Mount Ossa and The Overland Track, Tasmania
The flight from Melbourne to Tasmania takes around an hour and on arriving over Australia's Island State, we have clear views of the mountains rising beneath us. Those topping out at over 1100 Metres have been catalogued as ‘The Abel's,' eponymously named after one Abel Tazman a Dutch mariner and the first European to set foot on the island.
The Airport shuttle bus service drops us off outside Hobart's Tourist Information Office. The enthusiastic Receptionist on duty here proves to be a repository of both the useful and the trivial. From her we learn that no one has yet completed all 176 ‘Abel's', although the author of the tables is currently within striking distance and will undoubtedly be first past the post. I can't remember why but She also informs us that Durex used to be the name for sticky tape here and that Manchester is still the collective noun for linen. "Welcome to Tassie you guys!"
Our main reason for coming to Tasmania is to walk the famous Overland Track, which stretches for eighty kilometres between Lake St. Clair in the south and Cradle Valley in the North. En route we hope to Climb Mount Ossa, at 1617 Metres this is highest summit on the Island State and if we make it to the top then we will establish a new altitude record. We spend the night at City Back Packer's, a basic budget hostel located within walking distance of Hobart's main bus station.
As the bus leaves the outskirts of Hobart and begins to climb into the Tasmanian interior I start reading one of the many guides and leaflets we collected during a frantic dash of last minute preparations yesterday afternoon.
The whole area of the western central highlands has been designated as a National Park and its rugged mountain peaks and alpine moor lands offer some of the finest scenery in Australia. In December 1982 the entire area was inscribed on the United Nation's World Heritage List. I like the sound of this and the pictures till now seen only in guide books are already appearing outside the window.
Weather conditions in the Tasmanian Highlands, can alter quickly and on any given day of the year you can experience all four seasons in the space of an hour, bit like Scotland really, so there are no worries for us on that score! Luckily we had brought all the gear we need for an extended trip in the mountains and our biggest expense has been the new Hobbit Tent we purchased in Perth. Now I reckon it's a tad on the small side but I hope to be proved wrong about that. I also have some nagging concerns about our supply of de-hydrated meals courtesy of the Kiwi army. I am not a big fan of processed foods but they came with a good recommendation from a young climber we met in Perth and if you are hungry enough then you can adapt you taste to just about anything. Around midday the driver makes a short stop at the last outpost of civilisation before we enter the wilderness zone. Here we take the opportunity to buy fresh food supplies at a small supermarket; our plan is to eat our way through these goodies first and then move on to the dubious delights of the de-hydrated diet.
‘ How on earth are we going to carry all of this stuff Dave?'
‘ We'll worry about that when the time comes mountain girl.'
‘ What happened to the brave new ethos of travelling light and moving fast then mountain boy?'
‘ Luxury items are always good for morale. You'll thank me for it later.'
‘ Yeah, well I wouldn't mind choosing some of them.'
‘ Point taken.'
Another hour on the road and we arrive at National Park visitor complex located at the head of Lake St.Clair. Everybody is required to register at the Park Offices before commencing their walk and you also have to pay a small fee to obtain a track pass. As we have not informed anyone where we are going the Park Ranger on duty encourages us to complete a trip intentions form. I would have preferred not to do this, as we have to detail our intended itinerary and also state when and where we expect to return. Now, I can see the sound sense in all of this but it does limit our options for side excursions en route and it imposes a schedule that we will have to keep to.
Most walkers start the Overland Track from Cradle Mountain in the north and then travel south to Lake St Clair. Being accidentally unconventional we have chosen to walk in the opposite direction. Either way it will take you around four of five days to complete the route.
The first section of the overland track passes through mixed rainforest and hugs the western shore of Lake St. Clair. According to my guidebook this is Australia's deepest lake, formed from the convergence of several glaciers during four ice ages. The aboriginal people knew it as Leeawuleena, which means ‘sleeping water' and personally I prefer this name. Too many of Australia's natural wonders are now commonly known by their colonial appellations and native aboriginal culture continues to be marginalised by the political dominance of the migrant population. For thousands of years this whole area was part of the territory of the Big River Tribe and remnants of their occupation include cave art sites, stone quarries, rock shelters and hunting tools. I am fascinated by Aboriginal art and what I've seen of it in Australia so far is limited to what's on offer in the tourist shops and galleries. I now hope to see evidence of the real thing.
