Friday 31 July 2020

The Tyndalls: Paradise in the sky

I drag my boots through my over pants, zip them down to my ankles then reach for my gaiters. These I strap on over the top. I zip up my raincoat, despite the sky being blue and clear. This full armour feels stiff and ungainly as I shoulder my overnight pack and follow Caz into a tight scrub of tea-tree and banksia. Last night it rained. This is why we wear everything. The trees are heavy with moisture. It is like pushing through the wet swirling brushes of a wild car wash. I wish I had added gloves to my bare hands. At this early hour, on the shady side of the mountain range that lies ahead, the trunks of the small trees are covered in frost. I grab and wrestle the stubborn branches and my fingers grow increasingly numb. There is a path, but it is narrow, rough, muddy, slippery, strewn with puddles and hemmed in by this encroaching, tough, west-coast Tasmanian scrub. They are admirably persistent trees in Tasmania. About 2-3m high, thin trunked and flexible. They hold their ground with determination; and a knowledge of their right to be exactly where they are.

Fortunately, it is a short half hour of this kind of tense conversation and we emerge onto open, mountainside heath marked by clumps of buttongrass waving their bobble-headed flowers stalks in celebration. Above us now we can see our destination - the spectacular and geologically bizarre Tyndall Range. Many locals argue that this mountain, and its labyrinth of lakes and cliffs, is the state’s finest alpine region, with relatively easy access and few crowds. 

But, that could soon change. Mount Tyndall, and its surrounds, located 30 minutes north of Queenstown, has been selected by the Tasmanian government for development. Around $20 million dollars has been earmarked to turn it into the next ‘iconic walk’. Plans include a network of tracks with private huts and camp sites designed around a 2-day, 3-night walk aimed at rivalling the Overland Track and 3 Capes walks.

At a local level, the decision is hugely controversial with environmental groups and local bushwalkers questioning the selection process and the walk’s impact on this sensitive landscape. The Tyndall plateau has never seen fire and is covered with ancient alpine vegetation including pencil pines and King Billy pines. Large swathes of deciduous beech, (nothofagus gunii) surround its many lakes and tarns, creating a vivid tapestry of gold and yellow each autumn. Add to this some of Australia’s highest cliffs and a classic glaciated landscape open to the wild weather of Tasmania’s mountainous coast and you get a feel for its scenic and disputed potential. 

But, the decision to make this Tasmania’s next big thing, is strangely undocumented. The original proposal, from the Queenstown-based Destination West Coast, suggested Mt Tyndall as an optional, final component of a 4-stage development. Stage 1 was to be a multi-day hut hike near Queenstown taking in Mt Owen. The aim being to boost and add to that’s town’s economy and tourism infrastructure.  In an anonymous, undisclosed, decision-making process the Tasmanian Liberal Government chose instead to pluck this one, obscure idea from the larger Queenstown plan, known as The Philosopher's Walk. Subsequently, the Bob Brown Foundation has put forward an alternative route, one that circumvents the sensitive but scenic plateau but makes the most of views of the spectacular cliffs and visits many of its larger, lowland lakes. 

Today, we are walking (inexorably upwards) on a bushwalking track that was cut by locals many many decades ago. Once it crests the range, it largely peters out. There is no foot track to the summit of Mt Tyndall and only a vaguely cairned route and faint, intermittent pad to Lake Tyndall on the plateau. By the time we crest the range all our protective gear is gone and I am down to walking in a t-shirt and shorts. But, none of that detail matters anymore because with a surprising sense of the mystical, uncharacteristic for Australia’s hard fact kind of landscape, I feel as if we have walked into an enchantment; this high untouched plateau, so removed and isolated. It is like the land is floating above the valleys. We cut southwards to find a campsite near the spectacular cliffs of the mountain cirque. The blueness of the distant Lake Tyndall, backed by Mt Geike, the weird conglomerate rocks all around me as I walk, are so scenic. Beyond Mt Tyndall's sweeping curved lip of a cliff line, we stop and we settle. By afternoon-cup-of-tea time, I have explored my new home and am ready to sit and take in the personal detail. 

North is the rugged outline of Mt Murchison. Beyond that, I see the entire north-eastern spread the World-Heritage listed Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National park including Cradle Mountain and Barn Bluff. Sound floats up to me. I hear one currawong in the deep, sheer sided glacial valley below. It’s voice breaks down our world into lowlands and high. There are tiny gnats in the air. Something in a cocoon is dragging its desperate life along the grass. A green rosella flies overhead. It lands on a rock across the next gully and pings its lovely call, rings its pretty bell.

Mt Tyndall was first recommended to us by the Lake St Clair ferry skipper. We have walked it as a day walk previously and, it blew us away. It was an April, autumn, the fagus had turned and every tarn and gully was a patchwork of gold. We have been itching to get back to spend several days exploring this cracking, beautiful place. But the west coast is a fickle weather wormhole. Cold fronts regularly sweep in from the Southern Ocean and smash the mountains with rain, snow, hail, sleet, gale force winds. The average rainfall for the region is a staggering 3.5-4m a year! One of Tasmania’s most prolific peak-bagging bushwalkers and bloggers, the indefatigable Louise Fairfax, has visited Mt Tyndall three times and writes: If you would like to experience the Tyndall Ranges in fairly desperate conditions, then just give me a ring. My record is unblemished. You'll be assured of a good adventure and atmospheric photos, even if not of a view. There are plenty of similar trip reports scattered on the forum and the wider web. 

