do that. We both have other roles and jobs, but these sessions - these are the best days. We throw around some exciting ideas for the future (you'll just have to wait!) and agree that what we ultimately want, is to make a positive difference in people's lives. We say our goodbyes until the next morning for round two.

I head up the North South Track for my own ride. The day is finally getting cooler and it's been a while since I've been on this trail. It's a solid hour up hill on my heavy bike but my heart is full. A couple of kids fly around the corner in front of me, enjoying the descent. They brake heavily so we can all pass safely. One of them is a boy who has come to numerous YMCA session over the years. I remember him and his brother well. Nervous beginners. Not any more. He's grown a lot over the few years. And he speaks so adult here now. He greats me warmly and says I'm doing well riding up the mountain. His dad gave them both a lift to the Springs. That's cheating I say but I won't say 'no' if they want to offer me one next time. We have a laugh, chat about the snakes they've seen and then they're on their way, flying back down the mountain. I played a small part in that, I think. I watch them go and my heart is absolutely bursting.

I'm so grateful for the opportunities I've had. And so grateful to be in this place. Today was a good day.