WALKING THE OVERLAND TRACK IN TASMANIA, AUSTRALIA
Wilderness, wildlife and walking: a review of the Overland Track in Tasmania, Australia
I am a walker on edge. Poisonous snakes, aggressive ants and blood-sucking leeches live in this Tasmanian wilderness. My nervous mind is playing tricks on me, transforming every stick and root into a deadly tiger snake.I don’t dare place my hand on a rock for fear of a leech gorging on my blood or a jack jumper ant striking with its painful pincers. Every slight noise makes me turn around in a panic, expecting to find a snarling Tasmanian devil or scavenging possum. Fallen tree trunks morph into hungry Tasmanian tigers, even though I know the species was hunted to extinction by 1936. Hiking in England (my home) has never seemed so danger-free as I tentatively take my first few steps into this place of strange, scary creatures.
I’m taking on the Overland Track, an 80km hike through the heart of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The rugged, glaciated landscape of mountains, lakes, rainforests, waterfalls, moorlands and alpine heath has a reputation as one of Australia’s best walks. It is billed by Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service as an “extraordinary journey” that is “life-changing”.
During the first few kilometres I find myself just hoping it isn’t life-ending. Fast forward to day six and I’m still alive – and haven’t even seen a snake. This is the home straight along the shores of a glistening Lake St Clair. The sun is beaming in a cloudless sky, its rays penetrating the canopy and illuminating the mosses and lichens of the ancient rainforest. Damp, spongy earth feels soft beneath my boots, as I blissfully put one foot in front of the other and daydream about the hot shower and cold beer waiting at the finish line.
I turn a corner and immediately snap out of my fantasy, freezing on the track like a rabbit in the headlights. A jet black tiger snake is five feet away. It slithers forward momentarily and then stops, staring at me with its piercing eyes. “Oh God, I’m going to die.” I frantically try to remember the safety advice I’ve read. Tiger snakes – as well as Tasmania’s other two species, the white-lipped snake and copperhead – are highly venomous. Their bites can kill but they rarely attack unless provoked or stepped upon and in general dash for cover as soon as a walker’s footsteps are heard. Read about snake bite safety on the Overland Track here.
I stand my ground. My heart is pounding. A bead of sweat runs down my face. I’ve been scared of snakes since childhood and this encounter is making my skin crawl. And then, well, an anti-climax of sorts. No confrontation or drama. It ends so simply. The tiger snake slithers away peacefully into the dense green of the myrtle beech rainforest next to the lake and, to my surprise, I find the sight more awe-inspiring than repulsive. It is a momentary glimpse of everything that is magnificent about the Overland Track – jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes, majestic creatures and varied flora – and a fitting end to my Tasmanian hiking adventure. I realise too that I am the interloper. The snake hasn’t rudely interrupted my walk. Instead I’ve intruded on its sunbathing. This, after all, is a stunning wilderness, a place of nature not humans – and hikers like me are just lucky to be able to gatecrash the party.
Rewind a week though and my six-day walk gets off to a stuttering start. I take a free shuttle bus from Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre to Ronny Creek, where a grand sign – tailor-made for a pre-trek selfie – marks the beginning of the famous track. But I don’t stop for a snap. The weather is atrocious. Driving rain and howling winds batter me as I climb the steepest and one of the most exposed sections of the whole walk to Marions Lookout. I can’t even see the iconic summit of Cradle Mountain, which is shrouded in clouds, and to make things worse my backpack feels like it is full of bricks. In fact it is crammed full of instant noodles, pasta, sugary snacks and a myriad of camping accessories – everything I need to survive for the next week and, annoyingly, more than enough to make my back ache like hell. “Ugh, this is miserable”, I say aloud, but I struggle on and make it – drenched and down-hearted – to Waterfall Valley Hut, my home for the night.
