|The ancient abalone|
Away from Louisa Bay, across a sunny plain patched with the shadows of passing clouds, we start the biggest climb of the trip3,000 feet up and over the Ironbound Range. This track doesn't mess around; it goes straight up through the buttongrass. We are slowly propelled to the top with the help of copious amounts of Cadbury's chocolate and stop on the upper reaches of the Ironbounds' moist southern slope. We pitch our tents on a large patch of moss next to a stream, surrounded by rainforest. The weather is good, so we retrace our way to the top to watch the setting sun stripe the slaty sky peach and orange. Federation Peak lowers in the distance like a large, idle weapon. A few frogs click as night falls.
After the empty, windy expanses of the beach and buttongrass, the rainforest is a cool, still relief. Most of all, it feels occupied. There are myrtle and sassafras trees in here, and mosses covering every possible surface. The climbing heath Prionites winds around the tree trunks, its scarlet flowers bright flashes in the dimness. Now and then we find periwinkle-colored climbing blueberries, as well as leatherwood trees, whose white, fragrant flowers make nectar for a famous strain of honey and whose conical shape is right out of Alice in Wonderland. A blue-and-white parrot feather sits on the mud.
This side of the Ironbounds is also a cartilage-ripping, joint-skewing obstacle course of roots, slippery logs, and mud puddles. It's one of the reasons that the South Coast Track is generally considered territory for experienced, masochistic types. Although the weather ends up a reasonable mix of sun, wind, and drizzle during our trip, it can be much worse; rain and wind can delay crossing rivers and mountain ranges for days or even weeks. These play a part in keeping the number of people who make this trip into the Tasmanian wildernessconsidered one of Australia's finestdown to 2,000 people per year. (The better-known Overland Track near Cradle Mountain, with its famous "cushion plants" and ancient King Billy pines, has about 5,000 hikers each year.) The pressure of all this potential hardship sends Dave Walker and me ripping into a forbidden package of halvah. Farther down, after I whack my tailbone on a huge, mossy log I was attempting to walk down, I hear a bloodcurdling scream. It's Sarah. I wobble down to her. "A leech! In the palm of my hand!" she shrieks, holding out her hand. I've been lucky. All of my leeches attach themselves to the backs of my legs where I don't have to look at them, then discreetly drop off. I haven't seen one yet.
As we get nearer the bottom, eucalyptus trees start to dominate the forest canopy. Tasmania's eucalyptus trees are enormous, the tallest in the Southern Hemisphere. They stand as straight and stout as bridge pillars, shooting 300 feet in the air. We feel tiny by the time we reach the ocean again.
We are now halfway through the trip, sitting in a lean-to near Deadman's Bay, listening to the rain rattle on the corrugated metal roof. I am watching Dave's yellow plastic cup, which is being scaled by a rather endearing black inchworm that turns out to be a leech. We have seen almost nobody in several days. We are about to prove the heretofore unproved law that you need to have a roof over your head before you can have neighbors. Suddenly a slight man in a pair of fluorescent green shoes pokes his head in, breaking our reverie, and asks in a thick German accent, "Verr is de bethroom?" Later, a Tasmanian botanist named Jonathan Basil Marsden Smedley arrives and offers us some abalone he has just caught.
Where is the giant talking rabbit? I think as Sarah and I walk onto the rocky beach to get the abalone. They are as big as grapefruit halves. Smedley says they are at least as old as we are. I feel wiltingly guilty but pound it against a rock anyway. Sarah, though, hesitates. "A primitive pharynx," she says, holding up her abalone and guiding me to a nubbin somewhere on its body.
"Excuse me?" I ask.
"A cartilaginous precursor to our voice box," she explains.
We eat the abalone and a full dinner, followed by some Cadbury's. We agree that the extra protein makes us think very clearly, right before we sink into dreamless sleep.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication