January 14, 2015
Overland Track Day 1
Now that I had my food and supplies organized for the Overland Track, the only question that remained was “How will I get to the trailhead?” I could take a bus all the way from Devonport to Cradle Mountain. But along the way, I wanted to check out the small town of Sheffield, famous for its murals, and the bus didn't stop there. Instead, I decided to hitch a ride to Sheffield, look at the murals for an hour or two, and either hitchhike the rest of the way to Cradle Mountain, or catch the bus as it passed through town. After my experience of “hitching” to the campground in Devonport (where I didn't even have to ask for a ride), I figured hitchhiking in the rest of Tasmania would be easy.
I walked to the edge of Devonport, carrying my backpack loaded with food and camping gear for the next week. I found a safe place, with good visibility and plenty of room for cars to pull aside, put on a smile and stuck out my thumb. Car after car passed by; the drivers ignored me. I wasn't surprised when the little old ladies driving tiny cars chose not to stop. But people driving pickup trucks with open beds, and Volkswagen and Mitsubishi “hippie vans” didn't even glance my way. I was invisible.
Dejected, I turned around and walked back into Devonport after an hour. I would have tried longer, but now I had to execute my backup plan of taking the bus all the way from Devonport to Cradle Mountain. If I continued to hitch and didn't make it to the trailhead by midday, I would lose my permit to hike the Overland Track. I later learned that a man named Ivan Milat had killed at least seven hitchhikers in New South Wales in the early 1990s. Ever since his capture, Australians have been leery of anyone attempting to hitch a ride (even though it was the driver, not the hitchhiker, who had committed those horrible crimes). After learning this, I decided to retire from my brief stint as a down-under hitcher.
Luckily, the bus still had a few empty seats. It took me, along with around ten other hikers and day-trippers to Cradle Mountain. Along the way, the bus passed through Sheffield, but it didn't stop. Oh well. I did get to see some of the murals for five whole seconds. After leaving Sheffield, we went on a long uphill journey, full of magnificent views of the surrounding mountains.
The weather turned cold and rainy. The Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre was full of people waiting out the storm. I found the ranger's desk to sign in for the trek, but there was a problem: I had only purchased my permit a few days earlier, after they had already printed the list of permit-holders, so my name wasn't on it. They had to dig through the computer records to locate my permit. But all was well, and soon I was officially checked in.
Finally, I hopped onto a shuttle bus bound for the trailhead. During the ride, the driver explained that Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park was full of “silent dog” trees (so called “because they ain't got no bark!”). Those trees were still alive, but there were also many dead ones. I asked the driver if an invasive beetle had gotten to them. Nope – due of Tasmania's strict quarantine, the island had remained relatively free of invasive species, at least compared with the mainland. (Though tragically, the native Tasmanian tiger was hunted to extinction because farmers considered it to be a pest.) The reason there were so many dead trees standing was simply because they were allowed to decay naturally. You could even tell how long a tree had been dead by the number of branches it still had. The limbless ones died over half a century ago.
The shuttle bus dropped me off at the Ronny Creek Car Park, where there was a fancy sign marking the beginning of the trail. The bus turned around and headed back to the visitor center. Other than the cars that were parked in the lot, the bus was the last vehicle I would see for a week.
The rain had stopped, but the wind was strong and dark clouds still swirled around the sky. I walked into a three-walled shelter and made a peanut butter sandwich, protected from the wind. A few groups of day-hikers showed up to look at the map posted inside the shelter. Some people were also carrying huge backpacks; they were fellow holders of permits for the Overland Track. Other than a map, the shelter also prominently displayed the local forecast for the next several days. It looked horrible: rain, rain and more rain, coupled with extreme wind and occasional snow. It was as if the forecast I had seen a few days earlier was for another country. This was my last chance to back out; if I wanted to leave the trek early, a helicopter would have to rescue me. Still, I wasn't going to turn around now. Not after coming this far.
I started hiking along the well-maintained trail. Duckboard, topped with chicken wire for extra traction, covered all of the muddy sections. The path led me through a temperate a rain forest, to Cradle Lake and Cradle Falls. When I took a break to photograph the waterfall, the weather quickly deteriorated. I sealed my camera in a waterproof sack, slid my rain cover over my backpack and continued. The trail became a long, uphill march; this was the most difficult section of the Overland Track. By the time I reached a pass called Marion's Lookout, freezing rain was pelting me in the face. Strong gusts of wind threatened to blow me off of the path. I didn't stop to take in the view because there wasn't one. The dense fog covered everything.
After the pass, the path turned downhill, and I got a bit of relief from the extreme exposure. The clouds actually broke apart a bit too, allowing me to see just enough of the valley to know that it would look spectacular during decent weather. This was a long, flat section of trail, during which I saw the colorful dots of a few other hikers' backpacks. We all seemed to be charging for the hut that marked our campsite before more serious weather came in.
The path continued downhill, into Waterfall Valley. There were a few wildflowers, and plenty of green shrubbery, but the fog still prevented me from seeing the distant mountains. Every hiking trail comes with a long set of worst-case-scenario warnings, which I usually interpret as the government covering themselves against lawsuits. But I could already tell that the Overland Track's warnings of extreme weather were serious. On a sunny day, the trail wouldn't be particularly difficult or dangerous, especially considering that the muddy sections were covered with duckboard, but the weather could change for the worse in an instant.
I reached the Waterfall Valley Hut at around 5:00 PM. All hikers were required to carry a tent, but with the wind and rain showing no signs of slowing, it looked like everyone on the trail would opt to sleep indoors. The hut was cramped with hikers, but everyone was careful not to encroach on others' space. A ranger and a volunteer were holding down the fort. There was a gas heater, but we could only turn it on when the temperature dropped below ten degrees Celsius. (Fuel had to be helicoptered in, making it extremely expensive.) Coincidentally, the mercury remained at eleven degrees all evening.
The hut had space for twenty-four hikers, divided into four platforms. I blew up my air mattress, draped my pink fleece blanket over the top and changed into all of my warm clothes. I hung my soaking wet clothes in the porch, next to everyone else's gear, though I didn't expect it to dry without the aid of the heater. Most of my fellow hikers were Australian, though there was a German couple and two young French guys who carried a liter of milk and four cans of Red Bull in their backpacks.
There was a bit of grumbling about the limited space in the hut, but for me, it was quite cozy. I hadn't slept in a building in over a week. Given the horrible weather and my lack of winter gear, the hut was pure luxury.
Continue to Days 2 - 4