Chapter 18     THE RESERVE

At the end of the year as planned, June, Betty and I went to Liverpool by train and from there carried our heavy packs to the highway and began to hitchhike to Melbourne taking several days, and then to the wharf to catch the boat to Tasmania. We got various lifts to Derwent Bridge in the centre of Tasmania and walked to the camp ground at Lake St Clair. While waiting for the others we did some washing, relaxed and got our bearings. Soon Brian and Bev arrived and that night we all piled into one of the primitive huts near the lake.

"I'll eat as much as I can tonight, that will be less to carry tomorrow," I thought, making custard with powdered milk, custard powder and a little sugar, to follow my dried vegetables.

Inside a sleeping bag the five bodies became rather genderless. I knew that nothing improper would happen. Home and domestic matters seemed so remote that their importance diminished. But I did wonder how Mum was? What would she think about us sharing a hut with a boy? Had she accepted my assurances that there was NO romance on bushwalking trips? Members did not wander away in pairs. It was kept outside the club events. The interests of the group had priority and we got to know each other better. Living was here and now and we would not jeopardise our futures. Mum had of course warned me not to dress provocatively or put myself in a vulnerable or compromising position, at first saying that older men were probably not a major problem, then retracting that to say some older men have less self control. To me it was no longer an issue. I was no longer in a position of feeling powerless. And I was not restricted by a moral point of view, only my own common sense.

The next morning Brian set out to the post office and came back after we had "brunched", to say that the rest of the party including John and Russ, our leader, had arrived and were camped nearby. Having written home brief accounts of ourselves and also made up parcels of various "extras" (including our frocks and sandals brought to get dressed on the "Taroona" but rejected as not warm enough), we sent the latter "poste restante" to Hobart. Paper and string were pretty scarce in our gear and the post master looked queerly at the assortment of wrapping and tying materials we had found. This longer trip was a lesson in what is REALLY essential.

TasmaniaCradle Mountain and Dove Lake, Tasmania, Dec 1955
Photo by Brian Petrie

Feeling energetic John, Brian, Malcolm and I climbed Mt Rufus, following a track that began just behind the Ranger's place. It was quite a climb, reaching about 4800 feet and we were well rewarded with a grand view in all directions. The Ranger had told us that over 400 peaks mainly dolerite, can be picked out from this point and that one can see 70 miles on a clear day including Mt Olympus, Mt Ida, Mt Ossa and the Acropolis, named by the surveyor with an interest in Greek culture who discovered the area in 1835. We were particularly interested in picking out Frenchman's Cap, a later destination for our group. There were numerous lakes of varying sizes in the valleys so different from typical NSW scenery. Also different from what I had learnt at school about glacial valleys. These were much more ancient, thousands of times as old.

"Look there's some snow," I cried and began to rush down to the small drift not far below.


"Hey wait a minute," demanded the photographers who wanted me, as the only non-photographer, to be the model, sitting and gazing at the dolerite peaks, eroded rugged mountains, the glacial lakes and the barren wastes, until they were satisfied that they had suitable pictorial records of the climb. Then we were racing down to the little patch of clean crisp granular snow which had remained there in all weathers when all around had melted. I know it was not proper snow, but it was white and wet and the boys had fun getting me thoroughly sopping and freezing, especially the seat of my shorts and the back of my neck. Needless to say we all enjoyed my first glimpse of snow.

We went across the lake by launch and set out to see the beauties of the Lake St Clair-Cradle Mountain Scenic Reserve. The Reserve was declared in 1922, the lake named by the discoverer after a family from Loch Lomond, Scotland. We had about eight miles to walk to Pine Valley Hut, over a creek on a swaying wooden bridge, over swampy plains covered with button grass and cushion plants. The button grass grows in large tussocks on marshy plains at a high altitude, and when the plant flowers, small "buttons" appear at the end of upstanding slender stalks. The plants grow very close together for mile after mile and are not easy to walk through. At first we tried to hop from clump to clump, then we gave up and just ploughed through. The cushion plants grow about a foot high and up to a yard across. Often several kinds are mingled in a big "cushion" with a mosaic effect. Sometimes a "cushion" is quite hard and firm to step on; in a swampy place you may go in to your ankles. If you are really unlucky, you may leave a shoe behind.

