Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Overland Track

Walking the Overland Track in Tasmania was a challenge I set myself back around October 2012. You see, I like the great outdoors, I enjoy a physical challenge, and I wanted to set myself a goal, but I'd been finding excuses for not making the commitment. Finally, when I was complaining to my flatmate that I had wanted to do this trip but had nobody to do it with, she said "well, I'm doing it in February, why don't you join me?". And the rest, as they say, is history. Of course, there were lots of preparation dramas - what type of shoes to take, the question of dehydrated or fresh food and discussions about the optimum changes of clothing. And of course there were the training days that I dragged friends and family along to - rain, hail or shine! But eventually the big day, or rather the big five days, came, and I have to say we were blessed with amazing weather, gorgeous people, and delicious food. Here's a snapshot...

Day 1: where we take the path less travelled and still see the same view

It was about 1pm when we finally set foot on the Overland Track at Ronny Creek, after what seemed like an endless series of flights, long distance buses, shopping trips, and pit stops. The easy wooden walkways that I had seen in all the photos soon gave way to more typical bushland, followed by the steep ascent to Marion's look-out, where we were rewarded with beautiful views, the first of many picnic lunches of hummus and crackers, and of course - scroggin!

Setting off from Ronny Creek
Crater Lake

Marion's Lookout with Dove Lake behind
The next challenge was Cradle Mountain, and having conquered Marion's Lookout, we confidently left our packs at Kitchen Hut and eagerly began our climb. As Suzanne raced ahead, I took the opportunity to chat with those coming down the mountain. A clever way, I thought, to take a break without it looking like I was resting! About halfway up I called out to Suzanne, and discovering that she was directly above me, began navigating the rocks as I climbed my way towards her. At times I wondered if I would make it - it was VERY steep and not at all what I would call a "path". When I reached the top, or what I deemed to be "close enough", we took a few photos of the view before commencing the bum shuffle back down the mountain. Halfway down, Ciara was there to greet us, and point out the error of our ways. It seemed that we had taken the path less travelled, while our fellow hikers had opted for a reasonably well signposted, less vertical path to the top. But, as we reasoned, the view was the same, and we did it in half the time!

View from Cradle Mountain
Rocks soon became the dirty word for the day, with the rest of the path offering what seemed like an endless scramble over more horizontally positioned, but equally challenging rocks before a final steep, rocky, wet descent into Waterfall Valley. Somebody commented that 80% raised wooden walkways that the Overland Track boasted may have been an exaggeration. It was 8pm when we finally arrived at Waterfall Valley Hut. It had been a long day, but the worst was still to come. Tomorrow would be the longest day. But it didn't matter, as there was enough room for me to bunk up in the hut, we had changed into warm clothes, and had made a start on dinner. Things were looking up.

Waterfall Valley Hut

It was as we were settling in that I overheard somebody mention that he hadn't realised you had to bring your own toilet paper. Oops. I did spare the odd thought for that guy over the next 5 days. Apparently he was a little anxious about his situation. But to be fair, everyone has a packing fail (or quirk) of some kind. We encountered a guy with solar panels covering his entire backpack, which he used to charge a radio, another man carried 27kg just so he could have all the comforts of home, and there was a group who were rumoured to have not brought any tents, thus forcing them to rise at 4am each day to ensure they arrived first and secured enough spaces in the huts each night.

Day 2: where I "hit the wall" and made some new friends

With a fairly relaxed air, we boiled the billy for breakfast tea and porridge, what was to become our morning routine for the week. After the others packed away the tent and I packed away the stove, we were ready to depart for Day 2 - a half marathon with 15kg packs on our backs! We covered the first section to Windermere Hut fairly easily and enjoyed a relaxed lunchtime swim at Lake Windermere before turning our attention to the 6hrs of walking still to go.

Lake Windermere from a distance
About an hour into the afternoon, with five still to go, I began to hit a wall. We were traipsing through scrubby forest on the side of a hill and the tree roots and muddy pools that needed to be negotiated seemed endless. As I plodded on, I tried various mind games to keep myself motivated, and began to wonder whether, if a woman falls in the forest and nobody hears her, does she make any sound? Towards the end of the day, I began imagining myself walking repeatedly from my parents house to the train station and back, knowing that it's about one kilometre in distance. When the hut finally came into view I was too exhausted to be relieved. Again, we were the last to arrive, I was hungry, in pain, and somehow I had dropped my sun hat along the way. I was not a happy camper.

