Louise Southerden salutes Tasmania's classic Overland Track, on a six-day guided walk in World Heritage-listed wilderness.
Like warriors returning from battle, we arrive at the hut covered in mud from the waist down, our knee-length gaiters sagging from the weight of it, our shorts and trekking shirts splattered. All afternoon, since we'd split off from the rest of our group, four of us and one of our two guides had waded through bogs, brushed past pandanus trees and scrambled up lichen-dappled rocks in our quest to stand atop the 1286-metre Mount Oakleigh.
Our reward: 360-degree views of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, with no sign of the huts we'd been staying in or the track we'd been following. Just trees and peaks, rocks and glacial valleys, and shining tarns under a blue sky. An uninterrupted expanse of wilderness.
This is what I'd hoped for on the Overland Track - a little hardship, nature at its most pristine, big views - though not what I'd expected after seeing a page from the visitor book at Waldheim, near Cradle Mountain, in Launceston's Queen Victoria Museum. It reads like a shopping list of inclement weather.
"Rainfall - about ½ foot per day. Level of water table - 3 inches above surface. Evaporation - 2 gallons per garment (near fire). Direction of wind - generally down from kitchen flue. Sunshine - 5 minutes per annum. Temperature - avg 37 below [2ºC]," Sydney walker John Crust scrawled in January 1932, soon after the track opened to the hiking public.
My experience turns out to be nothing like Crust's. For one thing, I'm not staying in the public huts that have accommodated most walkers since the 1930s; I'm sleeping in private cabins owned and run by Cradle Mountain Huts, which this year celebrates 25 years of operation.
In 1985, the Tasmanian government sought tenders from commercial operators interested in running Australia's first accommodation-based guided walk, on the Overland Track, to make it accessible to visitors not willing or able to carry a full pack or sleep in basic, national park-owned huts. Cradle Mountain Huts won the contract, built five architect-designed huts along the track (four in 1987, the fifth in 1997) and started taking walkers into the national park in 1987.
There were about 80 CMH walkers that first year; last summer there were more than 1500, about 25 per cent of the 6000-plus people who tackled the trek. Despite the popularity of this iconic walk, however, it's easy to feel as if yours is the only group in the 1.38-million-hectare Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
I meet my fellow trekkers on day one at breakfast at the CMH base at Quamby Estate, a heritage homestead outside Launceston. There's a farming couple from Queensland, a softly spoken reflexologist from rural Victoria, a South Australian tour guide, a retired Sydney social worker and a British couple from Melbourne. Most admit to reaching a point in their lives where their sense of adventure has outlasted their desire to "rough it". As Graeme, the reflexologist, says, "I've never done a long walk before and I knew I'd never be able to do [the track] on my own, carrying my own pack." There it is: Cradle Mountain Huts' reason for being.
It's ironic that what started as a way to make the 65-kilometre, six-day Overland Track more accessible is now the most expensive way to do the trek, although the $2850 price tag ($3050 from January-March) is largely due to the logistics of offering creature comforts in a remote location - all food, wine and LPG has to be helicoptered in - and the fact that it's an all-inclusive experience, covering food, permits and some hiking gear.
In any case, it's not as if you're getting a free ride. It's still your feet walking 12 to 15 kilometres a day, your lips sipping mountain-clear water from a stream, your hands reaching for the chain railing at the steepest part of the walk - which comes halfway through day one.
After an easy morning ramble from Waldheim through fields of button grass, stopping for scroggin at a wood-shingle boathouse at Crater Lake, the climb to Marion's Lookout is a rude awakening. We haul on the chain fixed to near-vertical rocks, lean heavily on our trekking poles, breathe hard. But within an hour it's all over. The track flattens out and we spend the rest of the day crossing an alpine plain behind Cradle Mountain. (Aside from the side-trips, in fact, the Overland Track is surprisingly manageable, particularly when you're carrying a pack weighing just 10 kilograms.)
