Matt is a landscape photographer with a long love of his home state Tasmania. He began exploring Tasmania's unique wilderness areas in his childhood and gained an early taste for exploring the island's remote and less visited corners. When not photographing wilderness areas he works in the Intensive Care Unit of the Launceston General Hospital and as a researcher with Monash University. Matt's photography and reports are online at Irenabyss, named for the spectacular chasm on the Franklin River.
Climbing Mount Bisdee in February 1995. The Southern Ranges, Southwest Tasmania. Victoria Cross
Republished from The Irenabyss Gallery – The Photography of Matt Brain
Mt Victoria Cross Southern Ranges. Taken in 1998 on a return to Mt. Bisdee with the Launceston Walking Club.
We no longer had a compass but there was no question about the direction we should be taking. A biting westerly wind laden with rain lashed us from the right, affirming at least that our course through the fog was correct. It was around 7:30 pm and the fading light meant that somewhere above the clouds, the sun was getting low in the sky. We were standing on the small plateau just south of the summit of Mount Victoria Cross in the lee of some rocks, slamming down our last uneaten biscuits on this ‘day trip’ out to Mount Bisdee.
Precipitous Bluff. From below Mt. Victoria Cross.
The day had started beautifully; camped near some shallow tarns on an exposed saddle connecting Mt. Victoria Cross to Mt. Wylly, we had listened to the distant bird calls in the forest below as the still pre-dawn light became a golden curtain of colour descending on the eastern cliffs of Precipitous Bluff. Much time had been spent enjoying the views from our campsite and later from the summit of Victoria Cross which we had rapidly climbed, time we were now running short of if we were going to see our sleeping bags instead of huddling together in our rain coats under a rock.
The unsuspecting tents. Note the Minaret (left) is facing more to the south than the Eureka.
From the summit that morning, Pip and … had leisurely returned to the tents while Kim and I headed north. We soon discovered the northern end of Mount Victoria Cross becomes a narrow broken ridge of dolerite columns requiring much zig-zagging and route finding. The forward progress being slow, we began looking for a gully in the west facing cliffs that we could safely descend. After a couple of false leads ending in sheer drops, we had descended one that looked promising. Often the base of dolerite cliffs in Tasmania can provide an easy traverse, but here the cliffs continued down into the forest in several places with tough myrtle and scoparia making progress no faster than had we stayed high.
Federation Peak. From Mt. Victoria Cross.
La Perouse. From Mt. Victoria Cross.
Pindars Peak. From the summit of Mt. Victoria Cross.
New River Lagoon and the Southern Ocean. From Mt. Victoria Cross.
Mt. Bisdee and distant Hartz Mountains. Cloud shrouds the valleys of the Salisbury and Upper Picton Rivers.
Mt. Bisdee. Taken in 2010 on the Vanishing Falls Trip, note the foreground rock is still in the previous photo.
Mt. Bisdee and Bewsher Saddle. From below the escarpment of Victoria Cross.
After losing more time clambouring through the unyielding but picturesque myrtles, we finally made it to clearer ground below the northern ramparts of Victoria Cross. This gave some brief respite as we descended to Bewsher Saddle, the sky now overcast and threatening. The saddle provided the usual botanical obstacles as we aimed for a small elevation on the northern side. Of most interest was the discovery of several blazes cut into the larger trees. These were all old and didn’t mark any particularly clear route. They may have dated to one of the earlier trips, possibly even one of Keith Lancaster’s expeditions.
By the time we had reached the prominence on the northern side of the saddle, low clouds were scuttling past the crags of Victoria Cross. Fortunately from here, the pace improved and we were able to thread our way around the thicker belts of scrub before finally gaining open slabs of dolerite that lead to Mount Bisdee’s summit.
Bewsher Saddle and Victoria Cross. From the first elevation north of the saddle.
We had at least been fortunate enough to see the unique view from Mount Bisdee – the wide tea-tree clad ridge heading north to Secomb Scarp and the more distant Bob’s Knobs, the unique view of Precipitous Bluff outlining the northern highpoint, and the whip-like tail of Victoria Cross that bifurcates from the ridge we had followed to an eastern outcrop.
