Willy-nilly: a tale of the mountains

CLUNK! CREEEAKKK… the door groans as if in protest at Jenny’s opening it and she walks in ahead of Rusty. “Sheeet!”. It is an exclamation that makes Rusty look at her for expletives are not her style. She stands in the open doorway, looking into the hut.

All Rusty can see from where he stands behind Jenny is the afternoon light illuminating the flecks of dust that she has disturbed. That, though, is not what Jenny is looking at.

“Uhh… wow!” is all that comes out as he stands there, his mind searching for language more substantial, more profound. He, too, stands and looks.

“What is it?”, asks Sandy from outside where she sits on the stoop beside her pack.

“Come see for yourself”, calls Jenny.

Sandy rises and moves over beside Rusty. “Oh… far out”, she utters in understatement. She looks out to where Tim is standing by the shore of the lake. “Tim! Come here! Come check this out!”.

The journey

Five hours they had been on the trail. Plus another hour following the twisting forestry road from Pine Tier Lagoon to where they started walking. It had been an early start at the campsite where they overnighted after the drive up from Hobart the previous afternoon. They had camped there before, just off the Lyell Highway. Like most of the lakes here it had been dammed many decades ago and the water level raised by the Hydroelectric Commission, part of a massive power development scheme. Now, it was a place frequented by fishers and others, like them, spending the night in the eucalyptus forest along the lake shore.

As usual it was Jenny who rose first that morning and rekindled the fire that had cooked last night’s meal and around which they sat talking long into the night. It wasn’t her idea to come out here on what was essentially an exploratory walk in the mountains. That was Rusty’s doing when late the previous Wednesday he walked into the bushwalking equipment store which Jenny managed.

“Hey”, he said as he came into the shop. “What about a trek on the Central Plateau this weekend? I was talking to Tim this afternoon and he said that he wants to revisit a hut on a little lake out near Lake Lenore. Said he had been there years ago and wanted to return to take some photos. We’re going to meet with Sandy down at the Central when she finishes work. Want to join us?”.

Jenny needed no convincing. Like Rusty, she was what they call single, as if that were some unfortunate condition. Although she had plenty of contact with the people who came into the shop there were few she could call good friends. Like Rusty, there was an ambience of independence around her which the friends she did have commented on when she wasn’t around. Some thought the absence of male company in her life might signal a preference for women, however as she had not set up any kind of domestic arrangement with a woman or a man they came to the conclusion that she just liked her own company. This left her free to make spontaneous decisions such as meeting with the others that evening and plotting out the logistics of a weekend walk to some nameless tarn somewhere near Lake Lenore.

Their route that morning lay roughly northwest from the end of the forestry road. Ensuring the car was locked — it was questionable whether that was even necessary as there would be no one out here, not even loggers as the area had been cut some years ago and was in an early stage of regrowth — they hoisted packs onto backs and set off. Tim led, compass in hand. There was no track so they followed open leads through the vegetation, keeping in the relatively drier zone above the boggy bottom of the shallow valleys and below the scatty, open eucalyptus forest above.

The trail trended upwards through the day although it was an upwards with the occasional downwards. Within a couple hours of setting out they reached the higher country. Here, the bare rocky bones of the earth poked through the regolith and made for easier walking. Sandy called lunch which, for Rusty, meant RyVita and cheese.

“You’ve been up this way before, I recall you saying once”, he said to Jenny.

”Yeah”, she replied, “ …that was on a search and rescue mission though it was well over to the the east from here. We were out looking for some young guy and we found him on the second day.”

He looked over to Sandy and Tim. Like Rusty, they had drifted down here from the mainland in search of a restart in life. And like him they had arrived with no idea of the form that would take. Rusty had met them at a friend’s dinner party six months before. Whereas Jenny was more olive skinned and wore her dark hair tied back in a pony tail, Sandy’s completion was the olive that comes with years of exposure to the sun which, Rusty imagined, accounted for her straw-blonde hair that fell about her shoulders. That made sense, Rusty thought, when he remembered she and Tim talking about their surfing expeditions up and down the east coast. He wondered why they had come down here to the cold seas, but had never asked. Tim, who like Sandy was in his late twenties, was a little taller than her but also had that suntanned complexion and fair, browny-blond hair. He worked for a photographic printing company in the city and wanted to visit the hut for a photo project he was developing about huts in the Tasmanian highlands.

