Mountains #2



Greetings from Railton, Tasmania. Topiary Capital of the Southern Hemisphere.

And no it wasn’t planned. That was just what she happened to be wearing that day. (Donald Trump on the right do you think?)

But let’s continue on with our journey through prime mountains. Begin by mounting Sheffield’s finest viewing platform.IMG_0031 (1).jpg


MT ROLAND (15/1/18)

Altitude: 1233m

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 4.40.20 pm.pngAs far as I can tell this range is called the Mt Roland Regional Conservation Reserve. But Mt Roland is the highest peak with Mt Van Dyke the second highest.

Coming from the east, as visitors do, it’s the beginning of the Western Tiers. I drove past it years ago and it took my breath away. The dolerite crags just seem to soar impenetrably.

Route: There is a track up the face which has been closed because of its danger. There is also a ridge walk from one end to the other which would probably take several days.

The standard track is 4 km along a firetrack which actually climbs quite a bit, a very steep but relatively short climb up a creek gully (400m up in just over kilometre), 3 km across a button grass plateau and a nice little bit of bouldering at the end. Height gain of 600m. and about 16 km there and back.

On a good day like we had it is quite an easy walk — medium more correctly, it does have the climb up the creek gully. But we’ve tried five times and failed twice, mostly because of weather — it’s Tassie after all — although one time a late start didn’t help. 

Just to be clear, this is where you are headed. The looming presence is intermittent, but tangible and enough to leave you dangling. How on earth are you ever going to get up there?IMG_0052.jpgMt Roland is not isolated. It’s only 15 km from Sheffield (with great murals, Mural Capital of the etc.), and the plains surrounding it are littered with holiday houses and farms wanting to make the most of the formidable view.


You start from O’Neill’s Rd. This road quickly shifts into a rough four-wheel drive track gaining height quite steadily as it sidles up across the foothills of the cliffs. It runs through a glorious wet, eucalyptus forest with massive stands of tree ferns.


After half an hour there are stands of curly-branched John Glover gums the name of which I don’t know. I used to look at his paintings and think he had a visual infirmity when it came to trees. But then I started looking and found them all over the island.IMG_0048.jpg

This section is completed when you come to a log bridge spanning a gully with steps formed on the other side. Lots of steps. You’re going up a crack that is not the one in the picture below (another section of the Mt Roland range) but which is very like that one.IMG_0097.jpg

In or after wet weather, of which there is plenty here, the track is both muddy and slippery and in places a water course. We’ve moved into nothofagus country which means lots of mosses, lichens and exotic tortured shapes, Lord of the Rings country.IMG_0062.jpgIMG_0064 (1).jpg

It was neither wet nor muddy on this lovely day and we duly popped out at the rest point at Reggie’s Falls with certain of us raring to go after cup of tea.

You walk almost straight out onto the plateau with its wonderful views, button grass and expanses of flowering alpine heaths, bushes and orchids. There is a kilometre or so of duckboard to get you across what can be wetlands.

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IMG_1101.JPGFake Mt Roland (above) is to your left. It looks a lot like you’re walking over to the high point but actually that’s only a precursor. There is still another 40 or so minutes to get to the peak with dead but still lovely scorparia flowers on the way.IMG_1126.JPG




IMG_1123.JPGI don’t want to go on about this but that rocky track is a water course in the wet. It can look like the ‘track’ at the left which is actually near Tongariro in New Zealand. But not today. No impediments today. Simply a perfect day for walking.


You go up this gully visible between the two rock outcrops in the photo above, climb left, and you’re there. And on a day like this, ‘there’ is quite something.




MT FIELD WEST (22/1/18)


Altitude: 1434m

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 4.41.22 pm.pngLook at that for a mountain! The peak is the lump to the right. The Naturalist, another peak only 5m lower is to the left of that on top of a crowd of ‘organ pipes’, columns of dolerite, a very hard igneous rock which when weathered collapses into boulders. Dolerite columns and boulder fields are found almost everywhere in Tasmania.

