This January, I had the good fortune to hike part of the Western Arthurs Traverse with Luke Tscharke, Tim Wrate and Francois Fourie. This was a trip that we had planned for last year but had to pull out due to the bushfires preventing access to the trailhead. The weather gods this year did smile upon us at times and we all head a great trip. In all, we spent 6 days and 5 nights on the trail and experienced just about everything we could have hoped for. This is an ‘adapted’ version of the diary I kept while on the track.
Saturday : 21st Jan :
Hobart’s as beautiful as ever but there’s some strange connection between my arrival here and fatal hit and run incidents. Last year, a woman and her unborn child, this year 6 dead as a result of a crazed driver hurtling through Bourke Street. I’m in a better frame of mind thanks to a far lesser state of anxiety from Marianne and a happy farewell. I was sad to be leaving Charlotte’s affections while it was hard to feel the same about screaming Jaime as I left for work that morning. Ah the terrible twos. QANTAS really do need to get their act together. Nearly all of their flights were delayed or late as I listened to announcement after announcement in at the boarding gates. The rest of the process though, was smooth and thanks for Francois’ hospitality, I spent the night resting up here in Hobart before hitting the trail. Marianne predicted 130,000 steps for the week but I thought it could have been more!
Monday 23rd January
(Written in retrospect and also some parts added in after the trip)
Reviewing the last 3 days will be difficult to put to paper as the expectations of the hike are just too incredible. Last year , I wrote an article for Australian Photography Magazine about managing expectations (which will be published in April). So this year, as we were headed in, I’m not sure whether it was a defence mechanism on my part to play down expectations or whether I was distracted ; but there wasn’t the same degree of hype.
Luke & Tim were waiting for us with their massive bags undoubtedly full of post trek comforts I wish I had packed . With all things jammed in the rear of Francois’ car, we headed for the trailhead in somewhat grey conditions and stopped at New Norfolk Banjos for morning tea and a lunch pickup. This seems to have become a routine for us in the last two years! Getting past the town of Maydena was a huge psychological relief as that was where our literal roadblock form last year lay. Once we were at Scott’s Peak Dam, it was hard to gauge what the Arthurs would ultimately look like as we knew we had hours of scrub and mud to squelch through before the plains opened up for views of the range. Two people who had just completed the full traverse looked reassuringly ‘not that muddy’. Famous last words!
The first hour of walking saw little in the way of mud but for the next two, approaching and beyond Junction Creek, it was pretty foul stuff to get through. Keep your head down and walk, you just had to. Most of the decisions to be made were around going through the middle or attempting to skirt around the puddles and bog. Both ended up in many a foot, knee and even hip into the mud. Not the most pleasant of experiences and the mud would never truly leave the equation for the rest of the trip.
Our walking time was 1315 to 1600 to Junction Creek. After the plains slog and a short unintentional detour off route, we arrived at the base of Alpha Moraine at 550pm. We decided to push for the top of the range that evening and while I didn’t sweat much , it still took a lot of energy to get there at 745 pm for ‘no light’ as a reward. We couldn’t look far for camping spots as light was fading by the time Tim and Luke arrived at 830pm. The wind was also picking up at our relatively exposed camp site. I thought I would sleep a welcome sleep of the dead, but it wasn’t to be; yet another restless and sleepless camp night after the first of many freeze dried meals cooked in the vestibule of our tent.
The morning looked grey as I peered out of our tent, but I was keen to head for Mount Hesperus. The others were initially more keen to take it easy after the previous day’s slog, and given that my phone GPS failed, I was not keen to roll the dice on getting lost in the mist covering unknown terrain. Now that I’ve walked the terrain, I’d have had a little more confidence in doing so. The light ended up being absolutely beautiful but I was in no position to shoot the peak of it. Ironically, the light was best seen from closer to the camp site. Nonetheless, we all still captured a stunning introduction to the range.