Pine Valley Hut had six bunks and a couch. Each bunk held two quite comfortably, three when the hut was crowded. Betty slept between June and me in an effort to keep warm. We found that a tent peg could be slipped between the boards to prod the person above if he talked too much. We decided in future to claim bottom bunks. There was also a fireplace, a board table with benches and a large box for firewood and an axe. Other walkers in a hut added to the confusion with cooking on the open fire, but also to the manpower for collecting wood, the volume of singing and the variety of songs also the means of spreading germs. One walker seemed to have flu.

Next day we climbed to the foot of the Acropolis and saw a waterfall where the sunlight came creeping down through the trees and made the wet leaves and the spray shimmer. At the end of our route we sat on a rock to admire the cliffs of the Acropolis before us, Mt Gould stretching away to the left and Du Cane Gap (tomorrow's walk) on the right. All around us we noticed curiously tinted trees. They were obviously bent by a strong and constant wind for they all leaned in one direction, the windward side being coloured various shades of grey, the other being a number of russet hues.

Because of the crowded manner in which the trees grew, the branches of the evergreen beeches or "myrtle" trees (Nothofagus cunninghamii) were intertwined and most of the sun was blocked out. The leaves were small and stiff and waxy, the foliage had a feathery appearance.

All the branches and rugged knobbly boles were yellow and green with mosses and silvery with lichens. A large orange fungus was parasitic. The ground was carpeted with small roundish fallen leaves and strewn with rotten mossy logs. This was as eerie as a scene from Walt Disney. It was the creepy setting for elfin mischief, for trees to stretch out their green fingers and catch your clothes, for the ground to open up and swallow you. At that moment we knew why we had come. This was magic. We pushed on, having escaped from the enchanted forest into the sunshine by a creek, we saw a group of Scouts from the ship. We greeted each other like long-lost friends.

Pelion Chalet was rather newer, less rustic for our night's accommodation. Three young men were in possession but soon moved over.

Next day while we were having lunch, I didn't feel too well but I wanted to go with the rest of the party on a side trip up Mt Ossa. It would be utterly miserable to be left in the hut all day, so in spite of what everyone thought and in spite of being called a "silly cow", I would go.

Pelion chalet TasmaniaPelion Hut , Tasmania

We trailed along the two miles up hill and down dale until we arrived at the turnoff to Mt Ossa, at least where the turnoff would be if a track had existed. Three packs had been left at the junction, by walkers who were heading for Ossa before continuing to the next hut.

Climbing Mt Ossa, we were following our noses around the side of a hill and then came to a saddle. To our left stretched the bleakest country imaginable, a desolate valley where trees were all dead and stark white, having grown to a fair height during a succession of comparatively mild winters, only to be killed eventually by the snow and cold.

"Look down there," said the leader, consulting his map. "That's the track we came on yesterday. You can see the spot where we met the man walking in bare feet."

Ahead stood Mt Ossa, a mass of tumbled rocks from its base to its summit. In places the mountain had crumbled away in landslides of rock, leaving the peak bare and unique in shape. As we stood there considering which way we should climb up, we heard a voice giving us directions to put us on a track which disappeared before long. The voice then told us "Climb straight up." Simply said!

Hand over hand for a good bit of the way, we slowly increased our altitude towards the group of rocks which towered above us. The owner of the voice was nowhere to be seen but the instructions still came. Betty was leading and a male voice was saying "Go round that rock to the left", when - whoosh. She copped a snowball fair on her neck. Then one hit me, nearly knocking me backwards as I quickly sought the protection of a rock. The other victims who had walked into the neat ambush came in for their share until the hastily gathered pile of ammunition of our attackers was exhausted. Bravely then, we sallied forth to meet the foe - three boys we had met the previous night in Pelion Chalet.

Having exchanged insults with them, not omitting to pitch a few snowballs ourselves, we pushed on, up a sort of chimney and discovered the rest of Ossa still towering above us. Snow lay in little pockets all over the place. It was now Betty's turn to be thrilled, as she had not been on Rufus. Up and up and up to a miniature plateau of great boulders stretching before us under the cold sky - Mt Ossa 5230 feet.

It was good to find a quiet rock on the edge, to get comfortable and then to look and wonder at the panorama of peaks and valleys, to be able to see from one spot, half of Tasmania. At this moment I was alone, nobody else existed. Each of us spellbound, sat in isolation.

