Figure in a landscape—walking the Tasmanian high country
by Russ Grayson. Originally published 2002.
TO CLIMB or not? That was the debate I held with myself on the walk up from the Waldheim road head.
I have more than enough time to climb the peak but I feel an urgency to get well into the mountains before the day gets too late. It isn’t that I might not reach my planned destination before nightfall, the walk is through open country and is without major climbs once I reach Cradle Plateau. It is just this illogical urge to move far and fast.
The land is revealed as I ascend the trail past Crater Lake, making for the Cradle Plateau. The waters of the Dove Lake below appear black and, beyond, the rustic timber buildings of Waldheim denote the end of the road and the start of this, one of Australia’s premier mountain walks. Those huts are the legacy of the Austrian, Gustauf Weindorfer and his wife Kate. Gustav explored and opened up this part of the Tasmanian highlands around 1912 and Waldheim Chalet was reconstructed on the site of the original chalet in 1976, after the original had detoriorated beyond repair. It serves as a museum commemorating the Weindorfers and their foresight in bequeathing this part of Tasmania to the future.
Gustav was not the first European in the area, however. Loggers had extracted the native pines since the 1860s and, from the 1890s, miners were active in the region. That was the story through much of the island state’s high country—the places so beloved to bushwalkers today had been explored and exploited by trappers, miners and foresters.
At last – the plateau. Here, above the tree line, the walk flattens and passes a small, two-level hut. Intended as refuge from the blizzards of winter, the upper-level door is for use when the lower level is snowed in.
Not far beyond I reach the decision point where the rough trail to the summit leaves the Overland Track. There, I stop and look up to the saw-tooth ridge. Indecision over—I won’t climb Cradle today. Instead, I bypass the mountain on its western flank, follow the snow pole line across the Cradle Plateau and head south.
It is warm out in this open country. The sun beats down from a cloudless sky and heats the skin to a mild sunburn that is not noticed until later. I continue across the rocky plateau, but a nagging regret at not having climbed troubles me. Sure, I reason, I have climbed Cradle before but what troubles me now is the knowledge that each climb of a peak is different… the experience, the weather, the season, the view from the top. What have I missed? Have I missed anything at all?
My first ascent had been in the November of 1973. That was eight months after I moved to Tasmania with my partner, Charmaine, a shift we had made somewhat impetuously by asking a salesman at Paddy Pallin’s adventure equipment shop in Sydney where we could go to live and find mountains to walk in. He suggested we forget our first choice, Western Australia, and, instead, head to Tasmania. So it was that one Sunday afternoon we disembarked the TAA flight in Hobart, our worldly posessions in our packs, and sought temporary accommodation in the Hobart youth hostel.
That was seven years before this warm, sunny Spring day. Then, in company with Pam and Dennis Elwell, a couple who became close friends, we had followed the ridge to the east of Crater Lake and climbed up from the valley. The scree slope was still covered by winter’s remnant snow drifts and soon, passing between steep crags, we emerged on the narrow ridge of Cradle Mountain, along which we made the traverse to the summit cairn.
There we stood in the warmth of a sun shining from a blue sky, looking out at a fantastic landscape of mountain and valley. Never had I seen such mountains… ridge after ridge, all unknown to me, and, here and there, peaks protruding from them. Fresh from the mainland, it was, for us, like discovering some unknown land. The Central Plateau, its lake-studded surface pitted by an ancient ice cap gone these past 15, 000 years, lay to our west. South was the solo spire of Barn Bluff and way beyond it a horizon formed by the hazy, bluish shapes of mountains unknown to us then but which we would get to know over coming years.
A decision forced – or a decision already made?
Again the question—to climb or not? It comes and goes as I follow the trail along the rim of Cradle Cirque. I look east and, five or six kilometres away is the minor peak of Mt Emmett. I wonder if anyone ventures out there, then realise that there are certain to be people prepared to make the dash from the Overland Track. Peak baggers, we call them—competitive people whose not-so-secret obsession in life is to climb as many peaks as they can, no matter how insignificant they are in topographical terms.
Cradle Mountain is almost an hour back and now my fixation is on Barn Bluff. A hundred meters ahead the decision will be forced as that is where the trail splits – one branch decending into Waterfall Valley and the other leading to the scree slopes and the ascent to the summit.
I should not have bothered to question myself about climbing because not to have done so would have been to miss the tremendous view from the summit and the physical pleasure of ascending the jagged scree slope leading to the summit. I think I unconsciously knew this when I was back on the cirque and I suspect it was then, as Barn Bluff loomed ever larger before me, that I really made the decision to climb. My continued questioning had been nothing but so much chatter in the monkey mind.
