Overland Track

After a bit of a rest after my long bike ride from Adelaide to Melbourne I made a plan to do another trip. First I thought I should go somewhere sunny and warm like Darwin for the annual Darwin festival or Queensland for the Great Barrier Reef but somehow I found myself packing my hiking gear and boarding the ferry to Tasmania.
The ferry itself was pretty swank and I had an amusing crossing entertained by Kylie a circus performer on her way back home to Hobart after a work stint in Perth. We cruised the nearly empty boat through the dark night making friends with Gem a camel driver and a couple whose names I forget now but all were en route to Hobart. I almost went with them to the capital which would have delayed my planned hike across the Overland Track but at the last moment after breakfast in Devonport I decided to stay at the north end of the island and prepare for a trip.

After a couple of days in Devonport waiting for a day when the bus service went up to Cradle Mountain at the north end of the Overland Track I was finally ready and on my way on this classic trek. I hitched a ride from the Park office up to the trailhead and as the rain began to pour I had lunch in the deluxe shuttle bus shelter. After signing in and finishing up lunch there was little more to let me procrastinate so it was out in to the downpour and around Dove Lake.

To call the trail ‘Overland’ this particular day was a misnomer. I’m not sure that even on Vancouver Island I have ever seen so much water pouring across the ground. It was more of a ‘Thruwater’ track. There are a number of options to start the Overland Track and I chose the one that had the shortest distance to the first hut, the Scott-Kilvert hut about a 2.5 hour hike.

I arrived at the hut to find it deserted, I shed my soaked clothes and struggled for a couple of hours to light the coal fueled stove. Sometime in the night the storm took a change in pitch and as I made for the door for a leak I knew it would be snowing and sure enough there was already a good 4 inches or so settled.

By morning there was more like a foot so it was an easy decision to stay put and read my thick book huddled next to the weak warmth of the coal stove.

The day went by uneventfully. I did strap the snowshoes on for a wander around in between squalls. Oh did I mention I took snowshoes? Well thank the stars I did as you’ll hear…

So the second day went by and another night, this time I managed to keep the coal alight through the night and the hut was fairly comfortable. I read my book all day and made a short foray along the next section of the trail to suss it out. Next day it was still snowing but as the day went on the weather seemed to be brightening up. So like a lemming I packed up and headed out to see if I could make it… somewhere, anywhere but another night in the same place.

At first the travelling wasn’t too bad, I eventually put the snowshoes on and began a long climb up to a shoulder south of Cradle Mountain en route to the Waterfall Valley hut. It was a slog to get on to the ridge with the last 100 m or so taking for ever as I waded up in chest deep snow. Once on the exposed ridge crest though the snow was firmer and I made good time to the trail junction I was looking for. The track was covered in snow but there are tall wands marking the route poking out of the snow.

Quickly the snow conditions reverted to atrocious and I abandoned my plan to go to the Waterfall Valley hut and instead headed toward the Kitchen Hut making an encircelment of Cradle Mountain. Now I was facing a night out in the tent on a slope that looked like a cross between the Scottish Cairngorms and the Antarctic Plateau! After struggling along the route for an hour or so I knew it was going to get dark soon so I settled on a wierd looking depression among some bushes and stomped out a bit of a platfrom with the snowshoes. Slowly a pad took shape but it was springy as much of the snow was packed on top of buried bushes. Eventually I got the tent up in an acceptable fashion and settled in for the night.

Mercilfully the winds of the past few days didn’t materialize and I spent a reasonable night hoping the weather would stay in the simply gross category and not revert to the screaming blizzard I had so smugly avoided in the hut over the past few days.

Next morning was still okay, low cloud and a few gusts and spinning snow but otherwise tolerable. I packed and hoofed back up to the track. I have to describe now how bad the snow conditions were and if you’ve picked this story up off Google for a tale about the Overland Track in winter be warned. I’m no stranger to winter travel but this was one of the most trying experiences I’ve had albeit fairly short in duration as it turned out.

With the weight of my pack I sank into the snow repeatedly. The unconsolidated snow let me sink over my knees over and over and frequently I dropped in up to my hips. The worst route was on the track itself because the erosion of countless trekkers has (I imagine) formed a deep trench that the drifting snow covered. I found the best travelling was trying to hop from tuft of bush to tuft of bush as the vegetation helped give extra firmness to the snow. All in all it was really slow going.

