Friday, March 12, 2010

Tasmania's Overland Track - 8 exhilarating days!

After hiking into Lake Pedder in the autumn of 1972 immediately prior to the winter in which this iconic lake was flooded, I have wanted to walk the Overland Track in central Tasmania’s highlands. Covering just 65 km from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Claire, descriptions of the track’s glacial-derived rugged scenery, cool temperate vegetation (especially the deciduous Notofagus bush) and highly variable weather fired my imagination. On April 13, 2009, our group of 9 began the adventure.

Boardwalks now allow walkers to avoid the worst of the deep mud across the button grass plains, but worse conditions were to test us. In the 40 or 45 km without boardwalks, the track consists of loose rock, a network of slippery tree roots, sunken timber from 40 year old track improvements and, after rain, pools of muddy water of indeterminate depth. While hiking poles were useful, the care needed to prevent spills, slips and twisted ankles often reduced the pace to just two kilometres per hour. Walkers had to stop before looking up to enjoy the scenery. Even the timber boardwalks were a hazard after rain or snow, with the non-slip central wire mesh usually just 30 cm wide.

Nonetheless, the experience was totally rewarding. We chose to stay in the government huts each night rather than brave the cold and wind of the tents. With the first day arguably being the hardest (10.8km, 700 metres of ascent and descent, a heavy pack and lacking fitness), we awoke after 11 hours sleep to snow, rain, hail and sleet. The West Australians amongst us loved the falling snow, with the two Belgians amused by our reaction to it!

Of the six huts we stayed in, four were basic but well designed, consisting of one large room, with benches and tables at one end and sleeping platforms at the other. Pelion hut was relatively new, able to hold up to 60 people in rooms separate from the cooking/eating room. Worst was the very new Windy Ridge hut, with numerous stairs, cold rooms and a vast main eating hall that discouraged socialising with other walkers (e.g., the benches and tables were bolted to the floor).

Wildlife along the track was minimal: wallabies at a couple of huts at dusk, leeches close to rivers, a few birds high in the tree tops. But the fungi were spectacular – every colour and shape imaginable. Even the teenagers in our group admired them.

Equally spectacular was the scenery. Ancient forests dripping in lichens; hill sides green with fields of moss; mountain sides covered in broken rock which in turn was covered by variably coloured and patterned lichens. Everywhere were smoothly glaciated valleys or jagged basalt hills which once stood above the ice. Large boulders of sandstone lay scattered on the button grass plains, having been dropped from melting glaciers.

At the end of our leisurely 7 nights and 8 days, we caught the ferry to the Lake St Claire visitor centre rather than walk the final 17 km along the lake’s edge – a boring exercise, we were told, in comparison with the 65 km of main track. We found hiking poles essential (one for me and two for Carolina). Dry socks at night rejuvenated the feet for the next day’s walk. Ear plugs in the crowded huts were needed to protect against the inevitable snorers, although there was no escape from the head cold that freely passed between walkers who shared the huts. Although we carried too much food, the excess was useful insurance against emergencies.

Prior to departure, Kevin Rudd’s stimulus payment helped pay for upgraded equipment, especially back packs and a good quality waterproof jacket for Carolina. We bought many items on eBay or via the internet from camping stores based in the east. Pre-packaged hiking food was very expensive (and our trial meals were small and bland) so we purchased packets of dried food – pasta, rice, noodles – from a Launceston supermarket.

The Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service website only contained active links to or email addresses of a limited number of the various service providers needed to plan for the walk. Fortunately (and this is the first of only two commercials in this article), staff in the Launceston store of Paddy Pallin were excellent and gave freely of their time and useful advice. We were also greatly appreciative of the help given to us by the Bunbury Mountain Design store where we purchased our backpacks.

The Overland Track was the hardest physical challenge I’ve yet faced but the pain was worthwhile. Side tracks up nearby mountains or down to beautiful waterfalls added to the scenic variety of the overall track. Our fellow hikers were good company, always helpful for advice or assistance. Rangers were present at most huts and were likewise friendly and helpful, always with emergency stocks of the most requested item which people run out of – rolls of toilet paper!

The scenery and challenge of the track completely outweighed the difficulties caused by the track’s poor condition. Overall, the Overland Track deserves its title as one of Australia’s ‘iconic’ walks. Do it before you get too old.

Bernie and Carolina Masters, with 2 Belgians Vincent and Robin Keunen and a family of 5 (including 3 teenagers) from Perth: Dan, Beth, Danii, Bethanii and Brodie Heeris.

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