Barn Bluff is higher than Cradle Mountain. Immediately below, on the Bluff’s southern side, is Lake Will, a large body of cold water reflecting the clear, blue sky. The lake empties via Innis Falls, however I have never visited them and will not do so on this journey although there is a trail to the lake from the Overland Track. They are to remain unknown to me and that’s something I don’t mind because, if all places of potential interest are visited, what unknown territory is there for the mind to wonder about? Smaller lakes dot the landscape into the distance, one of them Lake Windemere where I will make a brief stop the following day.
Sitting on the sun-warmed dolerite of Barn Bluff summit, I look upon the terrain of tomorrow’s walk. I know from a previous traverse of the Cradle Mouuntain national park that crossing boggy Pine Forest Moor could be a muddy experience. The Moor can best be envisionaged as a flattish plateau of boggy soil supporting a hardy vegetation of button grass and dotted with numerous lakes and ponds around which grows the stunted indigenous pine. If the weather holds, the track will take me to the distant group of mountains that forms the southern horizon—the Pelion Range, roughly half way through my walk.
Once, I recall, this wild country was the preserve of fur trappers, prospectors and others who ventured into it in search of a livelihood. What an independent, self-reliant type of humanity they must have been. Their’s was a life of hardship stoically accepted as normal. They were so different, so very different, to today’s townspeople that they seem almost to belong to some vanished age of heroes.
Reflection – joy trough movement?
I speculate that there are two reasons people ascend peaks.
The first is a combination of challenge and enjoyment—the physical exuberance of scrambling over boulders and through passages between rocky bluffs. It is a sort of joy through movement, a rhythmic negotiation of terrain. It’s true that movement is something enjoyable… the simple rhythm of putting one foot in front of another.
The second reason is reaching the summit and the feeling of satisfaction, of completion, that comes as you look out over the landscape. It is this revelation of the land that is the attraction, not some competitive drive to reach a summit. It is about looking out over the country you will traverse in coming days, or looking into country you may never visit that makes climbing a peak, no matter how modest of height and how unspectacular, a worthwhile pursuit. But that is when the weather is kind; when it is bad you do not get much of a view, just a face-full of sleet or cold rain. You do not stay long on the summit.
Time spent on a summit can be solitary, social or metaphysical. If it is social you sit under a warm sun, eat the food you have carried up and talk with friends. If it is solitary or metaphysical, you ponder the landscape and experience the presence of rock, sun and wind in all their raw nature. At best, the experience can be almost transcendental, but that sensation is felt only after you have sat a while, when the speech of your companions has quieted and you become aware of the rock, the lichen, the sun shining down, the distance, the quietness of it all. I felt this most acutely in the Western Arthur Range of South-West Tasmania while sitting at the base of Mt Scorpio summit, gazing northward over plain and mountain. Then, I lost awareness of myself as separate from the mountains and plains… it is hard to explain but others have experienced it… I believe it is described as ‘oceanic feeling’, a somewhat strange term that does not help much in describing it.
Home in a hut
Home tonight is the old Waterfall Valley hut, a small timber building below Cradle Cirque, a shelter basic in appointment but comfortable, as are all the public huts in the national park. It snuggles against the pines immediately below the slope of the Cirque. Nearby is the newer and larger Waterfall Valley hut, a structure probably put up some time in the early 1970s.
I unpack my sleeping bag and spread it on the bunk, find my torch and put it next to my bag, locate my wash kit and place it nearby. Then it is time to cook a simple evening meal on my hiker’s stove. I connect fuel tank to burner, prime the device and light it. Soon, its blue flame purrs steadily, a comforting sound that promises a full belly. This is an act that will become an evening ritual over coming days. I have the hut to myself for I have seen no one since leaving Cradle Mountain, and then it was only a party of two out for a day walk. This I feel good about for I do not mind solitude.
Outside it is quiet; no wind blows and as night comes on, the peace is calming. I stand in the door and look into the gathering darkness. The weather is holding fine and cooler air is condensing a mist around the summit of Cradle.
Reflection – walking alone
There is something pleasurable about walking alone especially on longer hikes. It is then that you slow to a pace of life that suits you, a pace that allows you to stop, to look, to appreciate the land you walk through.
There is a cadence to solo travel, it’s that pleasure in rhythmic movement over rugged terrain. No hurrying to catch up with fast walkers or slowing for the less fit, just a pace that varies with ascent and descent and with the muddiness of the track. Importantly, this is a pace at which you are free to stop to take photographs, to wait until the light is right, be that one minute or fifteen.
Even if you walk fast, solo walking feels unhurried. Distance is estimated by the time it will take to get to that night’s stop. You start out with more than enough time to spare… taking care to check that you have put everything into your pack before leaving and noting your intentions in the hut’s log book. A final glance around—got everything? Close the hut door and set off. Your pack feels heavy at first but it is soon forgotten as you assume a pace adapted to the terrain. This is how I will live over coming days during which I will have the trail to myself, encountering no one apart from a small group on the last day of the walk.
In Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park you encounter hikers from early Spring but they are just the occasional band of Tasmanians eager to make an early start to their season in the mountains before the trails become crowded. The walking season does not get underway properly until November and the hordes of mainlanders do not descend until mid-December or January, the national holiday break. According to tourism sources, the numbers visiting the Cradle Mountain area has grown incredibly, from 536 (as recorded in the Waldheim visitor’s book) in 1938-1939, to around 3000 by the end of the 1950s increasing to 20,000 by the end of the 1970s, the time of my journey. In 1998, an estimated 140,000 came. Most of these do nothing more venturesome than day walks around Cradle, however the number making the full transit of the park—it is usually done north to south—has grown tremendously.
For the long-distance walker, life in the mountains is a simple, repeated ritual… walking, eating, sleeping, packing, walking. It is regulated by day and night, by light and darkness. It is life as transit and it is a great way to live.
Frog Flat’s boggy bottom
Frog Flats is an appropriate name for the boggy patch of button grass where the descent from the plains of Pine Forest Moor bottoms out. Here, the churning of bushwalker’s boots year after year and the melting snows of Spring have broadened the trail into a bog of considerable breadth.
Boggy tracks are familiar to anyone who walks Tasmania’s mountains and plains. They form where walkers spread out to avoid muddy areas and, in doing so, enlarge the bog they seek to avoid. Even in summer the tracks never fully dry out and over the years what was just a boggy patch becomes a morass. The bogs are common on the poorly-drained tracks of the highlands because of the moist, peaty soils. If you miss your step you can go into the sticky, black ooze knee-deep or more.
It’s a relief to reach Pelion Plains after the climb out of Frog Flats, not that the climb is difficult. Once out on the plains the terrain is a flat expanse of yellow button grass, a tussock so-called because of the circular seed cluster at the end of a metre-long stalk. To the east lay the long, flat-topped ridge of Mount Oakley, its end a cascade of vertical, eroded spires that dominates Pelion Plains. The Overland Track winds past the mountain’s western end as it heads towards Old Pelion Hut on the far side of the plain… accommodation for the night.
It has been a comparatively easy day on flatfish terrain with only the decent into and climb out of Frog Flats to vary the terrain in any significant way. The good weather has held—the state of the weather is always of interest in the mountains. Crossing Pine Forest Moor turned out to be a few hours of slog, of putting one foot in front of the other, setting eyes on the distant massif of Pelion West, putting the brain into neutral and just going…and going.
I think it was Heinrich Harrer, author of the book Seven Years in Tibet who wrote of the ‘mountaineer’s stride’ that could cover considerable distance in a day. The long, relaxed stride is common to experienced bushwalkers, too. It is a rhythmic pace that comes into its own on flat terrain, where large distances are to be covered and it seems to simply eat up distance. The stride can be maintained whether lightly or heavily laden and is broken only at creek crossings, in sticky mud and when the walker takes an accidental slide on the slippery ground. It is adapted to descents where the walker adopts a pace—terrain being suitable—somewhere between a rapid walk and a controlled fall.
Making good time and arriving well before sunset to spread out sleeping bag, make an early meal from unappetising-looking dehydrated food and brew some tea, I sit on the doorstep, warm cup in hand, and enjoy the silence and the fading colours of evening. Alone in the mountains, such moments between activity are a chance to reflect but in company they are times for quiet talk, for reminisence but rarely for speculation about the future. It is the present or shared, good times in the past that dominate after-dinner campfire conversation.
Colour drains and the monochrome of night falls on the land. The air chills. Above, a high layer of wispy cloud covers the sky. This is a landscape without lights. Inside, I make sure my food is packed away in my backpack, out of reach of marauding bush rats. I fluff up spare clothing as a pillow, climb into my sleeping bag and zip it most of the way in anticipation of a cool night. Laying back, in the moments before sleep, my mind wanders.
Early start, early finish
The aged, grey timbers of Old Pelion are tucked into the treeline on the northern side of Pelion Pass. Like other huts in Cradle Mountain park it is a reasonably weatherproof and rusticly minimalist structure, a refuge to those unlucky enough to be caught in the bleak weather that sweeps in at any time of year. Just as Waterfall Valley has an ‘old’ and a ‘new’ hut, so has Pelion.
In the coming summer, the huts dotted along this trail will host hikers making what has a reputation as one of the most famous of Australian treks. The visitors will deplete the firewood supply and bury their waste in sometimes too-shallow holes in the bush. Clusters of tents will sprout like colourful mushrooms. Night will bring not solitude and unlit darkness but the yellow flicker of campfires and the blue flame of bushwalker’s stoves. Silence will be punctuated by the murmur of subdued voices and outbursts of laughter, the sounds of campfire conviviality.