Climbing Mt Field is not the issue. Getting there is.

If you look at the photo again you will notice Myrna crossing one of the endless boulder fields that make Mt Field such a challenge. (There is a Mt Field East too, a congenial domestic climb for a Sunday afternoon. But for the sake of simplicity today the destination will be called Mt Field. Both of them are only an hour and a half from Hobart.) 

Route: There is only one ‘direct’ route to Mt Field. But I may never get to the peak again so we thought for the sake of completeness we’d include a major deviation.

Urquhart’s Track up from the Lake Dobson car park, Snowgum Track across to Rodway Hut. That’s all normal. But then out across Tarn Shelf, up over Newdegate Pass and back to K Col intersection. From there resume the normal route out up the spur and across the pincushion plateau. Back the most direct way through Lion’s Den.

The Lake Dobson carpark is at 1000m. But you have to climb over the Rodway Range before you can start the ascent of Mt Field again, so up to 1300m over boulders, down 200m, up 450m. About 25 difficult km. A big day.

IMG_0173.jpgWe began very early for us. We were walking around Lake Dobson at 7.00 and got up the gravel road to the ski huts quite smartly. Someone, possibly the skiers, has built a kilometre or so of duckboard across a shelf going in the right direction which is always most welcome. We were at Rodway Hut (below on the left) before 8.00. With magnificent views of Lake Seal a few hundred metres below and Tarn Shelf crisp in a very clear morning, that could have been satisfying enough.IMG_0186.jpgTarn Shelf is a destination in itself.

Eight tarns (alpine lakes, often glacial) big enough to go on a medium-scale map, a dozen or so smaller, so as you walk through them you have all these water effects and reflected light as well as the remarkable alpine vegetation — including pencil pines and some pandanus — squeezing itself in between the rocks.IMG_0187.jpgIMG_0198.jpg

Further along there are stands of dead pencil pines dramatically weathered.IMG_0203.jpg

We got to Newdegate Hut at the end of the Shelf by 9.30 and set off over the Pass after cup of tea.IMG_0207.jpg

The views from the top of the Pass were consistently grand this day. Unusually, long perspectives were possible.IMG_0221.jpgDuckboarding takes you across the very top of the Pass through the pincushion and water pools. Mt Field is sitting over in the distance with its top in cloud which remained there for most of the day.IMG_0231.jpgWe got this clear view of the bird’s head of Mt Field and The Naturalist as we skirted back along the Rodways.IMG_0234.jpgAnd this is what you’re looking for. It never seems to come. Newdegate Pass is visible just to the right of the outcrop, The Watcher. Not apparently far, but it’s a mushy, rocky track with two or three boulder fields and plenty to trip on.

Turn right (left in the photo) with gratitude. Time for lunch. Except we did another hour.

Round the base of the horseshoe on to the ridge …IMG_0236.jpg

Past the much photographed Cleme’s Tarn …IMG_0237 (1).jpg

Up through the bushes …IMG_0238.jpg

And the rocks…IMG_0240.jpg

Through the mist on the plateau …IMG_0247.jpgIMG_0250.jpgThat’s from the top — a currawong welcoming us.

We turned around and had been walking for ten minutes when it all cleared.IMG_0258.jpgThat’s the peak of Mt Field West.

And this is The Naturalist which we thought we would also climb.IMG_0255.jpg

In the far centre distance of that photo above you can see a boulder field which stands between us and getting home (about half way actually). This one.IMG_1325.JPG

We got to the top of that, there was an elegant little alpine garden, and then an hour or more getting through the Lion’s Den, a valley of boulders which asks for huge steps, jumping and hand climbing — quite a lot for that time of the day. There are no photos because no one seems to take photos of the Lion’s Den. They’re too busy just trying to get through it. Not for the faint of heart. I think I had just gone into a slightly dismayed version of automatic.

