Technically it may have not really been snow; it was just rain thickened by cold and bolstered by ice. It was January in Tasmania and by all common measures it was summer – and yet there was still frozen water falling from the sky. The wind that brought the rain was straight from the southern ocean, cold and heavy with water. It did not knock politely on the window of the car, or the windows of the small wooden chalet, and request to come in. It found its own way in, through cracks and worn seals. Or failing to gain access it rattled and banged at anything loose or frail. The car bounced a little on its springs as I wondered what to do. I was glad I had a hat and wished I had some gloves.
There were three other cars parked near me, all of them were hire cars. I could see faces inside them, disappointed by the turn of the weather. Two of them had their engines running, presumably for the heating.
There were white horses on Dove Lake and Cradle Mountain lensed into and out of waves of cloud. This was not how it looked on the post cards and tourist brochures. Even in pictures when the mountain was capped with snow the skies were bright blue and air crisp. Today the air was thick with water and the skies were grey. I could feel my hand cooling as I moved it closer to the car window to wipe down the condensation. The scene outside the windows of my car did not contain the mountain of my imagination.
I was reading recently about the decline in wonder. The shift from emotional reactions – intimate reactions maybe – to those that are based solely on control and atomised understanding. Walks and mountains, pathways and rivers are named and classified in ways that ignore the wonder that is possible. ‘Two hours return, medium, with some steep steps’ seems a more important aspect of a walk than what you can see on the way and what you might find as you travel. The high point, the end point, of the walk often becomes the only point and all else is just dull passage to that climax.
As I walk down hill from a high point I am often asked by people walking in the opposite direction, “How far to go?” – and I often find myself saying, “You’re about half way there”.
But this is wrong.
If you are half way through your journey to the summit you are probably only a quarter of the way through the journey. While the view from the summit may be the goal of the walk, its primacy seems to rob the rest of the journey of possibility. Is the return to the start only really a from of resetting for the next ascent? Is there no value in the downhill beyond the thoughts of ice cream / pies and cold / warm drinks? What about the change of views, which if your walk is a there and back, you had your back to on the first leg? What about the parts of the walk that were deep in shadow in the morning, but are now bathed in sunlight?
And when we do reach the top what if the view is obscured by clouds, or hidden by a passing rush of rain? Is there no magic to be found? Is there no wonder to be seen? And does having a camera in your hand help or hinder this process?
I know I want to take pictures that look a little different to the ones on the tourist sites and glossy handouts. Is this just a quest for novelty, when all around there is beauty to be seen? But then again, is it possible to see anything but novelty in such a brief visit, and is the pursuit of anything more, just a vanity born of the desire to build meaning where none really exists?
Few things are certain in the journeys we take, but the fact that a view is worth the walk and both coffee and chocolate taste better at the top of the hill are two things you can rely upon.
All else is speculation, no matter how well signed the footpath is.
A strong gust of wind rocked the car and the horns of Cradle Mountain slid out from behind a bank of cloud. I zipped my jacket as high as it would go, opened the car door and stepped out into the wind. It wasn’t the coldest wind I had ever felt, but it was the coldest in a very long while. I could feel the heat leaking out of my fingertips and bleeding away from the ears. The stronger gusts of wind rocked me on to my heels and when I walked with the wind at my back, the effort of walking was less than the effort of staying upright. The wind whipped the bushes back and forth; cloud rush, wave wash, the dash of fallen leaves. Only the stones of the mountains were still.
A wooden bridge buzzed underfoot at the collision of a stream swollen by overnight rain, and it felt like I was riding some strange raft through an otherwise still world. It seemed that the speed of my movement was causing the blur of rush around me, rather than the other way around. The water was flowing down hill, from high to low, and the air around me was doing the same thing – from high to low down a pressure slope that was as invisible as the cold it contained. It would have been easy to roll down both of these slopes and go in search of breakfast.
But I decided not to.
I shivered and tried to make an image that caught the movement and held the cold. I was not entirely successful. My finger sausaged into inflexibility and I thought about the people who were up on the high plains behind Cradle Mountain. With the best will in the world, they were probably cold and perplexed about their choice of recreation.
Beyond the bridge a patch of low bushes and thick grass lessened the sting of the wind. A wallaby sat in the middle of this patch resolutely chewing on the thick grass. Its fur, dull and grey on the back, but a pale rusty red around the neck, was still dappled with overnight rain. Its whole body contorted and shook rapidly, like a dog emerging from the sea, and a shower of old rain flew from its damp fur. The movement reminded me of the uncontrolled muscular spasm that comes with sudden cold or an unwelcome surprise. The now much stiller wallaby turned its head towards me, continued to chew its grass and seemed to be asking what the hell I was doing there, when I had the option to be elsewhere. Beyond the shelter of the bushes the wind regained its bite – but the view up the lake began to open up and I could see, even if my eyes were watering a little, that there was still beauty to be found.
