THE DAY THAT SUCKED

12, 13.  I don’t know why we count….actually, yes I do.  It’s because you want to tell people afterwards; boast a little (14, 15) and get some brownie points for being so silly in the first place (16).  Yet there’s nothing glamorous about it, the rise and fall and the probing nature is, in some way, revolting, it’s such an unusual gait, yet common if you insist on going bushwalking in the wet (17).  The car offers no respite except it’s dry, even if we aren’t.  In fact, it’s so wet that even our cameras have tossed it in, shame the leeches didn’t try and attack them instead.  Why a phalanx of them is making its way up my trouser leg is a mystery; I’ve never seen a whole group before; it’s like a military excursion, a band of scouts setting out before the main attack.

I was with Gerry and my second outing with him, this time we’d pencilled in Chasm Falls, after negotiation, and a side trip to Smoko Falls.  This walk had sort of been on my reserve list, i.e., something I wanted to do but might not have time for.  Gerry said, bearing in mind the lack of rain, that this was a preferred option because a lot of water was not required here in order to get good photos.  Ever keen to listen to this sort of advice I readily acquiesced.

We met at Deloraine, a town with an aura.  That aura is one of attractiveness; it’s one of those places that makes you feel good without you necessarily being able to put your finger on the exact reason, though I think it has a lot to do with the winding main street girdled by historic houses, chic cafes and quirky shops.  Still, we’re not here to look around, we’re off to the scrub somewhere south.  Gerry kindly uses his car and we’re off, moving towards the Western Tiers.  The cloud cover is noticeable, even though it’s not raining yet.  That will come later.

Luckily Gerry knows the way.  I think that even if I had instructions I might never have found the way in but the dirt road we’re on has obviously been worked on recently.  It’s smooth and has lots of base.

Arriving at the carpark, so called, I’m surprised to learn that there used to be a bridge across the Mother Cummings Rivulet (nee Smoko Creek) and that you used to drive across.  Now, there is no bridge and you’re forced to go down through the scrub and cross the stream before picking up the old road again until you reach an intersection where there used to be a carpark and here you turn left on the Ironstone Mountain Track for a purported 1 hour return trudge to Chasm Falls and back.  The sign has fallen and is resting on some trees, resplendent with its coat of Spanish Moss and lichen that make it barely legible.  Other tempting destinations such as Smoko Falls and Bell Tarn are also listed.

You immediately become surrounded by Myrtle, King Billy Pine and Sassafras that dominate the temperate rainforest of this region and, as you move into the bush proper, leaving behind the forestry practices of the past that have regenerated as scrubby eucalypt, it’s time to meet the Tasmania of Gondwana times and walk between the carpets of sphagnum moss that lie thick among the rocks.  Elsewhere ferns survive where they can, mostly beside the streams where they can catch flickering glimpses of the sun at certain times of the day.

It seems not that long at all before you reach the falls…..except that these aren’t the falls.  In fact, you’re not even half way; the “real” track is just beginning.   Stumbling along the slippery rock surfaces it’s not that long before you’re ascending a grade 3 hike where no footing is even and, in a while, you’ll be asking, “How much farther?”

At the side, at varying distances, are tempting bits of flowing water that agitate your camera fingers to the point where you cannot resist at times.  It’s a photogenic strip of fluid to say the least.

I can barely find it credible that the track diverts, moves away from the river, and gets even steeper.  Surely we must close?  No, but we are about 2/3rds of the way and the forest is eye candy all the way along the route, supplemented by colourful fungi that we find irresistible.

Almost suddenly, after being so focused on gaining a sure footing, we’re there.  Gerry points to something down below and I’m off, only to discover it’s a large log, resting across a gorge, sorry chasm, hence the name.  If acrophobia is part of your make up, you won’t be walking across this span over a vertiginous cleft continually being eroded by nature.  On either side of the log is chicken wire attached to a single strand of fixed wire.  That’s all that separates you from death.  It must be said however, that the log’s surface is pretty flat and I found walking across it easy, unlike poor acrophobic Gerry who, having made it across, wouldn’t go back but chose the option of crossing the stream above the falls.  Unlucky Gerry, there was too much water coming down so he was forced to return and negotiate the log once more.  That was after we’d consumed lunch, my choice being a gourmet roll I’d purchased earlier in the day and kept boasting about all the time I ate it, while Gerry was stuck with his home-made sandwich.

About this time it started to rain lightly, just when we’d finished our lunch and were packing up in fact.  It wasn’t a factor as we reversed trail and headed home, stopping twice at agreed places that we’d pencilled in on the way up.  It was about when we’d shot the second one that the rain got a little heavier.  Of course, we know who that encourages, so we started checking our legs and it wasn’t too long before the probing black creatures from insect hell started either upon our person or our clothing, seeking the warmth or pulsing of a vein that would serve as dinner.

It rained so that our camera bags were saturated, our footwear totally drenched and our clothing uncomfortable.  Now, so much water was coming from the heavens that even the forest offered no protection.  Our socks started to squelch in our hiking shoes and misery was raising its ugly head.  The suggested 1 hour return time is a bit fanciful.  Though we did take quite a few photos it’s only the really fit and focused that would be able to manage that time, better you should allow an extra half hour.

Gerry’s missing jumper came into view and I pointed it out, rather than pick up the sodden woollen garment, before we reached the old abandoned carpark and walked downhill to the crossing, then rock hopped to the other side before climbing back to the car.  Blessed relief, a chance to sit, maybe dry just a little, check ourselves for beasties and head back to civilization.  I’d divested myself of back pack and camera and was safely ensconced in the passenger’s seat with Gerry still outside at the boot when the heavens opened up.  As if he wasn’t wet enough already!  While I would probably have dived in the car until it eased, Gerry, in true Taswegian style, toughed it out and got on with unburdening.  Eventually his saturated clothes and body entered the vehicle and we headed off, heater at the full.

We hadn’t gone far when the rain stopped.  Even the road showed no sign of moisture.  We’d simply been caught where the updraft had formed clouds and dumped on us.  Or perhaps it was some kind of message from the gods that I’d done enough, it was time to leave Tasmania.  Certainly it’s a message my body was in tune with.  We pulled into a picnic area by some lake or other, put there for irrigation purposes.  I vividly recall reefing strip after strip off the paper towel dispenser and wiping my synthetic walking trousers.  Because they don’t hold moisture that readily, much of it came off fairly easily.  I suppose being half dry is better than being totally drenched, at least it seemed so at the time.

(18) I picked the last one off me, so I thought, as we neared Deloraine.  I offered to shout Gerry a cuppa when we arrived and he accepted so we adjourned to the gourmet café where I’d earlier purchased my fancy roll that I kept gybing Gerry about while we were walking.  I doffed my shirt and put on a jumper, my only item of dry clothing and grateful I was.  While I ordered a large hot chocolate, Gerry surprised me by ordering an iced chocolate, something I usually reserve for warmer days.

We reminisced about the walks we’d done, only four in number, over the years, and how pleasurable it was to walk with people who understand the driving need to stop and photograph and aren’t worried if you get a bit behind or in front.  In addition, it’s an extra set of eyes to see those things that you might otherwise miss and when you recall moments, they are so often common because you’re both on the same page.

We discussed the possibility of Gerry doing a trip north sometime in the future, when I could pack up the motorhome and we could set out for a few days in northern N.S.W.  Perhaps it would happen, perhaps it won’t, but it was nice to dream.  Then, all too soon, it was au revoir, and who knows when we’ll get together again.  At our age, you can but hope.

