Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Caught! A hike turns into prison island

The Tasman Peninsula in Tasmania is isolated - it is essentially a series of islands joined to the mainland by two narrow isthmuses. With those natural barriers you can see why it was chosen as the site for the notorious Port Arthur prison for re-offending convicts – those convicts who committed crimes whilst serving sentences in other Australian convict prisons. Despite the prison closing in 1877, over the past few days the peninsula has again became a prison island for residents and travelers alike. Bushfires burning on the mainland and the upper peninsula isolated those beyond the fires. But like the odd convict, I made a successful escape on a fishing barge.

Having completed a hike through some of the Western Arthurs in South West Tasmania, I bid my farewell to Kate, Tim and lil' Gracie, who we established in the last couple of days was making a sound that was quite probably my name. I bussed it out to Eaglehawk Neck, on the Tasman Peninsula, for four marvelous days of easy hiking, camping and novel reading along the Tasman Coastal Trail, near Port Arthur.

Of course I didn't know that the bus trip out was a tour of the soon to be devastated and somewhat grim bushfire zone. Glad I looked out the window at the quaint little towns and the glimpses of houses settled in pretty forests.

From Eaglehawk Neck, having encouraged some fellow backpackers that no-one would care if they camped freely on the beach, after all I was planning something similar, I hiked along the beach towards Doo Town. I had no appreciation for that town name yet, every bloody house was named "Doo-Little" or "Doo-Relax" or something else equally corny. Later I learned the town name came from the first shacks, named using that convention, rather than the shack names from the town name. Now that's much more original.

I hiked along a short track, checking out the creations the sea had made in the limestone cliffs - blowholes, caves and canals. From Waterfall Bay I planned to set out on the Tasman Coastal Trail, a short distance to a pleasantly named Camp Falls. Time was getting on, it was well past seven, and even with the 9pm sunset I was nervous, what if there was no water there, or, as it didn't appear on all official maps, no campsite in the forest? Staring blankly at my map while standing at the trailhead, readying myself to take that first nervous step along the trail, two people stumbled out of the bush, looking for the said campsite. Clueless in the where-am-I-map-reading-game, they had clearly walked past some picturesque waterfalls, perhaps looking for something more like a five star campsite than simply a clearing beside a waterfall. I didn't want to seem rude by telling them their map reading skills were evidently craptacular, so we wandered around looking for a suitable place to lay the tents. They were ever optimistic, "the campsite might me down here", yes surely, a name like Camp Falls wouldn't be at all derived from its proximity to said falls. I settled on a fire track junction, as good a clearing as any in the sunset, and they continued on looking for the Lost Gold of the Mayans, amongst other things.

The following morning, when I came upon Camp Falls, I was of course devastated, it was gorgeous. A fantastic secluded campsite in the forest, easily room for half a dozen tents, no mud, and not one but two sets of Norsca shampoo style waterfalls, the other aptly named Shower Falls. Which I thought, of course (as I am wont to do) was a bloody brilliant idea.

I continued on my merry way, soon realising my own map reading skills hadn't been too brilliant as I made a 500 metre ascent of a mountain in the way of my planned campsite. By lunchtime after another refreshing swim, this time in the pleasant waters of Bivouac Bay, I settled down for an afternoon of reading at the campsite. A 500-page book was just perfect. Yes yes I hear you, but on a Kindle, too heavy to carry all the books I intended to read on this hiking trip.

The following day I returned to Camp Falls, I couldn't possibly pass up camping here. Sitting quietly on a nearby headland overlooking the ocean, I contemplated how marvelously I had organised this particular trip. Great hiking, great campsites, great water and great books. Perfect. Then the ocean turned a distinct orange hue, and my circumstances changed quite dramatically.

Behind me a huge smoke cloud was growing, and approaching at some speed. The sky turned red and the colour grew eerie. No wonder the Mayans turned to sacrifice when midday sunlight was eclipsed, this was surreal.

