Cappadocia is a place of magical beauty in the arid heart of Turkey. Canyon like valleys, stone fairy chimneys and ancient dwellings carved into the rocky landscape make for a wonderful place for walking. Goreme is a fabulous base. Tourism in Turkey decreased dramatically following a major terrorist incident in Ankara in 2015 and the crackdown on the attempted coup in 2016. Personal experience over the time of the 2018 election indicated that Turkey was surprisingly calm and very well ordered. We felt quite safe travelling in Istanbul and Cappadocia. Tourists seem to be putting these places back on their lists but at the moment things seem quiet and uncrowded. Some of the walking trails are a little overgrown and decent maps are hard to come by. With advice from friendly locals and the basic maps that are freely available some great walking is achievable. Winter is cold and possibly snowy, summer is hot. There are standard day tours operated from Goreme that take in a variety of sites and include some walks – the Red, Green and Blue tours.
Rose Valley ***
One of the best walks in the area. Half a day. Can be started in two places – either from higher up the road past the Goreme Open Air Museum just past the Kaya Camp Area (see alternative below). This is about an hour’s walk from Goreme. Three paths depart here – take the left hand path then take a right turn off this after 200m and follow this steeply down into the deep valley. This narrow dirt road becomes a footpath into the canyon trail. Ancient dwellings have been carved into the soft rock, tunnels have been excavated to channel water and there is a church complex further into the canyon up on the right hand side. Apricot and grape fields give way to an opening of the lower valley as it leads to Cavusin. From here it is a short walk to the capped fairy chimneys of Pagabasi. A taxi back to Goreme can be arranged either at Pagabasi or Cavusin.
A better starting point may be from Aktepe Hill which could be accessed from Goreme by taxi.
In 2018 there were no trail side stalls on this walk.
Kiliclar Valley **
A short 2 hour walk very accessible from Goreme. A lovely walk in the late afternoon when soft evenglow will light up the fairytale landscape. Start from the top of the hill 200m up the road past the Goreme Outdoor Museum. A sign marks the start of the narrow foot trail which descends into the narrow and steep canyon. Ladders enable descent of some sections. Tunnels, cliff dwellings, amazing geological features, red crags. At the canyon opening beautiful fairy chimneys and pinnacles dot the rolling fields. A short walk back to the left over a ridge brings you back through more apricot groves to Goreme.
Ilhara Valley *
This valley runs for 14 km but arranging to do the whole walk would require being dropped off at one end and arranging a pick up at the other. The whole valley is reputed to be an excellent walk. As part of the “Green Tour” we did a 4 km section in the central most popular section. The valley was a spectacular gorge with high vertical walls, different geologically to the Goreme valleys. In the walls were churches and dwellings. Cafes and restaurants were found along the the valley floor, some with tented rooms above the river. A good path followed the full flowing river.
Note that Ihara Valley is a couple of hours drive from Goreme.
Love (White) Valley ***
Spectacular, surprising and delightful. A real highlight. 2 hrs from the bottom end to Urchisar.
This is accessed at the bottom end of the valley below Goreme by a 10 minute taxi ride or a 2 km road walk. The valley is open to start and right away almost you wander through a wonderful forest of striking stone towers. Wild flowers were abundant in late July. The formations and cliff dwellings are amazing. Walking in the top section is over undulating rocky rolling white folds of stone. You exit up left into apricot groves and then to the main road and on to the towering fortress of Urchisar with its hollowed out spires and grand 360 degree views.
From Urchisar the return from Goreme can be by taxi or a return hike down Pidgeon Valley.
Pidgeon Valley *
Take care which entry you use to access this walk if starting from Urchisar. The entry from the viewing area south of the town will give access to a valley that includes a reasonably dangerous knotted rope descent down a blank section of cliff. The valley accessed from the north of the town provides a more straightforward hiking route.
2 hrs from Urchisar to Goreme.
The cliffs are often overhung by smooth, rounded caps. The valley is dense with ancient cliff dwellings. A deep canyon is glimpsed in places. The trail is overgrown and sometimes hard to follow. The only cafe in the gorge serves great Turkish coffee. The proprietor, in 2018, said that 5 years ago there would have been 1,000 walkers each day whereas now there might be 20 – 30 at the most.
Is a great base for walking and exploring. The morning balloons are a festival of colour – giving a magical air of old world floating flight. Through the soft light of early dawn they rise and fall among the buildings, valleys and stone towers. Sun crests a high ridge golden in the stone houses and surrounding hills. Small corner stores and a COOP supermarket stock all sorts of supplies. Restaurants are cheap and the TripAdvisor top picks are sensational (Pumpkin, Top Deck, Bubek Kebap). Carpets, ice cream, cafes, flavours, spices, lamb and veggies, aromas. Sparkling lanterns inside stone dugouts or balconies with cool evening air. The muezzin calls four times a day over the loudspeaker from the mosque. Acoustic fusion Turkish Arabic world music. Lyrical chatter of the Turkish language. The sports Club is where the local men hang out and play board games and cards and chat. It’s an international tourist village with an authentic local feel. It seems a little down at heel due to the decreased number of tourists but therein may lie some of its present charm and laid back atmosphere. Stone towers are interspersed along almost every winding street and throughout the town. Hotels and accommodation are found at every corner and dug into all the rocky slopes. It feels very organic, seeming to grow out of the hills. Pink, yellow and grey. Most establishments have large generators for when the electricity goes off. A couple of places have pools which are fabulous for cooling off in the heat.
We were lucky to be able to witness this in a “caravanserai” building dating back to the 12th century days of trade along the Spice Road. Four men in black cloaks with long white skirts performed while three played the haunting soundtrack. It was all very respectful, meditative and carefully choreographed. The music rose up to the high ceilinged stone church like structure from drum, windpipe and zither. They twirled faster and faster to bring heaven down to earth and to reach a state of transcendence. The practice is based on a dance formulated by Rumi. There were only 9 of us in the audience but still the performance was highly professional and complete. We were transfixed and quite carried away.
This article was published in the New Zealand Alpine Journal 2018
Our mountain is hidden behind closer, lower peaks of the range. On the left is the Tasman Glacier, the great hulk of Mount Wakefield, then further left in the view is the Hooker Valley and the Peaks of Footstool and Sefton and high hanging glaciers. Through the large picture window of the NZAC’s homely Unwin Lodge to the right is another rage of giant hills. Hidden as well is Mt Cook, whose presence is felt everywhere.
Malte Brun. Copious research. Maps. Training runs. Guidebook. Internet. Training hikes up hills with a weighted backpack. YouTube videos, blog sites. Lightweight gear purchases piled up at home. Aesthetic and solid red rock perched high on top of the range across the valley from Cook. An expedition certainly. From the ground up. Just hard yakka that might lead us to the prized summit. Charlie and I were to go lightweight.
A weather window of 5 reasonable days. First steps on the dirt road to Ball shelter the pack felt heavy. I adjusted the waist strap and the chest strap and the shoulder straps for the first of a hundred times. Boots felt clunky and heavy and hot. Not certain whether the car was locked Charlie walked back to check. Everything was hot. Blue sky. Hard work. Rest. Drink. Sunscreen. Trudge. I questioned whether we needed all the stuff loaded up. Charlie’s pack looked too big. Mine just felt heavy. Hot. We took a wrong track into steep moraine then backtracked and struggled steeply uphill to a higher level. Tripped over and landed a bruised cheek. 3 hours to the shelter, 9 km. Water, shade, lunch. The first beginnings of blisters. Should we have called it early and bailed out? Together we decided to push on.
We needed to descend 100 m down the steep moraine wall. Looking out it was entirely evident that we had embarked on a big adventure, a Big Adventure! Everywhere were off vertical cliffs of dirt and stones. This is an active geological country and erosively alive. Global warming had awakened a monster. Along the length of the wall everything was falling down. Glacial retreat has been up valley and the level of ice had gone down vertically as well. Tall cones of loose stones, dirt and boulders towered in triangles up from the base, at the ready to slide or accept a top up from above. The top edge was scalloped with collapsed sections that appeared as bites out of the earth. Our first challenge was to locate the safest recommended route down to the floor of the glacier.
Careful perusal of the copied out text from the new guidebook kept at the Lodge. We located the recommended bite and rocky line down. Steep. Loose stones. Gravel slid ahead. Step on the rocks that seemed to be more firmly bedded into the dirt. Down. Steep. Don’t slide out. Zig zag a little. Link up through a bouldery, more stable section. To an intermediate shelf then along a remaining morsel of the old foot trail that was yet to tumble into the gulf below. On this level we gazed out with growing dread at the 5 km of rocky moraine floor that stretched seemingly forever before meeting the white ice way off up valley. It was a moonscape out there, hilled and valleyed. It conjured a scene from the approach to Mordor at the ends of the living earth guarding the fires of Mt Doom. We spied out a route through the first part with a series of go-to points – a dirty white ice cliff, a heart shaped rock then a large shadowed boulder. Down the second section. More dirt and less rocks here. Finally safely to the base.
The first steps would be just like the last across the fierce moraine. Boulders and rocks of all sizes lay in a mess of small hills and valleys interspersed with occasional steep, slippery stone covered ice slopes. Gruelling work. Many of the rocks wobbled or tipped when weighted. Our walking poles skittered and held weight in varied, random degrees. Hot. Sweat. We sat together in the vile, lifeless wilderness on the odd hot flat perch. Drink. Battle through another section. Pick an objective 50 m away and work slowly towards it. Don’t focus on the whole mountain just break it down into small achievable sections. Grinding heat. Still. Progress was very slow. Painfully slow. Literally. For hours under a baking sun. A heat wave. Dry. Parched. Hot rocks above the ice hidden far below the surface. We rationed our water. Precious sips. Sweaty sunscreen. Across the ferocious desert. After several hours of torture every ridge beckoned ahead to be the last only to disappoint like another false summit. Thinking of Frodo struggling with the weight of Middle Earth on his ring into Mordor we pushed on with packs way too heavy. Hot. Dry. Almost out of water we stopped above a large depression. The loads on our backs removed, ice slopes led us down to flowing water. Blessed relief for our thirst, iced water, relief from the heat under an overhang of hard blue ice and, most wonderfully, a large cave of ice caverned and tunnelled away, carved in sinuous flowing runnels of deep blue cold ice, which could have been inside the glacier for millenia. Like veins in the living ice. Now melting before our eyes. We were seeing into its heart, into its within, face to face with the meeting of heat and ice – it shouldn’t have been like this. Out of the brief respite we trudged on with aching feet. A small mountain of rocks promised a finish in the distance only to again deceive. Hot. Finally a narrow ridge provided a key line between crevasses in the transition zone between the bare rock plain and the retreating white ice of the glacier. 5 1/2 hours of torrid torture. This is what it had come to now. Apparently only decades ago the same journey could have been done in quick time across wide tongues of exposed ice through the rocks – relatively easy hiking. A steady stream of helicopters now carried tourists and other climbers unwilling to undergo the effort of the crossing. It is no subtle irony that the same helicopters contribute to the climate problem. We had elected to pay our dues and learn the terrain as it is now.
Walking on the smooth ice was highway like. At times we wove a path along raised lines between furrows and hollows. Small streams of melt water drained the surface and joined to form larger flows that disappeared into holes small and large. Some were filled with water and others were rushing waterfalls. We could feel it melting around us. Intense bright light. Everywhere a drink. A little further for the day.
A flat spot in amongst some boulders on the ice in the middle of the glacier made for an “expedition” style camp. A tent area was levelled with ice axes, a big table rock the kitchen bench. Right beside the tent was a small moulin which was round and a perfect size for billy dipping to collect water. Like a narrow mine shaft it disappeared into the mysterious depths of the ice. Mount Cook and the Minarets towered above. Small avalanches from perched glaciers way above broke the stillness with waterfalls a constant background. Cool katabatic breezes and strange wafts of warm air alternated from up valley. The light slowly dimmed and the full moon rose. We cooked and ate then lay down in warm bliss cocooned in down. In the darkest hours of the night doubts drifted through a period of half sleep – we were cut off by the desperate moraine from a straightforward escape, was it all too hard, were we carrying too heavy loads, would our (mine anyway) oldening body cope, had we bitten off more than we could chew, should we call it in the morning before we got ourselves even deeper in???? Some moisture seeped through the tent floor in the night and wetted part of Charlie’s sleeping bag.
Early morning clear. The weather conditions were even better than predicted from my hundred pre-trip checks. We had a window of maybe 3 1/2 more good days. All being equal this should be enough. It was why we had reorganised the trip so we could be just where we were. Muesli, tea. Charlie seemed keen to go.
Up the ice. Smooth and hard and slippery from overnight cool. Crampons. Along the floor of the valley our way was shaded and cool until the sun crested the mountains to the east. A valley opened way above the moraine wall which revealed our objective silhouetted in early morning light, still 2000m above. We made a good pace, slowed only at a bend or where the angle increased causing the ice flow to shear and crack into crevasses and compress into hillocks. Zig zag. More surface streams and creeks flowed into holes in the ice almost beckoning us to slip and slide in. The whole range felt alive with erosion and flow and occasional falls of rock and ice. Sound, movement of the breeze. Tasman seemed to have a living presence, cold and hard and aloof, strong but fragile, watching, sensing our passing maybe. Holding us to account.
Helicopters started early ferrying the tourists up from the village to walk and explore the ice, and climbers, unwilling to effort themselves, to huts and mountains that in times past had only been accessed on foot up this massive river of ice and rock. Below the Beetham valley a stream rushed steeply downslope besided by more steep moraine walls of dirt and stones. In those past times a safe route up the more stable slopes had enabled access to a high hut which was used as a base to climb the mountain or access another hut near the now disappearing Malte Brun Glacier. Now further up past the outlet stream of the Malte Brun and Turnbull Glaciers was our recommended route. From out on the ice all the possible options looked desperate, the sort of things I sometimes had nightmares about – cliffs of dirt and stone that would crumble down faster than you could climb up. Perception was foreshortened and when we actually made our way to beneath the most likely looking bouldery stream line disappearing skywards its angle was slightly less than the critical steepness between definitely unclimbable and possible. Sometimes it’s hard to judge something until you actually step onto it and engage with the parameters. Our key line up consisted of larger rocks piled together between the finer and smaller steeper walls. The rocks were mostly settled on each other in reasonable solidity enabling upward progress. Occasionally one would dislodge and tumble down a few meters to come to rest again. Many had to be gingerly weighted. Helmets on. It felt good to be scrambling, without poles in hand. The responsibility of the person higher up was to be extremely careful not to send rocks that could take out the person below, and that of the person below was to try to climb to the side of the fall line of stones from above, and to trust. In an unspoken pact of connection with one another we slowly ascended. At the first steepening the boulder line changed to dirt and loose stones. We angled across and up to another line of larger rocks. 100m. Slow. False lines led into other steepenings. 200m. Rest. Apart. Easier more secure sections then others less so. Hot. Hard work. Exhausting. Another drink. Rest again. A false top. Eventually a saddle came into view over to the right. It took an age to reach. 300m.
A little higher again we crested a ridge into the most sublime scene. A snow covered remnant of the lower Turnbull Glacier nestled under an unnamed peak of vertical red rock. A large section of ice had broken from this and floated in a small magically blue lake. The higher glacier fed a stream that rushed and tumbled noisily over large blocks of stone into the lake. Another stream flowed out of the lake and down onto lower slopes. On the higher white slopes of snow a party of two tiny climbers inched slowly upwards, 3 hours ahead of us. Other red peaks towered around the cirque and the buttresses of the summit block of Malte stood above these.