ON FLANDERS FIELDS

I was born and raised in Teralba, a suburb that still seems apart from the rest of Newcastle.  21 years passed, during which time I would frequently visit my grandmother on my father’s side. 

I still recall trips to Newcastle, a big occasion for a young lad, on the 363 bus from Speers Point.  Gran lived alone at Boolaroo, but I never made much of her being alone.  No, she was just the quiet lady, generous of spirit and it was such fun listening to Blue Hills on the radio with her.  But there was something never discussed; that’s the way society was at the time.  Her missing partner.  All I grew up knowing was that he had died of a shell explosion somewhere in a country called Belgium.

Much later in life I inherited some pussy willow leaves with poignant messages writ upon them.  “There were some nice places but none so nice as home”,  “To Bessie from W from far across the sea  1/8/1916” and “From A55 to “Kelmont” where would I sooner be” are some that I still hold. 

It really wasn’t until my brother found his inscription at the War Memorial in Canberra that I started to get interested in my missing grandfather.  I had been there a few times and never bothered; now, somehow, in my later years as the seventh decade rolled around, it seemed important.

I gathered more details and the thought came into my head that on my next trip to Europe I should make the effort to see his name on the Menin Gate at Ieper, formally Ypres, one of the most famous battlefields in history.  I wondered just how cathartic an experience it would be.

The following is how it panned out when I boarded the Quasimodo Tours bus, and I quote an email I sent home at the time:

“Today’s the day.  It was with some difficulty that I slept last night.  I’m wondering how I will react to all of this.
Odd, I thought, all I’m thinking about is myself and not what he might have gone through.  I note there’s a thick fog outside the window and wonder what would have happened on a day like this.  They wouldn’t have been able to see each other.
I remember too, yesterday, the Dutch couple I met up with were pointing out an earthy field as we rode along and were saying this is called “polders”.  It was from this natural, clay based material, that the special church at Lissewege was constructed. 

