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Adventure

Not over it yet, the Overland Track Tasmania

Adventures

If you think Tasmania’s Overland Track has been walked – and talked about – so much now that it might nearly be classified as passe, you’d be mistaken

As one of Australia' most iconic and well-trekked multi-day walks, the Overland Track may seem like it's a crowd favourite. But it's iconic for a reason, and the crowds are relative. 

Here are two options for walking the Overland - in summer and winter.

Winter

Gregg Haythorpe

The warning on the official Overland Track map has this statement: “The Overland Track is a serious undertaking. The weather can change quickly and without warning. Snow, ice and low cloud can be expected at any time of the year…"

So you may well ask if the above warning applies all year round, why on earth would you want to tackle the track in winter, when snow and ice is almost guaranteed?

I had two simple reasons. Firstly it was the very challenge that the winter conditions would provide, and secondly was the absence of a trekking crowd.

The Overland Track in the heart of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area has a worldwide reputation that is fully deserved, but therein lays one of its negatives; some 8000 people from all around Australia and the world walk the track each year.

That’s a lot of boots on the ground even when spread over the track’s 70km length. In fact, in season (1 October-31 May), a booking system applies with payment in advance and walkers must walk the track from north to south (Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair).

One of the real joys of trekking is the sense of escape and solitude, far from the madding crowd. I’m more than happy to meet and greet a few like-minded souls along the way but in high season on the Overland Track you’re just one of hundreds, and that takes some of the gloss off it.

To experience the Overland Track with the added challenge of walking it in winter, Tasmanian Expeditions was to be my guide. Tas Ex is part of the respected World Expeditions family of companies, and has been in continuous operation for more than 30 years.

Tasmanian weather

For our winter overland journey we had a mid-July departure from Launceston. Highlighting how the weather can be a real factor in Tassie’s winter, my flight from Melbourne was held over Launceston for nearly one hour due to fog, and after one failed landing attempt we were diverted to Devonport. So my Overland Track experience started with a reminder about changeable weather and a bus trip from Devonport to Launceston.

The day prior to the trek, Tas Ex puts on a pre-departure briefing in town. This is also an opportunity for a gear check and a chance to meet our guides and fellow hikers. We were a total of eight, two guides and six keen but a little apprehensive trekkers. The two guides, Darren and Ken, were both very experienced with dozens of Overland Tracks under their belts. As for the rest of us mad ones, we were all from Australia; three mates from Queensland (Trevor, Kel and Des), Duncan from Sydney, Margo from Denmark in WA and lastly my good self from Melbourne.

These briefings are important but also great ice breakers and by the time we had checked our gear and distributed the group equipment to be carried, we were feeling comfortable in each other’s company. The packs carried on this winter journey are full, weighing in around 20-24kg. We each carried a share of the food, and there were also food drops along the route to lighten the load.

The snow had been falling in Tasmania for a number of days prior to our departure and the mountains south of Launceston were covered in the white stuff but, as Ken pointed out, “that’s what we had all come for in the first place”.

It’s a three-hour coach trip from Launceston to the start point at Cradle Mountain National Park. Even though we were out of season and could travel the Overland Track in either direction, we opted for the traditional north-south route. Apart from Launceston being home base for Tas Ex, the guides also pointed out that the most challenging day on track would be day one, with the biggest climb. The logic was we’d all be in peak physical condition at the start.

Cradle Mountain was very much under snow and with poor visibility, but as we arrived we were all dead keen to hit the track. Over lunch someone came up with the observation that, being eight in number and with one female, we should call ourselves Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs… a little corny, but it seemed like a good group name at the time. We guys spent the rest of the trek debating who was which dwarf, Dopey in particular not being a popular choice.

Our guides checked the track conditions and the weather forecast with the Cradle Mountain National Park Rangers opted to leave the snow shoes behind to save weight. A final check of equipment and we were good to go.

Waterfall Valley Hut

I won’t give you a blow-by-blow diary rundown of our journey south, but I will give you a feel for our day one. Even now, some months later, it’s a vivid memory and very much what the Overland Track in winter is all about. Our target was Waterfall Valley Hut, a distance of about 11km. Even taking into account the climb to Marion’s Lookout (1250m) and the steepest section on the Overland Track, this leg of the track would normally take most people around about four hours. It took us nearly seven hours.

We had no problems at the start and passing Crater Lake, and while the climb up to Marions Lookout was a little tougher it was no real drama. But then it all changed and the track became a very different beast.

The snow had formed deep drifts which made for a very testing few hours. We were at times knee deep on the track… and trying to stay on the track was not easy. Our guides did most of the hard work forging the way while we tried to follow in their boot prints.

Falling over, as we all did on many occasions, usually had a soft landing but getting back on one’s feet with a heavy pack in soft snow was a hard slog. In hindsight, there were some sections where snowshoes would have been useful, but it was a mixed bag of terrain and taking them on and off would have added time and effort.

The final descent into the spectacular Waterfall Valley was most welcome and the hut looked very inviting. Some of us had intentions of pitching tents on the sleeping platforms that first night, but nobody had the energy.

