Trekking to the Past – APRIL 2017
No sooner were we back from the Harbour Clean Up campaign when a new weather system began forming that promised fine conditions over Tasmania for at least a week, maybe even as long as ten days. Oh my! We couldn’t let the opportunity escape and quickly arranged for a fast ride up the river with a friend.
Jude and I rushed to provision and pack our backpacks, and then, after barely a night in our own bed, we were heading deep into the Southwest forests, embarking on one of our greatest adventures to continue our search for lost historical remains.
By going deep into World Heritage territory we had two objectives – three really if having a grand time is added to finding remnants and evidence left by the piners who harvested exotic logs in this area back in the early 1930s, in addition to looking for and recording evidence of the track cut by the first Geological Surveyor of Tasmania Charles Gould in 1862. Gould’s track opened up the west coast to the populated east of Tasmania giving access for other geologists and miners who searched for much-needed resources. About 1900, this same track was then used by piners to access the upper reaches of the Gordon and its tributaries. Then after WWII, it was used four times every year by Tasmanian Hydro to reach their research camp on the upper Gordon, where they measured river flow and heights so that they could design the dam that never was – the dam that changed Australia by NOT being built when the Green Movement was created with the citizens’ blockade of 1982-3.
Hydro marked the Goulds Track with their unique yellow-painted diamond-shaped signs that have a red dot in the centre, and which are held aloft about shoulder height on a galvanised pitchfork stalk planted in the ground. Jude and I have been tracking these signs for the past three years.
So, we’ve been going camping these last three years, in the National Park on long slogs through thick stuff that’s often wet with many leeches to find those famous diamond-shaped signs with a red dot.
This year we explored the far south of the plateau lying under the brooding dark green King Billy Range that yielded so much high-quality timber used to build many of the ships that helped this state survive.
Near to where Hydro established their Gordon River camp, the Morrison family had constructed a camp and stables for the horses that many years earlier had hauled quality logs out of the King Billy Range to float them down the Gordon River.
A few years ago, Jude and I visited what remains of their camp when filming “Two Men in a Punt” and found not only a meat safe and forge, but the remains of the stables with its collapsed roof and rusty nails. Our group also found an old leather hobnail boot – gloriously moss-covered from lying on the ground for perhaps up to 80 years, just where the last occupant had left it. Downstream a few hundred metres, the Hydro camp had left behind a bit more, probably because that camp was last used in the 1980s. There we found jars and metal gratings bolted to log bridges and plenty of galvanised wire rope from the Flying Fox that once spanned the river.
This time we were keen to find the track cut by the Morrisons to haul out the logs – called a shoe road after the metal shoe attached to the front of the logs that prevent them from digging into the Earth and carves out a furrow. Those pioneers had laboured long and hard to cut a benched road up the side of the ridge rising out the Sandstone Creek is well remembered by the Morrison family. Amazingly, traces of the road can still be seen using Google Earth. We particularly wanted to find it as it would lead us down through the wet forest fringing the Gordon River to the Morrison Camp. No one has been able to find the camp end of the track as the forest there is so thick.
Our Journey Begins
Our journey began on the Gordon River a couple of kilometres above Sir John Falls at a bend encumbered with rocks called Big Eddy for the swirling torrent and whirlpools that can sometimes be all one can see of the obstacles stopping everything but tinnies from travelling further upstream. Big Eddy lies in a gorge just where a stream empties waters off the plateau 300 m above it. In years past, we have gained access to the plateau that way. Steep and thickly clad in dark lush forest it’s remarkably clear of undergrowth, allowing fast, albeit hard travel uphill. Towards the top, there’s a nasty horrible bit of Bauera, the interwoven vine-like bush that grows over and through all other vegetation, forming a barrier that’s energy-sapping to push through, especially if going uphill. That first day, this stretch of Bauera caused us some concern as the sun dropped and had us thinking we might have to spend our first night on the slope. But not to worry. With a bit more perseverance, another litre or two of sweat, and heaps more curses, we got through to the plateau, where after a night’s solid rest, we made a bee-line down the plateau through shoulder height woolly tea-tree, Leptospermum lanigerum, that hid clumps of button grass typical on the plain. It might look flat but it’s not easy peasy. The button grass clumps are rather a pain to step over with a heavy pack and just as bad to push between on the uneven ground that’s often soggy. Crazy to do this you might think. Maybe. But when we stopped to catch our breath, everywhere around us is open to valleys and mountain ranges casting hues of blues by the vast distances, and no trace of humans for nearly a hundred kilometres. So, there’s no roads, no plumes of smoke, no sounds of aircraft; just us and the myriad melody from parrots, wrens, and the squawks of passing cockatoos.
