Baby Steps to Heaven ~ March 2018
Some may wonder how we do these amazing deeds. We can assure you that we’re not superhuman, not in the slightest. Even though we are septuagenarians, we’re still looking for adventures, ready to take on challenges that would frighten many younger than us. So how do we do it? We’ve noticed many today lack belief in themselves.
Jack and Jude started by taking baby steps into this world of challenge. We didn’t start by sailing straight across oceans. We took lots of walks in parks, did little road trips, camped by streams, steadily building our repertoire of knowledge through failures, and hard knocks. But with each failure, as horrid as many were, we took pride in ourselves that we’d tried, and had survived. Taking Baby Steps, deed upon deed, we found those experiences made our next attempt a little easier. Life is short and precious, so if you’re stuck in a dead-end position then you’re not risking much when you get up to have a go. Wander through a park. Breathe in the fragrant scent of Earth and then imagine great vistas of mountains and wide plains. But, be ready not to succeed. That’s not failure. That’s learning what didn’t work. Failure is giving up.
Connecting the Dots
Wow! We are just back from our adventurous search, and the good news is we are still on our feet and smiling after two weeks in the wet jungle of Southwest Tasmania. This is how it unfolded.
Our mission this year was to connect the Morrison Camp at the upper reaches of the Gordon River to the GPS dots made during our three previous summers. The resulting route will provide exposure to many types of terrain and forest and the most outstanding views of exquisite Nature – along an important historical track that helped open up Tasmania’s west.
Leaving our vessel in Strahan, a good mate transported Jude and me upriver in a seventeen-foot tinny powered by a 60 horsepower Enduro. Packing supplies to camp for three weeks, we had our tent, down bags, awning, burner, lots of warm clothes, bags of fresh food and cans, plus a plastic tidy bin full with zip-lock bags of dry goods. Also on board was our Green Machine kayak taken as an emergency exit. Around here everything revolves around the weather, so we got going when three days of sunshine were forecast followed by occasional light showers for our remaining time in the bush. Alas, this proved rather incorrect.
Filled with nervous expectations and doubts over the outcome we set off into a light sou’wester that set up an increasingly uncomfortable chop as the morning advanced. If you’ve ever travelled in a small tinny on open waters you’ll know the jolting pain we experienced travelling the twenty miles down Macquarie Harbour. Fortunately all jolting ended upon entering the Gordon River, instead, the air temperature plummeted another notch while fabulous forested scenery whizzed past. Once upstream of Sir John Falls we entered the rarely visited upper reaches encumbered with rock outcrops and shale beds, which on this trip had high water flowing fast over them.
Our mate and guide, Ronnie Morrison, had worked the forest when a young lad and in his youth had piloted his uncle Reg’s charter vessel up and down the river, so we were in very capable hands. We’ve been on many an excursion with Ronnie. Once in 2013 to assist his team film the feature “Two Men in a Punt” that captures the wild beauty of the river and forests while telling the story of the hard-working Piners.
Steeped in History and Pain
In 1804, Australia’s second colony was established in Hobart on a harsh island with few resources. A colony where convicts outnumbered free settlers, where many absconded to become bushrangers, prompting Governor Sorell in 1822 to establish a place of ultra-banishment on the wild west coast at Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour. Once there, those reoffending convicts were brutally forced to harvest the colony’s most prized resource, the huon pine tree, which they then made into ships to haul this precious cargo to Hobart.
