We flew to Launceston after a few mad days. Emma and I ran around like two people who work too much, sit too little and won’t stop until someone turns the music off. So much to think of. What to pack? What to eat and how much? Will it all fit in our packs? Will it be too heavy? And… who needs new socks? Oliver needed new socks. The rest of us did too, but Oliver likes a fresh pair everyday which means he needed seven pairs. Excessive in my opinion, but Oliver does not like crusty socks.
I usually freak out before our outdoor adventures. My pesky mind conjures up all the gruesome and horrible ways our irresponsible habit of dragging our children into the wilderness will ruin our lives, but not this time. This time I was cool as a penguin in an Antarctic winter storm. This family has form. We’ve hiked the West Coast Trail in Canada, the highlands of Iceland and trekked to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal and all that when Amy and Oliver were still looking up to greet a Shetland pony. I figured sixty-five-kilometres from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clare would be a stroll to Grandma’s.
Still, my capacity to feel anxious should never be underestimated and after completing the grocery shopping in Launceston I realised we had forgotten to buy a lighter to light the camp stove. What would we do if we couldn’t light our stove! Emma said it would be fine. She said we would just get one the next day at the cabins at Cradle Mountain. I said we should turn around and go back and get one, which we didn’t because Emma gave me one of those looks that says if you do, you’re a fool.
The next day I still wasn’t so sure they would sell lighters at the cabins at Cradle Mountain. So, 15 minutes before our bus departed from Launceston I marched off to a service station proudly returning just in time to board with a lighter in hand. Emma smiled.
I had another moment as the Parks staff gave us the standard Overland Track hiker spiel that everyone gets before setting out. It’s a spiel designed primarily for overseas visitors who show up in droves every year, wander off into the mountains without food, water or a jacket and wonder why their partner leaves them after getting caught in a snow storm when they are cold, tired, hungry, thirsty and still a long way from the bus. In short it was not targeted at people like us who had prepared within an inch of their life right down to and including ensuring Oliver had a fresh pair socks every day. The written equivalent goes like this:
WARNING: The Overland Track is a serious undertaking, for well–prepared walkers, with a good level of fitness and who understand the risks of walking in a remote alpine area. Weather can change rapidly and deaths have occurred, even in summer, when people have been caught underprepared in cold, wet and windy weather.
Die from exposure! Fall and break your leg scrambling up a rocky crag where no-one knows where you are and starve or freeze to death before help arrives! Get bitten by a tiger snake and collapse in mortal terror as the venom grinds your heart to a standstill! To really make the point the ranger recounted a tale about a lady who stepped off the track to relieve herself, squatted down in the grass and was promptly greeted by the fangs of said tiger snake puncturing her butt! I can’t recall if she lived or died. My mind stopped working with the mental picture of a tiger snake hanging off my rear end.
After the spiel the ranger offered us an emergency satellite Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) for $40 for the week. My bureaucratic mind whirred into action conjuring up the risk framework with which every good public servant is indoctrinated. Likelihood of life threatening event occurring during walk = low. Consequence of life threatening event occurring = severe. Personal Locator Beacon for $40. Sold!
We set off the next day, 1 January 2019. It wasn’t quite raining but it wasn’t dry either. Mist swirled and drizzle drifted by. It was not the day we were hoping for. Five years ago, when Oliver and Amy were seven and nine, we spent a perfect day hiking to the summit of Cradle Mountain and we wanted another day like that, to do it again. Instead we were walking in a cloud and the higher we went the worse it got. Everyone who set out that day without food, water and a jacket had either turned back by now or were well on their way to divorce. By the time we made Marion’s Lookout, high above Dove Lake, we were all dressed in full rain gear, beanies and gloves. It was blowing a gale and we were drenched on the windward side.
Kitchen Hut appeared out of the mist just below the rocky face of Cradle Mountain, not that we could see it. It was a good place for lunch given the weather, but 15 other people clearly had the same idea and we were forced to perch on the tiny mezzanine level to chow down. No one wanted to go back outside, but we did because that’s what we came to do and sitting still when partially damp makes you shiver.
Oliver’s mood deteriorated as the wind picked up and his feet got tired and I began to fret a little about the lack of democratic process involved in his being here. Just because hiking through a cloud with heavy packs is Emma and my idea of fun, does that mean it must be Amy and Oliver’s as well?
At what age is it beholden upon us to ask, rather than decide, whether our children wish to walk for up to eight hours a day, rain, hail or shine? More worryingly in the moment, if Amy or Oliver didn’t really want to be there would Emma and I have to force march them all 65 kilometres thereby squeezing all joy out of the next five and half days and eliminating all hope that they will come hiking with us when we are 83 and want them to carry the heavy stuff? This I pondered as the track descended steeply off the exposed plain.
