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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Assault on Mt Sorell ~ 13 March 2010

A wandering wake touches many shores but rarely the same twice. With so much beauty, adventure and knowledge to be found in new destinations, why return without good reasons?

A peculiar quirk we have helps us achieve our goals. A blessing and curse, this quirk drives us relentlessly, never letting up until we’ve achieved our objective. Even when building Banyandah all those years ago, it’s what got us up from the dinner table every night, and sent us, not to the tellie, but outdoors whatever the weather to bend cold steel and plane wood.

Last year in Macquarie Harbour we met Trevor Norton, skipper of the charter yacht Stormbreaker, and a brilliant cartographer. He loaned us three charts he’d drawn showing the harbour’s many hideaways and noting numerous features in artistic ink. In nearly landlocked Farm Cove, where Sarah Island convicts had grown pumpkins and onions more than a century ago, his artwork shows a dashed line sweeping inland towards a series of concentric contours and next to it a note: Route to Mount Sorell – 15 hrs. Succinct, almost alluding to a stroll up the highest peak of Tasmania’s south-western range that dominates every viewpoint along Macquarie’s twenty mile length.

The very first time we passed through Hell’s Gate, a low afternoon sun was casting long shadows down from Mount Sorell’s many peaks, turning its rocky ridges and verdant gullies into stripes as if a Tasmanian Tiger crouching low on the surrounding buttongrass plains, freezing the last thylacine in time. Snow capped in winter, swept by ferocious gales, from a distance its lower slopes appeared as smooth as newly mown lawn.

In Tasmania, buttongrass moors occupy more than one million hectares, approximately one seventh of the island. It is low vegetation, dominated by sedges (grass-like plants) and heaths usually growing in poorly drained sites. It’s the most common type of vegetation in the west and southwest of the State where annual rainfall exceeds 1000 mm. The common name, buttongrass, conjures up images of golf links made with tiny round-leaves matted together. But the name actually refers to a seed head, a dark chocolate bon-bon held teasingly aloft shoulder high on a single, slender shaft, gently bending, and so shiny it looks varnished. And instead of providing a smooth carpet to stroll, buttongrass grows in rounded clumps that over time become quite dense, forming tall stools that sometimes touch, but often do not. Elevated above the water-table, at times they hide deep water channels.

Last year, Judith and I attempted to climb Mount Sorell. We left our vessel before daylight, landed with midsummer’s first light, then forged through the razor grass guarding the moors. At first we found the buttongrass merely a nuisance that required careful footing and lifting our boots knee high over, or onto, each tuft. We quickly discovered this soaked up our strength. Following Trevor’s dashed line, not realizing it was more an artist’s indication than an actual route, we came to an exposed bluff with a thick verdant chasm separating us from the main mountain slopes. Needing a warming cuppa to re-energise us, we then descended nearly five hundred feet to find a wall of trees woven into a barricade by spaghetti vine so dense, the only way through was bodily throwing ourselves backwards into it. Our reward for conquering that, a moss carpeted stream bubbling within a maze. Climbing out the other side was so damn vertical and thick, on hands and knees we pulled ourselves through vegetation, praying we’d not find one of Tasmania’s three deadly snakes coiled and poised to strike. That obstruction greatly sapped our strength, therefore when ravaging our lunch on top the next plateau, with the peaks still high above and the sun already passed our meridian, we built a cairn from stones then turned back for home.

Sometime later, Trevor revealed, after three attempts, he’d not actually gained Sorell’s summit, even though he once spent a night snowbound on its lower slopes.

Mount Sorell, at 1144 metres, is neither an Everest nor a Kilimanjaro. It’s just a peak, several in fact of similar height. Its main difficulty is it has no points of access like the nearby mountains, and in general remains relatively untouched compared to other West Coast mountains with old mine workings, walking tracks, and other signs of human activity. It was named for William Sorell, the third Lieutenant Governor of Tasmania, who in 1821 founded the Macquarie Harbour Penal Settlement on Sarah Island. In his words, a place of ultra banishment and confinement.

At nearly 43ยบ south, because of its dominance over Macquarie Harbour, it no doubt gave a sense of barrier to convicts with dreams of escape. Some folklore claim leg irons and other items were found by troops looking for escaped convicts on its slopes. More on that later.

Long after that journey’s end, I remember a winter’s night in Ballina reviewing our Mount Sorell photos, by then the memories of hardship had grown weak, allowing me a longing to have reached its peak. Viewed through the tinted lens of time, the other difficulties of reaching Tasmania through the Roaring Forties and Bass Strait also seemed more rosy than dangerous. So, turning to Judith, I broached the possibility of going back. She’s the original ‘yes’ girl and immediately began elaborating on the positives of my suggestion. And before either of us could draw another breath, we began planning our course.

