In February 2013 I ventured to move from Southern Tasmania into the middle of a scorching Far North Queensland summer. Here I find myself three-and-a-half years later, having returned to Tasmania in the midst of a harsh Tasmanian winter. What better initiation, than to hike through an elevated plateau guaranteed to serve up some of the harshest conditions in the state? Today Dad and I are driving a car each from Hobart to Lake St Clair, where (after an entirely agreeable coffee) one car is left in the carpark, the other is our transport to the northern end of the famous through walk known universally as the Overland Track. At this time of year, desirable walking weather can be difficult to come by. During our drive, a significant amount of rain plasters the region. The forecast for the next two or three days is for much less precipitation, so we have hopefully timed our departure to coincide with some relatively not-too-terrible weather.
At the Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre, a succinct, carefully managed conversation with the ranger allows us to manipulate his responses into reassurances that the weather will be tasteful over the coming days (asking the right questions to achieve favorable answers is the key to optimism). We then catch a short ride on the shuttle bus to our pre-booked accommodation at the Waldheim cabins.
Leaving behind the comfort of our luxuriously heated Waldheim cabin, our trek begins in cold misty conditions along the Cradle Valley boardwalk. In a saddle approaching Marions Lookout we obtain reasonable views of the surrounding area for a few moments, before misty conditions obscure our vision of the landscape. Continuing southward, we decide to leave Cradle Mountain for another day since the weather is not conducive to panoramic views. The snow-encompassed Kitchen Hut has a charming character and is a good place to shelter from the discomfort of a chilly Tasmanian breeze. By the time the Barn Bluff junction is reached, little has changed.
The misty conditions continue today as our journey continues southward past several tarns and lakes, before stopping at Windermere hut for lunch. After lunch our wander continues through mostly open terrain. As the afternoon wears on, it would appear that some of the giant mountains are attempting to make an appearance. The mist surrounding Mount Pelion West (ahead) and Barn Bluff (behind us) begins to dispense and we are anticipating a fine view of the other significant mountains up ahead. From Forth Valley Lookout, we get a nice clear view across to Mount Oakleigh. We mingle briefly with some of a scattered party of seven doing the track from south to north. Descending through rainforest towards Frog Flats, we stop to appreciate a dainty little waterfall. As we make our way out of the forest we are dismayed to discover that the clearing mist was little more than a teasing glimpse and that the peaks are once again shrouded in heavy mist.
There are many important considerations when undertaking a serious expedition into the wilderness. For example, one must consider carrying appropriate gear for all weather conditions: raincoats, warm clothing, sun protection, a dry change of clothes, etc.. Adequate rations must be carried including provisions for unexpected events/delays. Emergency devices from whistles to EPIRBs; navigational tools from the map and compass to GPS units. These items are all vitally important on a relatively long trip, however there is one thing far more imperative to the success of a wilderness adventure that some may overlook.
After a satisfactory freeze dried dinner (plus fresh couscous, fried mushrooms and ginger additives), our attention turns to the most important duty of the trip: The crucial task of brewing a cup of tea to the sufficient standard of competence and sophistication necessary to achieve an exquisite beverage of unparalleled texture and maturity. Whilst I've tried to provide you with an idea as to the extreme importance of the task, I still feel that the duty is often significantly understated, or even - horrifyingly - in some cases, overlooked completely. Whilst the responsibility is a daunting one, I have volunteered to shoulder the burden alone. Despite my father's extra years of experience, I feel that he lacks the maturity and commitment necessary to contrive an appropriate infusion of flavours to obtain a bold, yet subtle blend resulting in the most intense of culinary experiences. The ultimate - albeit unreachable - goal is to achieve a blend of such palatable perfection that even the gods themselves cannot drink the divine brew due to its impossible flawlessness.
