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That’s it. I’m done. I’m done with working my life away so I can barely afford a room in a musty Sydney terrace surrounded by 24-hour car horns and drunk, fighting couples. I’m smashing my iPhone, packing a single change of socks in a backpack and moving into the deep, still quiet of the Tasmanian wilderness.
At least, I would, if I wasn’t such a soft-bodied, weak-willed inner-city type. Because as glorious as it is to drink pure icy water from alpine rivers, chew pepper berry and sassafras leaves straight off the tree and have your life priorities boil down to basics like food and sleep, living the hiking life is – if you’ll pardon the phrase – no walk in the park.
I was in Tasmania to tackle the Overland Track; a six-day, 65 kilometre hike through the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park; the best alpine wilderness Australia has to offer. That’s not Tourism Tasmania hyperbole, either. That’s an internationally recognised accolade. Tasmania’s wilderness is one of only two places in the world to tick seven of UNESCO’s World Heritage criteria (the other one’s a culturally significant forest in China).
It’s one of the only places in the world with living evidence of the time when Tasmania was connected to the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland. At Fossil Beach on Pelion Plain you’ll find a creek filled with fossils of shallow-water tropical plant-life and coral, remnants from the distant time when that land was somewhere up near the equator.
In the damp cool-temperate rainforest you’ll find King Billy Pines (Athrotaxis selaginoides) that have survived fires to grow immense over thousands of years. And you’ll walk through eucalyptus-forested valleys that were carved out by giant glaciers more than 10,000-years-ago in Australia’s last Ice Age (the Pleistocene), as evidenced by the random glacial erratics: huge boulders that hitch-hiked rides on glaciers and were left in the strangest places.
But you don’t even need these hard facts to understand that you’re in an ancient and special place; one look at the tangled forests dotted with weirdly-tropical Pandani palms and you’re transported onto the set of The Land Before Time (and, occasionally, the moon of Endor).
The Overland Track is rightfully famous. Over the course of each 10-kilometre-odd day, you’ll pass through two to five different types of scenery. Rock-strewn mountain top tracks. Forests carpeted in moss, lichen and colourful fungi. Bucolic button grass meadows. Cold, tranquil rainforest trails pitted with knotty roots and mud bogs. Never-ending sub-alpine plains dotted with trees and shrubs hunched over against the merciless wind. If you like (and you really should), you’ll get to climb Tasmania’s highest peak Mt Ossa and at the end you can swim in Australia’s deepest (and almost definitely coldest) natural water body, Lake St Clair.
Because the stretch of wilderness the Overland Track runs through is so unique and fragile, everyone who walks it has to observe a strict ‘leave no trace’ policy. The Tasmanian Walking Company is the only private operator licensed to run walking tours on the Overland. When the state government put out a tender in 1985 for a private company to build huts in the Park, they won with their unobtrusive, sustainable ethos and hut design.
And what huts they are. The company’s website sold the experience as offering comfortable private huts with three-course, locally sourced meals and quality Tassie wines, but nothing quite beats the relief and luxury of walking into a gas-heated cabin at the end of an 11-hour day spent walking in the wet, to find hot showers, private bedrooms and a table laden with scones, jam, cream and Pinot Noir.
The operation is run with military efficiency: supplies are choppered in throughout the season, waste is choppered back out. Walkers depart pretty much every day and tick their way through the huts, gently coaxed along by two guides who are the resident chefs, educators, First Aid providers and morale boosters when things get tough.
Each group takes up to ten people, which means you’ll be spending six days in very close proximity with complete strangers. Besides our guides Andy and Matt – two genial, nature-loving dudes in their 20s – and my girlfriend and I, our group had a demographic straight out of Agatha Christie: two retired couples in their 60s; the action-man pairing of an English expat dad and his teenage son; and an intrepid, pregnant American banker hitting five continents before becoming a mother. Happily, everyone survived the trip.
Maybe we got lucky – or maybe it’s the way a touch of adversity can bond a group together – but our crew gelled rapidly. From awkward small talk at the first night’s dinner, we progressed (or regressed) to ribald jokes, rollicking laughter and gentle teasing over the five nights out. Some of the best times on the entire trip were the sessions of after-dinner table banter, lubricated by exhaustion and good wine.
The first day of walking was the toughest: after a 6am start and a quick briefing and packing session, we landed at the head of the trail: Waldheim Chalet, a recreated wooden hut built alpine-style in the 1910s by Austrian Gustav Weindorfer and his Tasmanian wife Kate. (Weindorfer wooed her by taking her on five week botanical expeditions out in the woods, living in a leaky tent and eating wombat stew.)
The Weindorfers are pivotal in the history of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, as they lobbied the Tasmanian government tirelessly to have the area protected as a National Park so everyone could enjoy it long into the future. They succeeded in 1922 and were among the first to provide lodging for visitors to explore the wilds.