Plagued by horrid westerly gales, many ships were lost on the torturous sand channels leading through Hell’s Gate into Macquarie Harbour; stifling further exploration for wealth. So badly, that in 1842, Governor Sir John Franklin ordered the young surveyor James Calder to cut a track from the east coast to the West, upon which Sir John and Lady Jane walked to see what lay on the other side of the mountains. Then by 1860, rumours of gold and other wealth encouraged the government to hire a British geological surveyor, Charles Gould, for the sum of six hundred pounds plus expenses for a year to make a geological survey and prepare a book on the geology of Tasmania. When his team nearly died entering Hell’s Gate during one of the region’s many storms, he had his team cut an easier track to the east than the one that Calder had cut through the mountains. Gould’s track began at the furthermost point ships could reach up the Gordon River near Sir John Falls, where a dock was constructed called Gould’s Landing. For the next 100 years, this dock served both as departure and arrival for the west. First came geologist and miners looking for wealth, then a rush when gold was found, followed by workers when lead, zinc, and lastly, the largest known copper deposit in the world was discovered near Queenstown. Then in 1900, to safely export these riches, a rock-training wall was built to tame Hell’s Gate. After that, ships could safely enter and traffic on Gould’s track trickled to a few. But the need for good shipbuilding timber never trickled; in fact, demand grew, creating more jobs for hardy men who roamed the rivers and ranges looking for these special timbers. Huon, King Billy and Celery Pine are lightweight, strong and durable timbers that are abundant in Tasmania’s Southwest forests. Gould’s Track then became the lifeline for getting supplies to the Piners’ camps far upriver, and when walking upon it, the Piners could see the vast stands of the timbers they sought.
One of many spurs leading off the Gould’s Track serviced the Morrison’s Sandstone Camp, which was very active in the mid 1930’s. After WWII, these harvesting activities slowed to a few teams. Nevertheless, the Gould’s Track was then also used by Tasmania Hydro Electricity, who in 1971 cut a track from it down to the Gordon to access sampling camps to measure river flows and heights that were used to design the Gordon below Franklin Dam. Many of you will know that the proposed building of a second Gordon River dam created a huge controversy because it would have flooded the beautiful Franklin River Valley plus vast reaches of the Gordon. So much so, that in 1983 the Hawke Federal Labour Government took the extraordinary measure to block it. Swiftly after that, the vast Southwest was declared a National Park, with World Heritage recognition. This halted traffic on the Gould’s track and that blocked access to this beautiful creation.
Our interest lay in the Morrison’s Sandstone Camp and to learn more here are words of a young axeman. “An incredible amount of work often went into gaining access to areas further back from the rivers. In the early 1930s, Jim Morrison and sons cleared a horse road from the Gordon, about a quarter mile below the Angel Cliffs, back over a button grass ridge, and down on an angle into the Sandstone Creek. This is about one and a half to two miles back from the river, and at that time had a good stand of pine. The camp and stable were on the bank of the Gordon, and was inappropriately named the “Sandstone Camp,” wrote Reg Morrison as printed in The Huon Pine Story by Garry Kerr.
Reg Morrison was born into a timber cutting family, and took up the life of a timber feller, or ‘Piner’, at an early age. His love of huon pine can be seen in the boats he built out of this timber, and the tourism business he began, running regular boat trips for tourists on one of the wildest and most beautiful river systems in the world, the Gordon below Franklin. In the late 1970s, when the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission announced plans to dam the river, Reg Morrison’s life changed forever. Throughout the campaign, he voluntarily ferried protesters up and down the river from Strahan to the now-famous blockade site.
Speaking of his youth and the Sandstone Camp, Reg said, “Dad put a road back in there and worked four horses, and that’s where I was with Claude drivin’ horses when I was about thirteen or fourteen. The road went up two bloody hills. One was six or seven chain long, (140 m), an’ the other was two to three chains long, (60 m). A lot of sidlin’ work – dig into the side of the hill with the mattock to make it level for the horses and logs. Up on top of the hill (saddle and plateau) it was button grass, it was peat two to three feet deep (1 m). We had to dig a channel through that to get to solid bottom for good quarter of a mile (400 m). It was a bastard of a job that. It wasn’t too bad on top, the first foot (.3 m), you could cut it out with an axe, but further down it was mud, so you had to shovel that out. Then we had to slide down the other side, which was fairly steep, so the horses could pull the bloody logs up.”
Whizzing the clock forward eighty years puts Jack and Jude in the thick stuff looking for any hint of those benched roads dug out in the 1930’s. Ronnie had got us off to a great start, firstly by the journey of more than eighty-five km.
