I'm a freelance writer living in Brisbane. I love bushwalking, kayaking, wildlife, history and travel.
Published October 25th 2018
Lost on a remote mountain
I recently wrote about a fateful bushwalking trip I did to Frenchman's Cap in Tasmania in 1970.
After that story was published, I started to remember an even more disastrous trip in the remote South West of Tasmania a couple of years earlier in 1968. Amazingly, I recently found some old black and white photos from that trip fifty years ago.
We set out to climb 1286 m Wylds Craig Mountain with the Launceston Bushwalking Club in winter.
We left Launceston on Friday night in a convoy of cars and picked up four more walkers from Hobart at Derwent Bridge. It was very late when we arrived at our camp site past Maydena, a distance of about 240 kilometres. We set up camp near the start of the track. There were eighteen of us.
After breakfast on Saturday morning, we started out on our day walk to climb the mountain. We planned to get back to camp after having lunch on the top of the mountain. Even though it was winter, the weather in the morning was fairly warm. Some people wore shorts.
It was a fairly tough walk, but most of us were young, energetic and fit. It was a very long time ago, but I remember on the way to the mountain we had to climb over lots of logs and bash our way through the horizontal scrub. We walked through lots of pandanu plants. The mountain climb was pretty steep and I remember at one point sitting down in some snow to have a rest and half thinking maybe I could wait there till the others reached the top and came back down.
I kept going through and we all reached the top, apart from four walkers who had turned back early on. The weather changed on the way up, and by the time we reached the peak, it started to rain heavily, and thick mist came down over the mountain. There are supposed to be magnificent views of the Florentine Valley and mountains nearby, but all we could see was thick clouds.
After a quick lunch, we were keen to get down off the snow-covered mountain. It was very cold up there. I always thought it was the leader's fault that we descended the wrong way down, but I was recently talking to my old friend Christine. She said it wasn't his fault. She said the group took off down the mountain and he had to follow so the group wouldn't be separated.
When we got down out of the mist, we realised we were on the wrong side of the mountain. Nothing looked familiar. We spent hours climbing up and down ridges looking for the way back, but when it started to get dark, we knew we had to spend the night out in the bush.
It was the first and only time I've ever had to sleep out in the open. We gathered lots of bracken ferns to lie on. Only one person out of fourteen of us had a box of matches, so we all gathered wood and lit a huge fire. We all lay down in a circle snuggled up to each other to try and keep warm and tried to sleep.
I remember waking to the smell of burning rubber during the night. Someone's boots had caught fire. They still had them on their feet.
It rained during the night, but luckily not too heavily. We woke at daybreak and shared one orange and two cold sausages between fourteen of us for breakfast. One girl had this food left over from lunch. No one else had any food. It was all we had to eat from lunchtime the day before.
We then started walking again. We were all tired and weak. Eventually, we found the Florentine River and walked in the freezing water up to our thighs.
I don't know if the leader or any of the others had any idea where we were, because they didn't have a map or compass and I've never asked them, but maybe they did know roughly where we were.
I remember at one point as we walked along someone at the front of the line said, "don't worry, if we're not back by tonight, they will send out the search and rescue". I was a bit dismayed when I heard someone at the back of the line say, "we are the search and rescue". Some of the experienced walkers did belong to the club's search and rescue team. They were often called out to search for lost bushwalkers.
By Sunday lunchtime, we were all getting very hungry and weak. I began to worry if we would ever get out.
Eventually, after crossing the river and climbing up another ridge we finally found a forestry road. The road led back to our camp. We were elated to have survived our ordeal.
Camp was deserted when we arrived. The four people who were there had gone out looking for us. They seemed disappointed when they returned and saw us. They were hoping we wouldn't get back so they could get time off work to continue looking for us.
We were all exhausted and starving. After eating all the food we could find and getting into dry clean clothes, we laid down and slept until it was time to pack up and head for home.
My friend Christine wrote about our walk in the Launceston Bushwalking magazine Skyline. I didn't get to see her story for a long time because I moved to Queensland early the next year before it was published. I think I picked up a copy at a market on a visit to Tasmania years later. Here is her story "Off the Beaten Track, Skyline, No 19. November 1969, p2-3".
