And finally... Cradle Mountain (Tas)
I was reluctant to leave Tasmania's coast, but I need not have feared disappointment in the glaciated peaks of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park in the Central Highlands. We headed south from Wynyard to join the Murchison Highway. The road rose into forested country and became a lot wigglier while dropping down into and climbing out of the Hellyer Gorge.
We turned off on to the Sheffield road (C132) for the last 26 kilometres to Cradle Mountain Road. On the way there was an extraordinary view – from a lookout on the Penguin Cradle Trail – which gave us a foretaste of what was to come (Cradle Mountain to the left in the picture below).
We were staying at the Cradle Mountain Wilderness Village. Our cabin was basic but clean, with a small deck overlooking the bush. It was no Winged House perched above the wide ocean, however. We enjoyed dinner with a good local wine at Cradle Mountain Chateau. An early night was necessary in preparation for a hard day's walk.
There had been much debate about the walking route. The original plan – a 6-kilometre circuit around Dove Lake – was, we had learned from fellow diners at The Edge on Coles Bay, overly popular and a bit namby-pamby for serious walkers. So, we had revised the plan to something bordering on daunting, but my friend was not to be deterred.
It was a glorious day, with high temperatures forecast (up to 30 degrees). We decided to park at the Visitor Centre and catch the shuttle bus to the head of Dove Lake, but first there was a crazy-Aussie-rule moment when we found we couldn't buy tickets for the bus (not on the bus, incidentally, but in the Centre) without our National Parks Pass which, in accordance with the rules in every National Park in Tasmania except this one, we'd left displayed in the car. The bus driver was a little tetchy about food on his bus, too: I had got on clutching a baguette I'd bought for lunch but hadn't had chance to put in my backpack in the ticket confusion.
It was warm by the time we started walking, at about 10. We took the Dove Lake Circuit and then soon branched off on the Lake Rodwell Track, which climbed steadily. I bottled out of the track over Hansons Peak (still no apostrophes in Tassie). I don't mind heights but I don't relish vertical drops at the sides of a narrow steep path, which looked likely from where we assessed the Peak. So we detoured via Hanson Lake and Twisted Lakes, a quite-a-bit longer route that was not easy to follow in places but wended its way through a pleasing landscape that felt wonderfully remote. With hindsight, this was not the right decision.
We had intended to walk towards Lake Rodway as far as Artists Pool, which had been recommended for its birdsong, but the detour had taken time and I was already slightly concerned about water supplies. We had 2.5 litres, which was not enough in the conditions: it was hot by now and the paths were fairly hard work so I was almost constantly thirsty. Rationing liquid intake is stressful. So we struck out along the Face (of Cradle Mountain) Track. For some inexplicable reason I had got it into my head that this leg would be flatter. In reality, it climbed relentlessly, and the path was rocky and rugged. If I'd studied the contours on our TAS Map, it wouldn't have been such a surprise that our route was up-and-downy. But neither were the walk descriptions helpful. I felt as if I'd been climbing and scrambling rather than walking for most of the way so far: is that what 'moderate-difficult' means? Maybe, if a 'difficult' rating suggests you'll be on all fours on a large boulder rock scree.
The Face Track provided spectacular views of rock strata and, ultimately, the raggedy peaks of Cradle Mountain itself. The path eventually levelled off. Now we could look down on the southern end of Dove Lake. I relaxed as we replenished our water supplies from a freezing-cold babbling brook that we were fairly sure couldn't have been contaminated by dead animals or anything else. There were surprisingly – and disappointingly – few creatures, even birds (and only occasional walkers, which was great). Velveteen lichen carpeted the dolerite in places and delicate white flowers defied this often-harsh environment.
We joined Horse Track close to the Kitchen Hut before turning off to the right on to the Overland Track. This runs for 65km from the Ronny Creek car park north of Dove Lake, passing Cradle Mountain and Tasmania's highest peak, Mt Ossa (1617 metres), to Lake St Clair. It is claimed to be among the greatest wilderness bushwalks. It takes at least six days: there are bushwalker's huts available at five overnight stops along the way (see here for details).
You can climb to the summit of Cradle Mountain (1545 metres) which takes 3 hours there and back from the Kitchen Hut (to the right of the picture below). But we lacked that time. We were now on a gently undulating plateau as far as Marions Lookout and the going – on boardwalks in places – was easy. The view from the Lookout was stunning. I was reminded of a walk I once did in the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona. They were not particularly high but looking north from the top I could see range after range, each separated from the next by a plain. I remember thinking that I had never seen landscape on such a scale in Europe. From Marions we looked southeast towards the wonderfully named Walls of Jerusalem National Park. There was an almost 360-degree-view of World Heritage wilderness, and it was glorious.
The descent from Marions Lookout was steep and rough by Crater Lake but there were chains to hang on to – especially useful for those with tiring legs. By now we were drinking our mountain stream supplies. As we went down, a less-than-fit-looking group were puffing their way up the mountain. It seemed late in the day to be at that stage of the Overland Track: they had a way to go before the first bushwalker's hut, which was off our map.
A little further on we took Wombat Pool Track on the last leg back to Dove Lake. Wombat Pool was very pretty: it was closely followed by Lake Lilla. Steps or any further climbing were by now making me slightly tetchy.
As I slowly rounded the top end of Dove Lake, back into the car park, I felt a bit like Lawrence after he'd crossed Sinai, just before he walks into the Officers' Club and asks for two lemonades, for him and his Arab servant. A drama queen, moi? I wasn't quite staggering, but I could have.
There was no lemonade for us, but there was a drinking water tap in the car park. Having confirmed our return in the log book (not surprisingly, later than we'd anticipated when signing in that morning), we sat a bit like zombies on the shuttle bus back, rehydrating while being bombarded by the incessant loud chatter of a woman who can't have trekked as far as we had.
In all, we had walked only 10.5 kilometres and it had taken about six and a half hours. I like to think of myself as a reasonably fit person: in an average week, I run 10 kilometres, do Pilates and, when temperatures permit, swim at least twice a week. But there were times along our Cradle Mountain route when I questioned my assessment. The distance wasn't an issue, but the rough state of most of the tracks and the exertion required for up-and-downing were unexpected. We didn't take enough water for the degree of effort involved in that much heat. Please don't do what we did and skimp on water to lighten the back packs. Given the rugged nature of the paths, appropriately sturdy walking boots are a necessity, even over short distances, and hats and sunblock essential in fine weather. Take a warm/water-resistant layer of clothing whatever the weather when you start out. To help you plan your wilderness walk, read this.
Meanwhile, back on the deck at the cabin, never was beer o'clock more eagerly anticipated or enjoyed. And the endorphin rush from our endeavours in such spectacular surroundings was considerable and long-lasting.