Maps stimulate the imagination and in doing so they become triggers to writing. That writing can be a tale of adventure or it can be memoir. Sometimes, it can be both. Here are two vignettes, personal stories constructed around two different maps of two different places in life…
THERE WAS a lake. There was us. And there was a ridge. The lake was where we were to navigate to. The ridge was in the way.
“Use your map and compass and plot a route from here to the lake”, the instructor said.
The trainees consulted their maps. Then they looked up at the ridge. It was steep and high. It was covered in what looked like low, tangly scrub.
We were in the uplands of the Great Dividing Range inland of the NSW South Coast. I hadn’t been into this country before, so it was good that the instructor of the TAFE outdoor guiding class had chosen this region for the weekend bushwalk as part of the training necessary to the course.
I’ve said that it was steep, high and looked as though it was clad in low but wiry shrubbery…
The idea was that over two days trainees would acquire or improve existing skills used on a typical two day excursion into the wild country — reading the landscape and route selection, use of bushwalking equipment, safety in the mountains, setting up camp and erecting tents, making a small campfire, simple meal preparation, dealing with whatever the weather brought and, importantly, navigation with map and compass.
Most of those on the course had only a limited experience of bushwalking. Some were quite new to it. A few others, myself included, had quite a bit of experience. The instructor, a woman somewhere in her mid-to-late thirties and of pleasant disposition, had walked for quite some years with a bushwalking club. That showed, to me anyway, because I find there is some indefinable characteristics that denote such people. Ok, I’m making a sweeping generalisation here, I know. But all the same, there is something in their manner, the way they show a familiarity with the bush even though a particular area might be new to them, and in the similarity of the equipment they carry.
But, that ridge. I’ve said that it was steep, high and looked as though it was clad in low but wiry shrubbery. I watched as the trainees oriented heir maps to north so that map and terrain were in alignment. Some took a compass bearing to the destination lake where we were to camp that night. But… there was that ridge. And it was between us and the lake.
It was clear that those newer to travel in the wild country were a bit perplexed as to how to cross the ridge. The instructor asked for ideas from those less familiar with traversing rugged country, then she asked me how I would do it.
“Well”, I responded, ” …I’d avoid trying to ascend up the gullies because that’s where the scrub is going to be thicker and tougher. So I’d ascend up that ridge because any scrub there is going to be lower and less dense, the ridge we can see more or less straight ahead, I mean. Then turn east on reaching the summit ridgeline and sidle along eastward until we encounter this ridge” — here I held up my map pointing to the particular ridge — ” …then descend. Then move on a compass bearing towards the lake”.
We camped by the lake that night. It wasn’t a huge lake nor one so tiny it would better be called a big pond…
It seemed straightforward to me as I had done this sort of thing before. And, yes, it worked. The summit ridge was narrow but not so narrow as to require extra care to avoid a fall. The scrub on the ascending ridge turned out to be as I described as did that of the descending ridge. I had hoped it would be as sometimes the vegetation might look navigable but you soon find that appearance was deceptive.
We camped by the lake that night. It wasn’t a huge lake nor one so tiny it would better be called a big pond. It was a proper lake of moderate size. We set up tents, gathered wood and lit a small fire, cooked a simple meal and relaxed. The weather had been fine all day and that continued as night fell. It had been a good day in the mountains.
I was standing near the lake when the instructor came up.
“I was impressed with your route finding with compass and map, and also visually, to cross the ridge”, she said in a quiet tone suited to the silence you experience in the mountains.
“Would you be interested in being employed to assist on future training weekends for the course?”.
As I said earlier, I thought plotting a route across the ridge to have been a straightforward task unworthy of comment. Anyway, I said “yes” to her question.
So that was how a map led to me helping teach fieldcraft on the outdoor guiding course.
TASMANIA is a long way from that upland country behind the NSW South Coast, but it was where I was living. Specifically, West Hobart, where Watkins Street takes a short but steep fall to the intersection below. On that short street mine was the third flat along a single level building of four. It was one of those flat-roofed brick buildings typical of 1960s Moderism, economy school.
A small flat, this one, one bedroom. A short flight of eight steps came up from the driveway and down them on both sides were the old containers I had repurposed for growing vegetables. Those steps were a cascade of tomato, capsicum and leafy greens. Inside, however, was the map.
All that I needed to do now was load my pack for a week, book a light aircraft flight to the gravel airstrip at Malaleuca Inlet…
The map was attached to the end wall of the living room. It was large, I think it was what is known as A1 paper size. It was colourful. It was topographic, that is, it indicated the shape of the terrain, the mountains, the valleys, the plains, with lines. Where they were close together you had steep terrain, mountains and ridges. It was the South West Tasmanian wilderness, a vast region occupying the bottom chunk of the island and extending all the way up the western side to Macquarie Harbour.
I would stand in front of this map, looking, thinking, imagining. I knew it would take the good part of a week to follow the South West Track from Malaleuca Inlet to the roadhead at remote Catamaran. The worse the weather, the slower the journey. This I knew from long walks thorough Tasmania’s mountains elsewhere on the island. Walking that track, though, was something I wanted to do, walk the buttongrass plains, cross the Ironbound Range, traverse the open forests and pace the length of those wilderness beaches where the cold waters of the Southern Ocean crash onto yellow sands.
Intrigue, stimulus, the land of the imagination
That map on my wall… to me it was intrigue and stimulus. Stimulus to get out and get down there into the country those contour lines and colours represented. Intriguing, because it suggested exploring country well known to many but not yet to me. That map was the land of the imagination.
Other maps had been the same and I had acted on the stimulus they had offered. All that I needed to do now was load my pack for a week, book a light aircraft flight to the gravel airstrip at Malaleuca Inlet, walk the track and figure out how to get back to Hobart from Catamaran, That, I thought, would be by hitching a lift.
But there are other trails, other mountains and coasts, other forests to traverse.…
I never made that journey. Sure, I walked down to the southern coast from Catamaran but that was just a short hike. I never made it because I was assigned to Launceston, in the north of Tasmania where the work I was doing was something of a barrier to taking long walks. On leaving Hobart I had taken down that big colourful map and folded it. It was like folding a dream, an idea that had almost grown to intention.
Before I reluctantly left the state I thought seriously of getting down there, getting out on the South Coast Track. Sort of a farewell walk through the wilderness, I thought. It was the uncertainty of the logistics of travel to and from as well as taking the time for the trek itself that defeated that intention. I substituted with a five day solo walk along the Overland Track through the centre of the island.
I left that map behind when I left Tasmania, and with it any idea of walking the South Coast Track. I admit that from time to time the idea resurfaces and I feel it inviting but I doubt I will get to do it. But there are other trails, other mountains and coasts, other forests to traverse. Ok, they might not be the South Coast Track but they… well… they are out there.