At the aptly named Glacier Rock I opened a gate (whose presence had surprised me) and walked up to the top of a prominent stone headland. I suppose the gate was intended to prevent the small and the unshepherded from falling off the far edge of the rock into uncertainty, but on this day such an accident would have had to overcome a near gale force wind blowing people back on to the safety of land. I sat down to take some photographs. This was not really an act of artistic composition, more an act of necessity to stop me from being blown over.
But from the viewpoint of grounded stability I could see that there was a beauty in this landscape that was present in spite of the cold – or maybe, given the strength of the wind, because of the cold.
As the clouds were pushed across the sky, patches of changing light would fall and travel over the landscape. Dark light from behind clouds heavy with rain and the threat of snow, pale light from the thinness between the them. And finally, coloured light as the sunlight caught the droplets of falling rain. Not a huge or bright rainbow, but a rainbow none the less, with its earthbound arch sitting just above an iconic boatshed. It must have lasted for less than 10 seconds, before it was blown away by the passing of more clouds, but it changed the landscape for the better.
Understandably, there was no mention of the possibility of rainbows on the sign that said the walk to Glacier Rock would take about 10 minutes over easy ground. But such things show that there may be little correlation between wonder and effort.
Back at the car park the same three cars were still there, the same two still had their engines running. I wonder if they were waiting for the weather to improve or the light to become ‘good’. I wondered if they had seen the rainbow. Wondered if they thought that a 10-minute walk was not worth the effort.
I still wonder.
We had to circle the car park at least twice, maybe more, before we found a place to leave the car. A series of walks radiated away from the parking bays, some towards the beach, some towards the hills that ran down to the sea. People were standing behind the open boots of sedans and the sloping doors of SUVs and hatchbacks. Parents were slathering their children with sunblock and wondering where the kids had left their hats. Boot laces were being retied and adjusted and sandwiches placed in bags with the kind of care normally reserved for glass Christmas decorations or your mother’s feelings.
We were in the car park below the high points of the Freycinet National Park, a honey pot indeed.
One of the walks that starts and ends at this car park takes you to top of Mount Amos, the highest knuckle of the clenched fist row of hills that overlook Coles Bay. By any absolute measure this is not a high mountain; in fact it may not be a mountain at all. But what it does possess is a view from the top that is almost unrivalled in the area. But this goes unmentioned in the signs that point away from the car park.
There are, instead, warnings of slippery paths, steep slopes and a suggestion that the walk should not attempted if it has rained recently. The truth of the matter is that the walk is in Tasmania, and a prohibition on walking after recent rain is tantamount to permanent closure. The necessity to point out the need to take a little bit of care on this path says far more about the disconnection that most people have from the world than the rigours of the walk itself.
Yes, there are steep sections and yes there were sections that were slippery underfoot – but this is only to be expected on a climb (walk really) to the top of an impressive looking hill. Although I must admit that the sign at the bottom of the walk that seems to promise near death experiences, did make for a good family photograph. After the picture, suitably shod in sensible shoes and boots, we started the walk in the company of families wearing ballet flats, crocs and Mickey Mouse themed rubber boots. Somewhere between the over zealous warnings and the seemingly under prepared walkers, there has to be a happy medium. It would be nice to think that that middle way is the path I choose.
The walk soon starts to pull up hill and my legs start to pull down hill. Too many late nights in the company of fine Australian reds or a peat smoke and winter rain malts. P skips ahead. H, as befits his age, moves with alternating bursts of energy and pre-teenage lethargy. But the path is more or less fixed, a journey over a crumpled Cartesian plane where all movement is a variation on or combination of just four directions. We reach the top without ever leaving the surface. The ground rises with us; we do not rise above it, altitude being of no consequence here as we remain at ground level. Only at the very top do we gain a greater feeling of depth in the landscape – with both a journey above and below. The land sinks away to reveal Wineglass Bay, and the sky opens above towards whatever mysteries and imaginings rest beyond the edge of space.
Sandwiches and apples. Chocolate. Water, still cool from the morning tap. People come and go, but we seem to linger. It is a summit worthy of lingering on, possessing a view diminished by an undue haste to leave.
A walk to a pause. And a walk to a downhill return. Both are as important as the walk to the top. The stone of the mountain does not change under the pressure of one person’s feet. Each individual passage goes unnoticed. But the things that you see, and the things that you find may have greater impact.
Such things are not written on signs or printed in walk guides. I know why, but I wonder why not.