Buggered, shoulder sore and weak in the knees we reached our destination on the second day and could almost hear the sound of rushing water at the foot of the green might of the King Billy Range. Now down to serious business. We had to find a suitable spot for an extended stay, with wind protection, water at hand and a dry flat area, the bigger the better. Tight spots get claustrophobic.
Admittedly, the first couple of searches were disheartening. Thick Bauera invaded the trees, and the ground was so uneven and tough I was ready to establish our camp on a flattish boggy area exposed to the full force of weather when another copse of trees on a knob caught my eye. Pure magic is what I saw after pushing through the undergrowth.
First, a huge fallen tree that I imagined sitting atop eating my dinner inspired me deeper into the grove. Yes, there was Bauera intertwined through all the saplings, but the ground was dry mulch, so I called Judith to come. She liked what she saw, and we began clearing out the Bauera by repeatedly breaking the stems and untangling interwoven runs. As we did, an amazingly large, flat area was revealed. Jude had worked quickly clearing one end, and oblivious to me was continuing a narrow strip down the slope. Worried I called out. I knew the Sandstone Creek lay down that slope as we could hear it gurgling, and when she yelled back that she could actually see water, I was with her in a jiff. Water is the most important thing we needed to live. Confronted by a steep drop off, a tea-coloured stream rushed along its base, which although steep, was clear of undergrowth and climbable.
Morrison Shoe Road and Bridge
After establishing our camp and having a restful albeit rather lumpy night’s rest put on the list to fix, we couldn’t wait to set out on our first objective to find the Morrison’s shoe road. The camp sat on a knob that fell 20 m westward into the Sandstone Creek. On our east, ran a level, sometimes mushy strip of mainly short tea-tree and some stunted Banksias, interspersed with patches of cutting grass and thicker areas of Bauera. Rising up on its eastern flank, a long ridge separated us from the plateau and the Gordon River.
We’d seen on Google Earth a faint regular line sloping up this ridge and started off zigzagging, pushing through the low vegetation then going up the side of the ridge, hoping to intersect the road by crossing it, and of course noticing it amongst all the vegetation. Our first find, other than vegetation, was a lovely black Tiger snake, coiled and flattened, enjoying the morning sun in an open spot. Looking at me, he wiggled out his forked tongue as if saying, “Push off, I’m enjoying the warmth.” So we obliged by changing direction for a run back up the ridge. Tiger snakes are quite placid and shy but have one of the most deadly toxins of all the world’s critters.
In this way we worked south, zigzagging till lunchtime, finding absolutely nothing after covering about three hundred metres. Jude had packed a crib, or picnic, and getting out the noonday sun seemed smart, so we ducked into a stand of Manuka, Melaleuca ericifolia, that paralleled the creek but was steeply well above it. Manuka is also a tea-tree, but grows tall, sheds its bark in strips and doesn’t allow much to grow under it, so we found a lovely open spot with dappled light and plenty of fallen trees to choose for seats – pleased the dry mulch underfoot meant no leeches.
It was heaven-sent. So much so, that after lunch we walked further under this cover, and within another 20 m, amazingly by providence or good fortune found a shoe road, plain as plain by its furrow running up from the creek. Following it towards the ridge brought us back to the wet flats, where my bushman’s eye locked onto faint disturbances in the thick vegetation, and suddenly I became like a bloodhound following them across the flat to where they ran into the ridge. Again by good fortune or providence, while taking a breather I pushed aside the vegetation and right there were the beginnings of a benched road. Called a sideling by the Piners where they cut into the hillside to form a flat track. Well! We were now ecstatic, our feelings exploded and no longer did our joints ache so much. Right in front of us, and immediately discernable, the road rose gently and remained flat under the overhanging scrub, becoming even more open after reaching the larger trees. In fact, when we broke out the low vegetation, we beheld a road leading up the hillside cut nearly shoulder deep on the high side, coated green with superfine moss, the kind that glows in the night. The track itself was flat across several metres before it fell away down the lightly timbered slope. In places along that edge, the builders had laid fenders, small logs laid like a curb to keep the harvested logs on the track, and these must have been Blackwoods or small Huons because after 80 years on the ground, not only were they thickly moss-covered, but still solid. I guess we got a bit more than halfway up the ridge, tossing dead branches aside to travel further up, until we struck a particularly bad bit of tee fall and called it a day as it was 3 pm. Our rule is to get safely back to camp well before dark. Good light is gone by half five and we still had to backtrack a fair way and needed to take our time not to get hurt. What a horrible thought, spending a night on the wet, creepy-crawly ground with a broken leg. Surprise, surprise, we were back in camp after only 70 minutes.
