In This Issue :
All the best,
In This Issue :
All the best,
The Reserve” is the name fondly given by bushwalkers to the mountainous wilderness that contains some of Tasmania’s most striking landscape, including the iconic figure of Cradle Mountain. While summer attracts thousands of walkers who are eager to take in the views of this unique alpine area, most visitors depart before autumn brings with it a dramatic transformation.
The deciduous beech (Nothofagus gunnii) begins to turn around Anzac day, dropping its leaves in preparation for the oncoming winter. As the days get shorter, the temperature plummets and the promise of snow creates a brooding atmosphere that is hard to shake off. Eventually, when the first winter storms arrive, it’s almost a reprieve. When the snow falls and the wind howls, the glacial tarns freeze over and the animals seek whatever shelter they can find. The mountains don their winter cloak of white, transforming a wild landscape into something that’s even wilder and somehow, even more beautiful.
It was during this time, in mid-winter, that I chose to spend nearly a month climbing the less-visited peaks of Cradle Mt-Lake St Clair National Park, or ‘The Reserve’. I was self sufficient, carrying everything I needed in my backpack, including a very strong tent, a warm sleeping bag, clothes, cooker, fuel, food and all the other essentials required for wilderness travel. To reduce the weight I had to carry, my food was spread out between four provision points along the route of my walk, sealed in weather proof containers. This meant I only had to carry about one week’s worth of supplies at a time.
Despite my best attempts at cutting everything down to the bare essentials, my pack contained a few undeniable luxuries: no less than six pairs of socks, two books to read during the long nights, my camera and my journal to record a log of the trip, making for an initial load that surpassed half my body weight.
My aim for this ambitious winter trip was to climb all the snow covered peaks in ‘The Reserve’, in an attempt to build a stronger connection to this unique landscape and to develop the skills that are required to travel safely through untracked alpine terrain. My plan was to follow roughly the route of the Overland Track, from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair, but to allow ample time for numerous multi-day side trips that would take me far away from the safety of any huts and take me closer to the more remote mountains that few dare to visit, even in summer.
Accompanying me for the first leg of my trip was my friend and fellow aspiring mountaineer, Robert Vandali, whose ability to go ‘ultra light’ astonished me when he turned up to the start of our walk with a backpack that was half the size of mine. Although he wasn’t afraid to borrow some items from me that he chose to leave at home, his ability to deviously utilise every cubic inch of space in his backpack I found most impressive.
During the second week of our journey, we were joined by another friend, Jimmy Harris, for a challenging ‘off-track’ circuit in the central part of ‘The Reserve’, a route known amongst the locals as the ‘Pelion Circuit’.
Upon completion of this circuit, my friends would return to their lives and leave me to tackle the remaining two weeks of my journey alone. It was during this solo section that the crux of my trip was reached, when I experienced bitterly cold conditions during the Highline Traverse of the Du Cane Range.
The beginning of our trip coincided with a fierce, two day snow storm that obscured the summit of Cradle Mountain as we drove in to the Dove Lake car park. The air had a chill to it with the undeniable taste of winter. We began unloading, watching the shivering tourists who were quickly driven back to their own cars by the gale force wind and the swirling snow. We put our gloves on and continued packing. When we were satisfied that we’ve crammed all our gear into our packs, with the snowshoes and ice axe strapped to the outside, we struck out with a rolling gait, excited that our adventure has begun.
Our proposed destination for the night was the comfortable Scott-Kilvert Hut, tucked away behind the less visited easterly side of Cradle Mountain, on the shores of Lake Rodway. The hut was built in response to a tragedy in the 1960s where a teacher and a student lost their lives in a blizzard during a school trip. With the snow swirling around us, and the rocky track covered in ice on our climb up to Hanson’s Peak, it wasn’t hard to imagine how one might succumb to these fierce elements without adequate knowledge and the correct gear.
Scott-Kilvert Hut became our comfortable base camp for the next three nights, and it was complete with a coal fired heater that allowed us to dry our gear off at night time. It was also from this hut that I was able to launch my solo attempt at the frozen skyline traverse of Cradle Mountain.
Although undertaken regularly by experienced climbers, traversing the entire length of Cradle Mountain’s ridgeline is as serious undertaking. This ‘off-track’ route requires tackling not only sheer cliffs, but also sections of great exposure, where the rocky slopes drop off on both sides of the ridge very steeply for hundreds of metres. Although I held no illusions about the likelihood of completing the full traverse equipped only with micro spikes and an ice axe, the allure of the mountain was too great for me to resist.
As I struck out on that beautiful morning, towards the summit of Cradle Mt, approaching from the relatively easy, southerly side, I was amazed at the transformation that had taken place over the previous two days.
