I was chatting to a friend recently about this trip, explaining how, like most challenging adventure trips, I spend most of the time not enjoying myself, but rather in pain, terrified, too cold, too hot, too wet, exhausted, or in some other manner of discomfort. While these feelings are interspersed with magical moments that make it all worthwhile, my friend enlightened me to the idea of type II fun. While new to me, this is a measure familiar to many people in the adventure/extreme sports community, whereby type I fun is that which you experience on the spot, like sex or snorkelling on a coral reef. Type II fun is when the experience as it happens is pretty unpleasant, but in retrospect seems like it was great, while a third category exists for fun which was unpleasant at the time and still seems unpleasant in retrospect, like a serious car crash (therefore not fun at all). In this sense, much of my time in Tasmania was type II fun, with some of the other two categories in there as well for good and bad measure.
Fifteen years ago I did my first ever multi-day wilderness hike in Tasmania (or Tassie to those in the know), the Overland Track (Photo at right). I didn’t have the time or experience back then to go into the wild away from the relative safety of well maintained and popular trails, but I had been transfixed by the mass of dark green that occupied a huge region in the southwest of the island when I looked at maps. What vistas could be enjoyed from the tops of mountains rarely if ever visited, or what wildlife and beauty could be found in the remote river valleys, and just maybe, out there somewhere, an isolated population of Thylacine, the Tasmanian Tiger, probably extinct since the mid-20th century, was hanging on undiscovered.
I’d planned my route in my head over and over for years. It would take me from the ‘highway’ (in reality a windy country road by European standards) which bisected the island from east to west, south into the bush behind the peak of Frenchmans Cap and down into river valleys, over ridges, eventually emerging in the southwest corner, where I could take the relatively straightforward South Coat track to the to the end of the road in the southeast. This would, I figured, take me around 5-weeks. I would utilize rivers and sheltered bays as arteries in several sections with my ultralight packraft, a nimble little one-person craft which looks at first like a cheap toy, but is in fact as tough as nails.
December, when I arrived, is the southern summer, but at this latitude and Tassie’s position in the southern ocean there was a cool wind blowing when I arrived. It’s impossible to carry enough food in such difficult terrain for 5-weeks, and my first few days involved depositing supplies in two spots on my route. One of these was easy. Most people who hike the South Coast track fly from Hobart to a small airstrip, from where they walk for 7-9 days back to civilisation on the southeast coast. I was able to have my supplies flown to a storage hut at this point for pickup along the way, simply dropping it off at a small airport. the other drop was a more tricky affair. I had to rent a car, drive into the middle of the island to the shore of Lake Gordon, a horrendously ugly and enormous artificial lake which looks like an environmental disaster site (left), then paddle for 16km in my raft into an arm of the lake, before finally hiking over a mountain ridge to the shore of the Denison River, which I was planning to arrive at after my first 12-days. Still heavily jetlagged but with no time to lose, I set out on Lake Gordon on a hot and sunny evening, camping on the shore and continuing up into the arm the following day. There was a very basic trail through the scrub and forest over the ridge, but I couldn’t find it at first and bush-bashed into the scrub for the first couple of hours. This was my first taste of Tassie’s thick undergrowth, and it was extremely hard going. Eventually I found the trail and things got easier, but by then I was so hot and tired that the rest of the day was very tough. when I eventually reached the river it was late afternoon and I just took the time to find a spot to safely hide the supplies, take a quick cooling dip, and head back over the mountain ridge, arriving back at the lakeshore to camp well after dark. The next day paddling back to the car I had to battle against the wind, and by the time I returned to Hobart I was very drained, but all the pieces were in place.
I got off the bus at the Frenchmans Cap trail car park around midday two days later. I was both excited and apprehensive of the route ahead, though the first day would be on an established trail. This area of the island was covered in dense temperate rainforest (rainforests are not only confined to the tropics), interspersed with open, boggy ground. The trail took me to the walkers hut at Lake Vera shortly before dark, after a couple of hours of torrential rain which had soaked my boots straight through…not the best start, and I hadn’t even left the trail yet! Inside the hut there was a fire going however, lit by the primary ranger for this area since the 1960’s, and I was able to dry my boots overnight. Officially this guy was retired, but still kept his job part-time, and knew the area intimately. It was something of an awkward evening with him as I didn’t want to reveal the full extent of what I intended to do. A big part of my going into the wilderness alone is being off the radar and self reliant, and as soon as someone in an official position like his is aware that I’m out there they may feel they need to assume some kind of responsibility for my safety, and I’d rather not be on anyone’s radar. If the shit hit the fan I had emergency satellite communication, and my wife was aware of my route and would be receiving regular updates. In the morning I said my farewells and set out into the unknown, leaving the trail behind and heading up the slope of Philps Mountain, behind which lay thousands of square kilometres of wilderness.
