Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Mixed Feelings for Mount Field

In a comment on my last post (Mt Field West), Ken Bushwalker makes a good observation.  Despite decades of Tassie bushwalking, I’ve hardly done any walking at Mt Field.  (My previous post admits this was my first trip to Mt Field West.)  This illustrates a few things.
Firstly, I now work as a guide in the Mt Field National Park but my itinerary only takes me as far as Lake Dobson.  I’m the first to admit that 100 trips to Lake Dobson in the 2 years since moving to Hobart does not make up for not visiting Mt Field West.
Secondly, there is such a HUGE amount of bushwalking opportunity in Tasmania that a lifetime is not enough to explore it all.
Next, I’m guessing Ken Bushwalker is from another part of Australia and doesn’t fully appreciate the regional divides we have on this island.  We certainly don't have the distances found in other parts of Oz but, nonetheless, it does take some effort to get around the island state.
Of my 44 years on the island, the first 17 were spent on the Cradle Coast (Burnie), the next 3 in the North East (studying at UTas in Launie), 6 back in Burnie, 8 in Westbury (near Launie), 8 in Devonport  and now the past 2 in Hobart.  That means 42 years spent north of the 42nd parallel.  Treks "down south" were a big thing growing up in Burnie.  During my first quarter of a century on the planet, resources were limited so places within a fairly short drive were the order of the day.
From the age of 26 a delightfully serious case of marriage/parenthood set in resulting in available bushwalking time measured by hours rather than days (let alone weeks!).  My few sojourns south were to major icons such as Federation Peak, Frenchmans Cap, Mount Anne, Southern Ranges and the South Coast Track.  Mt Field didn't get a look in partly because I always saw it as a poor cousin to Cradle Mountain.
Ouch, I can hear my southern friends wince at that last comment.  Perhaps some of them agree.  My very skewed opinion goes back to strong childhood memories relating to contiguous wilderness and visible human intrusions.
During my childhood, our many family trips to Cradle Mt started with a drive through rolling farmland interspersed by densely forested gullies.  Beyond Wilmot and Erriba the patchwork quilts of NW farmland were quickly replaced by pine plantations surrounded by the ever deepening forested gorges of the Wilmot and Forth Rivers.  After Moina the wild, windswept and often snow-covered Middlesex Plains evoked stories of tough mountain men who eked a living from winter trapping and summer cattle grazing.
The journey had a sense of increasing wilderness as we got closer to our objective.  Finally we would arrive at Cradle Mountain and it felt as if the wilderness journey was complete.  Beyond that point it would take several days of walking to reach the next road to the south.  If you headed south east or south west from Cradle it would take much longer still to reach a road.
My first major summit was Barn Bluff at the age of 8.  I had been to Marions Lookout several times and marvelled that only tiny traces of human presence could be seen.  The Dove Lake car park, the small Rangers Hut near Little Horn, the distant air strip beyond Pencil Pine Creek and, beyond that, faintly discernible farmland beyond Mount Roland.  Barn Bluff impressed me much more than Marions as evidence of human intrusion was even less.  Apart from the fine threads of walking tracks and a tower on Mount Read, apparently untouched wilderness appeared to stretch forever.
At that time Wild magazine was a source of childhood fascination.  I had a sense that a place had to be incredibly special to appear on those hallowed pages.  Back then rock climbing was a significant part of the magazine before it had spun off into its own publication.  I remember marvelling at the antics performed on various walls including those around Mount Arapiles in Victoria.  One day, as I was perusing these images, I noticed something was wrong.  I could see farmland in the background of a photo featuring an incredible-looking Arapiles overhang!  My childhood sense of wilderness was shattered.  How could a place special enough to be in Wild magazine have farmland so close?  Where were the dozens of kilometres of driving through increasingly wild terrain to the point where something as civilised as farmland should be a tiny spec on the horizon?  I was confused.
In the year I turned 10 I was introduced to overnight walking in the Walls of Jerusalem.  This coincided with the Franklin River campaign which is another story entirely but those events were shaping my thoughts and prejudices.  When I turned 11 a Mt Ossa trip gave me the opportunity to ‘stand’* on the roof of Tasmania.  (*Actually it was more like ‘clung’ to the roof of Tasmania – I went again the following year and, as a 12 year old, I was confident enough to properly stand on that well-known summit rock.)  The perceived wildness of the Ossa summit view was very similar to what I experienced on Barn Bluff.  Hardly any evidence of human presence at all right to the horizon in every direction.