The blizzard left a stark, frozen landscape. It was a clear morning, crisp as a glass of chilled ale and the sun was doing its best to labour up the sky, along its short, mid-winter arch. Where the morning rays hit the side of Cradle Mountain, there was an orange glow reflected back from the frozen boulders in front of me.
The snow conditions were favourable, so I decided to commence the traverse. Deep, dry and powdery snow covered every inch of the mountain, sometimes in drifts that were over a metre deep. The soft snow meant for slow but relatively safe travel, as it made for non-slippery footholds across the uneven terrain.
After passing the summit of Cradle Mountain in high spirits and with plenty of energy left, I continued the traverse, pressing on towards Little Horn. It was after the notable high point of Smithies Peak that I ran into some difficulties, about four hours after commencing from Scott Kilvert Hut.
I t was the most exposed ridgeline I have ever been on. Ahead of me, only one step away, the ridge narrowed to a single boulder, with steep cliffs on both sides, dropping away hundreds of metres below. I tested the boulder by pushing it with my ice axe. It was stable, so I stepped on it, the metal teeth of the microspikes below my boots digging into the snow, making for solid traction. I didn’t look down as I quickly found my next step, and kept moving on the exposed ridge.
The vista around me was unbelievable. In the distant south, the peaks of The Reserve lay spread out, inviting. Every time I saw the white-capped mountains of the Pelion region in the distance, I felt my skin shiver with goosebumps. The anticipation of the next four weeks of mountaineering was almost unbearable. I wanted to be on the summit of all those peaks at the same time.
Eventually, I reached a dead-end wall. The only way ahead was by vertically climbing about 5 metres up, right above a 50 m drop, with more cliffs below. So I took the only safe way available, and turned around. I followed my footsteps on the treacherous terrain, back to a saddle from where I could follow a steep gully down the mountain, to a land of safety.
I was still pumping with adrenaline when I got back to Scott-Kilvert Hut that night. When I started raving to Rob about my mountain experience, he said I was nuts and shook his head. Secretly, I’m sure he was cursing his knee injury that prevented him from tagging along for the adventure that day.
A quick side note here to those readers who may be inspired to try this traverse in winter under heavy snow and ice; may I say, with the benefit of hindsight that I would only recommend it to a minimum party size of two or more climbers, who are familiar with rope climbing techniques and who possess all the relevant safety gear, including but not limited to: mountaineering crampons, ice axes, ropes, harnesses and helmets. Even then, it will be a difficult undertaking that should only be undertaken with adequate alpine experience.
The next week of our trip we met the most dreaded enemy of hikers: steady, soaking rain. We tackled this new challenge by seeking shelter in the rather comfortable public huts along the Overland Track. Since there is no road access to any of these, the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Services provision the gas and coal for the heaters via helicopters, for which we were very glad during the cold evenings.
These huts proved to be safe havens for us, allowing us to dry off our gear and also to share some stories with some fellow travellers. I have always found it fascinating how much people open up to relative strangers in the public walker’s huts. I’d like to think that being out there in the wilderness brings with it a sense of camaraderie, an undeniable human connection that is quite rare to find with strangers on a busy city street.
During a week of sleeping in the public huts, we made friends with people from all walks of life; doctors, students, backpackers, architects, a professional poet and even some intrepid school groups! Uniting us was the experience of wilderness, not only for its beauty, but also for its bite. As we ate, drank and talked, we were glad to be seated next to the heaters while the rain poured and the wind howled outside.
However, the day after our friend Jimmy finally met us at New Pelion Hut, we couldn’t delay the inevitable any longer. It was time for us to gear up and head out into the cold once more.
We struck out with an ambitious plan for the five day off-track Pelion Circuit to traverse the dominant ridgeline from Mt Ossa all the way over to Mt Pelion West in the north, going over the summits of Mt Thetis and Mt Achilles. Our first day of the circuit however, was the most eventful.
We set up camp on Mt Doris early that day; compacting about a foot of fresh snow to allow us to pitch our tents. Rob and I were sharing a strong mountaineering tent while Jimmy had set up his bivvy bag underneath his tarp. When I asked him why he didn’t bring his tent, which I assumed to be the obvious choice for a winter trip to the Tasmanian Highlands, he replied that his tarp is actually stronger in the wind. This statement would come back to haunt him later that night.
As we left our campsite and climbed towards the summit of Mt Pelion East, the wind gusts were strong enough to knock us down to the ground, and the frozen snowflakes were being whipped into our faces like little stinging bullets. We were covered from head to toe in technical clothing, complete with balaclavas and sunglasses. Despite having all the right gear, we felt the bite of the wind, as it reached us with its icy fingers, through our jackets, chilling us down to the bone. When we finally reached the summit, we didn’t loiter, although Jimmy made a quick phone call to let his wife know that everything was going to plan.
