The Western Arthurs traverse has a certain cache in Australian tramping circles, well known as one of the most challenging and scenic walks in the country. We have a disparate group for this walk; Mel, an experienced walker based in the Blue Mountains, Stuart, a young Queenslander currently working in Perth, Bill, a mild mannered accountant from Sydney and myself. Over the years I’ve encountered many Australian walkers who have spent much time evangelising about the delights of Tasmania but I have always preferred the civilised huts and guaranteed water supply of New Zealand. A walk in the Western Arthurs would test that allegiance.
We make our way individually to Hobart and although we stay at the same hostel we don’t actually meet until we are standing on the street waiting for the bus. There is another couple on the bus, Fabio and Magdelana who have booked for exactly the same trip and duration as us.
The drive to Lake Pedder takes about 90 minutes and we are dropped off at Scotts Peak Dam. There is a small registration shelter in the car park campsite where we can leave details of our journey. We will be doing a full traverse of the Arthur Range before crossing The Razorback and beginning the long walk back to the Huon River.
Mel and Stuart have done the walk before, encountering torrential rain and flooded camp-sites on several occasions. Tasmania is currently in drought so the infamous bogs won’t be a feature of our walk. The track entrance has its own boot spray zone to prevent the spread of disease. This is such an issue that walkers are actively discouraged from visiting the Eastern section of the Arthurs Range
We don’t have far to walk on the first day, a three hour hike from the north into the junction where tracks head east, west and south. Although much of the track features a boardwalk there are also deeply eroded sections that involve skirting drying bogs. The moors feature grasses and patches of forest. In general it makes for open tramping with a good view of the length of the Arthurs Range. Even though low hanging cloud robs the country of colour Mel explains that such an open view of the Arthurs Range is rare and worth photographing.
We reach Junction Creek by lunch-time and have an unproblematic crossing of the stream. Because we are so early we have the pick of the camp-site and choose the high ground well away from the creek. We have four single tents to set up and spread out among the thin strand of trees that provide some decent shade to mitigate the humid conditions.
With the afternoon spare Bill and I decide to take a sneak peak at the range. The ridge line appears to be only a couple of kilometres away, presumably an easy ramble which can be done quickly. As is often the case with nearby mountain ranges appearances are deceiving. Although travel is easy over the untracked flats we are not certain about the landmarks and can’t distinguish Mount Hayes, Procyon Peak or Mt Orion. There is supposed to be a track leading to Epsilon Moraine but this is more a line on a map than anything real on the ground.
It takes about an hour to reach the base of the hill that sits underneath the range. Climbing the face makes for rather cumbersome walking and it is obvious that beyond the hill are steep gullies with no obvious route onto the ridge. We settle for reaching the top of the hill and views of the Arthur Plains and a distant Lake Pedder.
We retreat via the long ridge leading west which provides a navigational challenge on the way back to camp. Each clump of trees appears indistinguishable from any another. There are several gully streams with boggy banks that make for messy crossings. Eventually a park like band of trees leads in a northerly direction and we stumble back into camp.
It’s time for the evening meal. Any hopes for a straightforward trip are quickly dashed when my Icelandic cooker catches flame and threatens to both blow up and create a bush fire. Before I’m able to get it under control the plastic handle melts making the device unusable. I attempt to work around the damage but have to accept that it would be dangerous to use. Mel looks at me disdainfully and suggests that it would be simpler to borrow Bill’s cooker.
This isn’t the only equipment issue I will encounter. I’ve brought a few items along that are either at end of life or brand new. In the former category are my boots which have worn patches in the creases where the sole bends. I’ve brought black gauze tape to strap over the boot to cover the hole but in the rough conditions this wears away quickly and requires frequent repair. I leave a trail of worn tape as if acting as a guide for Hansel and Gretel. The rate of decline for the boots is far greater than I expect and halfway through the trip I have a gaping hole in my right hoof. It’s a ridiculous risk to take in rugged territory but typical of my ramshackle approach.
At the other end of the equipment gambit is my new pack. This is made of lightweight fabric and has a feature design of two detachable mini packs that fit on the chest. This balances the pack so that the weight is distributed evenly, allowing the user to stand straighter. The only problem is I can't see where I'm putting my feet and given where walking along a series of precipitous ridges footing tends to be important. It’s an unwieldy pack to put on and requires numerous straps to be clipped before it’s possible to walk. When walking in a group this becomes a source of frustration for all concerned. It adds to the strain of what is already a taxing pursuit.