Bobs Knobs and Secomb Scarp. From the flanks of Bisdee.
We had attained the summit around 3pm and not long after that, the squalls rolled in.
By the middle of Bewsher Saddle we were wearing all the clothes we had carried and we were drenched. No rain coat keeps you dry when you have to wriggle, twist and slide through a thick tangle of cutting grass, banksia, tea-tree, bauera and other classic species.
Fortunately forward progress in Bewsher Saddle isn’t too bad compared to some places and we had started moving with the sense of urgency that being a whole mountain away from your tent brings. It was somewhere here that we lost the compass, probably snagged in one of the denser trees that we smashed through.
Victoria Cross and Precipitous Bluff. From Mount Bisdee’s summit. Bewsher saddle is right of centre.
While trudging back up the northern slopes of Mount Victoria-Cross, we had decided to risk gaining the ridge-crest early to avoid the time-consuming forest again. This proved to be the correct decision although we had been concerned as we ascended about the time we would lose if had found our- selves on some sheer northern rampart. The biggest disadvantage of gaining height early was that we were now very cold, with the searing wind buffeting us as we made our way over the slippery boulders toward VC’s summit.
And so we found ourselves descending Mt Victoria Cross in dim light using the incessant wind to keep direction. Below the steep pine-apple grass clad gully and the boulder field we passed through one final treacherous patch of scrub beneath VC’s prominent southern bluff where low scoparia obscures the gaps between boulders. Next we were nearly running down the more open slopes.
Bobs Knobs and Mount Bobs. Note the scrub across Secomb Scarp.
Unfortunately, the tents were getting a hammering. We had pitched them into a mild north-westerly breeze and now we were being pummelled side-on from the southwest. At least they were still standing – Pip and … had fortunately reinforced all the guy ropes as the weather had deteriorated. After getting some food on board, the two girls came over to hear the story of our 13.5 hour sojourn, making a point of avoiding our wet, slimy, scrub-covered raincoats in the tent vestibule. After a few hands of 500, I set to sewing up the holes in my trousers inflicted by the scrub. We were awoken several times in the night by the noise of the billowing tent and we both made sorties outside to push the pegs back in.
Camped below Mt. Victoria Cross. The weather wasn’t quite as good as the previous day.
The wind abated somewhat towards morning and as the light increased we were amazed at the new shape of the tent. This was a reasonably new three-hoop tunnel design (a Eureka Expedition), but from here on it had an asymmetric curve to the poles, having spent the entire night being pushed over. We were fortunate that we didn’t snap a pole and probably owe this to the attention that Pip had paid to the guy ropes in the afternoon.
Kim and I were pretty chuffed with having attained Bisdee, and the side-trip proved worth it – had we ascended Precipitous Bluff instead of heading out to Bisdee, we would have found ourselves at PB High Camp in that wind, moreover we wouldn’t have seen the view from the top. As it was by the next evening, the weather had settled again and we were able to enjoy the stunning vista from Precipitous Bluff, one of Tasmania’s most iconic mountains.
Mount Bisdee is named after John Bisdee who together with Guy Wylly are the only Tasmanian recipients of the Victoria Cross, awarded for their action defending and assisting wounded comrades in the Second Boer War in September 1900.
Dax and I returned to the Folded Range. The weather forecast was for clearing weather but we were afraid our planned trip would be out due to swollen rivers. Unlike the last trip, this one was sensational. It could be thought I was insane to want to return here in winter but it gets in your blood.
High camp on the Folded Range. We camped below the more eastern highpoint. Cloud filled the valley. The view is north over the Giblin Range towards an un-named bluff west of Right Angle Peak on the Frankland Range.
The Reward for Climbing in Winter
We followed the same route as my previous expedition, but this time with knowledge of the route and best of all – no snow. Our first night was again spent near the same site on the eastern end of the range.
On the second day, we were able to push along the range to the more easterly of the two highest points (view online map), helped a little by being able to sidle on the north side of the ridge around some of the high points. Mist and a little rain had followed us through the day but as we pitched the tent, the sun broke out to create a spectacular display of light and colour.
