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 🙂
The start of this blog post is a thanks to people who made this possible.
First and foremost, Marianne for looking after the kids at home for the 10 days I was away.
Next, the photographers with whom I shared this week in alphabetical order:
- Francois Fourie : http://www.ffourie.com
- Luke Tscharke: http://www.luketscharke.com
- Tim Wrate: http://www.timwrate.com.au
I’d like to thank Francois in particular who put us up in his home for much longer than expected given our initial plans were foiled. Thanks also to Erin who literally put up with a whole bunch of stinky, sweaty, sodden blokes downstairs and gave us a good feed much more befitting than the ferals we began to resemble as the week progressed!
The initial plan : A 7 day 6 night walk through the Western Arthurs to set ourselves up at Lake Oberon . Some of us had needed to acquire some new gear for long overnight trips including myself (see previous post). We had been closely monitoring the bushfire situation in Tasmania in the week leading up to our arrival and were nervously awaiting the outcome of one particular fire in the Strathgordon area. In the days before our scheduled start to the walk, the access road to the trailhead was closed off for safety reasons. This had us discussing whether we should bale out of the trip or continue anyway with an alternative itinerary. Our imaginary team mascot ‘Norman’ the optimism gnome , persuaded us that all would be turn out just fine and we proceeded with our flights as planned.
Friday evening : Hobart airport. Sudokus, musing, more Sudokus from a fellow traveler’s paper and then quiet. It’s a neat little place for quiet meditation ! I had arrived three hours ahead of Luke and Tim and was quite relieved to meet Francois as he arrived to pick us up from the airport.
On a balmy summer evening, we headed to Francois’s place which beautifully overlooks Hobart and Mount Wellington across the bay to the west. That evening, we decided to attend a community meeting at the town of Maydena, the last stop before road blockages to our planned destination. That way we would know for sure if we would have to simply delay our walk, or find alternate plans entirely.
Saturday morning: Instead of being fully packed and rearing to embark on our hike (including the 800m up Moiraine A) , we spent that dawn shooting the coastline literally just out from Francois’s backyard. What a backyard it is too! The conditions were nice and it was as if ‘Norman’ were telling us that something good would come from this trip. Ahh, good ‘ole Norman, so full of optimism 🙂
I’m asking the question today because I have sometimes wondered if photographers reduce the impact of a scene by trying hard to photograph it and not sitting back and experiencing the scene in all of its grandeur. On the one hand, the desire to create stunning images might take you to a location at a time of day where few would venture otherwise. On the other, is the drive to get ‘the image’ detracting from your overall experience of being there? What matters most to you : the journey , experience and presence at a scene, or the challenge, execution and production of a beautiful image fit for a portfolio?!
I thought I’d take an example from our recent trip to New Zealand. I had planned to spend a couple of nights trekking during the trip with a specific agenda. One of these planned hikes was to Lake Mackenzie. I had always wanted to do the Routeburn track but with its entry and exit points hundreds of kilometres apart by road, this was never going to be possible with the way we were travelling. I had also seen some images of Lake Mackenzie which looked as though it would be a wonderful spot to photograph if the light was right and so,that became a secondary goal. As the day drew closer though, the weather looked more and more dire and on the planned day of departure- steady, heavy rain filled the Fiords…..
Despite the awful conditions , I was determined to walk the Routeburn even through torrential rain. Why? Perhaps to have it ticked off on my mental tick list of hikes done in personal ‘record time’. Perhaps in the off chance that light would be good over Lake Mackenzie in the evening? Perhaps so I could ‘brag’ about surviving the awful conditions!
