75 / Part Three - Thanks to the God of Gore-tex
DAY EIGHT MONDAY APRIL 16 – GRANITE BEACH TO SOUTH CAPE RIVULET (which isn’t a rivulet, it’s a f&*^ing great river)
A vile, the hideous of nights. Rain for its entirety. Pounding waves. Roaring wind through trees, Nemo the tent sucked about this way and that. And now morning, the weather hangs, unabated. We are warm in our sleeping bags but both disheartened at the thought of the 9km – 7 hour walk ahead. Today’s mud is meant to be the worst yet. The rain is doable but it’s the wind that is the added issue as it thrusts to knock you sideways each time you take a step and leaving only one foot on the ground. My boots are sodden from yesterday. My gloves too. I can’t feel my fingers. Packing up will be interesting. I look forward to my Scroggin.
For anyone interested, here’s what each day looks like, foodwise:
I have pretty much relied upon nuts. As noted, Breakfast has not been great. Muesli is a very disappointing start to the day. It’s desperately heavy to pack and carry and does not pay off in a ratio of weight to reward. Will require a rethink. But Scroggin - a huge success. The day looks like this - Breakfast at 6.30am. Scroggin at 9am and 11.30. Lunch round 1.30. Tea once tent and camp are set up. Dinner at 6pm. Bit of chocolate with cards. Sleep at 8pm – with earplugs jammed in so I can take myself some place else.
Skip forward - Evening Reflections from inside our tent.
I’m not trying to be over dramatic, but today was rather insane. Mud puddles measuring 1.3m deep on my walking sticks, made progress unspeakably slow and physically the most challenging thing I have ever done. In the tent now, after our very last dehydrated meal. It will be a very, very long time before I ever eat any form of chicken or risotto or sludgy rice ever again.
Today began with a climb up terrace after terrace of pendulous tree roots, so tall and exposed that mud builds in pools between them. Up and Up and Up and when the roots weren’t towering above us it was cliffs of sandstone cut by water, a misshaped staircase leading to a giant’s grotto. But today in full stream flow, the stairs became like climbing a mad Japanese, moss-covered, water feature – beautiful to admire, painstaking to climb.
Roots and water cascades would then plateau, so whilst relieved of a climb, the challenge switched to mud pools where we were forced to use trees like monkey bars to make our way around. And then the disorientation of Button Grass circled by Pampas fronds and her sword-like knives at eye level. Button Grass is exceptionally good at disguising mud puddles. It’s also terribly good at disguising the path and at one stage we were very lost and without the sun for any reference, got completely turned around. I stood still while Mark tried to find the path. A massive squall complete with hail came through and I bobbed my head inside my jacket to blow steam on the inside, an attempt to keep my lips, at least, warm. Mark and I kept shouting to one another to keep in touch. But no luck. We found no path. Only in retracing our steps would we discover we had been about 5m from the east of the path, the whole time. Weird and a little scary.
We arrived at the river crossing at 4.30pm. For all that we’ve read it’s generally a gentle stroll across to a campsite in the bush on the opposite bank. Then, next morning, as a final day’s effort, it’s a 12km walk out to Cockle Creek.
But when we arrived the Rivulet was in full flood. Branches swept past us out to see, waves surge back up the creek at the ocean entrance. Away from the ocean there’s no place to cross as the river billows out much wider and much deeper. It’s about 20 metres across but then with a surging incoming tide it’s suddenly 20, before a tsunami like spill to 100 metres with a depth that is impossible to gauge.
Mark stripped down to undies and attempted to cross. Using my sticks to prod depth. He was chest deep at about a quarter of the way across. This would find me swimming and it’s currently about 3 degrees. Not impossible but impossible with a backpack, I think as I watch him, more than a little concerned. What we are relying upon is for the rain to stop so the river has time to settle down - but this does not look like happening. So here we are.
Tonight when Mark mentioned he’s quite prepared and ready to set off the EPIRB if the river has not subsided, it kind of threw me, made me realise our vulnerability. Strange that this single comment had the power to make me cry – the one and only time of the trip - when the realistic dangers we have faced pretty much hourly this week have not perturbed me at all.
