How to fail at The Overland Track (a work in progress)

Beautiful snow at Cradle Valley - view from our emergency accommodation @ Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge
Beautiful snow at Cradle Valley, the morning after the blizzard – view from our emergency accommodation @ Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge

I will never complain of being cold again.

…or at least, never again until I am on the verge of hypothermia climbing a mountain in a blizzard.

I started my overland track journey months ago. The planning involved was meticulous down to the daily itinerary with kilometres mapped and photos of the highlights so we would know visually where we were along the way, the additional optional extra day hikes, and the arranging of my pack three, four, maybe five times from a month to a week before leaving like an obsessive compulsive game of Tetris. I bought the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife visitor guide “The Overland Track: One Walk, Many Journeys” and map, my young travel companion Lara, and I read blogs, bought all new hiking and camping gear for all the weather conditions mentioned in the guide and on the blogs (including snow), we bought gaiters and whistles and hydration packs and raincoats and a fuel stove and compass and pocket knife…and even arranged to have a spare ancient Nokia phone with a Telstra SIM (apparently the only way to get any kind of phone service in the National Park..haha…no, there is none, nowhere,  don’t bother…get yourself a satellite phone if you really want an “in case of emergency” communication device), and a Personal Locator Beacon borrowed from a friend. We had both read up on what food to bring and what to leave behind, refreshed our first aid for snake bites (and even printed and laminated a little emergency reference card for snake-bite first aid). We pre-booked lodges, hostels, busses and ferries. I had read that the best way to hike was from North to South, to get the strenuous uphill journey to Waterfall Valley out of the way on Day One…it’s all down hill from there they told me. Touché! It was indeed all downhill, but not from there…

Let us start with Day 1: Central Coast to Melbourne – to catch the ferry to Devonport Tasmania

The day started off well with me turning the house upside down looking for my only pair of polarising sunglasses (a must for the track), then finding them in Kmart, where I had left them the night before while picking up extra little (unnecessary) bits and pieces before leaving. I picked up 16 year old Lara along the way and assured her parents I would look after her. “We will be fine!” I said, “You have nothing to worry about!” I said… “This is a well planned trip, we have a PLB and people hike the track all the time, we will be fine”…I reiterated. We left on our road trip to Melbourne.

Just briefly: If you are sensitive to the senseless killing of animals, I beg you to not travel by car to Melbourne (or anywhere in Tassie)…I almost suffered a nervous breakdown from the native animal massacre that is the Hume Highway. It was an absolute smorgasbord of native animal manslaughter from Koalas to Kangaroos to Wombats (and while not native, foxes and rabbits deserve a mention), with L-Plater Lara narrowly missing an Echidna that I then actually prayed would make it to safety before the next killing machine sped along towards it.

We had planned to make a side trip to Canberra to drop off some long awaited wedding photos to my beautiful (patient) friends, whom with all manner of infinite confidence in my hiking and mountaineering abilities, hugged young Lara and pleaded with her in full facial animation to “PLEASE look after Tanya, I worry about this one”…clearly a friend with more insight into my run of bad-travel-luck than I.

Of course my itinerary had not factored in weekend traffic getting out of Sydney, or bathroom/food stops, so we ended up arriving at Base Backpackers in St Kilda at 1.00am…having to get up at 6.00am to catch the Spirit of Tasmania Ferry by 7.00am the next morning.

Day 2: A fairly boring ferry ride to Devonport Tasmania

Take a book, or several, maybe an iPad with games and pre-downloaded movies. I got a lot of colouring done in my adult/mindfulness/art therapy…whatever you want to call it…colouring book. We took in a movie at the on board cinema (it’s not Hoyts Lux, but it kills time…and boy, do you have a lot of time to kill), Minions was the pick of the day (or the only movie not yet sold out), and unanimously we do not recommend it to anyone over ten. Also, if you are coeliac, get used to paying $40 for a salad (actually that is really two salads that made the equivalent of a normal sized salad, but even after two tiny salads I was starving). It’s the only gluten free option they have on board. It costs significantly less if you purchase a pre-packed salad from the on-board convenience store (I can’t remember the exact price but it was somewhere between $10-20), but it won’t fill you up. Pack a lot of snack foods or starve.

