IT'S BEEN A LONG, TOUGH MORNING ON THE OVERLAND TRACK. 1600 metres up in the Tasmanian highlands, our small group of trekkers is crossing the bare swamp of Pine Forest Moor under damp grey clouds, on the second day of what already feels like a very long six-day hike. We’ve been walking non-stop since breakfast, trudging under heavy packs through snow and mud and endless expanses of buttongrass moorland, mostly into the teeth of a fierce gale blowing straight from the bowels of the Antarctic.
To the left, mountains like stern grey pyramids flecked with snow recede behind a fast-moving bank of grey fog. The boundaries of the world contract, until all that exists is the metre-wide strip of grey timber boardwalk, the inky pools of black mud that lurk on either side, and the frogs that inhabit them, incessantly heckling us with volleys of uproarious laughter.
From up in front, the red hooded figure of our leader Doug turns and bellows into the wind. “Guys, you might wanna get moving.” And without further warning, like a lake tipped on its side, it starts to rain.
Up ahead, a forest of snow gums promises shelter. We sprint for them as best we can, leap off the track, slip and scramble over granite boulders lacquered with rain and moss, and huddle down in the lee of the biggest trees we can find. It’s scant shelter – snow gums are hardy alpine survivors – and there’s nothing to do but squat there like glum sheep and wait for the ordeal to end.
As swiftly as it arrived, the cloudburst blows away, taking the mist with it and revealing a miraculous scene below us: a green valley stitched by a silver river stretching off into the rain haze, all wrapped in a shawl of gauzy yellow sunshine. We shake the rain off our hoods and all look at each other, cheeks puffed out, sheepishly awed by the ferocity and beauty of the storm we’ve just witnessed.
Parked off the south coast of Australia, Tasmania, like any island worth its salty circumference, is stuffed to the gills with contradictions and contrasts.
Two hundred years ago, under its old name of Van Diemen’s Land, this was a grim prison camp – the British Empire’s most wretched outpost, where convicts slaved out the terms of their natural lives, or perished in the wilds attempting to escape. Nowadays it’s a place you’re more likely to escape to: a refuge of cool-climate wineries, chocolate-box Georgian villages complete with ducks on the village green, and the odd world class museum.
Then there’s the Tasmania that calls hikers and hearty adventurers halfway around the world: the empty, gloriously uncivilised southwest: a million and a half hectares of World Heritage wilderness, where craggy mountains saw into the skyline and ruby-hued rivers carve impenetrable canyons into rocks mantled in ancient forests.
An ark for native Australian wildlife, this is the last refuge of species that have been pushed to extinction on the mainland, including the cute, carnivorous Eastern Quoll and the ferocious, bone-snapping Tasmanian Devil. Somewhere in its unexplored vastness may lurk a relict population of the thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger – the world’s largest marsupial carnivore, declared extinct more than a century ago, but still the subject of fevered speculation and searching by obsessives who refuse to give up hope.
Only a handful of foot tracks thread their way through the granite heart of this wilderness, most of which has never felt the tread of walking boots. The most famous of them is the Overland Track: a 65km traverse of the highest country in Tasmania, snaking southward over windy ridge and down waterfall-rilled dale from the foot of Cradle Mountain in the north to the shores of Lake St Clair.
One of Australia’s very few genuine ‘classic’walks, the Overland Track is a rite of passage for hikers, who come in droves – 8000 a year attempt the trail – to pit themselves against Tasmania’s notoriously fickle elements. Most do it the traditional way, lugging their tent, food and worldly goods on their back for six nights. Thankfully for those of us who aren’t built like sherpas, there’s an easier way.
Early on a cold and grey morning I roll up to the office of Cradle Mountain Huts, in the pasture lands outside Tasmania’s second largest city of Launceston. As a prelude to a wilderness trek it’s not quite what I’d expected – the company HQ is a modernised Georgian farmstead set amidst elegant arbored avenues and golf greens – but then Cradle Mountain Huts is not your typical mountain guiding outfit.
In 1987, the Tasmanian government decided to do their bit to make the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park an equal opportunity wilderness. Eco-architect Ken Latona won the right to create a guided walk based around a series of zero-impact backcountry lodges, placed at strategic intervals along the Overland Track. The Cradle Mountain Huts are now firmly established as one of Australia’s great adventure experiences, giving less hardy hikers the chance to cross the wilderness with a solid roof over their heads, a proper bed, and the infinite comfort of curling up in the warmth and knowing that their rain-sodden boots will be dry by the morning.