Meeting Other Hikers
Day two is similarly wet and overcast so I decide to hike a double leg, skipping a night at Windermere Hut and instead pressing on to Pelion Hut. The walking is uneventful and forgettable and I find myself feeling a little underwhelmed by the Overland Track so far. The night at Pelion however turns things around. It is buzzing with life. Stories and jokes are shared. Encouragement is given to those feeling weary. Bags of sweets are passed around. An informal black market is thriving – a spoonful of Nutella is swapped for a bowl of leftover fried rice, a plaster exchanged for some loo roll.
There is a real sense of community – everyone is in this together and looking out for each other. It is a disparate group – three Israeli guys, a couple from Taiwan, a Swiss backpacker, solo female hikers from Germany and Japan, and a good dose of Australian mainlanders over for a Tasmanian trekking holiday – yet we’re all getting on brilliantly. This isn’t usually my cup of tea. I like to escape the crowds and be alone in the wild. But the social aspect of the Overland Track is intoxicating and – as we get to know each other better – it becomes a special part of the experience. I can now see why Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service so proudly boasts that 8,000 people from 50 countries hike the trail each year.
“I feel like the King of Tasmania” – Climbing Mt Pelion East
I wake rejuvenated. The clouds have lifted, the rain has disappeared and the skies are turning blue. Day three will be all about the mountains. It takes about two hours to ascend to the Pelion Gap saddle where, in a moment of sheer joy, I ditch my heavy backpack in favour of a day sack. Feeling weightless I bound up Mt Pelion East, a 1,433m peak with a striking summit. Dolerite columns rise vertically out of the mountain like a lost city perched impossibly and grandly at the highest vantage point. I haul myself up a steep track and scramble over huge boulders before finally standing atop the protruding rock that has reached just high enough to claim the prestige of being the summit. I feel like the King of Tasmania. No-one else is on this mountain. It is mine. I can see for miles in all directions and survey my realm. It is one of those moments – and they don’t happen very often – when I just laugh out loud spontaneously for the sheer awesomeness of where I am and what I’m doing.
The Roof of Tasmania – Mt Ossa
Back at the col I throw away any chance of an early hut arrival and decide to head up Mt Ossa, despite the grey clouds circling ominously around the 1,617m summit. After all, when will I next have a chance to stand atop the roof of Tasmania? I steadily climb past Mt Doris, boulder hop through an opening between sheer cliffs – a natural gateway to this island’s highest mountain – and emerge on a rocky plateau. It is a short scramble to the top and I make it in perfect timing. A break in the clouds suddenly reveals the surrounding wilderness to me. It feels like the unveiling of a lost world, a portal into a forgotten time, a secret the Overland Track has chosen to share only with me. I whisper “thank you” under my breath to the mountain Gods, as the clouds roll over once again.
Day four’s 9.6km hike to Bert Nichols Hut – plus pleasant side trips to Hartnett, D’Alton and Fergusson waterfalls – is memorable for the wildlife encounters, both good and bad. I watch a short-beaked echidna – a hedgehog-like mammal – rummage around the vegetation and I laugh as a common wombat walks across the track a few feet in front of me, barely registering my presence. Skinks scurry in every direction as I plod along the boardwalks and a wallaby hops by the track, giving me a quizzical look. A common brushtail possum noisily sniffs around for food scraps at the hut, eager for any opportunity to raid an unguarded bag for cereal bars. A squirming leech almost lunches on my forearm before I hastily flick it away and I nearly place my hand on a gravelly nest inhabited by blue-black-coloured jack jumper ants. Despite my status as a nervous Englishman with a phobia of Australia’s deadly fauna, the wildlife is a unique, fantastic part of the Overland Track. I’m just sad that I don’t see any rare Tasmanian devils, whose numbers are tragically being ravaged by a facial tumour disease. Check out my top 7 Overland Track wildlife encounters here.
More Adventure on The Acropolis
On day five I awake in the mood for a bit more adventure, rather than a simple descent to the finish line. I opt to head for Pine Valley Hut, which is technically off the Overland Track, and use it as a base to climb the enticing, towering pinnacles of The Acropolis. The walk takes about two hours as I ascend a path of a million slippery tree roots before a hands-on-rock scramble to the 1,481m summit. Standing on top of the mountain I look across the valleys, plains, grasslands, rivers, rainforests, distinctive eucalyptus woodlands and dramatic peaks.