Day 3: Travelling to Lake St Clair at night by car – allow extra time if you aren’t some kind of sadistic animal massacring psychopath 

Our ferry arrived half an hour late and the drive to Lake St Clair was planned to be about 3 hours. Allowing for delays, I had expected us to arrive at approximately 10.00pm. What I had not allowed for was doing 40km/hour on a 100km/hour road for a good 100km (possibly more) due to the sheer amount of nocturnal animal activity. The Pademelons with a death wish just waiting at the side of the road would give anyone cause for a heart attack by jumping right out in front of you just as you think they have safely seen you and should want to jump in the opposing direction…I think we need Pademelon mental health services in Tasmania, these animals are clearly in need of LifeLine. There is a silver lining here, apart from the stress of trying not to hit them with my car, it was actually amazing to witness these beautiful creatures in the wild. I have never in my life seen as many native Australian animals in the wild as I did on the drive to Lake St Clair through the National Park. We had to stop for Bennetts Wallabies, Pademelons (click the link to find out more about these guys, they are everywhere in Tassie, I had never heard of them before), echidnas, wombats, brush tail possums, ring tail possums and frogs. I was hoping to see a Tassie Devil, but there was no luck there. Given the prevalence of the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease these poor little guys are dying out, which is why you will find that a lot of the lodges, hotels and local businesses donate a portion of their profits to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program in partnership with the University of Tasmania, so if you have a few $$ to spare you can help save the Tassie Devil too by donating to their research and conservation fund.

We finally arrived at our beautiful accommodation at the Lake St Clair Lodge  at about 11.30pm and were blissfully greeted with a comfy King Bed and a cosy fire to warm ourselves before heading out to Cradle Valley to start our hike the next morning.

Day 4: THE OVERLAND TRACK!

First of all, a great big shout out to Cradle Mountain Coaches who were basically at our beck and call during this trip. They weren’t even given a mention on the National Parks website or any of the blogs or guide books we looked through before embarking on our trip, and yet when it came to booking a bus to actually take us to Cradle Valley (and pick us up again at a moments notice the next day), they were the only bus company that would take us, everything else was pre-booked for tour groups. All of the bus prices were about the same, ranging from $180-$200 for a one way journey from one end of the track to the other, however, we had a pleasant surprise when the bus picked us up at 08.30am at Lake St Clair Lodge: because others had booked on our bus, our bus fare was halved to $100 per person…a lucky break, as little did we know how much we would need that extra $200 over the next few days.

The journey from Lake St Clair to the Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre was rainy but pleasant. We met a lovely couple, one of whom was a Doctor (which was a nice comfort heading into the wilderness)  whom had recently moved from Sydney to Tassie and would be starting the track around the same time we were. There were also a couple of young hikers on the bus who had just completed their hike of the track and boasted about what beautiful weather they had, how they hadn’t seen a single snake (sighs of relief rang out around the bus), and that they managed to complete it quite comfortably in 4 days. They also told us about the mostly empty heated huts they stayed in along the way. The start to the trip was looking promising, even if the weather outside was looking less than dry.

We arrived at the visitor centre a little after 12.00pm. I had read that the hike to Waterfall Valley should take between 3-6 hours, and had planned for us to have a leisurely start to the track, aiming to arrive at the camp site by 6pm at the latest…we walked the City2Surf (14km) in 2hrs for timing comparison the month before, 10.7km to Waterfall Valley? Piece of cake in 6 hours, with plenty of time for breaks and photos, I thought.

What did I learn early on in the trek? It probably wasn’t a good idea to eat a massive plate of sweet potato wedges immediately before heading out on a 10.7km hike. Good to know now. Ain’t hindsight a wonderful thing? Never again! Take a snack bar. You probably won’t even eat it, especially in the conditions we set out in.

At the counter in the visitor centre we were warned that there was going to be some snow tonight on the mountain, and also that there had been a record number of hikers leave that day, about 30 people so far, so we would probably need to use our tent. I had checked the weather report religiously leading up to leaving and knew about the “light snow” and rain that was predicted for the next couple of days. NO WORRIES! I thought cockily! We have snow coats, poles, gloves and -10 sleeping gear…plus, light snow?? HOW BEAUTIFUL! (haha…hahaha…oh the naïveté).