On the way up I startled a small tiger snake in the bushes, which is highly venomous. For some time I just froze as the animal made a slow retreat, via my foot! It passed within centimetres of me and I left a decent time margin before moving a muscle and carrying on. That evening, after a tough but manageable 10-hour scrub bash over the top of the mountain, I reached the enchanting and spectacular Lake Whitham (photo below). Nearly 1000 metres above sea level, the lake was fringed with thick, dark rainforest. Too high and damp for eucalyptus, the trees were comprised of conifers and small-leaved plants. These were accompanied by pandani’s, a distinctive and very photogenic member of the heather family, and one of it’s largest species, and are restricted to growing only in Tasmania. In the morning I discovered a cave on the eastern shore of the lake, which I couldn’t resist exploring as there may never have been anyone inside before (see video link on the google map below). The interior was packed with cave crickets and a scattering of animal bones. I had obtained an invertebrate collection permit before coming out to Tasmania and took a few specimens of the crickets to give to the Hobart museum, in the hope they would turn out to be a new species. Alas, they weren’t, but had never been seen in this region before, and the larger bones were identified (from my video footage) as likely belonging to a wombat, and not, as I’d hoped, a thylacine.
Things then began to go downhill. Exiting the lake was tricky as it was fringed by extremely thick scrub, it was starting to rain, and the wind was picking up. As I changed from my neoprene boots into my hiking boots I left my packraft in the bushes behind a tiny beach, still inflated, only to find when I looked up that it was gone! Being ultralight and portable, when the raft is inflated it is easily picked up by the wind, and about 100 metres beyond where I stood was a huge cliff face. It seemed inevitable that the boat had gone over the cliff and I would have a seriously tough time going around and below to retrieve it (there was no way I was going to give up on it as it’s worth the better part of £1000!). Once I gained some perspective having clambered up from the shore through the scrub, by some miracle the boat had lodged itself on a small, isolated tree, and I scrambled at full throttle to grab and deflate it before the wind took it again, but this was just the beginning of a long day. Following the top of the cliff through tough scrubby ground for some distance, I eventually found a spot where I might be able to descend towards the south. The slope was extremely steep, but the scrub was so thick and tall that there was a lot to cling onto, and if I lost my grip I just ended up in a spongy tangle of branches a couple of metres below. When the slope leveled out though the scrub didn’t become thinner, staying so dense and tall that I couldn’t see over it except when a rock occasionally punctured through. I had heard that this part of Tassie had extremely thick bush, but had thought it would still be possible to penetrate, after all, I had been through jungles on every continent, including temperate forest in Patagonia and New Zealand and more, but this was by far the thickest I had ever encountered (photo below). After several hours and just a few hundred metres, I had scratches all over my hands, my tripod, which was on the outside of my backpack, had lost it’s head and then had a leg torn off, and I had lost my tent somewhere in the bushes! It had kept raining for much of the day and I was wet, exhausted and demoralised. I found a spot with a tiny amount of flat ground in a depression on the slope where the scrub canopy was higher and the floor more open, then spent a half-hour retracing my torturous route to find my tent.
That night I was cold, and my tent (which I thankfully had found) was squeezed and deformed between the bushes. I spent some time looking at my topographic maps of the route ahead, which detailed the different types of vegetation. there was due to be a lot more of this type of terrain, and my rate of progress was slow and very physically demanding. If I was to carry on it would take at least twice as long as I’d planned for, likely be beyond me physically, be pretty unpleasant, and therefore almost certainly result in a rescue. After sleeping (sort-of) on it I decided in the morning I had no choice but to turn around and rethink my whole plan. Going back up the slope was of course more demanding than descending, but I eventually found a route to the ridge above which I could use, as the way I had descended from the cliff would have been impossible. It eventually took two wet days to get back to Lake Vera hut, and it was a huge relief when I arrived.
At the hut I recalculated my plans based on what was realistic. The mountain of Frenchmans Cap was just a day away, and given it’s reputation for beauty I planned to spend the next two nights scaling it and returning to Lake Vera. The mountain didn’t disappoint, with rare sunny skies and stunning views from the top of Australia’s highest sheer cliff face (photo above). Afterwards I would return to Hobart for Christmas, before heading back to Lake Gordon and my supply drop on the Denison River. The Denison, followed by the huge Gordon River, would make up a week-long river trip, after which I would arrive on the west coast. I could then make my way towards the southwest, by hiking for two days on an established track, then several more days descending the remote Crossing and Davey rivers into the bay of Port Davey in the far southwest, before paddling into the natural harbour next to the small airstrip where my last supplies were waiting, from which I could hike the South Coast track. It wasn’t as ambitious as I’d planned, but it was wild, remote, and feasible given my experience of the previous days (see map below). The disappointment was already gone before I’d even made that plan. I love the wilderness, and was glad that such a thick and impenetrable place existed. That’s why much of the region is still unexplored even today. I later bumped into the ranger again after scaling Frenchmans Cap, who informed me that in all his time on the job since the 1960’s he had never heard of anyone exploring lake whitham, so perhaps I was the first to visit the forests below it’s cliffs, camp on it’s small pebbly beach, and enter it’s mysterious cave. That was a privilege, and only a days hike with a lightweight inflatable boat in my bag from a well trodden walking trail, and probably the only part of the trip where I was truly treading new ground.