Dax shot off to attain the true high-point while I pulled out the camera and enjoyed the late afternoon light. Despite the cold and discomfort highlighted in the previous trip, this is the reward for climbing here in winter.
Looking west at sunset on the Folded Range. Southwest Tasmania. Dax was on his return from the high point in the center at this time.
Sunrise from the Folded Range. Southwest Tasmania.Cloud fills the valleys of the upper Huon River. Terminal Peak is left, the Giblin Range center and Mt. Wedge and Mt. Field on the skyline.
A Display of Light and Colour
The night was still and bitterly cold and my fingers were freezing as I arose early the next day for the sunrise. Dax liked the inside of his sleeping bag better but he missed another display of light and colour. The whole southwest lit up with the slanting light first streaking across the face of the rugged Western Arthur Range before striking the White Monoliths and Mt. Maconochie. Behind this I could just see the summit of Greystone Bluff, another even more remote goal that at that time I hadn’t reached. I could trace the route that Kathryn and I followed in 1997 from the White Monoliths over Cinder Hill to Long Ridge spending New Year’s Eve at the Frankland River before climbing over Remote Peak to the Frankland Range.
Sunrise toward Greystone Bluff and Mt. Maconochie from the Folded Range. The Folded highpoint is middle right with Cinder Hill visible over its shoulder.
Brightly shining cloud lay in the valley between the Folded Range and the Giblin Range. The thick frost made our route slippery as we packed up and returned eastward. By afternoon it was threatening rain again and we retreated along the range, on this occasion, getting the timing of the weather right.
Sunrise looking east to the Giblin Range from the Folded Range. Mt Wedge is on the far left skyline, followed by distant Mt. Field. Lake Pedder can be seen below Mt. Anne in the upper right.
Camp on the Folded Range. Southwest Tasmania. Remote Peak is center and the Frankland Range on the right. Doherty’s Ground on the Frankland River is center bordered by Long Ridge.
Sunrise from the Folded Range. Southwest Tasmania.Cloud fills the valleys of the upper Huon River. Terminal Peak is left, the Giblin Range center and Mt. Wedge and Mt. Field on the skyline.
Dawn on the Folded Range. Southwest Tasmania.
Frankland Peak and Secheron from the Folded Range. Southwest Tas .
Sunrise over the Arthur Plains from the Folded Range. Mt. Picton is on the center left horizon.
Remote Peak and The Frankland Range from the Folded Range. Southwest Tasmania.
Frost on the Folded Range. Southwest Tasmania.Greystone Bluff and Mt. Maconochie are in distance.
Evening over the Frankland Range from the Folded Range. Southwes Clouds hang in the valleys below the Frankland Range after southwest rain squalls. Remote Peak is center, Double Peak and Coronation Peak dominate skyline.
It was in September (school holidays) when Kent and I ventured this circuit. I remember talking about it with Dax Noble on the Ben Lomond ski fields in August. It seemed an exciting prospect going on an off-track scrub bash in the south west in early spring. Well, it was. Brutally.
The plan was to follow the Lake Pedder shoreline around to the base of the Folded Range, traverse the range, then follow a spur just west of the Folded Range summit south to come up near Lake Maconochie on the White Monolith Range. This spur is the natural watershed and was marked white for ‘clear’ on the 1:100,000 map – the only map available at the time. We would then walk east out over the Monoliths, and out via the Old Port Davey track to Scotts Peak Dam car park.
Kent and I had a lot of scrub bashing between us, having knocked off some of the more remote peaks on the peak baggers guide such as The Spires, Mt Shaula, & The Eldons. I was 16 at the time, and failure was not something I had experienced. Kent, perhaps, should have known what to expect, but never one to be persuaded out of a hard trip, I think I would have wanted to go anyway.
Shoreline Rock Erosion, Lake Pedder.Southwest Tasmania.