Fortunately, before Oliver’s grumbling grew much above a low rumbling, Waterfall Valley Hut appeared nestled at the base of Barn Bluff. Dry clothes, four walls, and hot soup served up with water warmed by the stove (lit by the lighter procured in Launceston, just to be sure) soon had a smile back on Oliver’s dial.
While it rained, and squalled, we settled down to making friends. We met Sarah, a French girl from Perth who hiked alone because her fiancée doesn’t hike at all and Brett the electrician from Brisbane who also hiked alone presumably because he enjoyed hanging out with people like us. In the days that followed we also met Josh, Kat and Caroline. Josh said he and Caroline often silenced the small talk at parties after he introduced himself as a cancer nurse and Caroline as a counsellor often dealing with depressed and suicidal people. He said all that though in a way which we warmed too instantly.
The cloud and mist and drizzle slowly cleared the next day and by lunch time it broke up altogether with blue skies lighting our way. The views we missed the day before were laid bare for all to see and what a delight it was. Alpine plains of button grass and scoparia in resplendent bloom, eucalypt woodlands and pandanus groves and a skyline of craggy peaks on the far horizons. This is what we come for!
A side trip to Lake Will on day 2 added an extra three kilometres to an otherwise relatively short day’s walk on the way to Lake Windermere. Oliver lead the way, followed by Amy, followed by me. Emma likes to tag along behind. The order is no accident. Oliver, being the youngest, likes the sense of control that comes with leading the way. Amy, being the wonderfully good natured kid that she is, allows this but likes to walk in front of me so she can hear the stories I recount as we hike. Emma likes to bring up the rear because I walk too fast and she has low tolerance for anyone (even me) breathing down her neck.
Every now and then, and with a rationale and timing known only to Oliver, he would stop in his tracks and pronounce, ‘I declare a pause’ in a happy, cheeky, righteous kind of way. When this happened, we would all stop as directed and look around at the scenery. No great hardship. After a highly variable and seemingly random period, he would follow this up with, ‘And now continue, with an encore of walking!’, at which we would all dutifully fall into line and continue our merry way. And so, it went. ‘I declare a pause’… ‘And continue, with an encore of walking’.
We continued, ‘with an encore of walking’ until we reached the picturesque Lake Windermere. It was sunny and hot, and after setting up the tent we all took a dip in the lake followed by a general bout of lounging around and or strolling through the idyllic setting, taking photos of the meandering Overland Track against the backdrop of Barn Bluff, with wombats grazing on the side and a woodland full of birdsong.
Dinner was served at 6.00, following several rounds of cards. Water was boiled by the stove, lit by the lighter, procured in Launceston (just to be sure), before being applied to the evening’s selection of dehydrated meals – which while providing the calories required had a mildly distracting tendency to leave me, at least, without the accompanying sense of fullness to which our affluent life style has lead me to become accustomed. There I sat pondering how many days I could go with my evening appetite two thirds satisfied and trying to recall how many packets of spare corn crackers we had packed, when Nikki entered our lives.
Nikki is a guide who was leading a group of overseas visitors with the foresight to pay someone else to ensure sufficient water, food and jackets to guarantee a good time. So diligently did Nikki do her job, she had left over rice and dahl curry that she didn’t know what to do with! It would have been rude of us not to help her out of her situation, same thing with the apple crumble they couldn’t finish for dessert. I went to bed and fell asleep in a food induced coma.
Amy woke me up some hours later as she clamoured to get out of the tent to go to the loo. She only made it part way before beating a hasty retreat. ‘There’s something out there’ she whispered. There was too. A possum. I saw it sitting on top of our packs, head and ears silhouetted against tent fly, so I climbed out first to scare it away (because I’m good like that). In the darkness, I forgot about the step off the tent platform and almost fell headlong into the bush. Overhead, myriad stars blended with clouds of intergalactic dust tried, but failed, to hide behind a canopy of eucalypts. It startled me. Too long it had been since I’d pondered the Milky Way and the cockles of my heart cheered at the memory.
Day three was the big one. Seventeen kilometres separated us from the Pelion Plain at the base of Mount Oakleigh. To be helpful I explained to Amy and Oliver the hiker’s first law of relativity, ie the time it takes to get there is directly proportional to how quickly you walk and how often you stop. And the second law… the longer it takes the sorer your feet get. Oliver seemed to take this to heart and in addition to declaring still random but less frequent pauses, he also stepped it out, all of which meant we made good time.