I hitchhiked back to Lake Gordon on Boxing Day, which was remarkably easy, with everyone in a good mood with the sun shining and having Christmas holidays. One generous guy went over an hour out of his way to take me to where I needed to go to access the lake shore. this left me enough time to spend a few hours making my way a third and final time through the drowned forests of the lake and over the ridge to camp on the shore of the Denison and pick up my supplies. Paddling on such remote waters was something I had been looking forward to like nothing else on this trip. In England, where I live, over 95% of the navigable river stretches are officially off limits to boating, passing through private land. While people generally ignore the rules on the best stretches for paddling (because they’re ridiculous), you are always at risk of being hassled by a landowner who tells you you are trespassing. Even when things go well, the experience of paddling next to fields of sheep and barbed wire fences is not a patch on going through lush rainforest, with no possibility of hassle and almost no chance of any human disturbance at all. This was the way to travel, peaceful, wild, relaxing…until I reached the first gorge.
I swore to myself before coming here that I would not try in such a remote place to run any whitewater which was beyond any level I had done before successfully and confidently. Out here, alone, even those rapids which were within my ability seemed far more threatening than those at home when I descended into the first narrow gorge (Marriots Gorge). I was able to paddle the more manageable rapids, but some were huge, and I had to carry (portage, in paddling speak) the boat and my gear over these drops repeatedly (see video link on map below). Some areas were like being next to a boiling cauldron, and in some places the drops were so close together and jammed up with logs that to try and negotiate them would be virtual suicide. That first day the gorge seemed to go on and on, with one unpaddleable rapid after another. Progress was slow, but at least possible, but the gorge kept going. It was getting late, and just when it was getting virtually too dark to paddle anymore I found a tiny patch of beach a couple of feet above the river level which would stay dry unless a major storm came through in the night.
Thankfully the night was uneventful and I woke up to a stunning summers morning. The last rapids of Marriots Gorge seemed less unfriendly in these conditions, and with the hot sun and the relatively calm stretches of water ahead it was a wonderful day in the wilderness (photo above).
The following morning though I soon entered the Denison Gorge, another intimidating and slow going set of rapids. The weather had turned again and it was regularly raining. I fell out of the boat a couple of times, and without a full dry suit I got quite cold. things seemed threatening again. At one point I put down my paddle for a second to grab something else whilst portaging my gear and it slid off the rock and was swept underneath a huge boulder. Now I figured I really was up shit creek without a paddle, because without it, I wasn’t going anywhere. I began thinking about the embarrassment that was to follow when I called for help on my satellite beacon and the helicopter came, if I could even get a signal in this deep gorge. I spent some minutes searching and reaching under the boulder, but there was nothing…until it turned out to be in a far shallower spot to the side. Maybe it had come back up due to it’s buoyancy, but I didn’t care and was just hugely relieved. Shortly before the confluence with the Gordon River the Denison gave one last headache with the whole river disappearing under enormous boulders. These couldn’t be scaled and I had to clambour through bushes and down cliffs on the side of the gorge, all in all taking over an hour for just a couple of hundred metres. But soon after that came the Gordon, and I knew there would be no more portaging, but still many miles of river to go.
The Gordon is a wide, powerful river. Emerging from below the dam which holds the waters of the ugly lake on which I began this trip, it drains many of the valleys of western Tasmania. It kept raining during my time on the Gordon, and the river was swollen and fast flowing in places. While I wasn’t in major danger of falling out, the bigger scale of the river relative to the Denison and the large waves which flowed over some of the rapids were pretty frightening in places (see video link on the map). I was still contemplating leaving the river at its most southerly point and resuming my original plan through the wilderness, as the bush seemed somewhat less dense than further north. But by now I felt I’d been taught a lesson from the previous experience, and only if things went as well as could be expected…something that can’t be relied upon in this wilderness…would I have enough supplies and strength to make it. So I decided it was something for another time if I ever came back.
The Gordon flattened out along it’s last 50km or so and it felt more like paddling on a lake. With repeated rain and a cold wind, more often than not blowing in my face and so double the usual paddling effort, I wished those scary rapids from the days before would return, but they never did. The valley was surrounded by thick, lush rainforest which, when I caught the odd glimpse of distant hilltops, looked to stretch for miles into the surrounding country. Though I was cold and uncomfortable most of the time it felt wonderful to be surrounded by the forest, something that had been lost so long ago back in Europe (photos above and right).