I had visited the church earlier; unbeknownst to me it is mentioned in the “Da Vinci Code”, something to do with the devil’s head carved in stone I believe.
The field meanwhile was sodden, as they had been in the war.  I eyed off the slush and thought how horrible it must have been living in the goo, where every footstep was an exercise in itself, mud stuck to your kit and never left it, the thought that tomorrow would only bring more of the same.
Now it’s today and I’m on the tour bus.  Strangely, in some ways, our tour guide is an ex-pat Aussie and she’s an attractive middle aged female named Sharon and she’s been doing this since 1990.  She does it because she is passionate about the First World War.  Very passionate.
Other members of the tour are mostly English though there’s also a young Canadian couple.
Sharon begins by explaining the war’s origins, how Austria, Hungary and Germany were ready to “expand” and had taken steps already so that when the crown prince of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo it was the excuse they were looking for.
The Germans had a plan to knock off Belgium in six days then run riot through France in around a month then this would allow them to send most of their troops to Russia whom they estimated would take 6 weeks to mobilize.
In the fields to where we are travelling, it all went horribly wrong, beyond anything that had happened before or since in human endeavour.  The tenacious Belgians held out for 32 days and flooded fields to delay the advance.  The Germans took Ypres (now Ieper), relinquished it, and never got it back.  The Allies held 10% of Belgium in a small triangular shape, the salient that stayed.
Our first stop is the Passchendale Ridge.  It’s far and away the highest piece of ground yet it’s only 56 metres high at its peak.  The 40 square kilometres were attacked by the British.  For every one metre gained, and I ask you here to imagine how wide the room you are currently in is, probably around 4 metres; they lost 35 men.  Imagine in your comfortable room there are 140 bodies in your house.  This will start to put you in the picture for what is about to come.
In this area of Belgium there is not a building, a tree, a blade of grass older than 85 years.
At Poelkapelle there are 7,500 buried, 84% of whom are “Known unto God” only.  This is not the first cemetery we pass.  At one stage there were literally hundreds of them.  These days they have been consolidated somewhat.
We learn how the fabled story of the Christmas football matches (three of them), when opposing troops shared provisions and had a game, only happened in 1914.  Things got nasty after that and the generals didn’t like the thought of you actually seeing the opposition.  Heck, you might even not want to shoot them.
The Germans took to putting a jagged edge on their bayonets.  This act infuriated the sensibilities of the British and they shot any prisoner on the spot if he had one.  The French took to urinating on their blades before combat in the hope of promoting infection.
Meanwhile, Belgian civilians were trying to escape, many to Holland who remained supposedly neutral; but they eventually put up something unheard of at the time – an electrified fence; and on this hundreds of Belgians perished.  The Dutch also bought concrete from the British and sold it to the Germans.  It was used to build trenches and bunkers.  It’s called profiteering.  Others may have other names for it.
Then came the gas.  The first recorded use was by the French in a grenade but the bulk stuff was first used here.  It was stored and ready to use for a month before they actually unleashed it.  Had they done their homework they would have known the prevailing winds are in the opposite direction.   It was chlorine gas, the first of 17 different types that would ultimately be used.
The Belgians and Zouaves (mainly from Africa), copped it first and worst.  The Germans gained over 2 kilometres then stopped.  During the month they were forced to wait, their reserves had been sent to France and they had no more momentum.
The Allies learnt quickly that a moist rag over your face helped a lot and if that moisture was urine it worked even better.  We are shown a picture of some soldiers with female sanitary pads strapped to their faces.
Though we tend to think it was an all German thing, the facts are that the British used ten times more gas than the Germans ever did and the mustard gas description was appalling beyond my capacity to comprehend.  Imagine your lungs slowly disintegrating to the point where you died an agonizing death.  The gasses that were slow killers were preferred because injured soldiers used up more manpower.
Those who were affected but didn’t die often passed it through to their children in later life, many of whom developed cancer as a result.
We next reach a Canadian cemetery, over 2,000 of whom are here.  It’s called Vancouver corner and has a large memorial with a figure in a “rest on your arms reversed” position or, as many like to call it, lying down.
We learn here that there were 1,500,000,000 shells fired.  Of these one and a half billion, one third failed to explode.  On average, over 250 tonnes have been dug up each year since the war.  If, like me, you have visions that it is diminishing, then dwell on this – in 2006 they unearthed 700 tonnes.  Imagine, two tonnes, per day, from something that happened nearly 90 years ago.
Each year in this area they average 3 deaths from unexploded munitions, 20-30% of which are chemicals.
The Belgians, without any assistance from any of the conflicting nations, spent 20 million euros on a special machine to dispose the chemical shells.  The known figures are that they have enough work for sixty years but have no doubt that it will go on for well over another hundred as they find more ordinance.
Until 1976 they simply dumped them at sea but a treaty put an end to that.
The disposal people are all volunteers, 5 have died since 1980 doing this work.
They have devised special suits for chemical disposal.  It’s a two layered affair and the body’s core temperature can quickly rise to 40 degrees inside them.  Thus an individual is only allowed two disposals per day.  After each individual disposal the suits are incinerated to avoid contamination and a new one put on.  It costs the government a fortune.  No other country contributes.
Every day during spring and summer, every year, at 11.45 and 4.30, munitions are blown up at a special site.
We have pulled in to one of Sharon’s friends places.  She explains they bought half a hectare with the intention of farming.  On the first line of ploughing, 120 metres in length, they unearthed 29 shells.
She alights and returns with some of the things they’ve uncovered.  Among them is a Lee Enfield .303 with a bullet in the chamber and a full magazine, meaning it was being used in conflict at the time.  Another item is a large shell with cordite in it.
Then there’s something else she doesn’t bring onto the bus as the large cannon projectile is too heavy to carry.
Every day throughout this entire area, on all these country lanes, 90 years after the event, people put discovered munitions on the roadside for the bomb squad to pick up.  They are in little piles beside telegraph poles, next to posts.  If a chemical one is found, the bomb squad is called in and, if it’s leaking, they put it in a plaster cast and mark where the leak was.
In 1917, on the 31st of July, a battle started.  The scenario is that most of the fighting was done in the summer, so it was timed to coincide with favourable weather.  Unfortunately, it rained heavily for the two weeks beforehand.  This did not stop General Haig, clearly not one of Sharon’s most favourite people to ever inhabit the earth, from insanely ordering the command to attack.
More than 300,000 troops were lost.  As a direct result of Haig’s decision more drowned in the quagmire than were actually shot.  Having closely looked at the mud the day before I can fully understand.
At the infamous Passchendale the Kiwis lost more per capita than any other nation and the Canadians won more V.C.s (9).
The Kiwis are the only nation not to accede to the Belgians’ request to consolidate the grave sites.  Thus you see their memorials at quite a few places, all with the “From the uttermost ends of the earth” tag.
We stop at Tyne (river) Cot (short for cottage) Cemetery, named after the Northumberland Regiments who fought here.
There are 11,908 graves and a massive wall listing a further 34,888 who are missing after August 16th, 1917.  There are 3 Australian V.C. winners buried here.
The shape of the wall echoes the shape of the salient (a military term for a line that penetrates) that was here.
The persistent fog swirls around the masses of white tombstones and the background of barely visible winter trees adds an eerie touch to the moment. 
I notice wreaths have been laid here and there by English school classes.  Apparently they get an actual name of a particular soldier, find out as much as they can about him, and then visit his grave and the war sites.  It’s something that has my wholehearted support.
The breeze springing up pushes the chill air against my eyes and I initially blame that for the moisture in my vision but soon realise it’s more than that.  The wreaths have affected me and when I tread the narrow path to the information centre my mood isn’t helped by this crystal clear voice that is suddenly apparent, its invisible host reading out the names of the deceased, a new one every five seconds.  Inside the centre photographs appear on a wall of the deceased as his name is read out.  In here nobody speaks.
Back on the bus we go past a house of someone Sharon knows.  She explains how undermined everything is with the trenches and such, then proceeds to relate how, in 1999, the lady of the house sank up to her neck in water when she got caught in an old trench and was lucky to be rescued from the mud in time.  Just four years later their bedroom sank 15 centimetres.
We pass Polygon Wood that changed hands 15 times and are reminded that 35 bodies were recovered last year, 70 the year before, 5 of them Australians.  They believe they have these narrowed down to 7 possibilities.
At Hellfire Corner we are reminded that, on average (dwell on this time frame) a shell fell here every 5 seconds.
We stop at the Messines Ridge.  The almost unbelievable effort that went on here was extraordinary.  This time, with the much smarter Canadian Plumer in charge, they had dug 24 tunnels, the longest 750 metres and set mines at the end.
They then bombarded the ridge for a fortnight and the Germans returned fire.  Then, at 3.00 a.m. on June 17th they stopped and, unbelievably, so did the Germans.  They thought the Germans might have wind of what they were about to do but went ahead anyway.
At 3.10 a.m. they detonated the mines.  With 45,000 lbs of Ammonal and 7,800 lbs of guncotton in each hole, 19 of them went off.  To this day, it remains the biggest man made earthquake ever.
”It was an appalling moment.  We all had the feeling, ‘It’s not going’ and then, the most remarkable thing happened.  The ground on which I was lying started to go up and down just like and earthquake.  It lasted for seconds and then, suddenly in front of us, the Hill 60 mine went up.”
85,000 troops attacked the ridge, 7,000 were lost but, for the most part, the Germans had been stunned by the massive 40 tonnes blast and it was the single most successful battle of the entire war.
Of the 5 that didn’t detonate, two had already been overrun, the Germans had discovered one and two misfired.  In 1955, a tree was hit by lighting and detonated one of them in a mighty explosion.  There’s still one out there somewhere.
Hitler served here, was a brave soldier, was awarded the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd class and lost a testicle when shot.  He worked for a field hospital for four years, was never promoted because he never had leadership potential.
In the next village was man named Winston Churchill.   As the Americans entered the war, a man named Patton also arrived.  Of course, just across the way was a man named Rommel.  Within less than an 8 kilometre radius these men fought against each other, 30 years before history repeated itself.
The Royal Army Medical Corps have a mixed reputation.  At times it was said that R.A.M.C. was an acronym for Rob All My Comrades, on the other hand they won more V.C.s than any other corps.
Our next stop is the Menin Gate.  It’s here that my grandfather is commemorated.  It’s from this gate that the sculpted lions were removed in the 1930’s by a grateful mayor of Ieper and now adorn the entrance to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
I locate my grandfather’s name.
They have to send one of the Canadians from the bus later to collect me as everyone is waiting.  Later on Sharon will remark that it seemed to have affected me and I freely admit that it did. In fact, I lost it and was shocked at how emotional I got. She asks me if she could place a poppy at the site the next day.  I thank her profusely but decline the offer.  She later asks my grandfather’s name, in such a way that I suspect she is going to put one there anyway.  Later still I say that if I returned the next day there would be a poppy there anyway would there not?  The way she looks at me indicates clearly that there will be.
We next visit a trench site at Ieper, excavated by volunteer diggers and filmed by the BBC which is why it was saved from industrial development.  Here you can really get the feel of how awful it must have been to actually live here.  There were two adjacent trenches.  On one side you went to the front, on the other the bodies were brought back.  It didn’t do for the fresh troops to see how they were going to end up.  At this site, no larger than the house where I now live, there’s a plaque indicating that they have unearthed 155 bodies.  Sharon said that it’s now out of date.  In fact it’s now 205.  She was here when they unearthed the 200th.  She is not only passionate about this tour, she is emotional.  You can see the welling in her eyes and she storms off to the bus banging the sides of her hands together.
I later query her about how amazed I am that someone who has been doing this for 17 years, with a break only for her daughter, can still have so much feeling.  She blames it on being a female, but it’s more than that.
Our last stop is where Valentine Joe Strudwick is buried.  He lied about his age, enlisted when he was 14, was wounded, went home, came back again and died when he was 15.  School children are often shown this grave, many older than he was when he died.  That’s why there are a lot of poppies here.
It’s also where John McRae spent much of the war, having enlisted when he was 40.  He was a doctor and he would work, sometimes up to 72 hours straight.  Eventually he ended up on the Somme where he died from the flu, bought on by overwork but, before he went he wrote a little piece.  That piece today is learnt by rote by his fellow Canadians in every school in their country.
Sharon later tells us that the poppy grows on fields that are disturbed and where there is no competition.  Hence they flourished in this area during the war.
Oh, and the poem?  It’s called “On Flanders Fields”. 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high.

    If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

        In Flanders fields.

PLEASURE WITH LYNN

To be honest, my brain was in a bit of a fog.  For over five weeks we’d seen a plethora of wonders, so much of which was breathtaking, that my mind had ground to a halt.

Aware that I had to do something, anything, I concluded that I had to go across the bridge, the one to the far side.  Over there in Vancouver north were mountains and forest, stuff I felt at home in.  I also wanted an easy day in somewhere less popular; that was how Lynn Canyon cropped up.

