The Overland Track
Cradle Mountain – Lake Sinclair National Park TAS
After spending five weeks travelling the Apple Isle the adventure that lay ahead had the potential to surpass them all, and it was both exciting and somewhat daunting to imagine. We had booked ourselves in to walk The Overland Track, something we had always wanted to do. The two of us would join a group of ten others with two guides to walk 70km of wilderness over six days and nights, and as we prepared to start we wondered - how hard could that be?
Leaving the East Coast behind, we drove southwest towards Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage area, the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. We had heard stories, watched documentaries and done some research of our own on the idea of walking The Overland Track. It is one of Australia’s most famous bush treks, 65km long from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair, with optional side trips to climb Cradle Mountain and Mount Ossa.
The Overland Track has been compared with New Zealand’s famous bush trek, The Milford Track. We had imagined how beautiful this pristine wilderness might be and we had done some training for the physical challenge ahead. I was ready and excited to capture stunning photography of this World Heritage region. However, it seems we were unprepared on every level for what we did encounter.
We were a little apprehensive as we arrived at Waldheim in Cradle Valley early in the morning to join our group of twelve hikers, (including Mr G and I, plus two lovely guides Shelly and Kat). We had booked with Cradle Mountain Huts to do the six-day Overland Track walk, from Cradle Valley to Lake Sinclair through a variety of spectacular landscapes. Each of us was carrying a backpack weighing about 12kg, whilst the two guides both carried about 23kg each (as they were carrying extra water, food supplies and first aid). I also had my camera - which weighed another 3.4kg, which may not seem relevant but after 70km trekking, it became a dead weight, and a love/hate relationship between me and my camera ensued!
It was a hot, sunny day in early February as we departed from Waldheim to begin day one of the trek. Walking from Waldheim to Barn Bluff Hut the first day was a distance of 12.7km. After walking for an hour we ascended a steep climb to Marion’s Lookout (where we had up close views of stunning Cradle Mountain and Dove Lake at its base). This is the steepest section of the whole track and a bit of a daunting start. We caught our breath, snapped a group photo at Marion’s Lookout and then carried on walking along a variety of narrow boardwalks, rocky tracks and sandstone paths. Being such a clear day, the views were magnificent and we could see the path ahead unfolding with no sign of anything but wilderness beyond. It was a sobering thought to grasp that we had six days of walking ahead of us, and short of a medical emergency (where a helicopter would fly in to rescue you) you had no choice but to keep walking. We stopped for a packed lunch at peaceful Plateau Creek and then continued on for another four hours, walking around the base of Cradle Mountain down into Waterfall Valley. As we trekked this untouched landscape, you couldn’t help but revere its naked beauty. We eventually arrived in the late afternoon, at our first hut and shelter for the night at the base of a towering mountain known as Barn Bluff. We were accommodated in bunk-style rooms for two with an open-plan kitchen, dining and lounge space. Each of us were allowed a four minute hot shower (which was a total luxury), before sharing a delicious dinner (prepared by our guides).
Day two we were up early, dressed and repacked ready to hike after a sustaining breakfast of porridge, toast and fruit. Leaving Barn Bluff Hut, we embarked on another 12km of walking to reach Pine Forest Moor Hut. The landscape was undulating with a few sections of exposed moorlands but no steep climbs, rather plains of button grass, dotted with ancient pencil pines. The peaks of Cradle Mountain and Barn Bluff were now behind us to the north and we were heading toward Mt Pelion. We stopped at a large water hole for our lunch break and a swim for those who were keen. Although it was arduous removing our gaiters, boots, socks, and clothing (behind a bush) and putting on our swimming gear, it was so refreshing to plunge into the pristine waters. This was one of the moments of this adventure I will cherish, floating in the water surrounded by stunning wilderness and thinking “I can’t believe I am here”. That evening at Pine Forest Moor Hut, we dined outside on the timber deck with views of the mountains as the sun began to set. It was quite surreal.
