Monthly Archives: June 2015

Southbound Across Tasmania

Picture of Kate, Greg and Kym.

Kate, Greg and Kym.

January 20 - 22, 2015
Days 187 - 189

Before I started my hike of the Overland Track, my tent had gotten soaked in a rainstorm. I hung it from an outdoor porch during a gentle breeze for few hours, but it failed to dry. In fact, my tent remained damp for an entire week, weighing down my backpack. Finally, a sunny day in Devonport allowed me to dry it. I hung the fly over a clothesline and left the tent to soak in the sun. Then I started a load of laundry and headed to the library, where there was free wifi.

An occasional rest-day is a necessity for the long-term traveler; I intended to make the most of this one. After a bit of research, I discovered that there was a daily bus from Devonport to Hobart. I also got into contact with Greg, whom I had met a week earlier. He confirmed that I could spend a night at his home in the small town of Deloraine. I also bought bus tickets and found a CouchSurfing host in Hobart. My shin was still swollen, making it painful to walk, but I figured it would be fine if I took it easy for a few days. Back at the campsite, I got everything organized and was ready to leave in the morning. Fortunately, my tent hadn't accumulated any mold from being wet for a week. Unfortunately, it rained all night, and my tent was soaked, yet again.

I took the bus to Deloraine the next morning. Greg, his wife Kate and her daughters Kym and Menon, along with Menon's husband Jason and their children were also there. It was quite a large family gathering. Unfortunately, Menon, Jason and the kids had to fly back to the mainland that afternoon, so we didn't get to talk for long. Before he left, Jason showed me some pictures of him and his son, walking on part of the Overland Track. The photos showcased snowy mountains, dark green forests, wide open grasslands and happy people. It was as if he and I had visited different countries entirely.

Kym and I went for a walk around Deloraine in the afternoon. The town was quiet, with a few outdoor sculptures and art shops as its main attractions. A river ran through the middle of town, and there were mountains in the distance. Many tourists were staying in a caravan park next to the river. Greg and Kate had moved to Deloraine to retire, and I could see why. It was a peaceful place, with plenty of nature to explore nearby, and it had a milder climate than most places on the mainland.

We had a lovely dinner in Greg and Kate's outdoor garden, and a long chat afterward. I learned that Greg had recently published a memoir (available on Amazon here), so it was exciting to meet a fellow author. Jason was also an author, and he was putting the final touches on his latest book. Our discussions that evening were quite interesting, and I was ecstatic to have gotten the chance to stay at Greg and Kate's place.

Picture of house.

A house on a hill.

The next day I caught the bus to Hobart. The hilly streets, outdoor markets and harbor full of yachts reminded me of San Francisco (even though I've never been there). Navigating the hills on a bum leg proved painful, but luckily the downtown area was compact enough for me to get around without a monumental effort. There was far less hustle and bustle in Hobart than in Melbourne.

I CouchSurfed with Dane, a lifelong Tasmanian and a fellow traveler who was well-connected to the city's nightlife and art scene. Over a glass of wine on his backyard patio, we discussed what to do in Hobart. Without a doubt, the biggest attraction in the city was MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art. In fact, nearly everyone I had met in Tasmania had recommended that I check out MONA. I decided to go there the next day.

More photos from Deloraine

The Tricky Route to Devonport

Picture of Dan.

The end of the trek.

Missed the earlier sections? Here they are:
[Planning] [Day 1] [Days 2 - 4] [Day 5]

January 19, 2015
Day 186
Overland Track Day 6

At seventeen kilometers, the last section of the Overland Track was one of the longest. It was also one of the easiest sections because it was flat, hugging the shore of Lake Saint Clair. That was a good thing: my right shin was swollen, and the pain had been mounting over the last few days. I figured I had shin splints, the result of carrying a forty-pound backpack that was missing its frame. (My backpack's frame had broken during the flight to Australia.) It was time for me to finish the trek and give my leg some much-needed rest.