This time we thought we’d establish a base camp on the plateau where we had turned back, thinking one day of light would be plenty to hump tent and supplies to it. And from there on the following day, carrying only day packs we’d tackle the other half, reach the summit and return to base. Spreading the attempt over three days would allow plenty of time to carry the extra kilos, or so we thought in the comfort of our lounge room.

Leaving Ballina last December we sailed into several southern ports not seen for decades before reaching King Island in Bass Straits. There we took a thirty kilometre warm up stroll carrying full equipment to its southern headland. From King Island we sailed south directly for Hell’s Gate, and once through those devilish narrows, our eyes were again drawn upon our goal, a beautiful but challenging vision.

It came to pass that we then wandered around Macquarie Harbour, revisiting remembered sites, walking several tracks for fun and fitness, while waiting for a weather opportunity, which eventually arrived in the form of a very slow moving, gigantic high pressure cell.

As it approached, Trevor, who was just as keen for us to succeed, gave us a call. “Thought you’d be climbing up. Been looking for you with my binoculars.”

“Tomorrow,” I replied. “We’ll make our assault on the peak Saturday.” Then I chuckled. “Give you a call from the top.”

Over the years, Judith and I have undertaken many treks, so we have our packing down to a science. She humps the kitchen and victuals; I carry the base camp, emergency gear, plus the video camera. We each carry our own down sleeping bag, change of clothes and extra warmth, and a pair of light weight sandals to wear round camp. On this walk we carried four – one litre water containers divided between us.

Our diet would consist of cold cereal for breakfast, with nuts, sultanas and dried apricots; cheese, tomato, (salami for me) on crackers for lunches; a variety of packaged pasta meals for dinner, plenty of candy and muesli bars, soup and hot drinks, and of course, two litres of red wine to celebrate and dull the pain. All up a load of about eighteen kilos for me, sixteen for Judith.

During our initial week in Strahan we met a lovely local couple, Max and Marie, who have for many years driven their forty-five foot vessel round the harbour to “get away from it all.” Max has ten years on me and has walked nearly every square inch of the west coast. He’s a true bushman who’s been up Sorell several times, but oddly, he too has never actually reached the summit. Our two boats left Strahan together and then shared several anchorages; the first in Kelly Basin where the failed North Mount Lyle Mining Company built a port amongst wet forest, which was abandoned four years later in 1904. A few days in Birches Inlet followed, inspecting a shack Max built in world heritage rainforest. He’s a most helpful guy, keen to give us a good start, so on his way back to Strahan, he went into Farm Cove to clear the start of the track he used when setting off for Sorell. You’ll remember, on our first attempt we hit razor grass that slashed my arms to ribbons.

We also talked with Max about that deadly chasm, and he told us he’d always stayed low till under the first ridge, crossing the big creek on flat terrain. That made sense and on our newly purchased topographical map, I planned a route accordingly then put a few waypoints into our handheld GPS.

Come the morning, it dawned crystal clear, with just a bit of vapour rising off the upper slopes being burnt off by a bright lemon sun. The dinghy loaded, we locked up then set off for our departure beach a mile and half across Farm Cove. And know what? Although we searched all over for Max’s opening, we never found it. Gosh, all that jungle looked alike. Didn’t see any fresh hacking, no openings, nothing, so we set off from where we thought Max had meant. Plenty of vague paths were found, probably from wombats going through the scrub. None went very far, and all ended in walls of really thick scrub. With heavy packs we made the best course we could, and this time found it easier to the buttongrass plains. In ten minutes, what had taken an hour before, we were in the clear and that seemed a good omen. Although walking on those tufts was much clumsier with weight on our backs. Still we felt success in our reach.

Then came the hard yakka. Seems everything worthwhile takes lots of hard work. Navigation was simple enough. We’d been here before and spied familiar sights. But I won’t lie. Carrying that load hurt. I know Jude suffered too, but she stayed quiet and kept up. The main hardship was the uneven terrain. Not knowing if your boot would find something solid or slip off a tuft and twist. So, every foot went down tentatively before shifting weight.

By staying on the flatter ground we also discovered, instead of one major creek to cross, several smaller ones overgrown with tea tree and bauera, nearly impenetrable thick scrub. Each creek took time. Firstly to find the narrowest passage then pushing a way through wondering if snakes were lurking in scrubby stuff over our heads.