The rest of the day was spent making our way up and down toward the saddle between Mount Sirius and Orion. As we did this , we passed Lake Fortuna in the mist, and Lake Cygnus which were both remarkable spots on their own but for the waiting jewel of the range in Lake Oberon beyond. Climbing up and down Mount Hayes was a challenge , particularly one section of steep scree. Our aim was to have lunch at Square Lake past Procyon Peak. We thought we would be there on a few deflating occasions , only to be led to another ascent and descent en route. When we finally did get to Square Lake, we stopped for an hour’s lunch and napped on the rocks in bright sunshine. It was there that I ate my infamous Kung Pao chicken meal.
Following our sunbaked snooze, we gathered water from Square Lake’s outlet creek and headed to the pass above Lake Oberon. The uphill was surprisingly short , taking only 30 minutes or so. Francois and I then darted off to take a look at the famous entrance to Oberon and its numerous Pandani. We believe that we found the 3 pandani made famous by the late Peter Dombrovskis and for personal reasons, I opted not to take an image here.
After pitching tent and relaxing , the late afternoon and evening blue sky shoot was from Mount Sirius and Square Lake. Despite plain skies, it was such a beautiful evening and we knew we wouldn’t get much sleep due to astro conditions being on offer. The milky way was predicted to rise at around 230am.
Quadrantic: Beautiful evening light illuminates the quarzite peaks of Mount Procyon and Mount Hayes in the background. Luke Tscharke is seen in the mid ground as well as two tents along the shores of Square Lake for scale.
Sleepless while waiting for the stars is one thing, sleepless because of Kung Pao diarrhoea is another (or was it the Beef Bourginon???). Explosive diarrhoea all night including an effort at the Oberon entrance was not a pretty sight and left me drained for the rest of the day. Luke, Francois and I shot some astro frames before meandering along the numerous intersecting paths offering views of Oberon with pandani in the foreground. It was a magical kind of dawn and morning as we watched moonrise, milkyway rise and then sunrise within a few hours and I’m hoping the images represent my wonderful memories from that morning (health issues aside) . Following breakfast, it was yet another jaunt up to Mount Sirius to catch receding shadows of Mount Pegasus on the Lake. I think we had more photographic success from up here again.
After breaking camp, we bumped into two very seasoned brothers who were 100% gristle and sinew and knew the path probably better than anyone. They gave us some pointers while we listened and soaked in the experience. Then, it was time for the famous descent into Lake Oberon.
Honestly speaking, some may make light of it , but I had never done anything quite like this before. It really was rock climbing for 30-50m of the trail where false moves could have resulted in serious injury. Nonetheless, we all made it down (several times during the next few days) without incident. On arrival to the camp site, the weather was balmy but expected to turn. With that in mind, we all took a cleansing dip in the freezing waters of Oberon while getting ourselves refreshed. A quick afternoon nap came and went and the weather began to look inclement.
Francois and I tried to head up Mount Pegasus before dinner but I chickened out at the sight of ascending fairly smooth and sheer exposed rock faces. I feared with my 2 hours of sleep that coordination might not be at my strongest. I earned a new respect for those who continue on to do the whole traverse with heavy packs on.
We all settled down to use our phones at a tarn just above the campsite which still strikes as being odd. Yes , the weather forecast is helpful but the sight of four walkers sitting down staring at their phones seems kind of like an antithesis. After dinner, there was no opportunity for photography as strong winds, then heavy rain set in and did not let up. By 8pm , I was asleep in bed and having the best camp sleep I had ever had.
6am : no sunrise , steady rain and we were getting battered by wind. To pee or not to pee, that was the question ……bladder wins out and an opportunity to refix a few stray guy lines.
8am: everyone decided to skip breakfast and stay asleep. A good call as the buffeting continued. it was good opportunity to catch up with diary writing.
1pm. Finally we ventured out of our tents for lunch and inspected the sogginess of our beach /mud camp. In retrospect, it wasn’t the best idea given the rain would predictably transform the sand into a boggy morass. After lunch, more snoozing as the rain continued but finally by about 4pm, it relented! I decided to go walking to the tarn for some attempted long exposures while Luke shot the various streams around the base which are clearly visible from above.
