Overland Track – Tasmania 1996 – Part I


Overland Track – Tasmania 1996 – Part I

Tasmanian Trip – 1996

While working at Media Monitors I met Peter who became a good friend. Peter had come Sydney via Canberra, following the trail of his charming and talented girlfriend, Colleen.  Everyone liked Peter and Colleen, they were one of those effortlessly charismatic couples who made every single person envy their relationship.  She was smart and he was funny and together they had an energy and spark that drew people to them.  She was ambitious and younger, moving away from the limitations of her hometown, her cloistered family, her clinging boyfriend.  Growing up, her father had been a stranger, a spectral presence in the home who only came to life and took shape once he stepped outside their house.

To the men he caroused with at the pub, the desperates he huddled with at the track he was a generous, entertaining raconteur.  When he died Colleen’s family could not believe the quantity and variety of people who came to his funeral.  They discovered that their absent father had been touching the lives of many people, that he was a man of wit and humour who had devoted his energies to anyone but them.  It was the most perplexing realisation that did nothing for solidifying Colleen’s place in the world.  It is not surprising that she struck out on her own or that her journey took her to Sydney, the most anonymous city in the country.

Sydney was but a staging post and soon their restlessness took them to Hobart, Tasmania.  This was in 1995 and they had arrived without jobs to go to.  Typically they had landed on their feet with Peter getting a part-time job at Media Monitors to cover himself while completing post-graduate work at the university.  Colleen secured a high-ranking job in banking and quickly clambered up the corporate ladder.  We had a standing invitation to visit them in Hobart, something we were to discover they had issued to everyone they knew, prompting a stream of visitors to the island state.

I had been working on a monthly contract at a publishing company and one month they decided not to extend the contract, leaving me out of a job. Over a beer with Jacinta at a Newtown pub I mentioned in a by the way manner that we might as well take up the standing invitation to visit Colleen and Peter.  Jacinta more or less shrugged her shoulders in consent and preparations commenced.

Eventually Jacinta settled on a week as being her preferred time away from work and I agreed to this.   Over the following couple of weeks we met to review maps and organise equipment.  A family friend of Jacinta’s was an experienced Tasmanian bushwalker and could provide maps and cooking utensils.  The Overland Track stood out as the only sensible option for the agreed time frame, though this didn’t stop me enlivening conversations by suggesting cross-country alternatives.  Friends of Jacinta passed on unambiguously hostile messages that if I did anything to endanger her they would cut my throat.

We met at my place on a couple of occasions to discuss the itinerary and gear allocation. Eric was a family friend of Jacinta's who was providing the maps and much of the equipment. I met him once, a quiet eccentric man, it was like seeing my future self, twenty years from now.   Jacinta told an interesting story about her 14th birthday, spent on the side of the cliff after she had refused to move from a ledge after a successful ascent.  They had continued on their way after a bitterly cold night out.  For some reason this story always gave me an insight into Jacinta, probably because of the refusal to take chances, to press on into the unknown.

I corresponded with Peter and Colleen while Jacinta booked the tickets. I would be away for two weekends and needed to find someone to look after the cricket team..  This allowed me to spend some time with one of my favourite players, Bill Monger, a grizzled veteran who would take over in my absence.  Because I was travelling with Jacinta I couldn’t borrow her backpack and resorted to requisitioning my father’s.  For his part he was thrilled to know that I was travelling interstate with a woman.

We were scheduled to fly out on a Saturday morning with a connecting flight from Melbourne to Hobart later in the day.  We were waiting around in Terminal 1 and to pass the time Jacinta told a couple of stories about getting dressed up like Sandra Dee in Grease and of attending her Year 12 Formal without a bra as she did not have a black bra to match her black dress.  Of the first she said she was dressed up like a ten year old slut, lipstick, off the shoulder tops, black boots etc.   Her mother was at the formal, and related to Jacinta later on that all the boys eyes were drawn to cleavage, particularly when she shimmied to the floor during the B-52’s Rock Lobster. When I expressed surprise Jacinta replied, "it's just cleavage, for God's sake".

The plane had been delayed and we stood about talking.  Among the hubbub of conversation an announcement advised that passengers Barnes and Phillips were required to board immediately at terminal 10.  What the fuck?  We set off at a sprint.  Terminal 10 seemed to be as far away as it is possible for one terminal to be from another and when we finally reached the gate annoyed staff hustled us through without checking our tickets.  We entered a plane full of surly glares and took our seats.  The plane took off almost immediately.  We had come within 30 seconds of missing the flight.  I felt a certain rage about how the terminal had been changed from 1 to 10 without notice but obviously I’d misread the screen, something Jacinta knew almost immediately.

