Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Western Arthur Range - Southwest National Park, Tasmania


We awake to wind roaring across the range and powerful gusts pulling the guy ropes as the tent walls flex and bend. A southerly, blowing unobstructed for thousands of kilometres across the Southern Ocean is crashing into our mountains. But, it is not until we finally emerge, at dawn, that the ferocity of the weather hits home. 

We are camped on one of the wooden platforms beneath the southern cirque of Lake Oberon, high on the Western Arthur Range. Just metres away the surface of the lake is being swept into a spectacular, swirling vortex of mist that rises 10 metres into the air. Waves, driven by the wind, surge up the small creek that feeds the lake, forcing it to flow backwards. The simple act of walking is a struggle. We retreat, stumbling, back to our tent. 

This is meant to be our day for traversing high across the mountain peaks of Capricorn and Pegasus but as a wall of black clouds approach from the south a lay day is called. It is another round in our Western Arthur's weather spanking.





Our original plan was to complete a loop walk along the Western Arthur Range in the South-West of Tasmania. It is a popular and well-known route, walking up what is known as Alpha Moraine, across the range to Lake Oberon and on to High Moor and the notorious Beggary Bumps before reaching Haven Lake and descending Kappa Moraine to the Arthur Plains and back to the starting point at Scott Edgar Dam.

The weather spanked us gently at first. Our first night brought intermittent squalls that forced us to cook dinner in the tent vestibule. In the morning it was a sporadic pack up, doing what we could between heavy showers. Day Two, after we crested the Western Arthur Range we encountered our first powerful winds; walking like mime artists, bent forward against the gusts and stumbling from the flagstones across the open moors behind Mt Hesperus. A whiteout rolled in. We could see no more than 50m in any direction. Driving sleet stung our faces. It was bitterly cold and physically tiring walking against the weather. Day Three was our good day, just an early whiteout and cloud until late but, there was no point climbing any of the summits we passed. It felt as if we were missing some of the Western Arthur's famed rugged vistas. 


Then Day Four; awestruck by the spectacle of gale force winds shearing Lake Oberon into that spiralling plume of spray. Back in our tent for a lay day, we proceeded to sit through 10 hours of flogging rain. By the pools of water building beneath the tent platform an estimated 30-40mm fell as we battled the challenges of inactivity and confinement. The combined noise of the wind and constant rain on the tent began to hurt.  

On the morning of Day Five, we waited until 10am in the hope that the weather would improve enough for us to continue on. Even if it did, we would need a clear run through to the walk's end as another lay day would leave us dangerously short on food. It was a disappointing decision, but at the time it felt like the only one. With heavy grey clouds still racing through the range we retreated, and began retracing our steps. As if in answer to any doubts, after leaving Lake Oberon and descending back to Square Lake it began to snow. Beautiful, drifting, quiet snow. Intricately patterned flakes disintegrated as soon as they hit our jackets. It was a most spectacular sight against the craggy, grey stone of Procyon Peak. 




It seems superfluous to write detailed track notes of our trip as we didn't complete our planned loop walk. There is also a plethora of information already on the internet and in print, including track notes by the inimitable John Chapman, and some wonderful blog stories. Researching online is an exercise in envy and inspiration: photos of sunny skies and the Arthur Range stretching eastwards in spectacular clarity. See this blog post from rockmonkey. A really terrific report can be found on The Outdoor Diaries blog page. It highlights the rewards of pushing on through rain and cloud and discomfort. 

But my absolute favourite find has to be this classic blog on the Bogong Equipment shop site. This awesome trip report finishes with the very best advice for walking the Western Arthurs at any time of year – "Winter bushwalking in Tasmania is tough but feasible as long as everyone is experienced, has good quality kit and doesn’t mind being uncomfortable at times. The memories of fresh snow glistening in the sunlight and steep gullies filled with waist-deep soft powder will last as long as memories of stuffing wet gear into bags at 4am and swimming flooded creeks. If it intrigues you, find some people who don’t get easily frustrated, make sure your gear is in good order and go and give it a crack!"