In the end I figured the only way to make any headway was to leave my pack and break trail without it. And so I began a 3 km slog to the Kitchen Hut that saw me covering over 9 km as I broke trail sans pack, retracing my steps back to my pack and then doing the route a third time this time carrying my pack.

I reached the Kitchen Hut eventually and crashed through the upper storey door to find a dry cosy shelter. This hut is for emergency use only but I didn’t have any doubt that my use of it was clearly going to avoid an emergency as I was truly spent and had a deep chill going from the exertion of the day.
I swept out the devil or possum shit and boarded up the entrance between floors after I heard one or the other of those marsupials thumping around downstairs. The bonus was that the temperature upstairs in the hut went up a good 5 degrees.

Next morning I could see immediatley that the frost on the window had thawed and I knew right away the snow would be firm enough to avoid a repeat of the previous day. Sure enough once I was moving things went reasonably well. penetration was less than 10 inches and mostly 5-6 inches as I made my way toward Marion’s Lookout.

I knew because it was Saturday that the hardy Tasmanian locals would be out in force for a taste of the snow. Sure enough I eventually ran in to a couple carrying their funny looking cross country skis up the track with a look determination as if they were headed for the bottomless powder of an epic winter day. Good on ’em!! and thanks for breaking trail back down to Dove Lake where I hurtled myself. The shuttle bus was running as it was the weekend as was the TassieLink bus out to Launceston and in what seemed like no time I was taking a hot shower in the Launceston Backpackers hostel with Cradle Mountain a distant memory. From there it was on to Hobart and a few days checking out the east coast beaches.

Hobart and the East Coast beaches
After escaping the soggy snows of Cradle Mountain I hopped on the bus to Launceston to thaw out and make a new plan. The weather had put a serious dent in my tramping ambitions so I reminded myself of one of my motivations to visit Tasmania, to connect with the Tassy Greens. So it was off to Hobart, the capital.
The bus trip through the centre of the island is quick and fairly scenic with dense forests and open tracts of pastoral farmland. The bus terminates just a few blocks from the city centre and I found the hostel whose listing had caught my eye in the Lonely Planet, ‘The Pickled Frog’. True to the description ‘the frog’ had a casual atmosphere with a lively bar room and relaxing common room. There were a few quirks like no real lights in the dorms but what would you expect from a pickled hostel?

A few days flashed by roaming the streets of Hobart taking in the sights of the historical waterfront district including Salamanca Market. There are interpretive signs everywhere in Hobart so it easy to take in the history of the town. The Tasmanian Green Party office turned out to be kiddy corner to the frog so I spent a little time there chatting and listening to their trials and tribulations.

A group of three girls at the hostel had rented a car for a couple of days to explore the east coast beaches and I accepted their invitation to hop onboard and swap mountain dreams for beachtime.

We left early next morning having a good laugh at our first driver Katie’s premier experience driving on the left side of the road. Here I can confess that in my 3 months in Australia I have avoided driving myself entirely. Wineglass Bay was first on our list at Freycinet National Park and after a casual drive stopping at various other beaches en route we arrived at the trailhead after lunch. A spectacular hike up over a pass through ‘the Hazards’ takes you to a lookout above the picturesque sand rimmed cove and an easy descent down to the beach.

We spent a little time admiring the stunning beach before heading back over to the car and on to the hamlet of St. Helens were we spent the night at the comfortable YHA hostel.

The attraction just north of St Helens is the ominously named Bay of Fires, recently listed by Conde Naste as number 2 on their list of the world’s most beautiful beaches (after St. Barts). Unlike its companions on that list (I am fairly sure) the Bay of Fires was devoid of any development. The single lane road in fact looked like it had only just been paved days before and all that greeted us at the end was a small lot large enough to park no more than 3 cars!

A short hike along a seaside trail popped us on to the first of several beaches which rimmed the wide open bay. The beaches certainly are beautiful but I had to imagine that the Bay of Fires had made the list as much for the cache of its obscure location as for the scenery. Anyone who has visited some of the remote beaches on BC’s west coast might raise a similar eye brow. However there’s no doubt that the pure white sand, emerald water and exotic vegetation combine to form a dramatic sight.

After a great morning wandering around the Bay of Fires we headed back to Hobart in time for Katie to make her evening flight to Melbourne and I followed her a day later choosing to fly rather than bus all the way back up the island to the ferry.