Monday, May 20, 2013

Mt Woodroffe, #7 of the State 8

Is it OCD? That sees a list of the eight highest peaks in Australia's states and territories and then wants to tick them all off? Maybe. This one, Mt Woodroffe - South Australia's highest peak - was my number seven, of eight, the so-called State 8, or Aussie 8. Apparently I'm not alone in my affliction, there were 28 other people booked onto this tour.
SUMMARY - Mt Woodroffe climb/hike
Duration1 day hike (3 day trip)
Start/endNgarutjara (3 day trip to/from Uluru)
FridayDrive from Yulara, Uluru, to Ngarutjara camp (base of mountain)
SaturdayHike up Mt Woodroofe (Ngarutjaranya) 1435m
SundayDrive from Ngarutjara camp (base of mountain) back to Yulara, Uluru
AreaAPY Lands (permit required)
BookingsDiverse Travel Australia, SEIT Outback Australia
Topographic Maps1:250 000 Mt Woodroffe SG52-12: printed map, on-demand 1:100 000 print, free download (official map)

The only way to access Mt Woodroffe, in the remote APY Lands in northern SA, was via a tour group. Once a year they run a trip in, and it's the only one with permission from the Traditional Aboriginal Owners to do so. It's also rare for them to give anyone else permission, so the tour is the most practical way to do it. It makes Mt Woodroffe the most difficult of the State 8 to organise.

With the permission in mind, at our camp on the first night near the foot of the mountain, we were visited by Lee, one of the Custodians. As can happen in these situations, we took him all a bit too seriously, almost missing his first joke and his fine sense of humour.

When he first sat by the fire, he took his shoe off to warm his foot, complaining about the severe pain in his foot that a heel spur was giving him. Of course we doubted - I can hear your mocking cries now - that he would make it to the top of Mt Woodroffe. We were equipped with all our expensive hiking gear, when he looked more like he had come from fixing a car (he had, as it turned out). Of course, how wrong we were, it was Lee who led the charge up the first steep waterfall rockface. Few followed up the waterfall though, preferring to pick an easier route over a gung-ho approach. There was no doubt that Lee got into as much mischief now as he did when he was a ten year old boy.

Later Lee's father, aged 82, arrived. It quickly became apparent that he would talk in exchange of cups of tea, and if the tea disappeared so would he. He talked with a hint of humour in his slow words. He'd only been learning English in the last 10 years, evidently taught by the many school girls that came out here on school trips (SEIT tours core business is ten-day school Aboriginal cultural camps, this being one the campsites they use for that). I'm not sure how much that skewed his vocabulary, but in exchange he would teach them his language.

On our first day, after arriving at camp, we were taught how to not use the supplied swag, and a discussion ensued about the wisdom of camping in the creek bed, with it soft sand and shade. Normally, of course, this is a poor decision - to camp in a creekbed - but when you can see the headwaters, just a mere 7km away up the mountain, it's pretty safe to camp, even in a wide creek. I've done it before when the headwaters can be seen. If it rains, and especially if it rains a lot, then it's time to move. Pretty hard to miss rain in a swag.

We drove over to the foot of the mountain, to assess routes to hike and climb up the following day. Being a rogainer, I was already formulating a few options into plans, and on the drive closer was able to clarify some of them. At the foot, with most of the mountain obscured behind the immediate base, advice was given as to the easiest routes, and as to where the harshest spinifex lay.

Before dawn the following day, we drove back to the base and at first light set out. It was a case of each to their own, or better still, in small groups. A few set out directly from the cars with a short but sweet route, a straight up the mountain. It was a route plotted through the harshest spinifex, but nonetheless a sound route. Most others followed Lee to the waterfall rockface, before quickly dispersing by a variety of routes. For a while there it looked like we would find about 29 different routes up the mountain. I took a gentle route around the waterfall, taking my plotted course up to the ridge in the east, before hiking up the long spur to the summit. It was the easier route, relatively free of spinifex, and easy to navigate. Although I got to the top first, even having taken the longest route, I had hiked alone, and no doubt that allowed for some speed. It was just seven minutes later that the next group arrived, having taken the most direct route up from the cars.

