‘Hook, Line & Sinker’ Simon Bischoff trips the light fantastic on Flinders Island, where dreams come true and everybody lives
The ferry to Flinders Island is about as sophisticated as vomiting on your own pants. It’s a cargo vessel, transporting everything from cattle to cantankerous fisherman. It’s not set up for regular tourists and when it finally docks on Flinders you feel pleasantly far from home.
This trip – my third to the island – I travelled with photographer Olivia Page and Italian climber Jimmy Scorpaniti. Left to our own devices, we celebrated my 27th birthday amongst the bales of hay stacked high at the back of the boat, passing out in a tangy miasma of diesel and cow shit on the sticky carpet below deck, wafted to sleep by the fading smells of the bureaucracy we were leaving behind.
I woke beneath cold fluorescent lights, seedy as the bottom of a bird cage.
It was 3am and the ferry had stopped. I scraped myself off the floor and shuffled into the car. We began the delirious drive to Trousers Point and camp, avoiding the roadkill like we were in some gruesome computer game, the losers of which littered the road sides, providing ample fare for the wild pigs.
I woke in a hot tent feeling discombobulated.
Thinking a swim would put me back together I made my way to a sea the colour of Aishwarya Rai’s eyes. As I slid off the granite slab I tried hopelessly to shake loose an aerial image I’d seen: in it a women was swimming close to where I was now while a behemoth shark – only visible from the vantage of the drone from which the shot was taken – toothily cruised just metres away from her.
Our friend, the perennial frother, Pat Kirkby, flew in the following day. Keen for an appetiser, we headed to Mt Strzelecki to taste some of the mountain granite. We made the two-hour trek to the main face below its summit, 756m above sea level, and jumped on the Sam Edward’s classic Into the Labyrinth (24), a 50m face-climb that ascends a biblical shield of rock. Whilst lowering off I spied a beautiful line to the right. The next day I equipped the 45m monster pitch, redpointing it a day later. It was our first new route for the trip. I named it Amputechture (27) after The Mars Volta album. We spent four days below that main face, climbing and watching the sunset over Clarke Island before descending the mountain by headtorch.
On the trip’s sixth day the weather turned. Sun beams punctured the black clouds, forming a staggering show of light and colour on the range. Whilst driving toward Whitemark I noticed a mansion-sized boulder perched upon the summit of a lesser peak. It overhung a 100m metre wall of water-streaked rock. The clouds swirled and danced with the wind, parting for a moment to reveal what looked from here like a split in the massive roof before the clouds snapped closed again.
The following day we returned with binoculars. I squealed with glee to see the roof of the boulder was in fact split in two by a terrifying slash.
With no track to the top of that boulder we turned into the scrub and began a desperate morning of wombat kung fu.
High above the coast, the crack soared out over space. It was the longest roof crack I’d ever seen. Like the beak of a bird of prey, the crack turned downward at the end. I clenched to contain my inners from spurting out. The exposure was too much for me. I thought I was someone else, I shouldn’t be here. If I wasn’t so knackered from the walk I would have left straight away. Instead we sat for a few hours enjoying the lofty scene.
I eventually relaxed, becoming accustomed to the exposure and, before I knew it, I was at the belay looking out, upside down, the crack continued, uncoiling into the sky above.
Straight off the deck there was a difficult crux. My dreams of free climbing the crack evaporated to steam as I thrashed about in the muggy air. I freed my way in-between cams, torquing my body into the cracked roof. By the time I reached the lip, I felt like I’d been dissected by a blind butcher.
With dread I reached around the lip and plugged in a No.4., hauling myself onto the face clumsily using all my upper body strength. One of these days I’ll learn how to aid climb. The crack widened, I put in a No.6. and thrashed into the unprotectable squeeze chimney hanging above. I just managed to fit my body into it and became stuck. Sweating and swearing in the sun, my mouth dried as I looked at the arcing cleft above me.
I managed to wriggle a few metres above the cam, deeper still into the chimney. This was by far the most outrageous position I had ever been in. I could look straight down the crack, through the sucking void to the valley 500m below. The rope caught the no.6 and tipped it out. A fall now would be very ugly. The coarse sides of the crack grated against my bare skin and made rags out of my shirt. I’d reached my limit. The climbing wasn’t hard but I was exhausted and my will was fading. I was ready to give up and throw myself upon the mercy of the unthinkable fall when a sea breeze picked up, cooling the sweat on my grimy face.
I heard a gentle voice echo from above like a dream. It was Jimmy.
‘Jimmy,’ I spluttered. ‘I’m so hungry. So thirsty. I’m bleeding a lot.’
‘Bro,’ he paused the way only Jimmy can, ‘I’m waiting here for you at the top.’ His accent was surreal, soothing, Italian. ‘I’ve got everything up here… juice, fruits, everything bro, c’mon you can do it.’
What was above sounded like a magical wonderland. I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined the fruit trying to get a bit of moisture in my mouth to reply.
‘I’ve got juice, fruit, water…’ he paused, clearly thinking for a moment, ‘beans.’
‘Jimmy! Beans aren’t doing much for me right now. Keep talking about the fruits and juice.’
And so he did. Repeating his tropical mantra as I slowly squirmed my way upwards, thrutching, thrusting, dreaming, to the top and collapsed at the belay with him. He had water but there were no fruits, no beans. It was a perfect lie. I vowed to never return. I thought about calling the route Trauma, but somehow this wasn’t quite sufficient, nothing was.