730pm: After an early dinner, I decided that I would go up for sunset on the saddle given that there were patches of blue sky. What a grand decision that ended up being as I made the ascent in surprisingly short time (20 minutes). I was greeted by blazing pre-sunset light and shot this from halfway up Mount Orion before heading to the Pandani forest overlooking Oberon. The sunset eventually petered out and as I was heading back to the trail, I bumped into Luke and Tim who had decided to come up after me. Together we went down in the dark with safety in numbers. The only incident being Tim’s shoe getting wedged between a root and rock necessitating some extraction. That night, sleep did not come at all which wasn’t surprising given that I had slept 18 of the last 24 hours.
A keen 430am awakening to the sound of our alarms and we set ourselves to climb up for one more view of Lake Oberon. Each time we did the climb I felt that it had become more instinctive and less of a risk. The conditions themselves looked promising and ended up delivering in rays of golden light! So much so , that we hung around shooting well after peak light. It was one of those mornings where you start to pack it all in with satisfaction, and then even more light happened. In a small cove of pandani, it was difficult not to get in each other’s way but I think we managed to do it well enough. A few selfies later, many SD cards later and we were headed back to camp quite satisfied with what we had achieved. We even dared to dream about other epic shots for the rest of the trip that would unfortunately never eventuate.
Packing up the tents was messy business that morning as the waterlogged bog of a beach had infiltrated all of our gear. Even Tim’s tank of a tent suffered some minor tent pole damaged from the high winds. The climb out from Oberon was a last hurrah and a fitting farewell to an epic location. Timelapsed selfies were done and the plans adjusted to Lake Cygnus for lunch.
Though we thought we were prepared for all the ups and downs, there were still seemingly more than we thought. At the top of our ascent out of Oberon, the weather started to turn a little funky. By the time of the ascent to Mount Hayes and its scree slopes, it was nearly 2pm and we thought that we’d have arrived at Cygnus already. That last section dragged on and the weather forecast was poor, so we pushed on to pitch tent at Cygnus. Along the way, a father-son duo and pretty clueless French dude were the only other walkers we saw on the trail.
When we arrived at Lake Cygnus, Francois ducked off and discovered the cache of beer he had hidden a year ago when he did the trek with Ben Wilkinson! Legend! If only I actually drank beer, the moment would have been even more momentous. The plan was to spend the next 2 nights here and wait out bad weather for a walk out on Friday. The site was pleasant enough with matted floors but a few things conspired against us.
- Weather : this turned foul late afternoon to the point of whiteout at dinner time. Luke returned from a search for a Dombrovskis composition overlooking Mount Hayes and was soaked through.
- Toilets: F*@*#@me ! overflowing and with maggots no less.
- Poor calculation: It was going to be fairly unrealistic to leave after sunrise on Friday and still make it back to have Francois meet his promise to Erin to be at the Hobart beerfest by 5pm.
Dinner was had in our vestibules where we narrowly dodged a gas cannister explosion. For an awkward few seconds we just watched the fire slowly recede around the cannister kind of just hoping it wouldn’t escalate. Sleep actually came fast until the diarrhoea arrived again at 1030pm. It was near whiteout conditions outside and I began to frantically search for a spot to dump since I knew I wouldn’t make it to ‘that’ disgusting toilet on time. So much for eco camping – I ended up having to dig a hole just off the path and hope it wouldn’t contaminate the water source. I suspect the French dude we bumped into , whose tent was adjacent to ours, may have heard some interesting sounds. Fortunately this was a once off and I did sleep the rest of the night.
We awoke to greyness and showers. This consolidated a last minute decision to head out one day early and it was a good one. After having some sips of my beer and sharing the rest around, we broke camp and prepared for a long hike out. We calculated 8 hours on the trail and our start was delayed by a Luke toilet call, in ‘that’ toilet.