“High honey, we are in a snowstorm, on a mountaintop, but everything is absolutely fine!” As he spoke, I noticed that his eyebrows were covered with half an inch of ice.
Later that night, Rob and I were sound asleep in our comfortable tent when we were woken by Jimmy’s frantic call at 10:45pm.
“Guys, I think I’ve lost my tarp!”
In my half awoken state, I thought he was having us on. As Rob and I lay there in our sleeping bags, contemplating a response, we felt our tent shake as another 100+ kmph gust hit our campsite. That’s when we decided to get rugged up and head outside to see what the ruckus was about.
Jimmy’s tarp was flapping in the wind, the pegs that held it down having been ripped out. Cunningly, the wind had swung around from a northerly to a southerly halfway through the night and caught the tarp by entering through the tunnel entrance.
“I think I’ve lost my down jacket!” Jimmy realised soon afterwards.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find it!” I replied, hoping I sounded calm.
At the time, I remember thinking, ‘We are in the middle of a blizzard, it’s about minus twenty wind chill up here, it’s pitch black and Jimmy’s just lost his shelter and his warm layer. I wonder what’s going to happen next!?’
To my mental rhetoric, the wind responded with another icy blast.
We eventually succeeded in securing the tarp by pegging it down with our two ice axes, replacing the tent pegs that were ripped out. Jimmy even found his down jacket, which was within his reach all along.
It seemed that tragedy has been averted for the time, so we went back to bed and slept more or less soundly in the relative comfort of our tent until 5 am, when our wake-up alarm went off. Jimmy spent the night warm and dry in his bivvy bag while the wind continued to carry the drift into his tarp through the tunnel entrance, covering all his gear with about a foot of fresh powder by the morning. Packing up in the morning was memorable, although rather unpleasant.
We continued along our off-track circuit, fighting the elements and sometimes, each others’ mood swings, but we were always united in our mission to climb some wild mountains. We laughed at nearly tumble-down cliffs, ate extraordinary amounts of food and made countless boy jokes involving bodily functions. We shared stories of the past and created a new set of stories for the future.
Eventually, the time with my friends came to an end as we completed the Pelion Circuit and arrived back to New Pelion Hut. We agreed to undertake another adventure soon, and said our farewells. When their departing footsteps stopped echoing in the hut, I knew the final and most challenging section of my journey was upon me, the daunting Du Cane Traverse.
Carved out by glaciers during the last ice age, the dramatic dolerite cliffs of the Du Cane Range stand like ancient guardians over the densely vegetated Narcissus Valley. The igneous dolerite rock that makes up the peaks here has a fluted structure, a result of the magma’s underground cooling process approximately 185 million years ago. Interwoven with countless cracks between the naturally formed columns, these dolerite cliffs are prone to break down into various sized boulders, leaving a chaotic jumble along the ridgelines to negotiate for the hiker.
The easiest approach to the Du Cane Range is via the Labyrinth; an elevated plateau that’s dotted with picturesque lakes, pockets of native pencil pines and countless dolerite boulders which were deposited by glaciers during the last ice age. It is an idyllic place that’s a destination in its own right, especially popular with photographers in autumn, when the deciduous beech puts on a magnificent display as its leaves turn a myriad different colours. With the backdrop of the Acropolis and Mt Geryon, the Labyrinth is truly one of the most spectacular places in Tasmania.
However, I only saw snippets of this unique landscape, because a thick, heavy fog had set in when I arrived, obscuring the views and dampening all my clothes as well as my mood. Instead of being able to push on with the traverse as I had hoped, I was confined to my tent while I waited for the clouds to lift and for the visibility to improve.
After two restless nights spent in the Labyrinth waiting for the weather to clear, the wind eventually picked up, blowing the clouds away and bringing with it a bitter cold that turned the moisture in the air to dry snowflakes that fell silently overnight, blanketing everything in white.
That morning, when I flicked on my headlight, a sparkly glow greeted me; miniature ice crystals had formed on the inner fabric of my tent, indicating that the ‘inside’ temperature was below freezing point. Even my leather boots, which I brought into my tent as a precautionary measure, were frozen. Packing my tent up that morning in the finger numbing cold was nearly enough to make me abandon my plans. In my moments of doubt however, all I had to do was look around me and the stark beauty of the frozen landscape would instantly change my mind.
