Severe: A change in the weather

THE ASCENT STARTS at Watersmeet. Here, the Rufus River, little more than a wide, shallow and gushing rapid passes under the footbridge to enter the cold waters of Lake St Clair a couple hundred metres further on. Here, we leave the main track which heads north to take the Rufus track which heads west.

It is late morning. The weather is fine and carries that coolness it adopts as it passes through the mountains. There are six of us, packs on backs loaded with a weekend’s supplies as we head off to climb Mt Rufus and the nearby Mt Hugel. We haven’t decided where we will camp overnight but it will be up there, somewhere.

The ascent follows the river as a steady climb through cool temperate rainforest. No breeze in here where the tree canopy closes overhead. Mosses cover the damp soil. Bracket fungus lives off fallen, decaying wood. Brightly-coloured mushrooms in many configurations bring a touch of brightness to dark enclaves. As on most walks in the mountains I notice the weight of my pack for the first few hundred metres as back muscles adapt to carrying and leg muscles adapt to the exertion of climbing. Then I stop noticing.

Talk is minimal. That seems a characteristic of bush walks with this crew. When people do talk it is functional and of few words, such as when deciding on a route over rough country or to check the map. Nobody is anti-social, just not talkative on the trail. We ascend.

Time passes. Rainforest gives way to stretches of boggy button grass flatland as we get higher. This is one of those old tracks beaten into the ground by decades of bushwalkers’ boots. It is moist and muddy in these parts and we splash through the standing water avoiding what look likes deeper and boggier parts in an attempt to keep dry feet for as long as we can.

The circuit

The Rufus-Hugel circuit is a popular bushwalking route that can be done as a long day walk in summer when daylight persists into the evening. The peaks — Rufus and Hugel — are brown dolerite protrusions in the landscape without difficult scrambles to reach their peaks. From Rufus there is a long, open ridge that is a pleasure to walk in good weather but is exposed and buffeted by wind and cold rain in less-clement conditions. I had been up here a number of times, one in particular I remember for encountering a sizeable tiger snake on the track and for excellent, summer day views to the peaks out on the Du Cane Range some distance to the north.

Once, we had stayed in the old Hobart Walking Club hut down in the forest. It was a small hut typical of those found in these mountains and had been erected, I think it was, in the 1950s so as to give access to the winter snows and cross country skiing that became possible above the treeline after good winter snowfalls. Hardy people, those early bushwalkers, carrying their heavy wooden skis and packs up through the forest for what could turn out to be mediocre snow conditions. Other times it was overnight accommodation for walkers, a base to explore the land hereabouts.

That hut’s days were numbered as we made our way past it that day. In years to come the national parks service would become infested with a wilderness ethic hostile to the works of humanity in wild places. Ignoring the reality that human works have long been a part of the Tasmanian wilderness and that those remaining were historic reminders of that, they would demolish the structure.

Lake St Clair, Tasmania  1212-61.jpg
Mt Hugel from Forgotten Lake.

The night

We climb Rufus that afternoon. The weather has held and we are thankful for that, all of us having experienced the severity of cold, wet conditions as cold fronts saturated with chilled maritime air cross the state from the west and dump their load on the mountains. Now, the day is getting on and it is time to think of pitching tents.

We had passed by Forgotten Lake on the way in. It’s a substantial body of dark water cradled in the dolerite arms of Mt Rufus. With the forest coming down to the shore the lake offers little by way of flat campsites so we press on a few hundred metres across the button grass to where the rough track deposits us on the shore of another lake, this one nameless as far as I know. On its northern edge we set up tents in what is a flat area close to the shore, evidently a well-frequented campsite.

There follows the routine of camp life. Wood gathered, a small cooking fire is lit. Small, because there is a saying popular among bushwalkers — ‘the bigger the fire, the bigger the fool’. Tents erected, we pull sleeping bags from packs to let the down loft up. I put up my small, yellow japara cotton Paddymade tent — a reliable Australian brand around since the 1930s — and spread my groundsheet inside as a floor. This is a floorless tent, as used by many bushwalkers. Tying the ridgeline rope to a telescoping aluminium pole at either end, I guy them out, pinning the tent to the ground with tent pegs. Then I tighten the guy lines to make a taut pitch that should shed any wind that comes up.

As usual we eat, wash our bowls, make a billy of black tea and sit talking quietly as night sets in. It is still and cool, not a cloud in the sky. After a day in the mountains it is usually early into the sleeping bag. There’s something about that environment that induces restfulness and a desire to turn in far earlier than we would in the city.

I go to get into my tent and look up to see the stars shining ever so brightly through the cold, clear mountain air. Boots off, trousers off, sweater off, I climb into the sleeping bag and zip it closed. I lay there, arms folded behind head, and enjoy that feeling of muscles relaxing after a day on the trail. It’s a delicious feeling and a prelude to sleep. There’s the murmur of voices from one of the other tents and then the silence of the night. Outside, the lake’s waters are still, unruffled by breeze. Unseen night animals scurry unheard. Life in the forest doesn’t stop with the coming of night, for some it is just starting. Sleep comes.

WHUMP! A loud noise shatters my sleep. WHUMP! Silence. WHUMP!

I look up and in the gloom of night see the tent walls expand with a loud WHUMP! then deflate again. A wind has come up and it is rushing in through the gaps where the wall of my flourless tent contacts the ground. The tent is like a big animal breathing in and out. I look at my watch. It is close to midnight.

Somehow I manage to relapse into sleep. Then, again — WHUMP! WHUMP! — the gusts seem to be getting stronger, or is that just my nocturnal imagining? I lay awake awhile, then sleep again.

I don’t know how much time has passed when — a mighty WHUMP! I look up into the dark, star-studded sky. Quickly I realise what has happened. The tent has disappeared. I sit up and see the silhouettes of the other two tents still standing. Mine has completely lifted off the ground, the pegs ripped out. It is prevented from blowing away completely only by one of its lopsided poles. Gusts of wind blast by. At least it isn’t raining.

What to do? Re-erect the tent? If I do that won’t it just blow away again? Decision made, I get out of my sleeping bag, pick it and my clothes up and make my way to the closest of the other tents. Room for one? It’s a tight squeeze for three in a two-person tent but it’s better than being out in the wind.

Morning. The night’s wind has gone. The weather is fine. We make a leisurely breakfast then we head over to Mt Hugel.

The track down from Hugel completes the Rufus-Hugel circuit and brings us back to where we started. Watersmeet, where the rapids pass below the footbridge on their way to nearby Lake St Clair. We walk the short distance back to the carpark.

All the tents I buy in future come with sewn-in floors.

Feature photo: Mt Rufus seen from Forgotten Lake.

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