TAC 42 Index
AUSTRALIAN COMMERCIAL TELEVISION is frequently capable of making its American equivalent seem gently intellectual. One show, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise, typifies the output watched by the people Stephen Fry had in mind when he said Britain was "heaving and groaning with the boilingly mad". Naturally, HWW, presented by a fat smirking TV chef, is compulsive viewing. The script, the features, the music. All relentlessly vacuous. During one particularly com- pelling edition, a jovial slot of the "Australia's best kept holiday secret" variety highlighted the plush lodge inside Freycinet National Park on Tasmania's east coast. Beneath the stodgy banality of the voiceover lay wonderment at the park's scenery, a fusion of swimming-pool-turquoise waters and red granite mountains.
Andy and I entered Freycinet National Park at Coles Bay near the park gates, pulled up beside the harbour, had an uncommonly good fresh bakery pie as the gulls wheeled in the cold rain, and watched the windows clammily steam up. Jeez-o, we didn't come ten thousand miles, like those Proclaimers boys, to walk, heads bowed, in this wet 'n' windy inclemency. We came for shrimps, barbies, Foster's, beach volleyball and lowest common denominator ultraviolet cheeriness in our Antipodean mountaineering ventures. Rain, wind and the squawking of chip-fattened gulls against a monochrome sky would never do, and were never mentioned in the guarantee of satisfaction when the flights were purchased.
And lo, the next day dawned the way they often do. We paid the park warden $3 to enter on foot and in return received an unnervingly accurate receipt stating the time - in jumbo figures - the following day after which we would be effectively trespassing. Did heavily-armed, shaven-headed mercenaries covertly patrol the park, intent on pursuing any infringement of the ticketing process? We never saw any - but halfway through our subsequent ascent of Mount Amos we could have done with some military-style orders. We, how you say, got lost.
Inside this and every other national park, access is heavily limited. Adhering to these limitations is made attractive by the provision of a navigation system that everyone is too lazy not to use: an artless, and not always understated, series of paint splodges. Our route up Mount Amos was suitably decorated with these marks, but during our ascent we were drawn to the base of a huge three-storey erratic, ideally positioned for some holiday snaps. Much of the route crossed extensive slabs, and wasn't on an easily discernible path, so the arrows weren't necessarily for the hard of understanding. We proceeded from the erratic along what seemed to be the path before remarking on the lack of Dulux, then spied what looked like a path below. But on completion of a dangerously loose descent we found ourselves in the sort of vegetation that caused Blane, in Predator, to say with his Alabama drawl, "You lose it out here, you're in a world u' hurt". Possessing neither the machetes nor Gatling guns used by the men in the film to cleave a path through heavy shrubberies, we returned to the erratic and then the path.
National Park agencies, countryside rangers, conservation bodies and other wholemeal organisations normally associated with the wearing of green clothing and beards tend, in their litigation-wary dealings, to wildly overstate the physical and technical demands of any recreation that may take place under their jurisdiction. Not the people of Freycinet. What they advertise on a car park notice board as "a walk where the main hazard is slippery rock" actually contains a cheekily vertiginous pitch that would have the average coach tourer's false teeth falling out. So the day was free of Mount Wellington's needless catering to the sedentary with things like handrails and outsized park benches.
The view was into Wineglass Bay - a name that is vaguely descriptive, much more so than James Cook's Glasshouse Mountains in Queensland (historians haven't yet publicised their findings about what Cook had been smoking before seeing that particular resemblance, but I have a rough idea). It was a verdant feast, from the greens of the forests to the translucence of the shores. Inaccessibility seems to be preserving Freycinet perfectly, and one can be sure that the viewers of HWW and the residents of the lodge will be eternally repelled from seeing the interior of the park by horrors like chemical toilets - but such are the rustic charms that retain the purity of travel in the world's wild places and stem the vulgar flow of those who depend on McDonald's and Devonshire teas.
That evening we drove to the Douglas Apsley National Park via Bicheno. Seeking out some nightlife before a chilly fireless evening, we found the main pub filled with typical Taswegian belief in the styles of 1976 - it is always twenty years ago here, say the mainlanders. In Tasmania the darkly hilarious mullet haircut proliferates. Sometimes it's possible to wander into a bar and see a haircut so heinous that it transcends any exclusivity associated with style policing and becomes a curio, something of interest to wider society. More than once we experienced the cliched redneck welcome: we would be stared at lingeringly by a quintet of hicks and forced to check ourselves at the last second before pointing and laughing loudly at the unfathomable textural intricacies of the nearby barnets. The Hotel de Bicheno was as atmospheric as a prison dining room, and Australian Catchphrase was on the telly, so after a couple of swift halves we legged it before being too caught up in the lively discussions of 20th century Irish literature that tend to spring from the highly symbolic onscreen pictograms.
