Motherhood, the Mountains and Me
‘Frenchmans’, as it's affectionately known by Tasmanian bushwalkers, is a 1446 metre quartzite mountain in Tasmania’s Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. Walking the 46 kilometre return track is a serious undertaking. The track is muddy and sections are rocky and exposed. Walkers are also vulnerable to the notorious ‘westerlies’ which can bring snow storms year-round. It would be my first time walking to Frenchmans – though it had been a dream for years.
Carrying a five-month-old baby on a three-day bushwalk to Frenchmans raised more than a few eyebrows. As a friend wished us well, she confided, “I hope the baby doesn’t cry all night”. There were many things that worried me: being five months post C-section, Arthur’s extra weight, and the enormity of caring for a baby in the wilderness. But in my heart I knew that a family bushwalking adventure was just what we needed.
Slowly the trip began to take shape. Grandma’s babysitting service was arranged. Weather outlook patterns were scouted for windows of calm conditions, and family bushwalks were embarked upon in Hobart’s surrounds. I started a packing list, though it was difficult to decide what to include. With an extra ten kilograms of baby to carry, Anders and I would be leaving the novels and spare clothes behind. In the evening, after the children were asleep, I agonised over how many nappies to carry and how to dress Arthur for his first trip. Anders kindly offered to organise the food after sensing my growing anxiety. We packed as lightly as possible for people who don't like to eat dehydrated meals. Thankfully, this time Anders left out the whole pumpkin and bottle of wine. I took a deep breath and stuffed it all into two walking packs.
After two aborted attempts due to poor weather, sick children and work commitments, we were finally on our way. Almost. An unsettled afternoon with Arthur and my hopeful diagnosis of teething meant a trip to the chemist. As I dashed to the counter with my basket of wonders, the cashier smiled politely and said, “Dear, you are a mother in need”. I did not have the courage to tell her our bushwalking plans.
We arrived bleary-eyed at the township of Derwent Bridge just before midnight. We had booked a hotel for the night so we could enjoy a complimentary hot breakfast and get an early start as the trailhead was just up the road. As if anything with babies goes to plan. Arthur woke before daybreak and we made the bittersweet decision to skip breakfast and make tracks.
A fine drizzle fell as we followed the winding path from the Frenchmans' car park down to the Franklin River. We’d agreed I would hold Arthur on my front in a baby carrier and have a pack on my back filled with lighter gear. Anders would carry the heavy items in a larger backpack. If I had timed it right Arthur would be ready for a sleep by then and we could get a few kilometres under our feet.
Arthur shaped our days on the track. We trudged while he slept and rested our legs when he grew hungry. Our arsenal, if the weather turned nasty, included walking underneath an umbrella, zipping Arthur inside my extra-large jacket, and as a last resort pitching our tent.
Out in the wilderness, we relaxed in the knowledge that babies don’t need much but love, food, and warmth. Teething rings were replaced with sticks, sensory cubes with rocks, books with a parent’s imagination, white noise with the rush of a river, and lullabies with the gentle rhythm of our walking.
After lunch, we walked joyously together along the Lodden Plains, Arthur beaming on top of Anders’ shoulders, his sunhat tied underneath his squishy double chin. I watched my feet make tracks in the sunburnt mud. I listened to familiar calls of the Black Currawong and the rustling of the buttongrass heath. I felt alive and full of love for our little family and our island home. Suddenly, it seemed like all the hours of preparation had been worth it
As we started our ascent of Phillips Lead, we delighted in curious walkers exclaiming, “There was a baby!” Navigating the steep and slippery terrain with Arthur strapped onto my front was challenging. When my legs crumpled under the weight, walking became more like acro-yoga, a delicate play of strength, balance and trust. At the top of the range I stopped to give Arthur a breastfeed. I was so pleasantly exhausted I didn’t notice I was tandem feeding a leech.
We arrived at Lake Vera Hut as the sun was setting. Arthur explored the hut on his tummy, delighting many new arrivals when they found a baby under foot. We set about preparing food and sleeping arrangements. After dinner, we walked along the duckboards in socked feet to find our tent, pitched alone, with nothing but the stars and the distant mountains for company. Warm and snuggly under wool and down, we savoured our decision to move outside and avoid the orchestral snoring inside the hut. Arthur did wake more than usual, but it wasn’t too difficult to cuddle, feed and settle him next to us.