Following my departure from the Labyrinth, I would spend three days high up on the range, traversing the rugged ridgeline from Mt Geryon to Mt Massif, then to Castle Crag, in the coldest conditions I have ever experienced. The smaller tarns were all frozen over, requiring me to use my ice axe to break through their surface in order to collect water. The tough alpine vegetation, including the cushion plants and the scoparia bushes were all covered in hardened ice and snow, making their survival in these conditions nothing short of marvel.
It was during my final day on the range that my endurance and skill were tested to their limits, as I made my way from Mt Massif to Castle Crag across the most notorious section of the traverse.
I struck out that morning at first light, knowing that a long, hard day lay ahead of me. Although a clear day has been forecast, a fine mist loitered around the summit of Mt Massif, making it difficult for me to find the correct route through the chaotic jumble of boulders that were scattered throughout the ridgeline I was meant to follow. The bus sized boulders often contained bus sized crevasses between them, making the going slow and treacherous. To add to my worries, the rocks I was treading on were covered in snow and ice, making each step an uncertainty. Utilising my hands for extra support, the going was slow and arduous, but through strategic foot placements and the utmost concentration, I was able to make my way through this challenging terrain without any falls or mishaps.
After six hours of this painfully slow and exhausting travel, I had covered less than three kilometres, but was getting close to reaching the summit of Castle Crag, which would mark the end of the technically difficult section of the traverse. It was here, merely 30 metres away from relative safety of the Castle Crag’s summit plateau that I encountered my most serious obstacle of my entire trip.
The cairned route I was following through the giant boulders brought me to a dead end: a vertical climb over some iced over boulders that I was not able to surmount safely. Dropping my hefty pack, I scouted for an alternate route up through the boulders for over an hour. Every way seemed to end in sheer walls which I had no hope of surmounting with my oversized pack. With the sun dropping lower in the sky, the threat of spending a night on the exposed boulderfield became real. I knew the only way ahead was to find a way up.
In the end, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Without my pack, I was able to crawl through a crevasse underneath a car sized boulder, and then climb up a short chimney, bringing me onto a ledge. From here, I could haul my pack up using some paracord that I always carry with me on my expeditions. As I was completing this exercise, I got the distinct feeling that I may have been the first person to follow this particular way through the boulder field. Although it took me nearly two hours to cover about five metres of distance, I couldn’t have been happier. Having overcome the last real obstacle, I floated to the summit.
From the top of Castle Crag, I could really take in the spectacular view that presented itself to me. As far as I could see, the lands surrounding were pristine wilderness. The swirling mist crowned nearly all the wild peaks in ‘The Reserve’, creating a brooding atmosphere that was only broken by the distant sound of the cascading creeks in the valley far below. With the winter sun hanging low in the sky, the mountains cast long shadows into the valleys to create a sense of mystery and possibility.
As I cruised down the hill, back towards the promise of civilisation, I felt a sense of privilege to have been able to spend so much time in the precious wilderness of The Reserve. Let us hope that this magnificent place continues to stand protected, to create the opportunity for future generations to experience the meaning of true wilderness.
It’s not every day that we step out of our front door, into the bush, and ‘discover’ a new piece in the scientific jigsaw of understanding. Such was the experience for Boris and myself, when one day, back in 2002, we wandered into our local gemfield south of Lune River, along the Leprena Track, which had recently been cleared of forest.
Though enthusiasm and the hope of a great find always accompanies the fossicker, we had no inkling that something unusual was to happen. This particular area, located between the adjoining Southern Ranges in the South West National Park (WHA) and the Southern Ocean itself, is one hundred kilometres south of Hobart and reflects a rich variety of geological earth history. Past glaciers have scoured the area, caves have formed vast, labyrinthine underground networks in the surrounding hills, with limestone found in high outcrops and occasional deposits of shell fossils. Indeed, five earth-ages occur in the surrounding country – Triassic, Permian, Jurassic, Ordovician, Pre-Cambrian.
Relevant to this story is the narrow but extensive North/South-oriented deposit of basalt, the result of magma (molten lava) that erupted through the earth’s surface, resulting in the formation and preservation of colourful agates, quartz crystal, jasper, petrified wood and rare fossil fern. This gem and fossil abundance was formally acknowledged by the creation of two Public Fossicking Areas (PFA) at Lune River, zoned within State Forest. In such areas, people can fossick and hand-dig, without the need for a Prospector’s Licence.
Earlier Aboriginal people of Llylequonny tribe would have most certainly made use of the hard chalcedony and enjoyed the beauty of these gemstones. Enthusiastic collectors now come to the area, in the hopes of finding their own stones and fossils. The gemstones that formed in that cooling magma, along with the trees and ferns that were buried, and later fossilised, were broken up over time and settled into gravel layers, buried beneath soils and clay. The earliest conjecture as to the age of this ‘deposit’ ran from Tertiary through to Jurassic.