We excitedly hopped into the shuttle line to take us to Ronny Creek, the infamous starting point of The Overland Track. It was packed. There were about another 30 people just in this line, people with babies strapped to their chests, were these people hiking the track too? I had a side thought about a comment I had made a few weeks prior to leaving about how “I just want a guy who wants to strap babies to our chests and hike around the world, too much to ask?”. I had an “awww” moment about this couple ready to take off on an epic adventure with bub strapped in for the ride. We waited, and waited …the bus came, the bus left, the bus came back again with a big enclosed trailer for all the backpacks the driver had clearly not anticipated would be coming along for the ride. As people climbed into the bus, the “hiking baby” couple disappeared into the background until I realised that they had decided that taking a baby into cold wet conditions was probably not ideal. They bailed, and so they should have, and so would we have if we had been a little less unrealistically optimistic.

It was not long before we arrived at Ronny Creek. Apparently most of the others on the bus were just going on short afternoon hikes to Dove Lake or other surrounding attractions. There was another group of about six women about to embark on the track, and a couple of guys suited up in camouflage gear. Were they part of the 30 hikers? Or additional? Who knew? We were still optimistic about getting a spot in the hut at Waterfall Valley.

We headed into the Log Book hut, signed-in to start the track with our ambitious intentions for a nine day hike with day trips, swapped camera-phones with the girl-group for a quick obligatory “Starting the Overland Track” signage snap…and off we went out into the rain, all smiles and enthusiastic anticipation.

Ignorance is bliss - the start of the Overland Track and Ronny Creek.
Ignorance is bliss – the start of the Overland Track and Ronny Creek. I learnt fairly quickly that nothing should ever be strapped to the outside of your pack. Ever.

About 100 metres into the track, we saw our first wombat (on the track, not the trip, obviously). There he was right next to the wooden planks of the track, just munching down on the luscious greenery that covered the ground around and under the track. He seemed to notice us and rather un-politely turned his back to us and continued his grassy feast. A small part of my brain kept saying “he is so cute, doesn’t look vicious at all…I wonder if…”, and then I remembered the ringtail possum incident of 2014, and thought better than to attempt to pat the cute fluffy little wombat. Leave him be, as we should do with all wild animals, no matter how cute and cuddly they look, they are in fact, wild (speaking from experience).

Wombat on the Overland Track
Wombat on the Overland Track

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We trekked on up through rainforest with stunning rivers flowing under the wooden bridges built into the track, we hiked up and up stairs and rocky path, our 15kg packs weighing heavily on our hips and shoulders by now. A pleasant enough day tripper swanned past us unweighted, with her young daughter hopping beside her and exclaimed “it’s BEAUTIFUL once you get there!” while I shot her a “my back is killing me, don’t talk peppy to me lady” glance and my mind exclaimed obscenities at the weight of my pack. We finally reached Crater Lake where we paused for a moment to take in it’s beauty…or what we could see of it through the increasingly dense fog.

Crater Lake...you see it right?
Crater Lake…you see it right?
Lara next to Crater Lake
Lara next to Crater Lake

We continued past the boat shed and up the incline to a junction. Facing south, Dove Lake sat below us to our left and Crater Lake to our right, which path to take? We decided to go with the one labeled “Overland Track” (obvious choice) which took us on a steep mountain climb (yes, actually mountain climbing…assisted by chains and poles impaled into the rocks) up Marion’s Lookout. We stopped to take an optimistic smiling selfie of us venturing up into the mountain, meanwhile we couldn’t even see the view below us anymore, and yet, we continued. As we endeavoured further up the cliffs, the wind picked up, as did the altitude, and correspondingly the temperature dropped…to freezing. It felt as though we had only climbed a few metres, but the terrain was vastly different than what we had endured thus far, and it took all of our balance and core strength to keep from being blown off the top of Marion’s Lookout. According to the guides and blogs, this is where the classically stunning outlook over both lakes, and the falls should bring us to tears of joy at the beauty of nature…we weren’t quite in tears by this point, but if we were, I can assure you, it would not have been at the beauty of nature. The outlook was, foggy at best. I took my glove off and tried to take a photo on my phone of the thick fog and cloud cover, but my fingers quickly lost all feeling and my phone screen was covered in tiny little icicles that rapidly melted to water at my touch and my fingers just were not up to the task of photographing the icy predicament. A wall of thick snow looked like a river frozen in time on the side of the mountain and vanished into foggy nothingness to our left…and we couldn’t even see two metres to our right, but it looked a bit clearer up ahead, so we trekked on.