So it was I crossed the Second Narrows Bridge, aka the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, and found myself in the “other” part of Vancouver, cruising along in what was to be my last day in the Toyota.

Then, I still find it hard to believe, I thought I took the correct turn towards Lynn after noticing a small sign and working out instantly that it was probably where I should go, though when I reached the area of possible carparks, I had to pull up and go and check out an information hut that fortunately had the right info.  I say fortunately because it was deserted initially and I was scrounging around when a helpful staff member returned, probably from a comfort stop I mused.

Turns out I had arrived at the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve; turns out it was also a good starting point though the main access to Lynn is from the other side of the river.

Then I was on my way, having opted to do the Thirty Foot Pool and the Twin Falls.  The secondary growth Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedars have excluded much light from the forest floor, leaving moss laden remnants and a fungus or two.  It exuded an almost eerie calm as I barely managed a stroll, wallowing in the serene delights of an almost mature woodland.

Now stairways intervened, those of a downward direction.  Consulting my map it appeared I was on my way to the advertised pool.  The echo of water coursing rapidly through a chute reverberated off a rock wall somewhere and, as I neared said sound, the gorgeous swimming hole favoured by Vancouverites came into view.

The limpid waters disclosed a mass of rounded pebbles while behind, a maple turning yellow was reflected in the surface, surrounded on either side by evergreens.  Off to the right was where the noise was coming from, a tempting little canyon that, on another day, I would have chanced my arm to get closer to.

Shadow of the bridge

I returned to the trail, whose route now approximated the river’s and it seemed in no time at all I was at the semi-famous suspension bridge.  I say “semi” because Capilano Bridge is renowned world-wide and featured on many an internet site whereas the one at Lynn is known mainly amongst the locals but has an added feature – it’s free.  There once was a charge for J.P. Crawford’s suspension bridge when the park was opened in 1912.  It was also one of the few remnants when three days of torrential rain ripped through and the picnic grounds, the bandstand and the caretaker’s cottage all disappearing into the raging waters.

The water roars through the Canyon

I eavesdropped as someone compared it to Capilano that he’d done the day before.  He remarked that though Capilano was longer, this was more in your face as you were much closer to the falls and you got a sense of anxiety as they crashed beneath you.

On the other side was heaven in the form of a cafe; two stories of log cabin with who-knows-what on offer.  I salivated to the point where I noticed the problem – “Closed”.  A picture perfect day on the first week in October and it’s closed?

My thoughts of a mug of hot chocolate and a row of tantalizing desserts dissipated as I moved away down the opposite side of the river, ever downward, this time to the Twin Falls Bridge and here the creek was really aggressive with cascades everywhere.

In 1989, the District of North Vancouver decided to open up a new suburb, 1.900 land units, right in the area of the forest because the original park was only 10 hectares.  Luckily, 1,200 protesters turned up and the powers that be suddenly thought it might not be such a good idea after all and the park was expanded instead to 250 hectares.

Turning now, it was time for the “up” part of the journey, reflecting on nice moments as I traipsed through the mostly pencil straight vegetation that splayed shadows across the forest floor.  100 year old Douglas Firs lorded over western hemlock and western red cedar.  Though there are people doing the walk, they are scarce, as most come to experience the swinging bridge and falls.  Few venture to where I’m currently hiking.

“Flecked with autumn

Flecking through the gaps in the trees are flashes of autumn, tempting colourful morsels that await me on the drive home.  However, just down from my car there is another bridge, that of the local water body and aptly named the Pipeline Bridge as it was probably put there to service the adjacent pipeline.  Another big drop to the water is beneath and I dwell here for some minutes imagining this might be my last plunging stream for some time.  I imagine right, in two months since I’ve seen nothing of its ilk.

Beautiful colours of the river

I felt fortunate to have been tipped off about this special place by a local, seeing a Vancouver wonder that few tourists get to see.

ATTAINING NOB HILL

I’d gone at an earlier time to do the great tram ride.  Having learnt the day before that the queue can be blocks long I made an effort to avoid them in order to ride this archaic and uncomfortable method of public transport that was mooted for destruction in 1947 until an ultimately partially-successful “Save The Cable Cars” group was formed.  Today they are a listed National Landmark and protected by law and no tourist visit to San Francisco is complete without a journey to the heights.

Oldie but a goodie

Once aboard and ever curious I pondered the mechanism, querying the engineer in charge with questions he’d probably heard a thousand times before.  I was amazed to learn just how simple, yet complex, the drive mechanism is.  One simply pulls a lever that puts a clamp on a cable running beneath the surface and, presto, motion!

The complex bit I would see later.

It rumbled out, all ten tons of it, relying on a clamp.  How fast you go depends on how hard the gripman grasps, though 9.5 m.p.h. is the maximum.  Just how steep the streets are becomes quickly apparent as we ascend, a serious 24.8 percent in one spot.  I reflect on architecture as we mount and there is plenty of variety on show.  Somewhere in the distance the Transamerica Pyramid looms, its weird sharp pointed shape dominating the skyline.

TRANSAMERICA PYRAMID

Then we pull up beside a park and some expensive looking buildings.  I make an on-the-spot decision to alight.  It was a fortuitous choice.  I’d bailed out at Nob Hill, home of San Francisco’s elite.  The name is a contraction of “nabob”, someone who has made a large fortune, and it all happened in the 19th century when some people got lucky with either gold or silver mines while others ran the railroads.  No less a person than Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in 1882 that it was “the hill of palaces”.

PACIFIC UNION CLUB

Today’s magnates can be found at the Pacific Union Club, an exclusive building that  reeks of security and survived the 1906 quake and fire that turned nearby wooden buildings into charcoal.  The first building that captured my eye was the 606 room Fairmont, across Mason Street from the P-U and flying all manner of flags, occupying the block James G. Fair left to his children. The standout building featuring elegant porte-cochere and spacious lobby opened in 1907, the tower in 1961. The Penthouse Suite — rooftop manor, really — will set you back just under $20,000…..per day of course, though butler, maid and limousine service are included.  The corner it dominates at California and Taylor was first graced by wealthy 49-er Richard Tobin’s Victorian manse. The 12-story building housed apartment dwellers from 1924 to 1945 when it was converted into a hotel.

FAIRMONT HOTEL

The hotel overlooks Huntington Park, whose centrepiece copy of Rome’s Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles) by Taddeo Landini (1585) and donated by the Crocker family, is but one of the attractions.  Nearby there’s the Dancing Sprites fountain by French sculptor Henri Leon Greber, donated by the Flood family.

FOUNTAIN OF THE TURTLES

I couldn’t help but notice a church in the background.  The Crocker family donated this entire block to the Episcopal Diocese of California after the ‘06 fire destroyed their two residences there. The cornerstone was laid in 1910 but major construction did not begin until 1927.  The 100 metre long cathedral, complete with labyrinth inside, is a mixture of classical French, Spanish and English architecture and the largest church in the West.  

There was however, something that caught my attention.  I couldn’t quite get my head around what I was looking at for there, right before my eyes, was surely what Michelangelo thought would be appropriate as the “The Gates of Heaven”.  In fact, the doors are one of two copies of Ghiberti’s fabulous Renaissance work, the other is the one you see in Florence, because the original is buried in an underground vault, just like Michelangelo’s statue of David.  All the public sees are copies.  In the list of the top ten things to see at Nob Hill, Ghiberti’s bas relief doesn’t even rate!

