By Glenn Burns
The names are drawn from the Old Testament: Lake Salome, the Pool of Bethesda, The Pool of Siloam, Wailing Wall, Mt Jerusalem, and Herods Gate. Irresistible place names to whet the bushwalker’s appetite. The Walls of Jerusalem, originally called China Walls, are located on Tasmania’s Central Plateau, east of, but contiguous to, the famed Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park; both form part of the Tasmanian Wilderness Heritage Area. Access is on foot over a steep, rough track to an alpine plateau at 1200 metres. Unpredictable weather conditions are the norm.
An Overview of The Walls of Jerusalem National Park:
The Walls of Jerusalem National Park features dolerite peaks, glacial lakes, moraine dumps as well as alpine plant communities including rare pencil pine forests and cushion plants. It is an extremely interesting area for experienced walkers as there are many possible multiday trips in the area. But long before the incursions of the modern day bushwalker, aborigines made seasonal visits to the area as evidenced by artifact scatters found in the national park. The first Europeans to visit The Walls were shepherds with their flocks of sheep in the period from 1820s through to 1920s. Surveyor James Scott explored The Walls in December 1848 and January 1849 and produced the first comprehensive map. On the map are named Wild Dog Creek, Lake Adelaide, Lake Ball (now Lake Salome) and The Walls of Jerusalem. Then came the trappers who hunted pademelons, wallabies aand possums for their fur in the 1920’s. Finally bushwalkers discovered the area. Members of the Launceston Walking Club did much to explore the area and one of their members, Reg Hall, named many of the geographic features: among them Dasmascus Gate, Herods Gate, Jaffa Gate, and Solomons Jewels.
At the start of winter youngest son Alex rang asking me to join him on a snowshoeing trip into The Walls of Jerusalem National Park. And so it came to pass that on an overcast blustery Sunday afternoon in June my Virgin Australia flight crabbed down the runway at Hobart’s airport, straightened and thankfully delivered me safely to the terminal building. Alex was already waiting, sporting a massive Wilderness Equipment rucksack and an even bigger cargo bag of snowshoes and other snow hiking do-dahs.
Alex the Providore:
Then it was off to Hobart CBD to stock up. Alex took command of this vital operation, apparently having had some issues with childhood experiences of my hiking menus built around pasta, porridge, packets of wheatmeal biscuits and peanut paste. But ours was to be more substantial and varied fare. Enough to see us through several Tassie blizzards: multiple blocks of chocolate, a brick-sized chunk of cheese, cheesy biscuits, a bag of nuts, bags of Mars bars, rolled oats for hot porridge, a bag of muesli, a tube of sweetened condensed milk, packets of dried soups, tubes of drinking chocolate, and a flat-pack of some hippy spinach and herb mountain bread that Alex lusted after.
Photo Gallery: by Alex Burns
Weather reports you would rather not have:
Onward to Deloraine for a night in comfortable digs at the local motel. I must say that this was an opportune choice given the deteriorating weather. On my last extended snow trip with Alex things were quite different. It was tenting at The Diggings in Kosciuszko National Park before issuing forth to hiking on the Main Range in balmy temperatures and brilliantly sunny skies. This time we drove to Deloraine under threatening skies then finally rain. The TV weather report that night showed a dense cloud band sweeping across Tasmania. A nuisance breakout from something called the Antarctic Vortex, otherwise known as a vigorous low pressure cell and associated cold front. For our neck of the woods: 95% chance of rain, wind gusts to 100 kph, sheep graziers’ weather alert and a strong wind warning.
The Tassie Parks service has this warning about winter trips to the high country: “Winter days are cold, but can often be crisp and clear, especially in the morning. In the highlands, expect snow. You’ll need all your warm, windproof and waterproof gear. The days are short and deep snow can make walking difficult. Be prepared to be holed up during blizzards, sometimes for days.”
Monday at Cradle Mountain
Come Monday morning I peeked through the curtains. Not good. Alex who is on top of this highland weather stuff sensibly delayed our entry to The Walls for the day. A day of reading and telly watching interspersed with visits to Deloraine’s cafes for hot chocolates and coffees… perhaps? Unfortunately, Alex isn’t much for sitting around. An outing to Cradle Mountain beckoned. We trudged through Cradle’s freezing rain and gale force winds (gusting to 80 kph) for only part of the day but my enthusiasm for this alpine outing was quickly
dampened and I was relieved that we hadn’t set out to The Walls in this weather. I’m not sure what the two bedraggled, shivering and unfit middle-aged ‘overland trackers’ made of the conditions. Apparently they were out in all weathers because they were ‘on a schedule’. I guess they made it to Waterfall Hut with a bit of a struggle. But it was back to the delights of Deloraine in a warm car for Alex and me. Hopefully for an early start tomorrow. The evening TV weather report was mildly off-putting for this warm-blooded denizen of the subtropics: sheep graziers’ weather alert, road alert for snow and ice, maximum 0°C, minimum -2°C, snow to 400 metres, 12-20 cm of snowfall, winds to 40 kph and a bushwalker alert. But in Alex’s book it was all systems go.
