My ordeal began three weeks before and it was my own fault. I had returned home to Launceston a couple of months previously after spending a year in Queensland in 1970.
Before going to Queensland I had been very active in the Launceston Bushwalking club and I was fit and strong. I was slowly getting used to the cold again but life back in Launceston was quiet and boring. I had broken up with a boyfriend in Brisbane and was feeling depressed.
Most of my old friends had either got married or left the State. I knew I had to make an effort to get out again, so I rejoined my old bushwalking club.
I had joined a bushwalking club in Queensland, but a typical trip with them consisted of a short 8 to 10-kilometre walk into a gorge where we spent the rest of the weekend floating down rivers on lilos and lazing around in the sun. It was definitely too hot for any strenuous walking, so I was very unfit.
At the first bushwalker's meeting I went to at home in Tasmania I met Brett Saunders (name changed), or I should say I saw Brett Saunders as I never actually spoke to him that night. He caught my interest straight away. I'm not sure if it was his big bushy beard or his quiet intelligent air. Thinking back now, it was probably just I was bored and he was a different handsome face.
A few weeks later the club had their annual progressive dinner and I spent a lot of time talking to the mysterious Brett that night. He was interesting, a teacher who liked classical music and Shakespeare.
We talked about trips coming up and about the June long weekend trip to rugged Frenchmans Cap (1446 m), the most prominent mountain peak in the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, a part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area in Tasmania's South West. Brett sounded enthusiastic about the trip and said he would be going on it, and how he was looking forward to it.
I hadn't even considered going on that trip. It was a very hard trip, even for a fit, energetic walker. I was mainly thinking along the lines of a few easy day walks to gradually get fit again, but there I was, hardly before realizing the significance of it, signing my name to the list for that trip at the next meeting.
I must have been crazy to even think about it, let alone actually go through with it. I guess I wanted to prove to myself I could do it, but it was probably to get a chance to know Brett better.
Well, I had two weeks to get fit and began an active campaign, which consisted of two games of squash and a run around the block each night after work. The first night I could only make it to the top of the street before panting and puffing and stopping to rest. I borrowed a friend's 4BX exercise book and began madly touching my toes, gradually working up to one hundred times which I considered a mighty effort.
All too soon the two weeks were up and Friday of the trip's departure arrived. I had finished packing my pack and had borrowed my sister's boots, which were two sizes too big for me. I finally managed to make them fit after putting on three pairs of thick wool socks. My brother drove me down to meet the bushwalker's bus, which was taking us to the beginning of the track.
There were only two others there when I arrived, but the rest gradually drifted along. Each one who arrived made my doubts grow more. They were the fittest, most experienced members of the club. Only three women arrived – and no Brett! I kept thinking he would arrive any minute but he never did. It was too late to change my mind.
The trip was a disaster – a nightmare that still haunts me 45 years later. As the bus drove off, my last bit of fitness confidence oozed out of me. I had lost it before the trip even started, and I sure needed every scrap of it I could muster. It was a long drive down to the Lyell highway where the track commenced. We slept in the bus that night and began the walk the next morning.
It dawned a freezing cold, wet, miserable mid-winter morning and my spirits were in the same condition. The others were all up early, bustling around, cooking breakfast. I crawled reluctantly out of my sleeping bag and forced myself to eat some muesli and fruit, knowing I needed all the calories I could digest.
About 8 am we set off along the track. My pack seemed terribly heavy and my boots began to rub my heels after the first kilometre. Our destination for the first day was a small hut at Lake Vera where we planned to spend the night before climbing the mountain the next day.
What torture! They told me it's only about 16 kilometres into Lake Vera but it seemed like about thirty to me. The mud was ankle deep which made the walking very tiring, as you had to extract one foot from the mud before taking another step. We crossed the Lodden River, which was very high, by walking along a wet log and holding onto a wire handrail. It was exciting but pretty scary. The track was called the notorious 'Sodden Loddens', an area infamous for its mud. James Calder complained about the mud in 1840!
It rained continuously and we had lunch standing, freezing under a makeshift groundsheet shelter. I was too cold to lift my woollen balaclava up to get any food to my mouth, which was a bad mistake as no food means no fuel, and consequently no energy.
Following the lunch stop, we were anxious to get going to get our blood circulating. I struggled along, every footstep became an effort and the others seemed to get further and further in front of me. The trip from hell is a hazy blur in my memory, but I remember someone offering me a piece of chocolate. I put it in my mouth but it froze there and I couldn't close my mouth and I didn't care.
I began to get worried when it started to snow, lightly at first but then more heavily. We were going up at this stage and I became worried in case I lost the track. Even my jeans froze and I could hardly bend my legs to climb the rocks, which were very icy and slippery. At the top of the rocky climb, I came into a forest. Red blazes on the trees showed the track. The forest was nice and green and fairly sheltered. I sat down for a rest and was just debating to myself whether or not I'd stay there for the night when one of my fellow bushwalkers appeared. He offered to carry my sleeping bag and lighten my load.
He told me it wasn't far to the hut and encouraged me along with lollies and thoughts of an open fire and shelter. I certainly am grateful to Pete the Pom. If it wasn't for him I'd probably still be in that forest, frozen stiff, as there was a violent snowstorm that night.
When I took my boots off in the hut I couldn't take my socks off because I had a large patch of blood on each heel, which had soaked through three pairs of thick socks from my gigantic blisters.
Because of the storm, the trip up the mountain the following day was cancelled. I'd already decided to wait at the hut for the others anyway. I never wanted to hear the words "Frenchmans Cap" again.
We decided to walk out the following day and drive to Lake St Clare where the group could climb Mt Rufus. I left half an hour before the others and slowly limped the 16 kilometres out dosed up on panadol. It wasn't as bad as the walk in because I knew that each step I took was closer to the bus and home.
At Lake St Clare, I stayed in the shelter by a blazing fire and drank numerous cups of hot soup and coffee and marvelled at the fact I was still alive, while all the others raced up Mt Rufus.
I soaked for a long time in the bath at home, but even then I had to cut my socks off.
I never saw Brett Saunders again. I went back to Queensland, married a Queenslander and have been there ever since. Over the years I did a lot of bushwalking including the three-week Annapurna circuit in Nepal, Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya in Africa, the Routeburn Track in New Zealand and many others. I've climbed Mt Bartle Frere, Queensland's highest mountain and walked the Hinchinbrook track a couple of times, but I've never forgotten my nightmare trip to Frenchman's Cap.
Last weekend on a bushwalk near Brisbane, I was talking to a woman who recently did the Frenchmans Cap trip. She got to the top of the mountain and said it wasn't too bad, so I must have another go one day. I will go in summer next time and make sure I am very fit.
The track has been improved a lot. In 2008, Dick Smith offered to donate $100,000 each year for ten years towards the upgrade of the Frenchmans Cap track. The Tasmanian Government also allocated $50,000 per year for 10 years, to the project. There are new upgraded huts there now too and a bridge over the river. The 46-kilometre walk takes between three and five days. It is still classed as a hard walk. Walkers need to be well equipped and experienced. The weather can turn bad any time of the year.