#72 – KIRISHIMA
“These bastards find you vulnerable out here, they’ll eat you from the arse out…”
Old mate Rob, outside of Charleville, sometime in the ’90s
It had been a case of trains, trains and automobiles bracketing an overnight stay in another tiny Japanese town, before I found myself up a tree with out a paddle, high in the mountains of the Kirishima National Park, in desperate fear of being mauled to death via my arse crack. Something, or rather things, snorted and growled in the thick, dark, bamboo choked forest and I shot up a spindly little moss covered tree faster than a rat up a drainpipe.
Flashback to a decade or so earlier and as the sun dropped below the horizon, I stood on deserted bush track, out Charleville way in western Queensland, watching old mate Rob slice open the gut of an enormous wild boar slung high on the back of his four by four while offhandedly commenting on the bottom feeding proclivities of such creatures. The contents of the pig’s internal cavity spilled out onto the dusty, red earth at his feet.
Back in Kirishima, things had already turned pretty diabolical that day. My guest house owner informed me there was indeed no bus from his town into Ebino Kogen, one of the main entrance points of the Kirishima National Park, despite what my map of the area may have alluded to. So instead of a projected day hike in the offing up Kirishima’s high point of Karakuni-dake, an overnighter was called for.
A burly, middle aged, female taxi driver whisked me off the street to the nearest convenience store for supplies. I’d walk into Kirishima from my way point in Kobayashi and throw up the tent somewhere on the trail to Karakuni instead. Hours later, stuck up the tree, the irony of entering Kirishima via the back door wasn’t lost on me.
Much to the woman behind the wheel of the taxi’s concern I had her deposit me at the end of a road in a lonely, black forest out of town, at the foot of a nasty climb up Hinamori-dake, a savage sentinel standing guard over this little utilised entrance to the park. The trail went straight up the side of the tree clad volcanic cone. It was a miserable opening salvo, that dished out a particular torment similar to that suffered on Hira-ga-take in mid-summer – only this time without the views. Sweat stung my eyes, scrub scratched my arms and I banged my head on enough low hanging branches, while concentrating on slippery footholds, that would surely bring a lesser fools to their knees. Topping out on Hinamori, the trees and bamboo understorey parted briefly and I was allowed a glimpse across to the high crater walls of Karakuni-dake. The trail however quickly sent me plunging back into the darkened woods on the peak’s southern face and it was there I was sent scampering up a tree, to the sounds of thrashing bamboo and slavering beasts.
Bear, boar or the bloke from the Beppu Guest House? I couldn’t totally be sure, but suspected the perpetrator was inclined toward the pork side of the ledger as images of charging pig, splintering knee caps and arse maulings cavorted across my mind’s eye. I hollered at the high wall of bamboo that reached into the tree branches. I shouted in different voices, accents and languages.
“Make ’em think there’s a whole bunch of us up here,” I reasoned, “raring to crank up a pig on the spit.” I growled and barked, I howled like a werewolf with its tail stuck in the door. “Make ‘em think we’re out here with a pig dog or two salivating for blood.” It wasn’t too long before the thrashing of creatures barrelling through bamboo faded into the distance. Even pigs can spot a madman at ten cloven hoofed paces, wall of bamboo or not.
Seemingly safe from molestation, I came to realise the ensuing predicament I’d scampered up into. Although not terribly high, the tree I was clinging to was angled out over the steeply descending trail. I estimated a good thirty metres of drastically inclined ground lay between me and where I guessed I’d come to a stop in a mangled mess at the bottom should I just leap from my perch. Shimmying backwards wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Dropping straight to earth was the best option, as long as I could swing myself back into the slope. I made out a series of rotting steps, mostly hidden by leaf matter, lining the track. Here and there the occasional iron spike was also exposed, set into the ground to hold the footfalls in place.