Day three started in the same fashion as the day before. We were up early, devoured a hearty breakfast, made our own packed lunch and were ready to hike by half past eight. Our guides were like super women, carrying more than us, guiding our path, cooking our meals, cleaning the huts ready for the next group arriving, dressing wounds on our blistered feet and encouraging us all to keep walking and pushing ourselves to make the most of this privilege. We had a further 10km to walk on day three to make our way to Pelion Plains Hut. It was a long, slow descent around the base of Mt Pelion West down to the Forth River, where we had a break at Frog Flats to replenish our water supplies from the creek. One thing we learnt on this trek was that whenever you go down into a valley, eventually you’ll have to climb back up again. We began a gentle ascent out of the valley, coming out onto the beautiful Pelion Plains with outstanding views of Mt Oakleigh. We took a side trip for our lunch break, walking down a long, grassy track adjacent to an old copper mine, until we arrived at a well-hidden, glistening creek. It was a hot day and we were offered another opportunity to swim, which we took, although getting into the water was not as accessible as the day before and the water temperature was glacial. We arrived at Pelion Plains Hut in the afternoon to freshly baked muffins and a pot of tea (I told you they were super-guides). These delights distracted us from our weary bodies and aching feet.
On day four we were destined for an easier day of walking, just 7km to Kia Ora Hut. However, if the weather conditions allowed it, there was an optional side trip (a five hour detour) to climb Mt Ossa, Tasmania’s highest peak of 1617m (5,305 ft) above sea level. The craggy summit of Tasmania’s most formidable peak promises to reward the climber with 360 degree views of Tasmania’s north west and on a clear day you can see for kilometres. It was a clear day for us and we were given the green light to take the option to climb Ossa. It was one of those life moments where your body says “no thanks” but your competitive spirit and your adventurous self offers up the argument “this might be the only chance you get to do this, you’ve come this far, surely you are not going to miss this” – and so yes, you guessed right, we climbed Mt Ossa. It was a hard, steep, treacherous climb in parts and at one moment I even felt panic set in when I looked down and saw how high we actually were, as we scrambled over boulders in pursuit of the summit. I still recall the thought in my head – “Why are you doing this to yourself, Jane?” The beauty of the tarn (a mountain lake or pool contained in a deep bowl created by glacial erosion) at the summit and the magnificent views from the peak did make the effort invested very worthwhile, although my knee joints on the way back down the mountain would possibly disagree. We spent half an hour at the summit drinking in the view and feeling a sense of accomplishment that we had made it to the top. Once we descended from Mt Ossa, we still had a further two hours to walk and we were very weary now. About half an hour out from the hut that afternoon, Mr G made this statement: “If anyone ever asks me how was it walking The Overland Track - I am going to say it was hard, bloody hard!” Then we both succumbed to delirious laughter. It was a welcome sight to see the hut, a refuge and place to take off our packs and boots, eat a warm meal and rest our weary legs.
Day five arrived and we set off for another 9km of walking through grand forests with a couple of side trips to majestic waterfalls, before making our way to Windy Ridge Hut. Our legs were still forgiving us for our epic Mt Ossa adventure the day before, and although this was an easier day of walking distance-wise, it turned out to be a one of the most challenging days of the journey mentally. Vibrant wild flowers appeared along this part of the walk, creating beautiful pops of colour. After a lunch break and an ice-cold water foot soak at one of the waterfalls, we continued on, descending beside the spectacular Falling Mountain and onto Windy Ridge Hut. It was our final evening together and we were all beginning to feel a sense of relief and satisfaction creep in at the thought of completing The Overland Track the following day. It also happened to be our 24th wedding anniversary – we celebrated with cake and our ten new adventurous friends. Ironically the nature of this epic walk we were on, shared many similarities with the journey of marriage, challenging and rewarding, gruelling at times and yet euphoric in other moments and overall so worthwhile.
From Windy Ridge Hut there was a final 9km to walk to the finishing line at Lake St Clair, Australia’s deepest natural lake. On this last day we walked through cool, temperate eucalyptus forest with native birdsong surrounding us. We crossed over a long suspension bridge and walked a further hour (although some of the more eager ones in our group decided to run the last stretch) and arrived at the wharf on Lake St Clair. A celebratory swim followed as we ate our lunch together in the sunshine and waited for the ferry to pick us up and transport us across Lake St Clair to the shores of Cynthia Bay. We bid farewell to our fellow walkers and our two guides Shelly and Kat who we will always be thankful for. As we returned to our car, to the road and the civilised world, we felt an immense gratitude for the privilege of this experience and an unwavering respect for the wilderness and those who work to preserve it. Although we were glad to be free of our packs and boots, eager for a long hot shower and a comfortable bed, there was a part of us that longed for the silence and simplicity of the mountain once more.
This article first appeared in print issue #4 and has been edited for length. Get your subscription and recent copies here!
Also, check out Jane's book "Our Delicious Adventure - Recipes and Stories of Food and Travel".