The Overland Trek
Australia’s best bush-walkstart
Bushwalking Tasmania: Trekking Australia's Overland Track
The Overland Track is Australia’s best-known bushwalk. It is located in the middle of Tasmania, in the whopping 1,262-sqkm, World Heritage-listed, and snappily-titled Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. The national park is an ancient, glacier-carved landscape of gothic peaks, heathland plateaus, giant forests, crashing waterfalls and plentiful wildlife. The 50 mile (80km) Overland Track runs through the park and takes five-to-six days to complete. It starts near the oft-photographed, double-headed Cradle Mountain and ends at Lake St Clair, Australia’s deepest lake (where you can catch a ferry across to shorten the trail to 40 miles (65km)).
- Trail length: 50mi
- Climb: 4,675ft
- Fastest known time: 7h 25m
Some key things you need to know about Australia: it’s hot a lot of the time and the inhabitants claim to speak English but you won’t recognize a lot of it.
Tassie of course is an Aussie-ism for Tasmania, the island state which sits below mainland Australia. It’s an unfairly ridiculed and frequently overlooked place. Tassie wasn’t visited by Bill Bryson in his hilarious must-read travelogue Down Under. It wasn’t included on the roughly Australia-shaped logo when Sydney had the Olympic Games in 2000. And in the early days of the British colony, convicts who re-offended were often sent to Tasmania for further punishment.
When I lived and traveled in Australia, the less I heard about Tassie, the more I wanted to visit. As well as being scandalously under-hyped, it’s different from the mainland in a lot of ways. It doesn’t have the absurdly hot climate of the rest of the country. It’s wetter and greener, more like New Zealand or the UK. And on an a continent known for being sunburnt, this is the bit the glaciers got to.
Needless to say, Tasmania is an outdoorsy person’s Valhalla. Have I ever been? Thrice. And you never forget your first time hiking and touring Tasmania.
My then girlfriend and I embarked on the Overland Track. As road-less-trodden as Tassie is, it’s still the country’s most popular middle-distance bushwalk, and in the summer around 100 people start out on the Cradle Mountain walk every day. We didn’t like the idea of that, so we dodged the crowds by going in early November.
November is the last month of spring in Australia and offers excellent weather in most places. Most places, except Tasmania. In November, as we discovered, it can still be very cold and there’s often snow too. In addition to the surprisingly testing weather, the fact I hadn’t brought a sleeping mat (because I’d stupidly claimed “sleeping mats are for girls”) made the first day on the trail my least favorite. I was feeling a little bit sorry for myself (and remembering that I can be a pig-headed idiot).
We climbed from the Ronny Creek parking lot up the grassy hill and into the mist that hid Cradle Valley. Then, pausing to photograph Lake Lilla, we were hit with strong winds and rain. As we climbed the steep, rocky path, the weather gods upped the ante, flinging sleet, then snow, then hail at us.
An hour later, we glimpsed Cradle Mountain’s devilishly double-horned head through the mist. We stood and gawped, while I swore at it a few times (it didn’t respond). There was more to come. Snowdrifts regularly blocked the path and our feet quickly became wet and then cold, as snow whirled viciously around us. We definitely could have used some waterproof hiking boots! It was a great relief to reach the welcoming wooden hut that night.
Day two was much better. Our spirits were lifting with the clouds as big views revealed themselves on all sides. We traveled along a long plateau, with steep green valleys on either side, and lakes and snow-capped mountains stretching into the distance. These are ancient landscapes and they feel like it.
After a night of fleeting sleep (for those of us who were mat-less), the merciful weather did an even bigger smile on us, granting us joyful sunshine. The day would not be gloom-free however. We made a decision we would later regret. The second leg of the walk, to Lake Windermere, was estimated at a mere three hours, so short we thought we’d take advantage of the good weather and do two legs in one. Ouch.
We arrived at Pelion Hut at 8pm, as darkness descended, exhausted after a hard slog. I daydreamed obsessively of hot baths, foot massages and big comfortable beds. On the bright side, exhausted and lying on an ad-hoc mattress of t-shirts and sweaters, I slept like a log.
The Overland Track passes Mount Ossa – at 1,617 meters, Tasmania’s highest peak – and my macho streak wouldn’t let me walk past without an attempt to conquer the bugger. For two hours, I waged war with the stocky, snow-encased, tough nut. I charged at it relentlessly, wading through waist-high snowdrifts, barely shielding myself from winds. With my naked legs a disturbingly bright pink, I was finally on the summit. The lack of footprints suggested I was the first to reach its peak that season. The views were mind-blowing. I sat on my coat and slid back down.
As we bushwalked through Tasmania, we saw huge, ancient forests, gothic, snow-splashed mountains, crashing waterfalls, vast lakes, and reams of rare wildlife. Some of the mainland predators, such as dingoes and foxes, didn’t make it to the island so it has its own unique fauna, such as the Tassie devil and possibly even the allegedly-extinct Tasmanian tiger (though that’s another story entirely. The water here is so fresh and plentiful, it doesn’t need to be treated before finding its way into kitchen taps and local beers. The air is claimed to be the cleanest in the world, coming thousands of miles from Patagonia uninterrupted, bar the occasional albatross.
Lake St Clair
Day by day, as the weather improved, we saw more and more wildlife. Countless wallabies were caught unawares, dashing off into the undergrowth. We didn’t see any Tassie devils, or tigers, but we did spy a deeply elusive duckbilled platypus, the world’s oddest animal. It does exist on the mainland but most Australians have never seen one, and here was one in broad daylight, playfully wallowing in a small stream. We also saw an echidna, snuffling about in the undergrowth.
We finally reached Lake St Clair. The lake, serene and imperious was well worth the four-day pilgrimage. We sat on its shores as the sun bled across the horizon, ate the remainder of our chocolate rations and felt very happy.
From Nascissus Hut you can catch a water ferry across to the finishing point, Cynthia Bay. Or we could walk the last 17km around the lake. My exhausted ladyfriend wanted to take the ferry – of course, because she’s sensible – and so did I. But after twisting and turning in my troubled half-sleep it felt like getting a lift was cheating. I awoke knowing I had to do the full 50 miles of the trail.
Off we set through the enchanting moss and fern-dominated woods. Until my girlfriend stopped dead in her tracks. A long, shiny, tiger snake was spread across the path. They’re lethal. The streak of black death looked just like a stick. We nervously stepped over him and tiptoed on our way feeling lucky and humble. We finally arrived, shattered, at the info center at the other end of the Overland Track, just in time for a bus to Hobart, the island’s capital.
I looked back from the bus window to the beautiful lake and equally beautiful memories. I’d learned a lot while hiking Tasmania: That sleeping mats are a great idea. That shorts aren’t always. And more importantly, that oft-overlooked and meanly-mocked Tassie is a painfully beautiful place.
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