April 7, 2006

Irenabyss trip report

Brendan Young

The Team: Shaun, Fiona, Brian, Evan, Brandon, Brendan, Yolanta, Jay, Samara, Ben, Marina and Jeremy.


The northern contingent got away a little late (about 3pm) but still managed to arrive at the Derwent Bridge rendezvous point about 15 minutes before the southern team (who were travelling in the mighty Corona). Those in the VN Commodore amused themselves by listening to a "TASSAT Greatest Moments Tape." Bez was the star but there was plenty of contribution from Sammy S. It felt like they were both with us (and in spirit they were). The highlight of the trip across the plateau was a sudden halt by the VP Commodore so that the occupants could break the news that one of their party had managed to leave his boots at home. After a few groans, growls and frowns were passed by the self-righteous members travelling in the VN Commodore, it was left for Shaun to offer some sort of "rescue package." It just so happened that he was carrying a nice new pair of Lynx runners as "end of walk" footwear. And they just happened to fit the bootless team-member. Jay was extremely happy, the rest of us most relieved as we continued on. On reaching the hotel for our rendezvous, the first thing Jay did was to officially buy the shoes off Shaun.
We’d just started on our first game of eightball when the southerners arrived and we were introduced to our newest member Ben. After he was presented with his team hat we were off down the Lyell Highway to find Bubs Hill. We were running decidedly late by now but nothing could dampen our high spirits. We were heading into the great south-west on a pleasant autumn evening and there was the expectancy of adventure just around the corner. We found the hill almost 60kms on from Derwent Bridge and proceeded to park by the roadside, keeping in mind that the only previous time we’d tried to park away from the road one of the cars had been stolen. The odd vehicle went past, including a rather nice looking Holden ute. Evan’s comment, recorded on video, ‘Did you see that Holden ute go past?, was to become an oft used saying for some time amongst Tas-saters when in the presence of Evan. (The power of video). Much mucking around then took place as the obligatory starting out photos were taken by a multitude of cameras set up on the bonnet of Jeremy’s car. Jay had the video camera out to add a new perspective to our recordings.
Above, Bubs Hill looked challenging. We hoped to find a pad to ease the pain but this was not to be. A few minutes of initial easy walking up a 4WD track led to some real southwest scrub. Brian and Shaun were soon out the front on their own, a position they were to retain for much of the walk. We’d finally got away at 7.15pm with only one decent hour of day-light remaining. We were to need every minute of it. By close on 8.30 we had all arrived on the small summit of Bubs Hill as the colour faded from the western sky and anticipation rose for the next uphill section onto the Raglan Range. I knew that if the scrub didn’t start to relent then the party was going to be ‘cactus’ and that a rather interesting bivvy on the hillside would ensue. Fortunately, things did improve as we continued on up. Headlights came out of packs, the full moon began to take effect, and the scrub eased in height and density. Even so, I managed to get poked in the eye by an unseen branch and, later, Marina battled a leech that had managed to get down her top (the extraction of which was filmed discreetly by cameraman Jay). Some excellent night footage was taken by Jay of the party climbing in single file in darkness on the higher slopes of the range.
On the crest of the Raglan Range the 4WD track was located and we were able to make some good progress under the full moon. At 10.30pm we arrived on the summit of the Raglan Range and bagged our first point of the trip. It felt great to be on a south-west summit so late at night. Very atmospheric! Brandon climbed to the top of the trig in typical Lee fashion and we took a photo of him framed by the night sky.
We continued on along the 4WD track till midnight, making quite good progress. When the track began to descend to the saddle between the Raglan Range and Flat Bluff, the decision to camp was made. We’d been walking for 5 hours which had brought the next days’ proposed 12 hours back to a more reasonable 7. Most of the tents went up but as the weather looked fine, five of the party decided to bivvy. Brian and Brendan stayed around the tent area while Marina, Samara and Evan selected a spot over the bank and lower down. As it turned out, those three chose the better spot as Brendan and Brian spent the night being buffeted by strong winds that continually woke them up.