On New Years Eve I reached the pier at heritage landing, where tourist boats come to give people a taste of the Gordon Valley. Surprisingly, because it was late in the evening, there was a boat arriving when I got there. It was somewhat disconcerting paddling up to the pier and climbing out, cold and wet and stinking after a week, with all the clean and rested tourists piling off the intimidatingly huge catamaran. the skipper came up and asked me if I wanted a lift back to Strahan, 50 kilometres away across an open natural harbour. While it was my plan to hutch a lift on one of those boats, I wasn’t quite ready to roll into town late on new-years eve with no accommodation arranged. He pointed me to a well furnished fishing hut a couple of kilometres further down the river, and given the thick forest and lack of camping options I hopped back in my boat and went that way. That night the heavens opened, and I slept well, alone in the cosy, well furnished hut, very glad I hadn’t decided to camp. Far too tired to stay up, and with no-one to celebrate with, I slept through the new year for the first time I can remember (see video on the map). Next morning the rain stopped, the sun emerged, and I hopped on the tourist boat at midday back to civilization.
Two days later I was already hitchiking out of Hobart again, this time towards the southern end of Lake Peddar. Just south of Lake Gordon, this huge artificial lake had been the biggest environmental controversy in Tasmania’s history when it was formed for hydroelectricity in the 70’s. It’s formation, and the campaign against it, had been the kickstarter for the formation of the worlds first green party, and this awakening within Tasmania was the start of a bitter animosity between those keen to tap the islands natural resources for profit or energy, and those determined to preserve it, a standoff which continues to this day, mainly concerning the logging industry. Ultimately of course the greens lost the battle at Lake Peddar, but they were more organised when other developments were proposed, and the eventual outcomes of the flooding of Lake Peddar were the forming of huge areas of the southwest and other parts of the state into national parks and nature reserves. But the battles aren’t over, and with much of Tasmania’s rainforest outside protected areas, it’s hard to see how they will survive in the long run, but there is hope.
While nowhere near as ugly as Lake Gordon (which was created decades before a significant environmental movement existed), I still regarded Lake Peddar as an environmental crime, and was only there because it was where the road ended which would take me on a walking track into the final and longest leg of my trip, taking two weeks to reach my destination of Cockle Creek in the southeast. I spent the first day and a half hiking along a track to reach the Crossing River, a relatively small but very remote and rarely navigated waterway. Unlike further north, much of the landscape here had clearly been through a huge bushfire at some point in the last couple of years, and this gave the hillsides a barren character, interspersed with forest. But the rainforests were gone. Apart from the trees fringing the rivers, the far southwest was mostly more open country, though in a boat I could only catch glimpses of that due to the forest along the riverbank.
The river entered it’s only major gorge, which was quite long, after a couple of hours of pleasant paddling. The gorge was spectacular and beautiful (photo below), but very challenging. Luckily the weather was stunning, with hot, bright summer sun making my repeated swims (from being tossed out of the boat) seem almost a welcome refreshment. One tumble though seemed, briefly to be a disaster. One end of my paddle had a crack in it from baggage handling on the long-haul trip out to Australia, and it became lodged under a rock on the riverbed when I fell out. There was no-way I was letting go of it unless I was drowning, and after a second or two being stuck it broke in half (see video link on the map). As it turned out, performance wasn’t much affected as far as I could tell, but it was another brief moment of contemplating an embarrassing chopper rescue, and I wasn’t pleased with myself for making such a dumb mistake which led to it happening. Next morning I took another tumble on the last rapid of any size on the Crossing (photo at left), and while swimming after the boat managed to bash my knee on the rocks of the riverbed. The pain only subsided to a point as the hours went on, and though I’d never had a knee injury before, I knew they could be bad. In a few days I’d have to start walking for 8-hours a day with my 25-kilo backpack, and my concern now was whether I’d jeopardized that plan.
Later that day I reached the confluence with the Davey River, which would take me to the huge ocean bays to the south. that evening though I made my way upstream to see if I might reach the base of a remote mountain I was keen on climbing and was on my original route. In the end I stopped somewhat short of the mountain and climbed out of the river valley through some more lovely thick bush to camp on a small hill which gave me some perspective on the region. My knee was certainly not up to more than that yet anyhow, and I was too exhausted to tackle a mountain without a trail. Next morning, looking down on the Davey River valley, I could now appreciate the lush forest which clings to the river, surrounded by open areas more reminiscent of the Scottish highlands. Once back on the river it was a great day. After a week without rain the water level was low, and the rapids very non-threatening. The forest became more typically Australian, with more dry-tolerant eucalyptus lining the banks. At one point I heard a plop in the water next to me, and, hoping it might be a platypus (which I was very keen to see), I grabbed a branch and stayed completely still in the boat for around 15-minutes, but alas, nothing materialised. After some hours I passed through the Davey Gorge, which, unlike the other river gorges I’d tackled, possessed mostly calm water, and the shade of the gorge and calm, peaceful waters made for a stunning and welcome relief from the heat of the sun. Soon after the gorge the river became brackish and tidal as I approached the opening into Payne Bay. Black swans and wild geese and ducks were everywhere, scurrying or flying away as I came within a mile of them, utterly unaccustomed to people.
