Trekking in Tasmania? Oh, You Devil
By Alice Reid
Special to The Washington Post
We hadn’t meant to court danger that day. But here we were, staring straight over a Tasmanian cliff at a lake 200 feet below and wondering how to get there on a trail that seemed headed into thin air.
Five hours of rock scrambling had left our quadriceps aquiver, and we were beginning to worry about sunset. So my husband and I did what we had to: We scooted down, grabbing at roots and rocks to slow our descent. Eventually vertical became horizontal, and we were headed toward dinner, a warm fire, a bottle of Syrah.
In a part of the Southern Hemisphere best known for serious multi-day walks along famous â€œtracksâ€ such as Milford and Routeburn in New Zealand and Overland in Tasmania, we chose something a bit less complicated. Call it â€œtrekking liteâ€ – long, challenging day hikes from a comfortable home base that is not a tent.
And there is no better place to try it than rugged little Tasmania, Australia’s island state. Scenic, unspoiled and manageable, â€œTassieâ€ boasts 19 national parks, all of them crisscrossed with thousands of miles of trails ranging from daredevil to desultory.
The advantage of trekking lite – as opposed to planning, often months in advance, lengthy outings requiring permits and guides or camping expertise – is simplicity. An added advantage is affordability. For our visits to two of Tasmania’s best-known parks, Cradle Mountain/Lake St. Clair in the interior and Freycinet on the east coast, we spent less than US$1,000 over the five days we were able to snatch from a business trip down under. We overnighted in self-catering cottages in both places and ate out a couple of evenings, but otherwise made simple fare in our own little cabin kitchens. The cost included our $50 parks pass and a rental car ($300, plus gas).
To trek comfortably in these parts, as part of a group accompanied by an outfitter with access to private lodges along the trail and meals, can cost upward of $300 per day per person. And reservations are best made about six months ahead.
We’d done most of the planning for our trip, which gave us three full days of hiking, on the spur of the moment – in an afternoon on the web.
Out and About
So what to expect if you decide to taste the Tasmanian outdoors? Expect encouragement. Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service wants people out of their cars and into their hiking boots. At Cradle Mountain, the park service even provides free shuttle buses every 10 minutes from a large parking lot outside the gates to most major trail heads. And if demanding isn’t your preferred brand of ramble, there are miles of gentle boardwalks stretched over low-lying bogs. Some are stroller- and wheelchair-friendly.
Expect weather – lots of it, including rain and cold, even in summer. Heard of the Roaring 40s? Tasmania sits astride those latitudes. The westerly wind howling across the Tasmanian mountains last saw land at Tierra del Fuego. And it can bring a sharp change in less time than it takes to locate a fuzzy in the bottom of a day pack. A walk through the Tasmanian mountains may require everything from T-shirts to turtlenecks, and all in the same day.
Central Tasmania is but 1,900 miles north of the Antarctic Circle, about the distance between Washington and El Paso. Sensible hikers carry extra gear, and signs warn of sudden thermal changes on every trail.
If you choose to be a trekker lite, don’t be intimidated by the trekking heavies. At our bed-and-breakfast in Hobart, Tasmania’s capital, we were gently teased by a fellow guest, who called us â€œwussies.â€ An Australian, she was off to do the Overland Track with an outfitter. Later, about the time I was staring over that cliff, I figured she was settling down to afternoon tea, served by her guide. Seemed like I had the tougher deal.
Then there were the three blokes from Melbourne we ran into that first day, two doctors and a retired banker. The trio, shouldering monster packs, were prepared for eight days on the Overland Track, which starts at Cradle Mountain. Sixty-five kilometers, or 40 miles, the distance they would cover, seemed pretty impressive. No worries, they said. Seasoned trackers, they annually tackle part of the mainland’s 400-mile Alpine Walking Trail, but with Australia parched after five years of drought, bush fires are almost daily dangers.
â€œWe thought Tassie would be safer,â€ one of the docs said.
About the only thing our experience shared with these guys is that we also made our own breakfast each morning. At self-catering cottages, the ingredients for breakfast arrive in a basket. Each morning we cracked big brown eggs into our frying pan and shoved bread into the toaster. On at least one occasion, we made breakfast and then dined later that evening on our generous supply of eggs. Milk and orange juice were always in the fridge. Aussies love their coffee, and usually that means there’s a French press pot ready to brew a good strong cup or two.
Then we’d head out for the day’s adventure.
To walk in Tasmania is to pass through temperate rain forests loaded with exotic flora: stands of gracefully tall eucalyptus trees languidly waving their leaves in the breeze; carpets of coral fern, knee-high tussocks of chartreuse button grass and stretches of other vegetation with somewhat bizarre names. Try â€œKing Billy Pineâ€ or â€œGunn’s Gebungâ€ or â€œwaratah.â€ At the end of the summer (March), many wildflowers had withered, but the spiky butter-colored blossoms of the banksia trees were everywhere.
In both Cradle Mountain and Freycinet, the scenery can hold its own with any in the Southern Hemisphere. Cradle Mountain rises 5,000 feet, towering like a giant stone cradle over azure Dove Lake. In the distance, a procession of basalt columns speak of Tasmania’s turbulent volcanic past. At Freycinet, a string of steep peaks called The Hazards juts out of a turquoise sea bordered by sugary beaches and bays full of oysters.
Then, of course, there’s the fauna. Our first encounter with a wombat – not a bat at all but a plump, groggy marsupial about the size of a cocker spaniel – was along a trail at twilight. He’d fallen asleep over his dinner, curled up where he’d been munching tender grass shoots. Awakened by my footsteps, he glanced up, unperturbed, and ambled away. Wombats are everywhere, but mostly invisible. What you will see is their poop, cube-shaped pellets that conveniently refuse to roll off rocks and other spots where they are deposited. It’s apparently a form of territory marking.
Wallabies regularly hopped onto the beaches at Freycinet. In spite of all the warnings, one senses that tourists have fed them, and they were expecting a handout. We left them snackless and looking a little crestfallen.
Alas, no Tasmanian devils came out to play. Their very survival is threatened by an aggressive and very contagious facial cancer that Australian scientists are struggling to understand and eradicate. Our only other marsupial encounter was with a family of possums, which shared our cottage near Freycinet. They stayed in the attic, fortunately.
We also saw a couple of brown snakes, highly poisonous, like most Australian snakes. Ditto spiders.
The outdoor riches of Tasmania are not to be taken for granted. Much of today’s parkland was won in an almost epic struggle three decades ago against hydroelectric and logging interests that were ready to lay waste to much of the state. Tasmanians, who formed the world’s first Green Party, fought back and won.
Today 20 percent of the island – the entire western quadrant and much of its mountainous center – is an enormous stretch of parkland that includes Cradle Mountain in its 5,300 square miles. The United Nations has designated that portion of Tasmania as a World Heritage Area.
For trekkers, lite or heavy, it is a grand legacy, and one we were happy to sample, if only for a few days.Filed under: Travel & Culture