Overland Track

Tasmania, Australia

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

So, this is the Roaring Forties. On the fourth day of Autumn, a gale is hurling horizontal rain into our faces on a blasted heath. I feel like King Lear in boots. We are below Cradle Mountain, Tasmania’s best known peak, although you wouldn't know it, as it swamped by the swirling cloud.

The weather here is notoriously fickle, and we started our six days on the famous Overland Track, which traverses the island's highest country, in drizzle. Even on this dourest of grey days, though, the vivid exuberance of the shrubland cannot be extinguished.

Straight from the hut built by Kurt Waldheim, Germanic at a time when this was a heavy burden, hence an involuntary recluse, who fell in love with the area and campaigned for its protection, we meandered through open woodland, then, on our first boardwalk, down across a shallow valley.

A lot of the trail winds on boardwalks through the button grass tussocks and peaty pools of the plateau-top moors. This is delicate country - the lovely velvety balls and pads of cushion plants are surprisingly brittle and can take years to recover from one footprint - and the track can descend into knew-deep ruts. I had expected to be depressed by the boardwalks, but they keep the trail so narrow and the landscape so pristine that you quickly come to appreciate them.

Our first proper climb, by a tumbling stream in lovely mixed wood, got us to a boathouse, hand-built by Herr Waldheim, at the foot of so-called Crater Lake, actually a perfect glacial scoop surrounded by cliffs disappearing into low cloud on three sides. Another surprisingly easy climb had us on the saddle between Crater Lake and Dove Lake to the east, famously lovely and much photographed, but today a pewter sheet bearing one fleeting patch of glint: maybe all is not lost with the weather?

And now the hardest climb on the trail - if not our walk: that has to be Mount Oakleigh, of which more later. A sharp puff and occasional scramble - again much easier than we expected - had us among the boulders and clouds at so called Marion's look-out . Nothing doing.

So, here we are now, crossing the high plateau, directly toward that splendid, dolerite excrescence Cradle Mountain, but we see nothing more than driving rain and swirling mist. Tough.

Rounding the side of the famous lump, we do at least see the base of some pretty impressive looking cliffs. A long trudge across what must be a splendid high ridge with views every way, passing a deep bowl in which a huge wallaby grooms itself obliviously on a patch of grass far below; a break in the cloud briefly lets us see what we are missing, a long view down the curling glen toward the deep Forth valley.

Then it is more of the same. We are beginning to flag both physically and in spirit, as we drop into the basin, winding through no doubt spectacular woodland immediately below the tremendous but invisible butte Barn Bluff - think Monument Valley meets high Scottish moorland. All rather disappointing.

We eventually turn off between some bushes onto a cleverly hidden single boardwalk up a forested ridge. After a somewhat impatent ten minutes, we reach our hut with blunted fascination. The great majority of walkers hole up in the simple but very adequate (as long as not over-full) public huts along the way, well built and exceptionally eco-thoughtful, or they carry tents and pitch up on platforms by the huts, cooking up indoors then retiring to the solitude of their tents.

We are travelling the "other" way, staying in the private Cradle Mountain Huts, which have hot showers, twin bunk rooms, comfortable seating, and a stocked kitchen and guides who, after a long day's walking, cook up a three-course dinner. Our guides: Grady, one of the best, a true lover of this delicate landscape, now in IT most of the year but brought out of retirement for our benefit; and charming Nick, a budding architect when not on the track. Both are hugely knowledgeable, experienced, helpful - and tolerant. We are very lucky.

Food is 'coptered in twice a year (not many fresh veggies over the six days, although we are so cleverly provided for that we don't notice) and all - I mean all - waste is flown back out. The impact is so small that, if the hut was removed from its stilts, the bush would grow back in, and no trace would be left, within a very few years. As a result, our packs are ridiculously light for a long, tough walk like this. Oh, yes, and a hot cup of tea and biscuits are awaiting us once our sodden boots are off. I stagger in a daze, mustering the energy for a shower only after a long supper and some good red Tassie wine (flown in: allowance; 5 bottles a night).

Our group, 3 Poms, 3 Aussies and two of mixed allegiance (Aussie-Swede and double crossing Pom-Aussie), has gelled from the start, and the shared struggles and disappointments of the day unite us further. Different life experiences feed long and interesting conversation. We are, again, very lucky.

Jetlag hasn't helped, and, although Ali and I immediately fall into the sleep of the dead, we are awake long before sunrise.

Day 2

Today starts soaking, and spirits droop commensurately: it was meant to be getting better. We wind back down the single planks to the main path, and trudge. Actually, our waterproofs are so good that we - well, our top halves anyway - remain dry. The experienced walkers - all right, the madmen are in shorts : the guides and Ali are well wrapped in overtrousers.