“A rugged, remote, precious landscape”
There is no sign of human life here – no roads, no villages, no farmhouses, just the boardwalks snaking ever onward.It is a rugged, remote, precious landscape in front of me. I think of the Aboriginal people who called the area home for thousands of years and made a living off the land. Their wilderness is still untouched and glorious. I hope it stays that way for another thousand years.
Tips and Advice
How to get there?
Flights are readily available to Launceston, Devonport, Hobart and Burnie (Wynyard) in Tasmania, connecting via Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane in mainland Australia. Bus and coach transport to Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre and from Lake St Clair is available through a variety of providers including Tassielink and McDermott’s Coaches. Booking in advance is advised. Long-term parking is also available at both Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair.
When to go?
Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service states more stable and warmer weather patterns occur from November to April, explaining that winter walking should only be attempted by very experienced bushwalkers. It adds that “every season offers something unique”. In spring from September to November expect rain and new growth while summer from December to February brings longer daylight hours and warmer weather, but more people. Autumn from March to May welcomes some crisp, clear days, as well as an increased chance of rain and wind.
Where to stay?
A network of huts is in place along the Overland Track, providing basic shelter. A typical hut has wooden sleeping bunks for about 20 people (often in one room), a table, bench seats, a gas or coal heater, rainwater tank and nearby composting toilet. There are no mattresses, cooking facilities, sinks, toilet paper or resident chefs. Space in the huts is offered on a first-come first-served basis, but wooden platform camping sites are available next to each hut. There is no additional cost to stay in the huts or on the campsites. More luxurious private huts with hot showers are exclusively open to walkers on a guided tour with commercial operator Cradle Mountain Huts. A broader range of accommodation options such as cabins and hotels are available at the start and end of the track.
How long does it take?
For most people the walk takes six or seven days. The total distance covered can be reduced from 80km to 62.5km by taking a ferry from Narcissus Hut to the Lake St Clair Visitor Centre at Cynthia Bay. Walkers do not need to follow a set itinerary and can choose to walk the track as slowly or quickly as they want. Numerous optional side-trips are available during each day’s walk.
How much does it cost?
To walk the Overland Track during the peak season (October 1 to May 30) you must book in advance, pay a $200 Australian dollar fee and buy a $30 national park entry pass. It is compulsory to walk from north (Cradle Mountain) to south (Lake St Clair).The booking system reserves a departure date but not hut accommodation. From June 1 to September 30, you do not need to book or pay, and can walk in either direction. Check out my Overland Track money-saving tips here.
What to take?
Walkers should be self-sufficient and carry all of the usual equipment required for a long-distance trek including sleeping bag and mat, cooking stove, food and maps. The weather in Tasmania is notoriously unpredictable and therefore warm and waterproof clothing suitable for any conditions is essential. It is compulsory for all walkers to carry a tent in case the huts are full and gaiters are recommended to guard against snake bites. Water is available from streams and rainwater tanks at the huts – many hikers choose to treat the water before drinking it. Despite a plethora of on-a-shoestring walkers completing the track in running trainers and even wellies, sturdy walking boots are necessary.
Can I do it?
The Overland Track is a “significant undertaking”, according to Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, with a large part of the hike above 1,000 metres in elevation on exposed plateaus in a remote area. But it should be well within the capabilities of walkers who are physically and mentally fit, prepared for all seasons and self-sufficient. The track is very well-signposted and presents very few navigational challenges.
How to walk responsibly?
Walkers should adhere to a range of Overland Track rules including: always walk on the official tracks so damage is kept to a narrow band; carry out all waste and ensure you ‘leave no trace’; only camp on tent platforms and at established campsites; respect wildlife; and never light fires.
Where can I find out more?
For further details and to book click here
I originally wrote this feature for the May/June edition of Adventure Travel, an awesome magazine about hiking, the great outdoors and (obviously) adventure travel. Check it out here.
Check out more of James Forrest here.