After four hours of non-stop trucking, we came to that major creek and I suggested lunch. We’d not gained any altitude, but were now inline with the ridge going up to our proposed campsite.

Beginning the climb after eating, our packs seemed an extra ten kilos and my legs started to complain. Little cramps when I had to push extra hard. These, as the ascent became steeper, became a real problem.

God must have wanted that mountain to be a real challenge when he created those buttongrass slopes. Firstly they are not just tufts of spiky grass; much of it is tea-tree with thousands of interlocked branches that scratch when pushed past. We gained the first two hundred metres of altitude in an hour, grabbing at anything to pull with each step. Then the second two hundred took half that again as I had to stop and massage my failing legs. We then traipsed across a flat neck to the last slope before our campsite. Seeing its extra steepness, I remembered with horror groping through heaps of shoulder height tea-tree that tore at our clothes leaving red welts. So when leading the way I kept a watchful eye for white quartzite patches; slippery though they were, they gave respite to pushing through vegetation and relief for my legs.

I won’t kid you, at one point I didn’t think my legs would do it. With every step, they’d cramp and I’d pummel each thigh with my fist, and then try to push ever so gently. My main worry; a leg collapsing on sharp slippery rocks, where driven by the load on my back, I might suffer a nasty, even fatal fall.

As in many things Jude and I do, care was paramount. Strong minds focused on the task, and, step by step, we kept going until a miracle, we breasted the last ridge, me taking baby steps. Looking up, a most glorious view of gold glinting off the granite peaks signalled only an hour of light remained. Camp had to be made, dinner cooked. But, first things first. I dumped the contents of my sack, found the cask of wine, and we toasted our huge success of getting our gear to base camp.

That first slug flushed my cheeks and chilled my wet back, then my legs buckled and I slumped onto uneven ground. Jude, ever faithful, went to work massaging my paralysed legs, and soon, through tears of pain, I could once again straighten them. Putting an arm over her shoulder, she helped me hobble to some rocks where we sat embraced while beholding a glorious sunset over a picture perfect harbour and beyond a thin finger of land to the great southern ocean, now subtly a sheet of pale gold melting into a flat horizon. The perfection so great, the emptiness so vast, we were almost afraid to speak. With the world perfectly at peace, not a skerrick of breeze, mountain songbirds graced our view upon the steel platter of harbour water that was only disturbed by the Lady Jane Franklin leaving Sarah Island, her wake a long straight furrow reflecting a crimson sheen as she headed back to Strahan base.

Even if we got no further, we had achieved a milestone important to us. To set targets, and then achieve them reinforces confidence. More than that, it bonds a team tightly together, and glorifies the essence of life. Sorry to rave on. But, we’re getting on, so these small victories seem even more significant.

Of course, the reality was I could hardly walk and a flat place for the tent still had to be found, and Jude still had to whip up her magic. So we kissed once, twice, gave a laugh then got on with our respective tasks.

After careful consideration, the place I chose for our tent needed some rearranging. Rocks littered the only bit of flattish ground, as did a couple of baby buttongrass tufts. But in half an hour we had a home, and dinner was ready, which we ate ravenously under an increasing umbrella of starlight with the peaks of Sorell looking hauntingly down. Straight after cleaning up the last morsel, we went to bed, only stopping long enough to clean our teeth.

I slept like a dead man. No dreams, no thoughts, one moment I laid down, the next I perceived first light. Jude wasn’t so fortunate. She had lumps under her, and while she normally curls round obstructions, in this case she couldn’t and they aggravated her groin ache, keeping her awake.

I arose to see a white soupy mist snaking about the dark forest along the Gordon River. Feeling the chill and looking aloft, the five peaks of Mount Sorell had sunlight on their tips inviting us to join them. From our rock kitchen, Banyandah lay quietly in her small bay, looking ultra safe, happily floating in peace, and though I hobbled on rock hard muscles, I knew that this was the day we had dreamt of, planned for, and sailed hundreds of miles to reach. This was our moment to achieve a dream.

I took tea to Jude then joined her in our little tent and drank mine while she stretched and told me of her night. Not so pleasant as mine, but she was ready. In fact more than ready. She was eager, determined and looking forward to the great adventure of exploring one of Earth’s rare locations. I mean, how many people ever see the top of Mount Sorell? A hundred? No doubt far less, as I’d not heard of one making the summit and this hardened our resolve to touch the steel tower Trevor had mentioned being lowered by helicopter some years earlier.