We pressed onwards in the mid-afternoon towards the upper glacier. A little higher we sat exhausted, filling water bottles. We still had two separate glacier sections, a rock step and 600m more of elevation between us and our intended bivvy spot. We weren’t going to make it in time. We had either been too slow or hadn’t allocated enough time for the approach. Our anticipated weather window didn’t have any leeway in it to allow for contingencies like this. Take any more time and we would expose ourselves to a possible huge lashing storm in a tent for several days. We had both experienced such storms in the huts nearby and vowed never to be caught out in the 100+mph winds and seeming oceans of rain and snow that fall from the sky. Together in a matter of a few minutes we called it in, made the decision and decided not to push on. Rested for a little. The year of planning and prep and training would come to nought. The dreamed of summit would not be ours to savour. Elusive. Disappointment.
Down. Descent back beside the narrow torrent to the lake shore. A single flat tent site right beside the lake. Packs off. Sat. Rested. Ate. Drank. Removed the big boots that encased tired, aching feet and a couple of blisters. Hot late afternoon sun. Snooze. Put the stove on for a brew. The tent up. Like a man cleansing his soul Charlie immersed himself completely in the ice water three times. I walked around the lake shore to the snow slope. The ice flow was close to the edge, the tent in the distance on the gravel beach, the peaks up on the left, the Tasman valley off the edge below right, and Mount Cook sitting steadfast across the void. For decades I’ve had these sorts of images in my mind’s eye and carried them close to my heart. Exhaustion melted away slowly as the beautiful reality of where we were slowly seeped in. Coffee, dinner, photos. The sun set with light blazing rays through Cook. The moon rose close to the lakeside peak. The now deeper blue of the lake reflected moon and tent light. To think of this as a consolation prize would have been a gross ingratitude. Sometimes in the natural world events conspire to deliver treasures unexpected. Like any true adventures the outcomes are often unknown. It wasn’t till later that we would consider more deeply the value of our decision making involved in turning round. Too tired to resist the call of the horizontal we were unaware of the glittering river of stars that blanketed and kept watch over our high mountain camp through the night.
Early morning, early start, a long day ahead, make the most of the cool shade. A last wistful look back at the lake. our high point and the beckoning Bonney Rib. Sometimes big undertakings take several attempts. Each experience leads to learnings that eventually build towards success. Motivation can deepen over time. Familiarity brings appreciation of the critical aspects – the effort involved, the most appropriate equipment, the lie of the land, the stages of the approach and exit, the team’s capability, the amount of time that is required and a host of other things.
Slowly, carefully we began our return down the boulder and scree line. The larger rocks felt more secure. Scrambling, down climbing. The finer stones and gravel slid out, each footstep became a dynamic movement so much easier than on the ascent. Heavy packs took muscle and balance to finesse through the more hostile steeps. Stop. Drink. Rest. We worked together with one above and below, a few smaller rocks and runs of scree tumbled down, safely. Eventually I reached the base, dumped my pack and rested. Looking up I noticed Charlie take an awkward tumble sideways. He took a long time to recover himself, straighten his load, angle legs downhill, stand and get moving again. Gingerly he continued down to rest at the glacier ice edge. I had to help him remove his pack from his right shoulder. In his fall his pack had forced his shoulder forward sharply into a rock. A torn rotator cuff was well known to him, having recovered completely from one many years prior. He was pretty sore and sure that this was another. A long rest, took stock, ate, rehydrated with cool glacial meltwater. We considered our options – using the sat phone to call in a rescue chopper, walking down the glacier to try to pick up a return chopper from the regular glacier hike tourist trips, or continue to hike out. He made the call to continue and see how it developed. We had 1 1/2 days before the forecast foul weather would envelop us.
In surprising good spirits Charlie pushed slowly down the ice. At the reduced pace and with more rest breaks than on the journey in we had time to savour more of the sculpted moulins, melt holes, stream runnels and waterfalls in the surface of the glacier.
We rethreaded our way through the maze of mini ridges and mostly shallow crevasses. We inched our way past huge waterfall outlets to high glaciers. As his internal conditions became harder and we slowed more we started counting off talus piles at the base of mountains beside the valley to gauge our progress. Each became a mini objective to attain in the overall task. Choppers dispensed tourists nearby at the bottom of the ice. Still Charlie was firm about making his way out under his own steam. His blisters were becoming an issue as well by this stage. We drank deep and filled water bottles over lunch.
Midday. The moraine had taken us 5 1/2 hours on the way in. 1/2 an hour to climb up the moraine wall to the hut – I guessed we’d reach Ball Shelter and the safety of a straightforward hiking trail by 7pm, Charlie guessed 6.30. We made good time back through the big parallel crevasses and then stayed left following slightly easier terrain with smaller stones the average rather than the larger, more difficult balanced rocks. We almost walked at a normal pace for several short sections. Then it was back to Mordor, endless piles, up and down. Rest. Drink. Long ridges that ended in depressions, sidled along crumbling slopes, tottered from boulder to boulder, knees and feet. Heat. We sat on flat rocks together in what seemed like a lava field. The rocks had absorbed the sun and radiated heat. Hot. Dry. We later learned that in the heatwave week of 30+ degrees C days this day had been the hottest ever day recorded in nearby Queenstown (35.2 C). The valley side walled by the moraine and mountains each side created a huge oven for us to cook ourselves in. 4.30pm the hottest part of the day. I picked out an objective, a particular rock about 50m ahead, to aim for.
Then again, rest. And again through the afternoon. From the start we could see our shangri la, our objective, the grassy flat where the difficulties ended, in the distance. Charlie was struggling, pain levels at 7 – 8 out of 10, serious painkillers. Resting on a baking rock he reminded me of the story of Joe Simpson’s survival crawl, dragging his smashed leg across terrain like this in Peru. Later each ridge falsely promised to be the last before the valley side. Finally the sun went down below the mountains and we were bathed in cool. The oven door had opened. At 7.30 pm we struggled to the end of the valley floor section.
I offered to do two laps of the climb up through the moraine wall to carry mine and Charlie’s packs to the top. Charlie “Joe Simpson” Freer declined. Tired legs and sore feet. We slowly inched upward on balanced rocks and sliding gravel to the half way shelf. Then again to the top. Flat, grassy ground never seemed so sweet. 8.30 pm. Completely spent. We collapsed onto soft grass. Boots were cast off to release swollen feet. Charlie removed his socks and strapping tape. Ugly raw skinless flesh on the inside of his heels. His feat of endurance and self possession gained legendary status. Eventually we resurfaced, tented, cooked and recouperated enough to appreciate the stunning scenery from our balcony position.
Step by painful step Charlie walked out down the rocky track which became a gravel road. Sometimes we walked together and at others alone in our own worlds. Lots of rests. Relief and a hug at the Carpark. Thoughts turned to next year. Could we justify the chopper ride in and out because it is much harder now? Or is it just a different mountain now? One that maybe we are just not fast, strong or fit enough to climb unassisted?
Next day as we returned from the doctor the weather window slammed firmly shut. Wind blasted straight down the Tasman Valley. Cloud whipped across Cook and the other mountain tops. The bottom of the glacier was a maelstrom of dust and flying gravel. It felt apocalyptic. Like the mountains in a vengeful rage were showing us the end of the world.
Overnight the cyclonic storm front (Fehe) delivered massive rains across the whole country. Damage was extensive on the west coast. Many roads were cut off. A large number of vehicles were stranded overnight by flooding rivers and needed to be helicopter rescued the following day. Blizzards dumped snow higher up. A church was knocked flat by the wind.
Title photo – Camp beneath Mts Whitney and Russell USA Sierras
Notes from Dec 2018
For Australian climbers heading overseas
You need to read the PDS (Product Disclosure Statement) for each travel insurance agency of interest. All agencies have this document easily downloadable.
The following has been based on my understanding of what I have researched and may be incorrect.
Communications in the field is often necessary prior to a rescue/assistance to confirm your insurer is going to foot the bill.
Generally rockclimbing and mountaineering requiring ropes and specialist equipment is above and beyond what’s included in most travel insurance policies.
Overlapping, chunking parts of the trip, doubling up – Some people may choose a combination of rescue cover from eg, Global Rescue or Ripcord and general travel insurance from a mainstream agency. The separation of these in a claim may get messy. Mostly you have to specify the whole length of a trip when purchasing a product. Take care to disclose all aspects of a trip.
Generally you require a medical certificate in the country you are claiming for in order for your insurance agency to accept a claim for medical cover.
Differences in altitude require differing levels of trekking cover.
The following is a link to an excellent overview of international travel insurance and rescue and evacuation services suitable for mountaineering and rockclimbing with a USA perspective.
Most of these don’t cover hiking above 3,000m or rockclimbing. Some will cover hiking above 3,000m and rockclimbing if an additional “Adventure Pack” is purchased for an additional fee. None cover mountaineering using ropes and climbing equipment.
Allianz Travel Insurance available through eg, Teachers Health (available to non-members and members), Virgin Money etc includes with the additional “Adventure Pack”;
Hiking, trekking or tramping, peaking at altitudes from 3,000 metres up to 6,000 metres, where specialist climbing equipment is not required;
Outdoor rock climbing (with ropes and appropriate safety gear);
And lots of other adventurous things
Cost for 5 week USA rockclimbing trip with Comprehensive TI and Adventure Pack is approx. $720AU
Some good reports from Nepal with commercial activities providers.
Seems to have a policy similar to Allianz with the Adventure Pack but at about half the price.
Has specific policy additions for rockclimbing and mountaineering
Not for USA, Canada, Nepal
Formal link to VCC (Victorian Climbing Club)
NZAC (New Zealand Alpine Club)
Provides insurance for Australian members for mountaineering in NZ only for a fee
Travel Insurance with your Credit Card
If airline tickets are purchased with a credit card some credit card providers include complimentary travel insurance. This insurance is generally underwritten or arranged in conjunction with a mainstream travel insurance agency eg HSBC Platinum complimentary travel insurance is underwritten by Allianz. However policies will most likely not include mountaineering or rockclimbing and additional “Adventure Packs” are probably not available.
For this insurance you need to have available proof of air ticket purchase eg a copy of your credit card statement, to elicit acceptance by the card agency.
Take with you a contact for the insurance aspect of your credit card not just a 1800 number.
Many policies (read the PDS) include automatic coverage of a number of pre-existing conditions, but most of the listed conditions are useless (eg. acne!). If you have any potentially risky or expensive conditions which are not automatically covered, you should make specific enquiries about them. Many providers are quite helpful with this, and after asking a series of questions will give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to whether they will cover you. Different providers might come up with different answers, even if they are selling the same base product (eg. Allianz is a common product resold by TI retailers). And subtle distinctions can be important. Case study: A traveller has a blood clotting issue and is on medication that increases bleeding risk (eg. warfarin). No policy could be found that covered for claims arising from a blood clot, or from bleeding. On enquiry, some companies said they would not pay on any claim that had ANY association with these issues. However one company said that as long as the original cause of the claim was NOT those conditions, then they would cover a claim (eg. a broken arm, that was a bit harder to treat because of more bleeding). Although this could be read as at variance with the wording of the PDS, the company would not put the clarification in writing, saying they had recorded the phone call against the quote, and that was enough. Is it? Who knows.
“Kumano is the ancient name for the southern region of the Kii Peninsula – a sacred site steeped in mystery and legend. Since ancient times this lush and rugged environment has nurtured a profound form of nature worship in which mountains, rocks, forests, trees, rivers and waterfalls are deified and revered as objects of worship. Kumano’s rich natural landscape is believed to be the otherworldly abode of the gods, and has been the focus of pilgrimage and spiritual training for centuries.” (Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guide Book, 2017)
Grand shrines and sacred sites of Buddhist sanctuary and mountain ascetics are linked by a network of pilgrimage routes. Together these shrines, sites and pilgrimage routes are recognised as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. The Kumano Kodo is “linked” to the only other UNESCO recognised pilgrimage route, the Way of St James in Spain (Camino de Santiago), enabling walkers to become “Dual Pilgrims”.
For more than a thousand years the Kumano area has been a place where Buddhism, Shinto and nature worship have been combined, adjusted and redefined – syncretised. Spirits of the dead inhabit the peaks. Pilgrims sought healing, regeneration and salvation. In this “paradise on earth” they walked to be spiritually and physically purified. In Shugendo, a combination of folk religion, shamanism, Taoism, Buddhism and Shinto, followers sought to gain supernatural powers through ascetic practices in the mountains. The early Kumano, 794 – 1185, was the golden age of pilgrimage reserved for the Imperial and aristocratic families who trekked in great assemblages. Later, 1185 – 1333, the Samurai warrior class continued the tradition and then from 1336 – 1573 came a wave of more common people. During the 17th to 19th century the Kumano became very well frequented. Under a stricter regime the Kumano fell into decline from the late 19th century. Only very recently since the 1990s have contemporary Japanese people rediscovered the pilgrimage routes and then in the last 10 years has it been opened up to westerners.
Day 1 Into the Mountains
Access was easy. Train to Kii Tanabe. The tourist info at the train station has free info booklets with maps. The bus station is right outside the station. Lots of helpful people speak English and were very friendly. An ATM is nearby and probably supermarket if required. Buses departed for Hongu stopping at Takijiri Oji every hour. The bus took 40 mins.
All accommodation and luggage transfers should be pre booked from the Kumano Kodo website which is a little complex but can be worked out and the website does everything once you learn how to use it for bookings. A booking request will take a few days to process. We had a group of 9 and some nights we had to be accommodated at different places in the same locality.
At Takijiri Oji we were met by our luggage transfer people with “welcome” signs. There is a Kumano Kodo visitor center with more booklets of maps and stamp booklets that are both free but must be requested. Water is available in the center.
The pilgrimage starts at Takijiri Oji where there is a shrine, stamp station and covered shelter.
An ascent of 300 m steep hiking took us up through beautiful forest on a path which was held together by the roots of many trees. It twisted and zig zagged and wound past rocks and mossy logs. An optional crawl through a tight rock cave added challenge. Towards the first flattening the trail followed a narrow ridge line. Stone steps and flatter open trails led us to the first lookout which revealed marvelous views of very steep hill slopes and deep valleys, all thickly forested in varied shades of dark green. The forest reminded me of ninja movies from my childhood where characters leapt backwards up into the trees from the ground and the “Twilight” films – brooding, silent, still. Small villages nestled in the valley bottoms. On the way up and across the ridge top we chattered, catching up with those in the group we knew and getting to know the others, gradually establishing and deepening the friendships with each other.
“To resolve to attain supreme enlightenment and then, to travel this distance can only be accomplished by way of our own feet.” (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)
Further on we rested at small shrines then entered a village perched on the ridge. A special walkers’ rest area provided excellent views of distant ranges foregrounded by terraced vegetable and rice gardens. Yellow and pink and white flowers bordered a narrow road. An old man proudly showed us his beautiful bonsai trees and well-tended garden. A larger shrine had been freshly painted. Accommodation – delightful hospitality, very comfortable rooms with stunning views across the valley. Hot bath with glimpses to the distant mountains. Sumptuous food. Good company.
In the morning showers swept up the deep valley to our North. Mist rose and wisped between the forest and a low layer of heavy cloud in a changing series of Japanese landscape paintings. Birdcalls, crickets, and breeze made up the soundscape. Almost alive with a watchful presence the misty mountains had stood bearing witness to our fleeting passing and even to that of the pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo from across the centuries. What changes would they endure in the future I wondered.
A rainbow coloured the ranges auspiciously as we started walking. A good omen for the day ahead. Uphill through the village. Rainfall flowed at the roadside and turned a small waterwheel. Forest. Uphill. Sunlight streamed occasionally through the canopy. Dappled light then dim as cloud and mist vapours rose through trunks. Damp. Ferny forest floor on steep slopes under tall cedar trees. A pond overhung by delicate green. Shrines, red raised mini shelters, ancient standing stones, jizos alone beside the mountain path. The narrow track was carved into steep hill sides. Beautiful light, soft, changing with the vegetation and weather. Countless thousands of trees. Eerie birdcall.
