Photographs by Harry Whaite 1912 - 2011

 

 

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Snake Bite !

By IDA McAULAY. (Bush Club)  from The Bushwalker 1942

We first saw them soon after leaving our camp site beside the Franklin River on our start towards the Frenchman's Cap. In those days it was not usual for us to meet another party when in the bush in Tasmania. When we overtook a man in a blue serge suit, a collar and tie, and brown calf shoes, picking his way tentatively and unsteadily, because of the weight and ill-balance of his pack, over slippery saplings that corduroyed a boggy stretch of track, our mood became a little tarnished. We spurred on, vouchsafing him little more than an affirmative when he enquired if he were on the track to the Frenchman. Other members of our party had seen two more rather similarly clad individuals on another branch of the track. We were not elated at the idea of sharing our mountains with people who wore the wrong clothes, and packs that could only have been put together by novices. We wondered if they were on their way to the Jane River goldfields beyond the turn-off to the Frenchman, and hoped they were.

One of them carried a shot-gun for protection against snakes, of which they seemed unusually apprehensive. None of the three was very sure of where or how they were going, or whether they would get there. These things we discovered after we had passed and re-passed each other a couple of times during respective halts for lunch.

We made some rather caustic remarks among ourselves upon the unsuitable array of camping gear and tinned foods we saw spread around them as they rested, and bathed their already blistered feet in the clear, tea-coloured water of the Loddon River. The collars and ties had disappeared, but in their city waistcoats, with shirtsleeves and trouser-legs rolled up, the three still made incongruous figures among the ferns and mosses of the river growth.

We next saw them two nights later when we stood round our fire in the early dusk of a myrtle forest on the borders of Lake Vera, waiting for rice and tea billies to boil. Rather white and weary, they stumbled into the small clearing where we had made our camp. Tasmanians have a rather unfortunate habit of responding to most situations by saying nothing. We went on standing round our fire in silence while the three, visibly impressed, asked us in hushed tones if they might camp beside us. We — graciously, I hope — permitted them the freedom of the bush, and — the billy boiling — offered them tea, then relapsed into our former wordless state. The three went to bed scarcely raising their voices above whispers.

FOREST MAGIC.

Relations between the two parties underwent some forest change in the night, for next morning we were more like one group of people than two. We learned that the three were from Melbourne, and had never been in the bush before; and even began to distinguish them as individuals. The one with the gun, who was so nervous of snakes, and whose brown shoes had offended us, was the most urban of the three. He had only come because of his friendship for their leader, a dark, slim young man of twenty-two or three, who, like all leaders, was the- one in the party with the most enthusiasm, imagination and intelligence. It was he who had conceived the whole idea of this trip, and forced the others to come. Having seen a photograph of the Frenchman in some Government tourist advertisement he had been fired with the desire to see it in reality. The third was the most uncouth of the three, and we wondered at his presence among them. He had a rather vacant blue eye, and dumbly did what the others told him. All three were factory workers.

It seemed that the first must start back that day, for by the time he reached Melbourne his holiday would be ended. He was reluctant to make the journey alone, so his companions, their leader decided, would go part of the way with him to see him on to the easy Jane River track. They would return to Lake Vera that night, and follow us to the Frenchman next day.

Later, while we dallied high in a mountain cradle, among clear pools set in rounded banks of bright green cushion moss and clumps of silver badger grass, we spoke of our fellow-travellers. For them this was an adventure into the unknown. They came, as we felt people should come to mountains, not to "bag" them, or "do" them, or even to conquer them. The mountains had beckoned, and they had followed the call—all the way from the factories and streets of Melbourne.

This pleasant dawdling was followed by a night which I think none of us will forget. The full moon rose and suffused everything with an unearthly beauty. We sat beside the dark water of Lake Tahune, deep in a bowl among surrounding walls of quartzite, and gazed sometimes at the pale, reflected rock mass of the Frenchman and Venus, a single point of light, shining from the surface of the water, sometimes at the great white overhanging dome itself. We knew how rare it was to be in the perfect place at such a perfect moment. The Frenchman is more often than not torn at and blustered upon by winds, hidden by blizzards, or lost in mists and driving rain. This beautiful, still mood was only a rare interlude among many stormier ones. Knowing how brief it was likely to be, we wished our Melbourne friends were there to see it so, and to climb the mountain with us next day.

It was as if the mountain, for a short time, were spell-bound, for the following morning was as still and clear as the night before. As we climbed higher, with the sparkling quartzite grating sharply under our nailed boots, we grew more elated, and grateful to the gods of the mountains for allowing us this perfect day. On the very summit we moved about a little restlessly, unable at first to adjust ourselves to this complete attainment of our dreams.