The other factor we have not given consideration to is fitness for the task at hand. In my ignorant mindset I equate being able to play cricket for four or five hours a day as an indication that I’ll be able to hike for four or five hours. For years I’ve been ignoring my ever stiffening joints and my woeful lack of flexibility. Walking poles have compensated for this physical decline, providing the stability and sure-footedness that would usually be provided by strong and limber joints.
After each long walk I've accepted sore and swollen knees as an acceptable consequence of carrying a 20 kilogram pack over rough terrain. But I’ve been ignoring the damage that I’ve done to myself and the requirements for peak fitness when in this kind of terrain. The Western Arthurs isn’t just another walk. It involves 3,600 metres of ascending and descending of gullies, peaks and pinnacles. It involves scrambling along narrow tracks with precipitous drops off crumbling and unstable edges. Bodies need to be agile and able to withstand twisting, sliding and unexpected instability underfoot.
Our group contains one younger member who is in peak fitness. He will have little trouble negotiating the difficulties of the track and it will require the rest of the members to be able to push themselves to keep up. What could possibly go wrong?
In the morning we begin the first leg of the trip to Lake Cygnus. The guidebook estimates it will take between 3 to 5 hours. After forty minutes following the Port Davey track we pass the track junction and turn off to Alpha Moraine. Stuart leads the way and disappears into the mist ahead. The track climbs steadily and after half an hour of walking we have gained enough height to look down on the button grass plains. Increasing rain squalls demand jackets and pack covers.
It’s already emerged that Stuart has the capacity to travel at a much faster rate than the rest of the group. He is forced to wait for us just below the ridge line at the start of the Arthurs Range in an exposed hollow. He gets quite cold waiting for us to catch up. We begin the section leading to Mt Hesperus. The route takes a dog leg to the south across moors. We are now above the 1,000 metre mark and walk in heavy cloud. Foot pads, cairns and sections of walkway make for straightforward navigation. We make our way toward a rocky knoll and climb over a saddle.
With few landmarks to note in the misty conditions we can’t see the summit of nearby Mt Hesperus. Nor can we see Lake Fortuna or Lake Nereid. A cool wind sweeps the moors. Our thoughts are solely on getting off the ridge and into the basin containing Lake Cygnus. A series of deep steps drops quickly into what is later revealed as an impressive cirque.
There is a designated camp-site just above the sandy beachhead of the lake. The camping area is covered in rubber mats and is enclosed by a thick band of shelter providing bushes. A couple of tents are already in place. I opt for an enclave off the matted area, managing to squeeze in my narrow one man tent. Stuart, Mel and Bill have dome shaped tents that fit into the main section of the grounds.
Although we have only been walking for about four hours, the lingering rain makes the idea of taking an afternoon nap quite attractive and we retire for several hours. The cloud cover clears later in the afternoon making the prospect of a return to the ridge line quite attractive. Bill is around and he agrees to join me on a quick walk before dinner. With the cloud covers dissipating the views from the ridge are surprising. Lake Pedder is framed by a series of mountains disappearing to the horizon. Lake Pluto, Lake Triton and Lake Neptune are nestled by cliffs and stubby sub tropical forest.
The closest lake is Lake Nereid which has its own attractive cirque. It would be possible to circumnavigate the lake but we don’t have time to go exploring any further. It’s a shame that we haven’t thought to set aside two or three hours to fully explore the area as there are many great spots on the ridge and it is becoming obvious that the Arthurs Range is best done slowly with afternoons devoted to day trips.
Bill and I return to camp and join Stuart and Mel for the evening meal. Discussion turns to Lake Oberon, which is in many ways the centrepiece of the range as it is the largest accessible lake and a Mecca for walkers. Each day the subject that most occupies us is how long each section will take to walk and how early we should leave. The respected guidebook of John Chapman allows 2.5 to 4 hours to travel the 4.2kms between Lake Cygnus and Lake Oberon.
From experience the most rugged New Zealand track is the Dusky Track and the slowest sections of this can be walked at 1km per hour. Obviously there are many off route sections where travel slows down to 500 metres per hour. Chapman describes the crest of the range between Cygnus and Oberon as offering reasonably easy walking and it seems apparent that it is the “grand views” that might make for a slow walking pace rather than the difficulty of the terrain. Even so, we agree to get underway by 6.30am.