By this time in the trip I’d formed a salty crust about my person. Hardened from the daily hikes up the mountain, morning swims and sweating out the cheap wine that Jimmy and I were drinking during the hot nights. It was time to move onto Killiecrankie. The unyielding zephyr blew white horses onto shore as we packed up camp and headed north in a cloud of dust.
Killiecrankie is isolated. The campsite has no facilities, just a beach at the end of a road. Driving in of an evening, seeing the orange rock laid out along the coast is a sight to remember. It’s my favourite place in the world.
On the first day whilst walking to the crag Jimmy rolled his ankle and we took a visit to the hospital. So we climbed as a three for a few days, before Pat flew home, leaving myself, Olivia and Jimmy and his crutches.
Like they are at Arapiles, the lines at Killiecrankie are not obvious. Unlike the granite found in the Strzelecki Range, there are few splitters.
A vague objective I’d had for a while was to link the first two pitches of Hook, Line and Sinker (graded 25 and 26 respectively) into one massive and difficult pitch. The second pitch is an amazing hanging corner with technical, gymnastic climbing. However, the first pitch traversed too far so that plan went out the window. Bouncing around on the rope, I discovered a steep line going directly into the upper pitch, skipping the traverse. It looked stellar and it would link perfectly into the hanging corner. I spent a blissful afternoon chalking the holds and piecing together the moves.
In the fading light I returned to camp where I found Jimmy. Sitting, crutches over his legs, looking out to sea. I felt bad that the climbing had come to end for him. But as Jimmy later told me, ‘Non tutti i mali vengono per nuocere.’ Every cloud has a silver lining. What an amazing place to be. We both sat there in silence, looking across the fine white sand to the water. Suddenly, I realised that the wind had stopped, leaving an absence and the strangest sensation: as if I had been tensing for weeks and had suddenly relaxed.
That night was aimless. We drank the last of the boxed merlot and played an Italian card game. Somehow the game escalated into a three person rave on the beach with Jimmy pulling shapes on his crutches. The night was clear and the water still like black mercury reflecting every star. Jimmy dove into the warm water to find phosphorescence lighting up his every movement.
But as it always does too soon, the sun came up and we went to bed.
Later that morning I was dozing in my tent amongst the dunes when suddenly Olivia burst in.
‘Is that a bite on my shoulder?’ She said calmly. Her lips swelling before my eyes. ‘Fuck, I think I’ve been bitten by a jack jumper.’ She was having an anaphylactic reaction.
We rushed from my tent to camp. Olivia retrieved her Epipen and sat down on a bench made from driftwood. A rash was breaking out on her thighs. She was struggling to breath and remain conscious, swaying around whilst I read the instructions on the pen.
I flicked the safety off and drove the pen into her thigh. Holding it in for three seconds as the fluid drained into her muscle. I looked around at the scene. The wind had picked up again bringing with it the harsh beauty of the land. I’ve never felt so lucid in my life.
Olivia came around for a moment and I let go of her. She was rambling about a tunnel of white light punctured with a colour-something screeching through the walls. In that moment she fell on the ground and began shaking. I knelt and grabbed her body, cradling her head.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. I didn’t know what to do. I thought she was going to die right there. I picked her up. Walked over to Jimmy’s tent and calmly woke him.
‘Yeah bro?’ he said groggily.
‘Olivia has been bit by something I’m taking her to hospital right now.’
‘Oh… bro… do you need help?’
‘No thanks Jimmy, I’ll see you later. Don’t worry.’ He was on crutches anyway.
I carried her 200m behind the dunes to where the car was parked. Until this moment I’ve never really appreciated Subarus, but I halved the average time it takes to drive to Whitemark.
I carried Olivia into the small medical clinic. And handed her over to the nurses. Standing back as they revived her.
Sleep deprived, sand in my hair, wearing clothes wet with salt, watching the nurses rush around her was surreal. I retreated to the corridor where I noticed a framed print on the wall. It was an original work by a friend of mine, Michael Shlitz. It seemed serendipitous but meaningful.
That evening the doctor wanted to keep Olivia in the hospital. I begged to take her out to the Whitemark hotel for a pub meal at least. We were an odd sight, Olivia in her hospital robes, needles in her arms, Jimmy on crutches, me the normal one.
When we arrived, the locals were deep in revelry and had burst out onto the street. The saltiest dog I had ever seen sat across from me. Drunk as a ship’s cat, his resting face a squint, the lines of a thousand suns cut into the skin, he jeered at me toothily and said ‘I found a whale today!’ Someone behind dragged a ‘Road Closed’ sign across the main street. ‘I found a bloody massive dead whale!’ He repeated.
‘Far out.’ I said as we smashed our glasses together.
I was so hungry I could have eaten the arse out of a low flying duck. The ladies in the hospital had given us some triangle-cut sandwiches, but I hadn’t had a proper meal in 24 hours. I ordered the the flathead.
Some people yelled abuse at the sheepish policeman as he dragged the ‘Road Closed’ sign off the road. I watched on, shovelling battered flathead into my mouth. As the sergeant drove away another ‘Road Closed’ sign was dragged out. Probably just an average Saturday night.
The next day we checked Olivia out of the hospital and drove back to Killiecrankie. We walked out to the crag that afternoon and Olivia belayed me on Hook, Line and Sinker direct (28). It was the last day, last chance. I pulled through the first crux, which I’d never done before, and climbed up to the rest at the bottom of the hanging corner. The last sun was setting over the sea as I stemmed my way up the moves that led to the final roof, throwing my arms like Michael Phelps at the Olympics, screaming wildly until I clipped the anchors. It’s still one of the best pitches I’ve ever climbed. I can’t wait to go back and do it again.