Stretching the horizon

Strange creatures stride across the pale grass, braced for winter weather, lumbering in their assortment of bright warm coats and thick, soggy socks. They have migrated from urban metropolitan centres across the globe to wander in awe of the Cradle landscape. Many pictures are snapped, to show family and friends unfortunate enough to be unable to share the experience. But the centrepiece, the mountain, shelters behind silky mist, at some points casting black shadows upon its visitors.

I have always been captured by the notion of mountain horizons – black, white and blue borders to the enormous Tasmanian sky. There is an intimacy in the mountain’s scowl, and as I gain ground up the side of Hanson’s Peak, leaving the other visitors behind, the perspective twists the mountain’s shape into itself until, between blinks, it appears as a cathedral. It is easy to imagine it hides large, primordial creatures scratching out their existence under the dolerite columns.

Many stories and myths written by the wind, rain and ice can be read within this landscape. The rock-shattered scree glazed under ice and frozen overnight, provides unforgiving footholds for hikers and trees alike. Long-standing gums bend their ashy backs in a game of limbo, clinging to life on rock ledges, high above Dove Lake. They are the trees of the frontier. 

In 1836 this route was used by the last Tasmanian Aborigines, a singular family who were escaping deportation to Flinders Island and their certain deaths. The frontier was later explored by the early European trappers, hunters and miners. They searched the Central Plateau for game and minerals, seeing it as the wasteland of central and western Tasmania. 

Hanson’s Peak itself is a memoir to a boy, of 16 years, named Bert Hanson, who died on the mountain from exposure in 1906, the first recorded death of a European in this area. The landscape has never offered hospitality. Ewen Scott and David Kilvert met their deaths on the mountain in 1965, as have other underprepared walkers since then. This complex patch of land, home to tragedy and currawongs with dagger-yellow eyes, is a brutal Eden in the eyes of humans. It is indeed a last outpost where nature still dominates in the 21st century. 

Yet, between the ice and rock, walkers continue to tread the narrow path between danger and death.

. . .

I can only assume this place held spiritual significance for the first Tasmanians, but we know so little of their beliefs. Now, the last remaining natives on this plateau are the assortment of wild creatures who make their homes here. When Gustav and Kate Weindorfer built their forest home, Waldheim, in the early 1900s, they reinterpreted the early European concept “wasteland” as “wilderness”. Knobbly and scabbed with lichen, embraced by the mossy ancients of the temperate rainforest, the small chalet, along with its family of outbuildings, became a haven for those wanting to discover this hidden Eden. Traces of its history and construction stretch into the surrounding forest. 

In a small evening adventure, I once found one of those traces. It was a tree stump; a King Billy stump. Dark and amphibian, defying the brunt of a hundred years, its wood remained sturdy, smoothed by the elements and polished by hundreds of stray hands and feet that had passed through those trees. Naturally, a pair of currawongs had followed me to this spot, occasionally commenting to each other with oily croaks. 

Out of sight of modernity, the present was no longer apparent. For more than a century now, trees such as this one have lured travellers out of the cosy, wooden cabins that Waldheim has become. Their minds were transformed as they realised they could love this wilderness, much like they loved gardens. But this is a place owned by no gardener, who determines which of the garden’s inhabitants is to live or die, from one season to the next. Here, there are no margins that outline the life and death of the trees and animals. Here, death gives life to the next. Snow can fall in summer. The sun appears warm and bright in winter. Trees self-embalm like pharaohs. The wilderness is free-willed, completely autonomous of human control.

Waldheim was the first wilderness enterprise, but hardly the last. Over time, there has been an evolution in the way we see the wilderness. Seeing has remained the traditional method of experience, but with the development of cameras and communications places are no longer just exist through our senses. They now also live in the Instagram dreams which represent the bucket list mentalities of the new era. Our sense of slow, evolutionary concepts is being lost in trend-based internet-microclimates. These images are now refined and consumed by both local and international customers. Due to our consumer expectations, we have divided wilderness experiences into smaller and smaller portions.

A ten-minute step out of a car, and you can lift your phone high enough to capture the ragged mountain comb, or alternatively, you can possibly rush up a trail, then crawl back into the bright warm body of your vehicle, a little damper and colder than you once were. I wonder whether we are stuck in a tale that reflects the dark anthropology of our metropolitan existence, where many seek to relieve their stressful lives in a competitive rush to ‘do’ a nature experience. It strikes me, how many of those winter travellers lift their faces to the enormous Tasmanian sky and question how many of these crisp, virgin skylines remain in our ever-shrinking world?

With soaked feet and mud to my kneecaps, I slowly descend the trail from Hanson’s Peak to Lake Dove.  So does the sun, sinking behind the ridge. It becomes a chase. My scrambling feet race down the roll of our rocky planet, but the descent is fast. I reach the ridgeline below Hanson’s Peak and the sun waits above the distant horizon. Up here, heat and colour depart along with the sun, and the blue, black and white borderlines are limitless for the walker, whose act of walking stretches the horizon. 

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