As we sat by the fire and enjoyed a late dinner, our guides told us that it had been one of the toughest days they had led; true or not, we felt better hearing that, and were all in bed by 9pm – seven tired dwarfs and SW.

Pelion Plains

The next day we were all a little stiff and sore, leaving us wondering how we would survive the next six days. As the saying goes, it was all downhill from there.

Sure, we had some more snow and early morning ice, and more climbs, but nothing like the tough test that was day one. We soon relaxed and started to enjoy the track and its many changing faces; glaciated landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, moorlands and rainforests. Our guides imparted information on the region’s European and indigenous history, and its amazing flora and fauna.

We even bumped into a few other mad hikers, but never more than four or five in a group.

We spent day four resting at Pelion Hut and, apart from a short side trip to Old Pelion Hut, we just relaxed. That evening we were feeling very pleased with our efforts to date and were looking forward to the track’s last sections. We had just finished dinner when we heard footsteps along the veranda; a couple of late arrivals we thought, just making it in before darkness.

Through the door came two girls in their late-teens, Jess and Suzie. We told them what bedrooms were vacant but their response amazed us. “Oh no, we aren’t staying,” they said. “Just a quick meal and we’re on our way.”

It had taken us three days to reach Pelion Plains and we had three days to go. The girls had started at Cradle Mountain that morning with the aim to complete the track within 24 hours, fundraising for their school. We found out later that they made it, and within time.

Their dads were also trekking about two hours behind as back-up, but they looked far wearier than their girls when they passed by Pelion Hut later that night.
Although not nearly as quick as Jess and Suzie, we felt pretty good about completing the Overland Track in seven days in winter.

The track’s ever changing beauty is one of its greatest attractions; with low cloud and fog winter does at times reduce the stunning panoramas available in the warmer months, but the alpine moors and buttongrass plains with their rugged mountain backdrops are simply magical.

The Overland is a special experience and one that I highly recommend. If winter is not for you then tackle the track in a milder season. Tas Ex put on a great trip – guides, food and equipment are first class – but in the end it’s the magnificent World Heritage Area that makes the Overland Track a unique and special destination.

The essentials

Skills: No special skills needed other than good fitness.

Gear: To do this trek in winter you need to take good quality winter clothing. A good tip is to take a short sleeve padded down jacket, which is great for evening wear around camp and doubles as a pillow for sleeping.

More info: Tasmanian Expeditions can help with any questions. Call 1300 666 856 or check the website at www.tasmanianexpeditions.com.au.

***

Summer

Andrew Bain

In years of hiking in Tasmania, I’ve never stood on the summit of Cradle Mountain in sunshine. Cloud, snow and rain have unfailingly substituted for views. But as we begin walking from Waldheim Chalet, the sky is a perfect sheet of blue.

A long, hot Tasmanian summer has burnt on into autumn, and through the buttongrass and pandani of the Cradle Valley, the ground crunches underfoot where it might normally splash.

Crater Falls trickle rather than tumble through a pocket of rainforest, and the first faint blush of autumn is tinting the deciduous nothofagus.

From a peak bagger’s perspective, Tasmania’s Overland Track is a flawed concept. Strung through one of the finest mountain landscapes in the country, Australia’s most famous bushwalk climbs not a single peak, contenting itself to meander through valleys and across plateaus and low passes.

It’s an oversight easily corrected with a side trip or two to the surrounding mountain tops, though I’ve come to the Overland to take it a step (or a summit) further. On a new track experience from Cradle Mountain Huts called Climb Every Mountain, walkers can climb a near-handful of side peaks as they hike the Overland Track.

Over the six days I’m here, it’s my hope to scale four of the mountains that frame the track, adding a degree of difficulty and leg fatigue that should be amply rewarded by the views, the achievement and the fine food and wine that will await at the end of each day.

Views from Cradle Mountain

Taken by itself, the Overland Track its highest point – around 1250m above sea level – a few steps beyond Marions Lookout, after just a couple of hours of walking. To us, however, this high point is a platform from which we can see two of our goals – Cradle Mountain and Barn Bluff. Pinched between them, almost 70km away, is the faint but distinctive figure of Frenchmans Cap.

Near Kitchen Hut, we drop packs and begin the climb to the first of our mountain goals: Cradle Mountain. By virtue of its fame, Cradle is one of the most popular mountain climbs in Tassie, but far from the easiest. Its slopes and gullies are littered with boulders, and the rocks and the steps get bigger and more gymnastic as I climb.

Along the summit ridge, fingers of dolerite stand in orderly disorder, arranged by nature into virtual plantations of rock. Shadows blow on and off the summit as cloud begins to mass, but I’ve finally been granted my Cradle view.

“This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been,” murmurs Jane, one of my walking companions, as she looks out over a scene that encompasses most of the Overland Track and almost a week of our ambition.

Among the orbit of mountains around us, Barn Bluff rises as a fin of rock, Mt Oakleigh bristles with dolerite spires, and Mt Ossa and Mt Pelion West carve at the sky in the distance. Each one is potentially on our climbing radar.