Bearing the above in mind, to achieve a spicy edge to my concoction, I delicately slice a generous segment of fresh ginger into fine fragments. Preparing the ultimate cup of tea is not something that can be taught, it is an instinctive trait. However to obtain proficiency the process must be nurtured over a long period of time, spent not only in practical experimentation; but also a significant period of mediation, introspection and reflection. The best tea connoisseurs dedicate their lives to this dignified art and (astonishingly) often go unrecognized amongst the mainstream community. Using my intuition, I carefully measure out an appropriate portion of honey with the intention of providing a subtle sweetness to the brew. The task requires intense concentration - overdo the honey and the brew becomes a sickly sweet distasteful broth and is ruined beyond repair. I must admit at this stage that I am committing the ultimate sin in serious tea-brewing circles: I only have access to tea bags and not raw ingredients. After dissolving the honey into boiling water (fresh from the pure streams of Cradle Mountain National Park) and allowing the ginger to infuse, the Chai tea bags are gracefully caressed through the brew with rhythmic precision.
After another misty day on Wednesday, our hopes for some clear weather to climb Mt Ossa and possibly Mt Pelion East are not high. That is, until we awake to what appears to be a clearing Pelion Plains as the Mount Oakleigh spires rear above the morning haze. We pack up in keen anticipation of forthcoming clear skies and a commanding view from Tasmania's highest point. We remain hopeful as we traverse the gentle uphill gradient to Pelion gap. Upon arrival, Mt Ossa is teasing with fleeting glimpses of part of her extensive architecture. I'm still optimistic that as we climb her, Ossa will unveil herself, allowing us to observe fine views of a stunning panorama showcasing the surrounding wilderness.
Before leaving we remove any edible items from the top of our packs in accordance with signage suggesting that the local currawongs are capable of opening zipped pockets.
The track at the base of the mountain has been fitted with sturdy fibreglass panels in light of the erosion resulting from heavy traffic to Tasmania's highest point. As we climb higher, the snow becomes thicker and the consistency less predictable. A step may find sturdy compacted snow, or often may result in sinking to below the knee. As we climb higher into the mist, the walking becomes more strenuous through thicker snow. Dad asks me how far I want to go. To the top, obviously.
Meanwhile at Pelion Gap, the laborers have begun their shift...
"...so little food to be found in the zipped section of packs these days" one old bird could be heard croaking.
"...well if only we'd developed the ability to open buckles" squawked a cynical manager to his hardworking operatives. This seemingly innocent statement carried subtle overtones of a race still deeply haunted by an extremely complex and troubled history.
"Perhaps we should travel back in time and alter the course of our development to allow us the ability to access buckles" screeched a mischievous young laborer, this time in a less-than-subtle expression of contempt for his controversial currawong predecessors. And suddenly the ongoing ethical debate was on yet again for young and old.
The gathering was shocked into silence when a particularly ignorant old, uneducated currawong spoke up: "Why don't we just travel back in time and create the conditions necessary for the currawongs to become the dominant race on this inhospitable planet?" For any bird with a kindergarten equivalent education new the answer to this, as it was a well-known fact amongst the currawong community that nature had intended just this to take place. When currawongs quickly advanced to a sufficient level of intelligence and time-travel was discovered, birds were sent back to undo the evils wrought upon the world by currawong supremacy. The only way to prevent a relapse of evil was to handicap the race sufficiently to disallow their ascendancy to domination. And so, steering the evolutionary direction of the planet, the currawongs chose the most slow, useless, harmless race to gain supremacy: humans. As we have seen, it took man a tremendous amount of time to develop anything resembling intelligence, thus allowing nature to exist more or less without undue influence from one dominant species. It is only recently, after a significantly preposterous period of time that man has developed to such a level that he can have an advantage over his co-existing species and thus do any serious damage to the planet.
Obviously, all sorts of conspiracy theories still exist amongst the currawong community suggesting that the secret to time-travel has been preserved and is being kept secret by a select group of powerful currawongs, who, when the planet doesn't develop as they intend, simply step back in time and reconfigure parameters to steer the world in a direction that is in accordance with their ideals. This small group of conspiracy theorists are given little credit and largely considered complete nutters who live on the fringes of currawong society.
We continue to wade, slip and stumble up the steep slopes before coming to a particularly exposed saddle. At just over 1500m, I concede that the mist is not going to clear and I question whether an ascent to the summit is really worth it. Dad pounces on my indecision and we turn around to find a relatively sheltered spot to photograph the occasion. As I'm putting away the camera, the wind picks up and snow starts to fall. We make our descent through a combination of controlled and uncontrolled sliding down the slope.