When Ossa was made, its builder gathered handfuls of mighty rocks and piled them on top of one another in a tumbled untidy heap. Among these rocks he left at least one gap which formed a big cave, with one opening on top of the mountain and one in its side. Inside the cave it was so cold the water froze like icy wallpaper.

The three boys had told us "We nearly broke our necks getting a tin on top of a big rock - the highest point in Tasmania."

Brian tried in vain to get the tin down so that he could leave his own contribution to posterity. We climbed up another rock to have our photos taken sitting on top of Tasmania. It was I who came near to getting a broken neck. I slipped down between two rocks and got stuck by my hips. If I'd been facing side on I'd have fallen a jolly long way, but as it happened got off with grazed thighs and a jarred wrist.

We lunched by a field of snow, about half an acre, which we left in a much bigger mess than we found it. The time for silent contemplation had passed. After all the usual fun in the snow, photos and admiring of the scenery, we set out again for Pelion Chalet. Trying to be a bit smart and take a short cut, we landed ourselves above a cliff and our "short cut" became a long walk round, through prickles and swamps. Malcolm and Betty chased each other nearly all the way to the chalet and Harry cheered up the rest of the plodding party by singing us items from "Show Boat" and "Oklahoma". Good old Harry with his most encouraging "Come on old Sticko".

On Wednesday we left Pelion Chalet to walk to Windermere Hut. Malcolm's boots had now got baked in front of the fire in an effort to dry them and so his feet began to trouble him. He was remedying injuries to his feet with sticky plaster. Our food rations had all been cut down to a minimum, apart from June who still had chocolate as part of her daily fare. I dined mainly on rice, dried veges, macaroni and porridge and Bev ate a lot of borrowed victuals. Brian was now the only member of the party who had more energy than he knew what to do with. Although we had eaten most of our food our loads didn't seem to get any lighter.

At first the scenery was quite attractive as we descended into the rain forest, and then climbed up again. After lunch I set out early so that I wouldn't have to rush over the endless miles of "button-grass, mud and slop". In the distance these button-grass plains looked very attractive, but they were difficult to walk through, and the mud which lay along the track was even worse. This would be improved in time by building boardwalks especially where the track was most worn by numbers of walkersIt took me all my energy and determination to keep on plodding, putting one foot in front of the other.

The flu, a gift from a walker in Pine Valley Hut, had caught up with me. Malcolm and Brian carried my load for the last couple of miles.

"Your pack will balance mine," said Malcolm as he hoisted it up on front and waddled off down the hill.

"The only snag," he said later "I couldn't see my feet."

The track leaves the forest and crosses swamp. Then began the great climb up to Cradle Mountain. Just up and up and up and along a ridge and there you are on the side of Tasmania's most noted mountainside for a long way and eventually about TEN miles from Windermere you arrive at Kitchen Hut, to have lunch, a long rest and to shelter from the rain.

Narcissus Hut TasmaniaTom Birkin, Narcissus Hut, Cradle Mountain and Lake St. Clair Reserve, Tasmania Jan 1957
Photo by Brian Petrie

Cradle Mountain was 400 yards away but might have been 400 miles. On a fine day half of Tasmania can be seen, on a day like this absolutely nothing. A storm broke in earnest. Diary: Walked out into the teeth of wind and stinging rain. Snow poles. Visibility greater as we approached Waldheim. Rain and climb up Cradle Mountain began at the same time. Barn Cirque, Cradle Cirque, steep drop, granite outcrops.

Then on to Waldheim Hut through the driving rain, fighting our way through the storm - five miles up hill and down dale over rough stony tracks and more button grass, every corner bringing new and stronger winds to drive us off the track and make our ground sheets flap - until with relief we were at Waldheim and could take shelter from the furious elements. Another party was to arrive by bus about 8.30 so we bought some provisions from the Ranger and had a beno feast. When the bus came we piled in and curled up.

At the inexpensive hotel in Sheffield a good wash and a good breakfast were much appreciated. We kept asking for another plate of toast and some more coffee all round, and could we have some more toast please and a little jam? Letters home were the next priority. Two members said good-bye to us at Sheffield as they had to go home, not being students.