View map in full screen format

Download GPS file of Tasman Coastal Trail

View a 2008 blog post about the southern end of the Tasman Coastal Trail, from nearby Fortescue Bay out to Cape Huay and Cape Pillar.

Just as I was contemplating the leap off the coastal cliffs to the treacherous ocean below, so close and enormous did the fire now seem, I found some mobile phone reception. Lap it up Jeremy, the mobile network was soon to be lost in the fires. I established that the fire was some 30km away, and I was merely the victim of the smoke. Surely I could camp here still. I wasn't too far from a town. But the decision didn't rest easy with me. I could barely sit down. No, this was stupid. If the smoke was here, the fire, even 30km away, was on its way. Just before packing up my unslept-in tent, I checked the updates on the internet again. Oh shit. Things had gotten decidedly worse. The fire had leapt two bays, and was now the other side of the ridge just three or four kilometres away. Not only had I now received an emergency evacuation sms, but the nearby Doo Town was to be "impacted by fire within 10 minutes".

I now proceeded to set a new time record in packing my pack, and another in the fastest exit off a trail ever. It was hot, and the smoke had me scavenging around in my first aid kit for my ventolin puffer. An hour later I made it into the relative safety of Doo Town. Mothers were hurriedly filling their cars with possessions and children, whilst husbands cracked another beer, turned on the hose and peered grimly into the distance.

A police car pulled me up beside me, gave me a good dose "what the fuck are you doing", well please, travelers on foot get stuck in disasters too. I explained my plan was to get to the boat ramp and ocean, it seemed infinitely safer than the campsite in the forest I was at, and did they have a better plan for me. Yes they did, get to the fire refuge at Nubeena. Not being a local, I didn't know where that was, but sure it wasn't within walking distance, the boat ramp I proceeded to, keen on picking up a lift from a local to the fire refuge.

The locals thought little of the police evacuation idea, preferring to watch their houses burn from the comfort and relative safety of the boat ramp, the ocean and their waiting boats. Within minutes I had made friends and found myself a cold beer - a Cascade no less, none of that VB or XXXX canned shit down here - and a sausage fresh off the bbq, and settled down to watch the unfolding scene.

The witching hour of bushfires almost over, as the 3 to 6pm time is when bushfires go feral, as this one had, things calmed down a bit. Ash was falling from the sky, and I pondered whether I should find a young virgin to have sex with immediately, as things seemed to be shaping up much like a certain town once known as Pompei. I could see up the hill that the police were going from door-to-door evacuating people.

As the sun set, gorgeously of course because of all the smoke and ash in the air, the locals grew weary of this "emergency" thing. The fire had progressed no further, it hadn't made the ridge yet, god knows how it wasn't over it yet. Distressed by the idea of sleeping in their boats, on the beach or in the cars, the townsfolk simply gave up and returned home. There was no power on at home anyway, goodness knows why a bed in a stinking hot house seemed attractive over the beach. Sleeping on the beach, much by myself, wasn't too easy. At midnight I could see the flames on the ridge across the bay, the nearer ridge wasn't yet showing the same red glow but it seemed likely it soon would be. I could see the police going around from house-to-house again (de-ja-vu?), evacuating people again. Although I knew the tide times (how?), at 3am the beach sleeping decision showed itself to be a remarkably short sighted option. Scrambling, such was the incoming tide, back to the carpark, I found it now full of people sleeping in cars. Aah such comfort. Fellow people, we would make it through this.

Dawn broke at 5am, and predictably, the townsfolk were again weary of this evacuation, and they trotted back to their homes. I was almost all alone again on the jetty, the fire didn't seem to have progressed, the wind had changed direction and the sky above was now clear and sunny.

Bored by myself on the empty jetty, I trundled down the beach to Eaglehawk Neck. The nearby mobile phone tower had obviously now succumbed to the fire, and the police weren't visiting anymore with new information. The road was blockaded at Eaglehawk Neck, and it was the official evacuation place over Doo Town.

