Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get when you don’t. Pete Seeger
I ran into a bit of trouble on a mountain recently. It isn’t the sort of trouble you’d expect. First, let me tell you about my adventure.
So, I hiked another mountain. I know, I’m kind of obsessed now with this whole walk up a mountain thing. You may have guessed that this isn’t such a grand undertaking when one considers I live in Australia. We don’t have what anyone else in the world would class as mountains. No really, it’s quite awe-inspiring for me to travel and stand at the base of a Canadian, Nepalese or New Zealand mountain. Not to mention a French Alp or the the grand mounds of the Dolomites in Italy. In comparison our mountains here in Australia are mere hillocks. Nonetheless, this little challenge, that started off as a way of gaining fitness for an up coming Nepalese hike, has turned into a far more personal challenge. Plus, it’s fun too.
Woolumbin, also known as Mt Warning, is one of the highest (1156 m) and easily accessible mountains to my home. I set off at dawn for the two hour drive full of excitement and a little trepidation. While I wasn’t setting out to break any records, I wasn’t sure how I’d go after twelve months of inactivity. Basically, I planned to unashamedly plod my way to the top. From a number of websites I gleaned the walk is considered strenuous, requires good levels of fitness and takes approximately 5 hours return. I managed to complete the ascent in just under two hours and my descent took bang on two. Not bad for a plodder.
The mountain is cloaked in rainforest. It is one of the most beautiful rainforests I’ve explored. It is also one of the noisiest. I was accompanied by the loud call of lyrebirds, whip birds and a smaller species I could not identify by its trill. I saw small finches and lovely little speckled birds that braved the understory and hopped about on the track. There were bold and brazen bush turkeys as well. The flora is abundant and lush. Being a subtropical rainforest there are palms, and vines and great trees with buttressing trunks. There were many red and blue berries and red nut casings along the path. I saw small ferns and violet ground covers as well as magnificent samples of fungi and lichen in places.
The day was overcast with an 80 percent chance of showers. The hike up was fairly dry but the waterfalls were running and there was much water over the track. The initial section of the walk, about the first kilometre, gets the heart racing. The ascent rises quickly, the way paved with innumerable, uneven steps. Before long the hammering pulse in my head slowed to a more regular cadence as the path evened out into zigzagging switchbacks and a rhythm to my swagger returned, until the summit approach.
The last push to the top is very steep and rugged and virtually straight up. A chain provides one with the means to haul oneself up the rocky incline. Knowing there would not be a view did not dampen the experience of reaching the top. There is a peace and a quiet on top of the mountain. It is a sacred place. Close clouds shrouded the pinnacle enveloping me in a sacred silence one rarely finds unless meditating. There is a palpable presence on the top of the mountain. One does not feel quite alone. After drinking in the atmosphere, marvelling at the blinding whiteness of the cloud, resting just a bit and feeling pretty chuffed that I’d made it, I found it really hard to leave this magical place. It was precious to have the crest to myself, considering the number of other hikers I’d met on the way.
The descent is probably more demanding than the way up as the steep decline turns your legs to jelly. A decent rainfall cooled my downward journey and when I returned to the car park I was grateful for flat ground. Needless to say, after a year of inactivity my muscles felt bruised for several days afterward. A small price for such a wonderful adventure.
Woolumbin is situated in northern New South Wales in an area refered to as the Northern Rivers. It is a short drive from the quaint yet bustling regional town of Murwillumbah. It is a place I know well from many holidays visiting my grandparents when I was young. Honestly, this is one of the most visually appealing places to visit. It is always lush and green, it is both inviting and enchanting.
Woolumbin, named Mt Warning by Captain James Cook in 1770 to warn other mariners of the dangers posed by nearby reefs, is, I discovered, the relic core of a volcano. Also, being so high, it is the first place in Australia to see the sun each morning. Aptly, the mountain is sometimes refered to as ‘cloud catcher’ as it is often cloaked in cloud. I haven’t seen the top of the mountain too many times due to cloud cover. Even on very fine days one can always see a few clouds gathering at her apex.
Now, for the fine print.
It was not until after I’d ‘summited’ and scrambled down the chained, rocky outcrop that I read a sign and learned with rising horror that climbing to the top of Wollumbin is against the wishes of the Bundjalung elders. I was quite upset that I hadn’t known this earlier. I felt disrespectful for not investigating more deeply prior to my arrival. I was dismayed I hadn’t read the small print. On my descent I checked each sign and, sure enough, below all the large warnings of making sure you leave in the day light and to stay on the path and the marker indicating the half way point, clear as the nose on my face, there is, in smaller print, a statement indicating that the Bundjalung elders request visitors and the uninitiated do not climb to the top. In my defense, the placement and size of print used on the signage is where, in Australia, the name of the local council or parks and wildlife name would be and so, is easily overlooked.
I know, I know, there really is no excuse for ignorance. Though there is certainly a disparity here between aboriginal law and national park regulations. One requests no climbing and the other doesn’t restrict access. Amid my growing unease at having disrespected the laws of native people I reflected that I was reverent in my interaction with nature, in awe of the spirit of the place and full of gratitude for my time there. Valuing and respecting aboriginal traditions and wishes is an important step in building relationships, promoting understanding of aboriginal culture and sharing our love of this land.
Captain Cook may have named the mountain Warning in 1770 to alert others to the dangerous reefs off the coast but my ‘warning’, to would be hikers, is to be aware that Woolumbin is a sacred aboriginal mountain that is still used for rituals and ceremonies. To be informed is better than to be ignorant.
When we wander on this amazing planet of ours it serves to ask “Upon whose land do we walk?” “Whose country is this?” “Who walked here before me?” It certainly brings a deep and rich experience to our travels.
I now seek some means of making recompense for my intrusion while continuing to love and explore the wonders of this amazing planet of ours.
Wishing you happy travels.