To the west, between mountains, was the horizon line of the sea —the southern Indian Ocean. There the sky was dark with coming clouds, and we knew the perfect day was near its end.

HIDDEN FRENCHMAN.

After nightfall, when it was raining- steadily, from the shelter of our tents beside the lake we heard voices. It was our Melbourne friends arriving. Some of our party went out to meet them and help them pitch and drain their tent and light a fire. They came back reporting that the two—the Leader and his Henchman, as we called them—were very tired. They, and the whole of their cumbersome equipment, were wet.

Next day, though we were sheltered from the wind, the rain was heavy and incessant, and there was nothing to be seen. This was the day the Leader had reserved for climbing the Frenchman. We all spent it in our tents. The following morning both parties were bound to return. Though we were full of sympathy for the other two and regret for what they had missed, they, or rather the Leader (for what his Henchman felt none seemed to know or think important) appeared satisfied that the trip was well worth while.

Our party was the first to leave. It was still raining, and the Frenchman hidden, but not so heavily as the day before. When we reached the lip of the bowl in which Lake Tahune lay we looked down and saw the water half revealed through swirling mists.

Late that afternoon, when we were well past Lake Vera, the two overtook us where we sat beside a creek, making a late afternoon tea. They passed us, heading out into a long tongue of button-grass that led towards the Jane River track, and soon disappeared in a rain and mist-laden greyness. Ten minutes later we were following them; and were surprised when a sudden lightening of the weather revealed the plain—glisteningly olive-green and orange-brown—completely devoid of human figures.

TRUE LEADER.

While we were wondering what had happened we almost stumbled upon the two where they crouched, hunched up, among the big tussocks of button-grass. Before they had formed the words we knew what had happened—snake-bite. The Leader had his boot open and blood flowing freely from where he had cut his foot with a pen-knife. His Henchman knelt beside him with a white face, one end of a puttee dangling ineffectually from his hand. Strangely enough, they had asked us that morning what to do in such a case. Before that, they had not the most elementary idea. The Henchman seemed uncertain how to make a ligature. The men of our party quickly applied one, the Leader, though a little shaken, remaining the calmer of the two. The snake, a big one, he said, had bitten just where his boot had broken open and there had been nothing to protect him.

The best thing seemed to be to make for shelter in a hut on the Jane River track a mile or so in the opposite direction from ours, where miners sometimes camped on their way to and from the gold-fields. Two of us went on to find it, start a fire and prepare coffee, while the others followed with the patient, carrying his pack and helping him along. It was soon so dark that we had to let our feet find their own way along the track by following a stream of water. When we were off it we stumbled knee deep into boggy holes between the buttongrass.

We found the hut beside a river, and by the light of a match saw something of the state it was in. We threw out the worst of the old boots, socks and discarded clothing; and, everything being wet, started the fire with bits of brushwood from the bunks. The fireplace was in an open end of the hut, and rain came down and damped our bits of kindling while we tried to light them. However, long before we heard the others arriving we had a good fire going, for, luckily, in those parts much of the wood burns both green and wet. Coffee was made by the time the over-tired and bedraggled party arrived. They were cold and wet to the skin. The packs of our Melbourne friends were double their normal weight, because their blankets, and everything else in them, were soaked.

We warmed our patient as best we could with fire and dry sleeping bags and coffee, and talked cheerfully of all the people we knew who had been snake-bitten and were none the worse. The ligature was duly loosened at intervals and, after he had been fed and rested, his colour became better, and we began to feel sure that he was not going to suffer serious effects from the bite; in fact, we suspected that the snake had struck part of his boot first and wasted much of its poison on that. We admired the calm, matter-of-fact way he took the whole affair. Even in that predicament he remained the Leader, and told his Henchman what to do.

By some time after midnight we were all dry, and our Melbourne friends' blankets as well. Somehow or other each found a place to lie down and sleep. .

By daylight the interior of the hut was so unprepossessing that we preferred to breakfast in the light drizzle outside. Our patient seemed quite well except for a stiff and painful leg. He decided to rest it for twenty-four hours and do the last stage of the journey next day As they were now on the well-marked track, and seemed all" right, we left them, saying quite an affectionate farewell to the men we had earlier looked at so askance. Such is the effect of shared experience in the bush.

Later we heard from the patient that he suffered that day rather badly from headache and sickness, but was quite fit to travel on the next day.