We left Kent’s trusty Nissan Bluebird at Scott’s Peak Dam around lunch time and followed the Port Davey track for the first few kilometres before turning off to pass south of Red Knoll and join the vestiges of the old track that used to run to the beach on Lake Pedder before they drowned it. The first creek below Red Knoll was a muddy crossing but after that it was pleasant walking in the low slanting afternoon light, mainly in button grass, occasionally on the gravel shore of the lake if it wasn’t too muddy.
Eastern Edge of the Folded Range. A button grass ridge snakes westward to end abruptly at the first highpoint.
We arrived at the base of the Folded Range at that awkward time of the after-noon when it is too early to stop, but a big step to the next bit of flat ground before the sunset at around 5:40. We pushed on, finding the ascent ridge clad predominantly with sedges and that unique slippery southwest slime. After a pause at some prominent rocks, we continued to the eastern edge of the range. From here, the ridge snakes westward toward the first high point and we made camp amidst button grass clumps below a small knoll. The first warning signs were apparent here – at an elevation of only 710m, we were melting snow for water. I remember looking out the tent door and seeing a lone car driving along the Scott’s Peak Dam Road in the dusk before mist encircled us.
At that time I was using a Macpac Neve sleeping bag. This is a great bag (in summer) that saves weight by having no down on the back but instead a sleeve to slide a ground mat into. I can’t remember if I owned a thermarest at that point or was using a foam mat but it was cold and I had to wear lots of clothes.
Mist below the Folded Range Highpoint. Near the highpoint, more alpine vegetation makes progess easier.
Dax below the first highpoint. This drop lies at the end of a gulch in the cliff and requires a rope to lower the packs. It was treacherous in the snow of our first attempt.
Away We Went, Up and Down, Along the Range
Next morning a cold southerly breeze blew over the tops as we started toward the first high-point. The gradually steepening button grass led to a rocky summit and here the mist came in and the pain started. The first drop was steep – a 2m wide gulch in a cliff face with head high stiff scoparia in your face, catching your pack and flicking the snow down your neck, knee deep snow on the ground, and then a roped descent for packs at the bottom… and then a traverse pushing through scrub in snow. Away we went, up and down, along the range.
Although the new 1:25,000 scale map shows it well, this wasn’t available then and we were navigating in the pre-GPS era off a 1:100,000 scale map.
The Folded Range. Southwest Tasmania. Looking east along the highpoints. This was taken on a later trip – we climbed every highpoint without any view on the first trip.
We knew we were on the Folded Range but that was about it. Not knowing which was the highest point, we climbed every high point. Frozen feet, frozen hands, torn over-pants, unyielding scoparia, snow, mist– and no sign of any track to follow.
We made camp somewhere above seven hundred metres.I can’t be sure exactly where, only that we had climbed over every major high points Next morning, the mist cleared briefly and we could see the ridge to Maconochie ahead and the jagged spires of the multiple Folded Range summits behind us.
The next day began better – there was less snow on the ground, and it was easier walking through button-grass clumps down open leads until we clambered onto point. From here the button grass became uncomfortably higher and it was either push between waist high clumps or hop from clump to clump (either way chews up energy with a full pack). The clumps were interspersed with taller banksia, but this was only the prelude. Over a rocky spur it began – a steep descent with every botanical difficulty the southwest can hit you with.
From the Western End of the Folded Range, Looking to Mt Maconochie. In the middle distance is the ridge joining the two ranges. The days progress was from here to the rocks on the ridge above screen center.
It started with big banksias that wouldn’t yield or break. Initially, these had buttongrass between them but they were soon wired together with bauera, the 1.5mm vine with pretty flowers in spring that forms a menacing 2 or 3m high wall when it has something to suspend it. It is usually easier downhill as you can throw yourself on top of it and fall or roll over it on the next bit. But eventually your foot or your pack gets caught and you end upside down (with your 25kg pack on), more so when it is growing between other sturdier plants. By now it was wet so that soon we were drenched and cold. As we descended it began raining again and by the time we reached the saddle, we were cold and exhausted.
The Folded Range and distant Mt Anne from Mt Maconochie. This image was taken on the 1997 trip to the Monoliths.