The tents were completely dry which was a bonus when breaking camp. However the weather was threatening and the first drops appeared as the last of the tents were being taken down. Most of us were low on water after the exertions of the previous evening and it was good to reach Maud Creek in the saddle after only about 10 minutes of walking. The 4WD track continued for a way up onto Flat Bluff and once it ended the walking was very easy all the way to the open summit. Frenchmans Cap was beckoning and along with some early morning mist, it created plenty of atmosphere for us as we posed on our second summit of the trip. Jay filmed as we all departed the summit for the plains below.
On the descent we came across a huge overhang that would have been a suitable bivvy. The rest of the morning was spent walking across the plains, which were surprisingly dry, to a pleasant lunch spot by a creek on the far side. Here Jeremy entertained us by dropping most of his mountain bread into the stream. It floated quite nicely, it must be said!
Saturday afternoon was to prove a lowpoint of the trip both weather-wise and teamwork-wise. Half of the group departed from the lunch spot but the other half remained for another 10 or 15 minutes. An hour later, with the weather really threatening to close in, the front group realised the need to regroup before the two parties completely lost contact with each other. Unfortunately, the wait took place on an open windswept and rain-soaked ridge and the gap had increased to 25 minutes. It wasn’t a group of happy campers that huddled together beside some low shrubbery. Brandon joined us, having got tired of the slowness of the back party. The state of his morale (mirrored by the rest of us) was summed up by the comment, ‘This is one of those trips when I wished I’d stayed at home.’ If I hadn’t been so miserably cold, I probably would have smiled at this. I’d always thought of Brandon as a disciple of the Paddy Pallin philosophy ‘the only trips I regret are the ones I didn’t do.’ Things really were bad! Fortunately, not too many harsh words were exchanged when the rear group arrived and we then worked hard to remain as a group of 12 throughout the rest of the afternoon. In fact, teamwork improved remarkably and remained good for the rest of the trip.
The wildest weather of the day hit us as we encountered some of the worst scrub of the trip whilst attempting to get onto the crest of a scrubby ridge that had to be followed for 2 kilometres. The continual cheerfulness and lack of complaints by all members was a credit to them all. It really was most miserable for a time! A pad was discovered on the crest of the ridge and morale improved. We were now making some noticeable progress towards the river. Brian and Shaun continued out the front as pace-setters but Marina was also going strong, just behind in the no. 3 position.
At the top of a small hill we stopped to consult our maps and tracknotes. In retrospect, it would have been good to get out the GPS to confirm our position. We didn’t, and we paid the price as I managed to lead the party on a further 700 metres (with a height drop of 200 metres) beyond High Camp. It was a pretty weary group that turned around and trudged back up the hillside after the mistake was discovered. But again, no audible complaints were heard by anyone. But I must apologize for that one. High Camp proved to be a windy saddle, surprisingly far away from the river, with just one decent tent-site on arrival. The old guys (Brian, Brendan & Shaun) managed to find it first and lay claim to it. Some of the other sites became adequate after a bit of rock and tussock removal had been undertaken. A nearby creek was supposed to be the water source but on investigation it proved not to be running at more than a trickle. A puddle was discovered, however, and a surprising number of platypus’s and water bottles were laboriously filled from it. We then set about cooking tea and Shaun really rose to the occasion, cooking one of the best meals FBY has ever eaten in the bush. Chicken, capsicum, mushrooms and lots of spices made it a delight. Apple pie followed for dessert. The meal was definitely the highlight of what had been a grueling day. As we bedded down for our second night, it was obvious that the optimistic plans by some for attempting Frenchmans Cap summit in the morning would not be realized. We would just have enough time to get down to the river for a look at the Irenabyss before having to start on the homeward trek.
A quick check outside the tent door at 6.15am revealed spectacular conditions with clear skies overhead and valley mist below. However by the time I struggled to find camera and footwear, the mist had risen and the world outside appeared a much bleaker place. At a more reasonable 7am the first of us started to rise and prepare for the day ahead. Everybody was still keen to make the trip down to the Irenabyss despite the temptation of a morning resting at camp. We left as a group at 8.45. Jay stopped at one point to film us all descending towards the river.