We got back to the car at 7.30 scarcely able to move. It had been overly ambitious. I admit it. Freely.

A week has passed. This time next week I’ll be lying in hospital with a canula or two plugged in my arm dazed and confused with a big bandage on my left knee. And? Je ne regrette rien. These are photos of a precious adventure.

Mountains #1


It might boil down to the view.

Many words have been written about the attraction of mountains and in fact the historical anomaly of contemporary interest. They used to be things to be avoided, homes of hobgoblins, monsters and wraiths. When in the fashionable mind they became romantic spectacles, it was not to actually tangle with them. Observe, applaud if you must, and then leave well enough alone.

Australia doesn’t have much in the way of mountains. Too old. And the ones it does have you mainly walk or even drive up rather than climb. So why bother?

I was sitting on top of a boulder at Seager’s Lookout still a bit ragged from a major encounter with Mt Field West — this, Myrna explained, was a hair of the dog — when we discussed this most recently.

Grandeur. What would grandeur be? Bigger than usual? Certainly. But there is something else about the light, often generated by the eccentric and highly changeable weather you get in mountains, that could suggest an encounter with grandeur. Yes you do see how things are and how they are made, geologically anyway. 

Yes you can see how things are laid out and you are given an idea of scale — and of your own very limited importance. You see things that you can’t otherwise see. Ever. Like what grows in alpine areas above 1000m in Tasmania, in summer one of the world’s great floral shows.

All mountains, even ones which are proximate, have their own character. Above, for example, is Feathertop, the Queen of the Alps. There is no King. With its narrow ridge and winter cornice it is unlike any other mountain nearby, and the walk from where Myrna is standing to the summit, head out all the way, is a blue ribbon affair. I like to get to know them. But who knows why? That’s the question, isn’t it?

Flipping the focus, there’s the challenge. Can you? What will it be like? How hard will it rain? How soft will the snow be? When will it start hurting? Even when you’ve done it before, you just never know.


But it’s probably just the view. (The Ovens Valley from the top of Feathertop.)

* * * * * *

Myrna rarely needs persuasion to climb a mountain. I thought I’d like to climb some of my favourite mountains again before getting a new knee. Just in case. You never know. This is a record of that experience. 

* * * * * *

MT FEATHERTOP (27/10/17)

Altitude: 1922m

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 4.47.01 pm.pngRoute: there are five ways up Feathertop, including the one noted above which starts near Mt Hotham at an altitude of about 1600m. We thought we might go up the Bungalow Spur which starts in Harrietville (alt. 500m). It is a common route for people planning to camp on the mountain but 1500m up, a big climb. About one-third of its 12km length is the remnants of an old tramway on a reasonably generous grade. We planned to go up and down in a day.


The track starts in thick alpine forest following a creek before jumping up along a steep rocky track. Once you get to the top of that section you’re on the tramway and you just have to lie back into the idea of a long steady climb.

You begin to get glimpses through the canopy like this confirming that you’re getting somewhere.IMG_0603.JPG

Feathertop has been burnt fiercely several times in the last decade and some of the landmarks have gone — Wombat Gully for example — and that was a good one because it proclaimed progress and used to be good spot for a cup of tea. But you can tell you’re rising. The dominant trees are now large and crowded Stringy Barks rather than the tall but spare Mountain Ash further down.

For a kilometre or two around the halfway mark a storm the previous week had brought down lots of dead trees left after the fires. Even the living ones are very shallow-rooted in the rocky soil.IMG_1372.JPG

There was another patch where the stags were monumental.IMG_1367.JPG

Two-thirds of the way you pass the site of the ‘Bungalow’ of the Spur. Nothing remains except a cleared area, some grass and a few bits of cement. What it says is that ahead there is a steeper climb through snowgum on broken rock for 40-50 minutes, but at the end ‘head out’ near Federation Hut where people camp. And it’s a good moment.IMG_0619.JPG

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You cross that hill ahead, the bottom of Little Feathertop, on a very weathered track and come to this wonderful snow gum, almost the only one on the ridge that survived the fires, and only because of its isolation.img_0659 (2).jpg

IMG_0418.jpgThe rest is still mainly ‘old man’s beard’, dead trees now above new growth. Snow gums don’t shoot from the trunk or branches after burning but they do regrow from the base.