The south end of the saddle was a wall of bauera and tea-tree and my sodden pack became a cross between an ice-breaker and a battering ram, being repeatedly thrown forward and then climbed onto to squash the tangle down. It was now late afternoon and by the time we reached some 2cm deep pools at, darkness was falling and we slumped into our wet tent. I was so wearied that Kent actually cooked me dinner. Our progress for the day had been about 3 km, all our gear was wet, and there seemed no end in sight.
The next day started the same way: more wet bauera, more cold. Keep moving or get colder. Short breaks, save your only half damp clothes for the tent. The cruelty of pulling wet cold socks, boots, trousers, and thermals over a body warm out of bed! I remember the joy of smashing out of some scrub into a 3m perfect circle with a King Billy pine in the centre that must have survived some fire that had made skeletons of its brethren. Those 3m of scrub free ground were such a reward before the unrelenting bash restarted that to this day I regret not having photographed it.
Lake Maconochie and The White Monolith Range. From the summit of Mt. Maconochie. The Western Arthur Range dominates the right skyline with Wombat Peak and Scrubby Peak in the middle distance. The sun-lit ridge in the center is where we ascended from on the 1995 trip.
Finally around lunchtime, it relented. We climbed onto a more open top and followed an easier ridge with button grass and sedges onto higher ground. The weather cleared briefly letting us look back at the short distance we had come. We first saw Lake Maconochie from the spur, and although the way down to it looked easy, we continued to climb to gain the range crest. Here we dumped our packs and headed up Mt Maconochie- only to have the clouds envelope us again before we reached the summit – rather a disappointment after our efforts (but at least we bagged the all-important points!)
Corner Peak and Greystone Bluff. From below Mt. Maconochie.
After lunch, we continued south over a shallow depression with occasional signs of a pad to Corner Peak. The summit of this peak requires a very small amount of rock climbing but there were now gale force winds buffeting us and in our demoralised state we actually piked and continued on. From Corner Peak around to the 976m highpoint, there were signs of a pad and we felt things might get easier- but it petered out in more scoparia on the ridge to Stonehenge Peak.
Wombat Peak from Sculptured Mountain, The White Monolith Range, Wombat Peak is on the right skyline with Scrubby Peak and Stonehenge Peak center.
We camped in a saddle, again having the ‘luxury’ of snow for water. Escape was in sight, or so we thought and the next day we ploughed on again, heading through snow, pandani and scoparia over the southern shoulder of Scrubby Peak before breaking out onto button grass below Wombat Peak. The remaining 3km of walking along the ridge crest to Sculptured Mountain went quickly and was most enjoyable as the weather cleared enough for us to see the surrounding mountains and the plains below as we traversed the large boulders near the summit.
Thinking we might have a chance of getting out that night, we slipped and slid down the side of Sculptured Mountain on a predominantly button-grass lead to the plains below. We had identified a narrowing in the dense forest around Dodd’s River where the button grass nearly reached the banks and it was a pleasant but rapid march through the button grass plains in blissful sunshine.
The Crossing Plains from Wombat Peak. Southwest Tasmania. After days of rain, the mist began to clear as we neared the eastern end of the White Monolith Range.
Worn Out By This Wild Land
The plain ended abruptly at a sharp drop off around 30m from the river bank, and the pleasantness fell away with it. This is where things got dangerous. The rains and snow melt had left the Dodd’s River in flood – a dark mass of water moving swiftly south to its meeting with the Crossing River. Foolishly, we decided to attempt the crossing. We were cold, worn out by this wild land, desperate for home, and had no confidence in the river subsiding anytime soon. We had no communication device (light-weight EPIRBs and mobile phones didn’t exist then) and not enough food to return the way we had come even if we had had the inclination. We had both crossed flooded rivers before, but not of this volume. We found a place where the current appeared to wash into the opposing bank with very few sticks visible that might mark underwater snags and we were away.
The Western Arthur Range from the west at sunrise. Southwest Tasmania.Clouds cover the Arthur Plains on a cool winter dawn.