Sounds like an iconic walk alright and this fickle weather is another of those questionable ideas behind the decision to develop. Most people don’t have the luxury, or proximity, as we do, to bide their time.  

But bide your time and a weather window always opens. And it did. In March this year. There we were, stuck in Tasmania, out of work due to a pandemic, parks still open, sunshine forecast for three days.  So, off we went, the first place on our hit list - Tasmania’s next iconic walk in all its undeveloped, raw beauty. 

Now, sitting outside the tent enjoying the remarkable sunshine - the stunningly beautiful plateau spread out before me - I am so glad to be where I am. Alone, on top of a mountain, back turned to the world of greed and economy, eyes focussed on a brown falcon as it hunts low low over rocky platforms and tarns. 

Our second day on the plateau is equally sublime. We wake at 6:30am in fog and/or low cloud so it’s a lazy morning; a delightfully cosy morning cup of tea, ensconced in my sleeping bag, tent door open, watching the fog backlit by the rising sun. When the fog clears we pack up and explore. Tucked amongst the rocks are varnished gums (Eucalyptus vernicosa). Quite old, I think, by their gnarled, bulbous stumps and the fact this plateau has never seen fire. Varnished gums are the smallest of Tasmania’s eucalypts. So small they are easily mistaken for a shrub, like orites or geebung, not a tree. They grow amongst Mt Tyndall’s amazing conglomerate rock which holds together by some miracle.  Some of the large, isolated boulders remind me of currawong pellets of regurgitated mountain pink berries. Or one of those handmade truffles rolled in chocolate flakes.

As there are no real tracks up here. We head to Symphony Lake, taking open grassy leads where possible. There are sections of footpad; worn bits that last a few metres then disappear as mysteriously as they appeared. Caz is a master route finder. He weaves through the undergrowth and gullies and picks his way across boulders. We fan out to avoid making a track and so while he wanders ahead I stumble along trying to pick a good route, turning one way then the next, backtracking, and standing for long moments looking and trying to think my way through the next barrier of vegetation. Once down among the little creeks winding out of Symphony Lake we are back on easier footing. It is extremely pretty walking, taking open leads through stands of pine and fagus. We veer south, out to the edge for a look at the massive cliffs above Lake Huntley - they are 300m high. It is an epic scene. Then further south and we have lunch on the flat rock terraces overlooking Lakes Matthew, Mark and Malcolm. Stupendous view, south and east - Frenchmans Cap, Eldon Range, Geryon and Ossa.

We just wander in a big wide circle, exploring the plateau. Mt Geike looks like a nice walk but maybe next time. Instead we visit tarn after tarn after tarn; each different and so pretty. The blue of the sky reflected on the surface. We finally stop on the ridge overlooking Lake Tyndall. The view is sublime - a gentle, beautiful sunset. On one of the wind ruffled lakes an arc of still water forms in the lee of two rocks. It forms a thin band of glassy water. Reflected on this mirror are all the rich colours of sunset - apricot, gold, silver, blue, red - while the water all around is black.

Half the beauty of Mt Tyndall is this feeling of its aloofness. It’s untouched, above-it-all demeanour. Below and surrounding it are dams for hydro, roads for hydro, roads for gold mines, tainted rivers from gold mines, roads to towns built for hydro and gold, and now for tourists in motor homes and caravans and in need of scenic ease driving around looking at mountains while the mountains, Mt Tyndall in particular, feel no need to be part of all that. The Tyndall plateau is high and moated by cliffs and steep sides. 

I wake again at 6:35am and once again it is time for a cuppa in bed, tent door open and the sun breaking over the eastern clouds. There is lovely light across the plateau, there is not a track in sight, no buildings, huts, camping platforms, boardwalks or helipads. A few small birds and rosellas are calling in the distance. Below us, in Lake Tyndall, a platypus surfaces and its wet fur reflects the morning light like it is a silver jewel moving across the dark water.

Can I stay please. Or rather, can the mountains stay as they are: wild, untouched, beautiful. “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, said a wise man. If so, what happens to excellence when we eliminate the difficulty and the rarity?” wrote Edward Abbey way back in 1968. He also wrote "Wilderness, wilderness...we scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination." If you want a lesson in the evils of 'Industrial Tourism' then read, or re-read, Abbey. We do not need to make easy, everything for everyone. Wild, remote places like this are not inaccessible just hard or challenging and that’s okay. 

So many people these days love getting out in nature; love hiking all their supplies into sublime beautiful places; love the challenge and the joys. That’s great but, running in front of them is a bunch of guys wearing suits and ties hoping to make money from that love and trampling it in the process.  Anyway, rant over and trip over. The weather window is closing so we must leave. I rise, dress for the return back down the mountain and the battle through those determined trees and that tough scrub. I think of it now. I think of it as forest of soldiers, guarding the gates to paradise.

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  1. absolutely love your blog guys, ive been reading for a few years now. wonderful words :)

    1. Thank you so much. Thanks for reading and thanks for the kind words. Cheers, Caz and Chrissy

  2. Absolutely compelling - photos, writing, place. Kit and caboodle.

    1. Thanks Craig! So nice to get such good feedback. Cheers Caz and Chrissy.

  3. Last time I walked in this extraordinary place I saw no litter whatsoever. The reason? Because it's not a National Park, thus didn't have the profile of other areas. This will e the beginning of the end if it goes ahead. Another reason to remove Jacobi from Parks.

  4. I despair the commercial development of wilderness areas. Even though this walk is beyond my capabilities and a lack of development means I will never attain its lofty heights (except through your excellent prose) I am happy to leave these beauties unseen, if it means protecting them untouched.