I was in the tent, getting organised for the night as Mark made his comment to me. I was unpacking the sleeping bags and in my fingers I held a small name tag – Archie Chew – one that I sewn on by hand, he must have been taking the sleeping bag with him to camp. In this moment I felt so very far away from all those whom I love. I want to hug my kids. There’s a lump in my throat, I can’t even respond to Mark.
And so with our plans scuttled, Mark’s suggestion that the only way out is by helicopter makes the entire situation suddenly feel ten times worse.
Loser: Chicken Dinner 3/10 Honey Soy Yuk
Winner: Almond Chocolate – yum
Additional: Handful of muesli, but now my sleeping bag has crumbs – yum but dumb cos now breakfast is skint.
I go to sleep wondering where will we be this time tomorrow. I hope back in the Henry Jones with a bath and a telephone to speak with my babies.
DAY NINE TUESDAY APRIL 17 – SOUTH CAPE RIVULET
Morning. An impossibly long night. I didn’t sleep, just kind of dozed in and out. A thick headache and it’s freezing and yet I’m sweaty hot with 3 thermals and a fleecy and a hat and a puffer all inside my sleeping bag.
Mark has gone to check out the river. He’s taking a very long time that means he’s most likely contemplating crossing. I can do it! Course I can.
“Sal,” he’s outside the tent, “I don’t see how we can safely cross it. It’s coming down faster than last night.”
Here’s what happened.
We begin to pack up. As agreed we wait till 7. At 7am Mark set off the EPIRB, about the size of a phone with an antennae and a button that when pressed begins to emit a silent signal and a tiny green flash that:
Sends a message to a satellite;
To police in Canberra;
To Mum who’s playing golf so her phone is diverted to my sister;
To my Sister who validates who we are and where we are;
To Hobart Search and Rescue who also call my Sister to give her the game plan. Interestingly they also share their hunch – and that is they reckon, the weather has been so bad, we are stuck and can’t cross the river. Clever blokes!
And then a helicopter is deployed to leave Hobart.
On a beach watching the surf and the sky, Mark and I have Breakie mainly to keep our fingers and toes warm – it is the coldest day yet.
As we finish our tea, we release the last of our cooking gas ready to fly in a Chopper. Strangely the thought that a Chopper won’t appear on the horizons, never crosses our minds. It has to be a Chopper, we think. What if one of us has had a heart attack, or broken a leg, they can’t send in walkers, for all they know I’m performing CPR.
And we wait, feeling slightly uncomfortable about pressing the button. Mark more so than I. Have we done the right thing? Should we have been more prepared? But with every surge of the ocean pushing further and further back up the creek, with every branch that powers down the river out into the sea, I’m grateful not to be tackling it in my knickers. As it is with all my layers, I can’t feel my toes.
We hear it before we see it. Above the tree line, like a giant crab-bird, a bright red helicopter circles above us. Mark waves to them. They hover, take in the landscape and realising there is nowhere to land on our side, the Chopper lowers itself onto the sand of the beach opposite. Three Giant Power Ranger Action Hero Men jump out. They call to us, but with the blades still turning, we hear nothing. As the engine winds down, they introduce themselves – Michael, Andrew, Chris with a C and Kris with a K. They assess the situation. Thumbs up? Yep we are ok. All good. Just can’t cross the river. Here’s what the Super Hero Action Men do. They assess the situation, turn to one another and begin to….take selfies!! Yep, pics of the crew in and around the Chopper.
Selfies done, they turn back to us : “We’re gonna take her up. She’s gonna hover there. We’ll drop two blokes down to you and they’ll give you the plan. Good? Good!”
Sounds easy. Sounds exciting.
The Chopper hovers. Michael and Andrew are winched down to us on the beach below. They harness us up. Me first. Andrew holds my head and tells me to push down, to lower my centre of gravity. Then I’m flying. Up and up. 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 metres above the sea. All I remember is water below and noise – incredible noise.
Andrew holds me and my backpack, he stops it swinging.
On the back of my harness is a handle, now at the Chopper entrance, a hand reaches out and I’m pulled backwards, in and neatly onto a seat - lightning quick, I’m buckled. And now they’re winching Mark and all the while the pilot holds her steady, hovering, while on the ridge – quite close, gum trees tug and toss in the gale. And then we’re above it all. Above the camp. The river snakes away and we pull forward and forward and reach towards Hobart. The mountainous spread of forest slowly becomes houses and farms and water ways we recognises, Bruny once again, Satellite Island. Mid-flight, Michael sends my sister a text – all good. And I wonder how the last couple of hours have unfolded for her.