We walked, sometimes chatting, sometimes quiet and alone with our own thoughts, tuned in to the landscape, to the past, to our own inner worlds. Brightly coloured in our designer outdoor gear contrasted the greens and browns of earth and plants. Mosses covered trunks growing and rotten, delicate fungi, surprising red crabs scuttled. Rest, eat, laughed together, regained hydration lost in copious sweat. Humid. Warm. Hard work uphill.
The trail is well signposted and mapped. “Kumano Kodo” with arrows and “Not Kumano Kodo” indicated diverging ways not to go. Distances. Interpretive information signs at key points of cultural interest. We stayed in touch with a couple of other groups, Australians, an older Japanese couple, and others.
Streams flowed over smooth stones. The sound of running water. Log bridges. Another small shrine. A place to collect another stamp in my pilgrim booklet. Lunch shared, plans made for the next day as we had to split up for different accommodations. Bamboo in amongst the forest cedars. Large village, paved road, cup of tea. Then uphill on a narrow road. More uphill.
Tsugizakura-Oji shrine at the top of the hill. Magnificent cedar trees, like an ancient growing cathedral. Tori gate, stone steps led up between the giants. We are quiet and awed again by the connection of nature, spiritual pursuit, homage.
“If the surroundings are serene, the mind is clear. When the mind and its surroundings are deeply connected, morals are profoundly cultivated.” (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)
At sunset the forested hills across the valley turned iridescent green. Our small guesthouse, Minshuku Tsugizakura, became a door opening onto the best Japanese hospitality we had experienced. Comfortable room, a very friendly older couple. It only holds 6 people and each was treated like a queen or king. The sumptuous meal was prepared by, Mr Yuba, a retired chef with 50 years Tokyo hotel experience and a passion for creating the tastiest dishes. The food was served and interpreted for us by, Christopher, a New Zealand Japanese with impeccable English and Japanese. Conversations ranged across diverse subjects adding a deeper layer to the “Masterchef” cuisine. This experience was an honour and privilege to be treated to. Bath, tired, plum wine, sleep.
13 km, 8.45 am – 4.30 pm (the walking seems to take a long time – hills, lots to investigate, millions of photos, rests, lunch, humidity, chatting). 830m up, 650m down. Takahara to Tsugizakura
Day 3 Through the Tori Gate
Breakfast was a replay of dinner with a fusion mix of Japanese-western friendly micro dishes. Bacon and eggs Japanese style, fruits and yoghurt, orange juice and then fish, tofu, pickles, salad etc. After copious thanks and smiles and gratitude for the extraordinary hospitality our hostess drove us down to the bus stop. We bussed through a short section of road walking to make a shorter day which enabled us to get to Yunomine, a famous onsen village. Much of the trail is serviced by local buses from nearby villages so the walk can be made extremely flexible based on time constraints and physical capabilities.
From Hosshinmon-oji we walked through small settlements. Fecund veggie patches and what appeared to be rows of tea hedges. Many houses fronting onto the route had quirky carved figures displayed for hikers. From a hilltop shrine we glimpsed Hongu, a final destination for the ancient pilgrims, the place of one of the primary temple complexes.
I walked alone for a little and pondered. If part of our hike, our journey was to be something of a pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodo what is it that we were trying to find? To discover? To pay homage to? To learn? To connect with? that brings a deeper meaning to our walking together. What would we “take home after internalising our experiences?” Like the lotus flower – I can grow in strength into something fine, acknowledging the darker and negative sides of myself, working thru them to seek beauty in myself, relationships and my impact on the world – perhaps to leave criticism of others behind, to make my garden more beautiful, to be careful and positive in my dealings with others. To gain a deeper awareness and understanding of the pursuit of challenge and lifefullness thru mountain asceticism and effort. To gain a more appreciation of the universality of our human seeking for deeper meaning in life connected to the cosmos.
Our “mind” is covered in the dust and dirt of our weaknesses, trauma, bad habits, cruelty etc. We need to work hard to sweep this dust away. We are connected to our physical surroundings. By “cleaning” our rooms and tidying them we create order and beauty and so do the same to ourselves. (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)
Forest under bright sunlight contrasted the previous day’s somber mistyness. Ferns, rooted pathway, stone steps, sandstone worn from centuries of footfalls. Less humidity. A high vantage point provided distant views of a giant Tori gate in the valley below.
The famous temple of Kumano Hongu Taisha seemed to rise out of the land, made of timber with a thick thatched roof and brightly coloured wall hangings. Incense and smoke – a purification symbol. The area was busy with walkers and day trippers. We lunched in the grounds nearby, bento boxes packed with goodies and rice balls wrapped in leaves. Stamps pilgrim booklets. Left the town, exiting under the massive Tori gate, the biggest in Japan.
Up, up and up. Steep root bound steps in forest that got darker again. Mosses, ferns. A small shrine and the remains of a very old tea house – rest. More upwards effort. Then the trail showed its incredible age. It wound down a narrow ridge on a pathway that had been worn into a deep groove, steeply down, down. Crossed a stone bridge into the old onsen village. Sulphur smells of the hot mineral waters mixed with the aromas of timber. The constant sound of running water from a stream that ran through the middle of the settlement.
Onsen. Relax. Washed away the day’s sweat. Conversation in the bath about Jung’s collective consciousness connecting with the Buddhist concept of the universal consciousness or mind. Hot mineral salted water. Clean. Washed through. Another series of culinary delights at dinner seated on the floor. And later a cooler evening.
Bus from Tsugizakura to Hosshinmon-oji then walk to Hongu and on to Yunomine. 11km walk
Day 4 Over the Mountain
A short bus ride took us to the next trail head at Ukegawa.
At the start of the trail a newish sign in four languages proclaimed “Peace to the World”.
Coloured flowers in gardens. Steep uphill for 400m. Through the back yards of houses. Into the forest. The weather was clear and warming but a gentle cooling breeze blew across the hills. We made our way upwards steadily. We were getting into a rhythm with the days and the group. The forest and hills, greens and browns became like home, meditative. A time to think and reflect. A time to interchange. We rested at the remains of a tea house that had been very busy on the route during the Edo period between 600 and 848 AD. The antiquity of the path we were following added a huge depth of history to our journey. At times we walked along high, narrow ridges where the slopes on each side plummeted away. Some sections of track were carved into the steeps and very old stone walls hold it in place in others. Small wooden bridges crossed streamways. Lush ferns, moss, tangled undergrowth, open forest.
A small, solitary Jizo shrine was perched atop a pile of small stones. I felt quite affected by the script that described this. It seemed to encapsulate a key part of the rich and mythical nature of the spiritual belief of the people of the past, and perhaps the present also, that pilgrimaged along this Kumano Kodo. The lyrical description, the story, the rawness of my own mother’s recent passing, the thought of young children dying and the large pile of small stones struck a chord deep inside me.
A rare opening in the forest which coincided with a high point revealed a panorama of hills and mountains that faded from green to blue into the distance. We morning teaed and chattered and laughed together. A small Jizo watched over us. At its feet a recent hiker had laid a small bracelet as an offering that was inscribed with colourful peace signs.
At first I was dismayed at the spoiling of the sanctity of the tiny shrine but on reflection I thought of it as a form of syncretising of modern beliefs and symbolism with those of the ancients. This is exactly what had been taking place over millennia in the Kumano in the merging, blending, mixing and coming together of different forms of Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, shamanism, folk religion and Shugendo.
Undulating terrain followed for several kilometres. We lunched on our bento boxes at a shelter on the site of another old tea house ruin. Then downhill. Past poem monuments and small shrines. I walked alone for a time with some music – a hybrid chant overlain with lilting electric guitar – that connected immediately the inner landscape with the outer world. And more steeply down. Stone steps. Smooth river rocks had been transported high onto the hill to stabilise the path and in places to form a tessellated pavement which could have proved difficult in wet conditions. For some of us with joint issues the down was much harder than the up. Eventually to the village. And the river, pristine, clear and deeper green water flowed over rocks and pebbles.
An old school had been converted cleverly to accommodate walkers in comfort at Koguchi. We swam in the cold water in gently swirling pools below a riverside shrine. More delicious food for dinner. Plans were made for an early start to the challenging last day.
Moonlight suffused through paper screens. The flowing stream sounded outside our window. Smell of timber.
Bus from Yunomine to Ukegawa. Walk Ukegawa to Koguchi. 13km. 670m up, 690m down
Day 5 Walk
The trek over the Ogumotori-goe section is the hardest of the Nakahechi Route. A long day ascending, traversing and descending a large mountain. Straight into mossy stone steps, up and up and up. Forest. Chat and step up a thousand times and then a break and then again. The incline was well graded, not as steep as anticipated. A boot repair with zip ties seemed to be working well. We kept to a slow and steady pace. A flat section half way up provided a little welcome relief. Maybe it was the meditative nature of repetitive movement through the forest landscape that made the actual nature of the path so interesting. Large stone pavements, smooth rocks heavily mossed at the edges of the “way”, steps edged with triangular shaped blocks, twisted cedar roots, logs that hold back erosion and my favourite a large ascending smooth slab that could have been treacherous without pegged in logs affixed horizontally. In places huge gnarled trees had grown into the side of the path and occasionally a large boulder had come to rest in the center.
At one point golden light beckoned through the trees from higher up. Under foot constantly changed and surprised.
Flat shelves had been excavated and held strong with stone retaining walls. These had become overgrown through the centuries. In ages past this area had been a small village of accommodating guest houses. I imagined the noise and activity of owners hustling pilgrims to stay in their lodgings, the smells of cooking, smoke from fires, and walkers, some struggling uphill and others in high spirits nearing the completion of their journeys with one last mountain to cross.
This steep hill known as Dogiri-zaka means “Body Breaking Slope” – an 800m climb. “Even the famous poet Fujiwa Teika (1162 – 1241) was at a loss of words after walking this section, stating in his pilgrimage diary from 1201 that, ‘This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is'”. (Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route Maps information booklet)
I was able to feel a small connection, in my own struggles upwards, with the Shugendo who sought to gain supernatural powers through ascetic practices in the mountains. Stone poem plinths had been placed at regular intervals. I wished I could have read each inscription, the Japanese script appeared evocative and mysterious. Brendon’s altimeter GPS watch indicated earlier than expected our imminent arrival at the high point and still in good condition we made Echizen-toge Pass. Small celebrations, chocolate and a group photo.
Thankfully downwards for a short time took us to a beautiful stream. Grottos, mossy boulders, flowing water, ponds, overhanging delicate green foliage. Reflections.
According to Kuki Ietaka, chief priest of Kumano Hongu Taisha (one of the three Grand Shrines) “Kumano is a feeling, not form – a manifestation of the Divine Intangibles – a celebration of life’s powerful vitality. The value of Kumano is universal, timeless, and as relevant now as it was 1000 years ago. It is a peaceful place in nature to take a moment to reflect on, and reaffirm one’s future direction and meaning in life – a sacred space to open one’s mind, heart, soul; all of one’s senses; and let the artificial boundaries and borders of the modern world disappear – allowing us to contemplate life as one unified humanity on planet earth. The importance of a pilgrimage to Kumano is not in its completion, but rather what you take home after internalising your experiences.” (Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guidebook, 2017)
Up and over an intermediate hill on the larger ridge line to the remains of an old tea house. Now there is a forestry road and in spite of guidebook exhortations that there are no facilities on this day’s walk there was a flushing toilet, shelter and a drink vending machine. The small cans of hot coffee from the machine proved very popular. Jenny shared sweet mung bean cakes carried from the day before. We undulated on the forestry road and the trail along the tops. Water flowed gently beside and over the path flagstones at times.
Like characters from Lord of The Rings we passed through the “Abode of the Dead”, “the souls of the dead gravitate to these higher mountains, where spirits inhabit this section of trail”. The forest then parted to reveal a rare view of the region ahead – the ocean, convoluted coastline, a small seaside town – our ultimate destination. Bob stood tall on a tree stump. Laura and I did ninja jumps in the trees. Our finish was in sight way below. And we all ate rice balls for lunch, again.
Down, down, down. Joints complained. Knees, hips, ankles. It was a long way to the base.
Eventually our journey ended at Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of three grand shrines of the Kumano. The temple complex was wonderful. Incense fragranced the air at the entrance to ancient wooden temples. A massive old-growth camphor tree, incorporated into the terraced grounds, has a narrow cleft in its base through which pilgrims can pass into rebirth. From the terraces a magnificent view of a colourful three storied pagoda shrine in the foreground and the plunging Nachi-no-Otaki falls, the highest in Japan. We stamped our pilgrim booklets and walked on tired legs to the bus stop.
Later at the coast in outdoor onsens we soaked in hot mineral water while looking out over the smooth green sea to other islands. The setting sun touched high clouds with colour. Raptors floated effortlessly over the water and a fish jumped. The natural world rolled ever onward and our “other” journey continued.
Bookings – for accom and luggage transfer done through Kumano Travel (see note below). The website is excellent once you have engaged with the route.
Costs – package for 5 nights accom, dinner and breakfast and some bento lunch boxes, and luggage transfer was about $700AU per person. Extras were for drinks, snacks, onsens etc.
Food – provided was very Japanese. Dinners are generally sumptuous. The occasional mini mart in villages provided more variation. Suggest you take tea and coffee and other special drinks and powdered milk if you are addicted to these otherwise plenty of green tea provided. Take a coffee mug? Bring some muesli and powdered milk if you struggle with Japanese breakfast. Suggest making use of mini marts to stock up on snacks.
Boots were found suitable
Luggage – arranged transfer worked seamlessly
Groups – don’t worry if you can’t always be accommodated in the same place as there are usually multiple places available nearby
Pace – we walked slower than on a standard hike/bushwalk because we had shorter days planned but also because we found there were lots of interesting things to investigate along the way. Also there was quite a lot of up and down.
Path – ancient and mostly well-formed but could be slippery in the wet.
Walking poles – highly recommended to have 2 in case of wet conditions and also to ease the downhills.
Water – fill up enough for each day – at least 2 litres – each morning. Vending machines for drinks also available.
Map booklets – maps should probably be printed from the Kumano Travel website before you come in case you can’t get them in Japan. They are available from Tourist office in Kii Tanabe, the Kumano Heritage Centre at Takijiri and some places along the way.
Stamp booklets – each of the special places has a very nice little unique stamp that can be collected into a Pilgrim Booklet. You have to ask at the Kumano Heritage Center at Takijiri for the Booklet.
Local buses – are accessible from many places along the route and make flexibility easy to enable changes to walk plans along the way.
Signage – is generally but not always excellent.
Local people – very friendly and helpful
Useful contacts and info
Kumano Travel – is an international award winning community-based initiative; a bilingual (Japanese and English) online reservation system for the region. Accommodation reservations, tours and activities, local guides, info, luggage shuttle, model itineraries
Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau
Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Pilgrimage Route Maps. Booklet
Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guidebook 2017 – available through the website of Kumano Travel
Island hopping the Seto Sea by cycle – Six Bridges
Onomichi to Imabari
A 2 day cycle (for us) across amazing bridges and islands in the Seto Sea. An 80 km ride along the most direct route where many interesting side trips could be made through, across and around the islands to make a cycle journey of greater length and possible challenge. Well signposted, good maps at the tourist info offices and bike hire easy to organize.
Onomichi – A Shinkansen bullet train from Kyoto to Fukuyama then a local train to Onomichi. Both trains are JR (Japan Rail) lines. Tickets were purchased in Kyoto Station at the “Foreigners” (English speaking) counter – easy and helpful. The “bullet” was like a ground level airplane. Lots of trains would be available from Osaka, Shin Osaka, Hiroshima and Kansai Airport.
Imabari – also serviced by train to Fukuyama then to Osaka or to Hiroshima.