From their high point Rusty can see back over the country that had traversed. Not the actual route they had followed for that was out of sight down in the dips and crannies of the land. Rough, undulating country, he thought to himself, sparsely vegetated with copses of low-growing snow gum and boggy, button-grass patches. No wonder the only economic activity here had been summer grazing, though most of that had now gone. He looked northwards in their direction of travel. The early summer’s sun glinted off lakes and tarns too numerous to bother counting. “A landscape scraped flat by ancient glaciers and ice caps”, he muttered to no one in particular.

“Ahh”, comes a response from Tim. “I remember your saying you had this interest in geography, or is it geology?”.

“So, you do remember where this lake is?”, Rusty asks.

“More or less”, he responds. “It’s a bit east of Lake Lenore. The stream we’ve been  following drains Lake Neve but we don’t want to go there. Just before we reach it we turn off eastwards and its only a short distance to the hut. I was told it was a hut built by trappers back in the forties or fifties though that was only a rough guess. Somehow it’s escaped bushfire and neglect and is still standing. I imaging local fishermen use it”.

In silence they follow the shallow creek valley. After awhile, on consulting his map and compass, Tim calls a change of direction. They walk along the exposed rock of the ridge tops as much as they can. It makes something of a zig-zag course but the walking is easier here. They descend a slope to a fringe of trees around the tarn.

“There it is”, exclaims Jenny as she points to a roof standing above the scrub. Their approach is along a pad that comes and goes, the faint imprint of feet having trod this route before.

With a clunk! the wooden latch holding the door closed gives way and with a prolonged creeakkking sound the door opens as Jenny gently pushes it. She steps, and stops, and utters an expletive.

The hut

Beckoned by Sandy, Tim peers through the open doorway. What confronts them was something so out of the ordinary it was disturbing. Bushwalking equipment is scattered across the long platform that forms the bunk along the rear wall of the hut and across the floor.

“It’s somebody’s stuff and it’s been scattered willy-nilly”, a surprised Jenny says. “So, is someone staying here? Looks like it. Hey, there’s two packs, two sleeping bags on the floor. I guess they’ll come back. But why would leave their stuff like this? Who would be so haphazard?”.

“You know”, said Tim,”It’s like someone’s come along and scattered their stuff all over the place”.

“Maybe we should clean it up”, suggests Rusty. “I’ll get some water on for tea and while that’s doing we can clean up”.

It takes only a quarter hour or so to restore the sleeping bags to the bunk and sort the scattered kit into plies of clothing and other stuff. Then they sit around, steaming cups of tea in hand, looking over at the equipment and wondering when its owners will return.

Suddenly, Jenny sits up as if realising something, for realising something is just what she has done.

“Uh… did anyone notice? All that kit scattered willy-nilly… there were sleeping bags, clothes, a cooker, a tent… but no wet weather gear”.

“Well, if they went off for a day walk they would have taken their wet weather gear with them”, says Tim.

“Yeah”, responds Jenny. “But did you notice what else was missing?”.

Everyone looks towards Jenny expectantly.

“There’s no food”.

The return

The remaining hours before evening are spent wandering the lakeshore. Tim and Rusty walked around the lake and climb onto a rocky ridge on the far shore. From up there two small lakes were visible, close by to the east, and off to the north-west the waters of Lake Lenore glinted in the late afternoon sun.

An hour later they return and, from inside the hut, hear the voices of strangers.

“This is Michael and Helen”, says Jenny as they enter. It’s their kit here in the hut and it’s all here apart from their bag with food in it”.

Then, the story unfolds.

Michael and Helen walked into the hut the afternoon the four overnighted at the lake on the way up. This morning, they decided to do a day walk over to Lake Lenore and up to Lake Nugatena to the north. Into their daypacks they stowed their wet weather gear, camera and sweaters along with food for lunch and set off.

“There’s a small lake between Lenore and Nugatena”, explains Michael. “We had just crested the low ridge between the lakes when we noticed movement, a group of maybe five people heading along the creek that drains out of the lake, moving more or less south west, it would have been. They were some distance off and they didn’t notice us. We didn’t think much of it. After all, you see others out here and we thought it was probably a group of fishermen.

