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

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