Drop out of the tree the wrong way it might be Willie on the spit. I wriggled my pack off my shoulders and let it slide down my right arm and caught it in my free hand by the backstrap. I swung the pack towards the upslope and prayed it would land softly on the tent rolled up in its lower section and save the camera at the top any serious battering. It landed just as I hoped and even refused to tumble downhill. All I had to do was the same thing. I hung off a mossy limb like a reluctant gibbon and eyed off the ground for a safe landing patch, minus the spikes and hopefully level enough to arrest any momentum in the direction of downhill. I swung myself into the slope, like I’d managed to do with the pack, and came down alongside it, a little less gracefully but in one piece and no metal spike protruding from my frame. Up on my feet, I wiped off damp leaf matter and mud, slung on my pack and yanked one of the foot long iron rods out of the soft earth and headed on through the scrub, ready to take on any marauding porker I might meet.
After an inconsequential rise in the trail I eventually made it to a lake just off the main thoroughfare and I bumbled down a rocky track to its shoreline. I found a seat against a log, lay my weapon at my side and sat back for a well earned lunch. Further along the wooded lake shore a couple of deer appeared out of the trees and hesitantly made for the water’s edge, but once the smell of human in the air hit their nostrils they shot off squeaking, back into the woods.
By late afternoon I strode open highland through waist high, gnarly scrubbery. The views out to the right took in the magnificent tiered form of Takachiho-mine and the lightly puffing cone of Shinmoe-dake. An hour or so short of Karakuni-dake, I called it a day on a grassy patch of earth kept trimmed to country club conditions by the resident deer population. A foursome of hikers popped up onto my trail from an adjoining one leading across the depression to Shinmoe. They passed by me without a word as I reclined on the grass beside my unpacked camping gear, seemingly unperturbed by my intentions to rough it that evening.
As the afternoon sun sank towards the horizon to the right of Shinmoe, lying directly before me outside my tent flap, the primordial atmosphere of the Kirishima began to take over. A curtain of high cloud that stretched in a line from the eastern horizon swallowed the sun. Below me, between my ridgeline camp and the volcanoes, a low bank of cloud crept in on the cool early evening air currents and filled the valleys and ravines. Deer peal heralded the gathering mists and the pink hues of the late afternoon darkened to a deeper mauve. Takachiho-mine, the piece of Japan the Gods first hauled from the ancient oceans grew dark, its treeless shoulders and summit formed an unmistakably recognisable silhouette against the heavens.
When in Kirishima it’s easy, Fukada-san says, to cast one’s mind back and dream about the old stories concerning the birth of the Japanese archipelago. Dry grass swayed in a cool, light breeze, the last of the day’s light caught in its fluffy tops. I wandered away from my tent as the night came in and beheld that ancient land. This is how Aso-san should be. Surely this is enough. Surely.
I awoke early and watched the sun rise from beyond Takachiho-mine’s left shoulder. A scene more moving than the one I was nevertheless blessed with on the flanks of Fuji-san. The occasional wisp of smoke issuing from Shinmoe was caught in the early morning light. Little did I realise that a few years hence she’d be blowing her top in monumental fashion.
By the time the sun was high in the sky, I was labouring up the overused flanks of Karakuni, amongst large bales of rocks bound in a heavy wired mesh, situated along the path to counter erosion. I met a gathering crowd on the summit at an even 1700 metres. Glancing back, Takachiho now sat behind Shinmoe. Directly below Karakuni to the south, the dazzlingly blue waters of Onami-ike shone, reflecting an unblemished sky. Beyond the lake, out of a haze hanging over Kagoshima Bay, rose the effervescent bulk of Sakurajima and far to the south again I spied my next target, the distant cone of Kaimon-dake and I wistfully realised my journey south was nearly at an end.
Onami’s waters lured me down off Karakuni and though I hiked amongst the weekend climbers my walk out of Kirishima was no less satisfying than it had been in it’s quieter moments. I clambered up onto the crater rim and attempted to catch glimpses across the lake through spindly trees. At one point a rock jutted out precariously from the crater wall above the blue waters and I poked my head out beyond the branches and took in the fantastic view back up to Karakuni-dake. It was a fitting end to my walk through Kirishima.
Once I reached the busy road to Ebino-kogen, lined with parked cars, I walked in the other direction, downhill for a while, attempting to hitch a ride. Of all the traffic, no one showed any interest and so, striking out, I walked until I found a bus stop and sat in the dappled shade of an old pine tree and waited to continue my journey into Kagoshima.