The silence of the forest is shattered by the occasional shrieking calls of the Yellow-tailed black Cockatoo. These large noisy parrots are apparently difficult to see as they spend most of their time high up in the tree canopy. We don't spot them but along the track we find evidence of their joinery skills. Numerous rotting logs and dead trees have been shredded to pulp. The birds have powerful bills and have ripped these apart to feed on the tasty grubs inside.
Now, I really don't want to come across as a whining Celt this early on, but any mention of the abundant insect life, is conspicuous by its absence from the plethora of guides I have and many of which I dutifully sped read before starting out on this adventure. Shame I didn't notice this sorry omission prior to being in a position to experience the awful reality at first hand. Much of the Overland Track lies at above 900 Metres in elevation and it passes through damp valley rainforest and exposed alpine moorland. These conditions provide for mosquito heaven and listen up dude we're talking about the Vlad Impalers of mossie kind here! Oh and by the way these boys are flight operational twenty-four hours a day.
We have been going for a couple of hours when it starts to rain and immediately my appreciation of our magnificent surroundings is replaced by an overwhelming desire to reach the hut at Echo Point. There are nine public huts strategically sited along the entire length of the overland track and they vary in size, as do the facilities on offer. Berths for the night are strictly on a first come first served basis and no charge is made for the dubious privilege of sharing your growing personal hygiene problems with friendly strangers. The last hour on day one finds us wet, already somewhat dishevelled and continually moaning to each other about our aching shoulders and the comparative weights of our sacks.
When we finally arrive at the Echo Point, the day is slipping quietly into dusk and we are pleased to find the hut empty. After dumping our sacks inside we head down to a tiny beach with a jetty to have a roll up and make a brew. The view across the sleeping water is stunning and from this vantage the sharp peak of Mount Ida dominates it.
‘ Hey did you know that Australia is home to more poisonous insects and creatures than anywhere else on the planet?'
‘ That's a truly comforting thought Anna.'
‘ Seven of the nine most venomous snakes in the world are native to Australia.'
Now, Anna chooses to supply this unwelcome information just after we've settled down in our bunks for the night. Naturally such knowledge does not make for the proverbial sound night's sleep and thereafter it rather taints your feelings towards and your interaction with the local residents. Of course, I was already well aware of the insect and sea creature side of things but snakes are a hideous revelation and particularly at bedtime. Perusing the hut logbook earlier on I was concerned to read about the frequent nocturnal visits of a giant rat. Now I detest rodents in general and plague carriers are an absolute abhorrence. This hut is also sure to be home to numerous spiders and weird looking insects from the twilight zone. I'll need to keep a wary eye out for those boys, a bite from one of them could well be potentially life threatening and they all look dangerous to me. Annoyingly, Anna sleeps soundly, while I lie awake trying not to listen to our new Ozzie mate Rob, rattling the rafters with his snorts and grunts. Periodically, I find myself surveying the numerous cobwebs above my head for any sign of the dreaded Funnel Web Spider, well; at least I'd discovered a novel new use for my head torch. Sleep becomes a forlorn hope and I am still wide-awake when day two dawns.
Around lunchtime the sun makes a welcome first appearance and the clouds begin to disperse. Magnificent fluted pinnacles and crumbling ridges are revealed through gaps in the trees and suddenly Mountains are popping up all around us. According to my guidebook the Du Cane Range is a series of peaks with an average height of nearly 1500 Metres, that's bigger than anything we have back home in Scotland. Ahead of us we can identify the cloud-shrouded bulk of Mount Gould and I guess that the soaring rock spires and crumbling ridges must belong to the romantically named peaks of the Acropolis. The enfolding landscape is that of a lost world and we half expect to see great carnivores from the Jurassic emerging from the bush. Whenever we stop, it doesn't take long for the insect hordes to locate us and make a misery of our lives. Already we are becoming skilled in the subtle art of the Australia wave and rest stops are now an infrequent occurrence due to the continual airborne harassment.
Currently I am not a big fan of the wildlife here, it's either potentially lethal or intent on turning your life into a nightmare of endurance. Now the park does provide a variety of natural habitats for its abundant and diverse wildlife and apparently this is a major attraction for many visitors. Over twenty species of mammals have been recorded, but most of these are nocturnal and a little patience is required if the amateur naturalist is to see them. Mind you this is only our second day and already we've encountered numerous Bennett's Wallaby, Tasmanian Padmelon, and a variety of Possums. I am hoping to see a Tasmanian Devil, this is probably the largest Australian Carnivore (depending on whether the native Tiger is extinct). Apparently the Devils have powerful jaws and can consume up to half of their entire body weight in only half an hour. Real gluttons if you ask me. They are about the size of a small dog and can be aggressive when cornered by a hapless walker.
