Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Surviving the Overland Track

Round One. Struggling up to Marion's Lookout. Crater Lake, one of many glacially formed cirques, can just be seen far below. In one section you have to haul yourself up on a chain.

All I wanted to do for the first three days was to turn around and go home. This was made worse by the fact that the first leg included a climb of 1223 metres in 35oC heat. I drank all my water before I got halfway up and while trying to refill it at Crater Falls, my pack fell over and landed in the creek. Luckily almost everything stayed dry, even my boots, but that was pretty much the only water I saw for the rest of the day.

According to the track notes this was supposed to be a walk of ten km -as the crow flies I suspect -and should have taken between 3 and 5 hours but by dusk I had officially only gone 2.5 hours and still had one point five hours to go. I could have cried and would have gladly gone back to base were it not for the fact that I would have to go back down over the chain in the dark.There was no choice now but to press on to Waterfall Valley.

The storm predicted for four o'clock arrived around nine. There were storm clouds and rain on every mountain except the one I was on and I was dying of thirst. When I finally made it to the hut, it was pitch dark and there was no moon. It was then that I discovered that the only thing which had gotten wet was my torch. The last thing I remember is lying down on the bare wooden boards of the sleeping platform , absolutely determined to go home in the morning.

I woke up cold, hungry and wishing I had tested the sleeping bag. Usually they are far too big but this one, surprisingly light and rated minus 10oC proved to be a bit too short and a bit too narrow. At least my feet didn't hurt and I didn't have a single blister. In fact, I was amazed at how good I felt.
While I was cooking up my instant noodles, a chirpy volunteer warden came up and told me that I had already done the hardest part.The next part she assured me, was literally a walk in the park. Being a bit embarrassed to be heading home so soon, I thought I might go on to the next hut, spend a day or two there and then head home. Water was still a problem, but a young ranger (Angela?) gave me an empty metho bottle which worked perfectly well, though people did look at me a little strangely when they saw me taking swigs out of it.

The walk was pleasant enough, past several alpine tarns with the bulk of Barn Bluff as a backdrop. At Windemere Hut there were platforms for pitching tents, a big verandah, a wood stove, stainless cooking areas and tables, a water tank and wonder of wonders, a composting toilet. Although it's BYO everything else, the huts are a fantastic sight at the end of a hike, particularly, I imagine in the event of bad weather. During the night though, there was a great kerfuffle and an influx of campers. Possums had ripped open one of the tents and stolen someone's food. The possums here are enormous and so smart that they can undo zips and open packs and they know exactly where campers keep keep all the goodies. After that, everyone hung their packs from assorted nails on the roof.

Mt. Pelion West. First time I have been game to stop and take the camera out.

The big breakthrough came when I made it to New Pelion Hut. Although it still took much longer than it was supposed to, this 16-75 km put me almost halfway. I started before first light, brushing away rainsoaked cobwebs. As I stumbled in late in the day, the peak baggers were already coming back from their 4-5 hour 'side trip' up nearby Mt. Oakleigh.

Button Grass Plains approaching New Pelion Hut with Mt. Oakleigh in the Background

It was in this area that I first came across "the Others." They were a party of about six or eight (some were guides) and included two older women and a man who walked with the aid of two sticks. Just as I struggled to the top of a pass, they would sail past me, fresh as a daisy. After about the third friendly encounter, I asked them how they did it.

"Easy!" said the seventy five year old. "We only carry eight kilograms. Everything else is supplied. Freshly ground coffee, morning and afternoon tea, hot showers, real beds and three course gourmet dinners with a glass of wine in luxury huts."
Of course all this comes at a price. Around $2,450 per person. Towards the end one confessed that that secretly they all wished they could do it my way. To which I could only reply. "Secretly I wish I could do it your way."

After Pelion Pass the whole country opens up to display some of Tasmania's highest mountains and secret valleys filled with myrtle forests and waterfalls. Leatherwoods were blooming and there were some delightful swimming spots. Having conquered the longest part of the journey, I now felt ready to take on a few side trips, though not quite to the extent of the peak baggers racing up Mt. Ossa.

Every Tasmanian vegetation type can be seen on the Overland Track. This is Pandani

View of Mt. Pelion East from Mt. Doris. What's Mount Doris? It's the small mountain right next to Mt. Ossa. OK it's not as famous, but almost as big, much prettier and much easier to climb. Thanks to Pelion Ranger Paul Challen for suggesting it. Great views of the surrounding mountains too except for the smoke from bushfires in adjacent valleys.

This is Mount Ossa 1617 m, Tasmania's highest peak

Ancient Pencil Pines and cushion plants on Mt. Doris.

Little soaks with alpine plants and dwarf species, Mt. Doris

Kia Ora Hut tucked beneath Castle Crag has to be one of my favourites, the more so because you come upon it after a long dry walk through snake infested gullies and there it is with its cascades of little waterfalls and the best swimming hole yet, surrounded by rock on three sides with a sparkling six or seven foot waterfall tumbling over and moss covered trees all around.