So now I spent my day sat in the shade of a pleasant tree on green grass, watching with much bemusement as car after car drove up to the roadblock trying to get down the road off the peninsula. I met and chatted to a few locals who had lost their properties. There was no electricity, running water (what's with all the pumped water), no working fixed phones and a pretty dodgy stand on one-leg dance to do to get a somewhat sometimes bar of mobile service, if one could find the single sweet spot down beside the lake that got the magical if not damn illusive phone reception. But I was well placed, the police were on hand with lots of misinformation. Every once in a while they would tell some more which would be chinese whispered into the waiting crowd. Often when one finds oneself in an unfolding disaster reliable news information can be quite hard to get, as was the case here. What we later did read in official news didn’t necessarily matched up with what we had seen first-hand. By Tuesday afternoon the Tasmanian government acknowledged that their biggest learning so far related to the single biggest frustration of people being rescued from the peninsula - a lack of information (or indeed, any information). Hard to imagine, but reliance on a working telecommunications system might be shortsighted (even if it kept working, how would you charge your phone after a 72 hour power failure?). Maybe we all need to go back to using AM radios, that is what one of the main parts of the ABC's (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) charter - to reliably broadcast information throughout Australia in emergencies.

We settled down to another smoky night, to the sound of the occasional piece of heavy machinery making a dash from one fire front to another.

The following morning it was evident that the attitude amongst the gathered people, few that they were, was turning a corner. Angry was the name. The lack of information from the police wasn't helping, and with no more phone service the rumours were doing their work. It seemed people would soon be exchanging blows as they rated other people's creative news interpretations.

It was increasingly evident that the road off the peninsula would not re-open for another couple of days, so I hitched a ride further down the peninsula with Mathew and Kate, and Mathew's two kids. They had spent an ugly night trying to sleep in their van without any blankets, whilst I'd spent the night sleeping on my blow-up hiking mattress with my sleeping bag in the ash rain. We drove over to Nubeena, the official safe place fire refuge. There were 2,000 people there, and sure to be a good supply of food, and possibly even power and phone service.

Arriving just in time for a community briefing, it was clear things had got pretty grim up there in the hills on the road above Eaglehawk Neck. News here flowed much more freely, and with much more of an official and credible tone. Crews were doing a sweep from property to property, evidently looking for what no-one wanted to find. The road back was clear, well clearish, but it was slow going. The main issue with the road now was twofold, one they were hastily re-erecting power poles so as to restore power to the peninsula. Secondly, and we had got a sense of this back at Eaglehawk Neck that morning, things had turned, it was now a crime scene up there. They didn't want people poking around unnecessarily, messing with things and risking finding that awful find.

Freshened with some fresh food, a quick charge of the mobile phone, mobile reception and a quick trip to the local powerless chemist for an emergency supply of medication, my stay in Nubeena turned out to be quite brief. It seems I really did luck it up by hitching a ride with these guys. Mathew set about contacting a friend of an uncle's friend he once worked with, or some such tenuous relationship, with a fisherman with a do-anything go-anywhere barge who worked locally. It seemed an incredible and somewhat unlikely plan.

But he wasn't the only one working on him, a close friend of this fisherman's wife was also making contact. A plan had been hatched. I suspect the close friend of the wife was the clincher in this deal. With Mathew's phone flat again (there was lots of competition at the charging station), the close friend started the exploration of the 2,000 people in search of a family she had never met: an average height guy, kinda skinny, with some awesome tatts, and a wife, of average height and brown hair, two kids and a white van kinda thing. Shouldn't be too hard hey? They entered the main compound, and there beside the gate on the street we were, having selected a spot beneath some trees that looked set to provide reliable shade all day long. "Are you Mathew and Kate?" I don't think she could believe her luck at finding them so easily. The fishing mate had left Hobart already with the fishing barge and would be arriving in two hours.

