Inside the silver billycan — a cooking pot that is deeper than it is wide and cheaper than it is sturdy — a small mountain of lentils is bubbling and spluttering, gently tapping at the underside of a closed lid. They are plump and steamy and make a squelching sound as though they are wading through mud rather than becoming the dahl that will soon be dinner.
In the communal area of New Pelion Hut, the German couple we met on the first day of the hike is seated on the wooden picnic table near us. Usually, our conversation switches between pleasant nods and overviews of the trail so far. But right now, as they rehydrate their spaghetti bolognese in a room of ambiguous food smells, they bear the kind of ravenous expression that means there will be no chit chat.
“I think it’s ready,” says my hiking partner Justin, seated across the table.
But before I have the chance to dish out the thick lentil dahl, take the billycan off the stove or even turn off the gas, Eric the ponytailed ranger gathers our attention.
“Because of the bushfire near Mount Oakleigh,” he says. “Everyone is going to be evacuated.”
“A helicopter will be here in an hour.”
I look at Justin. Then the billycan. Then our German friends at the other picnic table, looking at their own simmering dinner. Someone asks whether we can wait to pack up our tents.
“So long as you’re ready when the helicopter arrives,” Eric says.
Another hiker asks where we’ll be going — to the start of the trail or, further along the track? Eric doesn’t know. Then someone asks what is on everyone’s mind — can we eat dinner first?
“Just be ready,” he replies.
After a few days of coughing through smoke as though we are the kindling in some kind of huge fireplace, news of an evacuation was no surprise. Yet amid the drama of a bushfire, one so close that it could burn through this flammable eucalyptus forest and chase at the straps of our backpacks, such a fixation on food can mean only one thing — it is past five o’clock. And we are all bloody hungry.
For the past three days, I have been hiking Tasmania’s Overland Track, a trail that crawls more than 50 miles from the saddle-shaped peak of Cradle Mountain to the glycerine tides of Australia’s deepest lake, Lake St. Clair. While it lacks the distance of the Pacific Crest Trail, the fame of the Camino de Santiago, or the Mars-like desertscape of Australia’s own Larapinta Trail, it is fiercely popular, sometimes booked out months in advance, and often makes lists of the world’s best long walks. It is not an unfounded popularity, either.
As Justin and I planned our hike, I swooned over photos of distant mountain ranges, dreamed of summiting rocky peaks and imagined a blissful eight days spent in the company of a broad landscape verdant with eucalypts, King Billy pine trees and fern-like pandani. In fact, there is a photo — easily found by a Google search — of the exact view from the wide porch of New Pelion Hut. It builds from a low brush of buttongrass, staked with skinny and windswept eucalyptus and backdropped to the north by Mount Oakleigh and its dolerite spires, piercing the sky like the devil’s teeth.
But when I arrived at the hut and stood on that porch, nature had largely erased itself. In place of mountains and eucalypts was an opaque white smoke that choked out the cornflower blue sky, the dolerite peaks and even the distant buttongrass trailing to the mountain’s base. It was a Turner type of landscape — a series of fuzzy shapes that suggested the presence of something greater. And it was deeply, almost cruelly disappointing.
At New Pelion, Eric has returned to the ranger hut, leaving in his absence a muddle of hikers gathering dirty boots and rolling up sleeping mats. We pack up the stove, gather our cooking utensils and trudge back to our campsite in a flat, grass clearing beneath a circle of towering gums trees.
Earlier that day en route from Windermere hut, we descended from the buttongrass moorlands that sprawled out toward the mountains in a series of red tinged tufts to the first real sheltered forest of the hike. Frog Flats, the literal low point of the track, was a damp and moss-laden myrtle-beech rainforest watered by the Forth River and home to leatherwood trees, sassafras and in the right season, fungi. Today, there was just one sun-sapped specimen of beech orange, growing on a myrtle tree like a shriveled golf ball. This section of forest however, was enchanting in the way that I imagine the Pacific Northwest or some patch of New Zealand to be, and its dampness offered some respite from the thick smoke — even for a few miles.
Emerging from the forest, we strode across another length of alpine grassland, this time following a horse trail built in 1898 to serve the now defunct copper mine. At a fork in the path, we encountered a fellow hiker.
“You missed happy hour!” said Steve.
