From the snuggly cocoon of my -8 rated sleeping bag, the stealthy sounds of creeping Switzerlanders barely reached me as they packed up and shipped out. When I woke at 8:30 the hut was empty, quiet and still warm, and I took my time getting ready. Every hut has a vestibule of sorts, a ‘drying area’ where articles like gaiters and shellwear that don’t belong near a heater can be left to dry. It’s also a midpoint between inside and outside temperatures, and that morning the differential was more than 10°C. My immediate thoughts were, “It’s going to snow!” and for once my forecasting was right, albeit premature. My planned leg that day was modest: 9.6km over 5 hours to Windy Ridge Hut, fully intending to ignore some ‘must-see’ features along today’s route (Hartnett, D’Alton and Fergusson Falls). Each of these adds an hour, and involve more treacherous cliffside scrambling than I was prepared to risk in the wet. So, with the mindset that this had become a wet-weather reconnaissance of the OLT ahead of a return trip in better conditions, I set off back into the rainforest.
That morning, the track beneath the trees curls around the base of Castle Crag and alongside the thundering Mersey River for some distance. An hour into the walk, I came upon a beautiful clearing and Du Cane hut, where I’d considered camping for the night if Kia Ora had been populated. This hunter’s shack, burned out and restored for its historic value, offers nothing to the walker by way of creature comforts, and a night here would have been miserably wet and very cold. I stopped here for a late breakfast, and sat at a table famous for its graffiti. I’ve heard, perhaps spuriously, that if you look hard enough you’ll find the names of hunters and woodsmen who rested here in the 1800’s. Instead, I found ‘Eva’ had chiselled her name over the top of several others, the letters fresh and raw, and wondered if I’d crossed paths with this vandal, or what I might say to her if we ever met.
Leaving Du Cane, the OLT plunges back into the rainforest and continues for hours, passing signposted sidetrips for each of the falls. There, in the muddy gloom, I lost the path for a minute and had to swing around in a lazy circle to pick it up again. The track soon began to climb and then emerged into lighter forest at Du Cane Gap [1090m] where it was, just barely, snowing. Holding out your hand, the flakes would settle and melt almost instantly. The forest seemed to be holding it’s breath, as if something special were about to happen, but wait as I might, it didn’t happen, and instead I stumbled down a steepish path amid the eucalypts to the biggest and ugliest of all the OLT huts, Windy Ridge. So ugly, in fact, that I didn’t photograph it until the next morning (when, sprinkled in fairy dust, it became much prettier).
Empty. But where are the Swiss? Then I remembered a conversation at the crowded table, way back at Waterfall Valley, where they’d voiced a desire to visit Pine Valley. They could easily be ahead of me, pushing to make the long sidetrip to the hut before dark. Oh well, a bonus for me, because I could again stretch all of my clothing out under the heater and set it to dry, even my boots, which by this stage were soaked through. A stroke of luck, because while ferreting out a errant sock, I discovered my sleeping bag was wet. Inexperienced bushwalkers to note: wet down bag = serious trouble. So I set that drying as a priority, and later that evening was joined by three couples walking in the opposite direction, ie. south to north. For some reason (excitement at just starting out, or maybe because they hadn’t just slogged through five days of mud and rain) they were a lot chattier and friendlier than anybody I’d so far met. One couple opened the door to go outside late in the evening, and the guy said ‘hey! snow!” at the same time his girlfriend said ‘ugh! snow!” which, I thought, spoke volumes. But for me, my heart just lifted. A white day after five grey days. So I scoffed down my vegetarian laksa, crawled into my warm and dry sleeping bag, and slept like a baby.