At Pelion Gap, the precipitation is closer to rain than snow, and all that remains is to make our way from the plateau down to Kia Ora Hut where we are captivated by the tantalizing prospect of another agreeable brew in front of the LPG heater. Here we meet a solo walker hiking the track, beginning at Lake St Clair. I did suggest to Dad in the planning stages that this direction should be considered a viable alternative, but it was quickly laughed off as a highly unorthodox way to experience the Overland Track. We have now discovered that the direction in which we are traversing is highly unfashionable amongst seasoned Overland trekkers, and almost could be considered somewhat inferior by walkers who have completed the track several times.
Several years ago, whilst doing his regular run of the outdoor stores in town, my father was talked into buying a waterproof jacket incorporating the latest and greatest moisture control technology. The coat came with a long booklet full of useful graphs showing the superiority of the fabric in a number of areas. Here a graph shows that the jacket is more buoyant than its competitors; more aerodynamic at supersonic velocities; has a higher tolerance to gamma radiation; a superior compressive capacity; etc.; the product is also suitable for persons with peanut allergies and dairy intolerances. Over the page, a figure claims that up to seventeen times the amount of baby koalas are saved by wearing this product in preference to other competitors; global poverty is decreased by up to four percent; human conflicts reduce by a factor of ten; universal pollution is reduced exponentially; and the product also comes in a really lovely variety of snazzy colours.
Each coat is individually hand-crafted by an expert German seamstress before being blessed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in Northern India; it is then taken to the summit of Mount Everest and buried in three feet of 'holy snow' before being uncovered as a sacred garment; after which the product is shipped to China for packaging complete with the prestigious made in China sticker. The crunch line is that the wizz-bang amazing new fabric is x-percent more breathable than the tried and true gortex. After some trial, I asked dad how his technologically advanced coat was, to which his reply could be interpreted to be translated as 'somewhere in the vicinity of fabulous'. And so, given that the coat had passed the test, I went and bought one for myself.
As I lie in bed listening to heavy bursts of rain batter against our robust shelter during the early hours of the morning, I am not particularly proud to own the most aerodynamic coat on the market. Don't get me wrong, whilst this feature has not yet come in handy, it may one day save my life. However, given the choice, I might just prefer something a little more water resistant than the moisture absorbing fabric in which my coat is comprised.
Come time to get up, the weather is gloomy, but the rain has eased to a consistent drizzle. To add to the somber mood, I cannot find my dried apricots. It then dawns on me that I must have left them in the top section of my pack, thereby entrusting them to the care of the impertinent currawong community.
In a demonstration of optimism, Dad and I agree that this weather could be close to ideal for waterfall day. So, leaving our shelter amidst heavily cloudy conditions once again, we set off in pursuit of inspiration. The track could easily be described as a stream (if not a river), but we are grateful that the worst of the precipitation appears to have occurred during the night. The first waterfall we visit is Fergusson Falls. The volume of water flowing down the falls is immense. The powerful flow roars down the precipice before crashing into a large rock below, causing a significant quantity of water to spray into the air. We are awestruck by a scene of enormous power caused by the mysterious beauty of mother nature.
We then visit D'Alton Falls by making a somewhat dubious crossing over a flooded creek. Similarly, the waterfall gives the impression of great power from the sheer volume of water flowing through the catchment area. Our last waterfall is Hartnett Falls, which does not disappoint. This is perhaps the most "conventional" of the three. The aspect of the falls is almost symmetric and looks like a classic waterfall image. Again, a huge flow of water creates an impression of great power in comparison with our feeble human bodies.
By the time we have observed the third waterfall we are wet and cold. We ascend through the unrelenting drizzle to Du Cane Gap, allowing ourselves to briefly reminisce our adventure in different conditions when we descended from Falling Mountain six months earlier. A short period of time later we are relieved to reach Bert Nichols Hut, where we immediately change into warm dry clothes and fire up the stove to prepare a brew. Ideally we would have walked through to Narcissus Hut today, but given the lack of weather protection provided by our aerodynamic coats, we decided to appease our screaming bodies the discomfort of another few hours in cool wet conditions.