Back to that particular day, when out for a morning’s fossick, we found ourselves, early sun on our backs, walking up one of the access tracks created during logging. We had already checked most of the eastern slopes over some months, noticing a distinct tendency for fossil wood occurring at about the same altitude. As we climbed higher, nearing the identified ‘zone’ of woods, our attention was caught by some unusually light-grey coloured segments of fossilised limbs, between 10-50mm long and around 13mm diameter. Also scattered here and there, exposed by winter rains, were some fragments of fossil fern leaves. To find a petrified limb is rare enough, but to come across a number of them over a few square metres, is an indicated something unusual.
We returned to the area over a number of days, carefully scanning the ground, trying to pin-point where they had come from. Our efforts finally drew us to one spot, and we began to dig. This is when fossicking starts to get really interesting. Over some hours, our digging revealed an upright, 30cm ’round’ of fossil wood, which gave the distinct impression of being ‘in situ’, that is, found in the position in which it actually grew.
Finding fossils ‘in situ’ had not been reported at Lune River, so we were very excited at such a possibility. Over many months of working the site, more of the petrified wood was revealed and, until we knew more, all excavations had to be carefully re-covered at the end of each session of digging. We were hoping to discover if our first impressions of an ‘in situ’ tree were accurate or perhaps it was a large, isolated block of Jurassic sediments. Hoping to establish the context of what we were revealing, the proliferation over time, of fossil limbs, fern leaves and stems of understorey plants told us that this was a significant site.
Finally we decided it was time to involve others in this discovery, and initially the University was contacted. What followed over the next few months, were a series of meetings, involving various government departments and authorities, with the aim to further explore the site. It was finally agreed to excavate the site, using a small excavator and operator provided by Forestry Tasmania over a two day period, under the direction of a student from UTAS, who would write her thesis on the dig and the resulting research.
On the first day of the excavation, a number of people gathered at the site, keen to participate. Once underway, the excavation work itself was slow and methodical, as science dictates. Much of the machine-work involved the removal of soil ‘over-burden’, and when more delicacy was required, people moved in with hand tools. What was eventually revealed was a fallen fossilized tree, lying in a NE angle down the slope and what Boris and I had first thought to be a tree trunk, turned out to be a cross-section of a large root. Amongst these root structures were deposits of volcanic/sandstone sediments, with pockets of fern and plant fossils – leaves, stems etc. From these volcanic sediments, it was hoped that zircons could be found, to accurately date the gemfield*. Many samples were collected and carefully catalogued and photographed. Later, back in the UTAS laboratory, zircons were indeed found and tested and were able to establish an age of 182 million years old, establishing the ‘field’ as Early Jurassic in age.
The excavation study resulted in an Honours paper**, science was given more to digest and Boris and I were personally rewarded just by being involved, from beginning to end..If such things ever end!
This tree, with its palaeobotanical skirt of fossil ‘memorabilia’, is now reburied and the area has received special status as a Fossil Site, and, for its greater protection, is no longer included in the surrounding Public Fossicking Area.
The site is listed with the Australian GeoHeritage Data Base and it is hoped that further research will one day be possible, to reveal more of this Early Jurassic earth history. Much will continue to lay hidden, unknown, till the next person, eyes open and curious, will notice something…..there, on the ground….and another discovery happens!
*Bromfield, K., Burrett, C.F., Leslie, R.A. and Meffre, S. (2007) –
‘Jurassic volcaniclastic – basaltic andesite – dolerite sequence in
Tasmania: new age constraints for fossil plants from Lune River’. Australian
Journal of Earth Sciences, 54:7, 965 – 974.
** Bromfield, K. (2004) – Palaeoenvironmental Reconstruction of Jurassic
Lune River. Unpublished B.Sc. Honours thesis. Department Of Earth Sciences,
University of Tasmania.
Images courtesy of Lunaris Gemstones, Lune River:
Lunaris Gemstones,Tasmanian Fossils,Tasmanian Minerals,Crocoite,Stichtite
Three days!” Stuart, one of the regular Melaleuca pilots, shook his head in amusement. “When this fella said he was doing a three day course on buttongrass, I couldn’t believe it. But when you look a bit closer, you realise how complex it actually is.”
Buttongrass moorland dominates much of the wet, poorly-drained country in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. To me, buttongrass (Gymnoschoenus sphaerocephalus) has always looked like it’s throwing a party, its spherical flower-heads like tiny round champagne corks, exploding from the tussocks on elegant stalks. But don’t be fooled – there’s a lot going on beneath this sedge’s cheery facade.