Barns Bluff

This first day is typical of the days ahead – long, exhausting, satisfying. They are standard Overland Track days, with mountain climbs thrown in as party tricks. There are luxuries in the huts – wine, showers, freshly baked bread, venison and wallaby sausages, beds we don’t have to carry – but it’s luxury for which we must work.

To reach Barn Bluff from the hut on its slopes, we must first backtrack, circling as though sizing up this mountain that looks designed to repel idle summiteers like us. Rain sifts over the land, and it’s unclear whether we’ll make it to our goal this day, or be foiled by slippery rock.

There’s talk of turning back, but this is Climb Every Mountain, not Climb Every Mountain Except Those with a Few Spots of Rain, so we press on. The approach to the mountain is simple enough, traversing the lip of Barn Bluff Cirque, but around the base of Barn Bluff’s summit escarpment it’s a scene of natural violence, with the mountain’s dolerite shattered over millennia into enormous blocks of rock.

Over these boulders we ascend, until we’re engulfed by Barn Bluff’s escarpment. The faint trail funnels up tight gullies, and we climb like contortionists to the fractured, bouldery summit, which stands just 14m higher than Cradle Mountain, and yet feels somehow so much wilder.

Icy wind and rain pummel the summit, so we don’t linger, quickly returning to the Overland Track and our journey south. From Waterfall Valley, at the foot of Barn Bluff, the track enters an interim period of sorts, crossing from the isolated nunataks of Cradle Mountain and Barn Bluff to the broader ranges of Mt Ossa, Pelion West and the Du Cane Range.

It’s a section that seems to have almost as much water as earth, with lakes pooled across the land. Pencil pines colour the buttongrass plains. But still it’s the mountains ahead that dominate the scene, drawing us forward towards another day and another mountain, even after nine hours on our feet this day.

“Still, it wasn’t as tough as I’d been losing sleep over,” says John, who later confesses that he signed onto this more adventurous of Cradle Mountain Huts’ trips only by accident.

Pelion West

In the hut, there are few people walking without a hobble after two long days; even coffee is powerless against lethargy. We have two options for this day: climb Mt Oakleigh, or ascend partway up Mt Pelion West. It’s thrown to the vote, which splits down the middle; it’s a hung mountain parliament. Democracy swings to the weaker and we opt for the shoulder of Pelion West.

It’s no bad thing. Of all the mountains directly accessible from the Overland Track, Pelion West may be the least trodden and the most difficult, its summit ridge covered in boulders so big they make the tops of Barn Bluff and Cradle Mountain look like gravel beds.

From the obscure Pelion West track junction, we push through trees and scrub before finally rising out of the trees into subalpine scrub. Coral ferns lattice the ground, and the summit above is armoured in dolerite.

We stop on the shoulder of Pelion West, just before the mountain steepens dramatically. What the shoulder lacks in altitude it doesn’t miss in views, staring out through the cleft of the Forth Valley, with Barn Bluff and Cradle Mountain on the horizon, and Mt Achilles, Mt Thetus, Mt Ossa and Pelion East in a queue ahead.

It’s far from the roughest day at the office.

Mt Ossa

If there’s a single peak that Overland Track hikers want to climb, it’s invariably 1617m Mt Ossa, and we’re no different. It’s said that from the summit of Tasmania’s highest mountain you can see one-third of the state and just two man-made structures. Stand here on a clear day and you truly get the essence of Tasmania. Today looks unlikely to be that day.

At dawn, the land is compressed beneath mist, and an overnight storm has freshened the rainforest on the climb to Pelion Gap, cleaning and greening the canopy and the moss beneath, but stealing the mountains from view.
By the time we reach Pelion Gap, the cloud is beginning to crack open, and the day’s as still as meditation.

With our ambition to stand atop Tasmania refreshed after yesterday’s lighter climb, we drop packs and begin up the steep slopes of Mt Ossa.

It’s a climb into cloud, which blankets us as we rise over the rocky ridge that is the mountain’s crux. The summit is now just 20 minutes ahead, across a plateau veined with cushion plants.

On the summit, we sit inside a ring of boulders, shielded from wind, and we wait. Cloud teases with the possibility of clearing, but it never quite delivers. Finally it becomes too cold to continue the vigil and we descend, stepping down from the clouds and back into the valleys.

Less than 24 hours from now we’ll be at the edge of the Mersey Valley rainforest, with the sun lashing down and the usual bottleneck of Overland Track hikers forming at Du Cane Hut.

Every one of them will have their own personal ambitions, but ours will be mostly behind us, on summits like Ossa and Barn Bluff.

We haven’t climbed every mountain, but we’ve had a fair crack at it.

The essentials

The adventure: Cradle Mountain Huts’ Climb Every Mountain is a six-day trip, staying in the company’s private huts and climbing side peaks on each of the first four days. You’ll need to be able to walk up to eight or nine hours a day.

When: Trips run from October through to April.

More info: For details about Climb Every Mountain, see cradle huts website.

For general details about the Overland Track, see the Parks & Wildlife Service website.