Crossing a Flooded Wilderness River:
Opinions change with time. At the time, the advice was keep your rucksack on for buoyancy with the waist belt unbuckled and the harness slightly loosened so as to be able to get it off at any time. Losing your pack and ability to warm yourself and eat may be as life-threatening as drowning, if a little slower. Keep a pair of thermals on for some insulation and keep your boots on – it will protect your feet and allow you to stand on a sharp bottom. I am not sure about the last point if it is clear you won’t be touching the bottom, because what you don’t want is to be snagged by a bootlace or a hidden log – death. My advice NOW is- don’t cross a river like this. My subsequent experience in Tasmania is that you can nearly always find a log jam spanning the river if you move up or downstream (there never seems to be a shortage of them on our river descents), although it may require a lot more demoralising scrub bashing along the bank to find it.
Last light on the Folded Range. Mt. Hesperus and the Western Arthur Range are on the skyline.
We Were Out of Our Depth Immediately
The bank dropped away steeply, we were out of our depth immediately. The current had full control and we floated initially along the near bank to some immersed trees where we briefly rested. Kent at this point took his pack off and clasped it in his right hand. We then let go and entered the main current. It was terrifyingly fast and we shot off round a bend, Kent slightly ahead of me. Futile swimming motions of legs and arms just used energy but did nothing.
Suddenly I was at the far bank but it had a 2 foot drop. I grabbed a tea-tree that leaned out and was instantly dragged under by the current. I was convinced I was going to drown here but didn’t let go-and a second or so later bobbed up against the bank and grabbed a second tea tree, keeping my head up. There was nothing to put my feet or knees on and I was shaking with cold and fear. My arms were at full stretch and I couldn’t pull myself out. My boots and pack were heavily waterlogged and pulling me back into the current. I couldn’t get my arms out of the pack harness without letting go. This is the point where I got really scared.
Fortunately Kent had landed further down and by having his pack already off, managed to get himself and pack out of the river. He was able to take the weight of my pack while I climbed out and then together we pulled the now sodden thing out. I then set off like a mad man for the Port Davey track, smashing through the riverine cutting grass and tea-tree. I remember Kent wanting to stop and check the map and bearing, but I could see sunlight on Mount Hesperus ahead and was going that way no matter what. We broke onto the crossing plains, now in the shadow of the western mountains and charged across them. What brought me to a halt was falling waist deep in mud – a thing that normally only happens on the tracks.
A few years later, coming out of The Norolds we found a tent fly about 3km from here at the Crossing River draped around tree branches as the water subsided. The river had risen rapidly overnight after an incredible day of rain and was huge. We worried that someone had been camped there and been caught in the night by the flash flooding. A couple of weeks later, a search was being conducted for a man missing on the South Coast track (early 1999). It may be coincidence but we then reported the tent fly and within two days his body was found downstream on the Davey River into which the Crossing flows. The press reported that he may have been attempting to raft the river. However, I am not sure he wasn’t swept away in the night. I think I am lucky that I also wasn’t found lifeless downstream on the Crossing or Davey River.
We continued on and set a cracking pace along the Old Port Davey track but daylight was slipping away and the sun set behind Sculptured Mountain as we rounded the end of Hesperus.
Sunset from the Old Port Davey Track north of the Crossing River. Greenhead on the southern ridge off Greystone Bluff dominates the skyline. The De Witt Range is in the distance.
I think I intended to walk out by torch light, but Kent couldn’t see well enough with his glasses constantly fogging and we turned into the Moraine A campsite, pitching our tent in the darkness. It was a miserable night for Kent, his sleeping bag was saturated and I remember several times waking up to the sound of the foil crinkling as he re-arranged a space blanket around his body.
We arose early the next day and raced for the cars. The swollen Junction Creek was simply waded as we were saturated anyway and by late morning we were at the car. By afternoon I was on the bus back to Launceston, reflecting on the adventure.
The Folded Range Highpoint. This view is from the eastern summit. On our first trip it was not clear which was the highest point of the range.
We’ll look forward to reading more about the Folded Range and the White Monoliths in the upcoming Part 2.