A beautiful flight landing back at Hobart Airport in under 40 minutes.
We land. No paperwork. Just a report with our names. I’d asked Mark to take photography for purposes of insurance – but no, the flight operation is free. Taxpayers dollars at work. Rather incredible. And as our packs are lifted out of the helicopter, our spirits are too by Michael’s simple comment – “You did the right thing guys. We’d so much more prefer to pick two healthy people up off a beach than fish a dead body out of freezing water.” Thanks for that Michael.
We shake the hands of the Super Heroes, pick up our backpacks and walk over to the airport terminal. It’s here some unlucky local driver, takes one look at two dishevelled individuals, carrying rucksacks covered in sand and mud. I’m still wearing full wet weather gear. Neither of us has washed in 9 days, for a taxi driver, this is one unlucky day. But being Hobart, the place where everyone is kind and obliging, he accepts our bags and our stink and drives us back to Hobart and on the way we call the Henry Jones to book a room.
It’s the stillest, sunniest day imaginable in Hobart. Outside cafes, people sip coffee and wander, slowly about the harbour, looking at boats.
Now in the reception at the Henry Jones the following exchange takes place:
“Do you need a car park? How did you arrive today?”
The question was irresistible.
“Ummm, today we arrived by Police Rescue Helicopter.”
A look of disbelief is followed by the handing over of keys to a room of complete splendour and I was neck deep in a spa bath moments later.
3 hours from button to bath and balcony view. Brilliant.
We then spend an afternoon fielding calls from disbelieving family members; hunting down a power cable for my computer; enjoying our first coffee; buying wine to drop off at the Rescue Centre; sipping a bottle of expensive Pinot imbibed from in between thick, white sheets; and importantly, deciding what to treat ourselves to for dinner – something fresh and crunchy, something with true and delicate flavours, something not out of a packet. Japanese won the day. Bar Wu on Elizabeth Street with her Tapas and Saki. Long calls to the kids. Then bed.
One would imagine we slept well. We did not. I think our brains were over stimulated. And the pillows were vast. And the room was hot, then cold….
On reflection, we are left with a feeling of unfinished business. Back in the safety of civilisation, there remains a sense of disappointment in not completing what we set out to achieve. If true adventure is about getting comfortable with the not knowing, we did this very, very well.
There was so much outside of our control, so much that we could not know until the moment that we faced it and we took all in our stride. The not knowing was not an issue. Never was there a sharp word or a sense of frustration with each other, and for this alone I feel proud. However, for both of us, there is unfinished business – and that’s the best way to sum it up.
And so our vow – we will, at some stage, later this year, pick our weather, drive out to Cockle Bay and walk the 12km in, camp where we were intended to camp on our last night, and walk the 12km out again. Ten days in the wilderness. Not consecutive nights, but ten nights on the South Coast Track no the less. Tick. Done, grand adventure complete. And it has been grand.
We pushed life this week. We lived every moment, in the moment. It’s been the stuff of relationship glue – mutual memories, memories ours alone. I feel an enormous sense of accomplishment and gratitude for the abilities of my body and mind and soul. I loved it. Definitely the most challenging, yet also one of the most wonderful experiences Mark and I have ever, may ever share.
Thanks to the Gods of Knees and Gore-tex; the Gods of Walking Sticks; of chocolate covered Sesame Snacks; of Miso; to Hannah Kent and Burial Rites – we shivered together in the snow. Thanks to insights and recommendations on camping kit from the guys at Paddy Pallin – Caroline, you were a star for your Arcteryx vs Katmandu push. Money spent on expensive blow up mattresses IS an investment. Thanks to our Hattie-moo-choo for keeping the home fires burning and the animals fed. Huge thanks to my Sister for taking the call, rather than Mum! And for keeping your cool throughout a morning when you were in meetings. Thanks to Super Human Hunky Men – you know who you are.
Thanks to Mark for making the amazing stuff of my life, happen and for never doubting – not even vaguely – my ability to undertake this trip. We do good adventures, you and me. Always have. Always will. I could not love you more if I tried. xs