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There wasn’t much sunlight filtering in but the place still felt like the inside of a cathedral—not only the soaring ceilings and brilliant colours like stained glass, but also the hushed atmosphere of a place which had been sacred for centuries. King Billy Pines could live for two thousand years. When they fell they remained, moss-covered, like rows of green-cushioned pews.
It was only a nice little Toyota Corolla but the hire car made good time down the highway. All around me paddocks spread green and wet, the gums were positioned picturesquely, the clouds were choreographed for alluring effect one minute, dramatic emphasis the next. I pulled over two or three times to take photos and post them to Instagram: #tasmania #nofilter Cows ambled lazily in the damp grass. They were those black cows with the wide white cummerbunds around their middles. I used to know my Jerseys from my Guernseys, it was something we were taught in primary school, but I’ve forgotten the details.
As I came through Elizabeth Town the clouds over Quamby Bluff piled up and gathered and hung in a dark and threatening formation, but the cows couldn’t have cared less. I turned onto the secondary road, then from the secondary road onto the even more obscure byway that goes through the timber plantations at Beulah. Beulah Land, Paradise, Promised Land: the old pioneers who named those places were perfectly clear on where they wanted to end up. Near Beulah, the Mersey was in spate. I rolled the word around and tasted it.
As I drove up over a rise, Mount Roland stood majestically in the fields, cloud-capped today. There it had stood in my childhood, in my mother’s childhood, in her mother’s, etc. It was good to have a mountain in your psychic life. It was nine degrees Celsius in Sheffield and the sky was clear. I drove out the Claude Road, which leads to a town called Claude Road. I was 66 kilometres from Cradle Mountain, according to the sign, but I wasn’t sure if it was measuring to the Mountain itself, or to the entrance to the National Park, or to the turn-off to the entrance to the N.P.
I had driven this way before many times, though not in the week of the winter solstice.
When I crossed below the Cethana dam and chugged up the hill to Moina, the nice little Toyota Corolla doing quite a good job, it began to misty-rain and the temperature (according to the car dashboard) dropped to five degrees, then four degrees. It dropped as low as three degrees by the time I turned off from the bleak Middlesex Plains into the access road to the National Park. I didn’t mind this temperature drop at all, nor the cottonwool greyfluff that now shrouded the sky. My thinking was that this looked hopeful for snow. I didn’t wish for snow right now, you understand, since I doubted the Toyota Corolla’s ability to deal with snow. But if that woolly grey sky could produce some pretty snow overnight, once I was snugly tucked into my cabin, with the Toyota parked under the eaves and not going anywhere, that would be fine by me.
At the lodge, I scurried through the now quite distinct rain into the entrance and up to the reception desk where a huddle of three people were discussing their plans in what I think was Russian. They wore layers of Gore-Tex and strong hiking boots and warm beanies.
When she checked me in, the reception girl handed over a what she called a ‘welcome letter’ and began to explain in a patient sort of tone that this was the wilderness, phone reception was intermittent, and there was—she hit a pitch-perfect note of apologetic commiseration—no television in the room. I cut her off. I knew the drill. I’d been here before.
Outside, the rain was now slashing down in curtains. In fact, I suspected it might even be sleet. Snow, I heard on the grapevine, had fallen last night though it hadn’t lasted on the ground. In the toilets I had to wait behind a young woman who was wearing—wait for it—denim shorty-shorts, with black tights underneath. She primped in front of the toilet mirror for rather a long time. While I was waiting for her to vacate the single basin, I had plenty of leisure to wonder what had brought her to Cradle Mountain and what her plans were for amusing herself in this rainy wilderness with no television. In shorty-shorts.
Sitting in the lounge, waiting for my room to be ready, I toasted in front of the log fire. A young man in the armchair next to me was checking his phone. The lounge was the only place in the lodge which had Wi-Fi, so it attracted a good crowd. I couldn’t help noticing that he was wearing an impressive pair of shoes. They were sneaker-style but seemed to be made of patent leather, or perhaps very shiny plastic, black with white trim. I rather liked them. He’d paired them with those short socks that don’t come up any further than the rim of one’s shoe. His ankles (crossed) were bare, and he had his black jean-like trouser legs rolled up a bit. I wondered if he was with the Shorty-Shorts girl. Their style choices seemed similar.
A staff member in some kind of ranger-like uniform came long to stoke the fire. He built a base of massive logs, upon which he perched smaller logs in a cross-wise fashion, topped by another layer of big fellas. Then he shoved an iron poker into the middle of it all and heaved it a bit to make an opening for the air to draw, then walked away. From my fireside armchair, I watched this pile of lumber doubtfully. It seemed to me—and I’m familiar with log fires—that he hadn’t left enough air flow underneath. But thankfully, because I like a good blaze, I was wrong, and pretty soon the flames were swooshing up the centre of the pile and the whole thing was merrily alight. People, some of them damp, came in and stood in a row in front of the fireplace, presenting their bottoms to the flames.