On the return from our traverse attempt of the Western Arthurs we meet a group of four walkers just beginning day two of their walk. In the previous day's horrendous rain and wind they had walked all the way from Scott Edgar Dam to Lake Cygnus arriving at 6pm completely exhausted. In their fatigue, and the poor visibility, they had not seen the camping platforms and pitched camp in the mud, too tired to cook dinner or eat food, and wet to the bone. They are armed however, with a more recent forecast and are expecting things to improve. We stand and swap stories for a while, and take a group photo for them before heading in our opposite directions. 

I turn around at one point and watch them until they disappear amongst the thick scrub. This is the moment it sinks in – we have made the wrong decision. The gentle snow has been a passing flurry, the wind has blown itself out as it always does, the rain will come again but it will also leave again. A day of light food is tough but not insurmountable. It felt like a dangerous roll of the dice to push on, but now…



There is no doubt however, that even half the Western Arthurs journey is worth making. Walking to Lake Oberon and back out the same way is as spectacular a walk as you can do in Australia. The long bog-jumping battle across the valley to the base of the range is an exciting and enticing start as you close in on the fabled and spectacular range. Climbing up Alpha Moraine on day two is a steady haul. Grasshoppers explode from the buttongrass like warning flares. The rocky path winds up through outcrops and boulders and the views behind become more impressive as you gain height. Then, you are in the range, looking down on hanging lakes and amongst the rugged grey rocks of the peaks. Walking through the range is a feast of wilderness. 


As we retreat, the clouds lift and rare patches of sunshine glimmer. We take the opportunity to climb Mt Hayes and on the summit it suddenly feels like a great reward to have been made to turn back – here we are up high and the views are spectacular. Federation Peak and Precipitous Bluff are just visible in the distance. South we have views to Bathurst Harbour, Mt Rugby and then Macquarie Harbour and to the west we can see surf breaking along parts of the coast. Looking across to Mt Hesperus shows it to be a grand, wild thing.  Our last night on the range is clear. Stars above to match the landmarks. There is a cracking frost in the morning. 

Climbing down the range we pass a few small groups of walkers heading up. At Junction Creek campsite more walkers are camping and all ask us how it it up on the range. We tell our stories of wild weather but, down in the benign, warm valley we get the distinct impression our audience don't believe us. 




Earlier this year, in another blogpost, I chose our Western Arthur's walk as my favourite from a year of adventures around Australia. I wrote:  "Call me a sucker for punishment but I am choosing the Western Arthurs in Tasmania as my favourite adventure because it was, for me, the toughest…the weather was the most challenging stuff I have ever encountered. The walking was physical but the landscape was grand, majestic, breathtakingly scenic. The grey, rugged peaks stretched away to the horizon and the high tarns lay like jewels, buried deep in the folds of the range. There is good reason so many bushwalkers love the Western Arthurs. They hold a mythical place in Australian bushwalking folklore. Quite rightly so. The place should be spoken of in the hushed tones of awe and foreboding. No matter what my regrets, though, this adventure made me a better bushwalker and that is why it makes my top spot."

At Junction Creek on our last night I began making a list of what I would need for a repeat attempt at walking the Western Arthurs. Inspired by our first encounter we are both eager to return. Number one of course is expect more bad weather than good. Whenever you read this, believe it. Two: be strong, physical fitness will be your best friend. Good gear is next. And don't forget, no matter how far you make it next time, there is as much fodder in a bad decision as a good decision.

The final word however should go to those who first walked the full Western Arthur Range traverse. In late 1960, Pat Conaghan, John Elliot and Barry Higgins carved a route through the notorious Beggary Bumps and finally connected the rocky length of the range, opening up for all of us this amazing walk. In a 2012 story in Wild Magazine, writer Dave Cauldwell, weaves his own Western Arthur trip report with comments from Pat Conagahan. The challenges the group faced in 1960 were tough but then Pat recalls this conversation: 'While descending Lucifer Ridge, Barry remarked that the Western Arthurs traverse was one of the greatest bushwalks in the Southwest,’ Pat says. ‘In my memory, more than 51 years later and after many bushwalks, it remains undiminished in that regard.'



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