We went down the local wharf, where the local guy who had generously taken it upon himself to assume control of the jetty informed us that calm as the sea looked, the kids were at great risk of being swept off the jetty by a freak wave. Such was this quiet bay.

A larger ferry was coming in with more food supplies, and the jetty man was adamant there was no way our barge was getting to get in its way. Fair call, we couldn't dispute that. Having established we were there for a reason, unlikely as it seemed, we took to joining the parcel line helping unload a few fishing boats with valuable supplies of water and baby goods, and then loading them into waiting utes.

With fresh news of the barge's imminent arrival, the jetty man cleared a small spot beside the wharf. As the barge made its way in, one thing was clear, it was much bigger than any other boat here, and it wasn't going to fit into that little gap. Size counts on the sea, and the other skippers soon moved their boats out of harm’s way. Thankfully there wasn't much being unloaded by now, so that settled our consciences a little.

The grumpy jetty man appeared to be impressed by the barge and its skipper's plan, and cheered up lending a hand getting the three cars on board, which was no mean feat in itself.

A gathering crowd, hearing rumours of an incoming goods ferry that might "take a couple of people" back to Hobart, watched with what could only have been great mirth as the fishing barge docked, and set about loading three vehicles using a crane and precarious system of straddling the cars across the jetty and barge.

We watched on as Mathew did what can only be described as the most impressive parallel parking attempt in history, as he inched his van backwards and forwards in a thirty-point shuffle between the barge superstructure and the perilous edge of the barge.

A handful of santa sacks from the hospital appeared on the wharf, and it only seemed right to grab them for the journey back to Hobart. Assured they contained "no sharps, I think, some sheets with bodily fluid but no shit and stuff", um, interesting understanding of the phrase "bodily fluid", we lightly manhandled the leaking bags onto the barge as well. And we were off, incredible as it seemed, and possibly just as incredible to the gathering crowd.

If you had told me Sunday morning that I would be off the isolated peninsula that very day, I would never have believed you. I truly thought I would be stuck to at least mid-week, long overstaying my holiday and missing work.

Two hours later we were back on the mainland. I can’t think what the fuel for the barge would have cost. Somehow a slab of beer seemed somewhat inadequate as a thank you gift. Mathew and Kate had given me a pretty awesome ride hey, they even dropped me off at the caravan park near the airport. I had to pick up my bag I had held at the hostel I was going to stay at in the city, I had missed my booking of course and they were full up. Later, at the caravan park, the hostel called me enquiring as to when, and if, I would be turning up tonight. They'd mixed up my booking. Oh well, in the morning the airport was just a stroll away. With the promo code #bushfire I had a free flight home with Qantas - top work!

Conditions have worsened in the days since, with the safe areas and remaining people at Doo Town and Eaglehawk Neck told to evacuate to Nubeena, as the fires flared up in strong winds and further roads were closed.

A part of me missed the opportunity of the bus trip off the peninsula. If I had gone that way I would have seen some of the destruction first hand, but that's the macabre guilty sticky-beak side of me hey.

A big thanks for all those of you who followed the unfolding drama on Facebook. I couldn't always, or often, see what you were saying, such was the limited reception, but it was encouraging so many people were concerned about my safety. Just another hiking adventure really. Floods, bushfires, helicopter rescues, transformed deserts, it all happens.

Even after swapping some details, I couldn't find Kate on Facebook. If anyone knows a Tasmanian woman of average height with brown hair, and a partner of average height, kinda skinny and with some awesome tatts, put me in touch. Ha ha. Appalling description. If anyone knows a woman with a good sense of humour, and a friendly partner running a carpet cleaning business with the occasional tatt, both into Kung Fu, who live in Snug south of Hobart, I think we might have them. I've got more details, but it starts to sound weird to leave it here.

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