The weather had been good so far. Warm days, blue skies and cool evenings with just the right amount of bite to remind me it is springtime in the mountains here at 42 degrees south latitude. It could be worse. Blizzards are not uncommon even in summer; cold sleet comes at any time of year and days of torrential rain are a fact of life in these highlands. I recall that it has snowed on my last two Christmas-new year bushwalks. It is for this reason that a waterproof parka and warm clothing are carried, even in summer, as part of the essential bushwalker kit. The first two days on the trail have been more or less cloudless and warm but late this afternoon the band of high cloud moving in from the west had started to obscure the sky.
Morning. Up early. Stuff sleeping bag into its nylon sack.. pull on woolen shirt – it is cool so soon after dawn… eat a hasty breakfast… mix powdered milk into cereal and add water… put billy of water on stove for tea… wash bowl, spoon and cup… wipe dry, stow in bag and stuff into pack… waterproof parka goes on top… off with the wool shirt and drape it across the top of the load—it is chilly but it will be a warm climb to the pass—tighten pack lid over the lot and heave the thing onto my back. Pelion Gap awaits.
Closing the hut door, I look across the plain to Mt Oakley silhouetted against the grey sky of early morning. It is quiet. There is no one else in either the old or new hut. In the coolness I set a moderate pace through the euclypt forest… it is a bit of an uphill slog to the gap, the saddle I had seen from Barn Bluff a couple days ago, and there is no sense in hurrying.
The forest thins close to the gap and I release my pack and take in the sweep of the land. Sweat evaporates coldly from my back. The grey timber of the old direction sign are weathered and stained by lichen, yet somehow it has stood here for decades in defiance of fire and snow, wind and walkers. It names the peaks back the way I have come and those that lay to the south, where I am bound. I lean my pack against it and climb the pimple of Pelion East, just a short scramble past an old timber hut that was built many decades ago, so I understand, by miners. People leave their works after them and, like the sign, the hut has persisted in this wind-blown place. Pelion East is at one extremity of the Pelion Range which enfolds the valley from where I have come this morning and extends via peaks known as Achilles, Thetis and Ossa all the way to Pelion West.
To reaching Pelion Gap is to reach the centre of the park in both a geographical and temporal sense. It is the divide between the park’s geographically different northern and southern reaches and marks the approximately half-way point in the time most walkers spend on the trail. I had no intention of making the long climb from Pelion Plains to Mt Pelion West, the angular mass that broods over the middle part of the Cradle Mountain national park. Experienced walkers have the option of the two day traverse of the ridges and valleys from Mt Ossa, Tasmania’s highest but far from most spectacular peak situated immediately west of Pelion Gap. It is an option taken by only the adventurous few.
Gone are the wide, boggy button grass plains on the southern side of Pelion Gap. The land here is forested ridge country and the track falls, in an up-and-down manner, towards Lake St Clair.
A place revisited
I had been here before, a couple times. Once, on a warm summer’s day, our group had left our packs at Pelion hut, climbed the pass and set off over the bump of Mount Doris to ascend Mt Ossa.
Not far below the Ossa’a peak, high on the boulder slope, we stopped to listen. At first we thought it was thunder, a morning storm coming in, but we were not sure… the roar was continuous and getting louder. We were perplexed… none of us had encountered a noise like this in all our years of mountain walking. Louder it came, gaining direction, coming in from the south. As we looked back and down, a shape emerged from the misty valley and an F111 roared up over Ossa to disappear to the north.
The land, a downward trend
From Pelion Gap I have the option of making a short day of it and staying in the old fur-trappers hut at Du Cane Gap, not far to the south or, alternatively, spending most of the day on foot and walking all the way to Windy Ridge hut in the forest above Lake St Clair. Even, perhaps, going on to Narcissus hut at the northern tip of the lake.
The route decends into Pinestone Valley, then to Kia Ora hut on the upper Mersey River adjacent to Kai Ora Falls. That is a good place for a break after which it is a relatively short walk to Du Cane Gap. From there, the eastern end of Falling Mountain is rounded with the possibility of short side trips to D’Alton, Furgusson and Hartnett falls.
So different to the open country of the northern park, this region I now pass through. There are deep valleys and forests and an upward trend to the land as I approach Du Cane Gap. The day remains mild with a high overcast and walking produces a sweat that cools the skin whenever a stop is made.
I will choose where to overnight as the day goes on but I suspect that I will continue through to Narcissus hut. Why, I do not know as I am enjoying my time alone in the mountains and to walk through to Narcissus is to knowingly shorten it. Perhaps I just enjoy covering distance on foot. Going all the way to Narcissus will rob me of a day if I walk out to the roadhead at Derwent Bridge the following morning. It is just that illogical but persistent compulsion to move forward, to walk on… task-orientation without reason.