I learnt a lot from this trip, which I continue to use on bushwalking trips and in my everyday life. On walks, I always carry waterproof matches, take extra food and carry a torch and first aid kit. I also always carry a rain jacket and extra warm clothes, even on sunny days. I have done a navigation course. I thought I was exhausted near the top of the mountain, but I managed to keep walking for many hours afterwards up and down ridges until it got dark. It was a good lesson to learn you have strengths and more energy than you think you have, so you should never give up. The main thing I learnt was that I have a lot more reserves than I thought I did.
I was talking to Christine recently about the trip. She said she remembered climbing over large logs and pushing through the horizontal scrub. She said the bush was so thick she almost trod on our friend Lorraine's fingers a couple of times as she was following close behind her. Our friend Lorraine died suddenly just a few weeks ago. She was only seventy years old.
Eventually, we found a forestry road, which led us back to camp. At least we had lots of water to drink once we found the river. I remember on the way up to the mountain stopping to drink in a small stream. There were no water bladders at that time, but I don't know why we didn't have water bottles. Clothing and outdoors equipment has improved a lot in fifty years.
Wylds Craig is named after Sir John Wylde, who was a judge advocate in New South Wales. He arrived in Australia from London in 1816. I'm not sure why they named the mountain after him, but it could have been because he advocated the establishment of the Supreme Court in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). After a stint in NSW, he was appointed Chief Justice of the new court of the Cape of Good Hope. He retired in October 1855 and died in South Africa on 13 December 1859.
I searched through Trove (National newspapers online) and found a few stories about Wylds Craig.
I found some information which said John Darke completed a survey of the country around Wylds Craig in 1833. The mountain was first climbed about that time too. The party also crossed the Florentine River and Vale of Rasselas.
The Hobart Mercury described the mountain on 30 April 1870. The Wylds Craig is a peculiarly precipitous mountain about 20 miles west of Bothwell town. At its Easterly base, the Florentine River flows due north through a rich valley of good agricultural land of large extent while not more than a mile distant the westerly base, the Gordon River runs due South through a large extent of open land covered with coarse herbage.
Mr Ambrose Winch from Queenstown wrote a letter to the Editor of the Mercury, which was published on 1st April 1918. He criticized another writer who said he had seen Frenchman's Cap. Mr Winch said, "The author is manifestly in error regarding his having seen "The Frenchman's Cap." The mountain seen was evidently Wyld's Craig, which has often been taken for "The Frenchman, owing to the respective mountains presenting a marked similarity when viewed from certain positions…. The Craig presents many interesting geological features, rising, as it does, on its western side, from Cambro-Ordo vician country into a Carbn-Permian belt, and thence into a diabase top, which for a great part of the year is covered with snow, so as to present the appearance (when seen from the Derwent} of a glacier on a small scale. I have often thought the foothills of this mountain well worth the attention of the prospector, as a close examination of the contacts to the west would possibly disclose the existence of valuable mineral bodies. When will the people of Hobart awake to the wisdom of a thorough survey of their immediate hinterland?"
I am glad the people of Hobart didn't wake up and start mining that beautiful area. It is now protected within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
I am still bushwalking, but I live in Queensland now and go walking there. I try and stick to walks that are on tracks. If I go on any off-track walks, I make sure the leader has done the walk before, and that I have confidence in them.
It was an unforgettable trip, but could have had very bad consequences. We were lost in a wilderness area in winter without food, shelter or adequate clothing. It was in the days before mobile phones, Garmin GPS map 64, Inreach Explorer, Personal Locator Beacons (PLBS), satellite phones and lots of other things.
We should have taken a map and compass. It was incredible that only one person had a box of matches. We would have had a freezing night without those matches. At least we had water once we hit the Florentine River, but we could have been in trouble if we hadn't found the river.
Another article in Hobart's Mercury Newspaper on 27th March 1928, described a paper by Dr Sharland who had been a resident of Hamilton. It said, "The chief mountains are Mounts Ida and Olympus, at Lake St. Clair, and Wyld's Craig, or as it is often called the Peak of Teneriffe, situated in the Gordon country. These are all accessible but of great height. Trigonometrical objects are placed on some, and it would require an able mountaineer to ascend any of them'.
I never considered myself an able mountaineer, but I guess in that in those days there were no roads or tracks into that area.
I've done lots of bushwalks since that trip, but I've never been lost again, or had to spend a night out in the bush. This weekend I'm doing a 21.8 km return walk to Echo point in Lamington National Park in South East Queensland.
I've never forgotten that memorable Wylds Craig walk.