Mt Pelion Hut, at long last
As I made a start on dinner, and the others set up the tent, a couple of other walkers who had finished their dinner began showing an interest in the workings of my fuel stove. It had belonged to my friend David, and Lisa had recently given it to me. I treated it with the respect such a gift deserved, but was also apprehensive about how to use it properly. After 2 hours of anxiously watching youtube clips at my sister's place and pressing pause while attempting each stage before returning for the next segment, I had managed to figure out how to light the stove, which way up it should go, and how to regulate the temperature. But there was still the odd moment when the orange flames were rather scary, and I did manage to singe the hairs on my fingers during one of the more "oh-my-god-I-think-I've-caused-a-fire" type moments. But once the onlookers saw the end product - my pasta a la broccoli, mushroom, spinach, cheese and condensed milk, the mirth turned to twinges of jealousy as they compared my dinner to the "modest" portions of the dehydrated lamb curry they had earlier consumed. With a few panadol to relax the muscle pain in my legs, I slept quite soundly that night.

The infamous fuel stove in all its glory

Day 3: where we deal with blisters and my shirt gets a new lease on life

I received lots of advice about walking the Overland Track. Some was unsolicited, and some contradictory. For me, shoes were the biggest worry. Some people said you definitely need ankle support and the best brand of hiking shoes, others said that you can walk the track in dunlop volleys and it will be fine. After many hours agonising in the company of patient and not so patient outdoor store staff, I bought a pair of Salomon boots and a pair of Vasque boots, proceeded to wear them both around the office for two days to get a feel for which one I preferred, repeatedly asking the advice of long-suffering colleagues, and eventually decided upon the Vasques. Yet, having worn them on a few practice bushwalks, I decided they were giving me too many blisters, and finally opted to take my no-name hiking shoes (so no ankle support, and apparently not even gortex) which at least I knew did not give me blisters. And guess what? They were absolutely fine. I didn't get any blisters at all, didn't twist my ankle, and was not clomping around in heavy boots for five days.

One solution to the blister problem
But others were not so fortunate. Suzanne developed such painful blisters that when we arrived at Kia Ora Hut early on Day 3 she decided to just bandage her entire feet. There was another lady with gaffa tape holding her boots together, and others were making repairs using super glue or needle and thread.

The other great thing about having a short, fairly easy day, was that there was time to take a dip in the icy cold river, and wash and dry my ONE hiking shirt. Yes, that's right. If you notice that I seem to be wearing the same clothes in every photo, well I am! Another flatmate, whose advice I valued immensely since he hikes regularly in New Zealand, culled me down to one shirt for the whole week, reasoning that it didn't matter if I smelt bad, and that since the shirt was "quick dry" it would dry quickly if wet. A good idea in theory, but all the same, it was great to put on a relatively clean and dry shirt the following day.

Day 4: where we see waterfalls and encounter wildlife of the slithery kind

Day 4 took us through more foresty areas, with charming moss-covered tree stumps and butterflies and birds. It was quite magical and I almost expected to see a faun appear at a fork in the road and lead us to Aslan. But with no mythical friends to be met, we settled for three optional side trips to waterfalls. I ended up visiting two of them, and relaxed in a clearing while others visited the third one.

D'alton Falls in the sunlight
Many of the huts along the Overland Track are visited by possums and wallabies, Australian wildlife that I don't mind encountering at night. Snakes, on the other hand, I'm less inclined towards. Because I was walking most of the track on my own, being slower than my companions, I encountered 4 snakes; 2 green and 2 black. We were told that the black ones were tiger snakes, a venomous variety, which Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife insist are not all that keen about wasting their venom on humans unless provoked or accidentally trodden on. Their website adds that, in fact, we are more likely to die from an ant bite, peanuts or by the hand of our spouse than from a snake bite! Still, I hurried past them, nevertheless.

Sign cautioning not to tread on snakes!
Day 5: where we cross the finish line and reflect on the week's adventures

It's hard to get much sleep in the huts, by the time you deal with muscular aches and pains, snorers, and early risers. But on the last morning, a group departed before dawn to try to catch the early ferry and were particularly loud as they packed up all their gear. (Later accounts suggest they missed the boat and had to catch the midday ferry anyway). Anyhow, we arose, packed everything up for the last time, served up our last breakfast, and departed for the easiest walk of all - a gentle downward slope towards Narcissus Hut, where our walking ended. It was another glorious day, with hardly a cloud in the sky.

The final hours
Crossing the finishing line, with Narcissus Hut behind
As we waited for the ferry to take us across Lake St Clare to the Visitor's Centre, I felt a sense of achievement, but it was a quiet one. I was going to miss the people who had become family for the past few days, staggering in and out of our lives as our different paths crossed, sharing tea, fuel, card games, toilet paper and stories of crazy people they'd met or near-death experiences had along the way. Now they would return to their lives and we to ours, in some cases not even knowing each other's names, just bonded by a shared experience. As I sat at the back of the ferry with march flies swarming around my head, I allowed myself to plan for the next adventure. Perhaps I'll do that pilgrimage in Spain next, I thought to myself. But for the moment, there was normal food, showers, a massage, and time with family to look forward to.
Lake St Clare, waiting for the ferry

1 comment:

Danny Yee said...

One of those walks I really want to do one day - that and a visit to the Walls of Jerusalem. But it's a long way from Oxford!