So, there is not much to report. We plod efficiently across what is clearly superb moorland and high, wet bog, our faces turned from the squalls of horizontal rain. Much of the colour is leached from what we later discover is a vibrant landscape packed with beauties: carefully sculpted and subtly tinted shrubs, button grass and cushion plants. We never see the great crags of Barn Bluff directly above, or the deep glacial valleys far below.

We pass the turn to Lake Will, somewhere under the high Barn Bluff ridge, it is a gorgeous stretch of water, we are told, but there is no point heading there today.

As we come off the high moor, though, the rain desists and we survey Lake Windermere (no less) lying flatly below mist-obscured hillsides. It is dotted with wooded islets and rocks, and must be extraordinarily pretty on a good day. We wind around the shore to a tiny gravel beach, where we tear into our lunch (Tassie devils in the making, although we don't yet growl or fight). They were swimming here last week, apparently.

The cloud is rising (and with it our spirits) and some sparkle gets into the water. A climb up a lovely hillside, its colours assuming their rightful vividness for the first time in a day and a half, gets us back onto the high ground between the valley systems, for a long tramp through bog, button grass and tarns. The hills start appearing around us, and we are in a new world. We see a rare green mountain parrot and then turn off to a viewpoint atop a low cliff, high above the Forth River valley (Tasmanian river names include the Derwent, Tamar and, possibly less romantically, the Mersey). Forested hillsides speckled with the white corpses of long dead eucalyptus recede quietly to the horizon.

One of the joys of this walk is the sudden changes in vegetation, and in the course of one stride we swap open moorland for a thick forest cloaking a hilltop. These are southern mountain beech, Tasmania's only deciduous tree, their tiny but very "beech" leaves turning bright brown in another few weeks. Their birch-white trunks are thickly, a little surreally even, clustered round the path.

Emerging back to bog and boardwalk on the other side, we immediately turn left on a single-planker - hard to hide boardwalk in open country - and meander along the wood's edge to our hut, which is reassuringly identical to last night.

The sun is now out and we sit, steaming gently in metaphor if not reality, on the helipad - i.e. a smallish wooden platform not far from the trees; good pilots they must be -drinking tea and whisky and smoking Reggie's carefully honed roll-ups before a rapidly changing view: behind perhaps half a mile of bright sloping boggy shrub is a line of mountain eucalyptus, their white trunks lit up by the evening sun, behind them the great dolerite spires and cliffs of Mount Oakleigh. As the sun sinks, the trees are black silhouettes against the pulsating orange of the rock wall. Then we are in shadow, and the temperature drops. Savouring the moment, we linger over the evanescent view until we are shivering.

Another huge and happy dinner, then our first game of cards - hearts - teases out our all too willing mean streaks. Bed later than is sensible.

Day 3

It rains in the night. This was definitely not in the script, but it is clearing by the time we have eaten an early but embarrassingly large meal (in my case anyway), packed and are chatting on the deck by the entrance.

A delightful yomp across more button grass boglands, dotted with the occasional independent little eucalyptus, brings us down to a stream on the edge of the forest. The mist has dissolved into spectral scraps, and we can see the fluted cliffs across the valley again.

We are now descending an old track dug into a steep hillside for a planned mining railway. Nothing has happened here for getting on for a hundred years, but it remains easy walking, freeing us up for conversation - we are a loquacious group - except where tree roots have corrugated the surface or dammed up some deep mud pools.

A couple of hours from the hut, we are at Frog Flats, although Leech Lair would be more appropriate. They converge on our resting legs with startling efficiency. A button - grass field separates the thickly wooded hillsides at the high extreme of the River Forth system. We pass our first nest of the famously aggressive jack jumper ants, with their painful - and anaphylactic shock causing - sting.

Over the stream, we climb through gorgeous open woodland with shrubs and ferns below. A long stretch of deep mud gets us to boardwalks - I am a total convert now - which wind through pleasingly changeable areas of vegetation to the high flats at Pelion Plains. This really is a sight to cheer the dreariest of spirits - an expanse of bright button grass surrounded by pale eucalyptus trunks, with that dolerite drama, Mount Oakleigh, behind. The New Pelion hut, the largest hut on the Overland at a junction of trails, lurks on the edge of the woods, complete with my first, semi-tame, wallabies. A grateful lunch on the veranda is followed by an almost overwhelming urge to sleep. Jetlag catches up at odd times of day.

With decided third day blues, we shoulder our packs and strike out through the button-grass bogs towards the sheer fluting of Mount Oakleigh. After a clever little suspension bridge over the local stream, the fun and games begin. We had been warned of waist-deep mud in places but had imagined this to be in unavoidably thick sections of woodland. Not at all: our trail winds through the impeccable boggy grasslands, fringed all around by open eucalyptus woodland with thicker forest up the hillsides. It feels so primaeval that a diplodocus could raise its head at any moment. I can't think of a more pristine landscape - even the car-free reserves of Africa are criss-crossed with animal tracks and visibly heavily grazed.