Around Melaleuca, the moorlands are riddled with the chimneystack-esque burrows of burrowing crayfish. It’s thought that buttongrass and the crayfish have a symbiotic relationship – the crayfish dig their homes into the root systems of the plants, which provide them with both shelter and food – buttongrass rhizomes are edible. In return, the burrows improve aeration in the often-waterlogged soils.
As well as being poorly drained, the soils underlying the buttongrass are also strongly acidic. At a pH of 4.5, they’re roughly on par with beer, and have similar impacts on nutrient uptake. Whilst beer may cause you to forget to eat enough to gain adequate nutrition, a low pH in peat soils means that many valuable nutrients are less available to the local plants and animals.
Individual species have their own ways of dealing with these issues. Carnivorous plants are common amongst the buttongrass, obtaining their extra nutrients from unwary insects. Burrowing crayfish shed their carapace (shells) annually, immediately eating them to conserve hard-to-get calcium.
Buttongrass doesn’t mind a burn, and unless the underlying peat soils are dry, individual plants usually survive a fire. The critically endangered orange-bellied parrots rely on the periodic patch-burning of the buttongrass moorland vegetation – this leaves multi-aged stands of vegetation at varying stages of growth, hopefully providing enough seeding plants to keep the parrots’ appetites satiated.
The buttongrass moorlands of the Wilderness World Heritage area are also home to the Mysterious Mounds of Melaleuca. Of uncertain origin, these raised, round lumps rise out of the moorlands like giant pimples. No one is really sure how they were formed. The most popular current theory involves the influx of groundwater beneath the mounds, but for completely unscientific reasons, I prefer the one that is based on parrot poo.
As far as I understand it, this theory suggests that the parrots find a nice stick in the landscape to sit on, visiting it regularly and “enhancing the nutrient profile” of the soils beneath it. This leads to increased plant growth, which can accumulate more soil, growing more plants to attract said parrots, forming a kind of poo-enhanced positive feedback loop. As previously stated, my preference for this theory has nothing to do with its likely accuracy, and everything to do with my penchant for parrots.
Pat Hadley, Sarah King and Stuart Ogilvy from The Yorkshire Museum (York Museums Trust), present a fascinating selection of photographs from the collection of Tempest Anderson, the pioneering Victorian volcanologist.
What could possess a respectable Victorian surgeon from York to spend much of his life travelling to remote and challenging parts of the world to study volcanoes and climb mountains?
For Tempest Anderson, pioneering new techniques of ophthalmic surgery and inventing photographic equipment was not enough. He decided that his ‘limited leisure’ time could not be filled with reading, writing or socialising, he sought to occupy himself with something more exciting: volcanology. For him, it was a branch of science that did not have too much literature and had the ‘advantage of offering exercise in the open air’: he saw the sides of volcanoes not as dangerous but ‘picturesque’.
Anderson would return to York and lecture at the Yorkshire Philosophical Society using a ‘magic lantern’ to display his glass slides and reveal far-flung landscapes to the scientific community. At his death, he donated half his estate and most of his archive to the YPS, and it is through this inheritance at the Yorkshire Museum that some of the 5,000 glass slides have come to be digitized for York Museums Trust’s online collection and Wikimedia Commons.
Anderson’s travels took him around the world. In an era when journeys were still unpredictable and difficult, he went to very remote areas to make detailed photographic studies of eruptions and their aftermath. His first few voyages were to European volcanic areas: Eifel in Germany, the Auvergne in France and Vesuvius, Etna and the Lipari islands of Italy.
He first attempted a bigger adventure in 1890 to Iceland and this was the first in a series of more ambitious trips to the Canaries, and North America.
Over the course of these trips he established his skills as a photographer and his reputation as a keen observer and analyst of volcanic phenomena. As a result of the numerous papers and lectures he gave about these trips he – an amateur – was commissioned by the Royal Society to travel to St Vincent and Martinique in the Caribbean to study the aftermath of major eruptions in 1902.
Of all his expeditions, this had the greatest scientific legacy and left some of the most dramatic photographs. Though we lack access to Anderson’s diaries or papers, it has been possible to retrace many of the details of this expedition and pin down photos from the archive to specific days and passages in the report on the trip.
Studying the volcanic dust under a microscope allowed Anderson to identify how far the dust had blown across to other islands and the sequence of eruptions.
