I enjoy birthday parties more than most people. Considering that I don’t enjoy birthday parties very much, this is noteworthy commentary on our society. Granted, it is entirely possible that a link exists between my conduct in achieving birthday party enjoyment and others’ failure to attain such mirth, but you’ll have to ask them. I can’t recall a thing.
Recently a friend from Vancouver announced she’d be coming to Australia to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. I knew at once there would be no avoiding this event. Fiftieth birthdays mark a worthy and notable milestone, a serious business.
As an obnoxious teenager, I gave my father a cane for his fiftieth birthday. He was in perfectly good health, and I meant the gift in ironic good humour, as if to say “See? You aren’t that old yet.” He didn’t take it that way. When he removed the gift wrap to reveal a geriatric aid, his head drooped and shoulders sagged. I got the sense I had hurt his feelings. “Thanks” he said flatly, leaving the room to bury the thing deep in his mysterious bedroom closet. If I knew then what I know now, I might have shouted after him “Where do you think I got this sense of humour?” But from that moment I realised that fiftieth birthdays were serious business.
Some years later, when Ma came home from the emergency room, her ankle in a cast, Dad’s eyes lit up. “I have just the thing!” he exclaimed, darting off to his mysterious bedroom closet. He emerged with the very same cane, good as new, never used. The price tag was still on it, in fact. (Oops, my bad.) “I don’t remember where this came from, but I’ve had it for years!” He was delighted. I felt vindicated. Even the snarkiest of gifts eventually might be put to good use.
Well may you ask “What has any of this got to do with camping?”
Only four people, including me, attended my fiftieth birthday celebration. That would have been an embarrassingly poor showing had it not been because I hiked off into the wilderness to celebrate it.
The southern-most point of continental Australia is a peninsula called Wilsons Promontory National Park. Only twelve thousand years ago – the blink of an eye in geologic terms – Wilsons Prom was part of an isthmus, a land bridge connecting mainland Australia to Tasmania, spanning the now tumultuous waters of the Bass Strait. The indigenous peoples of Australia luxuriated on the fertile plains of that land bridge for about thirty thousand years before distant melting glaciers at the Ice Age’s end submerged it. To this day, they maintain an oral history of the great inundation, no more or less fantastic that of Noah.
The stunning beauty of Wilsons Prom’s current reality is even more fantastic than its stories. From rain forests to powder white beaches, monolithic mountain outcrops to pristine forests, Wilsons Prom is one breath-takingly spectacular phenomenon after another. It is one of my favourite places on Earth.
As my fiftieth birthday approached, I had visited the Prom more times than I could count, hiking almost every trail in the park. Most I traversed on easy-to-moderate day trips. Several others trails are strenuous and lengthy enough that they required an overnight stay deep in the park. Those treks were accessible to those unenthusiastic about camping, such as myself, by the lighthouse accommodation available at the park’s southern tip.
There was one part of the Prom I couldn’t figure out how to get to without camping overnight: Refuge Cove. As a younger man, I might have attempted the gruelling five hours each way a day trip would have required, but at fifty, that sounded like a suicide mission. The alternative was particularly daunting: a “Pack It In, Pack It Out “ camping trip – that is, one where everything must be brought along, carried on foot – food, water, tent, stove, bedroll, wine… This kind of expedition struck me as a basic, minimalist thing that every human should experience — and I hadn’t. I feared that if I didn’t do it on turning fifty, I never would.
On a cool cloudy morning the day before I turned fifty, Frank, Aydell and I set off into the woods from Telegraph Saddle on the track towards Refuge Cove. Unlike our previous camping experience (the gay car camping outing some twenty-five years earlier, described in my previous tantrum), we had considerable success in borrowing most of the gear we needed. Even better, we had Aydell along.
Aydell is one of those people who can actually do things that prove useful in the wilderness, like fix a broken anything, or light a fire, or think. In the primeval forest there is little demand for revenue yield management or the application of generally accepted accounting principles, which are Frank’s and my most relevant skills, respectively.
The day went without a hitch. We hiked over the well-named Windy Saddle between Mount McAlister and Mount Ramsay, then down the mountainside. Across the dismally impressive Sealers Swamp on a well-maintained elevated boardwalk, we reached Sealer’s Cove, where we had lunch. From there, we clambered over the coastal edge of the Wilsons Range. In in the late afternoon, the secluded Refuge Cove came into sight. I was utterly exhausted, every muscle in my body aching. But there was pride of accomplishment. Finally, I had gotten to the un-get-to-able Refuge Cove.
Our pace increased in anticipation as we descended into the camp ground. There were perhaps two dozen campsites, but we were the only folks there. That was fine by us. We set up camp and settled in, cracking one of two – or was it three? – bottles of wine we had packed in.
As the sun set, I was astonished to spy a middle aged man on the adjacent beach dressed in freshly pressed khakis and a sport jacket, sipping a drink. If he had been wearing a skipper’s hat, he would have been the spitting image of Thurston Howell III. Perplexed as to how he had arrived in such an unspoilt state, I soon saw moored offshore, past a rocky ridge, was a large motor cruiser. It could have been used as Frank Sinatra’s yacht in any of several 1970’s made-for-TV miniseries.
Frank and I decided to go say hello, but as soon as he saw us, Thurston made for a small launch that, apparently, had brought him ashore. He stepped aboard, shoving off without so much as getting his feet wet – no easy feat.
All I could think was “Why didn’t I think of that?” Refuge Cove wasn’t as un-get-to-able as I had thought. Then I remembered my previous sailing-camping experience on Hardwood Island. Oh, and also, that I am neither Thurston Howell III nor Frank Sinatra. Hrmph.
After a big dinner, all the wine, a solid sleep and a healthy breakfast, I felt great. We packed up to continue the trek, another five hour rigorous hike looping back to Telegraph Saddle, this leg via Waterloo Bay.
A half-hour later, we came across a sign that indicated we were only a five minute walk from the summit of Kersops Peak. We had a long way to go. None of us had ever heard of Kersops Peak. It was in the wrong direction. Even the sign indicated that direction was straight up. But I am a sucker for a view. After some disagreement, we agreed to drop out bags at the trail junction, head up, and pick up the bags on our return. What could go wrong?
Not what you think.
We made it up okay, and there was a decent view – worth the climb, really. But on the way down, I slipped on my left leg, hyperextending it momentarily – just long enough to feel that twang that signals one has fucked up a hamstring.
Somewhat strangely, going uphill was no problem. But from there on, going downhill in controlled fashion – trying to “apply the brakes “, if you will – was extraordinarily painful. It was a much less painful to run downhill in a reckless manner. So for the next four hours, each time a downward stretch came in view, I would choose a big tree or branch at the bottom, then plunge down the rocky uneven incline like a madman, grabbing the tree or branch at the last moment to avoid certain death. Exhilarating.
We made it back to the reasonably modern and civilised cabins at Tidal River. There, Aydell’s beloved Clara joined us for a proper birthday celebration. (I told you there was four of us.)
The truth is: the return trek was amongst the most tortuous experiences of my life. I greatly appreciate that Frank and Aydell submitted themselves to help fulfil the stupidest fiftieth birthday present ever requested. It was serious business.