My fellow Overlanders are a mixed bunch: a wiry Melbourne architect and his triathlete daughter; a sixtysomething trio of occasional walkers whose backpacks bristle impressively with trekking poles and camo-coloured canteens; and me, with a sack so full of camera gear I couldn’t fit a tent in if I tried.
We’re swiftly drilled into shape by guides Doug and Penny, who examine the contents of our backpacks with the thoroughness of American Customs officials. We’ve been warned to pack proper waterproofs and layer upon layer of warm clothing, and any gaps in our gear are swiftly plugged, as Doug hurls fleece beanies and Goretex jackets at those of us who’ve come underequipped.
The importance of this will become clear once we’re on the trail: even though it’s December, theoretically the beginning of the Australian summer, the weather in Tasmania’s high country can turn from balmy to freezing in a matter of minutes.
After a quick breakfast we hit the road, cruising down an empty highway that leads through the bucolic Kentish District, where mauve mountains glower down upon deer farms and lavender fields. As our little van climbs higher the scenery grows cold and wild. The road snakes through dark forests and skirts the brink of rugged ravines, until we burst out of the trees for a heart-stopping first glimpse of our target for the day: the jagged cockscomb of Cradle Mountain rearing out of desolate alpine tundra.
The banter in the van gives way to a sombre lacing of boots and fiddling with zips. We lurch to a halt at the end of a gravel track, pile out into the shivering grey air, and contemplate our destiny. A scattering of Bennett’s wallabies look up from their grazing and hop closer, casting hopeful glances at our packs.
As our boots take their first booming steps on the boardwalk of the Overland Track, Penny leaps straight to the front, leading us as the track climbs through a delightful stand of rainforest and waterfalls. Doug hangs back, pointing out specimens of fagus, the deciduous beech tree that covers the hills in autumnal sprays of orange and red leaves every April. An hour or so later we reach Crater Lake, a sparkling mountain tarn hemmed in on all sides by high cliffs, complete with romantically dilapidated boat shed.
“Okay guys, this is Marion’s Lookout, the steepest climb of the whole walk”, warns Penny. “Take your time; there are no prizes for being first.” Upon which her piston thighs propel her out of sight in a matter of seconds.
Let me warn you, should you ever attempt this walk: the climb up to Marion’s Lookout is possibly the most vicious, stone-clutching crawl I’ve ever undertaken. I make use of every zig and every zag to take in the ever-expanding view over the lake and the mountains beyond – and to give my screaming calf muscles a break and suck in lungfuls of air.
When we finally top out on Marion’s Lookout, the reward is a stunning view of Cradle Mountain in all its glory. A precipitous wall of volcanic dolerite carved by glaciers into a narrow cockscomb, the mountain suggests not so much a cradle as a mighty rock rhinoceros charging out of the wilderness, expressing in one sharp intake of breath all the grace and ferocity of the Tasmanian highlands. Penny, already lounging against her pack and breaking open a chocolate bar to share, wants us to know how lucky we are: “This is the fifth time I’ve seen the top of Cradle this year,” she says. The mountain gets about twelve cloudless days a year – spending the rest of the time shrouded in mist, driving rain or snow.
cushion plant, tiny polyps of plants that grow clustered into pillow-shaped masses. Although the cushions feel as hard as rock to the touch, their existence is so fragile that a single boot print can destroy a community for decades. All around run trickling rivulets of sparkling water, so pure and perfect in their design that at times the track appears to be part of a Japanese garden.
United in triumph we press on around the base of Cradle Mountain. Bonsai-size pine trees hem the track, forming a surreal knee-high landscape of rippling alpine forest. They eke out a tough existence on this wind-ripped plateau alongside mounds of
The hard work of Marion’s Lookout is behind us, but there’s still plenty of walking ahead: the first day is the longest on the Cradle Huts itinerary, and our night’s shelter lies several hours away across the moorland. Tasmania’s weather keeps us entertained, pulling off a series of dramatic costume changes as we trek across the broad saddle between Cradle Mountain and the square-chiselled peak of Barn Bluff. At one point, rain clouds thin out to flood the track in supernatural yellow light. As we watch, a curtain is pulled apart in the sky, flooding the sparkling granite boulders with raw golden sunshine and a rainbow arcs across the valley below. Somewhere down there waits a bed and a shower, and Doug’s announcement that it’s all downhill from here earns cheers all round.
It’s approaching nightfall when we finally turn off the Overland Track and follow the narrow side trail that leads to the Barn Bluff Hut. It’s a serious piece of eco-sensitive luxury. Built of warm-toned native timbers, the Cradle ‘huts’ are more like high-end backcountry ski chalets.