And then you’ve got to get up the top, a steep rocky climb to gain another 200m vertically.thumb_IMG_0657_1024.jpg

IMG_0641 (1).jpgAnd we did. We’d been lucky with the weather, and getting down was the usual kilometre too far, but it was in sum a great delight.


MT DIFFICULT/ GAR (28/12/17)

Altitude: 809m

Mount-Difficult-e1448857381905-990x280 (1).jpgThe peak’s nobility is complex, not obvious, perhaps because you have to fight a bit to get there. After climbing, the route enters from the right and makes its way across the face of the scarp.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 10.41.38 am.pngRoute: Mt Difficult (Gar — Jardwadjali for nose) is the highest peak in the Grampians’ Mt Difficult Range, a fishhook-shaped affair in which the mountain is only just located. Our usual track has been to enter at Beehive Falls, climb up to the plateau, do the there-and-back leg to Briggs’ Bluff then eventually come down to Troopers Creek campsite.

Fires had closed this track until recently — the tops were still unrecognisably bare — and Troopers Creek campsite was still closed. We still could probably have come down there but it would have meant a 6km walk back to our car along Roses Gap Rd.

We’ve done that before, but this day it was in the mid-high 30s and very muggy, and after 16km of scrambling we mightn’t be in the mood. So, just there and back. In at Beehive Falls, forget Briggs’ Bluff, straight on via the slightly rerouted track to Mt Difficult and back again. About 20 km. Altitude gain, about 650m. But rough work.

Below, the trig point is just visible to the right of Myrna’s hat.





From Roses Gap this classic Grampians gravel track, undulating gently besides a creek bed, takes you to Beehive Falls 1.5km away. Most climbs throw you straight in without letting you catch your breath. This is 20 minutes of amiability.

We’ve been to Beehive Falls at least five times and I can’t remember them ever running. A finger-thickness trickle was coming over as we climbed up.

As I have remarked many times it’s hard to take photo of ‘steep’ or ‘high’ and this is another failed attempt. Assume ‘steep’, and dry loose rock.IMG_2178 (2).jpg

As I remembered it you got to the top of the falls — 200 or so steps as well as the loose rock path — and then, for some relief, you were out on the plateau. But I had forgotten.

This comes next.


thumb_IMG_0883_1024.jpgIMG_2177.jpgSomewhere on that cliff face is the track. And like these things often do, it goes on and on. Four or five distinct false dawns.

Going up I knew it was steep but we just chugged along. Coming down — sliding, barely in control, on my bum — I had no idea how we’d got up there. That, to some degree, is the nature of going up and coming down.

Once up on the plateau and an unusual 30 minute walk almost in a straight line along flat rock strata, Briggs Bluff with its bird’s mouth dominates visually. The Wimmera Plains stretch out uninterrupted to the north.IMG_2181.jpgAnother climb follows, steep and high steps up into the bottom of a vertical scarp which the track chases, climbing past caves sometimes gradually sometimes steeply to a crack in the cliff. From here you get the first view east.IMG_2185.jpgLake Lonsdale in the distance. But that’s the track. Through the regrowth and down a sharp and rocky V to the intersection with the loop which overnight campers follow. It’s been opened recently as part of the trail from one end of the Grampians to the other. We haven’t walked it and won’t today.