For the ridge sections, we battled horizontal wind and rain the whole time with no visibility whatsoever. So much for epic views from atop Mount Hesperus! Luke still managed to stop for some photos though in those conditions, the sony was proving its liability in damp conditions. We were glad to reach the leeward side of the mountain for the 750m descent down Alpha Moraine. Tim and Luke’s bulging knees held up but not Tim’s already torn boots.
Alpha Moraine was a soul destroyer on the way up and to a lesser degree on the descent. It did require constant concentration not only to negotiate drops , but the ever present mud. On the way down there were passing showers and light typical of our whole time on the range. Francois, Tim and I managed the descent in 75 minutes and waited a good 30 minutes for Luke before deciding on lunch at Junction Creek only 3km away. The Aus Geo article should have some pretty good passing light from that descent. As predicted, the track was a boggy stream which worsened on the approach to Junction Creek. Thanks to Tim’s steam train efforts, we made rapid time to the campsite in 45m minutes where we had our last freeze dried fill of food for the trip. HOORRRAYAY. Luke arrived at camp a little while later and after lunch we were off again on our last leg! The weather down below had warmed significantly so I ended up leaving waterproofs only below but hiking in a T shirt.
Our approach for this boggy section was simple. Mud in the way? Bash right through it! This did make things easier to the point that the last 10km went by in 2.5 hours. This included a waist deep episode for Francois and three false ends in forests that were morale sapping. Tim and Luke were only 30 minutes behind for this leg. Along the way, we met a few parties heading out on Australia day. A guided group of 4 led by the same guide we met on the ferry out from the Overland Track last year. He was leading Hobart photographer Sohee Kim to Lake Oberon. There was an ill prepared trio with no gaiters ! I’m sure their feet were suffering from each sucking step threatening to pull their boots off. Finally a solo traverser who gave us an indication that we were only 1 hour from the car.
When the end finally came, it was sweet! Our gear was scattered, my excess weight in fresh clothes was put to good use and overall, we felt just that much more human. 100,000 steps and 1400 storeys of climbing, 1300 photographs and a few hours of footage concluded here. The 3 hour drive back was rewarded with pizza, soft drink and a 5 minute shower before crashing into a mattressed bed. END
I’ll remember this trip with fondness for a long time. The group banter, the quality tent time, the wild, changeable, beautiful and horrendous weather, the amazing views of grand and prehistoric scenery, the f@#$ explosive diarrhoea, the sore shoulders, the fatigued legs, the scoparia riddled cuts. It was ALL worth it and I’d love to do it again ( and again) in the future! It might even be worth hiding a cache of beer up there again 🙂
Along the way, the road conditions were fantastically smooth and not at all tricky like they were on the way north . Our travel time was therefore far shorter which allowed us a few stops at Lake Louise (to return the cards from Pyramid lodge which we accidentally hung on to) and then at Morant’s Curve before arriving in Canmore at 4pm with the girls having slept in the car. They were again very good during the travel time during the day and are fast becoming seasoned travelers in all modes of transport.
That evening, Marianne went out to Policeman’s creek where despite some nice cloud, no light occurred . The evening light gig certainly seems like mission impossible around here with the Rockies to the west. She met Stacy , the guy behind ‘sentinel photography’ and we’ve made another contact through this shoot.
Dinner was late at the ‘famous Chinese restaurant’ . Canmore is quite easy to navigate with north south avenues and east west streets. Or maybe the other way round. It was reasonable Chinese food which we always crave while we’re travelling. After a good fill, it was home for the last night of late dawns with the change back to non daylight saving time to happen in 24 hours.
Saturday November 5
Dawn at Policeman’s creek. Curiosity got the better of me as I got to the location in the still of night and wandered around looking for alternative spots but the spot people shoot from does indeed seem to be the best. That morning, I met a woman from Red Deer house sitting in Canmore, a mountaineering guy from Canmore and Stacy was again there so we all exchanged pleasantries while witnessing an absolutely amazing dawn unfold! Two in a row! What were the chances of that given our trip?? It was good to be back home not too late either given that this location was literally 1km from our accommodation.