The most amazing event on the trip was on July 9 when they were on a small yacht – the Minerva of Grenada – off the coast of Martinique. They had been studying the shape of the volcano and the clouds of gas, ashes and steam that were being ejected at regular intervals. Anderson’s account of the evening is so dramatic and characteristic of his work that it bears repeating at length:
In the rpidly-falling twilight we sat on deck intently watching the activity of the volcano, and calculating the chances of an ascent next morning, when our attention was suddenly attracted to a cloud which was not exactly like any of the steam ” cauliflowers ” we had hitherto seen. It was globular, with a bulging, nodular surface ; at first glance not unlike an ordinary steam jet, but darker in colour, being dark slate approaching black. … For a little time we stood watching it, and slowly we realised that the cloud was not at rest but was rolling straight down the hill, gradually increasing in size as it came nearer and nearer. We consulted together; it seemed so strange and so unaccountable, but in a minute or two suspicion gave place to certainty. It seemed that the farther the cloud travelled the faster it came, and when we took our eyes off it for a second and then looked back it was nearer and still nearer than before. There was no room for doubt any longer. It was a ” black cloud,” a dust cloud, and was making directly for us. So with one accord we prepared to get out of its path. We helped the sailors to raise the anchor and, setting the head sails, we slipped away before the wind. By the time the mainsail was hoisted we had time to look back, but now there was a startling change. The cloud had cleared the slopes of the hill. It was immensely larger, but still rounded, globular, with boiling, pillowy surface, pitch black, and through it little streaks of lightning scintillated. It had now reached the north side of the bay, and along its base, where the black mass rested on the water, there was a line of sparkling lightnings that played incessantly Soon, however, it seemed to lose its velocity ; its surface became less agitated, it formed a great black pall, with larger, less vigorous, more globular, bulging convolutions. Evidently its violence was spent, and it was not to strike us ; it lay almost like a dead mass on the surface of the sea.
[Anderson T, Flett, J, McDonald T. (1903) Report on the Eruptions of the Soufriere, in St. Vincent, in 1902, and on a Visit to Montagne Pelee, in Martinique. Part I. (p 493-494) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A]
Having escaped this first cloud, the scientists and sailors watched as Mount Pelee began to eject red-hot boulders up to a mile into the air and produce a huge ‘sullen growl’ that was heard in Barbados (nearly 150 miles away).
Then in an instant a red-hot avalanche rose from the cleft in the hillside, and poured over the mountain slopes right down to the sea. It was dull red, and in it were brighter streaks, which we thought were large stones, as they seemed to give off tails of yellow sparks. They bowled along, apparently rebounding when they struck the surface of the ground, but never rising high in the air. The main mass of the avalanche was a darker red, and its surface was billowy like a cascade in a mountain brook. Its velocity was tremendous. The mist and steam on the mountain top did not allow us to see very clearly how the fiery avalanche arose, but we had a perfect view of its course over the lower flanks of the hill, and its glowing undulating surface was clearly seen. Its similarity to an Alpine snow avalanche was complete in all respects, except the temperature of the respective masses. The red glow faded in a minute or two, and in its place we now saw, rushing forward over the sea, a great rounded, boiling cloud, black, and filled with lightnings. It came straight out of the avalanche, of which it was clearly only the lighter and cooler surface, and as it advanced it visibly swelled, getting larger and larger every minute. The moonlight shining on its face showed up the details of its surface. It was a fear-inspiring sight, coming straight over the water directly for us, where we lay with the sails flapping idly as the boat gently rolled on the waves of the sea…
The display of lightning in the cloud was marvellous. In rapid flashes, so short that they often seemed mere points, and in larger, branching, crooked lines it continually flickered and scintillated through the whole vast mass.
Nearer and nearer it came to where our little boat lay becalmed, right in the path of its murderous violence. We sat and gazed, mute with astonishment and wonder, overwhelmed by the magnificence of the spectacle, which we had heard so much about, and had never hoped to see. In our minds there was little room for terror, so absorbed were we in the terrible grandeur of the scene. But our sailors were in a frenzy of fear, they seized their oars and rowed for their lives, howling with dread every time they looked over their shoulders at the rushing cloud behind us. Their exertions did little good, as the boat was too heavy to row, and fear gave place to despair. But in a minute a slight puff of wind came from the south-east, very gentle, but enough to ripple the water and fill the sails, We had drifted out from the shore, so we gave our boatmen instructions to keep the boat close-hauled, and draw into the land, as the cloud was passing more to the westward. Then, when we looked at the cloud again ; it was changed, it showed no more the boiling, spouting, furious vigour, but the various rounded lobes in its point swelled slowly and to greater size, while fresh ones did not shoot forward, and the mass had a more reposeful and less violent appearance. In the moonlight it was difficult to say how far away it was, but judging by our distance from the shore, we thought it was a mile off, or rather more.
It now lay before us nearly immobile, a gigantic wall, curiously reflecting the moonlight like a pall of black velvet. Its surface was strangely still after the turmoil it had exhibited before, and great black rounded folds hung vertically like those of an enormous curtain.