It’s all very dramatic in a Grampians sort of way.IMG_2182.jpg

A stiff climb up huge inclined slabs of sandstone. Red face. It was hot and we could have done with a couple more litres of water. There is none on the mountain.IMG_2187 4.56.41 pm.jpg

This is to gain enough height to walk somewhere near the contour before the final boulder scramble to get up into the peak. Scrambling where you have to use your hands that is. The track has already been a scramble. I’d forgotten. No photos of the last stage because I was cactus. IMG_0914 (1).jpg

But the view, the view …IMG_2189.jpg



Now let us cross Bass Strait for the second two — a symphony in dolerite.



Boat People

A knock at the door of one of the ‘scattering’ of cottages in Coburg, Victoria, just before Christmas 1852. Christina McAskill answered. A ragged young man stood there. ‘Your cousin Helen, Malcolm McRae’s wife, came on the ship Ticonderoga. I am Christopher [aged 17], her son. We were landed at Point Nepean and I have walked from that place with another young man [probably Finlay his younger brother]. We followed the beach till we came to Melbourne.’

Their epic 100 km walk through this most foreign of lands had taken them eight weeks. They had survived on shellfish and water offered by local Boon Wurrung Aboriginals. But Helen (aged 41), her daughter Janet (11), and her sons John (15), Farquhar (6) and Malcolm (2) were dead.

They had been among the 795 passengers (and 48 crew) on the Ticonderoga, a double-decker clipper, just 52m long, chartered by the Highland and Island Emigration Society to bring ‘cleared’ Scots to Australia. Campbells, McDonalds, McKays, and McWilliams as well as McRaes were on board.

There is some evidence that people who were already sick embarked from Liverpool. There is also evidence that conditions on the boat were appalling. ‘The ship, especially the lower part was in a most filthy state, and did not appear to have been cleaned for weeks, the stench was overpowering, the lockers so thoughtlessly provided for the Immigrants use were full of dirt, mouldy bread, and suet full of maggots…’ Of the 795 passengers 199 had been under seven.

At least 100 died on the way. (19 were born during the 90 days in transit.) Another 380 had ‘the fever’ (probably typhus) or dysentery when they disembarked at Point Nepean just inside the Heads of Port Phillip Bay. ‘The Argus’ reported that all told more than 180 died. Generated by this incident, what became known as Ticonderoga Bay became the site of Victoria’s first quarantine station.

Christopher and his father served out their indentured positions and went on to become farm workers and eventually owners. I’m one of around 800 of their descendants.

* * * * *

I was offered 500 words to tell a story for the Australian McRae newsletter, and that’s it.

It’s a story all right. My father thinks Christopher’s walk might be apocryphal. It would be too grand, too heroic, too unimaginable for his taste. However it is true that Christopher did arrive out of the blue at his mother’s cousin’s house in Coburg and that he was not transported with the main group who over time were ferried by boat to Melbourne. There is plenty of evidence for everything else.

This is one remnant of the experience at Point Nepean.


Christopher himself made a rough memorial at Pt Nepean out of wood with this inscription. Later proving himself to be a very capable newspaper correspondent, he probably didn’t include the spelling mistakes. His memorial degraded with time but was seen by a mason who also happened to be a McRae and who decided to construct his own facsimile out of stone. And it’s still there.

 * * * * *

‘Boat people’ have always been arriving and settling elsewhere, often unbidden.

‘Clearing’? ‘The enforced simultaneous eviction of all families living in a given area.’ It was a process that took place over 150 or more years in Scotland: a transformation from subsistence to commercial farming, from common ownership and operation to the establishment of sharply-defined individual/ family property. In Das Kapital Marx described the clearances as ‘the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism.’

In the Highlands those evicted were often moved to coastal regions where kelp-gathering and -processing was one way of making a living. But in the first half of the 19th century the bottom fell out of kelp prices, landlord debt reached record levels and the same famine that began in Ireland in 1845 due to failures in the potato crop gripped Scotland. It was this famine that gave rise to the Highland and Island Emigration Society which sponsored around 5,000 emigrants to Australia from the affected areas of Scotland.