When I stepped outside of the Narcissus Hut, the deep blue sky struck me. It was my first rain-free morning on the trail. I relished in the warm sunshine for a minute, then started walking.

I was the last one to leave, so I was extra cautious. Nobody would cross this section of trail for a whole day. If there existed a good place to get hurt, this was not it.

Picture of the lake.

Lake Saint Clair

A few hours into my walk, I reached Echo Point, the last hut on the Overland Track, nestled on the shore of Lake Saint Clair. A long jetty led over the crystal-clear water, and there was a sweeping view of the surrounding forests and hills. Most hikers took a ferry across the lake, and the few who actually walked this section (including me) tended to skip the hut because it was so close to the end of the trail. It sure would have been nice to stop there for a night, though.

The trail continued through the forest, near the lake's edge. On a normal day, tiny streams would flow across the trail, and empty into the lake. But after five days of constant rain, the “streams” were actual rivers, knee-deep in some places. The only way across was to walk through them. Alas, even with the picture-perfect weather, I still couldn't keep my boots dry.

I sat on the trunk of a fallen tree near one of the rivers and ate my last salmon packet and energy bars for lunch. My food supply was down to the bare bones. When I continued, I saw that the large group from my cabin had coincidentally also stopped for lunch, about 200 meters in front of me. I said “hi” as I passed them, and made my push for the finish line.

Picture of echidna.

An echidna spotted on the trail.

As I continued, I started to see signs of civilization. First, the path became flatter and wider; later, it was paved. Then I saw some people hiking toward me – everyone on the Overland Track was required to walk from north to south, so I hadn't seen anyone walking north in six days. Those hikers were only carrying day packs, and they didn't even return my greeting when we passed each other. “Civilization,” indeed.

Just like the Great Ocean Walk, the Overland Track ended in anticlimactic fashion. I limped into the Lake Saint Clair Visitor Centre early in the afternoon. The swelling in my leg had gotten worse, and each step had become painful. I was glad to be done.

The $3000 tour group was gathered outside of the visitor center, celebrating their achievement with a glass of champagne. One of the guides informed me that the terrible weather had been caused by two rare cold fronts, back-to-back. And it affected all of Tasmania: large portions of the island were flooded. When the group finished their champagne, they headed to their private van, bound for Hobart. I drank some water and looked for info on the public bus.

It turned out I was mistaken. The next public bus didn't leave until the following morning. Camping at the visitor center for a single night wouldn't be an issue, but tomorrow's bus only went to Hobart. I needed to return to Devonport to pick up my stuff. If I took that bus, I would end up circumnavigating Tasmania, and it would take all day, if not longer. If I had a car, I could drive to Devonport in a few hours. The lack of public transportation was my biggest frustration in Tasmania.

The large family group finished the trek about twenty minutes after me. We all congratulated each other, and soon they took off in their cars, all bound for Hobart. Later, the Lake Saint Clair Ferry arrived, and dropped off many people I had met during the trek. Simon, Bob and Craig were among them. Their wives, kids and grandchildren met them at the visitor center, with many hugs and kisses. The French guys who traveled with a liter of milk and four cans of Red Bull were absent. Apparently, they were going to stay the night in the tiny Echo Point Hut.

I recognized another group on the ferry. They were from various parts of Australia, and they had converged on Tasmania for the trek. They informed me that they were heading to Devonport in a private van, and they had space for me. Their friend Balki picked us up and we were off. Score!

The drive to Devonport was mostly on gravel roads. Along the way, we saw some spectacular mountainous scenery. There was even a “Great Lake,” and the weather remained perfect. I kept thinking: So this is what Tasmania actually looks like.

Balki dropped me off at my old campground in Devonport, and he drove the rest of the group to the next town. I thanked them for the ride and retrieved the stuff I had left at the campground's office. Then I set up my tent and stocked up on food at the local supermarket. I went to bed at 10:00, my latest night in a week.

Despite the terrible weather, I still had a good time on the Overland Track because of the people. It's amazing how quickly you can get to know someone when you spend the afternoon together in a cramped cabin. Someday, I'll return to Tasmania and hike the Overland Track again. Hopefully the weather will be better. It couldn't have been much worse.