[Anderson T, Flett, J, McDonald T. (1903) Report on the Eruptions of the Soufriere, in St. Vincent, in 1902, and on a Visit to Montagne Pelee, in Martinique. Part I. (p 494-497) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A]
The avalanche of hot sand was discharged about 8.20 p.m. In a couple of minutes it had reached the sea, and was over. The second black cloud, which was all that remained of it when the heavier dust had subsided, travelled about 5 miles in six minutes, and very rapidly slowed down, coming to rest and rising from the sea in less than a quarter of an hour. The tongue-shaped steam and dust cloud was over our boat by 8.40. A few minutes after that the ash was falling on our decks.
The second black cloud did not differ in appearance from the first, except that it was larger, had a far greater velocity, and swept out at least twice as far across the sea. It was black from the first moment when we saw its boiling surface in the moonlight. Both travelled very rapidly over the lower part of the mountain, but slowed down after reaching the sea, and came to rest comparatively suddenly. The lightnings on the two clouds were similar in all respects.
[Anderson T, Flett, J, McDonald T. (1903) Report on the Eruptions of the Soufriere, in St. Vincent, in 1902, and on a Visit to Montagne Pelee, in Martinique. Part I. (p 497) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A]
This incredible passage demonstrates Anderson and Flett’s ability to produce detailed descriptions of new phenomena despite terrifying circumstances . However, the cloud, the rocking deck and the twilight meant that Anderson’s heavy plate camera could not be used to capture the events. These observations, their studies and photographs led to the proper recognition for the first time of what are now known as ‘pyroclastic flows’ – heavier-than-air masses of volcanic gas and ash that tumble down the slopes at high speeds and enormous temperatures. It was one of these that had obliterated the town of Saint Pierre and destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii in AD 79.
In the following years Anderson made several return trips to the volcanoes of southern Italy and at least one to Egypt as well as attending the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting in South Africa in 1905.
The next trip that really made a large impact was a return to the Caribbean in the winter of 1906-1907 to study the aftermath of the 1902 eruptions. Anderson combined this with visits to Mexico and Guatemala and the 1906 International Geological Congress in Mexico City. Anderson’s interest in the return of vegetation showed his holistic approach to the eruptions – he wasn’t just interested in the violent geomorphological phenomena but the way the volcanoes provided nutrients and changed the local ecosystems. His background in medicine also shows in his approach – he regarded close observation in the style of a ‘clinical or bedside study.’
The volcano of Santa Maria in Guatemala had also erupted very violently in 1902 killing around 5000 people. Anderson made studies comparing the aftermath to that of the Caribbean volcanoes.
Following this Anderson made an enormous voyage across the Pacific in 1909. Though the details of the itinerary are not clear, he visited New Zealand, Samoa, Hawaii, and then crossed the Rockies from Vancouver to the British Association meeting in Winnipeg, Canada.
The trip into the Rockies was with Charles Doolittle Walcot – the discoverer of the Burgess Shale – and a number of other geologists from around the world.
Anderson’s final voyage was to Indonesia and the Philippines in 1913. On the return from this trip he contracted an illness on the ship and unfortunately died. He was buried at Suez, in Egypt. His loss was felt by many but a colleague had warned him several years before: “You know, Anderson, you are sure to be killed, but it will be such a very great satisfaction to you afterwards to think that it was in the cause of science.”
The legacy left by Anderson in York is understated today. The Tempest Anderson Hall was funded by Anderson in 1912, and is used by many on visits to the Yorkshire Museum, and the eagle-eyed may have spotted his plaque outside his former medical practice on Stonegate. However, few know much of the fantastic voyages made at the turn of the century by this adventurous doctor. Sharing his photographs online is a first step in telling his story.
Pat Hadley is Yorkshire’s Wikimedia Ambassador and works helping museums open up their collections online. Sarah King and Stuart Ogilvy are the curators of geology and natural history at the Yorkshire Museum.
For more information about Tempest Anderson you can explore: Tempest Anderson – Explorer and Surgeon: Yorkshire Museum – Tempest Anderson: Yorkshire Philosophical Society – Tempest Anderson: Wikipedia – Tempest Anderson: York Press – Tempest Anderson: Article in the Geo Curator 1977. – See more images from the Tempest Anderson Collection on Wikimedia Commons.
This post is part of the Public Domain Review’s Curator’s Choice series, a monthly feature consisting of a guest article from a curator about a work or group of works in one of their “open” digital collections. The series is undertaken in partnership with OpenGLAM and made possible through funding from the European Union’s DM2E project.