Enchanted Forests – Mountainous, Underwater and Upriver

January 5, 2014

Walking off to Cradle Mtn

Path leading off towards Cradle Mountain

What is it about that path into the wilderness that piques the curiosity and lures us into the otherworld that sits just the other side of this world? It’s as old as the fairytale, as contemporary as ever. I stuck to the boardwalk as long as it lasted, to help conserve the bog lands beneath the feet, the button grasses and the mosses and ferns, the soft soils in the perpetual wet of western Tasmania. But as soon as I’d climbed up from the lost lake, passed the designated tourist’s lookout, and come around to the back of Cradle Mountain, I just couldn’t choose the well worn path back to the visitor’s centre. It’s off on bushwalking adventure for me. Which is of course how I soon got lost.

Backcountry, CM

Backcountry, looking away from Cradle Mountain

A quick glance at a map in the turnoff hut revealed that there probably existed a way back that could provide me with many more hours’ walking as well as a look at the justly famed landscape beyond majestic Cradle Mountain. I was keen to blow off a year of working in the city in one day of wild Tasmanian weather, which could easily provide me with a combination of blustery winds and the sleeting showers of rain that come up and over the ridges and hit me square in the face, interspersed with occasional bursts of brilliant, welcome sunshine. So I headed off, bottle of water with a muesli bar and some chocolate in one pocket, phone camera with no coverage and just enough power for a handful of photos in another.

Back of CM in mist2

Looking back at Cradle Mountain in high mist

I saw the turn off but ignored it, reasoning there would be another and anyway, I’d read that that one was very steep and not recommended. A couple of hours later I caught up with another walker – enjoying paths like this all to yourself, solitary walking in the wilds, is a particular pleasure for this contemplative soul – and found out I was heading directly away from civilisation. I had not consciously chosen to do this, but was there something within me that couldn’t resist the lure of the wilderness? I had one spare day only and no gear for anything longer. Yet somehow the forest had enchanted me just as it did those innocent children in countless fairy tales, tempted by the promise of encounter with the fairies, or communication with nature spirits of some other kind; of magical experiences or just new worlds, of another time and place that somehow put this one in perspective, if we were allowed to return at all. For isn’t this the same sweet song that lured the hero into battle or quest and tempted the sailors across the horizon? It’s not just for the innocent, then, but for the curious – for anyone who wonders what lives across the porous boundary between this world and the next, which dreams and myths and fairytales tell us exists at all times beneath the elastic boundaries at the edge of perception. And tricksters live there…

Currawong Tricksters, CM

 Tricky Currawongs! How did they know i had chocolate in that pocket?

Having returned to the turn off, which was naturally the only way back after all, I did find this track was very steep – and hardly used. The weather turned a little nastier and this is where the cautionary tale shapes up. Stepping down across an exposed tree root onto a mossy rock, I slipped and almost twisted my ankle. And suddenly the reality of my situation sank in.

Lichen & Fungi, CM

Tiny Life – lichen and fungi on granite

I am a 4 hour walk from anyone else, let alone the meeting point of tourists to this picturesque region. I am on a path that is almost unused – I see no other footprints and there is almost definitely nobody else behind me (it’s not yet high season and I’ve hardly seen a soul since I left the suggested tracks). If I can’t walk out of here, I’m hunkering down for the night – and exposure in the Tasmanian highlands is not to be underestimated; ever. All of a sudden, every step matters and my walk takes on a new note of Zen concentration.

Rainforest, CM

Wild rainforest

I love it. Perhaps this is partly, secretly, why I allow myself to be led across the threshold. It might not be quite a matter of life and death, but it is intense, everything becomes significant, nothing is taken for granted. This is how I wanted to live. Not forgetting.

Tiny Tree, CM

A tiny tree, woody rooted, with delicate white flowers

A few days later I am cruising up the Gordon River in the great south western wilderness heritage park and I can’t help thinking about all those stories about the madness upstream, about the great short novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, about the film Apocalypse Now that was made in its image, about the song “Somewhere Down that Crazy River” by Robbie Robertson. About the idea that when we’re tempted far enough upstream we lose contact with civilisation and its mores and end up “going native.” I don’t trust the lack of confidence this has so often been treated with – as if losing civilisation and returning to primal life ways would be such a significant loss, as if we are truly mad beasts beneath the veneer of socialisation and should be thankful to the factory line and Sunday school for bringing us up to this point of merit. It just never sang true to me. For every gain, a loss, as far as I can tell, when all the gloss is stripped away from our modern lifestyles. Agriculture and abundance plus environmental inbalance, industrialisation and machine locomotion plus pollution, technology and instant global media plus disembodied alienation, capitalism and more stuff plus greatly increased inequality. Something about the consensus story of modernity always seems to suggest we should be thankful for it but I’m not. I wish we were still living at close quarters with the rest of nature, our technologies immersed in the sacred, our psyches in conversation with our kin amongst all the other beings.

Gordon River

Looking up Gordon River – wanting to go around just one more bend …

I don’t want the boat to turn around, when it must, and look longingly upriver to the even wilder lands I recall from a previous kayaking trip past here. I go diving for crayfish another day and again the fancy hits home. I don’t want to come up, washed this way and that as I am by the swell and the surge, scared occasionally by the looming shadow above, waving kelp that takes the shape of a giant octopus, fiend of the deep and shadow creature of the walking consciousness.

Why do I feel so lonely in my love of the wild lands beneath and beyond this waking world? I know plenty of others share it. But we are the minority, still, the ones who would actually choose to make modern life simple so that others may simply live. Especially when those others include the ugly and uncommercial creatures, the unproductive lands being flattened for new housing estates, the quiet streams and silent atmosphere we are drowning with our disastrous dream of unending plenty.

I recently wrote about the utopian desires of mainstream society here; next up, I should respond with an ecotopian vision that satisfies the kinds of criteria i’ve mentioned here, about the otherworld of life that lures us beyond our urban confines and reminds us that we are part of nature. And there’ll be no apologies if it sounds outrageous, radical, unconventional or shocking. Because accepting the current consensus reality means missing everything beautiful about the forests, the mountains, the underwater and upriver worlds that continue to draw our romantic imaginations forward and challenge the stupid and selfish that holds so much sway in the human spirit today.



  1. “For every gain, a loss…” It is how balance is maintained.

    • Perhaps we are beginning to learn about the hazards of balance in a technological age … and not a minute too soon.

  2. Yes.Yes.Yes.

  3. Great post. Cradle Mountain is wonderful. We stayed at the Waldheim cabins a few years ago. The weather changes so quickly, like being at the snow. I share your love of the wild, these days it’s my bike that gives me access to the country but that’s different of course. Since embracing the quest I’ve always found paths, even in the most wonderful places like this or the Himalayas, disappointing. Even in the wilderness our experience is being shaped, conditioned. It makes perfect sense of course. As a kid I loved reading about the early explorers and pioneers – Hillary finding his own way up Everest, or the Antarctic explorers. Doing so entails so much more risk, and requires a much great level of mastery of the skills of survival of course. …Weren’t the pademelons cute!

    • The funny thing is, as you say, the paths make sense; and even though those people who had much closer connection to wild nature than we do today – Australian aborigines being the case here – also had paths between places. Something about curiosity and a love of fresh experience draws is further though, beyond the confines of safety. Traditionally, ritual seems to have been one way to provide for this kind of experience; I’m beginning to explore this further in a public forum. I’d be interested to hear if this clicks for you, James, with your knowledge of the ancient Greek world.

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