The adrenalin rush of Sydney soon turned into the torpor of Melbourne as we waited for 3 hours for the connecting flight to Hobart. We settled in at the bar, chatting without significance.  We could have easily have caught a later flight to Melbourne and made the next one so the trip took on an exasperating quality.

The flight from Melbourne to Hobart took far less time than the transit lounge period that preceded it and it was late afternoon by the time we landed in the remote southern city.  The airport was in a country setting though this did not mean that it was far from the centre of town.  We walked across the tarmac and into the arms of Peter and Colleen.  We put our backpacks into the rear of their station wagon and began the haul into town.  Along the way we passed the minor cricket Mecca of Bellerive Oval.   Peter’s workplace, Media Monitor’s provincial office was also in this part of the city and he pointed it out as we passed by.  We crossed the Tasman Bridge over the Derwent River, scene of a dramatic accident in 1975 which tore it two and resulted in vehicle free falling into the river.

Our hosts told us this story as we travelled over it and entered the CBD. Peter and Colleen began expounding their theory that Tasmanians were invariably ugly.  We scanned the streets for evidence of this but there was none to be found and the opinion seemed somewhat jaundiced and I wondered where such thoughts came from.

Peter and Colleen took us to a suburb nestled underneath the imposing bulk of Mt Wellington which seemed to through shade on half of Hobart.  The houses seemed solid, the gardens lush and the overall impression was of picturesque streets and old world charm.  The large gravel stones on the road were coated in tar of the blackest pitch.  We pulled into the driveway of the stately three-bedroom house they were renting.   We were in a different world from the narrow terraces of inner Sydney.

That night we went to a café that was the province of the ferals, young leftists who lived in the forests and move from protest to protest during the logging season.  We moved onto a pub where there was a band performing and people were either playing pool, eating or carousing.  Peter related that he'd seen knife fights taking place here but there was little hint of violence in the early evening.

We drove to a nightclub that seemed devoid of activity, sat outside, ordered drinks, watched passing traffic and listened to the music emanating from inside the club.  Although it was summer overhead heaters were needed to warm the air.   The DJ played the Oasis song Wonderwall and I was struck by the memorable melody and lyrics about romanticised, maudlin longing.  I hummed along, finding myself disengaged from the conversation.  I could barely hear what was being said though Peter, Jacinta and Colleen seemed to be in their element.

After a draining day of travel we finally returned home. It probably wasn’t that late, it just seemed that way.  In the morning Peter and Colleen drove us to Tasmania’s premier historic town and dropped us off at Richmond Gaol.  The gaol had been built in 1825, five years before the construction of the Port Arthur settlement.  The gaol displayed implements used from the period, balls and chains, leg traps with open iron jaws and hand made bricks.

The solitary confinement cells appeared to be unmodified with the frames of single beds and chains fixed to the wall.  I attempted to lighten the sombre atmosphere it with some light-hearted japery but Jacinta was having none of it, saying that it was like being with a child.  My desperate attempts to achieve normality were foundering badly.  I ignored the portents and kept up the tone.

After finishing the tour of the gaol we wandered over to the infamous Richmond Bridge, scene of much bloodshed and the exertions of so many dead people over the years. The bridge was still open to traffic having been built by convicts in 1823.  It is the oldest road bridge in Australia and the sturdiness of it is impressive, bricks, mortar, and cobblestones.  We walked around the area viewing it from as many angles as we could, managing to include St John’s Church in the photos.

St John's Church was the first ever Catholic Church built in Australia and typically for a Catholic church it is built on the best piece of real estate in the area, a sloping hill overlooking the entire Richmond Valley.  It is a beautiful area of rolling paddocks, a quilt of verdant colours, throwing into relief the coarse browns and greys of worn headstones in the ramshackle cemetery.  We read the short stories of abbreviated lives and wandered in quiet contemplation, making our way back to the slow road.

Peter and Colleen collected  us from the front of the church and on the way back into town we discussed Stars Wars, the weapons program not the movie series. Jacinta was a devoted fan of the movies but I was in an argumentative mood and suggested loudly and witlessly that the movies provided the basis for the doctrine of Ronald Reagan's Star War's program.  It was akin to putting a rather cumbersome horse in front of an unusually unwieldy cart.

That night we stayed home and quietly prepared for the upcoming week. Having done a couple trips the previous year to New Zealand I had learned the rudiments about what food to take and what to avoid.  Peter and Colleen were able to provide us with feedback from friends who had done the track and discovered that the nights were much colder than anticipated.  With this insight we were able to borrow garments for extra warmth.