We met Steve — a Canadian living in Chicago travelling in Australia — on the first day of the hike at Waterfall Valley and soon became familiar with his infectious, cartoon-like laugh that rose at the end of each chuckle. From Steve, we learned that the hut was full, the track to the north of us was maybe closed and the sky — in the form of ash — was falling. We decided to make camp later and dropping our packs, followed the side path toward historic Old Pelion Hut.
The Overland Track, even in its isolation, is strewn with reminders of Tasmania’s colonial history, a history that involves not only the eradication of species like the thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger, but also Tasmania’s indigenous population, the Palawa. Over decades, a stream of explorers, whalers, sealers, convicts and eventually settlers would arrive in Tasmania, each leaving the indigenous population — a previously isolated group of people — vulnerable to disease, and later, violence.
Following the Black War of the late 1820s, the remaining Palawa were persuaded by a missionary — George Augustus Robinson — to relocate to Flinders Island with the assurance that they would be returned to their land. The families at Wybalenna Aboriginal Establishment were again decimated by disease and only 47 Palawa were returned to Tasmania in 1847. It is believed that two women, Truganini and Fanny Cochrane Smith, who died in 1876 and 1905 respectively, were the last remaining Tasmanian Aborigines.
In this context, it is difficult to reconcile such a callous past with the sheer natural beauty of Australia’s island state. However, as Matthew Power wrote, wildness is perhaps that which survives the brutality thrust upon it. And Tasmania has been close to losing this wildness too.
It was only in the 1980s, following a fierce battle between conservationists, loggers and hydro-electric supporters, that the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area — an area which includes the Cradle Mountain Lake St. Clair National Park — was established. Among these conservationists were the descendants of the Palawa. Nearly a century after their ancestors were forced off their land, they stood against the damming of the Franklin River to preserve a parcel of land that is crossed by a single highway, covers some 20 percent of Tasmania and is one of the world’s last great swathes of temperate rainforest.
Yet, it would be foolish to think that anything, especially when pitched against a state’s flailing economy, is truly safe. In 2014, the Australian Government led by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, proposed delisting the wilderness area from its World Heritage Site status to allow the logging of trees within protected areas. The proposal was rejected by the World Heritage Committee that same year and, for now, has been honored by both the federal and state governments.
Back at New Pelion Hut, it is about 6pm. The sun is low and the sky is all beige and white. Justin and I are seated on a log beside our tent. Our half-packed backpacks are nearby . The billycan of dahl is at our feet, lid on. In the camp clearing, other hikers are seated obediently by their belongings. We are all waiting for the last minute, or five, when we will pack up our tents and mats and board a helicopter to some place else.
Tonight, that moment will not come. Eric will soon gather us to announce that no helicopter is coming. It has instead been diverted to the white waters of the Franklin River for an emergency greater than our own. We are told to wake up early, pack up quickly and hike on. No camping away from the huts. No stoves along the track. Maybe, we will be evacuated tomorrow.
But seated on the log, we have no way of knowing this. Instead, we tuck into dinner — two spoons, one billycan, a bunch of lentils — and finally, our hunger is satiated. Around us, the air swirls with fine grey, white flecks of ash that crumble when touched. They fall like fresh snow powder, dissolving before it reaches the ground.
It is the first day of the hike, January 25th, and we are en route to Waterfall Valley hut via the peak of Cradle Mountain. We have left our backpacks in a small shack at the foot of the mountain and begin a slow and steady climb. Toward the top we scramble and crawl over rust-colored dolerite boulders until we reach its peak at more than 5,000 feet. The sky is perfect — a crisp blue with cumulus clouds puffed like cotton candy, stretching to the horizon. To the southwest rises the flat-topped peak of Barn Bluff. But to the west are huge, gray plumes of smoke that billow from a dozen or so fires ignited ten days before.
Unlike Australia’s red desert heart where fire is not only a land management tool but also the sole means of germination for dormant plant species, Tasmania’s alpine area was not one forged in flames. While large-scale fires are said to have occurred around 10,000 years ago, they increased with the arrival of Europeans and pastoralism. Since the World Heritage declaration, they have been somewhat controlled through the prohibition of campfires. But something like a dry lightning storm is harder to control. And while these fires were caused by nature, they are hardly a natural event.