I camped on a beautiful beach at the point where the river opens into the bay, and the next morning the wind was up and it looked like rain. While rain wasn’t a problem in terms of safety, I was concerned about the wind on such open waters. I’d been on lakes before in strong winds, and with so much room to build, within a couple of kilometres a small ripple can become a huge wave that could topple a small boat, and in such conditions, with a bag on the bow, turning it back over in the open water would be nearly impossible. But the wind died somewhat, and it would be on my back, so I decided late in the morning to set out on the water, sticking close enough to shore to get out if things changed quickly. I had quite a distance to cover to reach a safe, sheltered spot to camp, and as the day went on the rain showers became heavier and more frequent. the wind-driven waves, while disconcerting, were manageable, but for a short stretch things were borderline. Here the wind-formed waves combined with the swell coming in from the opening to the southern ocean to form a (admittedly small) perfect storm which seemed pretty scary in my tiny boat (see video link on the map below). I constantly checked my progress relative to the shore, making sure I wasn’t caught in a strengthening wind and that I could reach it if necessary, and staying as close as possible without getting caught in the breaking waves. It was borderline conditions, and the only reason I carried on rather than landing to wait out the storm was because the wind was on my back for the first (and as it would turn out the last) time in days. If the weather was like this on the coming days and the wind direction shifted it would be impossible to reach the sheltered waters further ahead, and I would be forced to go into the thick bush to reach the Port Davey track. Rounding the last headland before coming into the safe, calm waters of Bramble Cove I was well outside my comfort zone. The wind was driving the swell to lift me up onto high wave crests which felt like being picked up by some uncontrollable force, but it was taking me in the right direction, and I paddled at the peak of my strength, my arms in pain and my hands numb. Finally it all subsided, and a stunning beach appeared well sheltered by a small hill and some trees. Though it was still raining, I felt fairly good that I had passed the biggest wild card section of the trip.
The sun came out the next morning, and I spent the first few hours scaling a small mountain above Bramble Cove, revealing an incredible view of the surrounding bays and beaches (photo above). On the summit was the kind of moment that made it all feel worthwhile, being surrounded by utterly wild country as far as the eye can see in any direction (though admittedly that was far from the only time on this trip where I had such an experience). Paddling into the Bathurst Narrows to the east of the beach where I camped that afternoon was hard work. The wind was against me and quite cold, but here more than anywhere felt kind of familiar, reminding me of the fiords of western Scotland, which I knew well. By now I had come to hate the freeze dried food I had brought for meals, and this feeling was especially poignant that night when camped in ‘starvation bay’. With a small overabundance of nuts and chocolate, I would decide to eat them instead on a few of the following evenings. The following morning was my last on the water, battling again against the wind on the western shore of Bathurst Harbour. When I entered the narrow channel which led the final three or four kilometres to Melaleuca airstrip, where my supplies for the south coast track were waiting, the wind became so strong that I gave up on the water, cutting across a few hundred metres of boggy terrain to join the Port Davey Track. I’d managed to keep my walking boots bone dry throughout all the tumbles and rain of the previous days, but within ten minutes on dry land I sank knee-deep into a bog puddle…murphys law I guess!
I spent that night in a walkers hut next to the airstrip, enjoying the relative comfort I had been lacking. I wasn’t alone either, with my first real conversations in days. The two guys with which I shared the hut were fascinated by the route I’d taken to get here, and by my boat, and it was nice to have some communication, though I’m not too fond of being the centre of attention. One of my roommates had been forced to turn around on his second day of the south coast track because his hand had mysteriously swollen to twice it’s normal size! A doctor who had been there the previous day had a look and had concluded that it was probably the result of being stung by a ‘jack jumper’ ant. Being a social insect biologist and a bit of an amateur ant fanatic, I’d been fascinated by these beasties which are very common on the grassy plains of Tasmania. They are also, apparently, the most dangerous animals on the island, being responsible for more wildlife-related deaths among hikers than any other species. While most people are okay, the chemical makeup of the venom in the ants sting is particularly reactive with some people, sending them into anaphylactic shock and excruciating pain. I had been stung once while photographing a nest a couple of weeks before, but after the initial tolerable pain it quickly subsided. Seeing the swollen hand did nothing to dampen my fondness for these animals though. They are the only ants I’ve ever come across which jump, looking like mexican jumping beans when they feel the vibrations of an approaching threat, desperately trying to find where it is so they can signal the others to jump in it’s direction and attack!
I had a nice lie-in the following morning. And it was another fine, sunny day. the first few hours of the South Coast Track were relatively dull, across open bog, heading south towards the coast. Just short of the biggest beach I would see on this trip, I took a detour to the summit of the New Harbour Range. It took me some time as by now I was quite exhausted, but the view from the top was worth the effort, overlooking perhaps the most stunning coastal scenery I’d ever seen (photo above). I could see the mountains I had hiked around a week before to reach the crossing river, the coast below in both directions looked like paradise, and out to sea a group of islands which marked the last pieces of continental Australia before the violent southern ocean, and, eventually, the icy coast of Antarctica. I spent some time on the summit, but left a little earlier than I’d wanted to when I realised that cold, low clouds brewing in the ocean were rapidly coming in and beginning to condense on most of the surrounding peaks. It wasn’t an issue though and I stayed below the cloud all the way down. I spent the night with a new sound for this trip, the roar of the ocean. I felt strangely connected to the far south then, something I had experienced before in the southern hemisphere. Antarctica, that last continent, the one I hadn’t yet visited, seemed so close, so alluring beyond that tempestuous ocean, the most violent in the world.