At the exit to the station at Onomichi is a small Tourist Info booth where we were directed to the Green Hotel. The Green Hotel is 150 m from the station on the waterfront. Inside the Hotel foyer we arranged luggage transfer which unexpectedly was not available to our booked accommodation half way along the route (we sent it to accommodation in Imabari at the end of the route). We packed a few items in day packs for the ride and hired bikes with front baskets to carry them. Bike hire was done in a stall in the carpark next door. General purpose bikes with 5 gears proved ok. There are plenty of bike stations along the way so worries of not carrying spare tubes and a few tools were dismissed. Maps were available in the Hotel area.A small ferry took us across to the first island nearby where we started cycling. The start of the route was a little tricky to find but there were other cyclists to follow. The main route is marked on the road with blue signs pointing the way. Much of the first day to Setoda was on back roads with little traffic and dedicated cycle trails. Highlights were riding across the long suspension bridges that connect the islands – on cycle paths a level below the car roadway or on paths separated from the traffic. Rural land, forest, beaches, industry, shipyards, villages. Convenience stores appeared regularly with shaded areas especially for cyclists. Traffic seemed to be very cycle aware and courteous. A range of people were on the ride – lycra clad racers, mountain bikers, kids, tourists on hired rattlers, hybrids, road bikes and a few tandems. No tourers with lots of gear. Being 80km long I guess many would complete the ride in a day, do an out and back or stay half way like us with minimal gear.
In all directions the Seto Sea was jade green. Steep forested islands painted themselves into this iconic Japanese landscape. Haze added an otherworldly atmosphere to the scenes.
At Ryokan Suminoe in Setoda we stumbled into old Japan. Refined and welcoming hospitality. No words of English. Paper sliding wall panel shutters. Our room overlooked a lush garden. Tatami floors. Bath with a view into the garden. Sunset over the sea. Worn wooden floors. Individual room for dining. 7 course dinner with much seafood. Breakfast of fish, rice, miso soup and coffee. A little anxious about wearing the correct slippers.
30 km from Onomichi to Setoda on Day 1.
Another hot day. Terrific riding most of the way. Spectacular bridges that included the longest – 4.7 km. Views from high bridge vantage points of the islands and the sea. Uphills to access the bridges were long and slow but steady at well graded 3% angles but the downs were fast and easy. Navigation was straightforward right into Imabari following the blue line on the side of the road and the regular signs. “Cyclist sanctuaries” popped up just when needed for toilets, food, drinks and shady rest breaks. Much of this part of the ride route hugged the shore line with a dedicated cycle lane mostly and sometimes quiet roads. Strong tidal currents swirled the water round the ends of islands. A steady stream of ships plied the open sea ways. Villages, small towns, forest, orange and mandarin orchards, shipping industry. Cycling the spectacular bridges was unusual and very enjoyable. Each was a different engineering feat. The infrastructure and setup for cyclists was excellent. The bikes made the trip with no hassles. At Imabari a “Giant” shop right beside the station hired out smarter bikes for the more discerning cyclist.
The whole cycle trip can be extended beyond the standard 80 km by taking on some of the more challenging routes identified or taking the extra optional sections out and around the more isolated parts of most of the islands. Cycle touring is a wonderful way to tourist a place – active, at your own pace, one of those iconic self-propelled ways to travel. You interact with the place and the people in a quiet, gentle way.
Imabari – Cyclo No Ie – small funky youth hostel style accom right near station, terrific hospitality, book ahead as its popular and cheap. Fab yakatori restaurants nearby. Trains out to Hiroshima, Osaka and beyond.
Here’s my personal best of “Seven Alpine Mainland Winter Summits” of Australia. The list is made up of the most enticing peaks for lovers of interesting winter mountain ascents. While including the highest mountains in mainland Australia a few are not in the seven highest. All have their own challenges that may include ice and snow, remoteness, changeable and extreme weather conditions. None should be underestimated, especially in winter. The idea of these “seven summits” is to focus attention on the local landscape in a way that captures the imagination and stimulates the thirst for adventure. So far in four attempts I have been successful on three of the peaks and have turned back on two.
Mount Kosciuszko 2,228m
Mount Townsend 2,209m
Mount Twynam 2,196m
Mount Jagungal 2,061m
Mount Bogong 1,986m
Mount Feathertop 1,922m
Mount Bimberi 1,912m
Mount Townsend is off the beaten track. Further out than Kosciuszko and away from the standard Main Range crossing route it is generally more than a day trip in winter unless snow conditions and the weather is perfect. From the Eagles Nest café at the top of the main Thredbo chair lift we cross country skied up along the route of the Kosciuszko Walk. Occasional sections of the metal boardwalk were visible poking through the good snow cover. Apart from an icy breeze the weather was clear. The view from Kosciuszko Lookout at the 2km mark showed the next part of the route. Fresh powder snow made the uphills easy with our patterned ski bases gripping nicely, and the gentle downhills a dream. Sections from Etheridge Gap to Rawsons Pass were icy.
With summit fever for Mt. Townsend we bypassed Kosciuszko and traversed across its northern ridge line to Muellers Pass. The windswept ridge to the top of Muellers Peak was alternating ice and powder. I strapped my skis onto my backpack and just walked up. On the hard ice of the Main Range sometimes it’s easier to walk if you don’t have climbing skins for your skis or snowshoes. From the top of Mueller a stunning vista opened out to the north – frozen Lake Albina, Little Austria and Lady Nothcote Canyon backdropped by the spectacular Sentinel and Watsons Crags with Mount Jagungal lying distant and aloof. The traverse of Mueller felt almost like a mini mountaineering exploit with a narrow rocky ridge perched high above plummeting slopes on both sides.
We left our packs in the bowl below Townsend’s peak and skied easily up to a flat part of its eastern ridge. From here we kicked steps up the final steeps to the summit. Alone. We stood on the very edge of the Snowy Mountains. Massive wedding cake hills made up the Main Range with only Kosciuszko a little higher. Snow gave way to green forest thousands of feet below and to the west in the Geehi Valley which merged into blue range upon range down into Victoria. Dazzling light. Huge sky. Pristine white. Hardly a sign of civilisation in the enormous landscape. It was difficult to tear ourselves away. Then we thrilled in the perfect, consistent snow and telemarked back down to our packs and lunch.
On the western side of Muellers Peak and Kosciuszko is a large, gently undulating shelf that hangs high above the valleys. This is a relatively seldom visited area of delightful ski touring in good weather.
In the mid-afternoon we rounded the southern ridge of Kosciuszko into the headwaters of Swampy Plain River which flows out of Lake Cootapatamba.
From a peak nearby we watched the sun set behind an approaching bank of dark clouds. Cootapatamba Hut, a small survival hut, made for a comfy overnight.
In the middle of the night it was a better option than our snow tent as a blizzard hit.
About 10cm of snow had fallen by morning. The forecast improvement in conditions did not eventuate so we set off into the storm in limited visibility, blowing cold wind and snow showers. On a compass bearing and with snatches of clearing we climbed steeply up to North Ramshead, then down to Kosciuszko Lookout and back to the top of Thredbo.
As we descended the downhill ski runs the weather improved and the sun even came out. In 1 ½ days we had experienced all the weather of the Snowys in winter – blistering sunshine to blizzard, and the full range of snow conditions from sheet ice to brilliant dry powder.
Postscript; Several years prior I had encountered an international party of mountaineers who set off, against local advice, into a blizzard to climb Kosciuszko which was their last of the “real” Seven Summits of the world (the highest mountain on each of the seven continents). They did not make it and had had to be rescued by police and NPWS staff who put their own lives at risk. With a tight time schedule they had been turned back and flown out having failed on Kossie after summiting Everest, Denali etc.
Strzelecki Desert, Flinders Ranges, Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre, Oodnadatta Track, Painted Desert, Uluru, Kings Canyon, Mount Sonder, Alice Springs.
5,700 km DR650 (2) KLR 650 20 days Self-supported
Some of the best adventure motorcycle touring in Australia
“The sky was big and empty
My chest filled to explode
I yelled my insides out at the sun
At the wide open road
It’s a wide open road
It’s a wide open road”
“Wide Open Road” The Triffids
Big sky country. Goats, Emus, a pig. Small hills and dips. 90kph – an easy slow pace while we settled in and got the feel of the heavy machines loaded with too much fuel and water and stuff. In a blur we passed a white and rainbowed piano on a rise overlooking the stretched flatness of wide open plains. For the next half hour images of Coldplay occupied my mind. The rattle I thought had been sorted back home returned.
Broken Hill to Packsaddle 225km – Day 1
Mixed dirt and bitumen to Tibooburra. Flat gibber desert. Then the granites. Supermarket, internet, last phone calls. Into Sturt National Park, the Jump Up Loop was sensational – like a wildlife park. The first soft soil on the journey had us fishtailing into small furrows. Paul parked his souped bike, like a black stallion, at a lookout over lunch. We followed the Middle Road through the guts of the park. In the western section the track crossed dune country. We learned fast how to keep momentum up, stand up and let the bikes find their way. At the top of each dune I watched out for Chris’s headlight, relieved each time that he was still upright. My own lead-up to this adventure bike trip of a lifetime had been percolating for 35 years, Chris’s for 4 months. He had bought a postie bike, became hooked and jumped into this trip, purchased a bike, learned to ride, sorted camping gear, all with a determined single-mindedness of purpose and deep desire. Here he was living his favourite song of all time.
Several groups of huge wedge tailed eagles tore at roadkill and lifted without hurry as we neared.
In the centre of a black hole where a gravitational singularity exists time and space bend and shift. Occasionally time seems to intensify and become focussed with events and action, emotions and thoughts cascade and crystalise. Riding the low dunes on the narrow winding track into the fading light of the desert I concentrated, hypervigilant, used every sense and skill – in the flow.
“I want to fly like an eagle, to the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly (oh, yeah)
Fly right into the future
“Fly like and Eagle” – Steve Miller Band
330 km. 8.15am – 5.15 pm. Packsaddle to Cameron Corner – Day 2
Up early. I spent an hour and a half checking everything, tightened every nut, adjusted and lubed the chain. Found the Safari tank stabiliser bar a little loose so fixed that.
Deep into the Strzelecki Desert the parallel dunes lay across the track. Sandy rise, crest, slightly firmer descent, relax across the long flat swale, switch on and focus for the next rise. 60km in we rested. Chris (KLR 650) noticed some green fluid on his left boot. Then on the fairing. Then pooling on the sand. Ugh! *#?! Hot. Jackets off. Nothing was going to happen fast now. Tarp. Tools. Thermos. Snack. Fairing off, radiator guard off. Fluid dribbled down.
3 other bikers stopped going the other way. One had hit a sheep on their first day out of Adelaide on the way up. They had done two tyres on the Birdsville Track and another’s rear suspension had failed completely (he was still riding it). They carried a spare rear tyre. We had prepared well. Good bikes, recently fully serviced, good tyres, heavy duty tubes, lots of spares and tools. As they roared off I contemplated whether their speed had been a contributing factor.
Metal putty was kneaded firmly into the parts of the radiator we thought were the possible sources of the leak. (In retrospect we should have drained then removed the whole thing and inspected it more carefully). Satellite phone call to my mechanic at home for any more tips. We also called Kim, who had dropped out of the trip days prior to departure due to health commitments, and he searched out repairers. Chris topped up the coolant with water. We considered pushing on but then took the safer option of turning round back towards civilisation rather than getting extended into the remoteness. Back at Cameron Corner Chris made arrangements with a repairer in Broken Hill. We then pushed on towards Tibooburra in the late afternoon. Back across dunes and sandy sections. In the gloaming, the time when the sunset glow turns into evening gloom, we rode through gibber country. This was the second day we had ridden in low light animal roadkill conditions. I didn’t like it. Nerve wracking Russian Roulette. I accepted the self-proclaimed title of “old man” and just slowed right down. Once I had accepted what we were doing it felt like being a rider in the Dakar race pushing on into the darkness. Alone in the massive space. Songs drifted into my head and stuck there like earworms, giving rhythm and a soundtrack to the flow.
”Look at the sun
Falling from the sky
And the sunset\Takes my mind
Back to my homeland
It’s a story
Planted in my mind
It’s so clear
Oh my sunset dreaming
“Sunset Dreaming” – Yothu Yindi
Cameron Corner into the Strzelecki then back to Tibooburra 290km – Day 3
On the delightful cruise back down to Broken Hill the KLR ran well with a constant temperature and a few refills. Rob, of Rob’s Dirtbike Repairs, attempted a repair over the metal putty which didn’t pass a pressure test. It seemed like we’d stumbled into a real motor biker’s fraternity of country goodwill. He phoned a client and asked if he would donate his KLR radiator to Chris if he was later given a new one fully installed. 10 minutes later the bike was dropped off and the radiator installed.
“Oh I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm gonna try with a little help from my friends”
“With a Little Help” – Lennon and McCartney
Tibooburra to Broken Hill 335km – Day 4
The retreat back to our stored car and trailer enabled us to drop off some of the stuff we had decided was unnecessary – my down jacket, Chris various items. Having lost a few days the full planned circuit ride was cut down a little. At the border on the Barrier highway three fellers on 2 KLRs and a DR who had been on the Oodnadatta Track stopped like comrades for a yarn. Springsteen, like an anthem from my youth, drove me along the blacktop into South Australia. Further down we bumped into a ducati drag racer who had driven his van all the way from WA to do a 10 second race in QLD before returning back across the country (YEEHAH was his number plate).
“In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway nine,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line
H-Oh, Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run”
“Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen
Broken Hill to Peterborough 280km – Day 5
We rode up through small country towns towards the Flinders Ranges, Orroroo, Carieton, Hawker. Song verses went round and round inside my head as the miles got eaten up. In two places old timers sauntered over for a chat, wistful and envious of our adventure, sharing some of their own past riding stories. The bikes seemed to act like a magnet for people to approach. Saltbush studded low foothills. Soldier settler homestead ruins stood forlornly at regular intervals on the dry earth.
“Round and round up and down
Through the streets of your town
Everyday I make my way
Through the streets of your town”
“Streets of your Town” – The Go Betweens
Strong sunlight reddened the high crags of Moonarie as we rode beside the Ranges and up to our camp at Wilpena Pound.
Peterborough to Wilpena Pound 200km – Day 6
The steeds remained behind while we hiked up St Mary Peak. All around the view was stupendous and the light beautiful as we ascended. Sinuous, shadowed valleys curled north into the Northern Flinders and Gammon Ranges. To the north-west lay the brown, arid, flat vastness of the dry Lake Torrens and beyond to the region we were heading for. I caught snatches of Chris and Paul talking deep philosophy. I mulled slowly over things beyond the concrete that I had experienced. From the summit the Pound was ringed by cliffs. Grass trees. Enormous space. I felt an unfolding sense of connection – adventuring into magnificent, wild places, being in touch with the spirit of the landscape. A childhood spent exploring the bush had laid down a network of neural pathways enabling me to find comfort, excitement and attachment in places of remote solitude. And a working life of regular periods of hyperawareness in natural places – being closely attuned to changing conditions, terrain, direction, the weather, has led to an intuitive knowledge and fluency. Core parts of my psyche are centred in the earth, wild places, adventure and the cosmos.
Above and afar
Like answers to questions
And the longing to survive”
“Visionary Mountains” – Joan Armatrading
Late in the day I worked on my bike. Methodically. I put a rubber spacer between the tank and the frame to lift it a little. To try to remove the rattle.
Overnight we reprioritised our plans for the trip – Lake Eyre, The Painted Desert, Uluru. To make up some time we departed camp as the sun rose. It seemed we had settled into a pattern of arriving late and packing up next morning in the dark. Sunlight hours were short. The back road along the Razorback was sensational riding – a narrow twisting spine backdropped by high ranges. Along the creekbed track through Brachina Gorge we travelled thru sediments and bands of rock from an array of geological time periods. Ridges and cliffs towered above. Eagles soared the thermals. Red gummed stream, pools in shining smooth water worn rock. Tricky track – stony and gravel. Weaving, winding. I gaped upwards in quick snippets through the chasm. Every bend was sided by stone hundreds of millions of years older or younger than the last. Our lifetimes are so fleeting. Concentration.
