Saturday, April 20, 2013

Hiking the Overland Track (getting back away)

Overland Track - Kitchen Hut
I spent six days hiking Tasmania's Overland Track to get away from it all. To stop the rush, to disengage, to "Tweetox".

On the second or third day I sat quietly in a small wooden hut with no electricity as wind and rain provided a gentle reminder of the relative comfort it offered when I saw a perspective shifting quote at the bottom of the hut's information board.

I don't remember it fully and can't find it through Google for the life of me (so I'm not sure it actually exists) but the essence was: "(in the wilderness) you are not getting away from it all, you are getting back to it."

It all depends on what it is to you I suppose.

The night before flying down to Launceston Damo sent me a text from Sydney reminding me to pack the essentials: tent, pegs, sleeping bag, food, etc. I was out enjoying Wilco at the time and put off packing until the morning. I may be a little disorganised at times, I may have missed check-in for my flight to Launceston by five minutes, but I'm not completely incompetent.

Besides, I only had one essential item and it was none of those things, which could be begged, borrowed, shared or stolen if the desperate need arose. I could not forget, nor lose, my Xanax and Pristiq (medication). I'm all to familiar with the special hell abrupt withdrawal from Xanax is for me, and how quickly it knocks me down. If I lost it I would call for the chopper. Seriously.

Overland Track - the team
The team, morning day two
But these were the basics and in the end I had it covered: food, shelter, warm and dry clothes, music, water, whiskey and human interaction. A waterproof jacket would have been handy, lining my pack with a waterproof bag would have been smart, doing some homework on the hike and not relying entirely on my three walking buddies would have been sensible.

But they all live in Sydney, so while they planned together I was in Melbourne doing stuff. I only met the other two when they arrived at Launceston airport; luckily the wilderness it's an easy place to lose people if you don't get along. Luckily they didn't do that to me.

I was in the middle of a discussion or two on Twitter on Good Friday when our charter bus entered the national park and reception dropped. And that was it, no social media or email for a week: would I be missed? No news: would Australia have a new Prime Minister when we emerged on the other side? No Google: how would we live without answers to the important questions that come up in conversation, like "Why are they called gators"?

The Overland Track is iconic among anyone half-interested in hiking. So much so it seems to be played down a little to counter its popularity and relative accessibility. I get the impression it's one of those things in the hiking community - tell a hiker you're doing the Overland Track and they might struggle to meet your enthusiasm, but say you've never done it and they'll be utterly aghast. Kind of like telling a music lover you just bought (or don't own) OK Computer.

I'd never camped more than 20 metres from a car or esky, let alone hiked, so should have really done (some) homework, but the others were well prepared.

Even some of those we encountered who seemed more experienced were caught out taking weather forecasts at their word, only to lament leaving behind that not-so-heavy second set of thermals when it snowed on Eastder Sunday. It was an Easter miracle that punished them for their paganistic faith in so-called "meteorology".

Overland Trak local
A knowledgeable, acclimatised local
What seemed to be a well-spoken yeti who crossed our path at Marion's Lookout told tales of waist-deep snow at Cradle Mountain last December. I heard of others who did the hike mid-winter in t-shirts. We were all fine, just. It may have been a different story without the ability to get clothes dry in the huts over night.

Inclement weather settled in and persisted through four of the six days but it did bring small graces. Every time the rain eased, stopped or - praise Gaia - the clouds let some sun through, I smiled a little and walked a little lighter.

Secondly, it was a camera deterrent - the one piece of technology left to capture distract from the stunning isolation and it's gift of space for quiet contemplation - allowing us to just walk and soak it up, literally.

It also prevented us from getting more than halfway up to the summit of Mount Ossa (the highest peak in Tasmania). It was too wet, cold and windy for the climb and the low visibility would make taking a camera up there rather pointless anyway.