The hut at Windy Ridge is situated in the middle of dense forest and we arrive there in the middle of the afternoon. I must confess my imagined literal interpretation of its location had it perched on a romantic windswept mountain ridge, affording us a spectacular panorama from a splendid wooden veranda. I am therefore more than a little disappointed by the claustrophobic reality of the hut's real location. Added to this it looks like being a busy refuge for the coming night with a dozen walkers already outside brewing up or chatting in the warm sunshine. The hut has gained a bad reputation for mossies and to our added dismay we find the interior infested with Sand Flies. These dudes resemble giant bluebottles with the nasty anatomical addition of a monstrously elongated and rather ominous looking snout. We decide against contesting occupancy rights with them and beat a hasty retreat.
Outside a young woman from Sydney is using a cigarette to burn leeches off her legs while her male companion looks on barely able to contain his growing disgust. Mentally they both look close to the edge and I fear this trip has not been a bonding experience for then. They started out from Cradle Valley three days ago and are glad to have the end of their torment in sight. They are muttering wish lists at each other and imagining the simple delights of sleeping in comfortable beds, drinking cool beers by the ocean and gorging themselves on appetizing or at least edible food. More than anything they want to be anywhere but here. Another bloated leech sizzles under the hot ash of her cigarette and is dispatched to its fiery fate. The appalling abundance of leeches at Pelion and Frog Flats is a major feature of many conversations around the hut. I make a mental note of this and shudder inside. These slug like vampires are a bridge too far for me and I really would rather not have intimate acquaintance with them.
We replenish our bottles at the water tank next to the hut and then consider our options. The mossies are in abundant attendance here, camping around the hut is obviously poor and most of the best sites have already been taken. We figure the day is still relatively young, so we decide to press our ambitions and move on towards the next hut on the other side of the pass. The camping there is reputedly good and this bold move will give us the opportunity to climb Mt. Ossa, the following afternoon and so put us a whole day up on our schedule.
The decision proves to be a rash one and the long slog up to the Du Cane Gap at around 1000 Metres is an arduous grind in the sticky late afternoon heat. The friendly but nonetheless smug individuals we encounter making their way down invariably take delight in exaggerating the difficulties ahead of us. Tales of giant leeches and man-eating arachnids are delivered with relish and a deadpan demeanour and naturally we endure it with forced good humour. Now I have to point this out, Australians can be annoyingly fit and physical adversity is always embraced with up beat bravado. They are also monotonously friendly even if only on a superficial level but perhaps most cruelly of all they seem to be entirely impervious to the attentions of the insect world. The northern European sensibility is not suited to such an overwhelmingly positive outlook on life and at times during our trip to Oz I longed for a encounter with a sullen Glaswegian shop assistant or even an acrimonious exchange with a pugnacious representative of officialdom from the council Planning Department.
The sun is already low in the sky when we cross over the Du Cane Gap and begin the long meandering descent towards the Mersey River valley. The vegetation suddenly changes here and we leave the beautiful alpine yellow gums and tree ferns behind us and enter a section of the rainforest dominated by aromatic sassafras and huge towering king billy pines. The trees are crowded together, competing with each other for the available light and this creates a dense canopy, which only allows a little diffused sunshine to reach us on the forest floor. The atmosphere here is gloomy and the muddy path now less obvious to tired eyes.
The official track guide provides rough timings for the stages between the nine public huts but these times don't allow for stops or awkward conditions under foot. Fallen trees and treacherous gnarled roots frequently block the way ahead and theses obstacles have to be negotiated with care. A broken bone could easily result from a careless step and snakes like to make their homes in hollow trunks or so Anna keeps on telling me. Who knows what native horrors might lurk underneath the rotting leaves and tree bark? On more than one occasion mountain girl thinks she spots one of the dreaded reptiles slithering into the undergrowth and any unexplained noise now prompts worried glances between us. We walk on for another hour, each of us growing more concerned and uneasy but neither of us wanting to voice their doubts for fear of escalating this situation into a full-scale mind fuck. Calm down Dave we're on the right track, just keep moving and don't let your imagination run wild, you know where that leads so lets not go there.
‘ Pretty quiet eh? Must be a couple hours since we met anyone else.' I whisper nervously.
‘ I haven't seen a red daub of paint for ages. We must have gone wrong somewhere Dave.'
‘ Well let me see the map then!'
‘ Snapping at me isn't going to help Dave!'
‘ Sorry. I didn't mean that Anna.'