“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.”
“Time” – Pink Floyd
Leigh Creek, Lyndhurst, Farina, Maree. Fast smooth dirt – endless horizon. I followed the distant dust trails of the other two bikes. Paul’s bike seemed hard to slow down, airbox opened, carbie jets changed, high performance exhaust system – hard mouthed and headstrong with its big black tank full of 98 octane fuel. The view over Lake Eyre South was dramatic. Again we rode on into the sunset after a stop at some springs. Stuart had linked these springs along this same route (later the Ghan, telegraph, and Oodnadatta Track) as he white-man explored into the interior more than a century prior. And for millennia Aboriginal people had followed their songlines that linked these water sources through the desert country. We dinnered under a huge canopy of stars. In the winter sky the “emu” lay clearly in the dark parts of the Milky Way. I thought about all the Aboriginal elders who had passed and were up there sitting by their fires along the river of stars. And my own Mum and Dad, up there somewhere too, maybe waiting by a fire, watching.
The day of adventure riding had been an absolute cracker. It had been long anticipated. Through early years of riding an old smoky Suzuki Hustler 250, a CT 90 in Africa and then a series of trail bikes and others for commuting. Through BMW dreaming I had finally settled on the DR as a simple, lightweight, reliable machine, uncomplicated. Years of poring over maps. Practice rides and camps with Kim. Rolling back decades to exploring the bush fire trails on my bicycle as a kid.
Wilpena Pound to Coward Springs 360km – Day 8
We motored north–west on the Oodnadatta Track, past derelict railway sidings and stations of the Old Ghan Line. More dune country led us in to William Creek. On a flight over Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre Chris and Paul were gobsmacked by the “incredible natural designs in the salt visible from above” and “the vastness of it all that you could not see the end of”. Squiggly sand surfaced much of the Halligan Bay Track. Remote! Not a place for a breakdown or fall. I felt nervous and daunted. Slowed down another notch. Black hills near the lake had a Mordor appearance – desolate with nothing growing at all. A white horizon beckoned us further. The last section alongside the salt was exhilarating – smooth, fast, flat.
We walked out onto the flat, endless, white salt. Stark. Hostile. Textured. I planted my feet firmly on one of our country’s psychic/cultural/mythical centres. Sunset lit up the western sky with golden fire and the east coloured with mauve that pinked then purpled. The breeze dropped with the dusk.
Dry, empty. Quiet. Still. Waiting for a flood.
Under the stars, beside the brooding white, I wondered at the angle of the disk of stars that make up our galaxy, at the centre point and our orientation to them both.
“Stars, they come and go
They come fast or slow
They go like the last light of the sun, all in a blaze
And all you see is glory”
“Stars” – Janis Ian
Coward Springs – William Creek – Halligan Bay Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre 170km – Day 9
Venus and the moon predawned the sunrise. Grass tussocks caught early light. We returned through the mini black hills and excitedly over the sandy parts. I felt relief on regaining the main track. The ride north up the Oodnadatta Track was exhilarating – fast and smooth sections alternated with dunes and corrugations – all through magnificent landscape. Gibber, saltbush, dunes and swales. Historic Albeckunga Bridge and then coffee at the famous Pink Roadhouse.
Into the sunset yet again we rode. This time through the psychedelic hills of the Painted Desert. Colours in the earth were burnt orange and red by the fading light. Away from the glow the sky purpled.
“Purple haze all in my eyes
Don’t know if it’s day or night
You got me blowin’, blowin’ my mind
Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?”
“Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix
We glimpsed homestead hospitality at Archaringa. Camp kitchen and showers.
Halligan Bay to Archaringa 350km – Day 10
A morning of bad karma started by being woken by a loud fart from the tent next door which was answered immediately by a yelp from a passing cattle dog. We had been eating a lot of beans and rice. I lost it over breakfast with the others over something minor. Then my rear tyre was flat. I had practiced for this. Had the spare tubes and tools. Had watched the youtube videos and done both tyres at home. We used a large stone as part of the stand. The wheel came off ok and eventually we managed to break the bead on the tyre. The old tube came out easily but inserting the new tube and the valve stem through the rim under the tyre proved problematic. Eventually we got it in, lubed the edge of the tyre and reset it successfully. On pumping it up I felt proud that we could fix all this ourselves – even though it was pretty much a minimum skill level for such remote travel.
Back out onto a less used track we negotiated gravel creek beds and large bull dust holes. Then like some grand American western the black stallion led us across wonderful hill country where the dusty yellow brick road changed through red to brown then back to yellow and grey and rust.
Pirsig had summed up the pleasures of riding through the landscape years before…………
“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
……………..on the dirt, in the desert, miles from anywhere this is even more pronounced. To be just riding for days and weeks into the landscape was bliss.
I dropped my bike while stopping to take a photo. The other two cowboys helped lift it back up. Eventually we joined the Stuart Highway and left the dirt behind for a few days.
On the way north I started anticipating Uluru. At a roadside stop I plugged in the speaker and cranked the music.
”Standing on solid rock
Standing on sacred ground
Living o-on borrowed ti-i-i-ime
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line
Right down the line”
“Solid Rock” – Goanna
At Kulgera we watched the State of Origin in the roadhouse pub. A few keen guys took over the closest seats to the telly and a large group of Aboriginal people chatted by a fire in a tin outside. When the game started they all trooped inside and watched and drank and socialised happily and at ease. Everyone was friendly – Queensland winning probably helped.
Arckaringa to Kulgera 350km – Day 11
On the way to Yulara we chattered with other biking groups, tourers mainly.
From an isolated lookout near Kata Juta we were immersed in the changing afternoon light between that range of rounded rocky massifs and the Rock itself. Uluru seemed to float on the horizon above the goldening spinifex. Powerful. Mesmerising. Captivating. Like a massive ship landed from outer space. Coloured layers filled the sky. “Pictures can’t capture the sublimity of it,” Paul.
Desert oaks, honey grevillea, everlasting daisies. Meditative music washed through my head and my heart overflowed in the almighty grandeur of the scene.
In the dark we rode back to our “unpowered lawn” campsite.
Kulgera to Uluru 330km – Day 12
A quiet throng surrounded us at the sunrise viewing before we walked round the path at the base of the Rock. Caves, overhangs, art sites, canyons, and some sacred places where photos and access were not allowed. Cool damp glades, flowers of all colours, hot red dirt.
And above towered the enormous red cliff faces with giant holes and featured formations like huge mouths and waves.
At the Mutitjulu Waterhole the stone seemed alive, radiating its own light through the open forest above the still pond.
In the afternoon we worked on our bikes. Checked and lubed the chains, tightened all the bolts, cleaned the air filters. Two number plates had gone missing.
At sunset we entered once again into the presence of the Uluru as it glowed through changing hues. The other cultural and symbolic heart of the country.
”Black fella, white fella
It doesn’t matter, what your colour
As long as you, a true fella
As long as you, a real fella
All the people, of different races
With different lives, in different places
It doesn’t matter, what your name is
We got to have, lots of changes
We need more brothers, if we’re to make it
We need more sisters, if we’re to save it”
“Blackfella Whitefella” – Warumpi Band
Uluru – Day 13
Blacktop to Kings Canyon/Watarrka National Park. Camp on soft grass. Around some of the rim walk we followed a small group of indigenous people who were first time visitors on an outing from a community nearby. Their musical language and happy laughter filled the gullies and added a merry atmosphere to the magical landscape. Red stone domes. Sheer, colour streaked cliffs. Spinifex tussock textured hills and ridges. Cycads. At a billabong I looked deep into the cold black water and wondered at the stories the place could tell of Aboriginal people and their dispossession from places like this.
The final dirt riding for Chris and I (Paul continued round through QLD later). The Mereenie Loop. Famed as a vehicle breaker. It had been recently graded so corrugations were bearable. Soft sand was our main challenge. Lots of snaking lines. Lots of time standing up. Momentum and confidence. Chris stepped off his bike in the deepest sand after being overtaken by a car only 5 km from the bitumin. A GS 1200 rider reinforced my opinion that they were too big and heavy in the sand. Then at a lookout we met the local Ulysses Club out on a Sunday ride. We camped in the West Macdonnell Ranges on a hill overlooking the entrance to Redbank Gorge.
“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends that I used to turn to, to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too
Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun”
“Running on Empty” – Jackson Browne
Kings Canyon to Redbank Gorge 210km – Day 15
By sunrise we’d hiked up onto the ridge of Mount Sonder into a scene full of drama. Dark clouds, streams of searing first light, rainbows on distant ranges. Like being inside a von Guerard painting. At the summit a blasting cold wind cut short our viewing time of the range upon range of mountains stretching east west. Mt Zeil and Haast Bluff beckoned and planted seeds for a next trip. We hiked back down into balmy still warmth. A final dirt photo then a long ride flanked on both sides by lines of rocky hills. Gorges regularly split the West Macdonnell Range on the left. Civilisation hit with a bang. We got one of the last sites in the campground, thankfully slightly removed from the many camping school tour groups.
“It’s a beautiful day
Don’t let it get away
It’s a beautiful day”
“Beautiful Day” – U2
Redbank Gorge to Alice Springs 190km – Day 16
A day in Alice. Two bikes went to the biggest bike shop for new tyres which it turned out hadn’t been ordered (Chris and I had to make it back to Broken Hill on fairly worn knobbies) and two got serviced. Coffee shops. Read the paper. Emails and the digital world. Then a wander through the Aboriginal art galleries – colours and styles of the desert country we had journeyed through, beautiful, restful, a massage for the psyche, hybrid ancient and modern, art interpreting story and landscape. Lots of indigenous people were hanging around the town, some lost and aimless – I guessed that these were the visible folk and the others were probably busy working around town in hospitals, schools, offices or at home. We sorted things for our trips back – Chris and I on the highways back to Broken Hill and Paul pushing on through Queensland on the Plenty Highway and Birdsville Track back past Innaminka. Dinner in Bojangles.
“Out where the river broke
The blood wood and the desert oak
Holden wrecks and boiling diesels
Steam in forty five degrees
The time has come
To say fair’s fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share
The time has come
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back
How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?”
“Beds are Burning” – Midnight Oil
Alice Springs 0km – Day 17
Paul, who had an extra week, headed north and then east towards Boulia while Chris and I did the blacktop, bitumen, followed the white lines. Great country but cold in the morning. Watched the miles tick over. Cold crept through invisible cracks in the clothing. Three days paying for the fabulous dirt tracks. We stopped every 50km for a break, rest from the buffeting. Sit on 95kph. My rattle still came and went. More songlines drifted through my head, some stuck fast. I planned future trips. Calculated endlessly the time left in the day, the kilometres, the roadhouses. Road trains. Caravans headed mostly north. The odd biker waved.
We stopped for fuel at Marla. While we coffeed a very young couple mooched around a little nearby. A skinny aboriginal girl and a white guy with a large tattoo. She kicked a back tyre of the white stationwagon and said to me that it looked ok and should last, wrapped a thin blanket over her tshirt and hopped in the passenger seat. He drove out. Chris and I pushed on to the Cadney Park Roadhouse and set up our tents sheltered from the biting wind behind the big camp kitchen. The stationwagon pulled in a little later then after it left the roadhouse owner and a staff person stood outside watching it depart for a while. I wondered at what had gone down. 15 minutes later it returned with one dead flat tyre being destroyed on the rim as it drove in. They came over to the camp kitchen and had a short chat – not much money, unsure what to do, did we know where there might be some old tyres? They had come down from Darwin. They were cold. I asked if they had any bedding. They wandered off. A little while later the guy came back and said he’d lost his licence and asked if I could buy him a six pack. I said I didn’t buy booze but offered to pay for them to stay in one of the dongas (cheap roadhouse rooms). They reminded me of homeless people I had worked with at home on Vinnies Night Patrol. In the middle of nowhere with a stuffed vehicle and little money there weren’t a lot of options. He brightened up with the offer and scurried off to return a few minutes later saying that his girlfriend had already paid for a room with her centerlink money. He drove the car round the back of the dongas. Through the early evening they chatted with other campers and 4WDers. The story was that they were in a car that hadn’t been used for a few years and so several of the tyres had blown on the way down and now they had run out of spares. In the middle of this a large school group set up right next to us and busied cooking and eating. By a neighbouring camper’s fire an ex NT policeman suspected the couple were running away from something or to something – he’d seen their type before. Chris and I retired to bed early. An hour later the guy asked around the tents and campers if anyone had a spare jumper. He was gone before I could wake enough to help. Through the night I slept fitfully while I schemed ways to get to Coober Pedy and have a spare tyre sent up or sort them onto a bus.
“Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home
There was nothing that I owned, used my fingers as a comb
In those days when I was young, drinking and fighting was no fun
It was daily living for me, I had no choice. It was meant to be”
“Down City Streets” – Archie Roach
Alice Springs to Cadney Park 535km – Day 18
In the morning I made up a package of warm clothes and $100 cash to leave on their doorstep to cover another night in the room. However there was no sign of them at all. And the dead car was gone too with no obvious wheel rim tracks leading back to the highway.
I suspected that someone may have contacted the authorities and they had been picked up overnight.
Disturbed I headed out onto the highway. Mist. Cold. Heated grips. We traded lead and repeated the day before. Calculated. Planned. Over a lot of miles I retraced all the parts of the trip and shuffled the memories. White lines. Hours passed slowly. Coober Pedy fuel and tea. Huge space. Flat. Further down were the dry Lake Gairdner and Island Lagoon.
“Wake me up lower the fever
Walking in a straight line
Set me on fire in the evening
Everything will be fine
Wake me up strong in the morning
Walking in a straight line
Lately I’m a desperate believer
But walking in a straight line”
“Straight Lines” – Silverchair
Cadney Park to Woomera 531km – Day 19
Woomera, cold. Every piece of clothing I owned. Wet weather gear sealed out the wind. Port Augusta. As we approached a pass through the southern Flinders a wave of cloud descended blocking all hope of a warming. Small towns. Nice coffee. Somewhere out of Yunta we rode out from under the cloud layer into the blue. Near Broken Hill the roadsides were occupied by mobs of goats which provided a final roll of the dice.
In the sunshine
Where the days are longer
The nights are stronger
You’re gonna go I know
‘Cause the free wind is blowin’ through
Technical Mountaineering Course – Alpine Guides Mount Cook
A personal account – Feb 2017
Denali, Greenland, Big Ben on Heard Island, the Himalayas, Sierra Nevada, Bugaboos, the Matterhorn, South America. These were some of the mountains my friends and brothers had climbed on since doing their mountaineering courses to learn the ropes on snow and ice in New Zealand in the seventies. While they did several seasons in the Southern Alps honing skills and developing experience before venturing to other ranges I volunteered in Africa, got involved in family life and forged a career in outdoor education. My work took me away from home regularly – it would have been too hard to justify taking blocks of extra time out for New Zealand and longer expeditions – so I focussed on rockclimbing and extending my collection of books by Joe Simpson, Bonatti, Herzog, Dougal Haston, Jon Krakaur, Galen Rowel and a host of others. Then a chance hike around Grindelwald where I paid my respects at the bottom of the Eiger and saw the stunning Finsteraahorn in the distance surprised me with an intense emotional response and coincided with the opportunity to pursue the dream that had been shelved for so long.
Mt. Cook beckoned above cloud on the flight over. On the drive beside Lake Pukaki next day the sun shone on the green water but clouds foreboded further up the valley. By the time I reached Unwin Hut rain was sheeting down. Waterfalls thundered off the hills behind the hut. The following day the clouds lifted and Cook’s summit caught the sunlight. Rainbows appeared over Nuns Veil across the valley.