GHIBERTI’S BAPTISTRY DOORS

In total contrast nearby is the SF Masonic Auditorium (1958).  On the main (north) façade, there is a large frieze by Emile Norman bearing the inscription “Dedicated to our Masonic Brethren who died in the cause of freedom“, depicting stylized servicemen from each of the four branches of the Armed Services, and a global tug of war representing global struggles.

MASONIC CLUB

There are other classic accommodation venues here as well, but my limited time didn’t allow me to soak them up.  Just two blocks away was the nerve centre of the tram system.  As you walk through the doors you can’t help but notice the large spoked wheels (called sheaves) with steel cables lubricated by pine tar wrapped around them, for here was the entire power system for the cable cars.  It’s not something that will detain you for a long time, but it’s fascinating nonetheless watching the endless loop go round and round knowing that it is driving something kilometres away.

POWER BEHIND THE TRAMS

I’d done the ride on the cable car, but it had turned out to be so much more.

DANCING SPRITES FOUNTAIN

DEGREES OF BEING LOST

Tracking through a regular newspaper I get on line I came across this fascinating, and tragic, article.  It started out with details of how a 66 year old experienced female hiker went for a comfort stop whilst walking the famed Appalachian Trail in the U.S.A.  She went about 80 paces off trail as she usually did.  Nearly two years later they found her body.  Her husband had been waiting for her at the next out point that very day.  She tried texting and phoning to no avail when she realised, to her shock, that she was irrevocably lost.  She lasted nearly three weeks before succumbing, despite a massive search for her.  In the end her remains were discovered inside her tent a bit over half a mile off the track.  She’d seen the searchers overhead and tried to contact them but she went unseen.  We know this from a diary she kept.

Then, only yesterday, a report of two Aussies being found after 19 days disoriented in thick foggy forest in N.Z.

It highlighted a few things, one of which is, doesn’t matter how experienced you are, without reference points you have no idea where you’re going and, what you saw in movies about going around in circles is, in reality, exactly what happens.  Psychiatrists know that, when you’re lost, you get dumber.  The only difference is in degrees, some get more stupid more quickly but everyone’s heading in the same direction.

Francis Chichester (yes, the sailor) was training pilots in night navigation during WWII.  A group took off and all landed safely except for one pair.  Three months later it was learned they’d been captured by Germans at a French airfield because they went exactly 180 degrees the wrong way, mistook the English Channel for the Bristol Channel and landed at an airfield that had switched on its lights and were thinking it was the right spot, until some German ground staff were pointing guns at their heads.

Scientific studies when the sun wasn’t visible in the Sahara Desert and the Bienwald Forest in Germany concluded that people will not walk more than 100 metres from their starting point because they have no reference point.  “Anyone who spends enough time in the woods will, sooner or later, become lost,” says Kenneth Hill.

People react in different ways.  Lost is a cognitive state. Your internal map has become detached from the external world, and nothing in your spatial memory matches what you see.  You suffer what neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux calls a “hostile takeover of consciousness by emotion.” 90 percent of people make things a lot worse for themselves when they realize they are lost—by running, for instance. 

It is common for lost people to lose their head, as well as their heading direction. Stories of people walking “trance-like” past search parties, or running off and having to be chased down and tackled, are part of search and rescue lore. 

WIMBACH GORGE, IT HAD FLOODED ONLY DAYS EARLIER

Personally speaking, I’ve experienced different phases.  The first was in Germany near Berchtesgaden.  My goal was to walk to a place called Hintersee but somewhere along the way I took a wrong turn.  At one stage I remember going through a fence to reach a forestry tower that I managed to scramble up, hoping to get some bearings, to no avail.  I stumbled across and went past places like Wimbachschloss and Wimbach Gorge that I’d never heard of.  It was only after more than 6 hours I came across a sign on a trail and eventually reached a hotel at Hintersee in the dark after 8 ½ hours.  It was a wakeup call.

THE TRAIL TO HINTERSEE HAD SUFFERED A LANDSLIDE I HAD TO WALK OVER

The next was in Tasmania, searching for the lower entrance to Lake Judd.  There is a trail, though it hardly deserves the name, and it meanders along a damp floor with an island or two of trees.  The weather was less than desirable, misty driven rain in the offing with an already overcast sky.  Barely discernible boardwalks enshrouded by melaleucas before plunging over small watercourses and stumbling through mud was the nature of the way. 

There is also a problem with your digestive processes because your stomach releases the hormone ghrelin when you’re hungry and quite a few studies suggest it negatively impacts decision making and increases impulsive behaviours. 

THE LURE OF LAKE JUDD, FROM THE FIRST TIME I SAW IT ON THE MOUNT ELIZA TRAIL

But Lake Judd lured me as a fish to the bait.  Its vista from a previous trek on high to Mount Eliza tormented my brain.  I splashed on as the drizzle arrived.  Then, at one point, I emerged from a forested section and determined that since the trail ahead was so bad and was only going to get worse I should quit; thus I turned around and went back into the woods, but struggled to find the path.  Eventually I emerged and continued on.  Lord the track was terrible but I suffered in silence.

LET’S BE HONEST, CONDITIONS COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER

In time I came to a place I knew I hadn’t been before.  A creek that was too deep for me to cross.  I wondered just where I was, but had no real idea.  The term “lost” entered my brain and drilled in until it was fixed.  My map, such as it was, was drenched and useless, much like my compass.  However, I realised I had to reverse my direction from where I now was.  That was after screaming meaningless obscenities to the sky above.  Where was I?

TRY FINDING YOUR WAY ALONG HERE!

I kept going until, at one particular point just before a copse of trees, I realised exactly what had happened.  When I was scrambling through them originally, I’d actually turned 180 degrees and continued on instead of going back.  At least, after a horrible hour, I knew what I had to do.  I also knew what it was like to feel helpless and alone in the wilderness.  When you’re on your own, it magnifies.  People then ask me why I walk alone most of the time.  The simple answer is that none of my friends are either adventurous or bushwalkers.

PARTS OF THIS WALK WERE AMAZING, BEFORE I GOT LOST

The next occurrence was relatively recently.  Aiming down a steep slope from a carpark in the Watagans, the creek I sought was reached.  I crossed it once and then twice, winding up in the backyard of some property.  However, it had rained most of the time and I was drenched.  My camera and phone were rendered useless by the moisture.

WORSE THAN A BRICK WALL!

So, instead of exploring I turned around, crossed the creek twice and scrambled up the slope.  Except, when I reached very near the top, it was a jungle with almost impenetrable vines and a vertical rock shelf.  After an hour of exhaustive hiking I was going nowhere and descended again to the creek before walking out to a road, making contact at a house I was walking past and getting them to ring a cab for me.

When I got home I did some research and realised that the second time I crossed the creek on the way back I had actually turned about 120 degrees and gone up the wrong hill entirely. 

I HAD TO SCRAMBLE THROUGH THIS TO GET OUT – IT WAS WORSE THAN IT LOOKS!

The scary thing, as far as I was concerned, was how easy it had happened when I thought it would be hard to get lost.  That’s why the article about the lady held such resonance.  The person you are can be changed by circumstance in such a short time and you have no idea how you will change until it happens.

Excerpts adapted from From Here to There: The Art and Science of Finding and Losing Our Way, by Michael Bond, published by Harvard University Press.