At about 1300 on Wednesday the 21st of March, arriving at the Sandstone Camp, the Gordon River was running fast around the outside bend. Far too fast to make headway had we attempted it by kayak, so we were delighted we had 60 hp transport. The dam must have been releasing a lot of water for the river was high to the underside of the overhanging trees. Not anything like the placid stream Jude and I kayaked from Sir John Falls to the Rocky Sprent in 2010.
Ronnie had to search up and down the riverbank for a likely landing place to unload our hoard of supplies without disaster, then he drove in fast across the currents straight at a large tree, which I grabbed, and quickly secured a line.
Gaining the steep shore was a problem soon overcome by Jude daintily finding a precarious foothold followed by Ronnie, who went off to check the way towards the camp and stables further upstream. Meanwhile, Jude and I unloaded the numerous boxes and rucksacks, precariously handing them across the river gap. Ronnie returned and helped unload and jockey the kayak above flood level, before we all arduously tussled each bit of gear uphill, then down into a minor stream, then back up and along the clifftop where the Morrisons had pushed Huon logs over into the Gordon, where they were floated downstream.
With the afternoon sun filtering through a mantle of green, our walk became a tour through a Disney world surrounded by tall, stout, straight boles coated in luxuriant mosses that rose majestically towards the blue sky while sunlight glinted off the fast-moving river. Along our path were many young celery top pines, noticeable by their distinctive shaped leaves, and dotted between them stood lovely baby Huon pines, their needle branches deep green and drooping as they do when fully grown.
Four years previously, when Jude and I helped the film crew find left behind relics, we’d had a good look at the stables noting the two remaining standing posts and cross members buried by moss with a few remaining nails proudly standing aloft. Further on we came to the hut site where the worn-out steel log-shoe still stood upright, at one time backing the fireplace.
Before selecting a site for our camp, Ronnie took us back to where the logs had been dispatched and then talking us through how it might have been, we walked along the edge looking for clues that might indicate where the road emerged from what is now thick forest and undergrowth. Ronnie’s lifetime of forest experience has his eye finely tuned to unnatural changes, as are Jack and Jude’s. So it didn’t take long to discover a small stump; burnt where it protruded and shaped into what Ronnie said could have been a turning point for the horses pulling the logs. At that point, he slipped into the undergrowth with the two of us close behind scanning the ground. His quick eyes spotted a built up line, saying that had been corded, meaning cut poles had been laid side by side to build up the run. Following it further into the forest led to a soak, low ground now soft with standing water eking out the nearby hill. Next to that, a fallen giant myrtle lay along the direction we were tracking and pushing aside some vegetation, Ronnie stated that he thought the shoe road lay in that direction.
Getting late now, Ronnie had ahead of him a long journey back to Strahan and we had the massive task of finding, then setting up a camp and sorting our gear, so we turned about to get on with our tasks.
In searching the historical site, we found the hut site somewhat small and thought it should be left undisturbed, and so we chose an area behind the collapsed stables on the edge of the large clear area. After deciding, Jude and I set to work at the tasks we know best. In line with a row of slender trees, I set up the tent, and close by, Jude set up her kitchen before we began unpacking our gear. Then we were free to return to that small creek to create a small settling pool for collecting drinking water, which also served as a fridge for our fresh foods and beer. Aye, having big transport allowed us to bring along a block of libation to celebrate the end of our working days.
Benjamin Franklin once said,
“Beer is proof that God loves us, and wants us to be happy.”
Thursday started wonderfully
Hardly half an hour was taken to push through the growth past the fallen myrtle and have excitement roaring in our ears when I noticed something unnatural ahead, possibly the tiniest hint of a bench road rising up the hillside. Fallen trees blocked our view and way ahead, but after climbing over them then turning back around, before us a manmade-benched road could be seen rising up the hillside at an angle. Wow! Our greatest clue found straight away. We had thought that, with luck, it would have taken several days of bruising searching through dense bush.