Rain overnight got us off to a late start. The wet morning set me repairing a tear in my pant’s left knee, the bush is so challenging. But the late start allowed some of the wetness to drain away, and going slowly gave us time to straighten some of our route, removing unnecessary pink tapes. Good thing. Won’t bump into Mr Snake anymore! We had brought along thick gloves and went to work clearing fallen saplings thickly intertwined with Bauera. But there was more mess ahead, tree falls thick with Bauera over my height. Cleared that patch to find yet another, and then a run of Bauera so tall I had to trample it by falling back into it, letting my weight crush it down enough to back peddle over it. All the while above us, the sky along the ridgeline grew larger until clearing that last hurdle the saddle was revealed. While it might have been open to the heavens, it was filled with head high tea-tree hiding button-grass tussocks in the very wet mushy ground, the combination totally hiding the route ahead. To get good photos, shutterbug Jude climbed onto the waist-high button grass clumps taking care not to slip off the shiny stalks by using my shoulder as a crutch. Further on we could just see the tops of the lush rainforest that began its descent to the Gordon River and the Morrison Camp. But which way to go? Pushing ahead yielded no clues, and as it was getting late, on a high, but still not satisfied, we turned for our camp.
That night a cold front crossed Tasmania, bringing steady rain and strong winds, first from the NW before changing SW. Closeted safely amongst our nest of trees, we hardly felt the wind. We stayed in bed and I read Longitude to Jude, who later cooked up a scrumptious Sunday morning ham and cheese omelette. Her treat in the bush made with the eggs she cocoons inside a plastic container.
Feeling rather worn out now that we had stopped charging here and there, I was happy to doze in bed as the rain fell while Jude donned wet weather gear to explore the creek below our camp. Every now and again her “okay, okay” came out the creek and she returned an hour later bubbling over with news that she’d seen squared off logs, and possibly a bridge.
The next few days were cloudy and cool, perfect for outdoor work. First we decided to clear our way out because lugging heavy sacks uphill through where we’d come in would be easier after a tidy up. In addition, this would give us a chance to explore where the Hydro track leaves the plateau and enters forest, hopefully finding evidence of it. That went really well and we found Hydro sign 23 near the entrance to the forest, almost completely covered by vegetation.
We also explored the shoe road, going the other direction, down the side of the Manuka ridge, and found the bridge used to haul the logs from the King Billy Range across the Sandstone Creek. Can’t tell you how impressed we were to find that 80-year-old bridge in deep world heritage forest.
Our time ran out before we could explore the saddle and find the shoe road down to the Morrison Camp. But we’ll get back. Either from the river using our kayak, or walking across those plains whose beauty has captivated so many over the years. It’s a connection with the past. Like living in Charles Gould’s time, that same wonderful view of the creation hasn’t changed since those many brave souls challenged the harsh magical land of Tasmania’s Southwest World Heritage Forests.
Trek Out on Historic Goulds Track – Hydro Signs
Our trek out, taking three days, proved challenging to our aging bodies weighed down with our packs, but heartened by the early pioneers, we accepted the task, stopping as required to steady our breath or pick ourselves up after falling before again pushing on surrounded by grand vistas. Cherished memories. A once in a lifetime challenge met and conquered while the beauty of Earth and her myriad other creatures took away our pain and uplifted us with the will to succeed. And we did just that.
We sighted and tagged an additional nine Hydro signs on the route shown on 1:25000 D’Aguilar topographical map. Add those to the six we already had found in the last two seasons brings us to fifteen important relics marking the exact route used by Tasmania Hydro, spanning a distance of six kilometres from Goulds Landing on the Gordon River to where the track enters the forest before descending to their research camp, which is 10 kilometres upstream from Sir John Falls.
We also have now tagged a very basic track from Goulds Landing all the way to the saddle leading down to the historic Morrison’s Camp that was in use harvesting quality exotic timber in the 1930s. All that remains is to find and tag the last little link.