Reflection – the simple life of the mountains
There is contentment in routine. Not the imposed routine of modern life but the simple routine of life in the mountains. it is a routine defined by cooking and eating, sleeping and movement. It is a routine of your own making, and that is good.
It starts in the morning when you unzip your sleeping bag and climb out. You stretch, preparing muscles for a day on the move. Then you put on clothes and look out to see what the weather is doing. Make a simple, cold breakfast… cereal is fine… and wash it down with a cup of coffee or hot tea then clean and stow your utensils, force the sleeping bag into its stuff sack, put it all into the pack and you are ready to move.
In the early afternoon you stop for lunch… crispbread biscuits with peanut butter or cheese, a few swigs of water and a handful or two of scroggin—a mixture of nuts, chunks of dried fruit and small pieces of chocolate favoured by bushwalkers. Lunch is usually at some significant point in the journey, a pass, a peak or whatever, but sometimes it is taken sitting on a rock or log by the side of the trail, watching your boots to see that leaches do not sneak under your socks to suck your blood. If you are up high and the going has been hard, sweat evaporates and chills you and you put on a pullover or parka.
Time marked by movement… the day passes to the rhythm of your stride. Reach your destination and it is either pitch a tent or lay out your sleeping bag on the bunk of a hut. Cook a meal—something that travels well in your pack, is dry and light to carry and is easily prepared on your hiker’s stove. Pasta and cheese with dried vegetables, perhaps. If you are really a masochistic lightweight traveller or are culinarily dysfunctional, your meal might be one of those overpriced, small-serve, freeze dried concoctions sold in bushwalking stores. But why buy this stuff when, for the price of a bag each of noodles and dried vegetables you end up with something just as nutritious?
Eating utensils washed, teeth brushed, it is time to sit quietly—outside if the weather allows, otherwise in the hut by the fire or, if the evening is really cold, snugged into your sleeping bag. It is time to let your mind wander, to think about the day’s journey and what you want to do tomorrow… to think of home, friends and freshly cooked, non-dehydrated meals accompanied by a bottle of mellow red. Zip up your bag and, finally, sleep.
In some Tasmanian huts your sleep will be interrupted by the scratching of possums or bush rats trying to find a way into your food. Sometimes in the depths of the night you will be awakened by an unearthly scream that gives the unknowing bushwalker the horrors. This, though, is only possums fighting or the nocturnal scream of the Tasmanian devil.
This routine is the pattern day after day, the pleasurable cycle of life in the mountains. Life reduced to basics.
You could still make open fires when I took this solo walk through the Cradle Mountain National Park. Today, the pleasure of the flame, the shared company around the campfire or the fireplace in the hut is gone, banned by park management. These are the days of the hiker’s stove, those little gas or shellite-powered devices that roar away under your billy and add extra weight to your load.
The park management’s reasoning in banning open fires in the highland parks is sound. First, there is the question of firewood. As the number of walkers increases so does the amount of wood they burn to cook their meals and keep warm. As firewood becomes more difficult to find, walkers break off branches and collected wood that looks dead but is not. The vegetation around huts and popular camp sites is damaged.
Secondly, there’s the soil. Tasmania’s mountain soils carry a high portion of combustible peat. Although moist, the organic matter in peaty soils can smoulder for days after campers think they have extinguished their camp fires and can suddenly come to life and burn out large tracts of land. It is environmental damage and the fear of bushfire that has forced the no-fires policy.
Fires can be devastating in this country. The forest does not recover as quickly as does the fire-adapted eucalyptus bush of the mainland. Five or so years before making my journey a young man, a keen conservationist, camped with his friends near Mt Olympus at the southern end of the Cradle Mountain Park. Somehow, their campfire got away in the peaty soil and scorched a large area along the flank of the mountain. I would not be surprised if, all these decades later, he still suffers remorse over the event.
Next day to last
I reach Du Cane hut before midday and seriously consider continuing to Narcissus. I know I am about to make another of my impulsive, irrational decisions and will later, probably, regret doing so. I slow my pace to spin out my time on the track.
You come on Du Cane hut suddenly as you emerge from the trees after a long uphill walk . The hut occupies a grassy clearing and is a truly rustic shelter of rough-cut planks now warped by time and weather. Built early in the twentieth century it has somehow survived decades of inhospitable climate to stand at the edge of a dark treeline that encloses the base of the steep bluff of Falling Mountain. Home to the trappers who came into the mountains after the thick, dark pelts of the Tasmanian mountain possum, the hut now shelters the occasional party of bushwalkers. Its existence is a reminder that for some, the past was a life of isolation that demanded a self-reliance barely imaginable today.