It's late afternoon when we reach an unmarked junction where one of the guides, the dreadlocked Mitch, stands like a doorman waiting to usher us on to a two-plank boardwalk that leads through dense bush to Barn Bluff Hut. Outside, it's humbler than I'd imagined, more Hansel and Gretel than luxury eco-lodge: a simple, two-storey cabin of weathered wood with glass doors opening to a timber deck and solar panels on the roof. Inside, however, it's supremely comfortable. "Treat this like your own house," says Rob, our other guide, as we dump our day packs and boots in the drying room and pad around in our socks. Each hut (except the newest, Kia Ora) is identical. There's timber flooring throughout and five twin-share bedrooms (ensuring a maximum group size of 10). Barn Bluff's spacious lounge-dining room has a well-equipped kitchen at one end; at the other are blue-suede window seats, a long red couch built into the wall and shelves stacked with board games and books. The small library is duplicated in each hut, so you can read the same book all week.
Arriving at a hut each afternoon soon becomes a highlight of the trip. A guide walks ahead so by the time we arrive there are warm scones on the table, with cream and Tasmanian summerberry jam, and the homely aromas of freshly brewed coffee and baking bread (for our packed lunches the following day). Huts have a hot shower and comfortable beds. Pre-dinner drinks and gourmet meals with Tasmanian wines are served.
The real privilege of the CMH experience, however, is that rare sense of distance from the rest of the human race.
Of course, the natural environment tries hard to steal the show. Four of our six days are warm and windless. On day two, a few of us swim in Lake Windermere, said to have the warmest water of any lake on the track.
Even the mud day, day three, is sunny. Our guides had briefed us about this side-trip the night before. And the waist-deep mud. You'll feel it sucking at your boots so hard you'll be sure they'll be sucked right off, they'd said. Some of my fellow trekkers opt to go fossil- and fungus-hunting near the next night's hut. I'm all for the adventure of Mount Oakleigh. It feels good to leave the boardwalks and follow a barely discernible track. Then it happens. I step into a puddle no bigger than a dinner plate and am engulfed by mud up to my shorts. Coolness seeps into my boots and socks. Within a few metres, we've all been "blooded" by the Overland Track. Three public walkers pass us, including a Frenchman wearing spotlessly white knee-high socks, but they don't know what they're missing. Besides, we commit to the quagmire because of a "keep to the track" ethic that prevents the landscape becoming ribboned with individual paths and eroding into new bogs.
The next day, the weather does an about-face. Climbing the 1617-metre Mount Ossa, Tasmania's highest peak, is off the agenda but we do manage a side-trip up nearby Mount Doris, where we have lunch while sheltering from a blustery wind in the lee of the mountain. We reach Kia Ora Hut that evening just ahead of a storm, but the next morning it feels good to put on the Gore-Tex jackets and waterproof over-pants we've carried for four days. It's oddly liberating to walk in the rain, see rushing waterfalls, slosh through puddles - particularly knowing there's a hot shower and a drying room at the end of the day.
Our last day is the wettest of the trip, and one of the most beautiful. It's just three hours to a jetty where a small catamaran, the Idaclair, will transfer us to the southern end of Lake St Clair, but our guides urge us to savour this last bit of track. It helps that five days of walking have slowed our minds and opened our senses - to the smell of eucalypt forest, swirls of colour in tree trunks, birds flitting between branches and jewel-like droplets at the ends of pine needles. We see Bennett's wallabies nibbling on leaf litter, bark draped over bushes like discarded clothing and trees in puddles, reflecting the world above our rain hoods.
Once back at Quamby Estate, it's slightly surreal to be standing on a manicured lawn in hiking gear, sipping champagne and saying farewells. Rob proposes a toast. "Because our bodies are 70 per cent water, and we've been drinking Tasmanian water for almost a week," he says, "you're now more a part of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park than you are yourselves."
"I'm more part of the Tasmanian wine industry, I think," one of the Queenslanders says. And with that we raise our glasses.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Cradle Mountain Huts and Tourism Tasmania.
Virgin Australia flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Launceston. See virginaustralia.com.
Cradle Mountain Huts runs advanced eco-accredited guided walks on the Overland Track from October 1 to May 1. Trips cost $2850 a person (October-December and April-May) and $3050 (January-March), which includes return Launceston transfers, meals and wines, hut stays, guides, national park and track permits, boat transfer and the use of day packs and Gore-Tex rain jackets. Walkers carry a day pack weighing up to 10 kilograms. New this season are Climb Every Mountain departures. There are also four-day walks, from $1950. See cradlehuts.com.au.
Peppers Seaport Hotel, Launceston, has rooms from $169 a night. See peppers.com.au/seaport.