Dove Lake, I think...hard to tell with all the fog.
Dove Lake, I think…hard to tell with all the fog.
Optimistic smiling selfie...a few minutes before we realised we were in a blizzard.
Optimistic smiling selfie…a few minutes before we realised we were in a blizzard. Our last photo on the track.

The snow covered most of the top of the mountain plateau, the fog seemed to disperse to the sides of the track so we could still see the track ahead, we figured it looked better and we continued. The wind picked up and was blowing us like rag dolls all over the track. From a distance I imagine we must have looked like two drunk hooded puppets on a tequila bender going for a mindless wander through the snow. I have only ever experienced snow once, and it was magical. It felt like tiny little soft delicate angels floating down onto my skin. That was not what this felt like.

I thought back to the weather report, “light snow in the evening”…light snow my frost bitten A** (and that’s not even a euphemism, I actually did not get feeling back to my behind for a full 24 hours after this ordeal, I was genuinely concerned it might be gone forever, along with my fingers and toes). This was a blizzard. A BLIZZARD. High winds were sending thousands of tiny little ice daggers at high speed into my face. I could not feel a single one of my extremities, and my hands were actually burning from the cold like they were soaking in lava, while being simultaneously numb to the bone. Still, we could see ahead and thought it would all be ok once we get to the hut, the heated hut that the people on the bus told us about.

WRONG!

The snow became thicker, about a metre deep by now and we trekked uphill through it naively, in our hiking boots. Snow boots, for the record, are NOT optional apparel (as per the guidebook) and “Spring”, does not exist on the Overland Track. At least not when we left.

Just as we were about to give up hope, Lara exclaimed “I see the hut!!!” oh thank the lord (despite my atheism), I thought out loud. We picked up the pace a bit and another exclamation from Lara came “I see people!!”. They looked like tiny brightly coloured ants, we were so far away. I took a deep breath, channeled some of Lara’s enthusiasm and pummelled ahead, losing the bottom of my hiking pole somewhere deep beneath the snow.

Finally as we came closer to the hut, I realised this was “Kitchen Hut”, the emergency shelter that rested at the half way point between the beginning of the track, and the huts at Waterfall Valley. My heart sank. There was a group of six or more guys at the hut who had passed us earlier, and the group of girls who had taken our photo, and us theirs, at the start of the track, plus the army camouflage people. The guy group made a cocky remark about how they thought we had turned back and how the huts at Waterfall Valley are full so we would have to camp, before having a smug group giggle and continuing on. How were they not dying of hypothermia like the rest of us??? I have no idea. The group of girls seemed equally as freezing as we were and I was genuinely concerned for one girl who seemed to be shivering uncontrollably in the corner of the hut like she was stuck on one of those hideous vibration machines at the gym. I wasn’t quite at that stage…and yet, they continued. I changed my soaked socks, strapped my pack back on and we left the hut.

As the other hikers quickly disappeared out of view no more than three metres in front of us, we tried to find the path. I saw the tiny tip of one of the markers poking through the top of the snow, and we hiked towards it. Lara got a few metres ahead of me when we realised that the metre high markers were now completely buried in the snow. We had no guide as to where the track went other than the footprints of the other hikers, the wind was getting stronger, the ice daggers sharper and more aggressive in their attack, and we had no idea where we were going. Our view ahead was completely obscured by fog. We could no longer see outside a six metre radius. The look of sheer terror on Lara’s face said it all as the tears exploded, and I’m sure mine expressed the same unspoken pessimistic sentiments “if we stay out here, I am genuinely afraid we might die in this blizzard”. Just as I was about to make the call to turn back, my foot fell through a half a metre of snow and became trapped under the ice. A panicked Lara hobbled over to me as quickly as she could through the snow, and we both risked freezing our hands off to dig my now saturated, frozen, sleeping foot out of the snow. Lara was not the only one on the verge of tears at this point, but my brain screamed at me “Keep it together Tanya, you’re the adult!” Lara helped me up and I thumped my never-heavier foot into the snow in front of me as we headed back across the plateau and down the mountain to safety. Each time Lara shouted questions back to me I tried to reply, but my lips weren’t moving, they were so numb that everything I muttered sounded like I was blowing bubbles under water, I felt like I’d had a stroke. You know that feeling when the dentist numbs your mouth with anaesthetic and you can’t feel half of your face for a few hours? Well my entire face felt like that, for about 24 hours.