Leatherwoods in bloom at Du Cane Hut

Historic Du Cane hut ( emergency use only) is in a lovely setting with the mountains above and myrtle forest all around. It was built in 1910 by snarer, miner and bushman, Paddy Hartnett. Hartnett Falls below, bear his name.

Marsupial lawns and quiet pools above Hartnett Falls

Fergusson Falls. One of several lovely waterfalls along the way.

From here on, most of the country was hungry looking dry sclerophyll forest, where every stick looked like a snake and you couldn't take your eyes off the track for a moment. Luckily most of the real snakes were just as scared and obligingly headed the other way. There were also occasional echidnas and wallabies, some pretty wild flowers and lots of birds. The currawongs were noisy and almost as good as the possums when it came to raiding packs.

Can you find the echidna in this picture? If not, try double clicking on it. This works for most of the other pictures too.

By the sixth day, I must have become a little fitter, or else, having eaten or given away most of the food, my pack was considerably lighter. Either way, only the man from Yulan Coal who runs 40km a week with a pack on (and his equally fit wife), passed me before I reached the suspension bridge just before Lake St. Clair. Now it was my turn to sit back and watch everyone else trail in. Along the way you develop the kind of intimacy you do on long haul flights as you keep meeting each other in the huts, share food and listen to each other's triumphs and disasters, but now, as with long haul flights, everyone was hurrying away to other lives.
A resident ranger tried to convince me to walk another two days around the lake rather than take the ferry as most walkers do. I was tempted there for a moment but with huge storm clouds gathering overhead, I thought I should quit while I was ahead. I managed to leap aboard just as the storm hit.

Lake St. Clair at the Southern end of the track. The aboriginal name for this huge lake, the deepest in Australia, is Leeawuleena which means "Sleeping Water." There is a new visitors' centre here with ferry trips, a bar and good coffee as well as several pretty walks. One of these walks is an Aboriginal Cultural Trail about the Big River People who lived in this area and were the last to give in to white settlers.

These parts of the Cradle Mountain Lake St. Clair National Park, and those like Barn Bluff and the summit of Cradle Mountain at the other end, would all make much more pleasant day trips I decided, without that growth on my back. Walking the Overland Track is not about pleasure, though it has its moments. It is about character building, endurance and being able to say that you have done it. Luckily there are plenty of places in Tassie where you can enjoy similarly beautiful scenery without having to spend six days in the wilderness.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Blue Heaven - Postcard from Mongolia

Health Warning: I was lucky enough to be in Mongolia at the height of its brief and glorious summer and encountered nothing but clear skies and friendly people. Since then however, I have heard some disturbing stories about foreign workers who have been bashed, robbed and left to freeze in the snow, so it is probably not a good idea to go by yourself.

City Centre Ulaan Bataar

The worst thing that happened to me apart from having to have cold water showers because they turn the heat off in summer, was that my Australian Travelex cards did not work. This wasn't all bad, as many people took me under their wing. Instead of hiring a car and driver as most tourists do, I was squished into one of the many mini vans that travel precariously all over the country.
The 'roads' are non existent in many places, with most vehicles travelling on braided tracks beside the road to avoid broken tarmac and treacherous pot holes. Along the way, people are dropped off at isolated gurs together with their wordly goods, gas cylinders and crates of cordial. Although many a nomad has swapped his horse for more horsepower, they still drive as if on a mission of rape and pillage.

Except for the odd powerline or satellite dish, the landscape has barely changed since Chinggis' time. With only two million people in an area the size of mainland Europe, Mongolia's population density is even lower than Australia's. Unfortunately only 10% of the land is arable, the rest being pasture, desert and mountains, so nomadic herding still accounts for much of the national economy. Mongolia does however, have vast natural resources which are of growing interest to other countries.

Some of my fellow passengers in the first mini -van

Warm hospitality inside a traditional ger

Lady of the house churning milk in one of the gurs we visited

I eventually made it to the ancient walled city of Karakorom, Chinggis Khaan's thirteenth century capital, to celebrate Mongolia's 800th birthday.
Walls of the Ancient City of Karakorum

Erdene Zuu - one of the spectacular temples inside the walled city. It dates from 1468 and was built with stones from Chinggis Khaan's palace.

One of several other temples within the walls

Martin Dreesen of the German Mongolian Archaelogical dig in Karakorum. His team has just discovered signs of an even older temple on this site

Modern Day Town Centre of Karakorum. This is a colourful collection of retired railway carriages. It has hairdressers, hardware and grocery stores, several restaurants and busy pool tables up the middle.

Not everyone rides horses

Doing the washing

Dining out with my fellow passengers on the return journey

On my last day, I visited the Terilj National Park. Not being far from UB, this was a lot more touristy with some positively aggressive berry sellers and kids who wanted money before I could take photos of their animals, but the park itself is beautiful. There are trees, spectacular rock formations and the most superb blue wild flowers.

Meet the Locals - A Yak at Terilj National Park

Mostly though I will remember the kindness of the people, the incredibly blue skies and unforgettable scenes like this.

PS A big thank you to the ladies at the Agricultural Bank of Mongolia too.

For a totally different view of Mongolia, see Ross's page.....