Walking along the beach the next day was wonderful, with another bright sunny sky above. After a while the track went inland, but was well made, with wooden boardwalks making sure the boggiest sections remained a pleasure. I saw a big tiger snake dart away from the path in front of me into the long grass, it’s pure black stripes just visible against the slightly lighter shade of the rest of its shiny scales thanks to the bright sunshine. Camping next to a river that night I had the most welcome swim/bath of the whole trip. Above the river towered the Ironbound Range, a thousand metre high mountain massif which had to be scaled to go any further. Going up was a slow process, but the views were superb. It was cloudier than the previous day though, and the weather was looking decidedly unfriendly to the northwest. The summit area stayed free of cloud though and the air clarity meant that I could clearly see mountains over 100-kilometres away. The Ironbound marked the boundary between the relatively open country of the southwest corner and more damp and forested terrain of the southeast. The views were few and far between after beginning the descent, and late in the afternoon the weather finally arrived. It was almost dark by the time I reached the campsite, and though the rain wasn’t yet very heavy, the range was now covered in thick cloud.
I had been looking forward to this stretch, with the magnificent expanse of Prion Beach and the towering mountain of Precipitous Bluff, with it’s huge cliffs, a few kilometres inland. The clouds though were now almost down to the ground, and the wind and rain incessant. I walked and paddled the six or seven kilometres of Prion beach and the channel which drains a huge lagoon at its eastern end before ascending back into the forest (photo above). That evening, as I was approaching the next beach where I was planning to camp, I came across a group of tents pitched in the forest above it. I asked the only guy still up (I tend to get up late in the morning and set up camp late) why they were here, and he told me that the river which crosses the beach was uncrossable. The rain had been so heavy to the north that it was a raging torrent. Given how late it was I also pitched up and stayed in the forest.
When I woke up the other tents were gone. I figured the group had managed to cross the river and must be hours ahead by now, but when I reached the beach they were all there, and the river was apparently still too high. But I had my boat, and I walked to the end of the beach and inflated it, crossing to the far side without much hassle. The problem wasn’t so much the depth or speed of flow, but the riverbed, and some parts of the bank were made up of quicksand, which caused feet to become rapidly stuck as the swollen river eroded the sand from underneath any foot in the water. I hadn’t really spoken to the other walkers yet but felt I couldn’t leave them behind in case the river remained impassable. So after walking to the far end of the beach again I suggested I could ferry them across one by one. It took some time, but eventually everyone and their gear was on the eastern shore and out of harm for the moment at least, and the others were very grateful. I would bump into them a couple of times during the day, and Scott, the guy I had spoken to the previous evening, who it turned out was not part of the group, would be a familiar face all the way to the end of the trail. Having explained my trip to Scott, he had taken to calling me bear grylls, not something I much wanted to be called but that was now my label apparently, but otherwise he was a good guy.
That night was my last in the wilderness. I was now getting sick and tired of the rain and deep mud. Everything, even my well protected sleeping clothes and bag, was getting increasingly damp, with all the moisture the forest had become a source of countless leeches, and my increasingly leaky ultralight tent didn’t help with night time comfort. Shortly before reaching the spot where I camped though, 600 metres up a mountain, the clouds parted for a few minutes, revealing the coast I had walked for one last time, complete with bursts of sunshine out on the ocean silhouetting the islands (photo below). It was as if the wilderness was reminding me that I’d seen wonderful things, had great moments, but that such experiences are hard-won, and that’s what makes them so rewarding. and then it started pissing rain again.
The last day on the trail was a long one, and by now I just wanted to finish. The rain showed no signs of subsiding and the trail was as muddy as ever. Tired of the mud, I decided to take a faster route once I reached the coast again, inflating my raft one last time with the intention of paddling around a small headland. Things seemed more settled than before and the sea looked no more threatening than some of my Cornish excursions which I’d done regularly. So off I went. Getting closer to the headland, I realised the swell was bigger than it seemed. the wind was in my favour, pushing me eastwards, but it was also too strong to turn around and go back to the beach once I realised that its force was picking up. For around twenty minutes I alternated between the towering crests of the waves and troughs so deep that I felt as though the ocean was about to swallow me whole without a trace. I was terrified, but reached the shore in the shelter of a large rock (lion rock), and while clamboring over the slippery stones managed to slice my hand open on some barnacles. I was angry with myself for entering the southern ocean in my tiny boat, especially in such changeable conditions, but I had been packrafting in the southern ocean, something I’m not sure whether to boast about or be ashamed of.
