80km of unusual wildlife and spectacular scenery on the famed Overland Track give Jasper Winn more than a little something to write home about
Climbing to Marion's Lookout above Dove Lake, I felt like one of those little Taoist monks you see skipping through the twisted trees and artfully placed rocks of a Chinese painting: tiny compared with the immensity of the landscape, of course, but essentially happy, at one with nature and surrounded by the kind of painterly mist that occasionally parts to show some small detail, before drawing tight again like a swirl of silken curtains.
That was my up-beat view of my first hours on Tasmania’s Overland Track. Facing over 80km of wet fog, scrambling over wet rocks and splashing through bogs in the six days it would take to reach Lake St Clair, I found myself thinking of my progress in less romantic terms: “what a slog”; “I’m knackered already”; “it’s all mud”; and, particularly,“hey – where’s the bloody view gone?”
This, of course, is when one needs some words of Zen wisdom to keep things in perspective. And luckily I had them on the tip of my tongue: “There’s no bad weather up here, only many different kinds of good weather.”
It was the philosophy of Austrian émigré Gustav Weindorfer who, in the early 20th century, saw the wilderness around Cradle Mountain and south to Lake St Clair as a place to commune with nature. Most other Tasmanians of the same era would have thought it a good place to go and hunt Tasmanian tigers.
Weindorfer constructed Waldheim, a large Alpine-style wooden chalet, at Cradle Mountain. His and his wife’s appreciation and championing of this remoteness was the mainspring for the area being proclaimed a ‘scenic reserve’ in 1922, and a national park in 1971. Now, given World Heritage Area status as part of Tasmania’s total wilderness, the park’s 1,262 sq km encompass glaciers, soaring temperate rainforest, the southern hemisphere’s deepest lake and Tasmania’s highest peak, the 1,617m Mount Ossa.
Not that I could see any glaciers, mountains or lakes as I hauled myself up a fixed cable handhold running beside a steep ‘staircase’ of rocks before topping out on a mist-shrouded view-point. A little zephyr of wind stirred, giving a few cloud-stirring swirls.
The landscape started doing the dance of the seven veils: first, a glimpse of Dove Lake far below; a flash of distant, rounded peaks; a long exposé of the sinuous path ahead of me; then a full-on strip. I looked back down the valley I’d just slogged up. To my surprise, I realised that there were tens of other walkers on the trail with me, strung out like Gore-Texed pearls along the thin cord of the track.
The Overland Track is a popular route mid-season (February to March) and, although day walkers swell the numbers at the Cradle Mountain end, the whole trail still requires a great deal of management to retain its ‘untouched by humanity’ feel.
There are five basic huts with surrounding tent pitches, for a start, and wooden walkways, and log gantries spanning the wettest parts. In this fragile landscape it can take 30 years for a cushion plant to recover from a single boot-step, and walkers are encouraged to wade through trail mud, however deep, rather than blazing new, drier alternatives.
There’s a strict pack-it-in-pack-it-out policy, too. And that’s on absolutely everything. So while we trekkers have to carry out empty tins after we’ve eaten their contents, as well as every wine bottle our vices might have left us with, we might also spare a thought for the teams who come in at the end of the summer season to helicopter out the contents of the drop toilets...
Only a day into the trail and walkers were thinning out. I could have ambled for hours alone. Indeed, I was often glad to see someone ahead of me or hear them catching up from behind. I was learning that walking the trail from north to south, Cradle to St Clair, is mandatory in season; that an offer of some ‘scroggins’ means nothing more than sharing someone’s trail mix; and that here in the southern hemisphere most good weather comes from the north.
And I’d learned, too – though only academically, I’m happy to say – that there’s no difficulty in identifying which of the three Tasmanian snake species – tiger, copperhead and white-lipped whip – are venomous, because they all are – very. Though the last person to actually die from a snake bite in Tasmania did so before the Beatles had released Sergeant Pepper.
Best of all, I learned to take the walk slowly. Especially because – I may have mentioned this already – as the days went by, there were indeed all kinds of different good weathers. So it had been sunny. Though not when I wanted to scramble up Mount Ossa,when it got differently good all over again and chucked rain out of a thick fog.