NEAR WIMBACHSCHLOSS
ZAUBERWALD – THE MAGIC FOREST NEAR HINTERSEE
ONE OF THE RIVER CROSSINGS IN THE WATAGANS

A MAN AT IRONBARK

It seems to me a little sad.  In the cities it’s all about the latest American rapper or no-talent people on “reality” shows.  Australian names from the past are largely lost, forgotten and generally neglected.  The work of once literary giants like “Banjo” Paterson have escaped notice.  His accurate descriptions and portrayals of times past appear no longer meaningful.  Unwanted, unused.

All is not lost out in the “sticks” however.  On a country road in western N.S.W. there’s an intersection.  Where two roads meet there’s log that’s been professionally carved with the name “Ironbark” etched deeply in its grains.  There’s also a mobile coffee van.  I’m not sure which interested me most.

At least I recognized the name; but I had arrived at Stuart Town, to the best of my knowledge.  However, it once was called “Ironbark”, only getting its name changed because there was confusion for the postal service due to another having the same name.  Obviously this town had history, so I took the turnoff and headed up the street without any knowledge of where it might lead.

Indeed, I’d only come this way because there was a hotel advertised at Mumbil, now there’s a moniker.  I figured any place with a name like that had to be viewed but I’d quickly gone through and figured that, since Stuart Town was just up the road, I might as well have a look.

I was loving it.  Cast back in time I eased the car up the slight incline.  The village was riddled with classic architecture from a 100 years ago or more.  No fancy modern residential area here.  Tin, wood, fibro, accompanied by classic stone chimneys.  A bullnose verandah with some wrought iron work stood out.  Obviously once a commercial establishment, as was another wall with much faded paint denoting what had been a bakery.  It was at once both sad and exciting.

AUSTRALIA HOTEL

At the next intersection was the one flourishing building and a crowd was obviously inside if the vehicles parked around were any indication.  It’s natural in the bush that the hotel is the great survivor.  A standout two storey edifice with freshly painted balcony with ornamental brackets, the Australia Hotel is the building of significance here.  Put into context however, there were once 100 of the genre, which is often used as a mark as to how prosperous a place was.  There were a purported 30,000 people living in the area, for this is an old gold rush town and, even today, you can still pan in a nearby creek, though it’s unlikely you’ll be part of a crowd.

“…And whether he’s believed or no, there’s one thing to remark,
That flowing beards are all the go way up in Ironbark.”  Thus wrote Mr. Paterson, but there was not a hint of anyone walking around with hairy protuberances today to add to the historical feel of Stuart Town.  In fact, apart from the lady at the coffee cart, I didn’t see anyone.

Other houses featured indescribable bric-a-brac in the gardens with no semblance of order.  Such plots are rare in the city but you’d almost be disappointed if you didn’t find at least one in a village like this and, indeed, there were several.

The modernity of the few paved streets belied the extraordinary circumstances that some people found themselves in.  One place with a well mown lawn was nothing more than a glorified tin shed affixed to upright poles.  Immediately I thought of summer and winter extremes and how harsh it must be.  The place next door was no better.  It’s a different world out here and I longed to know more, but it wouldn’t be today that I’d find out.

I stopped and chatted to the coffee lady.  She said it was a busy road and she’d done well during the crisis.  I was amazed.  It certainly wasn’t a highway and there were no towns of significance.  Burrendong Dam and its surrounds were the only things noteworthy it seemed to me, which was probably showing my ignorance.

So I sipped on my hot chocolate and another customer arrived, then a car went past; it was indeed busy.

Drifting back to Mumbil I saw more of the same; discarded vehicles in backyards, homes in various stages of decay, a corrugated iron hall and wooden church.  Closer to Wellington was a place called Dripstone. 

A long ago abandoned stone church was structurally intact but devoid of anything religious inside, the altar vanished, the windows bare of stained glass.  Further up the side road, what once were houses hadn’t seen a laden paint brush in living memory and a solid bluestone cottage had been boarded up who-knows-when and seemed to be a mere storage shed.

I pondered the lives of those who dwelt within; how they got their daily bread, so to speak, and felt quite downcast considering the history, knowing that in a couple of decades most would be in a state of ruin.

Next stop was a café at the northern end of Wellington.  A hot chocolate was required and some reflection.  Amazingly, there was a well-thumbed copy of collected A.B. Banjo Paterson’s works on the table I chose to sit at.  I read through “The Drover’s Wife” and saw again how Paterson had captured the essence of the bush, the reality of the harsh life and those who led it.  May his works not be forgotten.

IT ROCKS

There was no-one.  In fact, the previous time I’d camped overnight and left early, the golden hour in fact.  The light was exquisite, the temperature cool, the trail enticing and I was alone; but that was decades ago.

Near the start

The ragged rock faces, weathered over millennia, seemed not to have changed as I got into my stride, though these day it’s more of a shuffle.  Somehow, being alone with nature enhances the senses.

The low angled winter light filtered through branches warped from a harsh climate.  Ever seeking the sun they’d probed higher, in places surmounting the shade of the rocks, casting their branches skyward.

There were places that bespoke of the origins of the sandstone; tubes that had once housed worms in a sea were present in places though they seemed out of place this far from today’s oceans.

My work boots left prints in the soft sandy track while the numerous birds serenaded my progress.  Pink Erica dotted the sidelines as I reached the first drip.  Somewhere above a tiny amount of water eked its way through the subsoil and fell over the edge, drop by drop.  Behind me the ripply bits of the crystal clear stream created an audible sound that somehow blended in.

The concrete steps are an addition since I was here last.  The brief ups and downs of the trail made easier by their presence but whoever thought they’d stay put on the soft sandy bottom where they cross a small stream obviously hadn’t quite thought it out.  Now warning signs were about the danger of uneven footing.

The dodgy crossing

The shapes lent themselves to all sorts of inspiration for the camera.  One feels quite blissful in the surrounds and then, just over a kilometre in, the way splits into two, 20 metres to the lookout, 30 metres to The Drip, for that is the name of this attraction, though it’s not unique, you can view similar in the Blue Mountains, but not the same.

It’s a long and towering sandstone wall and, in a pronounced horizontal layer about the middle, there’s flourishing green tussocks of leafy twig-rush and a modicum of moss that contrast readily with the coarse surrounds.  It’s here that the stream changes its course slightly and undercuts the bastion before sweeping away towards the coast.

The Drip

Sated at having viewed it once again years later, I turned and headed back, meeting group after group on the return.  I hadn’t been alone after all and counted eleven vehicles and two laden push bikes back at the carpark.  Having conversed with most I was mildly surprised to learn that it was the first time they’d been here.  I hope they enjoyed it as much as I had.

A PALACE FOR ALL REASONS

Sintra; I’d done the research and it all came up with positives so we got directions from our host in Lisbon and headed off, Entre Campo our initial destination.  This is one of the stations en route to Sintra and was the beginning of a journey that really opened our eyes.  At least here they had a ticketing system and we boarded our train and set off through the suburbs of Lisbon.

Oh, what a reality check that turned out to be.  For mile after mile it was so reminiscent of the housing blocks in Eastern Europe decades ago.  Tall high rise apartments with intermittent items of clothing strung out on makeshift lines and why all the paint used in endless graffiti couldn’t be better utilized making the housing look better I don’t know.  Lorraine remarked that “graffiti reflects the wellness of society”.

There were unpleasant odours to be had in many areas, the train being one of them.  Some cheap chemical had been used to partly, but not entirely, remove the offensive aroma.  Flaky or non-existent paint seemed the norm in some suburbs and all this was such a contrast to a man on the train with a small stylish personal mirror who spent the entire time of his journey picking hairs out of his face one by one with a pair of tweezers.