The course kicked off at the AG base in Mt Cook Village – intros, gear checks, a little theory and roping up for glacier travel. The group seemed switched on and quite skilled in rope sports. Back at Unwin the picture windows showed off the Malte Brun Range and Mt Wakefield.
We practiced how to prussik out of crevasses and had an early weather check. A quick dash over to the airstrip, pack the chopper and we were away up the Tasman – mountains everywhere, the glacier, moraine walls, lakes. 10 minutes later we landed at Tasman Saddle about 500m from Kelman Hut. We carried gear and food up to the hut. Crampon technique, self arresting on back, front, headfirst, fun. Fine weather. Bill, the chief instructor, a total legend in mountaineering, gave us a detailed intro to hut life and safety procedures. We practised essential knots as the team settled in together. Paul was from Alice Springs and was doing the course to skill up so he could climb with his wife who was an accomplished mountaineer, Pat was the super keen ice climber with funky ice tools that he had already been practising with dry tooling in the rain at Kangaroo Point with Josh who seemed up for any adventure. Alice was contrasting her PhD on seagrass with snow and ice training and Nick from the USA had already been steep water ice climbing back home. Six of us with Tai, who was quietly capable and exuded skill and confidence, and Bill.
A blasting wind arose in the late afternoon. The surrounding mountain landscape was wonderful – peaks of snow and rock, a plunging valley to the east, glaciers and ice falls. Mt DArchaic stood majestic on its own about 10 km away. Misty cloud flowed in from the sea to the west and covered the landscape. Two other climbers pitched up Mt Aylmer and descended through the afternoon.
Terrible weather was forecast but conditions turned out OK. In the clear morning we did snow anchors on the upper flat of the glacier below the hut – top clip snow stakes, t slots with ice axe backups, mid clipped snow stakes buried in compacted snow, then snow bollards which tested under the weight of several “falling” climbers.
At lunch time Bill did a session on racking and carrying gear and provided everyone with harness clips and backpack strap circlips. I felt much more capable and confident after this as I didn’t get tangled up in extraneous gear and had everything in an organised fashion
In the afternoon it was misty and lightly snowing but the wind was light. We pitch climbed for six pitches up the snow slope and across a tricky schrund up to the rock buttresses of the peak above the hut. This was a great session of climbing and working together efficiently while practising anchor and belay setups. It felt terrific to be climbing in the atmospheric conditions.
Later we practised using the ATC Guide in multiple use modes.
Paul, who pulled out of going in My Kitchen Rules at the last minute, and I cooked ginger chicken and ginger tofu with honey soy vegetables and rice for dinner. Typically the food included lots of fresh ingredients, the fridge being a convenient covered hole in the snow/ice outside the hut. We cooked in pairs and pitched in with all the chores.
The pattern of the hut days settled into a sort of routine which always started early and maximised every minute. This suited me, and seemingly all the others, as we had paid lots and were there to learn as much as possible.
Overnight rain and snow continued in the morning. We did intensive skills inside. The hut is really well set up as an instructional space with weight bearing anchors fitted into the ceiling and upstairs landing and other anchors around all the walls. Equalising anchors, lowering using the ATC Guide, abseiling with prussiks above and below, joining ropes, throwing and deploying ropes, abseiling on thin ropes. I had done a lot of rope work prior to the course but still learnt heaps. The afternoon cleared and the wind dropped so we “went outside” and did rock anchors. The views between the clouds were spectacular. All of us were itching to go climbing.
Every evening at 7.00pm there was a radio sched to check who was in each of the huts and to give hut users a detailed weather forecast and avalanche analysis. We took it in turns to use the radio and record the weather details. Later this info was used to formulate a Plan A and Plan B for the following day. Being out in the mountains for so long (8 days in all) enabled us to witness several weather systems rolling through, to relate what we were seeing to the forecasts and to develop invaluable knowledge and experience of the conditions. We learned fast that any activity in the mountains was dictated by the weather. The predictions for the day following the next were ghastly – severe gale up to 110 kmph, 240mls of rain in one day, freezing level 3,600 m (Kelman Hut is at 2500m).
At 4.30 am we started hiking down to the ice fall in the Darwin Glacier. Under headlights Alice, the lightest climber, fell through a snow bridge but held on with her legs dangling in space (she was safely roped up) in a crevasse. We spotted some other climbers high up on a beautiful snow and ice route on Mt Green. Ice climbing practice was done on the glacier ice, starting from low angle right through to vertical and gently overhanging. Pat’s super tools got a workout. The physicality of the steeper climbing felt great. We placed ice screws and made v threads for abseiling, and were astonished at the strength of the v threads.
A circuitous route took us through the icefall and then we plodded back uphill in hot, intense sunshine. Huge weather remained forecast for the next day.
HUGE rain. 80kmph wind at least. The hut shook and leaked a little. I wondered about the welfare of two groups of friends who were supposed to be out in the mountains on this day. It cemented in my psyche that you would have to be really well equipped and dug in to survive such conditions without a hut.
The day was filled with interesting and useful rope skills and practice. Anchor systems, leading through efficiently. First aid kits.
The storm cleared.
At a large crevasse we did practice rescues. In a safe instructional context with Bill and Tai providing backup belays for the rescuers we “fell” in the crevasse while our buddies threw themselves onto the snow, dug their feet in and held the “falls” on their harnesses. The rescuer then made a t slot anchor, transferred the climber’s weight then the climber either prussiked out or was hauled out using an assisted haul or 6:1 system. For me it was powerful learning how quickly the rescuer can be dragged towards the crevasse while trying to arrest the fall. I would have this at the forefront of my mind when on the Bonar Glacier a week later.
The later afternoon was taken up with theory on navigation and route finding and skills – kiwi coils, alpine clutch, locking and hauling systems using tibloc, bachman, microtraxion and ATC Guide methods.
The weather forecast for the following day was good apart from a SE airflow. Sunset was a stunning display of pinks and orange against a black, jagged silhouette skyline. The evening star rose above the outline of Mt Cook and Tasman to the west. Grey, soft cloud edged up over the Tasman Glacier and enveloped Tasman Saddle hut further down the valley.
Over a coffee Bill passed on lots of detailed info on access and climbs on Malte Brun, a mountain that was high on my list of interests.
We prepped for a “summit day”. Lunch, clothes, backpack, ropes, gear. We would breakfast at 4.00 and depart by 5.00 am. A super excited feel enveloped the whole group.
3.45am. Snowing, heavy snow cover, very low visibility, light wind. Learning – SE airflow often leads to cloud and often snow. Back to bed for a sleep in. Up at 6.00am.
Inside – rope skills. Block leading, monster munter, knots with one hand.
The limited vis was perfect for navigation exercises. We trekked through thick mist to Tasman Saddle Hut using various methods to maintain course and estimate distance. On the return we trekked up to the start of our proposed climb for the following day on Mt Aylmer, setting a nice set of steps in the process. This process was invaluable on Aspiring for me a week later.
Evening cloud engulfed the hut again. Oh dear. Maybe we wouldn’t get to summit anything on the course!
Tai shared important background and gave a small group of us tips on climbing Mt Aspiring, topos, routes, access, descent etc over maps in the afternoon.
3.30am. Bill had already been up for a while and had the copious water boiling. His personal generosity with his time for the group throughout each day, I thought, had been instrumental in setting a philosophy for the whole course. He was forever doing myriad tasks to help individuals and the group progress. It seemed no wonder he had been a part of so many expeditions to the Himalayas- Everest, K2, Gasherbrum – he would be a key team player in these situations.
It was snowing lightly and there was limited visibility but in parts of the sky the moon and some stars shone through. We left at 4.45am and followed the previous day’s footsteps through the murk to the base of the south face of Aylmer. In 3 pairs we did 4 pitches up the steepening ice on front points with axe and hammer. The ice was covered in powder snow. Stakes, ice screws and rock protection were used as runners and anchors. The atmosphere and aesthetics were stunning – we were snowed on, the mist swirled and slowly the sky lightened. Openings appeared in the cloud revealed a huge drop off the ridge. Sun struck Mt Cook. Peaks were islands in a sea of valley cloud. Pat led the pitches placing ice screw runners. Climbing the upper pitches was exhilarating – I played with the minimum amount of effort necessary to swing the axe and crampons into the ice for adequate grip. With multiple groups climbing and anchored the feel was of a mini expedition. On the small summit the sun warmed us while below the 800m north face dropped off into the cloud. We simulclimbed and down pitched along a narrow ridge back to a col and then down to the base. Through all the bad weather and training of the week this was a wonderful culminating experience. Back at the hut at 10.30.
A chopper took us back out to civilisation. Shower, clean clothes, dinner at the pub.
Rain again so instead of rockclimbing on the Sebastopol Crag we made rescue stretchers. Tai gave us detailed input on mountains and routes that would be the most suitable next steps for us all. Bill responded in detail to Alice’s request for tips on high altitude climbing.
I had loved living in the mountains for the 8 days. I had tuned in to the weather and begun to understand its ebbs and flows. I had learned much about mountaineering, been exposed to the wealth of knowledge and experience of the two fabulous guides. I felt confident and supremely motivated to undertake my own forays into these mountains, to Europe, America and maybe beyond. I had a list of 100+ peaks to climb in New Zealand with a growing log of info. Perhaps if I tried to do about 4 per year I could have enough for the next 25 years. If I could scramble up Kitchener from Mueller hut then meet up with a mate in a few days time and be lucky enough to score some clear weather to climb Aspiring that would make 4 so far, 40 years later than my mates and brothers, but what matters that! It’s the here and now that counts.
Thanks to Bill Atkinson and Taichiro Naka (see interview “The Climber” Issue 98 Summer 2916/17) and Alpine Guides
The rope connected us. Tied us together. Inseparable. I’d consider and agonise over its necessity many times in the next week. Ours was beefy, strong, purple. A crossover from the static and predictable world of rockclimbing, not well suited to the wild and dynamic higher mountain. Aspiring. The questioning would reach a crisis at the last throw of the dice.
The plan was a good one, to walk in some of the way as the forecast weather cleared, which would give us a shorter day for the main approach to Colin Todd Hut up on the ice plateau. From the Hut we could climb the peak. Rain and storms had swept the South Island as we made last minute preparations and gathered more information.
Snow covered the peaks on the drive in to the road head. Creek crossings were a little flooded for the hired corrolla. We left Raspberry Flat at about midday with the showers seeming to retreat up the valley as we walked. The Matukituki River was swollen green with rain and glacial melt water. Through daisies fields and past cows and sheep the flat trail led us to Aspiring Hut where we rested and took stock of the weather. We pushed on relying on the forecast for an improve which it did for a time. Shovel flat, high hanging glaciers, Pearl Flat, wire bridges over streams, into magical mossed beech forest like Middle Earth. We forged ahead through wet scrub on a lesser trail getting saturated. Scott’s Bivvy Rock beckoned us. Alas even the fancy GPS phone navigation app could not help us locate it. We thrashed around looking. Totally buggered. Showers returned. 7.30 pm. In a tussocky clearing we sheltered from the wind behind a clump of bushes and laid out bivvy bags. “I need food”, Tom.
We stood around miserable, ate dinner in the rain. I struggled into my goretex bag and wrestled into sleeping bag and dry thermals. Then through the long night I fretted between searching for down soddening drips and leaks and asphyxiating due to lack of oxygen. Showers persisted through the night. Miraculously I stayed dry and warm and alive and welcomed the relief of morning. More sprinkling rain brought a sleep in.
The forecast good day did clear a little so between showers we packed up. EVERYONE had advised us not to go up the Bevan Col route in wet conditions so we headed off on a retreat towards the alternative French Ridge Hut which would give us shelter and a chance to dry out, but use up a valuable extra day.
Walking down beside the stream within 100 meters of our Bivvy spot we noticed some of the river rocks were drying out. Maybe the notoriously treacherous steep slabby rock would be dry enough to be feasible. So we decided to change the plan and try for the Bevan Col route. 100 meters up the valley we discovered the palatial, dry (compared to a rainy night in a bag) Scott’s Bivvy rock We could have spent a fun, comfy, dry night holed up in the small shelter under the rock and looked out at the passing showers. We lost the track then and struggled and fought through tangled, wet boulder scrub with the really heavy packs (RHPs) for way too long. The food, fuel, warm clothes, too thick rope, rockclimbing gear, my antique heavyweight ice axes etc etc weighed too much. I thought a lot about Sherpas, porters and people of the past with their heavy loads carried into the mountains as I struggled. I thought about how much work and punishment a body, my body, Tom’s body could take before breaking down.
At the “Head of the Valley” we met up with a Canadian couple who had camped for two days waiting for the weather to clear. They somehow exuded mountain competence and experience. Up past the first waterfall all the rock was wet, and steep! The other two started up a low route on a rising traverse of narrow ledges as Tom and I roped up and pitch climbed a section up to and past a bolt, more vertically and closer to the edge of an abyss on the right. The Canadians joined our route and within sight of each other (this leant a significant air of confidence and commeraderie) we decided the rope was unnecessary as there were no real anchors (we didn’t see any more of the abseil route bolts that must have been hidden from us) and the terrain seemed ok. Just! Tussocks and small plants were good to pull up on, the boots edged on small holds and grooves enabled us to balance our loads and teeter upwards as the drop below beckoned with greater height. One section had tricky moves on a ramp overhanging the abyss. Scared. Tenuous. I’d seen a video of a group having an epic descent in heavy rain. They had given up, camped on a small ledge then finally reached the ground next day terrified and drenched. Eventually we made the flat ridge at the top. Flat. Safe. We navigated together then in mist, sharing our info and topo sketches and trying to make sense of the complex terrain. Down a little then up right along a system of slabs which were covered in snow and wet, balancing delicate moves with the RHPs.
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The slabs dropped off to the valley floor. After crossing a stream gully we slogged up a steep snow gully, sharing the step making effort. Above a buttress we climbed onto a snow arête and saw the Col only a little higher and further over.
In a small clearing in the clouds the white summit cap of Aspiring mystically appeared, lit up by the late afternoon sun. As if rewarding us for our effort and risk, and beckoning us on. A moment of clarity and beauty. Our first view of Tititea.
It had taken 6 hours to toil up the 950 meters to the Col. Having roped up we crossed our first crevasse within meters of starting down a snow ramp and then onto the Bonner Glacier. It seemed to take forever, slowly plodding across the snow and ice. I focussed my mind on looking out for crevasses and tried ridiculously to step lightly. Following the Canadian’s steps was reassuring but no guarantee. At every step I tried to sense the tension in the rope behind leading to Tom, to be ready to instantly throw myself down and dig my boots into the snow so I could hold his fall through into a hidden canyon of ice. This was our first glacier crossing since our mountaineering course. On our own. At the end of a very long day. Stay switched on. Don’t relax. And hope Tom, at the other end of the rope, was doing the same and was ready if I suddenly holed through to thin air underfoot, that he’d hold me dangling by that thread over the icy void. With RHPs. A final killer 100 meter ascent from the glacier slip sliding up a narrow gully took forever before we reached the rocky domes around the hut. 7.30 pm. Totally spent – physically and mentally.
The weather cleared. Aspiring/Tititea is a stunningly beautiful mountain. Any ascent from the valley floor is a huge challenge, nothing is gained easily and the fickle weather dictates the terms. Friends have spent weeks hutted and camped nearby only to return home without having stepped on the mountain. We were trying to make the most of the first period of forecast clear weather for the whole summer season (mid Feb) so far. Boots off. Food. Tea. Dinner. Comfort. Shelter. Relief. Rest. Amazingly at 8.30 pm two fellows arrived who had walked in in one 12 hour push – epic!