At last, now late in the afternoon, all that lay between me and the end was a few kilometeres of boardwalked easy trail. I took a last look at the open ocean, severed my connection with the Antarctic that was calling me, and headed across country. That night, next to the calm bay at Cockle Creek, I camped in a free public site populated by families with campervans and huge tents. There were pademelons everywhere. A kind of small kangaroo, these animals were hanging around for the food pickings, and being used to people were quite tame. This was more mammal life in one go than I’d seen in the entire rest of the trip. Curious campers came up to me to ask me about my experience, and Scott, who arrived shortly before me, had been telling people of my exploits. Again, while not being a fan of too much attention (at least not in person…online like this feels different) I was offered alternatives for dinner to the food I’d come to hate, eating some fried eggs and hot apple crumble with cream. Those are the moments when such seemingly every-day meals taste like a meal fit for a king.
I learned lots of lessons on this trip… buy an ultralight dry suit, take a spare paddle, don’t leave my raft in the wind next to a cliff, don’t paddle in the southern ocean etc. Reflecting on my adventures in the light of type II fun after that conversation with my friend, I realised that much of my life has been spent in pursuit of it. Fun in the moment is great, but is usually forgotten soon afterwards. Without discomfort or fear, the experience seems too much like an easy hit. It’s type II fun which builds character and teaches valuable lessons. It also furnishes you with your most interesting stories, etched into your memory like nothing else, after all, no-one is much interested in an adventure where everything went perfectly. As I grow older I feel more inclined to seek more comfortable pursuits, type I fun, but I hope I will never be inclined to exclude experiences like those described above entirely as long as I’m fit…which at the moment seems almost unimaginable, especially considering my wife and I have just booked tickets to east Africa to tackle some mountains and waters for this summer!
The Map above shows my actual routes through the wilderness. click on the blue location markers for video links to short snippets of the experience in those spots.
Some years ago I was active in the Base-jumping scene, regularly climbing and flinging myself from the tops of tall, often artificial objects with a parachute. At the time my nerves were more robust than they are now and I can’t deny that the adrenaline rush experienced was a major element of the attraction. But I think the whole endeavour encapsulated a major element of why today I am compelled to venture of the beaten path. Robyn Davidson spent over half a year walking alone (aside from her dog and some camels) from the centre of Australia to its west coast across some of the most inhospitable terrain on that continent. In a recent interview about the general attitude of society to such things she said: “I think we are discouraged from doing things that are different or challenging because there is this general sense that everyone should be controlled”. This statement encapsulates a great deal about our society, and a feeling I have also had since my base-jumping days and probably earlier than that.
Human societies are generally ruled by those who shout loudest and don’t trust loners. In Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet’, she discusses the rise of the ‘extrovert ideal’ in western cultures, whereby those who have good interpersonal skills, the ‘team-players’, who thrive on the company of others and know instinctively how to navigate the social realm, are those who have increasingly designed the way we work, play, and even how we are expected to spend our free time. I am not one of those people, though some of my best friends very much belong to the extrovert camp. I draw much energy and inspiration from being alone. While I enjoy the company of others, it is a draining process if it takes up too much of my time.
In light of the above I find it bewildering how much some people who also love the wild seem to utterly disregard the solitary impulse of many fellow enthusiasts. Some of the founders of wilderness exploration were loners, most notably John Muir. Muir is frequently credited with founding much of the philosophy of the modern wilderness conservation movement. In the late 19th century he was a keen explorer and mountaineer in the American west, and many if not most of his forays into the wilderness were alone, with much time for reflection and contemplation. Fast forward to our time and the wilderness has become a social event. More than a few times I’ve heard members of walking clubs, kayaking clubs and others stating how their activities are at their best in a group…’It’s safer and more fun!’. While it may be true that such things are marginally safer (at least at the level I’m doing things), the implication that it is ‘more fun’ is clearly made by those who like to organise things socially, who cannot relate to the feelings of those who don’t go to these places for the same reasons. It’s no secret that one of the various reasons I go into the wilderness is to be alone, so, more dangerous or not, taking the solo element away would eliminate one of the core reasons I have for doing it, and it’s up to me whether the risk is acceptable.
When I discuss my excursions with others I am often met with a look of bewilderment and a lack of understanding at why I would want to do it, especially alone. We’ve successfully banished so much risk from our daily lives, and constructed such a perfect artificial landscape around us that many are more afraid than ever of venturing into the unknown. While experience, planning, and a certain amount of knowledge are essential before making such excursions, the truth is that it has never been safer in the history of humanity to undertake such solo ventures. Modern equipment and technology allows lighter, better protection than ever before from the elements, and satellite communication means that you can alert potential rescuers that you are in trouble from any point on the globe, and topographic maps and online tools such as google earth allow far more detailed route planning and hazard avoidance than ever before.
We’ve become accustomed to a constant feed of bad news from around the world, and wilderness adventure is no exception. Thousands of remote expeditions, both solo and in groups, take place every year and most are barely reported in any media beyond the blogosphere or perhaps a magazine. But when someone dies or is rescued, suddenly it becomes news, and that is what the general public catch wind of. These are the stories I hear from many people when I talk of an expedition plan, but from my perspective it is like someone trying to talk me out of driving my car because the news recently reported a serious crash.