Somehow we managed to get onto a track that took us down into a steep gully with a stream. Eventually the rough pad terminated at the stream and it was obviously not the way. We tried another vague pad in the same area but it too failed to take us on down. Brandon, who had been towards the back of the group was convinced that we should have continued on a straight line all the way down to the river. We back-tracked and found that, yes, the major route did indeed go straight on down. It was a good pad with steps cut in to the side of the steep hill. A few tree branches required climbing under and over but it wasn’t long before Brandon led us out onto the banks of the river at the Irenabyss. It was a place of exquisite beauty with the tannin stained water appearing to form more of a swimming hole than a flowing river. The sides of the gorge were steep with the far bank in the sunlight but our side of the river in the shade.
Evan had already committed himself to a swim and he wasted no time in honouring the commitment. Jay prepared to film but found that condensation had formed in the camera and that it wouldn’t work. Most disappointing, as this was what we’d really wanted to capture on film! Evan’s shallow dive into the cold water was the signal for others to follow. In total, eight of our party were brave enough to hit the water.
Some rocks about six or seven metres above the river on the far side proved to be the ideal platform for a series of ‘bombs’ and dives into the water. We had Evan doing the double somersault with the half twist in the pike position whilst three of the others attempted a synchronised jump. To top off all previous performances, Evan climbed up to a much higher spot on the opposite side and did a huge dive into the water. Impressive stuff that no-one was prepared to emulate! Fi Fi went for a long swim upsteam so as to get a better look at the gorge. The one regret for those not brave enough to enter the water was the fact that we’d failed to bring the blow-up canoe down to the river after carrying it all the way in to high camp. The calm state of the water would have been ideal for paddling the canoe upstream. Next time, perhaps! As midday approached, we knew it was time to begin making our way back up to the tents for lunch and the breaking of camp. Unfortunately for the swimmers, they had to come back over to the side of the river that was still in the shade and it was a chilly experience for them as they changed back into their walking gear.
We aimed for a departure time of a quarter to two. It was quarter past when we did get away but, as the weather was good and we had prospects of a pad to follow for a while, our spirits remained high. We shared out a little of Yo’s gear to help her along before departing. Good progress was made along the scrubby ridge, making use of the pad along the crest that we’d discovered on the way in. Samara’s knee had become quite sore but she was able to keep up with the group, never once complaining. The pad continued on past the spot we’d picked it up on the way in and we were able to ascertain where we would have been better going on the way in. A lengthy rest-stop at the end of the ridge allowed for discussion as to the best way of approaching Mary Creek Plains. There were a few options, one even being to climb over Mt. Mary. In the end, we made a conservative choice and decided to retrace our outward journey. We found the pad for a way through some thick scrub and then continued by sticking to the high ground. Before descending to the plains, we took a GPS reading to establish the direction of a suggested camp-site on the plains. A better route down to the plains was found and a pleasant stop beside a creek refreshed us before we set out on the final leg of our days walk. We passed an excellent campsite on a knoll part way across the plains but continued on towards the recommended spot. It turned out to be nothing special. Without the GPS reading, we wouldn’t have even viewed it as a campsite. However, it was close to a nice stream and after a bit of searching around we found an area where we were able to establish a condensed campsite with all five tents being set up.
The four groups began cooking tea while Jay did a little filming of various members in the group. Jeremy came up with probably the quote of the trip. It was something along the lines of ‘Hollows are better than lumps because you can put your T-Shirt in them.’ As darkness arrived some were still busy at their Trangia’s preparing the meal. We’d planned a study of the Watchtower for the evening and even the lateness of the hour failed to dampen the general enthusiasm for doing it. So at about 9pm, as we sat huddled around the cookers, Brian led us off on what proved to be a lively and enjoyable discussion on the subject of ‘Making the Truth Your Own.’ Shaun, who had bombed out in the tent, commented freely for the first few paragraphs before lapsing into silence. (The tea-time alcohol had obviously taken effect). Those outside contributed freely with their comments and related experiences. About ten o’clock we finished the study, just as the last group completed their meal. Some of us retired to the tents while a few others remained outside entertaining all with their jokes, tall stories and impersonations (which proved just how much TV they all watch when they’re not out in the wilderness). A quiet word from Brian to Evan outside at around 11pm saw the party come to an abrupt end.
