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.

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