by Ben Sandilands
Sometimes I think of walking in to the Botany Lawn. Of finding unchanged – and forever young – the friends with whom I found the worlds on the other side of the mountains.
It could have been yesterday that we met and last made plans for a trip, not 20 years ago. It is as if they are still there, and I am sorry for having been away for so long. But those steps are deflected, and something forbids the urge to return.
Nor have the recollections faded like the photographs. I feel the sharper, cleaner wind in my hair, and the sweat in the eyes and the sunburn on my shoulders at the top of a scratchy, scrubby, ridge on Yellow Dog. I hear the rasping rattle of rain and sleet hard driven against a tent pitched in the lee of scoparia scrub near the Needles on the way to Federation Peak.
And I remember how boiled rice with sardines was a feast, because that was all that was left before we recovered an airdrop further along the Eastern Arthurs at Hanging Lake. But being in the club was really about being independent. We had fun. We chose our trips, and our friends. There was a pleasure in rough wind and rough weather. We felt as if we shared in a greater world that most people neither knew about nor understood.
The club seemed to be completely informal but amazingly dedicated. There was no obvious hierarchy, just a wide body of experience of how to do things effectively, whether it was a very laid back day at Burning Palms or a major journey into the south-west. (It was traditional going to Burning Palms to abseil over the cliff below the Bulgo trig.)
Other clubs verged on anarchy or authoritarianism, and had some fairly clear factions, but nothing that seemed particularly intolerable from the Botany Lawn. They were a bit like different tribes, the Kamerukas, Coast and Mountain Walkers, Sydney Bushies and so on. They had their own definite personalities, and quite a few of us belonged to one or more of them. The greatest gulf was between SUBW and MUMC. l think we had about 40 active Members, and a hard core of about 20, but the MUMC did things by the ten score. SUBW was definitely not into mass events, and happily our paths seldom crossed.
Perhaps today’s horizons are Nepal, Alaska or the Andes. For most of the sixties our goals were in the Tasmanian south-west. We had little notion at first, that we were looking at a world that would be lost. Olegas Truchanas was working for the HEC and knew of the plans for Lake Pedder and told us early in 1963 that he thought they might improve the appearance of the place. But he was a gifted, restless person, and I think he realised before anyone else how bad the scheme would ultimately prove.
The Western Arthurs were numbered and yet unnamed, except for the west portal over Browns Pass. For some reason the most westerly high point was called Peak 4, and it was a difficult place for an air drop, but even in those days we managed an unbroken bottle of wine for Christmas. This was followed by an incredible and highly decelerated amalgam of imploded pudding, Sao biscuits and honey. We learned that high-g shocks could drive molecules of cooker fuel through the side of thick plastic containers into flour, egg powder, dehydrated vegetables and porridge.
We entered the south-west from Geevestown and left across the now vanished Huon Plains, over miles of tawny button grass. At Lake Pedder we caught a light plane off the beach, and made the mistake on one trip of walking out across to Maydena.
The pain of seeing the south-west diminished by logging and dams has kept me away ever since. About ten years ago, from a jet returning from a joy-flight over Antarctica, there was an unexpected break in the clouds, and an involuntary view of the lost white crescent sands of the old Lake Pedder, still visible through the dark waters of the new. I would never be able to take my child to Lake Pedder. Its loss impoverished the future. It broke my heart.
Federation Peak was a bit of an epic in the early Sixties, partly because of thinking which treated it as an expedition. By the mid-Sixties it was being done in a weekend. The logic of the light-weight approach, and “improved” access had arrived. The mystique was receding.
Bushwalking became slightly more competitive. It would be fair to say we all tried to go up or down hills as fast as the next person, but by 1966 people were setting out to Perry’s from Blue Gum in less than 50 minutes. Lockleys Pylon and return was being done in under an hour. It was still possible to drink from the Grose River without risk of falling ill.
In 1962 the piece de resistance for masochists was the three peaks, Guouogang, Paralyser and Cloudmaker, from Katoomba in a weekend, roughly 100 kilometres of walking and about 4,000 metres up and down. By 1965 they were being done in 24 hours, although not by this writer.
A huge network of fire roads were cut across the Blue Mountains, turning celebrated scrub bashes into fast but even less pleasant excursions along dark roads on Friday nights.
Looking back I think we were a zealous group, in the true meaning of the word. We came back to suburbia feeling high. We had been to something bigger than ordinary living, and the only price was a bit of sweat. It was more than a journey, it was like seeing the world for the first time.
It was probably in 1963, but possibly sooner, that members of the club began inventing the tougher type of canyon. The club had already achieved media notoriety for the abseiling accident which led to the rescue of Dick Donaghey, the Kanangra Kid. (I am trying to name very few people, because when you make such good friends you hesitate not to recall all of them.) The hard core canyoners made pioneering trips down Thunder and Claustral, and just about everyone enjoyed doing Hat Hill, Mt Hay and Arethusa.
Canyons came into vogue at about the same time as the revolution in rockclimbing in the Sydney Rockclimbing Club, which included the change from hemp to nylon ropes and from sandshoes to climbing shoes. There was a strong ethical move away from bolt routes, although bolts were still considered essential for some belays or protection. Removable protection such as metal chocks became common, except for people like myself, who became hung up for hours proving design limitations in really awkward cracks. Elements of hard solo climbing had emerged, but at nothing like the mind-numbing standards of today.
A small number of members, including myself, joined SRC, which collectively held all of the local climbing expertise. At the same time other members did some pre-commercial trekking in Nepal, in New Guinea and on Kinabalu in Borneo. It would be tempting to describe this as a golden era for the club but I could be wrong. By 1964 a few club members were showing slides of trips to New Zealand, and by the summer of 66-67 almost as many were going across the Tasman as to Tasmania. Some of us went there in 1965 starting with the climbing course that the NZAC ran at the old Ball Hut. Through good fortune Mt Aspiring was also our first snow and ice peak – a climb made under such perfect conditions that I recall the finest of details, even the moonlight through the beech forest in the Matukituki as we started up the gully to Bevan Col.
By the time l had a degree, and learned that learning never ends, I was committed to mountains, and I had left the Botany Lawn without realising it. I cannot imagine that any of us have lost the restlessness we felt then. But some were a lot wiser than me, and knew what I have only just learned, that all trips are equal in value, from the Budawangs to the Brenva face, because ‘doing it’ was what really counted.
We talked a lot about the future around a lowering fire under starry skies, Camp fires are as important for communications as for cooking. Like walkers and climbers anywhere, we could examine thoughts and concepts that generally defy the written thesis or newspaper columns. Cynics will claim that this also happens in pubs, but we enjoyed our wine more under the stars.
We anticipated a world with no unclimbed mountains and no untrodden valleys, which was of course, a very safe and easy prediction to make. That time has almost come, yet the new worlds lie several lifetimes out of reach. In the long period between crowded earth and new earths a real walk in the bush is going to become a rare and precious and wonderful thing.