We hoped for better when we finally arrived at Sintra and joined a queue for the bus.  At least here we could buy tickets for the bus before we boarded…….or so we thought.  No, what we had actually bought were two tickets to the attractions, which didn’t include the bus fares.  We had to buy them off the driver and, of course, you couldn’t buy them until the bus arrived.

PERHAPS WE’D HAVE BEEN BETTER CATCHING A HORSE AND CART?

We didn’t know it at the time but the buses are scheduled to run every 20 minutes.  When we were waiting two arrived simultaneously.  Later on while eating we noticed that three arrived with 30 seconds of each other and then a gap of nearly an hour before another turned up by which time more than a busload had accrued at each stop.

THE JOYS OF ALLEY SHOPPING IN SINTRA

We bail out at the village centre and go for a walk up the steep streets lined with shops clearly geared to the tourist market and nothing else.  The cobbles and narrowness are accented dramatically when a car tries to drive along one, scattering people every which way.  Some cars end up having to stop right where they are and later reverse out, something fraught with difficulties we Aussie drivers could only have nightmares about.

THE REALITIES OF SHOPPING IN SINTRA

Our first viewing was at the National Palace with its Gaudi-esque sculptures attached to the outside walls.  However, if there is one piece of architecture in this building you can’t avoid seeing it’s the massive chimneys at one end and we’re curious to know just where they are in the structure of things.  Meanwhile, despite pre-paying for our tickets, we still have to queue but it’s not that long and soon we’re in an edifice that was used extensively by the nobility between the 15th and 19th centuries.

CAN’T THINK WHY THEY CALL IT THE HALL OF SWANS

As you enter the hall of the swans, so named because on the ceiling are more than 20 paintings of swans set inside ornate octagonal painted frames, you’re aware that it’s something special.  It’s an impressive opening to what started out as a Moorish palace in the 11th century and was adapted to Portuguese tastes after they conquered the Moors.  It still retains much of the original design, particularly notable in the garden layout, surmounted arches and glazed tiles.  The paintings, tapestries and ornate writing desks with multi rows of drawers so obviously belong to later periods.

The other notable thing is the crowd; they compare to my recent visits to the British Museum and National Gallery as we constantly try to move between tour groups from the buses, but there are many of them.  It’s a multi-level dwelling and it’s hard to work out what rooms are what but the one place that leaves no doubt is the kitchen with its massive chimneys.  We’ve never seen anything quite like them and the spacious area around the preparation tables makes it obvious that many people worked here and numerous were the dishes that left these walls.

THE EXTRAORDINARY CHIMNEYS

We’re getting hungry ourselves and repair to the Café Paris across the road.  Here we want to sit outside and watch the world go by but it’s fairly crowded so we somewhat reluctantly head indoors and see what an error everyone has made by not going indoors.  Here the décor is very tasteful, white tablecloths, chandeliers, ¾ length mirrors and painted cornices all add to a special aura while we sit right beside a window with full view over the street but without the noise.

HARD NOT TO LIKE DINING AT CAFE DE PARIS

It’s so touristy outside it’s almost nauseous and I’m taken by the assorted motorized vehicles that people have salvaged in order to attract tourists to ride in them.  There’s a Citroen 2CV with a sun roof and Rossi’s racing number (46) and name emblazoned on the door; an ancient Renault ute; an UMM 4WD (something I didn’t know existed) floats by, it’s a discontinued line of Portuguese vehicles and there’s a dune buggy, a ubiquitous Tuk-tuk and who knows what else; all calculated to successfully suck in the tourist wanting that little bit more from their experience.

We go out to catch our hop-on, hop-off bus and wait for ages before one arrives and we finally climb the slopes to Pena Palace, which means “feather place”.  The variety of architectural styles should offend the eye but somehow it all works, as do the seemingly garish combination of colours, from Tuscany red and yellow to sombre blue to grey and lemon beige, it all blends in somehow and leads you into a magical mystery tour of one of the world’s great castles, albeit built upon an older chapel site created from where King Manuel I purportedly saw Vasco da Gama’s fleet returning up the Tagus River.

THE VARIANCE IN STYLES IS UNMATCHED IN ANY OTHER PALACE

It is to Ferdinand II, consort to Maria II and later king when their first son was born, that we owe this building, as much as German architect Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege.  It was started in 1840 but wasn’t finished until 1885, the year the artistic Ferdinand died.  Just four years later it was purchased by the State, fell into disrepair after the 1910 revolution but has since been fully restored to the wonder it once was.

HARD TO TELL THE FRONT FROM THE BACK

Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance and a lot of Mudejar style can all be noted in this unforgettable building that climbs over exposed rocks and has panoramic views from all the battlements and castellated walkways that jut out in every direction.

Inside is just as convoluted with a variety of styling.  I’m taken by the 16th C alabaster and black limestone French altar that is left over from the monastic period, unlike any of the genre that I’ve seen before and there’s a Julius Caesar room with a 16th C Flemish tapestry of the Roman ruler himself that hangs from floor to ceiling.

SOME OF THE PIECES ARE EXTRAORDINARY

However, there’s a lot more to see within, so why don’t you drop in and have a look.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BUNDANOON

I can still conjure up, without any effort, my mother expressing the view that she’d like to retire in Bundanoon.  She’d extol its virtues and beauty but it was never going to happen.  Even I knew that growing up.  We never even went to Bundanoon as a family, but the name echoed in my brain through the years as she was dying from all manner of ailments and when she passed away; who remembers the day, certainly not me because I’m not good at such things, but I can vividly recall numerous visits to her in various institutions in her decline and the day I cast her ashes into Lake Macquarie at Rathmines and into an onshore wind which blew some of them back over me and incited all manner of thoughts, particularly the one wondering if she was still trying to tell me something.

As I was trying to say, one of the things I did recall was Bundanoon, and it’s never left me.  Thus it was, when I purchased my motorhome, one of the places that flitted now and then in my brain was Bundanoon, until I finally made the journey south from Lake Macquarie with my mother in mind, if not in reality.

As I neared the area there was a large branch hanging off a pine tree right in my path as I rounded a curve.  I started to swerve to the other side of the road but a milk truck was coming the other way so I slammed right into the branch as the better alternative, cracking the upper front curved portion of the cabin.  It was a disappointing start to the adventure.  Was my mother still trying to send messages?

THE GASTOF-STYLE PILL FACTORY FROM THE 19TH C IS NOW ACCOMMODATION

Bundanoon turned out to be a really enticing place for me.  Dated buildings scattered everywhere and a real mountain feel, i.e., cold, quirky people, unique gardens and atmospheric cafes dotted along the main street.  The only problem is, the railway goes right through the centre of town and the constant stream of freight trains does add to the noise content considerably at night.

It has also achieved fame beyond its size.  It is the first town to ban bottled water!  HOORAY I say.  I still haven’t come to terms with what’s wrong with the water that comes out of our taps, except during bushfire situations of course.  Bundanoon banned it over a decade ago and the village is still intact; amazing, didn’t hurt at all.

It also happens to be right on the doorstep of one of N.S.W.’s largest national parks, Morton.  To those who live outside the area it’s not what you’d term “well known” but it does have some notable areas although I prefer those nearer the coast where the rainfall is more plentiful.

Still, after realising Bungendore, which has a fabulous art gallery, wasn’t where I was aiming and arriving at Bundanoon when I really meant to be at Bungonia, I decided to spend the night.  Getting there in the dark I pulled over at the large information board and thought, “This will be a nice spot to camp”, but soon after was on my way when the first freight train roared past.