Leaving Waldheim Chalet, we climbed through drizzle and thick fog up the near-vertical route to Mt Marion, skirted around the side of Cradle Mountain, past the immense rocky outcrop of Barn’s Bluff, with its halo of cloud, and dropped down into Waterfall Valley to find the first hut. But we were lucky: that first day brought the worst weather of the trip, and we managed to escape the storied Tassie downpours. The next five days provided either warm overcast weather or cloudless skies and sunshine.
It’s hard to imagine how people survived long ago in the dead of winter, when the cold is brutal and the snow piles metres deep – but they did. Indigenous Australians lived in the area that’s now National Park for millennia before white people arrived, and at least 60,000 years before Gore-Tex was invented. There are a few remaining sites with evidence of their ancient occupancy dotted around Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair, but the Parks Service keeps their location closely guarded.
We’re told the tale of the early bush trapper Paddy Hartnett and his wife Lucy, who lived and worked together deep in the wilderness around the turn of the century, and whose rickety bush hut still stands. Paddy Hartnett – a charismatic drunkard, history says – was another of the first settlers to welcome tourists into the wilderness, giving them lodging and guiding them on walks.
His wife Lucy was even more impressive: besides raising their infant son in the bush, she also acted as the muscle, going into town to collect what they were owed for lucrative animal skins after Paddy’s market trips inevitably ended in him getting pissed and ripped off. She eventually packed in the wilderness lifestyle, the story goes, after she and her son had to hide behind the hessian door of their hut while Thylacines (Tasmanian Tigers) tore apart their dinner – a strung-up Wallaby carcass – outside.
The Thylacines may be long hunted into extinction, but make no mistake: the Tasmanian wilderness is still not to be trifled with. It’s epic in both scenery and scale, and if you injure yourself and can’t walk any further the only way out is by helicopter, as we discovered on the second last day.
A stumble, a bashed knee and a climb up and down a mountain were all it took to swell my girlfriend Sarah’s knee to twice its intended size. The next day she could barely walk, let alone negotiate knotted and gnarled tracks of roots and rocks.
Happily, everyone who visits Tasmania is covered for chopper evacuations. Unhappily, they tend to only be used if your condition is life threatening or you physically can’t walk at all. But after downing some pain killers, emptying her pack, strapping the knee with a brace and learning how to use trekking poles, Sarah made it stiff-kneed through the fifth and sixth days, earning major kudos, but losing a free chopper ride.
Six days of wilderness trekking delivered all kinds of natural wonders: alpine lakes, enchanted forests, weird flora, and even the rare sighting of an actual platypus in the wild on day four, waddling off the path and through the undergrowth for a good 20 seconds.
But one undisputed highlight for everyone in the group was climbing Tasmania’s highest peak Mt Ossa on the third day. The ascent meant a steep walk – and occasional rock climbing – up a scree slope between two rocky outcrops. The stairway to Mordor, as our guides put it.
It was a heart-in-your-mouth climb at times, but the summit more than made up for the effort in getting there: gigantic mountain ranges stacked one behind the other as far as the horizon, and not a human structure in sight (save for the white dot of the caravan owned by the Parks Service path maintenance guys, Old Rob and Young Rob).
At 1,617 metres above sea level, Ossa’s only a baby sibling to the 2,228 metre tall Mt Kosciuszko in the Snowy Mountains, but it’s a much more impressive experience than Australia’s tallest peak. The summit of Kosciuszko rises like an oversized rocky hill from its surrounding alpine range, but Mt Ossa stands tall in solitude, giving its summit the feel of a truly unassailable mountain peak that you could, with a bit of bad luck, fall straight off. It’s genuinely awe-inspiring.
Climbing mountains might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some of the guests, but it’s a quiet day at work for the guides, and a trifle compared to some of the feats of derring-do that we wrangled out of them over six days.
For instance, the 17-year-old Tassie-born guide proved herself on an early trip by carrying an oven door to a hut, strapped to her already-full pack. Or there was the fitness freak guide who was worried about getting less fit while working the trail, so he’d wake up way before dawn to run up and down the nearest mountain before making everyone porridge. Or, best of all, the member of the management team who went to work a season on the snowfields and decided to save money by living in a remote igloo for the entire time. (“Aw yeah, probably wouldn’t do it again,” was his reported assessment of the experience.)
So yes, to do the Overland Track as a job you need to be extremely tough, and probably a little insane. But to do it as a guest on a guided walk, you can be as decadent and soft as you like. All you need is enough fitness to be able to walk for about eight hours a day, plenty of Voltaren for sore muscles, and maybe some painkillers. A personal masseuse would also be handy, but not essential.
If you’re not already a committed hiker and camper, the guided walk might ruin you for independent hiking. It’s hard to go back to tents and camp food when you’ve had the luxury version. But you’re also guaranteed to get bitten by the walking bug and finish the trip plotting when you can next get the hell out of the city, maybe to tackle the other Bay of Fires guided walk along the beaches of Tasmania’s north-east coast.
If you do book something in, take me with you. Please.
(The author travelled as a guest of Tasmanian Walking Company and Tourism Tasmania. Photos provided and author’s own.)
The six-day Cradle Mountain Huts Walk starts $3300 per person twin share, more info here.