From Burnie next day the funniest old train you can imagine took us to Zeehan passing through farming lands, crossing rivers, waving to even smaller mountain "puffing billy" trains. Five hours later we reached Zeehan which could boast little more than a shop or two and a hotel. From there to the mining town of Queenstown by bus. As the bus was crowded the boys had a long ride sitting on boxes in the aisle.

puffing billy

Queenstown, situated at the foot of Mt Lyell where the open cut copper mine could be found; the hundred bare white hills all round had taken on a thousand different hues. The sulphur fumes from the copper works long ago killed every scrap of vegetation for many miles, and erosion removed the soil with a stark, dramatic result.

Then the open road to Frenchman's Cap. There were now only six of us left. We paired off for hitchhiking. The road wound in a nerve-testing manner round the bare mountainsides as it headed toward Hobart, leaving behind some of the strangest yet grandest sights I had ever seen. We all arrived together at Gormanston a little place with little to recommend it. A truck picked up four of us who would sit in the back. The driver said that his mate was following, so John decided that he and I should wait. But the mate passed and did not pick us up and we had a long tiresome wait for a lift. A few things passed us including a police car and a breakdown truck, for there had been an accident a bit further on. When eventually we were moving again in a tourist bus, we passed the above-mentioned mate's truck overturned on the roadside!

Crossing the Franklin River by the flying fox was fun at first but quite hard work before we finally pulled ourselves to the other bank. Two of us with packs crossed at a time on the swaying seat that was suspended on cables above the swift dangerous waters. The last part was hardest and our hands were sore before we arrived. We had crossed some swamps, walked about four miles and had just begun to climb up a hill using a watercourse for a path, when June started to crack up. Harry carried her pack for a little way, but she decided to turn back. We could not let her go alone so she and I left the rest of the party. I swapped sleeping bags with Betty and took some gear which she knew she wouldn't need. The weather was pretty damp and Malcolm patted my wet head as we said cheerio and the party split up again. John carried Harry's pack as well as his own, and Harry saw us back to the flying fox by which we had to cross the river and helped us over. Four braves now headed for Frenchman's Cap.

June and I hitchhiked back to Queenstown, having arranged to meet Betty in Hobart in three days time.

We saw over the copper works that evening with the crowd of regular tourists for whom inspections were arranged every evening. We slept the night in the recreation ground hall, having obtained permission from the Council Chambers and the key from the Caretaker who lived next door.

Travelling to the port by the Mt Lyell Co's famous Abt cog railway was a great experience. The little train had only one ancient passenger carriage and a number of trucks which took the copper and other products of the copper works to be shipped from Regatta Point. It was quite exciting to be travelling up the steepest railway in the world even if the speed is that of a snail (the grade was one in twenty and the climb was 700 feet in less than three miles). The third rail was laid in the centre with toothed spaces for the cog wheel on the engine. The children going on a Sunday School picnic were excited but no more than I as we crossed the long quarter-mile trestle bridge, or as we twisted and turned up the side of a mighty gorge with the river far below.

I found out that the rack-and-pinion was designed by Dr Abt a German inventor, and can climb grades more than twice the normal.

We arrived back at the oval to begin cooking. The caretaker suggested that we use the hot water jug and radiator. He also gave us the extra comfort of the first-aid room for the night. He was very pleased to learn that we belonged to the Kameruka Club because eight members of our club spent a week in the same hall a year ago, leaving behind a very good impression. He invited us into his home for the evening to meet his family and to listen to records before a cosy log fire in the lounge room. He played a record of his niece singing in "The Student Prince" (Sigmund Romberg) which had greatly moved me when I had first seen the stage show. The Prince fell in love with someone he could not marry and put his duty first. A memorable evening of Tasmanian hospitality.

As planned we met our friends in Hobart. June, Betty and I went by bus to Port Arthur, not then a fully developed tourist resort, and on the way back bought some little local lobsters, a bottle of apple cider, fresh bread and butter and treated ourselves to a feast on the waterfront of Hobart in the long twilight. Everything had a relaxed air, the capital having a population of 100,000, the whole island only 308,000. We collected our poste restante parcels from the Post Office. We looked at maps of the Huon Valley, planning to see something of the south-east. Feeling no urgency to return to Sydney, I thought I would try to get a job fruit picking.


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