Early morning rain on the tent signaled the end of any plans that some of us had entertained for a quick ascent of Mt. Mary before we broke camp. Nevertheless, Brian was up early and plodded around in the persistent rain while others remained in their tents for as long as possible. We’d set a getaway time of 8.30am but it was never going to happen in the conditions. At 9.10am we left, our main concern being Samara and her injured knee. We’d managed to lighten her pack a little but it was still going to be a tough walk out for her.
It was a solid climb back up onto the higher slopes of Flat Bluff in wet and windy conditions. Our initial goal was to reach the bivvy cave we’d discovered on the walk in. Brandon led the way up and then came back down a way to direct everyone on up to the cave. We enjoyed a break of about 20 minutes, warming up a little and eating much of our remaining snack food. The shelter was extremely good being completely rain and windproof. Continuing on, we climbed back up a couple of steep rocky sections and walked back out onto the bleak, barren plateau of Flat Bluff. From the summit there was just enough visibility to get our bearings for the descent. Brandon and Shaun again led the way and unerringly found the way back onto the 4WD track that took us down to Maud Creek and up the other side to the spot where we’d camped the first night. On passing the campsite we were bemused to see that the flat area where two of the tents had been pitched had become a shallow pond of water. At this point it started to hail which was a change from the persistent rain.
The 4WD track provided for some easy walking and in small groups we progressed along the track to the summit of the Raglan Range where we all regrouped and paused for a twenty minute lunch break. Everybody seemed to be dipping into a small tin of tuna and I commented that Sam had really started a trend. However, a number of the party then claimed that they had in fact been the ones to first go for the tins. Who knows, but it’s certainly become a popular lunchtime fare. The plan was to stay on the 4WD track and follow it all the way back to the Lyell Hwy, thus avoiding the scrubby descent of Bubs Hill. Evan and Brian were given the job of pushing on out as fast as they liked and then walking the highway for four kilometres up to our cars at Victoria Pass. They left at 1pm with the main group leaving six minutes later.
About one kilometre on from where we would have had to descend to Bubs Hill we found that the 4WD track snaked sharply around to the south. It was a bit disconcerting to be heading in the opposite direction to the highway. We got out the map which reassured us that the track would eventually swing back to the north. However, a further worry was a two or three kilometre dead-end track marked on the map as continuing on south before terminating. We were somewhat concerned that we could already be on this track but after walking a little further we were pleased to see that our track was regaining the correct direction. I regretted not mentioning any of this to Evan and Brian and I wondered if they’d found things a little puzzling. However, I felt sure that they would have continued on as we had and found that it all came right eventually. At this point Samara was really struggling with her sore knee which was causing her to walk with a swinging peg leg action. Jay and I felt that we should lighten her pack some more. Jay went even further, deciding that he would strap her pack to his chest and do a double carry. Samara wasn’t keen on the idea but finally relented to Jay’s insistence. And a mighty fine effort it proved to be as he managed to carry it all the way out to the road.
As if the walk hadn’t already had enough variety, it started to snow on us as we continued on out. The ruins of an old hut and milling operation of yesteryear distracted us for a few minutes. We paused to investigate and Brandon added some ‘TASSAT Was Here 2001’ graffiti to what was already written on the walls by previous visitors. We snapped a few group photos outside the hut and shouldered our loads once more. The 4WD track hadn’t been used for a long time and was quite overgrown in places. Some sections had a real tunnel effect with the trees having grown up from each side and met above the track. It made for some pleasant walking.