Lodges of Canmore is very well set up and the 3BR apartment we have is the best we’ve had all trip. The price is a little higher than we would like but far better than what we have paid for similar setups elsewhere. That morning, we did as much exploring of the town streets as the girls could tolerate. They absolutely loved Café Books which is a great store on the main street (8th ave).
It was a pretty chill and relaxing day as we finished off with another attempted sunset shoot at Spray Lakes. The wind was blowing a gale and predictably, nice late afternoon light faded into nothing. A home dinner and bed time before readjusting clocks to the new time.
Sunday November 6
I had a couple of choices this morning – I could have hiked up to Grassi Knob and photographed the 3 sisters again, or I could explore Kananaskis county. I figured that the workout part of me wanted to go up the mountain, but I made up for that later in the afternoon by doing a 6.5 k run on a treadmill. Instead with rain and wind forecast, I headed down to Wedge Pond.
In the dark, it was clear that this would not be a great spot. The water was all rippled up from the wind and without any foreground matter of interest, it wasn’t that great a spot. I went briefly searching for the reflecting pools of Mount Kidd but didn’t look too hard after Dani told me that they had been washed away by floods. Instead, I just took a walk down the Galatea Lakes trail and made a random turn off the footbridge as I thought a bend in the river might give me great views of Mount Kidd. Fortunately, that hunch was proven correct even if compositions were limited. Light didn’t really happen at dawn but there was passing light over the mountain well after dawn. The sony seemed to perform very well in these green foresty conditions.
Later that morning , Marianne took a walk down the main street again while I entertained the kids at the train playground in the lovely set Three sisters village south of Canmore. As usual, it was time for Jaime’s sleep and I decided to have one as well. The lack of a sleep in was really starting to catch up on me.
Our last evening was spend attempting for sunset light again at Spray Lakes with some success as at least it fizzled out only after starting to go pink. We killed some time filling up petrol and using a car wash before heading to dinner again at the famous Chinese restaurant. Early sunsets were now at an Adelaide sunset time! That evening, we had a bit of resorting to do for the drive back out to Calgary . I offered Marianne one last chance to go out shooting at dawn to at least experience the light out in the field but she chose not to again.
Monday November 7
What a boom dawn! Even from 1 hour out you could start to see something happening and that’s the beauty of being out early. It allows for some degree of indecision before settling somewhere. I chose Two Jack Lake since the other easy access locations had already yielded some results such as Vermillion lakes and back at Policeman’s creek at Canmore. The problem with Two Jack is the distant mountain range and the relative lack of any foreground matter of interest particularly when there are no reflections to work with. For that reason, I think I was the only one out there until some late comers from Calgary arrived on the scene way after the peak light had finished.
After a quick packup routine (probably our record!) we headed out from Canmore since none of the shops were open until 11am. We ended up driving to Signal Hill in Calgary where there was an enormous Indigo bookstore. You could literally get anything book related there and we spent a good hour there exploring before having lunch at a random hillside. The girls were getting good at adapting play to whatever was around.
Thereafter, it was a final night in the downtown Best Western followed by an uneventful flight out from Calgary. There was an amusing moment going through US customs where Jaime had an adorably avoidant photo taken at the customs checkpoint but we weren’t allowed to keep it ! This was basically the end of our trip photographically and the rest of the time would be spent in California mostly attending a medical conference.
Tuesday November 1
Our packup routine had mostly been done the night before , so we headed off the Jasper shortly before 11am and spent a last few moments appreciating the magic of a winter seen from a southern hemisphere visitor’s viewpoint.
The drive to Jasper was memorable for a few reasons. The scenery in white was simply gorgeous but this also led to our downfall as we looked to pull over in the snow and nearly slid of an embankment! Fortunately, before we slid too far, we had assistance from a passer by who helped us push the car back up and out of danger. Marianne was overcome by this near need to call a tow truck in the middle of nowhere (near Bow summit) but thankfully it was all resolved very quickly. We found that in the winter season , amenities are scarce on the icefields parkway and so another drama occurred when we could not find a toilet for some time ! Luckily that sorted itself as we backtracked from the Columbia icefield centre to Winslow.