We booked a bus for the following morning that would take us along the A10 Highway to the Derwent Bridge turnoff and then into the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park.  We estimated that we did not have time to walk the entire track although the major disincentive inhibiting an end-to-end walk was in arranging transportation from Cradle Mountain back to Hobart.  As a compromise we decided to walk to the halfway point and then take a side trip to the Acropolis and Labyrinth.

The bus was leaving early in the morning and this allowed Colleen to drop us off on her way to work. Peter stayed at home to study.  I can still recall the sight of Colleen in her formal clothes ready for her elevated job in the financial world.  At 22 she was already far more respectable than I would ever be.  There were a few others at the bus stop waiting for the same service and this gave us the opportunity to furtively check out what others were bringing with them.  It was like going on a school outing.

The trip to Lake St Clair took a little longer than 2 hours, time for anticipation and drowsy sight seeing.  At Cynthia Bay we paid for a crossing of the lake and had time to undertake a short walk through a strand of forest.  Some of the tree trunks has such clefts it was possible to stand in what felt like the core of the tree.  The overcast day softened the light and bathed the lake’s surface in a mesmeric silver sheen, allowing for memorable photographs of the play of glow and gloom.  The sombre mood heightened our expectation of adventure while we waited for the boat.

The ferry traverse of Lake Cynthia took half an hour and we observed rows of burnt out tree husks lining the barren Mountains of Jupiter. Bushfires had swept through the area recently and severely changed the landscape.  It would be years before the vegetation would return.

We were dropped off at the end of the lake at Narcissus Hut. We now faced a 9 kilometre walk to reach Windy Ridge Hut.  It was relatively straightforward, following the banks of Narcissus Creek and we were with a cluster of through walkers.  The most memorable part of the walk was using the swing bridge over Stony Creek.  The lazy water flow hardly warranted the intervention of a crossing construction.  Somehow I convinced Jacinta to pose halfway across the bridge, a composed figure with a compact backpack, sturdy wet weather jacket and solid tramping boots.  The most obvious pointer to inexperience are the jeans we wear although these will only see out the day before we seek more sensible walking gear.  It is surprising how uncomfortable jeans are to wear when walking and they will be baggage for the rest of the trip.

We reach the hut in good time but any relief was tempered by the realisation that rather than the standard mattresses of New Zealand huts there is a wooden base.  It is an awful error on my part to assume that these basic comfort items would be present.  To make matters worse we must watch Europeans inflate their deluxe mattresses.  This is what I have foisted upon Jacinta, a week of miserably hard, cold nights.  For we are soon to find out that it is not only cushioning that mattresses provide but also insulation from the wispy cold.  And if there is a surprise in store it is that the temperature plummets as soon as the sun goes down, the ministrations of frost quickly set to work.

The cooking area is crowded and cramped and requires an economy of movement and actions.  Instead I have a dozen plastic bags in my pack and I'm uncertain what items are in what bag. We had our dinner, cleaned up and contemplated our options.  The hut seemed full of self contained Germans so conversation didn't appear to be an option.  Cards required a convivial atmosphere which was sadly lacking and this left reading.  Given the plummeting temperature it made sense to retreat to our sleeping bags.

The small mercy of having carried in too much gear was that we could at least sleep on it.  Perhaps it would not be too uncomfortable.  But no, there was no escaping the grinding discomfort of the cold, hard boards.  Sleep came in fitful bursts of overwhelming exhaustion and for the most part we lay there shivering, unable to escape the chill enveloping us from below and above.  The sleeping bags alternated between being too hot and too cold.

In the morning those who had spent a comfortable night were now rousing themselves for an early start.  I was still conditioned to not moving until the outside temperature had stabilised beyond the frozen.  I hadn't learned that the only way to get through the initial chill of the morning is to get out of bed and start moving.  As a result breakfast was later than it should have been.  Despite the delay there was still a heavy frost coating the slats of the wood box, the spikes of the Spinifex.

Today we were heading to Kia Ora hut, a mere 11 kilometres away.  The track surprised us with long sections of shallow bog and gnarled tree roots.  Being the premier tramping track in Australia it came as a shock to find it in a degraded and overused state but obviously the lack of alternative options meant that it's over-use shouldn't have surprised.  Our shoes were not up to dealing with ankle deep mud, pools of tepid water and the other impediments encountered and we were forced to trek into the bush and tramp down the vegetation and ensuring that the problem continued to spread.