All day, Jude and I worked our way further up that benched road as it climbed up the 150 m high ridge. Plenty of fallen trees blocked our progress and, as in the past, we pulled the rotten ones away and broke off the smaller branches until clear enough to shimmy over or slide under. It hadn’t rained for several days, nevertheless, all were wet, and soon we were too. After clearing a couple of hundred metres, we came to a landslide. Not surprising since this track hadn’t been used for eighty years, nor had it been constructed to be used for much more than a few. Beyond the slide, we picked up the run again where a deep valley began closing with noisy running water. Here we turned back as it was getting late, returning buoyant after a very successful day indeed.
Friday started brilliantly
Warm with a lovely blue sky, a fabulous day to be in a forest. First, we cleaned up the start of the track now that we knew it was the right way, adding more red tapes and pulling away a few more fallen branches before heading back up. Following the manmade-benched road cut into the side of the steeply rising ridge, we continued doing our thing, amazed at how much work these lads had done to extract the logs. But soon our way ahead ran into an obstacle baffling us. The shoe road ran into the stream of water, which promptly narrowed into a chasm taller than us. We could see that it had been widened and had a solid sandstone bottom, but I’m not crazy about tracking through creeks. They’re wet, dark and full of leeches, with numerous fallen trees and rotting logs, so I had my doubts that the knowledgeable lads from yesteryear would haul logs through one. Mentioning this to Jude, I left her to climb the hillside to look for alternatives and went straight up the hillside rising at about 45 degrees. Passing through fairly open, beautiful green forest led to an even more open north face, which was drier, but no shoe-road nor any hint of man’s interference. Coming back, we picnicked at the same sunny spot as the previous day then searched up the opposite hillside, hoping there to find a shoe road. But we didn’t. Slightly deflated, we returned to camp thinking we’d expand our search the next day. Instead, it started raining that night.
Saturday it rained so much
We kept close to camp, erecting our awning and clearing the area of fallen branches, to make it neat and more open.
Sunday it rained harder
Bailed 60 litres to drain the kayak – the river rose 3 metres.
Monday, another very wet day
River still high.
Tuesday the rain eased to an occasional drizzle
And we thought it best to set off for our primary objective of linking last year’s find to this camp, by the path of least resistance if need be. We had improved upon our own track up and over the steep hill, laying more bright red tapes marking a lovely excursion through an open rainforest filled with native laurels. We discovered that the hill fell into the same creek, and seeing a cleared hillside on the other side went searching for a shoe-road there, but instead hit bauera. It’s another nuisance plant, the Bushman’s Curse for its thousands of interwoven fine branches that en masse grow thick and taller than a man’s height. My GPS pointed up to the plateau through it, so, gritting my teeth, I steeled myself for the upcoming battle then pushed into it, Jude close behind. The trick with bauera is to snap the large stalks then push the break towards the other, shearing the strand. It doesn’t take herculean force, albeit there are thousands upon thousands of strands. At times, I just push backwards into it using my bulk and weight to make a tunnel then clean up the bridging strands blocking our way. Our tunnel found the occasional banksia engulfed in bauera, and the odd run of cutting grass, or what we call razor grass because its razor-sharp serrated edge easily slices exposed skin. We, of course, are well protected, wearing tough gloves, long sleeves, and pants with gaiters and a hat. Getting through bauera is slow energy-sapping work that must be tackled with patience. Beware, if you don’t like being totally surrounded by dense vegetation, you’ll go mad, especially as it’s all very wet.
We steadily gained height until miraculously the bauera began to thin raising our hopes that we’d suddenly pop out. But alas! A false hope! We pushed on for another hundred metres taking yet another hour of precious time. With my GPS reporting my plateau waypoint just 45 metres away, we came to a slightly open patch about a metre wide by a few long, and since it was then two pm, we pushed away some spaghetti vine and stopped for nourishment. That was a big mistake.