Arriving at Jasper, we settled in just after 4 and ended up photographing Pyramid mountain right outside our accommodation. Our dinner at Pizza hut /KFC hybrid was somewhat forgettable and for some reason I find myself liking the junk food back home more! Oh there was again no light booo!!!
That night, our accommodation at Pyramid Lake was a bit squishy so we had to sleep on the sofa bed while Charlotte had a beautiful loft to herself and Jaime slept in the dedicated bedroom
Wednesday November 2
A long drive for me on this morning. I headed down to Tangle mountain which was over an hour away. The drive wouldn’t feel so long if I weren’t arriving back so late due to the late sunrise times here (nearly 9am). By the time I returned home, it can be close to 11am and the kids were no longer sleeping in much past 8-830.
The road south along the icefields parkway was pretty whited out on that morning. For some sections I felt like I was making my own path but this did mean that I would have semi winter conditions for the shots that I had in mind. The compositions were all based winter shots I had seem from the area but I felt like I wanted to actually get a reflection rather than just dark water motion . I arrived there an hour before dawn to be joined by another car pulling over – I didn’t know what was up so I tapped on the occupants window. Turned out she was just snoozing on the way to Banff. Phew , no serial killer to deal with!
To put a long story short, I finally saw some semblance of light! Hooray!! Then it was home with some grocery shopping and a quick trip to Athabasca Falls with the girls. These were a nice falls but the lack of water motion meant that some of the possibilities photographically were not there. I’m not sure what we’ll do with our middle of the day shots except perhaps put them up as Stock? We stopped on the way back to shoot from a bridge overlooking Pyramid mountain but once again, not a lot on offer and the kids busied themselves throwing rocks into the water, a new pasttime for them it would seem. Back to home for bed time for Jaime before another short foray out
That evening, we headed out toward Maligne Lake. There wasn’t a lot of point heading all the way out to Maligne since the ferry to spirit island was closed, I’m no kayaker and the immediate shore did not seem that attractive. Instead, we stopped at Medicine Lake which was a bit of a mud pit given the low water levels. It did give a nice view from up above – translating this into photography was difficult especially given the yet again, grey sunset lighting on offer. Back to bed!
Thursday November 3
Dawn light at Medicine Lake! Hooray! Kind of anyway. The light was actually happening every single direction initially except for at the actual dawn in that’s the way it stayed until well after sunrise. I got thoroughly bogged down there and filthy needing a good cleaning on my return home but to see light for the first time this trip , even if the pink wasn’t in the right direction, was exhilarating .
I wasn’t back too late on that morning which gave us time for a walk around the town of Jasper. Sure it was a weekday but it seemed like everyone in town was just a little sleepy, a little oppressed, a little depressed and overall, it just didn’t seem to give off much of a happy holiday vibe at all? Strange, I had always imagined it to be this idyllic place that indeed Banff and Canmore have turned out to be. Perhaps it’s because our trip was timed to be at those places on the weekends? While Marianne attended to retail therapy, I took the girls walking down the main street visiting various bear statues, trains and other distractions along the way . The weather looked to be closing in again before we went back to our accommodation for Jaime’s nap.
The last sunset at Jasper was another fizzer . We drove all the way to Sunwapta falls for it and got a little rained on with precious little light but it still would do. The forecast was actually for clear skies which was completely incorrect since we did not see a trace of blue sky!
Friday November 4
I awoke in darkness to the view of stars through our window! The plan was to photograph something locally and so I headed out to the small boardwalked area on Pyramid Lake. There, the milky way was in the perfect location over the island so a few selfies were taken. Before long, I could see wisps of cloud gathering over pyramid mountain with a clear sky to the south east . I could sense amazing light and tried to get Marianne up and out of bed but she wanted to sleep in.
So out I raced again after having packed up to transfer the gear! It was the first pink display of light we had seen all trip and pretty nice to finally experience it in a location like this . The pack up routine was quicker than usual and we were ready for departure shortly after 10am. Headed for Canmore.