Mac and Cheese and Monotremes

Picture of hut.

The Du Cane Hut.

Missed the earlier sections? Here they are:
[Planning] [Day 1] [Days 2 - 4]

January 18, 2015
Day 185
Overland Track Day 5

This was to be my longest day on the Overland Track. My original plan after reaching the end of the trail was to hitch a ride to Devonport, but after learning that a serial killer named Ivan Milat had single-handedly ruined hitchhiking throughout Australia, I figured a bus would be a safer bet. The next bus to Devonport was due to leave tomorrow afternoon; the next one after that wasn't for several more days. If I wanted to catch tomorrow's bus, I would have to hike two sections today.

Even though I was in a hurry, I didn't leave the hut until 8:00. It was still pouring rain, and I just couldn't motivate myself to get an early start. Luckily, the rain slowed to a drizzle shortly after I started walking. Despite the continued precipitation, I was drier than I had been in five days on the trail.

Before long I reached the Du Cane Hut, built by a bushman named Paddy Hartnett in 1910. It was smaller than the modern huts, but otherwise quite similar. The biggest differences were the wood-burning fireplace (superior to the broken gas heater at the Kia Ora Hut) and the beds that were tilted slightly upward to prevent their occupants from falling out. (Nowadays, hut-builders seemed to prefer flat beds and guardrails.) The rain stopped during my short break. The clouds even began to disperse. I hoped this fortunate weather would last.

Continuing on the trail, I reached the turnoff for two short side trips to waterfalls. I picked Fergusson Falls first, and because of the excessive rain, it was really cranking. The path near the waterfall was getting a slippery shower, so I almost wasn't even able to follow it. D'Alton was completely inaccessible. The small stream that normally crossed the path had turned into a debris-laden river. It would be far too easy to get trapped in the current if I attempted to ford it, so I headed back to the main trail.

A while later, I took another side trail, this time to Hartnett Falls. The top of the waterfall was huge, overflowing into the forest and crashing at some unseen spot below. Bob, Simon and Craig caught up with me and together, we searched for a route to the bottom. Eventually we made it to the river, and we could see where the path normally would lead up to the falls, but today it was totally submerged. We settled for a few pictures from afar and headed back to the main trail.

Picture of Mushrooms.

'Shrooms next to the trail.

The path at this point was still full of mud and puddles, with scant duckwood to make it easier for hikers. When the path got too muddy, people trampled the vegetation around the edges, which soon became muddy as well. At times the trail was a six-foot-wide muddy hole. Given the frigid weather I had experienced during summer, it might sound crazy to attempt this trek in winter, but at least the mud would be frozen.

I made it to the Bert Nichols Hut at 1:00 PM. It was modern and huge, easily big enough to accommodate the wave of thirty hikers that would soon start flowing into it. I had to continue to the next hut, which would likely also have thirty occupants. But that hut's capacity was only twenty. Still, as long as rain didn't return, I wouldn't mind sleeping in my tent. I ate a peanut butter sandwich and an energy bar for lunch, and headed out.

The next section of trail was mostly flat, but the muddy ground still made it difficult. Eventually, I gave up: instead of searching for routes around the giant puddles, I simply walked through them. I was resigned to the fact that my feet wouldn't get dry until I was back in Devonport.

I arrived at the Narcissus Hut late in the afternoon. Only eleven others were staying there, a pleasant surprise. All of them were Australian, including a group of eight that had converged from all over the country for the trek, and three locals. Apparently, the reason this hut wasn't crowded was because most people skipped the final section, and opted instead to take a ferry across Lake Saint Clair.

At dusk a bunch of us walked to a river that fed into the lake to look for platypuses. The monotremes are are quite shy, making them difficult to sight. Lucky for me, a couple of people in the group had binoculars, and keen eyesight. They pointed at a distant, solitary platypus as it came up for air. It sank back into the water a few seconds later, and it didn't show itself to us again. Still, I'll count it.