Recently some surfers drowned on a beach not far from where I live in Cornwall, resulting in the predictable torrent of media and public attention trying to find out who is to blame for the event. No-one is to blame except the surfers themselves. The beach had signs warning of the rip currents which they were trapped in, as well as warnings that there were no lifeguards present at that time of year. It was a reminder of how we as a civilization have come to find risk unacceptable, prompting questions about whether people should be protected from themselves. While minimizing risk is absolutely the best course of action in any situation, it is up to the individual undertaking an activity to first inform and then decide for themselves whether a risk is acceptable, without taking the freedom to make that decision away – within reason.
In many countries in the world where it is practised, base-jumping has been made illegal. In the UK it is frowned upon but not constrained by any laws or controlling bodies. In the US it is illegal in national parks, and jumping from most sites outside them will generally result in arrest if apprehended. In the UK, a nation where, outside of Scotland, our freedom of movement os highly restricted, I found it very satisfying to be involved in something where my fate was in my own hands, and I had the freedom to make my own decisions about aspects such as the weather or technical dangers associated with the shape of an object from which I was jumping, as well as giving the metaphorical finger to the phrase ‘for your own safety’ (though safety within the activity was always my primary concern). There was no governing body with a set of established codes of practice and it was very liberating that way. The wilderness is today my sanctuary from societies obsession with safety, among other things. Incidentally, the only country I am aware of where base jumping is officially legal is Norway, which also happens to be a place with some of the most liberal and open policies towards access to the land in the world, a place where an individual’s freedom to take their own risks is respected and spending time in the wild alone is far more understood (though there is a national base-jumping association, whose rules jumpers are expected to follow).
So for your own comfort and safety, prepare as best you can, gain experience in successively more daring adventures, inform yourself as best you can, and look out for yourself. But get out into the wilderness if you have the chance, alone or in a group depending on your preference. These places are (usually) not as dangerous as they may be perceived to be if you know what you’re doing, and they need to be cherished in order to ensure their future, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re crazy for going alone if that’s how you feel.
Today we are used to the wilder corners of the UK being barren, open, and windswept, but this wasn’t always the case. Once there were trees and other vegetation covering most of the landscape. As recently as the 19th century there was a great deal more natural forest covering the landscape. This summer I and my wife paid a visit to the far northwest of Scotland, one of our favourite places, and in my opinion the most beautiful part of the UK. Within some stunning lochs in that area lie groups of islands cloaked in indigenous forest.
In Loch Maree lie a group covered in stunning scots pine forest. Elsewhere in Scotland, where patches of this natural forest (as opposed to spruce plantations) survive, due to the actions of high populations of deer, all the trees tend to be old. Saplings get eaten before they are large enough to be an unappetising meal for a hungry deer. But here there is the full spectrum of young, old, and dead, decaying wood furnishing a wonderful, if small ecosystem. In the trees are nesting sea eagles, and in the cracks of the rocks near the shore I found a colony of bats roosting, which I immediately left to itself once I spotted them.
Further north lies Loch Sionscaig, in the Inverpolly Nature Reserve. These islands harbour deciduous forest which has a completely different feel to the scots pine forests of Loch Maree. Covered in a mix of bracken and forest, it’s a stark contrast to the surrounding boggy, open country.
Though the open moorlands have an incredible wild beauty in themselves, they are the result of earlier settlement and grazing of sheep, as well as the more recent high numbers of deer…the result of no natural predators since the last wolves were exterminated some three or four centuries ago.
These forested islands remind me more than anywhere else in Britain of the wildernesses of North America, Patagonia, or New Zealand. They offer a glimpse of Britain as it was, and hopefully one day may be again in some corners, with responsible reforestation projects already at work in other parts of Scotland already underway. In the meantime, these are a little slice of paradise… if you can stand the midges!
This December and January I intend to head into the deepest, darkest region of the Australian Island of Tasmania. The route is contained within the Tasmanian Western World Heritage Area, a land of extremely thick temperate rainforest, open grassy plains, rivers, and mountains. Now that I’ve had 3-years to practice (including the Iceland trip last year) I will be taking my tiny packraft to make use of some of the rivers to traverse certain areas.
Well over half of this route will be in an area without walking tracks or any artificial access routes of any kind. I have yet to find evidence of anyone having taken this route, so it will be a true exploration into the unknown in one of the few remaining zones of intact temperate rainforest in the world. Some people even believe the Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, which was declared extinct in the 1930’s, still holds out in these remote areas…who knows.
The map here shows my proposed route, which given the uncertain nature of some areas may change a little. This is a project I have been planning in one way or another for almost 15-years, since I did my first multi-day wilderness hike on Tasmania’s overland track in early 2000. Back then I was captivated by the idea of this untamed land which has managed to survive European settlement. Updates will come later in the year as the project comes closer, but right now I have booked my flights, checked most of my gear and stocked up on 5-weeks supplies of dried camping food. Stay tuned!