Once sitting in our wet clothes, we soon became chilled and then found leeches inside on our pant legs, and since we still had to get safely back to our lovely warm tent before nightfall, had no choice but to turn about at that point. Of course, we had laid a few red tapes as we’d progressed, and going back, we tied quite a few more on just in case we came this way again.
Wednesday dawned overcast but dry.
Once again we set off to search for the elusive shoe road after I had entered a number of GPS exploration waypoints on the ground we’d not explored.
Up over the hill on our track, we weaved through the forest first to E01, then E02 and E03, places we’d been to before and finally to E04 in a new part of the hill near another creek. When approaching E04 we stumbled upon a manmade track slightly cut into the hillside above this new creek running noisily after all the rain. Wow! Excited by this new track gave our spirits a huge boost.
Enthusiastically, we followed it, making good progress in the direction of the Gordon until the track abruptly ended in a large landslip, and so, turning about we cleared small fallen branches in the other direction for about a hundred metres, until a heavy downpour sent us home.
Thursday I got cranky putting on wet gear after all-night rain
After a lovely breakfast of stewed apples on Jude’s homemade banana cake and not leaving camp until 11 am, our objective was to better mark our track over the hill as we were still losing it, which is not only frustrating but slows us down. After that, continue to clear the new track and see where it leads. Arriving about noon at what we called SR2, we cleared about 200 metres, noticing at one point a rather odd disturbance in the vegetation on the creekside. It looked manmade.
After lunch on the track in the falling rain, which hardly mattered as we were already drenched, we continued in a south-easterly direction until it disappeared into another mudslide, but not before we realized that this track somewhat connected the two streams. Finding a red tape that neither of us could recall, we found that it marked our way to that disturbed vegetation, which turned out to be where we had crossed creek 1 on our way to the plateau a few days earlier. A good chuckle blew away Ol’ Grumpy, laughing at how easy it was to become disorientated. But Nature had the last laugh when rain increased and it became gloomy again.
As we were already soaking wet to our privates, instead of going home over the top, we decided to return around the side of the hill, which took us into two gloriously green gullies. The last one we followed down, up and over numerous branches, thickly moss coated, and crunching rotten ones being careful not to slip until we got into creek 1 just above where we’d cleared. With all we’d gleamed in our recent searches, suddenly with smarter eyes, we noticed how the far side creek bank had been benched, meaning that someone had cut it vertically, making the creek flatter and wider. Walking down the creek we found that it had a hard sandstone base. I think that’s when the penny dropped.
Good Friday it rained heavily all day
And considering our physical state, we declared it a stay at home day, writing up our journals, making waypoints on our Avenza map that’s displayed on the Ipad, reading aloud to each other, and enjoying a warm dry cuddle while the rain on our awning sounded like being under a waterfall.
Saturday’s forecast was the best we’d heard all week
Only a 70% chance of showers, so we rose early, packed lunch then set off to reach our prime goal of linking this Sandstone Camp with last year’s final waypoint. Everything went swimmingly up the hill to SR2, and along it, until it crossed creek 1, then on up the other side to our bauera tunnel. We reached our earlier lunch spot about 11 am and pushed on towards a waypoint I’d made on Google Earth when back in Strahan. GE is an amazing tool. Zoom in and little things like an eighty-year-old shoe-road shows up as an anomaly in the vegetation pattern, and right where it was most pronounced I had generated a waypoint.