A report from the Australian Climate Council describes the way in which climate change is affecting all three factors that make a bushfire possible that is, ignition, fuel and weather. While these factors interact in complex ways, it can be said that climate change is providing both the dry, hot weather conditions conducive to bushfires and also the kind of storms that ignite them. Ecosystems such as Tasmania’s alpine region with its slow-growing, long-lived flora species are particularly vulnerable and the consequences can be irreversible.
It was only recently that I saw photos of the source of those plumes of smoke — that is, the fire damage to some 177,915 acres of wilderness within the Cradle Mountain–Lake Saint Clair and Walls of Jerusalem National Parks. It is a stretch of soot and ash and charred forest that bears the same horror and beauty of Sebastio Salgado’s images of burning Kuwaiti oil fields. Stands of 1,000 year old King Billy pines and pencil pines, remnants of species that evolved on the ancient landmass of Pangaea and whose close relatives are the Californian redwood, have been burned. The Nothofagus, Australia’s only native deciduous beech whose ancestors grow on the slopes of the Andes, are gone. Then, there are the humble cushion plants.
A personal hiking favourite, the cushion plant is a compact, mini ecosystem ingeniously designed to survive Tasmania’s inclimate weather. Throughout the landscape they appear, as the name suggests, like bright green cushions — firm and bulbous and made up of several flora species including the tiny white flowering alpine sundew. By being grouped in mounds cushion plants can better cope with icy winds and frequent snow, as well as raise the temperature within to prevent their water supply from freezing.
The cushion plant, designed with all the right specifications for what it should be and where it should be, is, in fact, a microcosm of a much bigger problem. Like many natural environments and individual species, its sturdy appearance belies its fragile existence. Our Overland Track guide, issued by the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, says that a cushion plant can take some thirty years to recover from a single misplaced boot step. Now, in these photos from the fire, they are just piles of soot, yellowed on top. How will they — how will anything — recover from this?
It is sunrise and someone, somewhere, is laughing. It is a rolling, cackling laugh that switches from a series of ha-has to a dolphin-like chortle. Perhaps, they are laughing at us. Laughing at a failed evacuation, at an opaque sky, at an eclipsed mountain view. But this is a familiar laugh. It is that of the stout-bodied, long billed kookaburra — a species native to eastern Australia but introduced in these parts.
Outside our tent, we are surrounded by animal scat from the possums and quolls and (we hope) Tasmanian devils, who screeched and squealed at the night. The sky is still a shade of off-white but it is balmy and warm. We could almost be in the tropics. The kookaburra laughs again.
Our hike starts by following Douglas Creek before beginning a gradual ascent of 980 feet to Pelion Gap. While the busy period of the Overland Track from October to May operates on a strict reservation system, this hike has felt particularly overcrowded. I had hoped for solitude and isolation, or at least the feeling of it, but without the option of camping away from the hut or taking less frequented side-trails, we are rarely alone. This section of balmy myrtle forest with its palm-like pandani, King Billy pine and blanket of neon moss, however, is quiet and still. We linger.
Today, there has been much talk of skipping huts — or as Aussies like to say, ‘smashing’ them, as Aussies like to say when we talk about doing something big, all at once. One guy, a kind of fitness bro who talks plenty but says nothing, has been telling anyone who will listen that he plans to smash the trail in four days, skipping a few huts and opting for the ferry back to Cynthia Bay. Normally, he would be the exception. After all, why would you bother to hike if you had no real desire to enjoy it? But between the smoky air, the smoky sky and at one hut, the smoky drinking water, morale is low and whispers of ‘getting the hell outta here’ are growing louder.
“What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” wrote American naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau in his 1861 treatise, Walking, penned seven years after Walden. What Thoreau did not anticipate, however, was a walk in the woods — without the woods there. When we arrive at Pelion Gap, a flat valley expanse between Tasmania’s highest point of Mount Ossa (5305 feet) and Mount Pelion East (4701 feet), the dolerite mountains are only teasing outlines, craggy and boulderous, existing solely behind a veil of smog.
We are, unfortunately, used to this landscape by now. The previous day, we had stopped at the Forth Valley lookout in the hope that its dramatic glacial valley and giant eucalyptus forest would be unobstructed. It was not. At the lookout I chatted with Peter, a New Zealand man, hiking with his two adult- children. Like most people on the track, they were disappointed there was nothing to see. And he was right. This is big country — mountains and boulders and broad, scenic views — for which you would walk six days through the wilderness to see. But it had become small.