It is no exaggeration to say Du Cane hut leaks a little. But when the weather comes in, when the snow starts to build up and walkers cower from the westerlies, the hut is a welcome sight. If the last party has stocked the hut with woo, doing so is a custom in the mountains, a warm and drying blaze can be started in the fireplace.
The hut is home to a possibly mythic, possibly real but definitely large and voracious possum know as ‘Black Pete’. Some say it is his size that sets him apart, but all agree that his formidable reputation comes from his bad habit of gnawing through bushwalker’s packs to get at their food. I do not know how long possums live, but Black Pete must be a long-lived member of the species for his legend has persisted over the years.
There is no sign of this voracious mammal when I push open the door to the empty hut. I have the feeling that nobody has been here for some time, perhaps since last summer or as late as autumn, perhaps, which would have brought the passing of the last party of bushwalkers of the season before rain, sleet and snow closed the mountains for the winter. After a brief look around, I close the door and head south. From Du Cane Pass the track decends towards the valley of the Narcissus River and it is here, I have decided, that I will make for.
A gentle snow falls. The flakes come straight down… there is no wind and they remain on the ground only a few minutes before melting. I suspect that this is just the start and that the skies will get darker and the snow become heavier.
The change in weather started slowly… no dramatic downpours, no white-outs. I set out on this journey in the best of warm spring weather, but spring is a changable time although in the mountains of Tasmania the same could be said of all seasons. Blue skies and warm weather had yesterday given way to cloud and falling temperature. What started as a streaky, wispy layer of cirrus that came over mid-afternoon has given way to a puffier, darker formation of the type that bears summer rain or winter snow or, sometimes, summer rain and summer snow.
Tasmania’s mountain landscapes are places of shifting character formed by the interplay of terrain and weather. When cold fronts blow in from the Southern Ocean the peaks take on a threatening grey colouration. In the morning you open the tent door or walk out of the hut and the world either shines with the brilliance of freshly-fallen snow or all you see is freezing sleet driven by a howling wind. If time is short and the way known, walkers set out in these deplorable conditions dressed in their waterproofs, hoods drawn tightly around faces, shoulders hunched into the wind, barely a word being spoken until they reach shelter. For those unfamiliar with the terrain, staying put is the best option.
Du Cane Gap is less than six kilometres from Du Cane hut. Descending the southern side the gap towards the Narcissus River, the occasional view is to the distant, curved finger of Lake St Clair. All around, the land is clad in dark, cool temperate forest and appears to fall towards the lake. It is still a long way off but now the lake shines steely-grey under a sky the colour of lead. In the forest I come to the still-yellow timbers of the new Windy Ridge hut. It is only a few years old, built as a replacement for a predecessor lost to fire. Eventually, those fresh timbers will weather into the grey that characterises all the huts in these mountains.
Eucalyptus forest dominates around Windy Ridge and it’s for a break. I nibble scroggin and take out the map to check the distance remaining to Narcissus hut. I notice that the higher country, over to the east, contains the Orion Lakes, northernmost of a string of medium-sized lakes that occupy rolling terrain that ends in the escarpment forming the eastern shore of Lake St Clair. And, just as I did about interesting-looking landscapes off to the side of the Overland Track in the north, I wonder about making a journey into this country at some time. Is this intention, I wonder, or just wistfulness?
I make good time down through the forest. The track is dry, the walking easy and gently downhill. The snow continues to drift down but it is not heavy. Constant movement keeps me warm and I speed down this section of trail, my pack lighter now that most of the food and fuel has been consumed. Soon, ahead, through gaps in the trees appear the button grass flats at the northern end of Lake st Clair.
The track flattens and spills onto the soggy flats. Here, track workers in years gone by have corduroyed the boggier stretches by laying sapplings across the trail. The corduroy can be slippery so I moderate my pace and watch my step—this is no place to sprain an ankle. Narcissus hut is not far now.
I have had a special feeling for these flats ever since setting eyes on them seven years ago. Why? I don’t know, they are just common button grass flats and scrub. Maybe it is the memory of when I first traversed them… the button grass glistening with freshly fallen snow and the glitter of moisture, or perhaps it is the wide sweep of the landscape to the ridges that enclose it, flattness edged with the vertical. I recall a day, similarly cloudy and wet, when the button grass was side-lit by a late afternoon sun that highlighted even small details and turned the plans a vivid yellow against the grey of the sky… and of my friends strung out across the plains as they moved along the track, figures in a landscape.
I come back into the present and the knowledge that this will be my last night in the park and experience misgivings that my journey will soon end. Would I have been better to spend the night at Du Cane or Windy Ridge hut? Probably.
Narcissus River… a ribbon of fast flowing water stained black by tannin leached from vegetation and soil. Without the narrow bridge it would be impassable at this time of year when melting snow is draining from the peaks and plateaus. This small but substantial river flows at a steady pace and is deep enough for there to be few rapids.