Once at our previous lunch spot, the bauera was reduced and we could see the sky above the tea tree that only reached half a metre above our heads with some low bush and the odd clump of button grass, fairly easy to get through. With 3 metres remaining to my waypoint, I took a step and fell into a ditch! By golly, reaching down to pull away the dangling veg, the straight sides of a ditch became obvious! The trench was no more than a metre wide and half a metre deep but had been made by man, and we knew the 13-year-old who had dug it. Suddenly a pent up dam of emotion burst in an ear-piercing whoop, and Jude shouted, “Hold it,” as she snapped a photo. With excitement rising further, we set off towards the last waypoint that we’d made last year, only 70 metres away. Quickly the ground degenerated into soft mush as tea trees were replaced by more clumps of button grass, which brought back Reg’s words that he’d had to shovel out three feet of mud before finding a hard bottom. We made fast going sloshing through mush more than ankle-deep. Then before we knew it, pushing aside a tall plant we beheld a glorious sight. With my euphoria soaring, the first thing I noticed was disturbed vegetation ahead. Then looking left and right, a last year’s pink tape fluttered atop a lone tea tree and a loud hurrah escaped me. We had done it. We’d connected all the dots made these last four years by sheer hard work and determination. We had found and recorded a track that had been the lifeline of the colony for over a hundred years before being left abandoned, to be lost forever to Nature’s rapid growth.
Jude’s smile split her lovely face as she laughed uproariously until I reached up and tied one of our bright red tapes just below last year’s pink one when again I heard the order to “Hold that,” as she got out her well used Lumix FZ200. That ‘poor thing’ has been dragged through all kinds of bush in all sorts of weather, and has taken nearly thirty thousand shots plus many hours of video, but it had enough life to snap one more.
With the clock ticking, one look at each other and both nodding towards the saddle, we haired off again toward the benched road leading down into the Sandstone Creek valley, knowing that if our luck held we could reach the derelict huon pine bridge across the creek with enough time to safely get home.
Well! We were astonished and surprised by how neat and tidy the bench road we’d discovered and cleared last year had remained. What a treat it was to find it unencumbered, a flat track in the wilderness, but when descending it a new thought niggled. I knew at the bottom was a large expanse of mushy soak, where water escaping out the hill got trapped in the rise before the Sandstone Creek. But I needn’t have worried about finding our way. We had left so many pink tapes that following them was easy-peasy and in hardly ten minutes we were hearing the roar of the Sandstone Creek, and seeing again the fruits of last year’s labour, the track still clear right up to what remains of the bridge built eighty years ago. A lot of it was under the torrent racing towards its discharge into the Rocky Sprent, and then onwards into the Gordon just upstream of our camp. For fun, I chucked in a boat in the shape of a limb telling Jude, “With a bit of luck we’ll see this go past our camp right after we get home.”
The Wonders of a Wet Forest
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There’s so much history in these SouthWest lands. So many stories of hard work reaping reward, so much inspiration for young minds because they will need stiff backbones to achieve their dreams when walking the great lands of Earth. Jude and I have come to know the children of the Piners and are impressed with their humour and kindness, their thoughtfulness and honesty. Most are successful and a credit to the west.
Now it’s thought by the ill-informed that the Piners ravaged the forests and took all the special trees and burned the forest to reach them. But that’s simply not true. Harvesting a large tree such as a Huon pine and getting it to market is an awesome task, so the Piners took only selected trees, not the giants that were too large to transport, only the straightest and truest, and to burn the forest to reach them would destroy all that they treasured. Today the forest is still alive with these special trees. Every tourist going upriver will see their drooping branches gracefully embracing the river waters along its shore, and walkers will see thousand-year-old giants dominating the forests. So let’s celebrate these unsung heroes of the wet SW forests who braved not only the cold and wet, and blood-sucking leeches, but also the danger of sharp edges on slippery slopes to bring us the special timbers so needed to build the ships that helped developed this magnificent land of Tasmania.
Jack and Jude hope one day this multi-day walk will become a glorious treat for hardy young visitors seeking adventure and beauty in a round trip taking in all the many shapes of forests and river. Tasmania is in need of new attractions, and adventurous ones are on the rise, so where better to start than pure Nature mixed with the hard-won victories of our past pioneers.
Fantastic work on opening up and highlighting some of the history from this area, Ive always thought a track following the length of the Gordon river showing all of its history would be fantastic, even more so if it follows the original tracks cut so long ago. With the right backing it could turn into one of our great multi day walks.
Thanks, Damien. It could indeed turn into one of our great multi-day walks. Unspoiled Nature, History, beautiful scenery – it’s got the lot.