The Plan – 3 days good weather was forecast – clear, light winds. So far in New Zealand we had only had the occasional good days in amongst atrocious conditions – rain hammering, winds belting. We shared valuable info on possible ways of doing the North West Ridge with the two other pairs. They were on tighter time schedules and aimed to climb the following day. We would trust the weather and have a day to rest and explore to sort out which way we would take, and to familiarise.
To sleep, to sleep, dry and long. My heart seemed still to be thumping as I lay in the moonlit hut – altitude (surely not), dehydration, exertion?
The “one day walk inners” left at 4.00am and the Canadians, who turned out to be a mountaineering instructor and an Antarctic remote camp supervisor, departed with more confidence at 7.00am. Later on we followed their tracks up the ISO Glacier and then went on to climb on a nearby smaller peak, the Rolling Pin.
We returned via the Shipowner Ridge to the hut. Throughout the day Aspiring stood clear and majestic from every vantage point, intimidating, tantalising and always beckoning. Much later than expected we spied both groups near the summit in perfect weather – around 2.30pm. Later still we saw nothing of them. 2 guides arrived with clients who had walked across from the helicopter landing about 2 km away. Then another 2 couples arrived from French Ridge Hut having made it through the Quarterdeck Pass which was normally cut off so late in the summer. Throughout the afternoon I checked on the climbing pairs, seeing nothing, with a growing sense of concern for their safety.
From all our sources of info there seemed to be four main ways to climb the North West Ridge.
The “full” NWR – very long and time consuming on the lower third. And we had already done the Shipowner Ridge section.
Via the ISO and Therma Glaciers – a quicker way past Shipowner but still slow below the “slab”.
Via the Ramp – a steep snow slope overlaying slabs that bypasses all the rock on the ridge – deemed too dangerous due to avalanche risk so late in the season.
Via the Kangaroo Patch which is a snow slope leading up to the “slab” at 1/3 height.
Late in the day the guides and their clients did a reconnaissance up the Kangaroo Patch, and in the process set a nice set of steps in the steep snow. Based on our own analysis this was also our preferred route. I worried some more about the two climbing parties who were spending so much time on the climb and I considered how remote and isolated they were should anything go wrong.
Tom and I carefully prepared for the next day – lunch, gear, rope coiled and set out, bags packed, clothes laid out, boots and crampons readied. It was reassuring to have time to do all this methodically – for our first big mountain. Just like in our training course we had everything ready for “summit day”. We just hoped the weather gamble would still pay off.
Eventually one party returned at 8.00 pm. They’d had an epic 16 hour day including having to reverse 4 pitches trying unsuccessfully to do a rising traverse on snow across the slopes above the Therma Glacier. The other party returned at 8.30 – 13 1/2 hours. Tom and we’re both thinking that if these parties had taken so long we would be in for a very long day. It was difficult to get to sleep with the buzz in the overfill hut, and to stay asleep later. Keyed up. I drank water through the night top prehydrate.
I awoke before the alarm at 2.50 am, lit the stove and woke Tom. Within 15 minutes there were 5 climbing pairs bustling about. Muesli, 2 cups of tea and another drink of water.
Harness on, crampons, backpack, axe, rope. First out the door. A slowly moving set of tiny headlamps followed up the crunchy set of steps under moonlight and a canopy of stars. At 6.00 we reached the slab. At its left edge we climbed a short easy pitch up the ridge as the other parties got going, and then traversed round left onto the open face. The sky lightened a little. Fears of a bottleneck on the rock dissipated as parties climbed around each other on the fairly straightforward rock. Friendly and unhurried, waiting, moving aside, cheery chat. We made up a commeraderie of climbers from Australia, New Zealand, France, Peru and Italy. It was like a day out on a popular crag – on the “Matterhorn of the Southern Alps”, surrounded by now pink tinged snowy peaks and plunging dark valleys and glaciers and snow all around and below. 3 pitches of roped rock climbing on the left hand face (looking up) brought us back onto the ridge proper. I felt at home on the rock – on familiar ground. We were going well. Tom and I moved efficiently together. The practice climbing we’d done was paying off. I laughed and chattered and waved to the other groups nearby.
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For a time we simulclimbed the rocky ridge with 20m of rope between us threaded round blocks and through gaps in the rock. On both sides verticality plummeted away to steep snow and ice below the cliffs. The sun goldened the surrounding peaks and ranges. The two guided parties dropped behind and one pair went in front.
At 8.30 am we reached the “notch”, a low gap between the rocky lower ridge and the snow and ice of the summit section. Morning tea, stash the rock gear and some water for the descent. We removed the rope as the snow looked straightforward and consistent. Without anchors and belays, which would have taken too much time, any slip or mistake by one of us would mean the end for both if we had remained roped together. I remembered a line from my course, “If you’re not attached to the mountain the rope is a danger to you both”. Crampons back on we made our way up.
Stepped up slowly through the snowfields. As the angle steepened I zigzagged a slow and careful ascent. The ground and snow continued to be fine for well placed steps, driving the side points into the surface for maximum grip. Over near the right edge Where cliffs dropped away I was able to spy another group on the near vertical ice couloir section of the South West Ridge.
Higher up my mind played tricks with the numbers I had written down as staging points. Tom’s altimeter had us at 2870m which I calculated at about 500m still to go but I could hear whoops and see helmeted heads peering over at us from not very far above. The summit ice steepened but it was still ok for us to safely solo so we made our way up subtle slightly lower angled ramps and then out left a little. And then there it was. 10 m away. The others were taking photos of us as we made the final few steps. I was overcome.
I had to hug and shake hands with everyone. Reaching a dream that had percolated for forty years happens only rarely. Time and health and loved ones and the world has to come together in a special combination in that one place at that one moment. The world is indeed a wonderful place. Peaks and lakes and glaciers and valleys and ice and snow and rock blazed with light everywhere. In certain moments time and life is concentrated in sublime adventure.
10.30 am. We photoed and laughed and lunched in perfect windless calm on Tititea’s mountain top. The south west ridge pair appeared to join the merry throng. In a quiet moment Tom and I shook hands in a gesture of thanks to one another for sharing the climb and for making it possible for each other.
Down – switch on again. The ascent is only half the climb. We stepped down the icy sastrugi, slow, measured steps, taking lines that gave the greatest chance of a self arrest should we make a mistake. Minds off the view, eyes locked on feet. Concentrating hard not to tanglefoot or catch a crampon strap. Back at the notch I collected the rock gear. Six of us scrambled back along the narrow rocky ridge together. Awkward moves over the left or right faces or along the actual crest. Up and down. The axes came out for a steep short icy section and the rope for a snow slope protected with an old piton.
At the base of the steep buttress now 8 of us shared ropes and chatted as we abseiled 4 rapells in happy company together. Then all safely back at the slab we descended at our own pace in pairs roped together against the hidden crevasses in the softer afternoon snow.
Back to the hut. 3.30pm. I was tired but not buggered. The climb had been splendid. Easier and less nerve wracking than anything on the Bevan Col route, which was true to popular legend. All our skills had been brought out, but we had not been pushed out of our comfort zones. Bit by bit, section by section, it had all been OK.
Tea. Boots off. Rest in the warm sun. Inner glow. Food.
A tepid bath in a secluded pond in the rocky knolls nearby – heated by the sun, clean and washed, then lie on the warm stone, naked before the stupendous landscape and the sun. Best bath ever.
The guided parties arrived over dinner. Our thoughts turned to the next stage – getting down to the valley. The Bevan Col route filled us with dread even on dry rock so we opted for French Ridge via the Quarterdeck – in spite of the crevasse stories.
Another up at 4.30am and depart at 5.30 morning. We hoped for firm snow in the cold morning. We plodded back across the Bonner then did a slow climb to the higher part of the glacier between ice falls. The blue ice rose like a silent, slow moving wave in front of us.
The sun touched the South West face of Aspiring.
We trudged upwards, the packs a little lighter. A long uphill in the sun and glare took us to the snowy pass of the Quarterdeck which led down to French Ridge and the safety of hiking trails. It’s never over till that lady sings and I couldn’t hear any notes in the breeze. We had also left early to go through the Quarterdeck icefall before the sun softened everything up. So a quick stuff of the face with food and we were off. It was firm and hard still. A little scarey. Down steeply, then across a huge crevasse at the edge of the cliff above Gloomy Gorge, down some more, over (just!) a crevasse with a large foot hole, down, gingerly across then onto a steep section of ice. We front pointed sideways on frozen toe holes from previous climbers. Committed, we continued across then diagonally down. The ice axe pick dug in deep with each step. A massive yawning crevasse waited 30 meters of steep ice below. This was much harder than anything on the climb, the course or even Bevan Col. Trust your buddy. Front point down, some more, careful. I could see the bottom. Concentrate. Tom’s crampon came loose. I dug a little stance for myself and tried to ram my axe handle into the ice for an anchor, unsuccessfully. Tom stayed in control, balanced with his pack on, ice axe dug in, and carefully reattached it. Trust. Don’t fall now. Ice screws were in the bottom of the pack, unavailable. The rescue knife that could have cut us free from one another lay forgotten at the back of my harness. We didn’t both have to go. Then down a step at a time. Eventually onto softer then less steeply angled snow and finally to the bottom. Release. Relief. A close call, just in control, there’s a very fine edge between safety and danger sometimes.
Lunch on a sunny rock. A pair of tar scampered over the snow. Valleys. Mountains. Down snow then scree and rock and into alpine grassland. French Ridge Hut. Tea. Views. Keas. Muesli leftovers for a second lunch. Waterfalls tumbled from hanging glaciers everywhere into the valleys. Their constant murmur, a low hum, sounded like it could be the lady’s song at last.
Down, down, down. In the dark (it’s a habit now) to reduce the risk of getting stuck in the carpark due to flooded streams from the forecast afternoon rain. Down from the bright red hut. The descent track hugged the edge of the drop into Gorge. Tangled roots provided hand and foot holds. Into the beech forest at last. Careful not to twist a knee or ankle. The stream at the bottom, 900 m below the hut, tumbled and churned glacial green and silver over boulders beside mossed trees. Rest, eat, recuperate.
Along the valley floor the track wound back in and out of the forest and daisy fields. At regular rest stops we looked back and far above to the mountain top visible above the ice of the Breakaway. High, aloof, imposing, now with a wind blown cloud plume in the deteriorating weather.
We passed by a variety of people, hikers from across the world, the DOC hut warden off to catch and band robins. And at Aspiring Hut a pair of seasoned climbers, “Aspiring is probably the finest mountain in New Zealand”.
And a group of exuberant young adults who had mountain biked into the clearing to lunch and rest. A similar age to the students I had worked with for many years I struck up a conversation with a bubbly guy and girl at the table where I was tying up my pack. I learned that they were a group from Mount Aspiring College out on an outdoor trip for the day. “I want to climb Mount Aspiring in 2019. It’s my aim”, the shining young man told us with a determined and hopeful grin while pointing up the valley from where we’ve come. “Good luck and good on you”, I responded and thought ‘may the force be with you and may the lady of the waterfalls sing your safe and exuberant return from the journey’. In this brief interchange I sensed a strong connection through a wrinkle in time, a reflection of my self across the decades and across the wooden bench. A circularity, a sense of completion and renewal. The call and wonder of the mountains.
Tom – for being on the other end of the rope, for trusting and for sharing every aspect of the journey
Tai – from AGL for all the info so generously shared about the climb and access
NZAC – for providing the forum for Tom and I to connect up
AGL – for the terrific Technical Mountaineering Course which gave us the skills and knowledge and confidence to take it all on (Bill and Tai)
Adventure Consultants and Aspiring Guides in Wanaka for providing even more bits of information
Message from daughter on the day we left – “Sorry I missed your call. I was at an African dance class. Hope your adventures are sublime.
Birdsville to Jervois Station on the Plenty Highway
710km total including approx. 80km on tours at Batton Hill
4WDing – 2 half days, 5 full days, 1 full day at Batton Hill
150 series Prado 3lt diesel – 87 litres fuel used (190 litres carried)
Fuel available at Birdsville and Jervois.
Water – approx. 5 litres per person used. Prado carried 120 litres, Landcruiser carried 80 litres. Water available at Batton Hill.
Track conditions – sand was quite firm and cool due to prior rain (may have improved fuel economy). Although Eyre Creek was in minor flood south of Bedourie it was dry on the QAA line. Many sand dunes between Birdsville and lake north of Poepell Corner. Also dunes east of Beachcomber Oil Well. Track is very well defined. Only corrugations are between Batton Hill and Jervois. Track was dry. Much more fuel would be necessary in wet conditions due to mud driving.
The tours at Batton Hill are excellent – Both Bush Tucker and Sunset tours are driving based and give guided access to hilly country which is spectacular, different to the rest of the track and not accessible unless on a tour.
Recommend – DO NOT GO anywhere in the Simpson adjoining the Big Red Bash unless you like traffic.
Permits for the Hay River Track are available from Jol Fleming on (08) 8952 3359 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You will also need a Deserts Parks Pass from the South Australian NPWS.
A journey into the heart of Australia
(Warning – this story contains the names of Aboriginal people who have passed away)
After the Birdsville Track reopened following rain our drive from Mungerannie to Birdsville coincided with The Big
Red Bash – a 3 day music festival of good old Aussie rock (Jimmy Barnes, The Angels, Christine Anu, Paul Kelly…). It seemed like all the owners of four wheel drives were on the same road, mostly in more of a hurry than us. Selfish hoons sped past spraying stones our direction. Muddy sections and water crossings painted our car brown.
Birdsville was almost out of control. People and cars were everywhere. The wait to pay for our precious diesel was 20 mins. 600km away Maree had run out of fuel. Bakery, (quick chat about Eyre Creek), last minute groceries, info on the tracks, water top up, bump into an old friend. People, rockers, cars, vans. “Let’s get out of here!”
On the “town” perimeter we passed lines of camper trailers parked in the dust. Then on to Little Red. Tyres deflated. Cruised to the top among the day trippers. Out along the QAA Line for an hour then we camped on the edge of a clay pan surrounded by fields of yellow and white flowers. Solitude, quiet, isolation.
Stars. We chatted about aboriginal people and culture in the fire’s warmth – this followed on from three days of travel listening to a talking book called “The Red Chief” by Ion Idriess which was a story passed on to Idriess about the life of a leader of the Kamilaroi nation near Gunnedah before the coming of Europeans, and my reading of “The Short Long Book” about Michael Long and Stan Grant’s “Talking To My Country”. It seemed right sitting under the river of the Milky Way and looking up at the Emu In The Sky to be trying to open up to indigenous Australia. I was already anticipating our sojourn at Batton Hill at the north end of the Hay River Track.
It was election night. Updates were texted in to the satphone.
Oncoming traffic on the dunes was headed in to The Bash Bash.
At morning tea I noticed a crack in the windscreen. Game over? Charles had the same but smaller. Must have been from stone impacts driving up the Birdsville Track! It was frustrating to think that our trip could have been compromised by others when we had prepared so thoroughly. I pulled out the windscreen repair kit. Charles’ opinion was that it shouldn’t be catastrophic – laminated glass cracks should only be in one layer. I had visions of the whole thing splintering from the torsional stresses placed on it from the dune driving. And driving through the dust with no windscreen, and the rain!? We squeezed resin into the cracks and decided to keep going and monitor and repair further as best we could. The prospect of return to Birdsville was horrendous.
More dunes. Like a fun roller coaster drive.
Traffic radio calls. “Party of 5 heading east on QAA cresting”. As the calls got louder and clearer we slowed and made contact to avoid dune top meetings or collisions. Tall sand flags mounted on bull bars which appeared above the crests were an early warning system. All the latest 4WDs, some old ones, camper trailers small and large, big vehicles, some looking way overloaded. One landcruiser with a tray top camper slowly made his way past with a broken rear axle – in front wheel drive. Apparently he needed several goes on the bigger dunes but only needed the occasional assistance!