I was allotted a Pencil Pine cabin, named after the ubiquitous native tree around here. They come either with or without balconies; mine was with. I was pleased with my cabin. It had a pretty view across a pond, or dam, or small lake. Because of its startling picturesqueness, I assumed this body of water was artificially created, but I didn’t know for sure. The lodge offered fly-fishing lessons on it. There was a path around its rim, which seemed to dissolve into swampland at the right, or north, side—particularly at the moment, when there was a great volume of water about. More or less in the centre of the pond (actually, just slightly off-centre, giving an aesthetically pleasing effect) was a small island with a large gum tree on it. This tree was atmospherically up-lit with a floodlight after dark. Beyond the pond was the beginning of the bush.
Even though it hadn’t stopped raining since I arrived, I put on a rain jacket and went out on to my Pencil Pine Balcony and gazed over the pond, and the island, and I saw a couple of hardy souls making their way around the rim with fly-fishing rods. Sitting on any balcony at the lodge, especially at dusk, was one of the pleasures of being on the edge of the wilderness because you could almost always see native animals. The main sightings were of wallabies, and wombats, and little pademelons. Also birds of various kinds, especially crows. There were no animals about in the rain, so I assumed they were sheltering wherever they shelter in winter rain. Wombats have burrows, of course, but where do wallabies go? I pondered this.
In the daylight of eight AM, I drew back the curtain with anticipation and—yes! Snow! Not a great deal of it, but a definite white coverlet over the scene of the pond and the trees. Three children in bright snow outfits, hot pink and blue and green, were cavorting in the open area alongside the pond, throwing snowballs and so on. The precipitation soon changed to rain and things became rather mushy, but I had a satisfying feeling of ‘mission accomplished’. The Toyota Corolla had three inches of snow on its windscreen when I walked past it on my way to breakfast. I paused in the lounge to use the Wi-Fi and post snow pictures. #cradlemountain
A log fire at breakfast, in the snow, exerted a certain influence on this city-dweller, fooling me into thinking I was really in the wilderness. But I reminded myself there was more to it, much more, inside the boundaries of the National Park and along the hiking trails. However it seemed unlikely that I’d see the ‘real’ wilderness on this damp weekend. But I knew I could do a little better than sitting in front of fires, and I also suspected that the snow wouldn’t last all day. The rain was already washing it away. So I set out on a walk.
The temperature outside was three degrees Celsius at ten AM. I began my short stroll along the boardwalk that the lodge management has dubbed ‘The Enchanted Walk’. It was a corny name but I could see where they were coming from. A boardwalk may seem like a tame way to trek in ancient rainforest but before you judge me, consider that a boardwalk is a good way to prevent the boots of the enchanted tourists from wrecking the delicate mosses and rainforest understory. It might also prevent the tourists from slipping into Pencil Pine Creek, today a raging torrent of meltwater. You might say it was in spate.
Usually you meet quite a lot of people walking, enchanted, along this boardwalk, but in the rain it was silent and empty, apart from the gushing of the creek. There were several wombat burrows near the boardwalk. I saw, with horror, that they were flooded. Where do the poor lumbering-though-loveable beasts go at this time of year? I noticed one or two examples of fresh wombat scat so they must be somewhere about. Wombat scat, as you may know, is cuboid. The rain was washing away the barely-digested grassy cubes.
As I neared the end of the brief, but Enchanting, Walk, I came across a damp wallaby munching beside the path, its fur pathetically wet. The animals near the lodge were used to human observers, though they adopted a rather disdainful world-weary air, particularly if they were as soaked as this guy. After allowing me to snap a few photos, the wallaby bounded off, soaring impressively over a fallen log. #wetwallaby
I felt I’d done enough walking in the rain for the time being. On the way back to my cabin I nearly tripped over a large wombat feeding unconcernedly, almost on the path. I had heard they could be dangerous to approach, and could run faster than you might think, but the local wombats at the lodge seemed slow and somewhat soporific. I hoped this one had an unflooded burrow to return to.
The next morning I woke late to find a suggestion of sunshine. The sky, covered for two days with a dirty bathrobe, now had baby-blue peeking through and I welcomed it with joyful anticipation. I had plans for such a day. After breakfast I purchased a National Park Day Pass from Reception and headed the Toyota Corolla into the Park. I drove on cautiously, since the road is narrow in places. As luck would have it, I met a Shuttle Bus in a narrow section, with me on the ‘down’ side, a steep drop off to my left. The bus driver and I stopped and eye-balled each other for a few moments. The driver said something to his passengers on his intercom (I wondered what), then crept forward. We spoke through our open windows as we passed within thirty centimetres of each other.