The Narcissus Hut had a coal heater, so it was toasty warm. Tonight would be my first realistic chance to get my clothes dried. I ate a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner; the only other food I had left was oatmeal, energy bars and several packages of ramen noodles. My backpack had been getting lighter as I ate my food, but heavier as more of my gear got wet. Still, with a set of (hopefully) dry clothing, and an apparent end to the rain, I was in good spirits heading into my final day on the trail.

Continue to Day 6

The Underwater Track

Picture of Dan.

A rare dry moment.

Missed the earlier sections? Here they are:
[Planning] [Day 1]

January 15 - 17, 2015
Days 182 - 184
Overland Track Days 2 - 4

Day 2

Everyone in the hut was up at 6. Except the French duo who traveled with four cans of Red Bull and a liter of milk. Somehow, they were able to sleep through the noise of twenty-two people cooking breakfast and packing their stuff. After eating my oatmeal, I went to the “drying room” to retrieve my clothes from the previous day. They were still soaking wet. I didn't have a spare outfit, so I slid into my frigid socks, shirt, underwear (shudder) and pants. Dressed for the day, I finished packing and left the hut.

When I walked across the campground, I noticed that another group had slept in an older hut nearby. A few others had braved the terrible weather in their tents. It was only then that I realized just how busy this trail was. At least thirty people had spent the night in Waterfall Valley. When I was hiking the Great Ocean Walk a week earlier, the campgrounds only averaged 4-6 people.

On my first day, the bad weather had forced me to skip the side trip to the summit of Cradle Mountain. Today, I hoped to trek to the top of Barn Bluff, another mountain that towered above Waterfall Valley. But there was no point. It was still raining, and there was nothing to see, so I continued on the main trail. In lieu of a description of the scenery, here's part of the official notes for this section of the Overland Track: Gently rising and falling, the path crosses open buttongrass moorlands to the Lake Will junction. Further undulations give way to views of Lake Windermere and nearby pencil pines, myrtles and snow peppermints.

Rather than undulations, a brief lapse in the rain was what gave me a view of Lake Windermere. I reached the Windermere Hut a few minutes later. It was early afternoon, and I was one of the first people to arrive. Hikers staggered in throughout the day, cold and wet from the relentless rain. I spent most of the day playing Hearts with Bob and his sons Simon and Craig, who had come to Tasmania from various other parts of Australia for the trek. I now realized that I would be hiking with essentially the same people on the whole trail. This created a cozy atmosphere in the hut, which contrasted sharply with the weather outside. Yesterday was our introduction. Today we got to know each other better. Tomorrow, best friends?

Picture of monadnock.

Mount Oakleigh.

Day 3

It was a cold and windy dawn, but at least the sky was clear. Unfortunately, my clothes were still damp. I resigned to the fact that I wouldn't walk in dry clothes again until I made it back to Devonport. People left the hut in a more frenzied pace than yesterday because yet another rainstorm was forecast for the afternoon. I was on the trail at 7:15; several groups had started walking before me.

Once again, the hike was short, and it would've been easy, if not for the bad weather. I walked through some beautiful mossy forests, and I got a good look at Frog Valley from above. There was less duckboard than the previous days, so my feet often sank ankle-deep in the mud.

While walking through Frog Valley, I ran into a guided tour group. They had paid roughly $3000 each to do the trek, but there were several advantages to taking this tour. Each night they got to stay in private huts, with heaters and actual drying racks for their clothes. They didn't have to carry a tent or a stove, and they got to drink wine every night. I can only imagine what their gourmet meals were like. Even though the tour was pricey, it was a great option for those who didn't want to venture into the wilderness without a guide, or with a full backpack.

I walked up a long hill to leave Frog Valley, and then the rain picked up. I made a mad dash for the New Pelion Hut and arrived at noon, just before the storm arrived. The official “days” on the Overland Track were short, but this was largely because so many side trips were possible. Today's option was a hike to the top of Mount Oakleigh, on the far side of the buttongrass moorlands. Due to the torrential downpour, I could barely see the mountain from the cabin, so I decided to skip it.

