Six days of hiking on the gloriously scenic Overland Track is not the walk in the park Lee Atkinson was expecting.
I'M ON the top of the world, or at least the top of Tasmania. From here, hikers can see between a quarter and all of the island state - depending on who you believe and just how euphoric the hiker is who's doing the telling.
Exactly how far you can see is just a quibble - all that matters is that on a good day you can indeed see a long way from the summit of Mount Ossa, Tasmania's highest mountain. Today, as luck would have it, is a very good one.
Trouble is, now that I'm here, how to get down? I may have overestimated my ability and underestimated my fear of heights when I decided to conquer Mount Ossa on day four of a six-day Overland Track walk from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair, in the central highlands. Until today, I'd been feeling invincible.
Day one, which everyone I'd spoken with before setting out said was the hardest - because it's the steepest as you hit the trail on a vertiginous chain-assisted climb to the top of Marion's Lookout (1223 metres) at the base of Cradle Mountain - was challenging but achievable. Days two and three were a doddle, relatively easy strolls across highland plains studded with button grass and cushion plants, crossing swampland on raised boardwalks, skirting the edges of alpine lakes and meandering down reasonably gentle slopes.
This morning, which included a long, lingering ascent over Pelion Gap (1126 metres) was easier than I thought it was going to be. There's not a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind and I let my guide convince me that it is the perfect day to climb Mount Ossa. Halfway up the three-hour climb my knees are screaming, my head is reeling and I'm fighting the urge to cry, too petrified to turn around and look down the mountainside at the view unfolding beneath my feet. I'd give up and turn back in a heartbeat but that would mean the other walkers in our group would also have to quit, so I try to pretend I'm somewhere else; somewhere much closer to the plains as I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. I make it to the top and down again, although I go down on my bum most of the way.
The next morning my knees refuse to co-operate and my thighs feel as though they are made of lead. The following two days' walking among moderately undulating land are some of the longest and hardest I've ever done.
The Overland Track is one of the world's great long-distance trails, attracting hikers from all corners of the globe. And justly so - it will take your breath away, in more ways than one. Majestic scenery, mossy Tolkienesque myrtle forests, crystal lakes, raging waterfalls and alpine plains are just some of the track's highlights. However, independently walking the 65-kilometre trail (70 kilometres if you take in all the ups and downs) while carrying a 30-kilogram pack by day - and sleeping on a wooden bench in a hut festooned with the smelly socks and dripping long-johns of 20 or so fellow hikers by night - seems preposterous. I'm just not that hard-core.
Cradle Mountain Huts offers an attractive alternative for those who like their adventure a little softer. Accompanied by two guides, you walk the track but don't have to carry food, cooking gear, sleeping bag and tent. Your home each night is a privately owned hut, complete with hot showers, soft beds in twin rooms and, best of all, the guides cook a three-course dinner, accompanied by Tasmanian wines.
This combination of luxury and adventure is fantastic though I can't help but wonder if it misrepresents the true nature of the experience, turning a wilderness experience into just another expensive holiday with expectations that it's a walk in the park that anyone can do.
Let's face it, the types of travellers who can afford $2600 to undertake the walk with Cradle Mountain Huts are probably those who otherwise sit at a desk. The other nine walkers in my group are aged between 55 and 65 and, apart from a sprightly Kiwi dairy farmer who never seems to show any sign of fatigue, almost all of us admit the track is tougher than we thought it would be. Some walkers don't seem to be enjoying it much at all.
The harder sections, such as the ascent of Mount Ossa, are optional side trips but even so, the days are long, the terrain is hard going and you always need to watch where you put your feet.
One man in our group seems somewhat miffed that the track, much of which is covered in gnarly ankle-twisting tree roots and has sections of knee-deep mud, is not in better condition. And while we've been blessed with freakishly good weather, it can begin to snow here even in summer.
Compared with the hard-core trekkers, we may be doing it soft but it's still an adventure not to be taken lightly.
By the time I reach the shoreline of Lake St Clair, my knees don't work properly. The scenery has been awe-inspiring but what I've really relished is the chance to shut myself off from the outside world and be uncontactable for a week. I've also found unexpected pleasure when facing up to the physical challenges that just don't come by all that often when you polish a chair for a living. I still feel like I'm on top of the world.
The writer was a guest of Cradle Mountain Huts.
Virgin Blue (13 67 89; virginblue.com.au) and Jetstar (13 15 38; jetstar.com) fly daily between Sydney and Launceston.
Peak walking season is from November 1 to April 30. A maximum of 60 walkers are allowed to start the walk on any given day and you must book well ahead (bookings open each July). Walkers pay a track fee of $180 a person ($144 for children and seniors). All walkers must walk the track from north to south during the season. (03) 6233 6047; parks.tas.gov.au
Undertaking the walk with Cradle Mountain Huts is priced from $2600-$2800 a person (depending on when you book) and includes food and wine, return transfers from Launceston, the Overland Track fee and use of a backpack, sleeping bag and raincoat for the trip. For an extra $1200, guides carry your backpack for you. (03) 6392 2211; cradlehuts.com.au.