When we wake the sun is just hitting the tops of the crags surrounding Lake Cygnus and conditions are pleasantly crisp. We exit the basin by a route other than what we came in on making for a slightly disorientating experience. We turn right and travel above the lake before reaching the ridge crest. It is a great view from here and I have time for two hurried snaps before we continue. The cloud has settled into the valley, leaving just the tops of the hills exposed so that we are unable to see Lake Pedder. It’s hard to imagine another walk in Australia where each day starts above the cloud-line. A three quarter moon is perched just off the spectacular pinnacle that overlooks Lake Cygnus.
We continue to sidle through close scrub and through the rocky track that skirts the range and avoids the steeper peaks. It hasn’t taken long for the blanket of cloud to clear from the valley, revealing the full form of the hills below. It’s a cloudless day and the early morning sun casts sharp shadows across the valleys. At times the track must negotiate boulders, pinnacles and bluffs and it makes for a languorous, snaking route across the slopes of Mt Hayes. We have been going for about an hour and a half when we drop into a large saddle and take a break. There are good views both north and south.
After an extended break we continue to walk into the sun, moving over a well worn track that clings doggedly to the ridge. The cloud lingers in the valley to the north radiating a light absorbing brightness. Half an hour after leaving the saddle Lake Ceres comes into view. An imposing slab of a mountain looms above the lake on the north side. There is the hint of a beach at the southern end of the lake though no obvious track leading down it.
Another forty-five minutes of ridge scrambling provides a view of Square Lake and the imposing Mt Procyon. The guidebook provides tips for the adventurous about the best approaches for climbing this behemoth. Again, it seems obvious in retrospect that the short walking days between campsites mean that this walk is designed to feature multiple pack free day walks. Oh to be that fit and fearless.
We are now in the home straight with just the final section of ridge followed by the descent into the Lake Oberon basin. I tread on a loose rock and feel my ankle wobble as my body quickly adjusts to the unstable ground. I step off and think no more of it, these sorts of minor inconveniences occur numerous times a day while tramping. Mel is walking five metres behind me. He emits a faint grunt and I turn to see him falling down with his legs collapsed underneath him. It looks painful but Mel is quick to lift himself up and limp back onto the ridge. He doesn’t answer when I ask if he’s alright. This could be good or bad, I haven’t spend enough time with Mel to know.
Fortunately we are close to the famous viewing spot for Lake Oberon which features the circular lake framed by the peak of South Pegasus and the green tinged wide plains on the northern side. It’s a stunning scene enhanced by the morning back light and sun drenched surrounds.
As we sit and contemplate the vista a walker emerges from the tops. He has been on a walk to Mt Sirius. He doesn’t appear to be carrying a pack so it’s hard to know where he has come from or spent the night. He’s obviously comfortable with the terrain and isn’t too hung up on sticking to tracks between designated camp-sites.
Our main concern is whether Mel will be able to descend off the ridge down to the campsite. The steep descent hugs the base of Mt Orion and requires a slow pace with several instances of pack lowering. These are required more for ease of mind as large slabs of rock must be negotiated. Other sections of the track are uncomfortably narrow with a severe drop-off on the right hand side. After an hour of careful foot placement we stumble into the basin. We’ve been going for four and a half hours and it isn’t much past 10.30am.
We turn our mind to the Lake Oberon camp-site. Having arrived so early we obviously have our pick. The campsite is rather unique. There are six elevated platforms hidden in the bush. Guy ropes need to be screwed in with hooks. Fortunately Mel has brought along extras and I’m able to get a half assed tent up and going. There are only bushes in the immediate vicinity of the platform rather than trees making it difficult to firmly secure ropes externally.
The hidden platforms ensure that the Lake foreshore isn’t contaminated with tents but it makes even a small communal gathering difficult to manage. Mel and Stuart drop by for lunch and we make do with little shade and no seats. Mel remains ginger when it comes to putting weight on his knee. If rest is what he needs to recuperate we have at least one spare day built into our schedule.