“The Simpson will catch you out when you least expect it” had warned a guy at the Bakery whose whole roof rack had sheared right off.
Fields of white, yellow and some pink lined the track.
We camped in a delightful vale among small mounds topped with mulga trees surrounded by flowers. “Narrow Leafed Hopbush” Camp. Magical gardens lit up all around in the afternoon light. A salted clay pan lay almost hidden nearby. We’d been drawn back into this iconic landscape. Any trip into “the desert” can be a profound and spiritual experience if you open up to the place. We were making a journey deep into the country’s heart.
Some hoons nearby shot off 2 distress flares for fun into the still night sky. Sounds of their drunken carousing and muffled music broke the silence.
A last short section of hectic dunes led us to a lake where we left the crowds and started north on the Hay River Track. Not far away was Poepell Corner where three states meet, Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia. For some this point is the centre of Australia. In 1845 Sturt set out to find the centre where he hoped to find an inland sea. His party carried a boat but discovered only a sea of endless sand dunes and searing heat – The Simpson Desert. Our plan to miss the crowds and start this trip into the Simpson Desert at the Warburton Crossing and then go up the K1 Line to the Hay River was thwarted by the rain and a flooded crossing which had been closed by National Parks SA.
It was a pleasant change to travel between the dunes instead of across them. Past Poepel Corner Oil Well we entered spinifex country. Then we turned east for a delightful section of dune crossings. A smaller and more intricate track threaded its way rather than the dead straight of the QAA line made by oil exploration parties to transport drilling rigs and where the tops of the dunes had been dozed. Here the dune crests were more intact and steep. Cath drove, gained confidence and loved the challenge and fun nature of the action without the stress of traffic.
The crack had extended slightly so Araldite was added to strengthen the repair – a hopeful act if ever there was one.
Regional ABC QLD radio news drifted in and out of reception with election details. (We are from Canberra!)
We reached “The Glove” and headed north again mostly between the dunes. Red, red soil was a different colour and drier, finer and softer than the QAA. Past “Claypan” we camped under a dune with the world laid out. Threatening showers dissolved into an orange and pink sunset.
Stunning starscape in the early hours.
Another brilliant clear day.
We packed up in the fine red sand considering what the process would be like in the wet. The crack had not extended out but had side-split in a jagged line to the base of the screen. We met our first other party so far on track. Seeming to be grumpy and stressed they complained about the cost of camping at Batton Hill and being ripped off on the Bush Tucker and Culture Tour as there wasn’t much tucker (in the middle of winter).
Then north east into the faint drainage line of the Hay River. We met two more parties, one from the Madigan line. Madigan crossed the Simpson in 1930, establishing a series of camps as he sought the geographical centre of the continent. The Madigan Line tracks leading into camps 15 from the west and out of camp 16 to the east looked well defined. Another passing group told us the people at Batton Hill were all away on men’s business. I couldn’t quite discern whether they were just disappointed or maybe angry as well.
Another beautiful camp nestled under a dune. “Dragon Fire Camp” – a hollow log spouted flame through both ends. Stars. We talked about Land Rights, health, the Apology, why New Zealand and other countries have treaties and not us, the Preamble – the little we knew and the lot we didn’t. In 1992 we had cheered as Mandawuy Yunupingu, principal of Yirrkala Community School was named Australian of the Year. In 1991 his voice had rang out through dance clubs around the globe as front man of Yothu Yindi. “Well I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television. Back in 1988, all those talking politicians. Words are easy. Words are cheap. Much cheaper than our priceless lands. White promises can disappear just like writing in the sand. Treaty yeah. Treaty now.” He had died prematurely, like many of his countrymen, aged 56, of renal failure.
We reached the spot on the map named “Aboriginal Midden” and parked in the shade for lunch. It’s a large open beautiful spot on a bend in the river bed. Holes in the channel would hold water. It would make a great camp site. Tuned in to the country Fiona quickly found the stone tool midden. Fragments were spread over a wide area. I imagined ceremonies there, large gatherings of people in the past. Stretching back past the end of the last ice age when maybe the ancient Hay River flowed with more regular water. I considered camping there but felt weighed down with too much history and sadness and story. Were they massacred here too, or poison water holed or just pushed off by pastoralists? Some places have a “feel”. I couldn’t have been comfortable there overnight.
Birdwatching along the way. Bustard, red backed kingfisher, little eagles.
We called Batton Hill on the sat phone and checked our tour booking. All seemed well.
I turned on the radio again. We could only get one station. Of course it was NAIDOC Week. The country’s heart was spilling out towards me. In and out of faint reception we listened to snippets of an interview with Timothy Bottoms who has documented the killing of tens of thousands of Aboriginal people on Queensland’s frontier as “new” land was opened up. And the “Conspiracy of Silence” that has taken place as the authorities in Brisbane and Sydney were not interested, and the pastoralists had every reason to keep it quiet.
Delightful driving, landscape, slow and winding, flowered, spinifex, grassland.
A side track led us across the bed of the Hay River which was by then a wide expanse of soft sand. At camp we found rocks that looked like asteroids – “Asteroid Camp”.
Stars, small fire.
We tried to encapsulate and explore more aboriginal culture issues – remote camps, dispossession. Cath told the story of how we had met the Mayor of the Laverton area in WA when we were crossing the Anne Beadell Track a couple of years before. We had crossed paths about 400km along the track. He was returning from a meeting at Tjuntjuntjara which must be one of the remotest Aboriginal communities in Australia. 680km out and south of Ilkurlka it took him 2 days to drive there. The people were his constituents. They wanted to remain on their own country. The Mayor had met there with the people and politicians had flown in for the meeting. He wanted 5 million bucks so he could fix the water supply, improve the health services and the school. To get these things to a standard nearer to those of his other constituents, the white people who lived in remote small towns in WA and also wanted to stay where they were on their land as they had grown up there and had a history going back some generations. Basic human rights in Australia really – health, water, education. Tjuntjuntjara is in the Great Victoria Desert Nature Reserve. I wondered about their rights to the land.
Fi is a counsellor. We talked about cultural genetic inheritance of trauma. “Doctors talk about epigenetic inheritance: the experiences of parents and grandparents passed directly to their offspring. Some families carry genetic illness, passed down through generations. My people inherit the loss of our country. It has proven as incurable and potentially lethal as any cancer”. Stan Grant (award winning international journalist)
The Lake Caroline Claypan is huge and flat and desolate.
I walked alone out into the middle. Enormous space. I felt like running. Cracked, intricate texture.
Flocks of budgies.
Dingo Well is a permanent water bore made by Elder Lindsay Bookie and a conservation organisation. The aim is to reintroduce dingos by providing a permanent water source of the sort which would have been in place pre contact and which would have been maintained and cared for by the Aboriginal people. Zebra finches flocked in great numbers. A small lizard comraded with Cath as she used its hollow log as a luncheon seat.
Afternoon radio played Emma Donovan singing songs of her aunty Ruby Hunter. Ruby had been life partner of Archie Roach having met as homeless teenagers on the streets of Melbourne. Her deep soul voice and words echoed through Emma’s singing as we drove. “Down city streets I would roam. I had no bed. I had no home. There was nothing that I own. Use my fingers as a comb.” Both Ruby and Archie had been forcibly removed from their families when they were young children – part of the stolen generation.
The track became less windey in the afternoon. The gearbox was changed into third gear for the first time in a week. Two large white barked ghost gums provided a gateway into Aboriginal land at the edge of Batton Hill. Lindsay Bookie’s daughter (and now custodian), her daughter and “Puppy Dog” welcomed us, showed where to set up camp and confirmed arrangements for the following day’s tour. We settled in for an afternoon of welcome hot showers, running tap water, clothes washing and relaxing. Groups of noisy cockatiels flew about the camp. We felt a sense of accomplishment and relief at having crossed the Simpson Desert and reached civilization.
Sunset, zodiacal light. Stars, fire.
Charles, an energy scientist, felt strongly that at this time in our shared history we need to have a custodian style of care for the land.
Our guide (permission is being sought to include his Lindsay’s daughter’s names in this narrative) led the “Bush Tucker Tour” from the front in his black 4WD ute. He was quietly spoken, reserved, gentle and sheltered under a beanie and hoodie and big dark glasses. He took us through landscapes we had not seen, hills, mini eucalypt woodlands, rocky mesas, past jagged ridges. The first lookout gave wonderful views in all directions. We chatted a little. When I mentioned I had just finished reading the book about Michael Long he became animated and told me Long was his hero. Also that he had played AFL as a boy and young man. It seemed that in many ways events and our journey into the desert had conspired and led me to this conversation. I told him we were from Canberra and asked if he was from around Batton Hill. His father had been a close friend of Lindsay Bookie. He pointed out his home country on the map – a little over to the west. When his father fixed his hilux they were going to go over to the station there. He proudly told me his father had taken him to Dalhousie Springs on the other side of the Simpson for Land Council business. Where you are from and who you are related to – these are important points of connection.
Further on he showed us some bush bananas which would be in season in summer.At the next lookout he took off his hoodie and showed me his footy team shirt from Santa Theresa. Ltyentye Apurte the team was called. The traditional name for Santa Theresa. The colours were the same as the Saints – St. Kilda. He’d played under 17 at age 12 and then went straight to A grade. Later on he played for the Plenty Highway team.
“Across the Northern Territory this game we love brings hope to thousands. It’s something that I’m really proud of. Every week remote development managers are delivering football programs that improve the quality of life for entire communities. We need a focal point for these life changing projects. My dream is a simple one. To build a learning and leadership centre to encourage children in remote communities to attend school, to develop leadership skills and above all to develop the self-belief so that they can and will succeed in life no matter what. The centre will have a focus well beyond elite athletes. It will provide a sporting and educational model available to all territorians. Using the power of football, the sport that means so much to many, the centre will help young territorians to be all that they want to be. This is our opportunity. These are our children. This is their future and this is my dream.” Michael Long – Michael Long Learning and Leadership Centre website.
I couldn’t help thinking that Michael Long would have been extremely proud of this young man who had been inspired as a youngster to take up sport, continue his education and now to be generously sharing his story and country. Lindsay Bookie, buried adjacent to the Camp, was an Eastern Arrernte member of the Rain Dreaming clan. He had led the native title claim for this now freehold Aboriginal land, had set up Batton Hill Camp and established the Hay River Track. These initiatives provide income and employment for his extended family group. Our guide and the small group who run the camp and tours stay at Batton Hill during the tourist season.
In his book about Michael Long Martin Flanagan imagines “that being denied your chance to stand in the Law, to be initiated, would cut a warrior type deeply. So what happens to a proud man who goes back to the Aboriginal place he was stolen from, his country, and no-one knows him?” Martin went back with Michael to Ti Tree where his father was stolen from. He could not find the right places. “He accelerates down one of the dirt lanes, a plume of red dust behind him. He says, ‘Look out the back Martin! That’s what my grandmother saw when they took my father away on the back of a truck.’ Billowing red dust obscures my vision. He flicks on the CD player. It’s no coincidence the song that plays – he’s programmed it. The song is Archie Roach’s anthem to the Stolen Generation, ‘Took the Children Away’, played loud with his car window down, like he’s broadcasting to the place, telling them why he’s come, and I sit there, white mouth clamped shut.”
Late in the afternoon he took us out to Goyders Pillar on the private property station next door. This is a very special area of small peaks and ragged scarps that catch the changing light at sunset. At the base of the Pillar, almost hidden under a low bush, is a large grinding stone. I could sense the possibility of important dreaming stories in the landscape.
Sunset, stars. A warm night. Crescent moon over ghost gums.
In the morning we paid our respects before departing. Thanked Lindsay’s daughter for letting us travel the Hay River Track through her property on what must be one of the most delightful, remote desert 4WD touring routes anywhere. And for sharing her country.
As we walked back to the cars I wondered if the guide’s and Lindsay’s daughter’s missing front teeth were a sign of deep cultural knowledge, were evidence that against all odds they may have been able to keep their culture alive and walk in both worlds, that they had been able to continue their connection to their country that had lasted hundreds of generations. The oldest living culture on the planet. I marveled at their open generosity. And resilience.
On the last two hour section of corrugated straight line dirt to Jervois I found a remote settlement on the Hema map that we had heard about. It’s a community about 300km from Alice Springs up the Sandover Highway. Cath had randomly met the school principal from there while drinking coffee in a café in Alice. They got talking and she told Cath about a program where people like us volunteer for a couple of weeks in the school listening to kids read. Apparently it makes a huge difference. We started pondering the calendar for the following year.
At Jervois conversation returned again to Aboriginal Australia and we told Fiona and Charles about Elspeth, our daughter, and her work in Roebourne. Her two years with the indigenous community culminated in the premiere of the “Hipbone Sticking Out” theatre show at Canberra Theatre. The community development show was based around the story of John Pat whose death in prison resulted in the Black Deaths in Custody royal commission. In talking about this I could barely hold back tears as I described how at the end of the first performance Archie Roach had sung his song “John Pat” to the boy’s mother who was in the audience and the crowd. The whole show, which featured members of the community including the children that El had worked closely with, was like a barbed spear into the heart or our cultures in collision.
On the long drive home we stopped at Cunnamulla for a break and to stretch the legs. Across from where we parked was the courthouse. Small groups of indigenous people were the only people that waited conspicuously outside. And then back home I read in the paper that apparently Eddie Maguire had regretted his very public racist comments about Adam Goodes, another Australian of the year.
In a fit of nostalgia back home I Youtubed “our” Cathy lighting the fire for the whole planet at the 2000 Olympics and running in that race when all of Australia held its breath for her. Then Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil sang for white Australia to about 4 billion people worldwide at the closing ceremony;
“Out where the river broke The bloodwood and the desert oak Holden wrecks and boiling diesels Steam in forty five degrees
The time has come To say fair’s fair To pay the rent To pay our share
The time has come A fact’s a fact It belongs to them Let’s give it back
How can we dance when our earth is turning? How do we sleep while our beds are burning? How can we dance when our earth is turning? How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
Their black costumes were emblazoned with the single word SORRY. It felt like a collective sorry for the stolen generations, sorry for black deaths in custody and sorry for disposession and massacres.
Can we heal what’s in our country’s damaged and broken heart by properly and honestly acknowledging our black and white history, by saying and being sorry, by making amends? Is it even possible? To respect and value? To connect? Batton Hill shines for me now like one small beacon of hope.
A few days later while waiting for the NRMA house call to fix the windscreen Radio National aired a program examining the indigenous rangers caring for country program across the north of Australia. And its struggle for funding. Mine was the last booking of the day. Andrew arrived at 6.00pm, having started the day at 7.00am, his tenth and last job. He worked with consummate skill and patiently answered all my questions while waiting for the primer and glues to set in the cold weather. I took photos of a heavily vandalised smashed screen in the back of his van as he pointed to the inner vinyl layer that had kept it in tact. All this info could be passed on to my 4WD club. He said he didn’t mind if his (black) finger featured in a photo in the club magazine. I searched for a final metaphor in the smashed glass, the careful fixing up and the sharing of knowledge.
Noticing, opening up, tuning in. Maybe this is where it starts. To each other and the country.Talking to My Country Stan Grant 2016
The Short Long Book Martin Flanagan 2015
Conspiracy of Silence – Queensland’s frontier killing times Timothy Bottoms 2013
Post script – At the 2016 election more indigenous MPs were elected to federal parliament than at any other time in Australian history. Ken Wyatt, Pat Dodson, Linda Burney.
52 Adventures. That's the aim. In the year from February 2015 and maybe more. Like any real adventure the outcome is unknown. The journey, the comrades, the solitude, the challenges, the special places are what matters. And this is the record – writing, images and video. Enjoy.