‘ We have to work together.'
‘ Look I reckon we're just short of this turn off to Cathedral Falls. Another half hour at most.'
‘ I hope you're right this place is beginning to give me the creeps.'
‘ I know what you mean. I keep on expecting Freddy Kruger to leap out of the trees brandishing a chain saw in one hand and a severed human head in the other.'
‘ Thanks Dave if I wasn't spooked before I certainly am now!'
There is much relief all round when we finally emerge into a large clearing and see the historic Du Cane hut, nestled below Castle Crag. Being the height of summer the surrounding myrtle trees are in glorious bloom and the aroma of their blossom fills the air with a sweet sickly scent. In the distance the imposing rocky ramparts of Cathedral Mountain tower above us, their moody grandeur is brightly illuminated by departing sun and for a while we are held transfixed by the spectacle of it.
Du Cane, is the oldest hut in the park and to help conserve it for posterity, an overnight stay is only permitted in dire emergencies. The Park Rangers do patrol and an illicit berth for the night could easily result in humiliating censure from an aspiring Crocodile Dundee. We decide not to flaunt authority and I saunter off to collect water, leaving Anna to set up camp for the night.
Over many years of experience I have become adroit in the subtle art of avoiding the more bothersome of camp chores. Anna is of course fully aware of my customary machinations of avoidance and is understandably antagonistically opposed to them. My natural inclination towards sloth around the camp can easily become a bone of contention between us and I will have to be careful not to over do things. I always find that it helps if I can find something to grumble about with the task I have chosen for myself. The stream is only a short walk from the camp but naturally I'll exaggerate the distance and hope Anna doesn't check it for herself. Disagreeable insect infestations and spooky noises in the dark might also be mentioned in passing to ensure a lack of investigative interest on her part. After filling our water bags I decide to have a roll up. No point in heading back too soon my trusty partner is an efficient homemaker and I will only get in her way or worse be obviously indolent.
When I eventually return with the water, Anna has the tent pitched and a brew is already underway. I am quietly proud of her efforts. She is chatting to our neighbour for the night and after dumping the water bags I amble over to join them. James comes from Melbourne and is walking the overland track alone with no fixed itinerary or particular time scale. He has the obvious physique and carriage of a rock climber and we are not surprised when our suspicions are duly confirmed. Young James is one of the leading lights in his university club and has climbed extensively in the Blue Mountains and in Tasmania.
After a welcome brew followed by a rather bland chicken stew, our new friend calls us over to the hut and introduces us to our resident tiger snake. The snake is curled up in the long grass and appears to have just shed its skin. Does that make them more dangerous I wonder? We keep our distance and framed in my camera lens even using the zoom facility it looks more like a giant cow pat than a potentially lethal reptile. For the record there are three species of venomous snakes found in Tasmania, the tiger, the copperhead and the white-lipped whipsnake. All of them are residents of the national park and when encountered they should be treated with extreme caution. They rarely attack unless provoked or accidentally trod on. A fact that provides little comfort when confronted with the reality of spending a night in close proximity to one of these guys. Comfortingly, James now relates how friends of his were chased by an angry tiger snake here the previous year and only narrowly avoided being bitten. Over a short distance the tiger snake can run down a horse and it can rear up like a cobra, a lethal combination if you ask me. Apparently they are more dangerous during the mating season this obviously concerns the wimp in me but I manage to subdue the impulse to ask exactly when these annual nuptials commence.
As dusk slips silently into night, pademelon and possums begin to appear and we can hear Tasmanian devils, growling in the surrounding undergrowth. Before turning in for the night James advises us to hang our provisions from a tree branch. The smell of food from our tent is sure to attract close attention from one of nature's nocturnal opportunists and we could easily find ourselves on enforced emergency rations for the rest of our trip!
The first night in our new hobbit tent is an unpleasant one, we spend it listening to the prowlers outside and snatching moments of intermittent sleep whenever our over active imaginations allow.
‘ Did you hear that rustling noise Anna?' I rasp.
‘ I was nearly asleep Dave - what is it now?' She responds groggily.
‘ There's something outside the tent and it sounds pretty big to me Anna.' The fear has me in its grip.
‘ Go back to sleep. We're in the middle of a rain forest. What do you expect peace and quiet? It was probably a wombat or a possum and before you ask they're herbivores.'
‘ Could be a Tasmanian Tiger though? Apparently they had some credible sightings in the early eighties.'
‘ They're extinct Dave believe it.'
‘ Do you know that for sure?'
‘ Sssh! I think I heard something snuffling and snorting right by my head.'