I stretched, touched my toes, loosened hamstrings, but still painfully hobbled about taking longer to get ready than planned. We’d planned a dawn start, but enjoying the moment so much, we didn’t want to turn our adventure into just plain hard work. So, now in warm sunlight, we sat and marvelled at the majestic views to kingdom come. Macquarie Harbour has a number of side pockets, all forested, and that morning each topped by whipped cream mist. Gazing up at the peaks, we traced the route and let our minds wander. Finally, day packs were on our backs. Medical kit inside mine, along with emergency beacon, GPS, warm clothes, map, our video equipment slung over my shoulder. Jude carried the lunch, water and her warm stuff. It was after nine when we set off up the first incline.

Straight above our camp another bitch of a slope began. Loaded with plenty of buttongrass and short curly tea-tree, it straightaway tested my legs and hampered forward progress even though we carried light packs. Trevor had mentioned a “road” traversing the white granite face we could see rising out the vegetation near the cleft between the first two peaks. During our previous visit, a waterfall had poured out that cleft and although no water was visible this time, we hoped to find some there. This was important. None was near our base, and we’d finished the last of four litres carried up.

That first slope drained an hour and a half of sweat out us, parched our lips and dried our throats, so you can imagine our relief upon hearing water gurgling as we approached the narrow cleft. Perched on a rock slide, Jude stayed watching tiny mountain Finches flit amongst the stunted trees while I slithered down through deeper vegetation until I stumbled upon a nearly dry stream bed. Pushing aside the undergrowth revealed a rock gully chiselled by a torrent that was now just a trickle cascading pool to pool. Just enough to fill our containers three quarters full by laying them on their sides. Straightaway I downed a full litre of cold sweet rainwater then filled all four to overflowing by topping them up using a cap. Climbing back, Jude sozzled a full litre non-stop then we packed one each, leaving the other two on a prominent rock, entering them as a waypoint.

Gaining the ridgeline quite suddenly changed the expedition from total exertion to a wander through Nature’s wonderland. Bleached, twisted tea-tree remnants lay artistically bowed by westerly gales, graceful white ballerinas, arms akimbo. Their stark whiteness in sharp contrast to the olive green of the low buttongrass.

Passing behind the second peak, we crossed a mile wide saddle open in every direction. And each time I turned to check on Judith, a magnificent white quartzite dome cleaved by a long ago glacier was seen in the distance; Frenchmans Cap, reminiscent of the Liberty caps worn during the French Revolution. Between it and us, the deep Clark River Valley fell away inland, Mount Darwin the highest point on its other boundary. Drier and crisscrossed with 4WD tracks from mining, it made an interesting comparison to Sorell’s unaltered wilderness.

By noon, we were falling behind schedule. The mountain peaks just kept appearing, and there were plenty more stretches of white granite to negotiate where a slip or wrong footing could mean an emergency call for medics. That’s against our creed of self-reliance, patience, watching every step. Maybe long ago I would curry up Judith, but now, we go safe. And if that means slow, well, I count my lucky stars to have a lady keen, willing and able.

Trevor had been vague about which peak he had reached. Sorrel has five in a row nearly the same height, the last one taller by only about five metres. That’s the one with the tower and bench mark put there by Lands.

Cognisant that the sun’s clock was ticking, after passing another gap between peaks, we were confronted by a sharp dip followed by a horrendous climb on tired legs to what I thought might only be Trevor’s peak. If so, another drop and climb awaited us before our objective. It being nearly two hours after high noon, I began to fear we’d have to turn back after only reaching Trevor’s peak.

To have come so far, and fail…. Well, it’s best to just rearrange your thinking than spend a cold night on a Tasmanian mountain peak. Trudging ahead of my lady, I kept yodelling back that she’d best not stop for any more photos, when suddenly I came over a crest expecting a steep descent, and saw, not more than a few hundred metres ahead, another blanched white rocky peak, a few metres higher, with the vague silhouette of a steel tower showing through mist.

“Hurry,” I hollered. “It’s just ahead! We can make it! And I sent an echoing yahoo skywards then rushed across a short buttongrass flat to scale the final rock summit.

As soon as Jude poked up above the neighbouring peak, I started banging on the metal disc that was suppose to be atop the tower, but which had been bowled over by some past gale.

Of course we hugged and kissed, snapped photos in every imaginable pose then set up the video to act out explorers. After that I snapped one of us on our mobile phone to send to our kids. “Hi from atop Mount Sorell,” it said.