“So we walked around this lake and then, over on the eastern side in a little cove-like bay we noticed something, so we naturally went over to take a look. It was a campsite but there was nobody there. There were three tents in the scrub, larger tents, maybe four person-size. There was a tarp erected to provide shelter between some trees and a fireplace in which the coals were still warm. We realised we had stumbled upon a campsite that the people we had seen had just left.

“They had left their packs. We counted eight in all. This looked like more of a base camp, not the fleeting affair that bushwalkers make for an overnight stay. There was a large pot beside the fireplace and a stack of plastic and enamel plates and bowls that looked like they had been washed and left to dry. Bits of clothing were draped over branches. Their equipment was not the usual bushwalkers kit. There was something odd about this. Anyway, we crossed over to Nugatena then came back past here, though on the other side of the lake, but we saw no one other than that fleeting glimpse of the group”.

“So”, says Rusty. “It’s your guess that they came here, to this hut, while you were away and took your food but nothing else?”.

“Yeah. Their camp… the stuff lying around gave the impression that they were well-equipped and taking our equipment would just have made more for them to carry. Makes sense they were on their way here when we saw them. Did they wait until we had left the hut? Did they have someone watching the hut to see when we left?”, asked Helen.

“That’s right”, responds Michael. “It’s like they have their own equipment over at the lake but are just after food”.

“But why?”, asks Sandy. “Why just food?”.

“Let’s think this through”, says Jenny. “We have a large group camped over at a lake not all that far away. They have a camp that looks like they’ve been there some time. Now, if that’s true, then what’s the first thing that’s going to be used up?”.

It takes only a few seconds for Michael to realise what she is getting at. “Food!”, he responds.

“So that explains why they came to this hut while we were away. They scattered all our stuff all over the place looking for anything useful but took nothing but our food. They didn’t want our equipment like our tent or sleeping bags because they have their own and more means more weight and reduced mobility”.

“Of course”, says Jenny. “Yes, they do want the mobility you speak of because… they’re living up her, up here on the plateau. At least during the summer as it gets bitter up here in winter with the snow and wind.

“So, they’re obviously not local as they would have homes to go to and they would come up here only for a limited time for fishing.

“Uh… I think they might be nomads, modern-day nomads living out their fantasy. Working in the bushwalking equipment shop I get to hear all sorts of stories and one I have heard of —  from this guy who comes into the shop and who spends a lot of time by himself in the mountains and along the coasts — he’s run into one or two of these nomads. He told me they stay at a campsite for awhile, then pack up and move on, just wandering around the place and only going out to resupply with food, then coming back. But I’ve never heard of them robbing anyone.”

“What? Are they fugitives or something?”, asks Michael.

“No, well, not necessarily”, responds Jenny. “Just people who need a little space. People that don’t fit into modern society, I suppose.”

“So where do they go in winter?”, Michael asks.

“Maybe they go and work somewhere to earn some money. But it’s my guess they go down into the forest, lower down, down lower somewhere on the Western tiers. There’s plenty of places there where they would have the shelter and firewood of the forest as well as concealment, and there aren’t many people in the bush in winter because it’s cold and wet there then. Choose the right place well off the tracks and they could live there without being noticed”, said Tim.

“That’s not much different to how the cattlemen used to live in the high country around here… back in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth century. It’s how the fur trappers lived up here. They had horses and brought flour and sugar and tea and the like and lived off the land by hunting,” says Michael.

“Yeah, but they didn’t steal from people who came up here”, Jenny responds. “That’s what makes this mob different”.

“I think there’s something menacing about them”, adds Helen, her voice betraying a hint of caution or fear.

Dinner that night is a shared affair and they sit around talking well into the night. No one is eager to get into their sleeping bags too early. They are edgy and look up uncertainly when animals make a sound outside. Their edginess comes from the knowledge that not that far away there is a group of people for whom stealing was no big deal.

The night passes uneventfully and, as usual, Jenny rises first and gets a couple little bushwalkers’ stoves going to brew tea. Breakfast is subdued and by half past seven they move off, travelling southwards as a group, away from those unknown people doing whatever it was they are doing out there on the Central Plateau.

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