Amy, meanwhile, began to question why Oliver got to call the shots while I told the story of Captain Bligh and the mutiny on the Bounty and Emma enjoyed the solitude of bringing up the rear. In short, we found our groove. Six and a half hours later, pauses included, we skipped into Pelion Hut still feeling fresh enough to drop packs, turn around and hike two kilometres back the way we had just come to wile the afternoon away swimming in the river behind the Old Pelion Hut.
Dinner was served at 6.00, on the deck of the hut looking out over the Pelion Plain as the light changed on craggy old Mount Oakleigh. Water was boiled by the stove, lit by the lighter procured in Launceston (just to be sure), before being applied to the evening’s selection of dehydrated meals. Before I finished and had a chance to turn my mind to the corn cracker supply, Nikki could be heard asking ‘Where’s the fam?’, while Sarah looked on enviously.
Conversation the morning of day four was a serious affair. If Batman were to fight Superman, who would win? Emma, Amy and Oliver rolled their eyes, but I maintain my dissertation and ruminations on the matter took everyone’s mind off the climb to Pelion Gap, the saddle between Mt Ossa (Tasmania’s tallest peak) and Pelion East. Here we had a choice of peaks to climb. We chose Pelion East, a little lower than Mt Ossa, because Mt Ossa was a five to seven-hour round trip and not everyone was up for that.
Pelion East is shaped like a volcano topped with a bulge of rocks a whole lot taller up close than it looks from the bottom. We followed the ‘track’ until we were perhaps just a dozen metres from the summit before deciding that it would ruin our day if someone slipped and broke a leg. It was more an exposed rock climb than a walk. I did suggest that a broken leg would be followed by setting off the emergency locator beacon and a helicopter ride, but the tribe had spoken and the stunning views were unlikely to improve with another 10 metres of elevation compared to the 400 metres we had just climbed.
It was hot that afternoon after we had descended and covered the four more kilometres to Kia Ora and we were hungry because we had decided to ‘push on’ rather than stop for lunch. Fortunately, there was a river, a waterfall and a plunge pool nearby. Dinner was served at 6.00, on the deck of the Hut nestled among the trees after a swim and a few rounds of ‘Pass the Pigs’. Water was boiled by the stove, lit by the lighter, procured in Launceston (just to be sure), before being applied to the evening’s selection of dehydrated meals. Nikki was late… but showed up eventually with pasta and mushroom sauce.
Day five was waterfall day with side trips to Hartnett, Fergusson and D’Alton falls. There was a tiger snake too, hanging out about 5 metres of the track just below the DuCane Hut. We stomped our feet but this snake didn’t get the memo about moving on.
Our last night on the track we camped on a tent platform with views over to the massive jagged and razor sharp amphitheatre of the DuCane range. We sat and chatted and laughed with Sarah, and Brett and with Josh, Kat and Caroline. Kat’s hair was still braided from the night before when she had came around with $5 ‘borrowed’ from Josh asking if Amy would mind being her hairdresser. Nikki showed up with vegetable risotto after we had eaten and Sarah spent the evening stalking us just in case she came back with dessert.
We marched out to Narcissus at the Northern End of Lake St Clare on day 6 hopeful to catch an early ferry back to civilisation. Oliver’s pauses got the better of Amy who demanded he ‘mooove’ in that way that only a sister can do to her brother. Oliver responded that he was ‘crestfallen’ but got moving regardless. A few minutes later he informed us that his ‘crest’ was resilient and had risen again which we surmised must be a good thing, all things considered. His ‘crest’ rose and fell a dozen more times before we dropped packs for the last time.
We made the early ferry, but the early ferry was full and we had to spend another 3 hours kicking back before the next one arrived and our Overland adventure was over.
The Overland Track was not the toughest hike we have done, but it has a reputation as Australia’s best bushwalk for a reason. It was stunning. Amy and Oliver did it easily and this time their packs held more than just their own clothes and sleeping bags. Greater adherence to democratic process will likely need to be followed before we sign them up to our next trek, wherever that may be, but for now no post-hike lack of enthusiasm when someone asks, ‘how was the walk’ will convince me anyone didn’t have a good time. I remain cautiously optimistic the experience, along with others, will see them happily carrying all he heavy stuff when Emma and I are 83.
P.S. When we arrived at the Cabins at Cradle Mountain, before we set out, Amy and I checked in while Emma perused the little campground store. On the top shelf, hidden a little by boxes of tissues, was a stand full of lighters. Emma spotted them, caught my eye and pointed, but stopped short of saying I told you so. She didn’t have to.
And a few more photos… because we can.