In these pre-teen years reading maps appealed to me much more than reading books.  Tasmanian national park maps gained the most attention by far.  I quickly learned the vast wilderness stretching south from Cradle Mountain was not a feature of other parks.  I learned that western parts of Mount Field and the Hartz Mountains National Parks had been revoked and handed over to the insatiable clear-felling timber industry.  I had been spoiled by Cradle Mountain.  The thought of being able to climb Hartz Peak and Mt Field West, only to see the devastation of clear fell logging operations on the other side tainted my view of those places well into adulthood.  It still affects me today.
Meanwhile, back in my beloved Mersey-Forth high country, things were changing.  Bob (I’ve-got-the-best-eyebrows-in-the-business) Hawke was a legend in my eyes due to his role in saving the Franklin River from Hydro development.  However, that status did not last long.  My trip to the Walls of Jerusalem as a 10 year old followed the steep Fish River Track from the foot of Clumner Bluff down to the Fish River and straight up the hill to the Trappers Hut.  After the two Ossa trips I was back in the Walls as a 13 year old but this time the Horse Track had become the norm and the Fish River Road was closed.  I smelt a rat.
Fresh from defeating the Tasmanian Government in the Franklin River controversy, Prime Minister Hawke got involved in a stoush over the logging of forests on Clumner Bluff.  Conservationists were concerned the forestry activity would bring machinery and fire within 5km of the largest remaining native pencil pine forest on the planet.  The wet eucalypt forests of Clumner Bluff were a vital buffer protecting the rare pines and Bob Hawke boldly promised, “Clumner Bluff would not be logged.”
Shortly after being enthused by the Prime Minister’s promise I was sadly let down.  Apparently the bulldozers were rolling and, to add insult to injury, they were using the Fish River Road which I previously enjoyed as the most direct walking route into the Walls of Jerusalem.  My next trip to the area was when I was 14 years old on a Scripture Union Boots n All camp to complete the Pelion mountaineering circuit.  Sure enough, the scars along the face of Clumner Bluff were stark when viewed from the infamous climb on the Arm River Track.  The Prime Minister’s fall from grace was complete in my eyes. Little did I know another disappointment was waiting just over the hill.
Day 2 of the Boots n All trip was my first opportunity to climb Mount Pelion West.  The elevated February Plains prevented me seeing the Clumner scars but looking to the wild, wild west I was sad to see a new scar on the horizon.  A massive swathe had been hacked out of the side of Mt Murchison.  What on earth was going on?  If I could see it from Pelion West I knew the scar would also be highly visible from Barn Bluff and Cradle as well.  When I got home I discovered it was the new Anthony Road servicing the Henty-Anthony power scheme which, along with the King River scheme, would be the last major Hydro developments in Tassie.  These had been constructed with compensation money given to the Tassie government in the wake of the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam decision.
So…  In a very round-a-bout way, there’s how some childhood memories have given me a lasting prejudice against Mount Field National Park.  Luckily, thanks to the 2013 extensions to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Mount Field has not become an island completely drowned in a sea of logging.  The tireless efforts of conservation groups have protected the Upper Florentine valley which provides a tenuous link between Mount Field and the world heritage area which stretches all the way to my beloved Mersey-Forth high country.

Postscript:  The above ramblings may sound terribly naïve and I’m pleased to say I’ve matured in some of my views.  I am well aware that both Forestry and Hydro have constructed the roads which access most of the areas in which I enjoy my bushwalking.  I am also aware that increased protection for our forests means there is no longer a financial driver to maintain many of those roads.  Some younger walkers bemoan the loss of roads to places like the Little Fisher Valley and some parts of the Meander Falls area.  Instead I see the longer lead-in walks to those areas as a reminder of conservation battles won, changing attitudes and a bright future for many of Tasmania’s wild places.

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