So then, for what do we hike?
There is the mental and physical challenge of such a backpacking trip. Or, the meditative nature of walking, of placing one foot in front of the other with the sureness that the earth will catch the weight beneath our feet. In the age of Instagram, there’s also the opportunity to be an adventurer — real or imagined — to hashtag a photo just so, and show that you have been places that others perhaps have not. Of course, I am guilty of this.
But then there are the things which surround us – the nature itself. There are vast buttongrass moorlands that sway with the breeze, snow peppermint gums with tan, orange and gray streaked bark, celery top pine with small, flattened branches that look like leaves, the curled white tendrils of the flowering guitar plant, the flaming red tips of a scoparia, the yellow brushlike flowers of the silver banksia, and the thick crust of lichens in yellows and oranges and greens padding the trees and the rocks and the wooden poles of trail markers. Then there is the yellow eye of the clever and crowlike Currawong, the square-shaped skat of a wombat, the vomit-like call of the yellow wattlebird, the deliberate waddle of a short-beaked echidna, and the midnight shrieks of an imagined Tasmanian devil.
But without an awe-inspiring backdrop, is an orange streaked gum tree, a pile of square poop, a vomiting bird or a crusty lichen reason enough to undertake a through-hike? For some — the birders, the naturalists, the nature lovers able to gush over a single metallic skink — of course it is. But if it were for everyone else, then perhaps fewer people would have beelined for the ferry at the northern edge of Lake St. Clair. Yet, unlike Thoreau, hiking thoughts beyond the forest, are not so concerning. It is more the fact that this, without exaggeration, is what climate change looks like.
From the quiet of the bush, there is a whirring, buzzing, humming sound. Ever since the scenic tour helicopters disappeared near Cradle Mountain, we have not heard anything even slightly mechanical. But, outside, there is an unmistakable motoring. A crowd has now gathered on the porch of Kia Ora hut. Everyone stares at the sky, mouths ajar, eyes wide. Hovering before us is a red and yellow four-blade helicopter with ‘police’ emblazoned across the side. Beside me is Cass, a Queenslander hiking the track with her husband.
“Are they coming for us?” she says, as if we are witnessing the landing of a UFO.
The helicopter lands. The blades continue to whip the air. There is silence. Then, four people clamber out. They put on their packs and walk toward us. More silence. Finally, someone says hello. Everyone laughs. The nervous quiet has broken. The helicopter makes two more trips from Waterfall Valley to Kia Ora, carrying about ten hikers two days ahead on the trail. Amanda, another ranger, soon arrives.
“The track is officially closed now,” she says. “Until further notice.”
We are alone. All forty or so of us, cramped and camped at a hut designed for twenty people. But we are still technically evacuating. That is, we are evacuating ourselves on foot. Walking further and further, out of the fire.
It is early evening at Kia Ora hut and we have just finished dinner. Since the helicopters left, there has been a stormy downpour with the rain falling heavy and cold. While the dampness has lured out the thin and tensile Tasmanian leaches, the first of which would feast upon Justin’s foot this very evening, it is certainly welcome. Rain will smother the fires, stifling their hurried advances and wash away some of the smoke, if temporarily.
Outside, the air smells like a storm, the ground is muddy, the plants are glossy. The world is suddenly alive. Heavy rain clouds begin to drift away, revealing a patchy blue sky. The nearby Kia Ora stream cascades and bubbles. Crickets chirp. From the empty tent platform opposite our own, there is an opening in the trees and, slowly, Cathedral Mountain comes into view. People rush to find their cameras and a small crowd gathers once again to stare at the sky.
The heavens have spectacularly opened, and for a moment it seems the hand of humanity is slight. We watch as pink-tinged clouds and gentle mist rises from rocky columns and boulderous peaks, revealing dolerite folds in an otherwise flat cliff face. Below, the forest runs thick and deep, concealing the upper reaches of the Mersey River. It is big country. It is what we have come to see. It is nature — unpredictable, beautiful, frustrating — in its holiest of forms. And we, its most rapacious of pilgrims, can do little but watch.
Alessandra Bergamin is a freelance travel and science writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She blogs irregularly at alessandrabergamin.com and tweets at @AllyBergamin.