Winter Walking on the Overland Track

Winter in the Cradle Valley is renowned for being cold and wet.  With a monthly average rainfall of 300mm and a mean maximum temperature of 5 degrees, it is no place for those tourists wishing to sip pina coladas by a swimming pool.

The central attraction to this wilderness getaway is the famous Overland Track. Renowned internationally for its stunning scenery, the Overland Track is Australia’s premier multi-day walk, attracting 8,000 to 9,000 people per year. The majority of those who attempt the six-day walk from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair do it between October and April, when its popularity is such that numbers have been capped and fees imposed, to reduce the impact walkers are having on the environment.

The Overland Track is a 65-kilometre hike that snakes its way through mountains, across rivers and beneath rainforests before arriving at Australia’s deepest lake, Lake St Clair. The lucky few that experience the Overland Track in the winter time   are generally exposed to challenging conditions, as Antarctic weather systems generated in the Great Southern Ocean jettison their load upon reaching Tasmania.

When I was asked if I wanted to be a part of a group of five to walk the track in August, I jumped at it. I spent the next few weeks looking at long-range weather forecasts that seemed to be predicting apocalyptic weather for every single day we were due to be away. As our departure date drew nearer it became acutely obvious that a large, high pressure system was settling over the state. This was good news, as it had rained consistently for three weeks and parts of northern Tasmania were in flood.

The first night of the trip was spent in Burnie at the home of our unofficial guide, Kel.  Kel grew up walking this track and has an intimate knowledge of the place. He first walked it almost thirty years ago as an eight year old, “in gumboots and a japara” and has walked it many, many times since. Upon arrival I am greeted with a plateful of wonderful northern Tassie food, which I wolf down in the knowledge that the menu for the next week will be scroggin, vacuum-packed risotto and mountain muesli.

Kel has set some challenging tasks for the group, including climbing the imposing Barn Bluff and the tallest mountain in Tasmania, Mount Ossa. The following morning we are up early and depart in wet conditions for Dove Lake and Cradle Mountain.

The first few days of walking provide perfect weather, with temperatures around 12 degrees and blue skies all day. The scenery of the surrounding wilderness amazes me in this part of the world. Dolerite peaks are scattered across the horizon like a histogram and the valleys of myrtle and pencil pine give way to rivers and waterfalls. For the first few days of walking one feature remains constant, the imposing outline of Barn Bluff. Barn Bluff is Tasmania’s fourth tallest mountain and the climb is a short side-route off the Overland Track. Barn Bluff remains in sight as we circle around its base before heading to the mountains of the south. The Overland Track features several hikers huts, all separated by a day’s walk. New Pelion Hut was built in 2001 and looks out across buttongrass plains to Mount Oakleigh. We reach this hut on the third day and I am amazed at its size. It’s huge and can accommodate 60 people.

On the fourth day we wake up early and begin a climb that will take us to Ossa, the top of Tasmania. Due to its height and its size, Ossa’s peak is covered in snow and the climb to the summit is challenging, but well worth it.  The view to the west and south-west is like nothing I have seen anywhere and the visibility must be over one hundred kilometres.

After five days of sunshine the weather finally breaks. Initially it was nice to experience some true winter weather, but our joy is soon tempered when the rain turns to hail just as we reach the open plains to the north of Narcissus. We continue onwards and a decision is made to head for Echo Point Hut, a further three hours past Narcissus, which is situated at the most northern point of Lake St Clair. This is the point of departure for those who wish to get the ferry the rest of the way. However, the rest of us have no intention of finishing our walk here and we soldier on through dense rainforest and thick mud towards our destination.

Echo Point was my favorite hut on the walk. It is full of character and has a sense of history about it. The hut is often unused as many walkers bypass this part of the walk and get the ferry from one end of Lake St Clair to the other. It is also the most beautifully located hut, positioned right on the water looking out over Mt Ida and the fringes of the Walls of Jerusalem.

The final day takes us around the edge of Lake St Clair to the Interpretation Centre. We feel a sense of achievement, but still have to walk along the highway for five kilometres to Derwent Bridge, where a pub, a beer and a bus await. On the trip back to Hobart we reflect on the luck we had with the weather and wonder if we will ever have another winter on the track like that!

Words and images : Jimmy Emms

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