The first stop was Key summit. When I go hiking, there’s a near pathological and obsessive state of mind that drives me to time how fast I can go. As it turned out, I was up on the summit in slightly less than one hour in a sodden state of sweat and water drenching me from inside and out. There were no mountains to be seen but I had reached Key Summit! ☑
Next, I set the timer going again for Lake Mackenzie which according to signs, should have taken me 4 more hours. 1 hour later I arrived at Earland falls where the signs advised a detour in wet weather. I was curious as to just how wet the track was beneath the falls and after 10 seconds of being blasted by waterfall spray, I agreed with the track recommendations! Getting drenched under a waterfall? ☑
Another 1.5 hours later had me walking into Lake Mackenzie hut having taken the DSLR out only once to photograph Earland falls away from its vicious spray. Day one of Routeburn track done well within recommended walking time?☑
Within the hut, several other walkers had arrived from the opposite direction and were trying to start a fire in order to dry drenched belongings. As the weather had started to clear, I ventured 10 minutes past the immediate shores of the lake to a better vantage point of the Lake where I could vaguely see the mountaintops through the fog. I scoffed an early dinner of rehydrated pasta (complete with Charlie’s formula milk) which was never going to be enough after the previous 3 hours of rapid walking and borderline hypothermia. As sunset approached, there was still light drizzle around and more hikers arrived all trying to start that same fire. I spent the sunset alone (with the sandflies) on the shores of Lake Mackenzie as the most incredible sunset materialised seemingly out of nowhere. I spent the entire time buzzing with excitement and scrambling over rocks trying to achieve the best possible images from the scene before me. It’s not my style to ‘spray and pray’ with landscapes but once I settled on a composition, I took plenty of exposures just in case. As the light finally faded, I left with a sense of euphoria knowing that I’d probably not see something like that often (if at all) in the future. Possible unique shot of Lake Mackenzie taken?☑
Upon returning to the hut in the near darkness, I learned that there were quite a few hikers there who had walked without bringing adequate waterproofs nor equipment to heat water! I definitely had plenty of spare fuel leftover and lent my canister and trusty ‘pocket rocket’ to others needing their pasta rehydrated. Eventually, we even used the flame from my stove to light the kindling which probably wasn’t the safest method to do so. With the fire and stove cosying up the room, people settled into talking about hiking, experiences and life in general. No one there had ventured out to view the sunset but I can say with some confidence that we were all pleased just to have dry clothes and a warm room to sleep in no matter what our agendas were.
The next day, on a growling stomach, I headed back to the Divide to meet Marianne and Charlie who had spent the night down atMilford. Along the way, I revisited Key summit and saw some mountains albeit shrouded in grey clouds !☑
I wonder if any of what I have written annoyed you at least a little? I used to be annoyed at people who did hikes just to be able to say ‘I’ve done [x] hike’. Before we developed our interest in photography, I used to be annoyed with those photographers getting themselves into pretentiously contorted postures to get an image while missing out the experience before their eyes. Why were they carrying bloody tripods anyway ???…..I used to be annoyed at all the hikers who walked for walking’s sake and do nothing but socialise at campsites as though it were the local pub. Leave pubtalk for pubs grrr!!! That’s a long [☑list] of things to be annoyed at for an activity which is supposed to elicit any emotion other than annoyance. So, my final question is this: Does it really matter to you as a reader/hiker/photographer if my motivations were all about personal best hiking times or solely about getting a prized image from a prime location? Is it the motivations, the experience or the outcomes which matter most to you?
My conclusion is not to think too hard about questions like these unless the stakes of the process affect anyone other than yourself. If the process of planning a hike, getting to a destination and spending time exclusively behind the lens gives you greatest pleasure, then why bother doubting the reason you’re doing it in the first place? Why work yourself up if someone else’s motivation differs to yours? If at the end of a hike, your greatest pleasure is that of achievement then why should anyone else’s opinion influence your goals and ☑ lists?. Others may not agree with your motivations but a selfish pleasure which harms noone should not be made into another’s complaint and vice versa. It may not work for everyone , but by not analysing situations too deeply, I’ve found that this reduces stress and negativity of which I experience enough at work. Let’s keep that out of the holiday season and enjoy the outcome of other photographers’ work shall we ? 🙂
[disclaimer : selfish pleasures which DO affect others or the environment directly are a separate issue altogether. Pay for an Everest ascent only to put others at risk anyone?]☑