About halfway along the track was the turnoff to Hartnett Falls. This involved a half hour walk and allowed us to down our packs at the juncture.The diversion proved worthwhile as the falls turned out to be in high flow, a white water cascade spuming through gorged walls.  The guidebook suggested walking to the bottom of the falls to take in the view from underneath and it made for pleasant interlude. When we returned to the track it was to absorb the increasingly spectacular scenery.  To the left we were much taken by the Du Cane range and such peaks at Falling Mountain, Mt Massif, Mt Geryon and Mt Hyperion.  They presented as rugged outcrops of hardened rock of a particular age.  They seemed chiselled by eons of erosion, rising stubbornly out of the infertile bedrock.  We felt pleased by the views and could only anticipate more when we caught glimpses of the unusual dome of Mt Pelion East in the distance.

Also worth looking at were the forested sections where huge trees disappeared into the skyline. At ground level the sun was dimmed and it seemed as if moss covered every slow moving thing.  As we got closer to Kia Ora the views opened out on scrubby plains.  It was country that invited exploration if not for our compact timetable.  Kia Ora would be the point at which we would have to turn around.  Jacinta was suffering from knee soreness so it was probably just as well that we were not planning on going any further.

We reached Kia Ora shortly after lunch. It was one of those places where trampers disported themselves as if they were at Club Med.  The presence of so many trampers meant that we had to stake our claim to a bed almost upon arrival and by the time dusk descended the bunks had been filled.  To add to the sense of crowding there was a campsite just off the track.  At the campsite, among the shady laurel trees campers showered underneath sunny beams.  It seemed a most European incursion into the harsh Australian landscape.

As it was not yet mid afternoon I still had the opportunity for a side trip to Mt Ossa, at 1,617 metres the tallest “mountain” in Tasmania. The turn off was another 4 kilometres further along the main track and the estimated return trip was three hours.  Jacinta walked with me for about a kilometre before halting to turn back due to her knees.

The venture proved to be the most satisfying of the trip, involving energetic bursts of rock scrambling and nervy assessments of distance travelled and remaining daylight. Initially travel was straightforward, utilising planked paths and an elevated iron grid to negotiate swampy flats.  An alternative trip to Mt Pelion East beckoned involving 200 metres less climbing and a more striking edifice.  Eventually I chose the higher peak, equating elevation with heightened views.  The rocks were stacked like a colosseum and all around were striking formations of rocks that looked like church organ pipes.

The entrance to the top of Mt Ossa required threading through a split in the rock face and scrambling over a large plinth. The path became less defined and involved a tentative scramble underneath the main ridge.  Finally, by the process of getting to the point where to go further travel would involved going down did I realise that I was at the highest point.  So I had that going for me.  There might have been dozens of trampers back at camp lounging about in their nudie showers and there might have been dozens of day walkers scooting to the top of the spectacular Cradle Mountain but for an afternoon of solitary isolation nothing beat Mt Ossa.

Mt Ossa at least offered a pleasant vantage to appreciate the mountain ranges rolling away in the distance, now partly obscured by gathering mist.  Although it would have been tempting to continue to explore the rounded pinnacle the endless array of precipices and potholes made me quietly fearful.

Dusk was imminent and it was time to leave. The descent proved no easy thing for what it is climbed easily with adrenalin pumping can create anxiety when downclimbing.  Eventually I managed to lower myself down, grimly holding onto the rocks above while searching for footholds below.  Beyond the most difficult section I could relax a little and take in the views of Lake McFarlane and a myriad of tarns spotting the valley.  Shadow swept over the mountain like an incoming tide as I skipped along the rocky path.

The evening was not standing still.  When the sun set I still had four kilometres to go to reach the hut.  The sensible option would have been to walk at a steady pace, instead I jogged at a hurried clip, lest I cause concern back at camp.

Jacinta had spent the afternoon with the hut warden who had lectured her on the foolishness of her companion's late leaving for an arduous climb but also regaled her with her own tales of daring and adventure. Earlier in the day I had told Jacinta a cockamamie story about how friends of Peter had done the Overland Track carrying an esky full of beer.  Jacinta had repeated this to the Ranger and asked if she had seen the group.  Strangely she hadn’t.

The second night was no less unforgiving than the first but by now exhaustion was on our side and the periods of slumber may were slightly longer and the hut less draughty than the porous facility at Windy Ridge. The worst of it was waking with aching muscles, as if I was the first sedentary person to experience delayed onset muscles soreness.  Ahead of us lay some of the more interesting side trips of the track.  We were starting to get a handle on this bush-walking thing.

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