The gas heater in Bert Nichols Hut is not working, so we hang our wet gear in the 'drying room' and hope that the Tasmanian wind will sympathise with the poor, cold little fellow who's spent the better part of three-and-a-half years in Far North Queensland.
The night is still, but the temperature is below freezing. We stumble outside to discover a deep layer of fresh fluffy snow! We have mixed feelings about the delightful scene before us. On the one hand, the fresh white powder is such a magnificent spectacle covering everything in sight. On the other hand, we are a bit apprehensive about the walking conditions, as we've never trekked in such an abundance of fresh uncompacted snow before. The water in the tanks is frozen and so we have to collect snow to melt for a brew. Until you have tried this, you don't really appreciate how airy fresh snow really is. After several pots full of snow are melted for breakfast and drinking, we decide to attempt to walk to Narcissus Hut. Inspecting our clothes in the 'drying room', we discover that our wet sleeves, socks, shoelaces, etc. have frozen solid. Cursing the unsympathetic Tasmanian breeze, we change into our wet, frozen gear and prepare ourselves for a frosty trek in the wild. With my boots on, my feet are in pain and feel like they are swelling inside my frozen socks. I remove my footwear and Dad vigorously massages my feet until the numbness fades and my feet are a tolerable temperature again. Now that my socks have thawed sufficiently, I am able to redress my feet and we are ready to face the harsh conditions outside.
The majestic white winter wonderland on display should be enough to drive me to ecstasy. Yet, as I approach Narcissus Hut I am somewhat unhappy. Why is this the case? Am I craving apricots to the point of desperation? Has the snow subconsciously reminded me of some suppressed childhood trauma involving time-travelling currawongs, or perhaps something that (as a result of time-travel) didn't actually happen at all? Do the snow covered ferns droop in such a way that they are shaped to mimic a certain impertinent species of bird? Perhaps I am harboring a bitter grudge against a prospering population that is eating away at my insides? As we close in on Narcissus, we come upon another soul clearing the drooping trees from the track with a swish of his trekking poles. Soon we find ourselves inside the hut with a gas heater going as we change into warm, dry attire. Suddenly it all becomes abundantly clear: The source of my displeasure stems merely from the fact that I am wet and cold. Now that my core temperature has increased to something reasonable, I am rather content - especially once I have an exquisite mug of tea at my disposal.
The man doing the clearing turns out to be none other than the well-travelled Tasmanian-European Tony. As it turns out, Tony happens to be a passionate flanker from the Rugby-crazed nation of Spain. In our excitement, we almost pack down into a scrum; before we realise that we are missing the three front rowers, and the two locks (if we assume that we could cover the two flankers and the number eight between the three of us). Further reflection causes us to realise that we are lacking an opposition pack, although it is suggested that the technique required to barge through the snow-covered drooping ferns across the track is not dissimilar to mauling through an opposition forward line on a cold, wet, misty evening at Eden Park.
The morning is remarkably still and relatively clear. The three of us wander down to the jetty to enjoy the snow laden surrounds. This is our first uninterrupted view of the surrounding mountains - and what a view it is! We take particular pleasure in the sight of a snowy Mount Olympus and Mount Ida; until the clearing clouds from Mount Gould capture our attention. The shapely figure of Mount Gould is firmly entrenched in our memories form our previous excursion in the summer. The snow capped Mount Gould commands our gaze and draws the attention of my camera lens. As of six months ago, we are once again absorbed by the beauty of this attractive mountain on the horizon.
We arise before sunrise and wander down to the jetty. A patchy sky doesn't do enough to hide the delightful silhouette of Mount Ida. Another still morning suggests relatively comfortable walking conditions for our home run to Cynthia Bay before our long drive to Hobart via Cradle Mountain. We efficiently organise ourselves in preparation for the final day of our Overland adventure and set off in good time. After negotiating a few fallen trees within the first kilometre or so of Echo Point, the track opens up and walking conditions become extremely comfortable. Most of the snow has melted from the trees, resulting in a relatively dry stroll home. All that remains is to reflect on another Tasmanian wilderness adventure that promised much and once again exceeded our lofty expectations.