The others were disappointed and I played along half-heartedly. I was beaten that day. The kilometres, kilograms and insufficient sleep conspired to overwhelm my body and mind. Feeling constantly dehydrated, I guzzled water from my camel pack like a camel. Even Easter eggs didn't lift my energy or mood.

And I was becoming a little cynical.

Honestly, I didn't care that we didn't reach the summit. On a clear day it would have been amazing to sit up there and look out over the world, I'm sure. But besides being absolutely buggered, I didn't see the need. Why are these things even named other than for people to say they've been there? Would we have tried at all if we couldn't take our cameras?

I felt at times as though we were on a mission to get to the next summit or waterfall just for the sake of it, expecting animal sightings as if it were a zoo, camera always at the ready to capture a moment never really lived. I took far too many photos - the curse of the digital camera and convenience anxiety - and have taken pleasure in posting and sharing some of them (including here), but it's just about getting the focus right ... so to speak.

Overland Track boardwalk
The best thing about this hike, which the weather couldn't dampen and may have even enhanced, was the isolation, the removal from daily "convenience" distractions, the peacefulness, the time to think and quieten life down for a week. It was fantastic to cherish small luxuries like water and shelter and a pack of cards, forget stupid problems, forget myself and take in pure life without the toxic additives. To get back to it.

Astoundingly, I barely listened to music all week, though had a wide range of relevant songs constantly in my head, most commonly A Little Fall of Rain and Under the Boardwalk. Strange, given the days I forget to take my earphones to work are the most horrible of all days. I thought I needed music. I got away from needing it for distraction, back to appreciating it with a calm mind.

We felt as though maybe we cheated a little by not pitching the tents once, but the huts were a godsend; a great place to rest up and relax at the end of each day's hike and meet/catch up with fellow hikers. I even made a Facebook friend!

Once the natural light runs out though, there's little to do and after the sun goes down there's not much to do. So everyone was in bed soon after dark, around 8.30pm, everyone would be in bed, side by side on wide wooden-surfaced bunks. 

I can never lie still in bed for long, nor without my iPhone singing softly to me and tempting me with interesting discussions online, like a group of friends chatting in the next room. If I follow you on Twitter we go to bed together most nights. With just a self-inflating mat on a wooden board, sleeping bag and sleeping bag case stuffed with clothes for a pillow, and nothing to stir my "monkey mind", I found it easy to lie completely still for at least half an hour or so each night. Yet it wasn't until the last couple of nights that I achieved reasonable chunks of uninterrupted sleep.

My dreams were strangely vivid. One night I dreamed of all the things I missed most - I was at a gig with friends, drinking beers before heading into the footy where my family were saving me a seat. Mos nights something entirely random that was part of my dream would be spoken of or appear the next day, most notably the bottom-emptying bins hung on poles that I wasn't aware Hobart still has. The clean air had restored my oracle powers.

It is an amazing experience. If you do it, be prepared. People seem to talk about it being mostly boardwalk, which was only true of the first couple of days. The sales assistant who sold me my hiking boots said I could do it in my blundstones. He is a liar. Even the boardwalks get pretty slippery - I had the bruise on my arse to prove it.

It's gets much more interesting under foot after the first couple of days as you scramble up and over rocks, navigate webs of slippery tree roots, gracefully dance from tiny rock to tiny rock to avoid mud and water, and leap over large puddles. You can't afford to get ahead of yourself, I had the mud all over my pants to prove it.

I could slip over lying down though. On the last day I counted around 20 kicks, trips, slips or stumbles. When the terrain was more difficult and I concentrated on careful footwork I was fine, but when things eased up and I stopped concentrating I tended to be at greater risk. The problem was you tend to not be aware when you stop thinking about something because you're not thinking about it.

Narcissis Jetty sunrise
Narcissis Jetty sunrise
We spent the final morning sitting on the Narcissis Jetty contemplating the past six days and keeping an eye out for platypi, while mother nature put on a spectacular sunrise, as if to make it up to us for all the miserable weather along the way.

And then the little ferry came to take us away again.