We reach a boggy stretch, and Grady goes in up to his knees. We follow, reluctantly. After another 100m he is struggling through waist-deep mud. Tony tries to step beyond the hole, but goes straight in up to his bum. The rest of us, except good Joe, tiptoe round gingerly. Collective guilt develops as Grady is in again, to mid-thigh: a surreally truncated, lonely figure in a brown slash in the vivid greenery. It is too much, and giggles turn to near-hysteria as we fall behind, vying to be behind each other and thus invisible to the prefect at the front. We wade through knee-deep troughs but shirk the waisters. Mutterings of "fundamentalism" produce further laughter. But here’s the thing: Grady's dedication is infectious. We all walk more carefully, sticking to the narrow route of rectitude to avoid the "braiding" - multiple paths - that could turn into scarring of this perfect landscape. And his example lingers with us: although it was almost a bit theatrical, this really was caring for the environment.

The climb to the summit plateau is tough and not much fun, a long steep pant with a couple of scrambles over damp, slippery roots. The woodland remains refreshingly changeable, but we have our heads down.

High up a gully in the cliffs, the trees become shrubs, and the path levels out - well relatively: we continue to scramble up ledges and wind through thick scrub until we reach the bare rock of the summit (at a mere 1280m, although it feels much higher) and huge views south over Lake Ayr and Pelion Plains to Mt Pelion West, Mt Achilles, Mt Thetis, Mt Ossa (tomorrow's target and Tasmania's highest) and Mt Pelion East (some classicists, were these pioneers).

Through the towers and spires at the range's far western end, another half hour onward, is a huge view northward across the deep Forth valley, to the high plateau we have come from, and our first proper views of those grand, isolated buttes, Barn Bluff and Cradle Mountain, Fantabulous.

The return journey, sliding down tangled roots and mud, is little fun, a get-through knee-jarring trudge. More trench-wallowing at the bottom can only raise the spirits, though.

We are shattered when we reach our hut, 20 minutes beyond New Pelion. Nothing that a whisky, shower and a big supper can't cure, though. These huts are amazing, so well-stocked (by twice-yearly helicopter), so comfortable (but not luxurious - that would spoil it), so thoughtfully planned for eco-care.

Day 4

We wake to a completely clear sky above our clearing. After another huge breakfast - muesli and porridge and two slices of toast - we embark on a gorgeous walk up the forested valley to Pelion Gap. The woods are at their most beautiful, with bright sun slanting in through fine straight eucalyptus and King Billy pines, with myrtle beech higher up; mixed shrub beneath. Heathy clearings and the odd button-grass bog add to the variety. Highlights are: a primeval-looking natural hybrid between the huge, grand King Billy Pine and the diminutive, modest pencil pine; a couple of perfect streams splashing across through vivid shrubs; a wide cascade (amazing how much show a smallish river can put on when it comes to white water) in the main Douglas Valley; and a perfect set of almost steaming entrails lying somewhat surreally on the path, no other body parts to be seen. A macropod, Grady says matter-of-factly, probably eaten by Tasmanian devils. Joe gives a remarkable rendition of what these beasts sound like when eating - all snarls and squeals. No wonder they are succumbing to a horrible bite-transmitted cancer which their bodies don't reject due to the devils' remarkable lack of genetic diversity.

We emerge out of the treeline into the gorgeous - only fitting word - heathland of the flat Pelion Gap. Shrubs of miraculously varied hues, shapes and textures, seeming selected for their subtle yet surprisingly vivid palette (we are talking Matisse here, not Claude), then pruned and trimmed into a harmonious Japanese garden - recede in all directions to the oppressed little trees that hug the hillsides.

After unhitching our packs at the junction - nothing is left to chance here, even the obvious rest stops are boarded to prevent scuffing and erosion of the tender vegetation - we set off westward, up the steep side of Mt Doris, no less (a Greek nymph, apparently, although our two classicists had never heard of her). After some puffing, the track levels out into a traverse round the dear girl's flank: one of the most inspiringly beautiful stretches of walking I have ever had the luck to enjoy. All about us is the same shrubland, manicured into almost Kyoto perfection, through which rills wind amid tiny - again the Japanese analogy is apt - patches of cropped grass and soft-looking but in fact brittle cushion plants. Above are the cliffs of Doris' rocky crown, ahead the impossible crags of Ossa, Tasmania’'s highest mountain and our destination. To the south is a huge view across the high moors toward the great dolorite cliffs we will get to know well: Cathedral Mountain, Mt Hyperion and the others of the Du Cane Range.