Across the footbridge… and there, in the near distance above the banks of the stream is the greenish cladding of the hut. Narcissus is a well-used cabin. It offers a convenient overnight stop for hikers headed up the side trail into Pine Valley and on to the high plateau of The Labyrinth beyond. The hut is less than a kilometre from the shore of the lake.
It is late afternoon when I push open the door. The hut is empty… I thought it might be as it is still too early in the season for most walkers to be in the mountains. Within a few weeks, though, the hut will be in constant weekend use with walkers laying out sleeping bags, with the roar of stoves, the dank odour of wet clothing hung up to dry, belongings scattered across tables and muddy hiking boots clustered by the door.
Water gathered from the Narcissus River, I make a final meal then clean up and walk to the door to look out on a landscape on which a fine evening rain falls like a shifting grey curtain. The weather has brought a closeness to the evening in which horizons are limited and the land blends into a mistiness that comes with the fading of the light. It is still quiet as all evenings have been on this journey and I enjoy the experience of simply being there, in this hut, looking out onto this landscape or as much of it as I can see, hearing the burble of the nearby river and… and just being. Despite the weather this is a wonderful landscape, one evocative of this island’s spectacular interior. Some may call the scene miserable but I call it special.
Memories of past excursions come to mind… images and sensations peculiar to particular places are relived. I savour the feeling of longing familiar to last nights on other walks in other mountains… a feeling of satisfaction with being in a place mixed with a sadness at being soon to leave it. There is an anticipation of the enjoyment of dry clothes, fresh food, hot shower and warm bed mixed with disappointment at the ending, temporary that it might be, of life on the trail… of the simplicity of life on the trail… of walking, cooking, sleeping, rising with first light, a quick breakfast, cup of hot tea then setting out and getting into your stride and traversing distance. I think those of poetic bent describe such moments as bitter-sweet.
A thwarted journey
Autumn 1973. It was our first Easter in Tasmania and it was wet. We had driven to Derwent Bridge the previous evening and stayed in a national park service hut. In the morning I was happy to see a thin layer of snow on the ground—what a great introduction to this island, I thought. My only previous encounter with snow had been when driving from Tumbarumba to Jindabyne across the snowy Mountains in the spring of… when?… 1969?
I was with my partner and a group of people from the Hobart Walking Club. A week’s supply of food in our packs, we were ready for a speedy dash along the Overland Track. Neither of us knew what we would be in for, what to expect; it was to be a bit of an adventure in a new place. What we had not counted on was the weather.
The rain came straight down, large, heavy drops, persistent, cold, continuous. Neither of us had ever experienced such cold. Our hands were numb as we pulled up the hoods of our black, oiled cotton parkas to ready ourselves for the walk along Lake St Claire’s western shore. Being fresh from the mainland and not expecting to encounter weather quite like this, and certainly not snow, neither of us had bought gloves or mittens. Geoff Morley, the quietly spoken but experienced leader of the walk, told us to use our spare socks as gloves. It worked and feeling slowly returned to stiffened, frozen fingers.
On that first day the forest sheltered us from the worst of the weather. It was soggy underfoot and boots and socks were soon saturated. In Tasmania, tracks become waterways when it rains, we soon discovered.
By late afternoon we were sloshing across the flats towards Narcissus hut. The experienced walkers knew that the early snow and rain would raise the level of the creeks along the route and make the track muddy, slowing us down. Snowfall would likely intensify as the temperature fell, slowing us further, especially in crossing the high passes. Altogether, the prospect was for a cold, wet and arduous trip. Narcissus hut was as far as we got; the group decided to turn back the next morning.
After that early frustration, walking the Overland Track was firmly on my agenda, I just had to be patient and await the opportunity. That came two or so years later when Ian Wright, a bushwalker who later went into the adventure equipment business in Hobart, organised a trek through the park. Our party numbered 13 and over the five days we spent on the Overland Track we enjoyed good if mainly overcast weather. I was not to know that my next venture into the park would be a solo traverse.
In the forest, by the lake
We greeted each other when we met as is the custom in the mountains. They were a small group, just three, heading north either to Narcissus hut or the Du Cane Range. The first people I had met since Cradle Mountain, they were several hours out of the Derwent Bridge trailhead; I was four and a half days out of Cradle.
Intermittent rain and snow continued to fall as morning became early afternoon. Just as I had thought of climbing Cradle on my first day, so on my last day in the park I briefly entertain the idea of skirting Mt Olympus, the flat-topped range that parallels Lake St Clair on its western edge, at its northern extremity and taking the track along its western flank. Sometimes, you get these last-day bursts of foolish bravado. This was probably nothing more than an excuse to prolong my time in the mountains, but sanity prevailed and I continued along the lakeside track. The western side of the mountain is exposed to the weather and would be boggier that here, in the forest. Not that it would have mattered; my feet were already soaked, cold and verging on numbness.