For all my efficiency and speed in getting to the top quickly and with minimal spinifex injuries, I must have banged my head on the way down - maybe I should wear a safety helmet on such climbs - for I momentarily lost my mind. I decided against taking the three additional people now hiking with me along the long distance ridge, and decided on a shortcut down. Ricky, perhaps sensibly, decided to hike on along the ridge to the western end and it's unnamed summit. It wasn't long down our shortcut that it became obvious - this was no shortcut, and indeed, it took us longer to complete then the distant route. Thankfully I brought those three companions to share the misery of my foolishness. Ricky, having completed his second peak climb, caught up with us near the base. So much for our shortcut. Encouragingly, it seemed that everyone was slower on the trip down, compared to their trip up.

The view from the top took in distant Uluru and Kata Tjuta, some 130km away across the NT border. The Musgrave Ranges spread out to the east and west, a mess of scraggly mountains. Many South Australians don't know what lies up here, thinking that St Mary Peak in the Flinders Ranges, on the Wilpena Pound rim, is the highest peak in South Australia. It's not. Here in the Musgrave Ranges lie 21 mountains over 1,000 metres, and the top seven mountains of the State. St Mary Peak comes in as the 8th highest. Mt Woodroffe rises 680 metres above the surrounding plains.

An old stone surveyor's cairn marks the top of the mountain. A famous photo, taken in 1933, with three Pitjantjatjara guides, shows how the cairn originally appeared. The mountain was named after George Woodroffe Goyder, the 1857 South Australian Surveyor General highly regarded - at least now anyway - for his work in establishing what became known as Goyders Line, the line across the state that marks arable farming land from that which is not sustainable farming land. He was mocked at the time, but hey, at least there's the odd thing around the state named in his honour.

My skills in the exploration of the stone cairn fell well short of my skills displayed in getting up the mountain, and it was someone else who found the logbook in a rusted old can buried deep in the stone cairn. The word 'logbook' is a somewhat generous description, it was almost entirely a collection of rotten indecipherable paper fragments, with the odd modern addition of single pieces of paper. Why some people feel the need to describe the 'marvelous' or 'spectacular view' they saw is beyond me, it's really quite self evident to others who have managed to get there to read the logbook. Anyone with the misfortune of climbing in poor weather, which really is misfortune in Central Australia's stable weather, would hardly find enlightenment with the description of the view in the few moments they spent huddled on the leeward side of the stone cairn before heading back down.

With 29 people on our tour, every one of them made it to the top of Mt Woodroffe that day. Whilst it's cliched to say "there's one in every crowd", it was nonetheless true. If there is one thing more fun than 29 people on a tour, it's this: 29 people offering advice to the one person who is scruffing around in the red dust under the vehicle with a car jack replacing a blown tyre. That wasn't quite true, we had two vans and a ute for the tour, so whilst there were plenty offering advice, it wasn't quite as bad as 29 people. It was a big tour group, I had been warned when I booked that if the tour didn't reach the minimum of four people, it would be cancelled. Last year it was cancelled, with just two bookings.

So in my State 8 pursuit I've been all around the country and found many hiking places to return to. My first peak, Mt Ossa, in Tasmania was mostly accidental, a side trip on the Overland Track. I almost gave up climbing it too, if it hadn't been for Tim's enthusiasm. Now five years later, only one remains. A crazy plan is in place to complete it - Queensland's Bartle Frere. We shall see my friend, we shall see.

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My State 8 (Aussie 8)

The highest peak in each Australian state and territory:
  1. Mt Kosciuszko, New South Wales (NSW), 2228m, March 2012
  2. Mt Bogong, Victoria (VIC), 1985m, March 2012
  3. Bimberi Peak, Australian Capital Territory (ACT), 1913m, March 2012
  4. Bartle Frere, Queensland (QLD), 1622m, NOT YET DONE, June 2013?
  5. Mt Ossa, Tasmania (TAS), 1617m, December 2008
  6. Mt Zeil, Northern Territory (NT), 1531m, July 2012 (first attempt August 2011)
  7. Mt Woodroffe, South Australia (SA), 1435m, May 2013
  8. Mt Meharry, Western Australia (WA), 1252m, June 2010

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.

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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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