With uncertainty surrounding the trip our afternoon plans lack ambition. Despite the myriad of options for day walks there’s little interest in anything requiring effort. Instead we turn our mind to lingering around the lake edge. There is a boardwalk that skirts between the fringe of the forest and the small stream that serves as the lake inlet. We have to remember that drought conditions make this a benign area and that the elevated camping platforms guard against flood. It also stands to reason that the lake is at a low level.
Reading and photography make up the main activities of the afternoon. Some of the campers who were also at Lake Cyprus begin to trickle in during the afternoon, having taken a leisurely and scenic stroll over the tops. There are several couples and several solo trampers. One of the solo trampers decides to camp on the beach despite attempts by the more experienced trampers to have him use one of the platforms.
When we gather for the evening meal discussion again turns to the next day’s walk to High Moor. We have the advantage of Stuart and Mel having done this walk before so we should have an excellent idea of how long it will take to travel the 4.3kms. Stuart estimates that it might take ten hours, based on previous experience, while the guidebook makes a rather more plausible estimation of 5 to 7 hours. We agree to an even earlier start than this morning’s earlier start, achievable when sunrise is at 5.30am.
Chapman’s notes are not exactly reassuring, stating that “at times the route is dangerous, being poised above high cliffs, and it requires many climbs up and down steep gullies. Times taken by each group vary widely depending on weather conditions and the amount of pack hauling needed”. The concept of pack hauling is not one that I’m not overly familiar with, using it rarely on the steepest and most unreliable sections of New Zealand routes such as off Rabbit Pass or when dropping into the Forgotten River when accessing the Olivine Ice Plateau. It would seem we are about to encounter a walk that puts all of these walks in the shade for degree of difficulty.
A fitful night ensues which is interrupted when Stuart arrives at our camp-site at about 5.00am. He has news that Mel will be unable to continue as his knee has stiffened up rather than improved. A little later on we convene to hear this first hand from Mel. We have the option of staying at Lake Oberon for one or two more days if necessary to allow for recuperation but he is adamant that it won’t make a difference. He is aware that the terrain ahead in challenging and difficult to access should he be unable to continue. If he is to abort the walk then the plains of Oberon is the place to do so. In times gone by we’d have all just spent two days returning the way we’ve come with the contents of Mel’s pack re-distributed among the rest of us. With the advent of portable locator beacon’s this kind of shared inconvenience is no longer necessary. Instead we can put in a call and have Mel airlifted back to Hobart.
We have several PLB’s but opt to use Bill’s. Bill is slightly reluctant of tripping his PLB as he doesn’t want to cause concern to his family in the likelihood that they are contacted once the device is activated. But come 6am he walks the device out to the mossy flats, extracts the aerial and flicks the switch. The other walking groups slowly begin to emerge and pack up for the day. Had we been going on to High Moors we’d have already set off several hours before them, such is our group’s belief that a ten hour walk is involved.
Nothing drags like time spent waiting after an emergency call. The SAR group will need to receive the call, verify that it’s valid, mobilise a team of specialists and travel a considerable distance by helicopter. I busy myself photographing the lake and the waves of cumulus cloud that are gathering above the basin. In New Zealand such cloud formations would portend storms but in drought plagued Tasmania I would make any assumptions.
It appears as a dot in the distance then becomes larger. Because there are walkers on the ridges the pilot sensibly scans the mountainous sections first. Once they are satisfied that there is no emergency situation with these groups does the chopper settle on landing on the plains. There are four officers onboard. By the time they land they are in a relaxed frame of mind apparent that they are dealing with a straight forward retrieval situation. Two of the officers wander over to ascertain what the situation is. A medical officer gets Mel to roll up his trouser so that he can have a look at the problem. A “crook knee” is quickly diagnosed. The officers don’t seem too displeased to have been called out, travel conditions have been good and the views have been spectacular. Not having to go into a dangerous rescue must have been a relief. Several days later they will be called out to a fall on Federation Peak where they will have to dangle at the end of a wire and be lowered onto a ledge. They certainly earn their easy rescues.
On this occasion their physical work is limited to hauling Mel’s overladen pack onto broad shoulders and carrying it back to the Westpac Rescue helicopter. They are on the ground for all of fifteen minutes and most of that is taken up with the walk across the soggy sphagnum moss. With the evacuation of our group leader we are down to a party of three. We briefly consider staying put for the day but as the other groups have only just left we obviously still have plenty of time to make the next camp-site in our new configuration. Even so, we remain a little on edge about what's to come.