We regrouped one more time before heading for the highway at our own paces. The front group of Brandon and Jeremy set off at a run, followed by Marina and Shaun. I didn’t see any of them again till the highway was reached. After a wait of about 15 minutes beside the road we heard voices in the bush and were amazed to see Evan and Brian making fast progress across the final log bridge. Evan’s big smile couldn’t completely mask the look of a kid who’d just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. They related how they’d taken the dead-end track and followed it until it petered out to nothing. In the process, they’d walked an extra four or five kilometres. All of us at the roadside could see the funny side of it and just felt sorry for the extra effort they’d put in for nothing. However, Brian was very apologetic. It seemed like he felt he’d let the side down in some way. They’d been running hard with their packs to make up for lost time and were still prepared to do the road run up to the cars at Victoria Pass. As they stripped off excess gear the remaining members arrived to join us.
Jeremy decided that he’d give Brian and Evan a bit of encouragement by setting off on the run with them. I’m sure he only intended on going a couple of hundred metres but he seemed to get caught up in the moment and, after disappearing around a bend in the road with the other two, we didn’t see him again until they all returned with the cars almost a hour later. A pretty good effort (because, to be honest, when I saw him set off up the road at a gallop he didn’t look to me like he could last more than a couple of hundred metres)! The rest of us amused ourselves by sucking on whistling lollipops (courtesy of Samara), waving at passing vehicles, eating wild blackberries and having a throw of the frisbee. Shaun’s frisbee game went suddenly sour when an errant throw required a difficult walk up a slippery creek-bed to retrieve it.
After loading up the vehicles we set up a final group photo by the roadside and headed back towards Derwent Bridge, driven on by the prospect of giant ostrich burgers and chips at the hotel. We arrived 15 minutes before orders could be taken and settled for a game of eightball and then a warming up session beside the giant log fire while we waited for our food. It wasn’t long before we were sitting down for some serious eating! The food was OK, the service by management and waiters somewhat less than you would expect. The guy who was clearly the owner/manager of the place had a very gruff, abrasive manner. Obviously a fellow graduate with Richard Dax from the ‘School of how to rub those who keep you in business up the wrong way’. After we’d all received our meals it became clear that they’d failed to deliver one of the bowls of chips to our table, even though we’d already paid for them. Evan was the one to miss out. His polite enquiry was immediately rebuffed. ‘All the chips were delivered to the table, someone else from your group must have got them. End of story.’ Evan wasn’t going to worry about it but Jay decided to go up to the counter and plead the case once more. He got a similar response from the boss as Evan had. Enter Shaun. Shaun ‘Three Plates’ Poore. TASSAT enforcer when the need arises. In a very short time he had the boss going back through the orders, finding out that a mistake had in fact been made and promising to quickly rectify matters. He was still most ungracious as he muttered excuses for the oversight but, thanks to Shauny, Evan got his bowl of chips. I hope the man learns: you don’t mess with the TASSAT team!
We said our goodbyes and departed Derwent Bridge shortly after 7.30. For the northern contingent, it snowed consistently throughout the drive across the plateau. All the road signs were plastered with snow to the point of us not being able to read any of them. Quite unusual for early March! It was an otherwise uneventful trip and we arrived home in Lonnie around 10pm. The next day we were to find out that the southern team’s car (Jeremy’s) had broken down west of Ouse. In Jeremy’s words, ‘Wrong side of Ouse, foul weather, pitch black night and close to that place where the nutters live.’ No one had stopped to help and they were out of mobile phone range. However, after an hour and a half, Ben managed to get them underway once more and they completed their journey at a somewhat later hour than we northerners had.
It was the end of another good TASSAT trip. The weather had again conspired against us, we’d been scratched and bruised by the scrub and the walking days had been quite long. However, we’d reached our major objective and had completed the journey as a united, cheerful and positive group. The first-timers had adapted really well and we’d all enjoyed getting to know the ones we hadn’t traveled with before. And as for that good weather we keep missing out on with these summer trips, well. . . . . . . . if you come on a winter trip, I promise you it’ll be good.

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