Each of the five huts is uniquely designed to make the best use of its setting, while having the least possibly impact on its surroundings. All come with hot showers (pumped by hand so you don’t waste a second’s water), composting toilets, and every comfort you could wish for in such a remote setting: central heating, cosy twin bedrooms, and a convivial living room based around a communal dining table. Huge windows hoover in the landscape outside.
Evenings in the Cradle Huts follow a comfortable pattern: pump water for your piping hot shower, hang soggy clothes over a rack, change into off-duty baggy pants, then lounge around while the guides fuss over dinner. Some huts have board games, others guitars, and every night there’s a bottle or three of fine Tasmanian wine – helicoptered in at the start of the season along with all the non-perishables. Apart from pitching in to help chop potatoes or wash the dishes, the evening passes in a whirl of blissful inactivity.
As I burrow into my sleeping bag, I can’t help but feel a smug sympathy for anyone out there camping.
Grey Shrike Thrush is whistling through my window – and behind him, the trees are shrouded in a fresh blanket of snow.
I’m dredged out of deep and satisfying sleep by the sound of liquid bird song. A
The world is silent apart from wind and birdsong as our feetsearch again for the rhythm of the hike. Day Two on the Overland Track brings a stack ofsensory treats to glue to my walking stick of memories:dropping my pack to bend down and drinkpademelons, like perfect models of a kangaroobut at a quarter of the size; and descending to our second night’s mountain palace through a pine forest so silentand electric green with moss that we lower our voices to an awed whisper.
from a steaming alpine lake surrounded by spiky, snow-dusted pandani plants; discovering a grassy meadow covered with gentle
As the days wear on we begin to acquire our mountain legs. Maybe it’s Penny’s porridge, or the daily yoga session on the helipad, but the miles begin to fly by beneath my boots. Travelling at a rate of just over ten kilometres a day, we’re not breaking any speed records, but this leisurely pace allows time to imbibe the silent grandeur of the Tasmanian wilderness.
It also gives us time to work in some side trips: to thundering rain-fuelled waterfalls, and a thrilling scramble to the rock-tumbled summit of Mount Ossa, at 1617 metres Tasmania’s highest peak. The weather gods provide one of those priceless, cloudless days, and perched on the summit boulders we get to relive every step of the route, from the purple peaks of Cradle Mountain on the far horizon to the mosquito-ridden depths of Frog Flats in the valley below. Doug points out distant peaks like familiar friends, trying his best to make us love this landscape as much as he does.
And you know what? It works. On our last afternoon on the Track those giggling frogs are out in force again – only now they’re laughing along, and as we cruise in to our final night’s hut with afternoon light slanting through the trunks of yellow gum trees, there is no stopping the feeling that it’s all going to be over too soon.
The Overland Track meets its end on a jetty at the northern end of Lake St Clair. As endings go, it’s a good one: a timber deck stretching out across a sheet of sapphire blue water, hemmed in by ice-shattered peaks. There’s time for one more rite of passage before the boat arrives to take us down the lake: a running jump into the icy deep. “It’s good; wakes up all your sense receptors”, taunts Doug. It does. Mostly the ones that register screeching, can’t-breathe-it’s-so-cold pain.
As we’re lying on the sun-warmed planks to dry off, a motorboat heaves into view, eventually tying up alongside the jetty. A couple of day trippers step off, utterly out of place in their city shoes and shawls. We must look a pretty sight to them too, I suppose – bedraggled hair, bruised calves, and malodorous sneakers dangling from our backpacks.
They get ten minutes to feel the wilderness at the tip of their fingers – I wonder what they can possibly make of it – and then we’re away, back to the dubious delights of civilisation. At the far end of Lake St Clair there are car parks, fast food, and a shop selling many of the ephemeral things we’ve craved over the last six days.
We jostle through the tourist ephemera in a half-panic at the sheer weirdness of it all, jump back on the bus clutching our trophy ice creams, and push the windows open as we lie back and watch the landscape roll by. For most people, the strip of tarmac leading us out is the closest they’ll ever get to the great Tasmanian wilderness. But I have scratched its surface. And it has scratched mine.
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Tasmania has two airports: Launceston in the north (closest to the start of the Overland Track) and Hobart in the south. Both are well served by flights from Sydney and Melbourne. From Launceston it’s a two-hour drive to Cradle Mountain National Park.
Walking the Overland Track requires stamina, agility, care, preparedness, good gear, and a lot of good humour. During the peak walking season from October 1st to May 31st you need to book a departure date in advance and pay a fee of AU$200 per adult.
Cradle Mountain Huts charge from AU$2950 per person twin-share for a six-day Overland Track walk, including track fee, transfers, guiding and full board accommodation.
Parks and Wildlife Service