‘I’ll git on parse yers, darls,’ he said.
I said ‘thanks’ and flipped in the Toyota Corolla’s rear-vision mirror as he edged the van past me.
As I drove on to Ronny Creek and Dove Lake, I could see snow dusting the highest hills. There was a rise in the road where Cradle itself came into view, and—lo!—it was covered in snow. I exclaimed ‘wow!’ a couple of times. As soon as I parked near the lake, I was out and snapping photos, since there were already clouds on the highest point of the cradle, and clouds could move quickly. But this morning they didn’t, and on my hike around Dove Lake I was happy-snapping all the way. It took about two hours, in an anti-clockwise circuit of about seven kilometres. It was grand weather for hiking.
The little beaches around the Lake were under water. The old grey timber boat shed, though still sitting picturesquely where it had for decades making a nice foreground element for photos of the mountain, was filled with water. The Ballroom Forest was looking divine: ancient moss-papered King Billy Pine trunks, neon-green moss floors, dappled silver lichened tree trunks and yellow tea-coloured water rushing across the old red rocks of the small steam. There wasn’t much sunlight filtering in but the place still felt like the inside of a cathedral—not only the soaring ceilings and brilliant colours like stained glass, but also the hushed atmosphere of a place which had been sacred for centuries. King Billy Pines could live for two thousand years. When they fell they remained, moss-covered, like rows of green-cushioned pews.
After the Ballroom I began to see more pandani, with their curling tips and tousled heads. Further round the lake there was a patch of horizontal scrub, agonising and twisting its way to the water and today dusted with some remnants of ice and snow. I could see a good covering of snow atop Marion’s Lookout, and the dolerite chimneys of Cradle itself were thick with white ice. I met several walkers on the track, many well-equipped with heavy-duty Gore-Tex jackets and walking poles.
I also met a few tourists who, though intrepid, really needed some footwear advice. One couple were wearing white leather sneakers (him) and ugg boots (her). It was a wet track and they were spending a lot of time and energy trying to avoid getting their feet wet. Another girl, with a guide who should have advised her (but perhaps she had nothing else), was wearing slip-on canvas plimsolls with no socks.
Back at Waldheim Chalet I planned to eat my snack in the day hut, but it was occupied by a group with thermoses and a picnic. I passed a wombat, a family of four ground birds, a kangaroo, and several orange-eyed crows. I ate my snack on the veranda of the chalet closely watched by one of these frightening birds, who was presumably hoping to catch a few crumbs. A second crow joined us and the birds exchanged a conversation: ‘Caw! Caw!’
Waldheim Chalet was a re-creation of the original hut, pulled down (for fear of its falling down) in 1975. The original had been built in the 1920s by Austrian immigrant Gustav Weindorfer, who lived there with his wife Kate. They met at a naturalists’ club in Melbourne where they pressed flowers together. Weindorfer lived alone in the hut for years after Kate had died, and extended it to become a chalet where he entertained guests. Weindorfer also fought the political fights needed to turn the whole area into a national park.
Inside the chalet, I found a branch of dried orange fagus in a jug on the windowsill. Fagus is an indigenous, deciduous myrtle bush that grows all through the forest here, turning spectacularly red and orange during a certain week in April. Photographers descend during that week to ‘take the fagus’. Weindorfer is buried at Waldheim, the spot marked by a large cenotaph with banks of mature fagus rising behind it like the facade of a church.
I stayed in the cabins behind the chalet once, when I was young. My memories are of cold, and the water pipes freezing, and knocking icicles off the eaves. I remember snow at the day hut too, and on the open plain below it. In fact, that’s my earliest memory: of walking through the snow towards Dove Lake, stepping in the adult footsteps in front of me, like the page who followed Good King Wenceslas. The king, in my case, was my Uncle Neil. In my memory the snow comes up to my knees, which it may actually have done, because I was probably only four or five years old, my knees not far from the ground.
Every time I stand near the day hut and look out across the open plain below, I see—no, rather, feel—that walk through the snow, and the wonder of the plain, and the comfort of having large footsteps in which to follow.
It was 16:45 and the light of the day was almost gone. When I walked through Weindorfer’s Forest near Waldheim, the trunks and stumps were covered in the greenest-green moss, looking like a sponge that would momentarily take the imprint of a hand. I searched for the neon-coloured fungi that swims like tropical fish in this forest, but there was very little to see. Perhaps it was too wet even for fungi. The quiet of the place, though close to the car park and the tourists’ mini-van, was impressive. With no phone signal, no television, ‘No Drones’ (as a new sign commanded), no humming electricity wires, there was a background of silence. The occasional car engine faded away quickly. A crow cawed; a wombat rustled.
Tonight I’d finish the pinot noir and tomorrow the Toyota Corolla and I would depart. And before I’d even gone, I’d started to miss this place.