Tuesday: into The Walls Of Jerusalem
Tuesday pre-dawn. Alex was up and packing. Although we had already lost a day we opted for an ‘overnighter’, a lightning swoop on The Walls of Jerusalem. By mid-morning we had bumped our way into The Walls car park where a lonely signboard informed us that: Thieves are active in this area. I stepped out into snow and wind gusts but was reassured by Alex’s assessment that conditions were ‘pretty benign’.
We wandered off uphill, still able to pick the general line of the track even under the deepening snow cover. About an hour later we arrived at Trappers Hut, dived inside out of wind and snow, wolfed down a feed of chocolate then paused to examine our surroundings. Trappers Hut, built by Boy Miles, a Changi POW, and Dick and Alistair Walters in 1946, is a two bunker with vertical slab construction with a shingle and corrugated iron roof. The gable at one end, covered with chook wire, was open to the elements, with a light dusting of snow covering the bunk below.
The hut is a reminder that in bygone days these high alpine zones were exploited for grazing, mining and trapping. Possum trappers built huts, called badger boxes, around the edge of the Central Plateau especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They were keen to get the furry winter pelts of the mountain dwelling brush-tailed possums, pademelons and Bennett’s wallabies for which they received about the equivalent of two dollars fifty a skin.
Ten minutes on we were cooling rapidly so it was time to throw on the shoulder monkeys and trundle off, wombat-like, into the deepening drifts. Slow going.
Something about Snowshoeing:
It was not deep enough for snowshoeing but was deep enough to obliterate the track and obscure boulders and scrubs. Underfoot was becoming hazardous. I have read that a walker in boots and loaded with rucksack at a combined weight of 80kgs exerts a surface pressure on the snow of 470 g/cm². You can expect to sink about 20-25 cm into the snow. But if you have strapped on your on skis or snowshoes the ground pressure falls to about 67 g/cm². You should sink only a centimetre or two. We were definitely out of luck in this regard. Our snowshoes remained strapped to our rucksacks.
After Trappers we breasted the lower plateau at 1100 metres and located the junction of The Walls track and Lake Adelaide track by way of new and very garish sign. Even under a blanket of snow, in poor visibility, the scenery did not disappoint. A monochrome landscape of lakes, massive dolerite cliffs, pencil pine forests and clumps of snow gums. Definitely worth the discomfort of being out in these conditions.
The Walls of Jerusalem: Geology:
The Central Plateau is a surface of horizontal flows of dolerite, some 300 metres thick, formed during the Jurassic. Dolerite is a dark heavy rock, crystallizing as magma cooled beneath the earth’s surface. The present landscape is the result of a small Pleistocene ice-cap scouring this dolerite surface. Thus, the innumerable lakes of the Central Plateau are depressions left by glacial erosion. By and large the ice cap rode over most of the plateau except where it thinned and flowed around high points, gouging steep sided walls like The West Wall and The Wailing Wall.
The Walls of Jerusalem: Plants:
The vegetation highlights of The Walls include magnificent stands of the ancient Pencil Pines, the cushion plants and Tassie’s own snow gum, Eucalyptus coccifera. The very slow growing Pencil Pines (Athrotaxis cupressoides) prefer wet soils, hence are characteristically found on flat ground at the edge of tarns, lakes and watercourses. Athrotaxis usually grows as an isolated plant hence the extensive copses near Lake Salome, Pool of Siloam and in Jaffa Vale are very unusual. Unfortunately, it is highly susceptible to fire and may be under threat if the climate continues to warm.
Cushion plants are alpine species that develop dense, ground-hugging forms. In Tasmania all but one is endemic. They form narrow ‘rivers’ along drainage lines or be scattered through alpine heath or sedgeland. They are at their most spectacular where they form extensive sheets on thin soils on rocky alpine plateaux like the Walls Of Jerusalem.
After the junction sign, minor hick-up ensued as we puzzled over our forward direction. We quickly sorted this with that good old stand-by, a map and compass: Mr Magellan rendered inarticulate under the heavy sky. Alex confidently led off SW towards Herods Gate, breaking ground in the fresh snow. A human track logger. Our line of travel approximating the summer track and our ongoing progress confirmed by an occasional marker, so faded and tatty as to be nearly invisible.
Ahead were Solomons Jewels, a myriad of small lakes, but a mere handful of the 4000 or so lakes that dot the Central Plateau.
The Lake Country:
Sometimes called the Lake Country, this landscape is a legacy of the Pleistocene Glaciation when a 65 kilometre wide ice cap covered much of the Plateau. This was the only known Pleistocene ice cap in Australia. Glacial ice gouged and scraped numerous rock depressions and dumped piles of moraine. As the ice retreated 10,000 years ago, sheets of water filled the depressions to form the lakes that we see today.