It is sheltered and quiet in this cool temperate rainforest where the tall Nothofagus dominate. High above, wind whips the crowns of the trees but down here, in the half-light of a dull day, it is still. Drops and the occasional cascade falls from the trees and the cold water runs down my back. It is a toss-up whether it is better to walk with my hood up or to leave it down—one way you overheat, the other you are deluged by cold water. The track runs with several centimetres of water and I try to avoid the deeper puddles.
Part way along the lakeside track, Mt Ida projects like a mini-Matterhorn above the plateau on the eastern shore, the opposite side of the lake to where I walk through the rainforest along the Overland Track. And, here where the track opens onto the shore is tiny Echo Point hut. I stop for lunch in a grey landscape.
Some years before, we spent a Saturday night here with Cameron — a young man who was to become a ranger and develop an interest in Buddhism — and Hobart friends Dennis and Pam Elwell. Dennis had brought a black sausage with him and he gave me a piece to try. Sort of dry and strangely flavoured, I commented. Then he told me what it was made from and that was the first and last blood sausage I have ever eaten.
A small and modest structure of vertical board with a galvanised iron roof just a few metres from the shore of the lake, Echo Point hut accommodates six or so, more if they sleep on the floor. It serves mainly as a lunch stop, being too close to the roadhead for overnighting except when walkers arrive early enough to start walking well before sundown. In those circumstances, Echo Point provides the destination for an early start next day.
Perhaps it is being here alone that reminds me of meeting another solo walker at this same place some years ago. Our party was heading into Pine Valley then up into The Labyrinth. We came across him setting up tripod and camera to take a photograph of Mt Ida. He explained that, because of his odd hours working as a fireman, he had no choice but to walk solo and had come to enjoy the solitude. Fit looking, with shaven head and wearing the type of red-checked woolen shirt popular with bushwalkers of the time, he seemed an independent and self-contained sort of character though at the time I though solo walking to be a risky business.
Echo Point hut is four to five hours from the trailhead. The remaining kilometres pass as I stride out on this last leg through the forest. Somehow, I seem to go faster along this stretch and soon the end of the trail is near as I pass the junction where Rufus River flows below the foot bridge to empty into the wind-ruffled lake.
A side track climbs to the Mt Hugel-Mt Rufus circuit from here, up beside the rapids, to deposit the walker on the ridge joining the two peaks. This was another track once taken, one where, on the ridge above the treeline, our party encountered a large, black tiger snake that was reluctant to get out of our way. On that trip, we pitched tents by the tarn at the Mt Rufus campsite. By early morning it was blowing a gale and the sides of the tent were pumping in and out with the gusts, ending each expansion with a loud and ominous thwack. At two in the morning the tent became airborne and I was left, in my sleeping bag, looking up at a sky full of stars.
Tomorrow—the city, civilisation — Hobart. A reluctant return yet a welcome one. For it is always like this after a long walk—the prospect of homecoming, the promise of warmth, dryness and fresh bread and at the same time a reluctance to leave the mountains.
Walking is a fine time to daydream and I recall when, driving home from weekends in the mountains, we would stop at Lucy’s milkbar on the outskirts of Ouze, a small town on the river of the same name. Here we savoured hot chocolate milkshakes and burgers. Lucy was a portly, friendly woman used to serving cold, smelly and hungry bushwalkers. She did not hesitate when, so the story goes, Des Shields jokingly asked for a hot sardine milkshake.
Reflection – figure in a landscape
I have this vision as if seen from above. It is the Spring of 1980 and I am a figure alone in a vast landscape, pack on back, crossing Pine Forest Moor. I do not know where this image comes from or whether it has some special meaning. Were I metaphysically minded I might interpret it as presaging a change of life that would come with the decade just starting… a vision of myself walking into a new life far from the cold but beloved mountains of Tasmania.
Maybe that is to read too much into it. My journey was, after all, just a few days alone in the wilderness, a sojourn without company, a transit of Tasmania’s central highlands at a time of year that brings out few walkers. It was not that I sought escape from others — I like bushwalking in good company — it was just that, for whatever reason, a solo walk seemed a good idea at the time.
I also knew that it might well be the last opportunity to undertake such a journey, for life’s circumstances were changing and, like the wind that ruffles the surface of Lake St Clair, winds of changing were beginning to blow through my life. Was my solo journey my way of saying farewell to those mountains that had stirred my imagination, brought me out in all weathers and produced this feeling of deep affinity with them?
I had been lucky — lucky with the opportunity to make the walk, lucky with the weather, lucky to find solitude. I was less lucky that this was my last walk in Tasmania’s mountains. Soon I would pack my bag and head north in a reverse of the journey I had made nearly a decade before.