We camped inside the park, were precluded from having a much needed fire and became generally cheesed off with the cheerless, stultified claustrophobia. The only reason for the park designation is that the forest was found, in 1991, to be sclerophyllous, or very dry - apparently something of a rarity these days in lumberjack-ravaged Tasmania. That this arcane botanical titbit went unnoticed for so long is testimony to its worth. No mammalian snuffling, no irritating pecking or chirruping and not even the foolish moaning of some bovine infidel. Sclerophyllous forest is the arboreal equivalent of a rich tea biscuit. The park causes Adirondack Syndrome, a visual malaise I first suffered after walking for five days through northern Appalachia in upstate New York. Walking in this sort of country is like being trapped in a dank, slithery mosquito-choked tunnel expressly designed to limit the very sensory openness that makes being in the mountains so wondrous and so different from staying in your flat all weekend. In a Scottish context, I much prefer the plunging, angular, shattered, chaotic, castellated, precipitous sharpness of being on an edge in the west to the smooth enormity and sweeping vastness of an eastern plateau. But I still love the Cairngorms, whereas aficionados of these Freycinet mountains must surely find the heavily forested landscape deeply unsatisfying. There is such a thing, in my admittedly selfish book of aesthetics, as too many trees. Andy and I might have begun to live like savages, but now we had the desire to be in an arena befitting the grandiloquence of our lofty fireside intellectualism, to stand amid allegorical reinforcement of our erudite banter. And so we struck camp quickly in the frosty morning and made for Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair National Park.
For some reason Cradle Mountain, like Freycinet, possesses a luxurious lodge. It goes without saying that anyone venturing near the mountains should abhor such dilution of elemental purity and go armed with Tam Weir's faith in the insulating properties of newspaper. But why not once, in a lifetime of monkish self-denial in manky howffs, have the ultimate post-climbing indulgence? It was good enough for Munro and his ilk.
Cradle Mountain itself is synonymous with its reflection in Lake Dove, a scene that is Tasmania's Ayers Rock and present on the average local calendar at least twice. And with some justification, because the view is very distinctive and has a well proportioned and compact poise, topped with a serrated ridge line - even if seeing resemblance to a miners' wagon, or cradle, requires abuse of James Cook's favourite substance.
Being inside another national park meant forking out for the traditional disc of crispy-baked dirt, but we were graciously welcomed and offered some painfully cold beers. After erecting the tent - and bending all the pegs in the process - we drove to the entrance to make phonecalls. We returned, the blue-black only intermittently penetrated by moonlight, and Andy jumped out as I reversed the car to direct headlights on the tent. Halfway there he stopped and turned round, his face a confused mixture of surprise and mild fear. They were all facing the lights, too. They were everywhere. By Andy's feet. In the tent. Clinging to tree trunks. Possums. Great fat sniffling possums. And a solitary wallaby in their midst, on the point of reaching for a toothpick as it contentedly relaxed after its feed at our expense. We hadn't been aware of the existence of these wide-eyed gluttons, but from six rolls, half a kilo of cookies, soft fruits and citrus fruits and cheese, they had left us crumbs. They looked to be in no hurry, as if we would have to beat them off into the bush, and it needed a few minutes of whipping and shooing with a jumper before we could gain access to the tent.
Cradle Mountain's place in the consciousness of the Tasmanian tourist was reflected in the number of cars parked by Lake Dove. Luckily, simply to see the famous view (a mild anticlimax in the end) requires no effort, and so a bit of pace on the early morning paths soon left the masses behind. We climbed the left arm encircling the lake, then traversed beneath the rocky gullies that split the long summit tower. More national park navigation for beginners was utilised, with upmarket carved signs on offer in addition to the paint. The boulder-choked gully that forms the final part of the ascent led to some fabulous pinnacles.
It was during this section that we witnessed the misfortune caused by a mountain becoming a pin-up in the non-climber's kitchen. The last time I saw someone with so little right to be on a route was two-thirds of the way along the Aonach Eagach; the person in question had taken eight hours to get there and was unable to move without impossibly patient instructions from a partner below. On Cradle a woman was in much the same situation, dependent on strangers for guidance; such unnerving lack of confidence becomes stressful for anyone briefly connected to it. Whether the person is a one-off summit-obsessed first-timer or an old hand at the edge of their ability, I think that an awareness of one's limits, and the Grange Hill inspired ability to Just Say No, is necessary before attempting any route likely to demand hands out of pockets.
At 3pm that day we stood on the summit of Cradle Mountain at 1545 metres, where there was no wind and the temperature was 35°C. We took photos of the view and of ourselves, then lay back drinking pineapple juice and contemplated the mainland's coming challenge to Tasmania. With a World Heritage Area having set the standard, it was unlikely that anything in New South Wales or beyond would compete. A few months of life in the Sydney fast lane, rounded off by some more fashionably obscure cuisine, would surely cultivate a slowly returning tolerance for the less sociably agreeable rural Australia. But, for now, we had a full 360° of baking, cloudless perfection at our feet. As Jim Clark, our Hobart-via-Tarland friend would have said, it was "Jist bloody perfict".
TAC 42 Index