The New Pelion Hut was huge, with capacity for thirty-six. I was the first one there, so I got a cozy nook, my most luxurious bed of the year. The other hikers trickled into the cabin all afternoon. The French guys took beds near mine; they each chugged a can of Red Bull when they arrived. Once again, I played cards with the Australians. Our game of the day was “Scumbags and Warlords.” Before long, fifteen of us were playing.

Picture of deck.

New Pelion Hut's Deck.

I cooked a seafood meal (just add water) and supplemented it with a package of smoked salmon and extra rice. Even after dipping into my spare rations, the meal was barely big enough to quell my hunger. Normally I make the mistake of carrying too much food on my treks, but this time, I was cutting it close. That was actually a good thing, as long as I didn't get stranded somewhere for more than a day.

Late in the afternoon, the rain actually stopped. For a few seconds, I even saw a patch of blue sky. Quolls (marsupials about the size of a house cat) came out of the woods in search of their next meals. Mount Oakleigh emerged from the fog, so everyone went outside to shoot photos. I was so excited, I ran across the chicken-wire-covered duckboard with my bare feet. I could barely feel my toes when I reached the edge of the platform, one of the disadvantages of not carrying sandals. I vowed to return and climb Mount Oakleigh someday. But that night, I just wanted my feet to be warm and dry.

Picture of legs.

My nook atop the loft of the Kia Ora hut.

Day 4

It was pouring rain when I left the hut this morning. This wasn't a surprise – it had barely stopped raining the whole time I was on the Overland Track. The trail took me uphill about 300 meters, to a pass called the Pelion Gap. Mount Pelion was to the east and Mount Ossa, the tallest in Tasmania at 1617 meters, was to the west. Wooden platforms were on both sides of the trail. Normally, hikers would leave their backpacks here, and hike to the top of Mount Ossa. It was meant to be the best side trip of the entire Overland Track.

Today an attempt at Mount Ossa would be suicide. The temperature was a few degrees above freezing. Horizontal sleet was pelting me in the face. Whenever the wind gusted, I had to lean into it to avoid getting blown off the trail. My socks and pants were drenched. I had given up on wearing my soaked shirt; instead a waterproof windbreaker was all that covered my torso. If I put on any of my dry clothes, they would immediately get wet, and I would likely get hypothermia at night. Mount Ossa was covered in a fresh coat of snow, and the clouds that swirled around its peak indicated that the wind was fierce. I had a winter hat, but I didn't have gloves (it's the middle of summer, I had stupidly told myself from the comfort of Devonport). There's a fine line between bringing the correct amount of gear, and being in serious trouble. As I ran downhill, my boots disappearing in a puddle of mud with each step, my white fingers clamped around my backpack's straps, my jacket emitting steam as snow slammed into it and evaporated, I realized that I was dangerously close to crossing that line.

It was over quick. I safely reached the Kia Ora Hut at 10:30 AM. The last group from the previous night still was there. We discussed the terrible weather, and they reluctantly headed out for the day. I changed into my dry clothes, hung my wet clothes over a beam and spent the next hour warming up. The thermostat said it was seven degrees Celcius, so we were allowed to use the heater. Unfortunately, it was broken.

Just like the last few days, people gradually showed up throughout the afternoon. One of the guides from the $3000 group stopped by to say hi. He claimed that he hadn't seen this much rain in forty years of living in Tasmania. The ranger was also at the cabin for part of the afternoon. He said they had gotten more rain in the last five days than they normally would get all summer. Lucky us.

Before long, wet clothes were hanging from every available inch of beam space. Once again, we played cards and waited out the storm. It's funny how these shared experiences can bring people together. Everyone was joking around with one another, like old chums. If it had been warm and sunny for our trek, most people probably would have slept in their tents, and we wouldn't have had the same camaraderie. So the bad weather was good for something. Or at least, that's what I kept telling myself.

Continue to Day 5