We munch our lunch on rocks amid delicate grass and cushions beside another tiny brook, to which we tiptoe gingerly to refill our waterbottles beneath Grady's stern gaze.

Now it is time for the big climb; we can see our path winding a gully, but it seems to peter out below the impossible spires of the summit cliffs. It veers right, it turns out, across then behind the right-hand precipices of the great couloir. It is a long slog, and at times mildly exposed. The pleasure of the day is John's emergence as the frontrunner and first up. There is much teasing about his cunning tactics: we know he is diabetic, and he seemed pretty tired by Mt Oakleigh yesterday. But he shoots off from the huge boulder on which we rest half way up, leaving Reggie, our usual First Summiteer, trailing and unable to catch up. Nice one.

We reach the high ridge behind the spires to the north of the gulley, and traverse round, now with unbeatable views northward to Cradle Mountain and Barn Bluff. A final scramble gets us to the platform above the cliffs, and stupendous views; all around, the crags and buttes, which preside over moorlands and deep glens, recede into the blue eucalyptus haze. There is no trace of humanity anywhere - even the Overland Track has subsided into the scrub. Looking westward, there really is nothing but truly pristine wilderness between us and the sea, 50 km away. To the east, across the faraway Pelion Plains is yesterday's Oakleigh.

A very happy half hour passes with the views and the bright, empty sky.

The return journey can be passed over. A long slog back to our packs, which are of course untouched. My main memory is of the beauty of the sharpening colours in the slanting afternoon sun.

From the pass we meander for 1 1/2 gorgeous hours, down through shrub and bog and bands of open woodland, which become incandescent in the sinking sunlight.

Our hut, Kia Ora looks directly onto the sheer face of Cathedral Mountain. It is bright orange, and a full moon emerges from behind it and starts its surprisingly rapid journey into the darkening sky. A good moment to have a tot of whisky to hand. Thanks, Jock.

Our long day hits us at supper. I can hardly keep my eyes open by pudding time. I think we revived a bit and played some boisterous cards. I find myself dreaming about the Queen of Spades.

Day 5

A late breakfast at 7.30 - we have broken the back of the trail and there is a decidedly demob happy air this morning. We sit and smoke a Reginald Rollie in the bright, slanting early sun, enjoying the very different, muted cliffs of Cathedral Mountain.

We will be contouring up the forested upper Mersey valley, crossing the low Du Cane Gap to our final hut. The woods are lovely, bright dappled light through mixed trees, with occasional clearings for variety and views. I have really come to love and respect eucalyptus on his trek: what can be a bit scrubbily repetitive in mainland Oz reveals itself as a species of ingenuity and huge variety, from stately rainforest giants to hardy little moorland survivors. We snack at the old Du Cane Hut, home of one or the area's earliest pioneers, a hunter, bushman and early guide, and his family. A basic affair, but enormously atmospheric in its bright, close-cropped clearing. I am bitten not once but three times (as promised) by a particularly unreasonable marauding jack jumper. It does indeed start to hurt, but some quickly applied cream suppresses it surprisingly successfully, although it is still red and swollen days later.

Further on, we drop to the pretty cascade of the D'Alton Falls, then contour round to the dramatic Fergusson Falls. Lunch is on flat rocks further upstream. I sleep in the sun while the masochists swim. Gorgeous.

The climb to the Du Cane Gap is less thrilling - a tramp up through forest that changes to indeterminate scrub crowded around lowish trees.

As we start down to the southern slope, we enter a world of huge, straight, regal eucalyptus dominating lesser arboreal mortals. This is wonderful walking, as we descend into the dramatic cliff-girt bowl of the upper Narcissus valley. Yet more Hellenism to the west: Mount Geryon, the Acropolis, the Parthenon. To the east, the sheer rampant of the more prosaically Anglo-Saxon Traveller Range.

Tucked behind the expensive and wasteful new Bert Nichols hut, as excoriated by our wrathful guides, we find our last little gem of a hut, yet again built on reassuringly identical lines. The final drops of whisky are channeled in the most deserving (and thirsty and Scottish) direction on the terrace. Then it is a leisurely supper and more Hearts.

Day 6

We are getting into diminishing returns territory, here. Three lovely but a bit samey hours of forest walking get us to the button grass bogs near the head of Lake St. Clair, Australia's deepest. At last we are lurking on the close nibbled grass by the jetty where our ferry will shortly arrive.

What a walk. My feet, when I ease off my boots, are disgustingly cracked, with wrinkle-blisters like never before.

We gobble another delicious and fulsome picnic on the cropped riverbank, luxuriating in our achievements.

The ferry down Lake St Clair is outrageously, abusively expensive. It almost smells of corruption.

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