Then I got out Trevor’s handheld VHF and gave him a call, and couldn’t help rubbing in a bit of salt, he’s so good natured. But he swore he’d be following our foot tracks before the end of the year. And when I told him the Lands Department’s beacon had been blown over, he replied, “Oh, that’s why we can’t see it thorough our binoculars anymore.”

Our expedition established an important point. The professionals working Macquarie Harbour rely on a VHF repeater located at Cape Sorell, and it’s nearly useless, hardly reaching halfway down the waterway. Mobil phone coverage is just as limited, so emergencies and even normal daily traffic between Strahan and the many places in Macquarie Harbour is impossible without an expensive satellite phone. But from a repeater atop Mount Sorell, we proved all over coverage was possible.

A rusty biscuit tin was lodged at the base of the tower and prising its corroded lid open revealed a plastic bag containing two sheets of paper, one discoloured by rust. Eight names in four parties since 2003, two visited twice! One returning with his son; the other after, “First climbed it 1959.” Proudly we added our names to the list.

Going home was simply more of the same. Beautiful. Inspiring. Except we saw views missed when walking north. While the inland side plunges steeply into the Clerk River Valley, the ocean side races down spines of white granite to spill into brown buttongrass plains fringed with forbidden forests of the darkest green.

Going home downhill made quite a difference. Instead of searching the easiest route, I let my weight push through the tangle of low branches, and as a result we made super fast time. In fact, we were back at base with still an hour of light, and guzzling the remaining wine while watching the heavens boil red till our world became a happy sphere of warm fuzziness.

After such an exhausting day, we both slept late and both woke happy as I’d fixed Judith’s bed. Breaking camp and packing was a slow affair, we wanted to savour the beautiful views and gaze a bit longer at the granite peaks. But then about ten, rucksacks got hoisted and muscles complained, so we set off sedately down that murderous slope. Amazingly, it was easy with a bit weight pushing us along. Just needed care, especially after I’d slipped on me bum a few times.

Trevor had mentioned a manmade rock wall somewhere on those flats connecting the ridgelines and as we descended I kept a lookout for it. Without tall trees, our view unrestricted, something upright and white wasn’t too hard to spot. In fact, when sighted, we had passed fairly close to it on the way up as it was near where we’d found water.

Made from flat rock neatly stacked like an English fence and standing waist high in a slight arch, whoever had constructed it had not been a day-tripper. Far too much effort, firstly in locating the stone then meticulously stacking them interlocked. From behind it, Sarah Island was just visible above a mound further down, and that put convict foremost in my mind. Intrigued, and hopeful of finding something from the past, I searched the low scrub in an ever increasing circle, hoping to kick up a rusty pair of leg irons or rotting leather shoe. Not meant to be. But that didn’t stop me from lying down and pretending I was escaped "Gentleman Bushranger" Brady planning my murderous attack on the penal colony.

On that rarely visited slope, who’s to say Matthew Brady hadn’t constructed this wind break after escaping his duties in Farm Cove. Touching the stones one by one, I heard hounds baying and felt a chill of fear then sensed a defiant man persecuted until death seemed better than life imprisoned. Peering over the top stone, my breath rushed out upon seeing the island of ultra banishment and confinement with Banyandah, my conduit to a rich, rewarding life in the foreground. Before tears could flow, Judith’s warm breath was felt upon my ear then her arms wrapped round me in a loving embrace.


  1. Well done jack and Judith....i really find you guys inspiring....now I'll have to do Mt Sorell..wonderous pictures and informative...love Tasmania...As you know i live for seeing the wild places of the earth....we may met up again in the Stirling ranges Western Australia...or who knows-it could be atop another peak or wild place...thanks for the excellent report, by for now Mark Sheen

  2. How do you find the energy - you really are amazing! Had my 65th in Jan and about to have a weeks` hol near Berwick with all as Jane going to be 40 and Andrew was 30 last month. Weather here is terrible so hope better next week. Happy Easter to you where ever you are now - need to get on Facebook at same time!
    Have been following your travels and marvelling to friends who have been watching with me. Keep in touch
    Sue xx

  3. Happy Birthday Jude. Hope you will enjoy every day of your new year! I am sure, you will.

  4. What an achievement!
    Think of you both often. You know, you two go round this world giving and giving, and giving some more. Thanks.
    Lots of love, Megs
    West Coast Yacht Charters

  5. I love your evocative descriptive passages. Now I don't have to climb Mount Sorell to experience what it feels like! And the views... I envy you this adventure.
    I must write my book on Matthew Brady and promise you a copy if and when it is published.
    Marg Muir

  6. Thank you, Marg. Greatly looking forward to reading your Matthew.