‘ Oh Jesus don't tell me there something inside the fucking tent with us!'
‘ Calm down its outside the tent Dave!'
‘ Well why did you say it was right by your head then?'
‘ That's the way it sounded to me.'
‘ What do you think its doing out there?'
‘ Did you hang the food bag up?'
‘ Well I just hope it's secure.'
‘ The food is safe Anna. I followed James instructions to the letter.'
‘ I think it's gone now. Look let's try and get some sleep eh?'
‘ Move over a bit will you.'
‘ My face is pressed against the nylon wall Dave.'
‘ This tent is a nightmare Anna. I can't stretch out and I'm covered in bloody mosquito bites.'
‘ Go to sleep.'
‘ The bastards must be able to bite through clothing.'
‘ Please go to sleep, I'm tired Dave.'
‘ God my legs are so itchy.'
‘ Don't scratch them you'll only make it worse'
‘ Hey did you see the leeches on that girls leg?'
‘ Dave I beg you please go to sleep!'
The night passes slowly and I am still wide-awake when the dawn light starts to filter through the blue nylon of the Eureka Hobbit. This tent was definitely a bad buy; there isn't nearly enough room in here with all our gear stashed inside. Size always matters with tents I should remember that in future. Unfortunately we spent two hundred dollars on the Hobbit and due to my perverse penny pinching ethic inherited from my prudent working class parents that means we have to endure the cramped confines of this tent for at least six more days. The equivalent of bed and breakfast here costs about thirty-five dollars a day. By my reckoning the Hobbit moves into profit sometime next week and then we can splash the plastic on some luxury accommodation. I hope Anna agrees, maybe I should sound her out when she wakes up.
Breakfast is not an appetising affair and the ever-present attentions of the insects make it an unpleasant ordeal. James is heading back the way we have just come and we say our good-byes before setting off on our summit bid.
We leave Du Cane just after eight with clear blue skies and a dazzling white sun above us. The climb up to the Pelion Gap, is a gentle meander through the now familiar eucalyptus and gum forest. In the bright morning sunshine the white and pink bark of the trees shimmer with reflected light and regular stops are made to consult my trail guide and photograph the more interesting specimens. Apparently, the shrubby cider gums have a sweet sap and this was collected and drunk by the Aboriginal people. Using stone tools, they would cut the bark so that the sap oozed from a hole made near the base of the tree. The sap was then drunk using a reed or a twisted piece of bark for a straw. I am saddened to think that the original human inhabitants of this land are now long gone and their songlines and cave art provide only a fading memory of a remarkable culture and people. They were the soul of Australia and the guardians of this unique landscape for thousands of years. Today the cider gums are a source of nectar for the yellow-throated honey-eaters and the aboriginal people have been evicted form their ancestral lands and remain here only as a ghostly memory.
We have been going for about an hour when breaks in the trees give us our first fleeting views of Mt. Ossa and the neighbouring volcanic conical peak of Mt.Pelion. Even from this distance Mount Ossa presents an impressive picture and its dominant position is sure to provide us with an expansive view from the summit. The day is perfect all we have to do is keep climbing and that reward will surly be ours. Still a long way to go though and I won't be taking anything for granted.
At around the thousand metre contour line, we suddenly emerge from the forest onto a flat exposed plain of tussock grass moorland, giving us expansive open views for the first time in two and half days. The track now climbs slowly up Pinestone Valley towards the Pelion Gap and the mountains rising to either side of this expansive pass dominate the view ahead. One of these is our objective and from here the massive bulk of Mt. Ossa rises up like an impregnable gothic fortress. I know that the route to the summit is little more than a walk but even so the remote location and the unfamiliar landscape has us entertaining a few edgy doubts.
‘ Looks pretty steep from here can you spot our route up Dave?'
‘ I reckon we head up the ridge from the col towards that prominent shoulder but I can't see any obvious signs of erosion at this distance.'
‘ James mentioned some tricky scrambling near the summit.'
‘ Having second thoughts?'
‘ Not yet, but I'm prepared to admit to the odd flutter in my stomach.'
‘ Me too, this is new territory for us mountain girl.'
The Pelion Gap at an elevation of 1116 Metres lies more or less in the centre of the national park and this makes it the unofficial halfway point of the Overland Track. As such it is always liable to be a crowded spot and today is no exception. Some walkers are content to stop here and enjoy the spectacular views on a clear day but most will at least attempt the three and half hour roGo to part 2 of the story>
Contributed by: David Meldrum< Back to Australia page for links to other stories