Something about clothing:
By early afternoon the winds had ratcheted up and a coating of snow flurries now permanently covered our jackets and rucksacks. The wind chill temperature stood at about -8°C. Daggy as I may have looked, my old Queensland bushwalking clobber kept me amazingly snug: old woollen balaclava, possum fur gloves from NZ, outer ski gloves, thermal top and pants, Dry Gear long sleeved shirt, heavy duty windproof polar fleece coat, long gortex rain jacket, a pair of cheapskate nylon rain pants and Quagmire gaiters to complete my ensemble. Tucked away in a dry bag were a duplicate set of après ski clothes including down jacket and ski pants. And if you were an Alex, a pair of hut booties would be de rigeur for evening wear.
Unable to deploy the snowshoes our forward progress was pretty ordinary. By 2.00pm we were still short of Wild Dog Creek and our ambitious plan to overnight at Dixons Kingdom Hut had all but evaporated. Dixons is only a few hours from Trappers in summer conditions. But we weren’t in the race, so working on the precautionary principle, a night under canvas at Wild Dog Creek was our safest option.
Nary a wild dog in sight, but instead a resident clutch of Tasmanian Bennett’s Wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus) sheltering forlornly under tree branches near the tent platforms. You have to be pretty impressed by the survival these furry little fellows. A number of factors are in play to ensure their survival in the snow. The snowcover in Tassie is pretty short lived, so food scarcity is only temporary. High country mammals become torpid in cold conditions when food is scarce. They survive by reducing their metabolic rates by 5-30 percent of their normal basal rate. Finally, the Wild Dog campsite is, no doubt, a favourable feeding site with an abundance of hand-outs. But one lives in hope that there are not too many walkers feeding the local wildlife.
Wild Dog Creek Campsite:
Parks Tassie has done a sterling job at Wild Dog: wooden tent platforms, outstanding views even in the snow, water taps (currently frozen), a composting toilet (door frozen shut) and our own backyard Australia Zoo. But best of all we found a tent platform that was sheltered from the wind.
We downed rucksacks and extracted my ever faithful two man Salewa Sierra Leone. Wrangling the tubby Salewa on the snow covered platform called for some advanced engineering know-how. Alex’s, not mine. The snow hadn’t packed down so our ice pegs were useless. Instead we resorted to a spider’s web of spare cordage and spare bootlaces to guy out our little abode.
A long night:
Then it was into the tent, followed by a long-winded process of changing into warm dry clothes and finally submerging into a snuggly sleeping bag. A long night stretched ahead: 15 hours as sunrise was north of 7.20am. Cooking a meal in the tent annex is never an option that I particularly relish. It is far safer to fire up the stove outside. But with a bit of care we managed the annex and an entrée of Dutch curry and rice soup; for mains Back Country Cuisine’s Spaghetti Bolognese fattened up with Deb Instant Mash; a dessert of Rum and Raisin chocolate finished off with Choc Orange drinking choc fortified with sweetened condensed milk. The night was interminable, spiced up by discussions on things technological and exits to shake snow from the fly sheet and deal with the unwanted attentions of a marauding common brush-tail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula). It is with good reason that their species name is derived from the latin meaning ‘little fox‘.
Wednesday: up to the West Wall and Lake Salome
Come 7am, still in darkness, snow still drifting down, I was drawn out of the Salewa and up to the little house on the hill, the composting toilet: its latch and door frame firmly sealed by ice. Tighter than the zip on a Scotsman’s wallet. Having left the blow torch at home I resorted to desperate pecking with my pocket knife. By a dent of sheer persistence I burst in. A close run thing.
Back at camp we brewed up substantial bowls of porridge laced with handfuls of muesli and swimming in condensed milk and then considered the situation. Outside the wind had eased to 60 kph gusts but had swung to the WSW bringing colder temperatures, -2°C but lighter snowfall.
We opted to leave the tent erected with our gear still dry inside and check out the inner Walls above Herods Gate. Once through Herods Gate at 1200 metres the prospect was, bluntly put, bleak but also beautiful in a monochromatic sort of way. An iced-up Lake Salome was visible. To our right King Davids Peak and the West Wall were intermittently visible but Damascus Gate and The Temple (1446 m), a mere two kilometres away, were shrouded in cloud and snow.
After poking around in pretty cold conditions, a wind chill of -8.5°C, it was time to re-trace our route, retrieve the tent and gear at Wild Dog and bump out. We had run out of time, needing to be in Hobart on the morrow.
By 3pm at the car park the wind had eased back to a lazy 20 kph and the temperature had racked up to a balmy 2°C. Murphy’s Law. But for all the minor discomforts I wouldn’t trade my winter walks with Alex for anything. Then it was off to collect Judy from Hobart and onward to Adventure Bay on Bruny Island. A chance to check out an epicentre of Australia’s early maritime history: Abel Tasman(1642) Tobias Furneaux(1773) Captain Cook (1777) and William Bligh with Matthew Flinders in 1792.
Green, K and Osborne, W: Field Guide to Wildlife of Australia’s snow-country. Reed New Holland 1994.
Tasmanian Parks Service: Welcome to Wilderness: Bushwalking Trip Planner.
Map: Walls of Jerusalem 1:25000. Land Info Service.
Phil Collier : Alpine Wildflowers of Tasmania Soc. Growing Aust. Plants 1989.
Carol Booth: Chill Strategies Wildlife Australia Winter 2015 Vol 52 No 2.