I found a spot not 100 metres from Morton NP entrance where others had obviously stayed and pulled up there.  The quiet was beguiling.  The moon highlighting the already charcoal black trees was mystic…..except it was freezing.  Welcome to the Southern Highlands some remarked the next day when I dared speak about the cold.

Next morning I drove into the park.  During the pandemic they’ve had some time to get the roads up to scratch but not to repair all the walks.  That will take time and more money.  My normally mundane trip to their toilet became excitement central when I spied a male lyrebird.  Though not fully displaying his tail at least it was better than the somewhat drab females.

I’d really forgotten most of the walks I’d done here so reconnoitred the area and checked out the maps displayed.  All this led me to the fact that the walk I really wanted to go on was “Closed”.  Still, as I’ve said in the past, it’s only a sign so, after checking out the lookouts I pencilled Fern Gully in for the afternoon.

Further down I arrived at the start of the walk.  Fern Gully, an aptly named section, was about all I was going to get to.  It’s one of the “must-do’s” here.  A lone female runner, ears embedded with plugs, jogged by just as I was pulling up.  I wasn’t alone after all.

Down the rutted and rocky trail I went.  It’s only 500 metres but, halfway down, there’s a set of stairs, with the third lot of warnings and barriers I’d come across.  It was here that some damage was evident, with 4 ½ steps missing from a made wooden staircase.

I scrambled down, the sound of water gurgling on sandstone as a magnet.  Through the ferns I strolled, shrouded by the tranquility of the bush, until I reached the point where the stream disappeared over the edge.  There are times when I’ll try to get closer to get a shot, today wasn’t one of them.

I felt privileged just to have been there and turned around to climb back out again.  Bundanoon had me for a couple of freezing days, but I wouldn’t forget it for the right reasons.

GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY GRIND – ON THE UP AND UP

The girl looked, no, winced at me.  As her eyelids thereafter rose I enquired about the lift ticket.  It was around $50 AUS including tax.

My original intention was to mix it with the birds and the bees.  The wonderful (as per their advertising) bird show had, however, closed for the season….as had the bees and the butterflies’ pavilion. 

I pointed pleadingly outside to the glorious sunshine and almost cloudless sky.  Surely the birds and the bees would be loving it?  Apparently not, so I’d come around to the cable car option but, after the price had been uttered, plan B emerged.  I’d heard of the Grouse Grind and, my mind kept saying, “You can do it” and so I asked the girl, who was from Sydney, and she sympathetically replied that it would take 1-1 ½ hours (insert wince where appropriate).  I then budgeted for 2 ½ and set off.

I walked outside and a kindly lady walked me back through the carpark to the start and off I went….to be greeted by strange people, in pixie uniforms and such, dancing around on the start of the trail.  Tutus apparently were de rigueur for the day, I felt embarrassed I’d left mine at home……not.  It was something to do with their office but I didn’t really want to know.

The path takes only one direction – UP.  The only variance is degrees of up.  It ascended at a steady rate, not one that you could comfortably push yourself on, especially if you were carrying camera gear and a tripod.  In hindsight I should have left my 5kg of it at the base.

You may twist and turn on this trail but, believe me, there is only one direction that you’ll ever remember, and that direction is UP.  There are little markers, 1 of 40, then 2 of 40 etc., and they, as best as I can figure, are vertical indicators.  In addition, there are humorous boards that someone with a lovely sense of the absurd has posted.  There was one more sign, it read “Living in the moment could be the meaning of life”.  I would have cause to reflect on that later.  Another said, “We’re smiling right now – Lungs”.

I plunged on, the track often had smooth slippery rock steps cambered downwards and prominent “DANGER” signs were plastered here and there.  The main problem was that it was uneven, making your leg muscles work overtime. 

Around 16 of 40 the ¼ WAY sign loomed up. 5 different groups had passed me earlier, now it was my turn.  Moving slowly and methodically carrying all my unwanted camera gear, I kept up a pace I had taught myself in the German Alps.  Slowly enough so you don’t have to stop so much and your body can keep up with your mind.

I inched by five groups of climbers by the time I was 1/3 distance but the track was deteriorating.  Mostly there were no made steps, just clambering up uneven rock after uneven rock. 

Passing the other hikers had made me feel mentally good, but, at the half way mark, I was a wreck. There were seats here and most climbers were stopping.  I was also stuffed, really stuffed; pulling up and taking a drink and having a chat to others also resting.  They probably weren’t as relaxed when I took my shirt off and exposed my torso.

 In the middle of us all was a sage man of some years who spoke without expression, “It gets steeper from here”.  His poker face denied any emotion but it was clear he was crazy, it couldn’t get any steeper.

It did.

What had gone before seemed benign as I loaded again and laboured up with my baggage.  My shirt was off and tied around my waist and the sweat was running down all over my frame.  It must have been somewhat frightening for the kiddies and young girls I chanced upon but my comfort was paramount.

All I focused on now was the fact that I’d reached halfway and that every step beyond that was closer to ¾, a point from which I knew I could make it.

Occasionally, there were some lovely wooden steps, at times with handrails, and what a blessing they turned out to be.  You could grab something to either rest or pull yourself up.  Sadly, they were only teasers, soon it was back onto the rocks again whose surface continually unbalanced you and my weights seemed to exaggerate that fact.

At times I lurched in an unsound manner from side to side, grasping ropes when they were available, taking time out here and there for a drink and recovery.  Just after the 34 of 40 the ¾ mark appeared, from here I could taste the end and it was lashed with succulent relish.  Somehow the infusion of such thoughts takes away some, but not all, of the pain.

A middle aged German who’d been tagging along just behind me for some time moved past as I paused for refreshment.  He informed me he had medical qualifications, had worked on oil rigs; knew about underwater resuscitation.  “Fat lot of good that will do me here,” I thought, as I prayed for an end to the misery.

I thought I must be nearing the end but, nay, there was a sign saying, “The last ¼ is the worst”.  I was shattered, surely not.

Then you’re looking for a gap in the trees, hoping the light will stream in, an indication of the end of the tunnel of torture.  No more gasping, a place to sit and relax, enjoy the view.  Still the steps keep coming, there’s supposedly 2,830 in total.  It’s only 2.9kms but it ascends 854 metres in that time.  Every metre a step…..arrgh!

Suddenly I can see the chair lift again, and a restaurant.  This coincides with an awful sound emanating from immediately behind.   Someone was severely dry reaching, just the thing to brighten up your day.  “What’s the time, what’s the time,” he blurted out between dry vomits just before he collapsed.

Stripped down to bare essentials, this guy had run the Grind, made it in under 40 minutes and was now paying for his efforts.  His body was sending him a message; perhaps he’ll heed it more next time. 

I took about an hour longer, but with no upheaval of the stomach, just gasping for breath. I consoled myself with the fact that few 69 year old plus Australians would have bothered to attempt such a feat, and I can’t blame them for that, but it does give you boasting rights when you get home.

The stairs to the cafe seemed like someone’s sick joke as I laboured up them and purchased a smoothie.  Because it was frozen it took ages to drink, which was probably a good thing as I collapsed in a bench seat.

If the walk had been for the view I’d have been disappointed.  A hazy, smoky sky took the edge off the panorama over Vancouver and I was glad the fare down was only $10.  This is mainly due to the fact they don’t want walkers going back down the trail.

After about 20 minutes I finally got on a cable car, joining the throng who’d mostly caught it up.  There were other things to see on the mount that I hadn’t bothered with, but not birds or bees.