To Rhonna via Gordonvale

Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: HIKE

WHERE do I start? What do I write about? Do I take the prompt in its literal or figurative meaning? Hike. What a writing prompt!

So I go into my tiny kitchen, make myself a coffee, take two chocolate coated macadamias from the jar and set them down beside my cup. While the coffee brews I go into the front room to look for something on the desktop machine. While there, I open the Lightroom app and there it is — the answer to my dilemma about how to write about today’s writing prompt — hike.

…taking a hike, of travelling by foot from somewhere to somewhere, of distance covered…

So, I will be writing about the ‘hike’ word-prompt in its literal sense of taking a hike, of travelling by foot from somewhere to somewhere, of distance covered by this primal form of locomotion that had carried our distant ancestors from ancient Africa out into the world. Hike.

The clue comes to me in the form of a couple old photos that I had years ago scanned from colour transparency film (for newer people unfamiliar with the concept, that’s a type of film once used in film cameras that carried the colour image, well, on a transparent film). They show old, decaying buildings out in a valley between a couple mountain ranges in the Tasmanian interior. But we’ll get to that.

A walk in the dark

Friday night, and we sleep out in the open on the banks of a minor creek some kilometres from where we had left the cars.

We had arrived with the fading of day, parked the cars and walked by the yellow beams of our torches, or ‘flashlights’ as people on the far side of the Pacific call them, into the early hours of night.

Night walking is a peculiar thing mainly because, unless you walk at full moon, there’s little visible. Your world is defined by that yellow glow. All beyond is only hinted at by odd, vague shapes like apparations appearing in a dream. It’s hard to estimate distance travelled. You occupy this bubble of dim light that travels with you as you move along the track as it emerged from the gloom in front of you and disappears into it behind. There’s a feeling of dissociation from the landscape, until you trip on some tree root, anyway. There’s an otherness to night walking. It is not unpleasant.

The sounds of morning

Some early riser — there’s always one of those — gathers deadwood, makes a small, conical pile, strikes a match, blows on the flame started in the kindling and gets a small cooking fire going on which to boil water and brew tea. Others rise reluctantly. The sound of zippers opening sleeping bags, of people pulling on boots, muffled voices, of stuffing away sleeping bags, of preparing breakfast.

These are the sounds of breaking camp that bushwalkers know. And there’s that tang of smoke from the cooking fire. I too rise, push sleeping bag into stuff sack , pull on and lace up boots then note the creamy-grey light of early morning. The sky is clear. The sun is still below the horizon. Time for an early start. Thirty two kilometres to go today.

Out on the button grass

Soon we are out on the plains following a rough, unmaintained and not-all-that-frequently traversed trail. The going is flattish and easy. We pick up speed as our muscles shed the stiffness of a night spent in sleeping bags spread on groundsheets on the damp earth. Here on the button grass plains the scatty eucalypt forest is behind us as we head towards a mountain range cutting diagonally in front of us but still a lot of kilometres distant.

The weather is holding. We leave the rough track and walk cross-country, across the plains. A low hill rises ahead and we follow a pad up it. Reaching the top of the old glacial moraine we stop. There, in front of us is Lake Rhona. A circular jewel of black water filling a bowl carved into the bedrock by a glacier of the long-gone Pleistocene, Rhona is backed by the steep sides of the old glacial headwall. It is not a huge lake but it is a beautiful one.

…one of the party told me he had wondered whether I would step on the Tasmanian tiger snake curled atop a button grass clump close to where I walked…

There among the low, stunted eucalypts in the rough campsite behind its pink quartz sand beach we pitch tents. Next day, we will climb behind that headwall and ascended the treeless slopes to the top of the range. Then we will head out on the long walk following the way we had come in. We plan to leave early to cover those 32 kilometres. We will not stop by that little creek to sleep again on its banks, but continue straight back to the cars.

At our lunch stop one of the party told me that he had wondered whether I would step on the Tasmanian tiger snake curled atop a button grass clump close to where I walked. I told them I saw no snake but encountering them was not an uncommon experience. Just so long as you don’t stand on them.

Ruins in the wilderness

Gordonvale. While Rhona was quietly magnificent, the range it was carved into visually stimulating and good, open walking, Gordonvale was a story of times gone by. We had stopped there on our way into Rhona and we stopped there again on our way out. Gordonvale was a fine place for lunch.

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Gordonvale on the weekend we walked into Lane Rhonda. This was long before the buildings finally collapsed. Here, people lived during the 1930s depression, ecking out a life in the wilderness. Bushwalkers’ tents have been set up in the clearing around the buildings.

This is all there was. In a meadow of marsupial grass (grasses grazed short by wallabies) a large dwelling standing lopsided as if ready to collapse, its timbers greyed by decades of exposure to sun, wind, rain and snow. Around it, the similar remains of what had been the bakehouse and other ruins of buildings of unknown use. Gordonvale occupied a low uplift in the landscape adjacent to the treeline that followed a stream, the source of fresh water for what had once been this settlement. And that meadow — it was resplendent with the bright yellow of daffodil, the descendents of plants established when this small settlement was occupied.

Wandering around the remains I could feel the presence of the past. It was a silent presence because those who had built and occupied this place during the depression era of the 1930s were long gone. Their story exists here and there in historic records but records are scanty. Here, where those lives were lived, there was only greying timbers slowly returning to the landscape from which they had been formed.

Gordonvale was established out here in the wilderness by a hardy band who, as I understand it, derived a living of sorts from the osmiridium mining camp on the far side of that range we had earlier walked. That, too, is long gone, now just a note in Tasmania’s economic history. But who were they? And how did the idea of a small settlement in the wilderness come about? One we know about because he left diaries was Ernie Bond, who was living at Gordonvale into the 1950s and who welcomed parties of bushwalkers.

One thing is for sure. Those people were hardy types, far hardier, I imagine, than people today. There was an audacity, a daring, a sense that living life amid the depression was a necessary adventure that sent them out here where wallaby graze and winters are freezing.

They did all those things settlers do — build using local timbers they cut and milled themselves, grow food, bake bread from flour carried in with all their other needs on packhorses. The nearest road was then distant, as it still was when we walked in that weekend.

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The quiet beauty of Lake Rhonna, a body of cold, black water nestling up to a thin strip of subalpine vegetation at the base of an old glacial headwall.

Time gone

It is now a long time ago that I made that walk that weekend. I remember it because Tasmania was largely unknown to me at the time, a place with much territory to explore, many ranges to traverse and lakes of dark water, like Rhona, to camp by. Of the people on that walk all I remember are David Ziegler, a tall, lithe and tough long distance walker of the hard man type, Ian Wright, for whom l would later work in the adventure equipment business, and Charmaine Gibson, who became the first female criminal lawyer in Tasmania. Who were the others? Memory has faded. I see them in mind as indistinct shapes with blurry faces. One thing, though — we were all young, fit and adventurous.

Those people have gone and so has Gordinvale. Decrepit when we lunched there that long ago Spring, I learned much later, decades later, that those buildings had finally collapsed. Now I see them in mind’s eye, a pile of rotting, greyed timbers being overgrown by grasses. And, all around, the brilliant blaze of daffodil standing in bright contrast to the greens of the marsupial grass.

More in Gordonvale: http://tasland.org.au/2013/05/gordonvale-a-world-heritage-story/

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