As we descended the light grew increasingly scarce and we hiked about an hour or more in the dark (I lost track of time), in the snow,  before reaching the boardwalk at the beginning of the track. They say the walk back is always quicker…this seemed endless. We saw another wombat, and another…not quite as exciting after 5.5 hours in a blizzard. Finally we spied the beginning of the track in the distance, and a light, on the road, coming down the hill. Lara seemed to gather some kind of superhuman energy from some as yet untapped reservoir, and bounded along the end of the track with her pack bouncing up and down in the distance…I dragged myself to the finish line like decrepit roadkill. As the truck with the huge flood lights neared towards us, Lara did what any desperate freezing hiker would do: she stood directly in front of the vehicle on the road, and stared it down fiercely…until it stopped. Like animals in the headlights (quite literally), we stared at the man pointing a flashlight in our faces. Finally my lips moved “we need a lift, there’s a blizzard”…it’s all I could muster, and it wasn’t even coherent, but he got the point and a couple of people got out of the back of the truck and helped us into the the back with our packs. In all fairness, the thought that this may be a truck full of serial killers did cross my mind, and yet I actually just did not care by this point. Better to risk serial killers than hypothermia? My brain may have been frozen. Luckily for us, it was not a truck full of serial killers, but a Peppers Resort Nocturnal Animal tour. I have never been so grateful to see a tour bus (truck, bus, does it even matter at this point?).

The bus took us back to Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge where I’m quite sure we were given a considerable discount on a rather luxurious room overlooking a small lake with a warm fire and beautifully smelling (unlike us) Appelles toiletries. We then had the best dinner I have ever eaten of Pork Belly Roast and Strawberries and Cream for desert, and wine (for me)…a huge glass of wine (my judgment could be clouded, anything would have tasted amazing after that endeavour, but I still maintain it was very decent quality food). While my whiskey drinking days have been about five years behind me, I decided that an improvised “Irish coffee” using the Cradle Mountain Single Malt Whiskey in the mini-bar, was exactly what I needed to get the feeling back into my digits, and my face.

First aid for hypothermia...hot drinks. Best first aid ever!
First aid for hypothermia…hot drinks. Best first aid ever!

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Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge the morning after the blizzard
Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge looking magical the morning after the blizzard

Cradle Mountain Coaches was again at our service to pick us up with a few hours notice the next morning to head back to Lake St Clair Lodge. Given that we hadn’t quite budgeted for the 9 days we expected to be on the track, we decided to cut our losses and reschedule the ferry home for the Friday night, a few days after returning to Lake St Clair. We toured the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park as much as we could, stopped for a few day hikes to waterfalls, including the largest waterfall in Tasmania, and the glow worm caves of …can’t remember. We had an overnight stay in Tulluh which brings me memories of being given a $6 discount on a two bed room (yes, we looked so hobo that we were given a $6 discount on a room) and we were then ambushed by a Bilby while preparing our dehydrated camp dinners in the back carpark on our fuel stove (I can understand why she thought we needed a $6 discount on the accommodation). The entire trip could have been filmed as some kind of terrifying dark comedy really, and we joked about it pretty much at every chance we got…what else can you do in these situations but laugh at yourself?

Camping outside Sheffield
Camping outside Sheffield, with Lara cooking us a magnificent vegetable soup!

The rest of the trip was fairly non-eventful…although I did build a kick-a** camp fire on our last night camping near Sheffield, which made me feel pretty proud given the amount of times I’ve had exes comment that my fire building skills were not up to standard and take over the job 🙂

My kick-a** campfire :)
My kick-a** campfire 🙂

One might think this would deter me from hiking, but no. I’m already re-planning my trip for January 2016, and have picked up some sage advice from other hikers who actually managed to hike AROUND the blizzard due to their knowledge of the track. This time I will be joining a bigger group, with some more experienced Overland Trackers.

Until then, I will stick to local hikes…

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