As the sun rose, we unzipped the tent fly to watch the days first light erupt on the mountains around us. A few hours later we were standing atop Barron’s Pass: faces smiling, chests heaving with exhaustion, legs groaning, and voices laughing. The clouds parted and there was Frenchmans, the mountain we were chasing, its marbled peak glistening in the sun. We were mesmerised. Arthur snuggled against my cheek as we attempted a family self-portrait. Kingbilly pines fell away steeply in all directions. The rocky peaks surrounding us stood like guardians to the Tasmanian wilderness. My thoughts drifted.
Five years ago, I had almost lost everything. Aged 27, I’d been diagnosed with a life threatening brain tumour. With time, the turmoil of surgery and treatment faded and were replaced with the joys and responsibilities of motherhood. I knew I’d been lucky to survive and to give birth to three precious children. But it was here, in the mountains, with my husband and our youngest, that I finally felt whole again.
Once Arthur was settled I followed Anders as he danced across the boulders on the track. We were on our way to Lake Tahune hut. Tucked beneath Frenchmans east face, it provided the perfect base for those wishing to summit. We planned to have lunch at Lake Tahune before climbing the final few kilometres to the top and returning back to our camp at Lake Vera. It was to be a long day but the next few hours went by quickly. Arthur slept soundly in the carrier, enjoying being held close. It was a glorious day in the mountains, not a flutter of wind and a crisp autumn sky.
Excitement bubbled as I opened the door of the newly built Lake Tahune hut. The sheer cliffs of Frenchmans loomed above. We were almost there. I found a sunny spot to breastfeed Arthur and wished that we had more time to stay here overnight. The view of the forested valley below from the windows, the proximity to the summit and the hydro-electric heating were very inviting. Another trip perhaps.
We unpacked lunch and despite not having any teeth, Arthur was enthusiastic. We had tried our best to cater for a baby in the wilderness: avocados, bananas, and squeeze tubes of pureed food. But alas, what goes in must come out and so there was nappy changing to be done in the wilderness. We double-bagged the dirty nappies which helped to contain the aromas as we carried them. Unfortunately, we missed out on the joys of a lighter pack at the end of our walk. While the weight of our food progressively dropped, the weight of the bag of nappies grew.
Outside, Frenchmans beckoned, the weather was sublime, but in my heart I felt it was just a little too far. We were a long way from our camp at Lake Vera, deep in the wilderness with a baby. Perhaps, the summit could wait. Besides, Anders had summited before and I was grateful to have made it safely this far. We needed to let go of expectations. It’s the journey rather than the destination that’s important.
We giggled as we posed for a visiting photographer before returning to Lake Vera. Arthur cried and grizzled for much of our descent despite our valiant attempts to comfort him. After walking for five hours and arriving at nightfall, we felt we had made the right decision to turn around. That evening, I was certain that Arthur would cut his first tooth; but of course it didn’t arrive for another two months
Once home, I reflected on the three glorious days we’d shared together. What an adventure it was. I’ll never know if Arthur was aware of his trip into the Tasmanian wilderness. I’m sure he was fascinated by his new surroundings and he would have loved listening to our cheerful voices as we walked along the track. Frenchmans had stirred something within me: a quiet confidence, gratitude for life and love, a rediscovery of the wild adventurous woman I thought I’d lost.
A year on, I try to make time for the things that matter the most to me: love, family, the mountains. And when all is still, I dream of our next wild adventure. A family traverse of the Tasmanian Arthur Ranges perhaps.
Story by: Kate Bown
Kate Bown is a mother of three, wife, adventurer and teacher who lives on the foothills of kunanyi (Mt Wellington) in Tasmania. She loves drinking tea, playing in the mountains, family e-bike adventures, cooking for her tribe, knitting jumpers and snuggling her pet cockatoo. In the quiet spaces of family life, she likes to write stories about her adventures.