There’s a bit of a paradox in this immersion-into-total wilderness lark. I found myself drawn towards the signs of human intervention in this pristine landscape. Obviously that included glugging wine while chatting to other walkers. But it also meant lounging in the lawnlike flats at the bottom of valleys, courtesy of the Big River Tribe of Aboriginals who, centuries ago, burnt off the scrub to encourage big marsupials to graze, making them easier to hunt. And when not feasting on roo and wallaby, the Big Rivers were busy mining dolerite to make cutting and scraping tools, leading to exciting ‘early industry’ finds for us modern walkers.
Actually, the first European incomers had roughly similar interests to the animal-managing and geologist Aboriginals: grazing cattle, hunting possums for their luxuriant fur and prospecting for copper,wolfram and coal. But those many kinds of good weathers discouraged all but the toughest from actually settling in the highlands.
Pioneer bushwalker, prospector and trapper Paddy Hartnett built Du Cane Hut in 1910. I sheltered from a sluicing rain storm under its still-strong blackened wood roof.
Outside, the water fell in huge drops from lofty King Billy pines. Inside, there were nail holes in the huge beam above the fireplace where Paddy had stretched out skins to dry, and there was a picture of Paddy showing him wearing his trademark bowler hat. He’d been an early beneficiary of tourism, guiding adventurous walkers to the nearby waterfalls or to the top of Mount Ossa, or right down the length of the fledgling Overland Track, and serving them his famed wombat stew en route.
Happier to spot wildlife than eat it, I kept my eyes open for signs of local fauna. I noted that the squared-off cubes of wombat poo were so shaped to stop them rolling off rocks and logs where they marked out their territories, while Tasmanian devil doo-dahs were whitened by crunched up bones and matted with gulped down hair. Birds showed more of themselves, with austral parakeets putting a brave face on the weather and black currawongs shrilling out their monotonous ‘car-week-week-car’ call. I thought I saw a lyrebird, too, but apparently I couldn’t have done.
Close-up, there were wallabies around the drop toilets at one camp while at Kia Ora hut a brushtail possum – basically a Persian cat with monkey’s hands and the wheedling personality of Michael Barrymore – really, really tried to get us to break the ‘don’t feed the local fauna’ rule.
At the end of the trail, a group of us cheated and radioed up a boat to take us down the cold and wave-troubled length of Lake St Clair. “You’re only wearing a lifejacket so we can find the body, mate,”I was told by the helmsman. “If you fall in, it’s so bloody cold you’ll be dead before we get to you.”
Right. So, a bit of a rugged place, then,Tasmania’s wilderness? Well, yes – ish. I mean, the Cradle Mountain 1:100,000 scale map carries a warning: ‘Caution. Venturing into Tasmania’s magnificent bushlands without adequate clothing, good maps and a compass can turn a holiday into a nightmare. Please be well prepared,’ which is straightforward enough.
But as long as you’re carrying different kinds of good clothing for different kinds of good weather, then it’s just a walk in the park.
Mount Field National Park
Way-marked trails range from 20-minute strolls to the longer, rewarding Tarn Shelf walk – all good chances to spot Tassie’s fauna.
See Tasmania – its history, fauna and geology – in stroll-able miniature. Come for bumbling encounters with wombats and the sick-up ‘song’ of the ‘vomit bird’.
Southwest National Park
Experienced bushwalkers prepared to tote kit and provisions enough for seven or eight days can be dropped off by boat or float-plane at Melaleuca to walk the 85km South Coast Track. Fab beaches, true remoteness, few other walkers.
Freycinet National Park
Base yourself in Coles Bay for bush walks here. There’s a rewarding three-hour hike to Wineglass Bay as well as a 31km circuit of the whole Freycinet Peninsula.
The Bay of Fires
Early navigators spotted Aboriginal fires on the beaches here; now it is the perfect area for days of leisurely wandering, lagoon-bathing and headland-scrambling.
There’s a short but intriguing walk around Lemonthyme Lodge. Follow the fauna info boards; you might be lucky enough to hear the banjo frog’s improbable call (I wasn’t).