The Valentine' s Day Edition

It's a bit late now to be sending out Christmas cards if you didn't already get one, but I am still in time to wish all my Korean friends all the best for Solnal, the Lunar New Year. Have a great time visiting your families and may you all dream of glorious red pigs in flight and win huge amounts of $$$$$ playing Yut No Ri. Oh yes, and may you also get lots of red envelopes! Check this webpage for flying pig sightings


It's not too late for St. Valentine's Day either, so I hope you get lots of presents from all those secret admirers. This half -eaten heart belongs to Korea's best bus driver of 2006.

We did however, miss Groundhog Day on February 2. This is an unofficial American event which is said to predict when spring will start. The saying goes that if the Groundhog - a small rodentlike creature, stays in his hole on the 2nd. of February, then winter will go on for another six weeks.

In case you haven't guessed, I love to celebrate everyone's festivals and holidays as it makes life so much more interesting and more fun. I must tell my dear ones about White Day, Day Culture and Peppero Day. Just three more excuses to eat chocolate.

Typical Valentine's Day displays in Korean Shops

MMmmmmm. I am surprised our marketers haven't caught on to this yet.
White Day for example, is another Valentine's Day, specially for females (Feb. 14th. is mainly for boys in Korea), whereas Day Culture involves celebrating your relationship at fixed intervals such as 100 days, by going out and buying each other expensive presents. Peppero Day was started by a Japanese chocolate company to promote sales of pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate. This has now expanded to include a huge array of different chocolate sticks. I defy you to get through the day (Nov 2?) without having to eat at least ten of these.

Be sure to let me know of any other obscure festivals I may have overlooked such as the opening of marmot season in Mongolia perhaps. This is one of the advantages of having having friends in many places. The comments section now works (new blogger) if you want to write back, though it may take a few days till I can get back to you.
Cheers all - Veronika

PS not everyone is excited about Valentine 's Day. Google has no less than 2,230,000 I Hate Valentine's Day Sites see for example:



Nor are all the people embittered singles. Some of the comments are quite profound
The word is that sales of Anti Valentine's Day cards are doing surprisingly well and Anti Valentine's Day Parties are proving popular too.

There are also some interesting products on offer including an "I hate you collection" from Tina Tarantino, jewellry maker to the stars, and a U.S. animal protection society is offering a whole range of merchandise including mugs, tank tops and the usual tee shirts and hats in various I hate Valentine's Day designs. http://www.cafepress.com/4crazydogs.43682394

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Me and My Umbrella in Hokkaido

During the Thanksgiving Holiday in Korea, I visited Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. This time it didn't just rain. There was a fullblown typhoon in progress which made going up the mountain in those crazy little cable cars a near death experience. Still the autumn colours were beautiful and there were great hot springs everywhere including in the little ryokan (family hotel) where I stayed.

Autumn Colours

Tea Ceremony in the Ryokan

The room


Some of the most famous are at Noribetsu which looks like Rosebery with a bit more autumn colour and volcanoes that are decidedly active. One of them is called Mt. Weather. Fishermen say that when it smokes they shouldn't go out in their boats. The day I was there it was positively belching and proved true to its word.

'They' also say Queenstown in Tasmania looks like hell with the fires out. Here in Hell Valley, it looks like Queenstown with the fires still burning. Above it, there are beautiful woods with little moss covered Buddhas and odes to various nature poets. Devils guard the hot springs and the livelihood of the town, where most of the shops stay open all night. Surprisingly, unlike Korea, you can buy camembert, fine wine and lavender here, which made me think even more of Tasmania.

Higher still, there is a bear park and an Ainu Village. Although it was sad to see the bears in their concrete enclosures, they had the most beautiful expressions. They actually looked delighted to be entertained by the humans since there obviously wasn't much else for them to do.


Ainu Village

This young woman invited me in out of the freezing weather

The Ainu are Japan's aboriginal people and distantly related to both the Mongolians and the Koreans. Although they suffered discrimination in the past, they say that things are better for them now. They do the most exquisite wood carvings of animals.

The Crane Dance

Inside an Ainu House

Here are some pictures of the thermal regions.This mountain only appeared in 1977 and wiped out the whole township of La Toya.Luckily, thanks to an amateur vulcanologist, no lives were lost and the town has since been rebuilt.

The new mountain

Looking down into one of the craters.

That's not cloud around the mountain.

It's smoke.

Despite strong anti Japanese sentiment in Korea, for past hostilities as well as current territorial claims, the Japanese people I met were all very charming and hospitable. One hotel owner went to a lot of trouble to organise a lift after another couple and I missed the last bus down the mountain. In another place a lovely girl called Mizue arranged for her Dad to take me to the hotel because the directions were too hard to explain.

Directions were a bit of a problem. Said couple and I formed a close relationship after we found ourselves on the same wrong bus for the third time. I also spent my last night in Japan sleeping in a hotel lobby because every single hotel was booked out. It was a public holiday there too and even the airport shuts up tight at 11 o'clock. This definitely beat spending the night outside in a typhoon. Another odd thing was being charged more for a single room than for a double. It is nice when you pay though. The entire family does a deep bow. I'm not sure whether this is in gratitude for staying or because you are finally leaving and your credit card didn't bounce.