These are likely to be the remnants of a McRae croft on the Isle of Skye which we went looking for and found on a walk. The story was that one of the methods of eviction the (Scottish) landlords employed was to burn the roof timbers of these buildings. There was nothing available to replace them with.CNV00037.jpg

There were 27 McRaes on board the Ticonderoga initially (the dead were thrown overboard, sometimes in groups of ten) and lots of other Highlanders but they had also collected about one-third of the company from south-west England — Cornwall, Somerset, Devon — where presumably the same sorts of things were happening.

It’s a refugee story.

 * * * * *

The arrival of the Ticonderoga attracted attention. We know that because it was covered by ‘The Argus’, a newspaper of the time.

Terrible state of Affairs on board an Emigrant Ship at the Port Phillip Heads – Intelligence was brought to Williamstown, on Wednesday evening last, by Capt Wylie, on the brig Champion, from Adelaide, that a large ship, named the Ticonderago [sic] ninety days out from Liverpool, with upwards of 900 Government emigrants on board, had anchored at the Heads. A great amount of sickness had occurred among the passengers, more than a hundred deaths having taken place, and almost a similar number of cases being still on board. Nor was this all. The doctor’s health was so precarious that he was not expected to survive, and the whole of the medicines, medical comforts etc, had been consumed. (Just as it happens the doctor referred to survived and had a family here. He was comedian and writer Michael Veitch’s great-grand father.) 

These things occur to me.

The first gesture at European settlement of Melbourne occurred in August 1835, that is people stepping off a boat intending to stay, find and build a way of life in that place. These events are occurring only 17 years later when ‘Melbourne’s’ population was 23,000. ( A year later in 1853 after the discovery of gold, it was over 100,000.) That tiny settlement has a newspaper, and quite a sophisticated one.

In addition, it is a newspaper which can publish news (from 100km away) the day after the event occurs (6/11/1852). 

There is a public scandal. You can understand that issues of shipping and disease, especially when combined, might excite people living 25,000 km away from ‘home’ in very fragile circumstances. But the situation is such that there is a capacity to be scandalised. It’s possible. There is no cover up. The newspaper leads with the story. The journalist appears to have had very good access to any information he seeks.

Loud voices are raised. The commentator ‘Observer’ writes (‘The Argus’, 31/12/1852): ‘Being a sea-faring man and curious to know the state of the vessel which had been the scene of such unparalleled disease I went on board, and very soon ceased to be surprised at anything which had taken place on board this ill-fated vessel. The miserable squalid appearance of the passengers at once attracted my attention, and on looking down the hatchway, the smell and appearance of the between decks was so disgusting, that though accustomed to see and be on board of slave vessels, I instinctively shrank from it.’

Aspersions are cast.

‘I have no hesitation in expressing it as my decided opinion that the disease in this ship was mainly caused by the carelessness and inattention to cleanliness on the part of the master and his officers, and the want of ventilation. … Why is this ship allowed to come and vomit her diseased and dying freight in the midst of an over-crowded city? Men despair of the Government ever doing anything effective in these matters, unless it is forced upon them by the voice of the people through our independent press.’

Denials are issued.

From a report issued by the Land and Emigration Commissioners (11/2/1853): ‘Mr. Latrobe says of the ship itself, that “looking to its structure and capacity, no vessel could have been better suited to the purpose, and there can be no doubt but that under circumstances securing the unbroken maintenance of order, cleanliness, and general discipline, a yet larger number of persons might have been conveyed in safety to the colony.” But he adds, that “with an unorganised body of emigrants of the classes selected for the “Ticonderoga,” little surprise can be felt that no ordinary exertion of abilities could suffice to introduce at once system and order, and overcome that repugnance to cleanliness and fresh air which distinguished certain classes of the labouring population of Europe.”’

So it was the victims’ fault! Not keen on cleanliness and fresh air!

This is a refugee story. It could have been in today’s paper.