During the pandemic, walking has been a release for many locked-down travelers. But for travel writer Tayla Gentle, who’d been walking the same couple of Melbourne blocks for months, even walking was losing its shine. But then Tasmania’s epic Overland Track came calling.
If you’d have asked me a week ago to join you on a walk, I would’ve politely declined. In fact, I would’ve politely told you that I was sick to death of walking. Why? Because for the better part of the last year, it’s all we’ve been allowed to do.
And yet here I am, boots on and knee-deep in button grass, somewhere west of Launceston and north of Hobart, attempting to conquer Tasmania’s famous Overland Track. Which is a pretty long walk (six days, to be precise).
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t always felt this way about walking. I’ve hauled ass to Everest Base Camp to breathe thin Himalayan air. I’ve trekked across Patagonia, scouring the steppe for the elusive puma. Hell, I’ve even hiked Alaska’s Denali National Park under full midnight sun.
But life in lockdown Melbourne—where we weren’t able to do much besides go for a walk for the best part of four months—really killed my walking vibe. At first, a brisk lap around the block, or to the shops, was exciting. It was the perfect escape from the mundanity of my living room. But pretty soon that lap of the block grew tiresome. A trip to the shops became a drag. My daily step count dwindled.
I wanted more than just walking—I wanted to skydive in South Africa! I wanted to kite surf in Colombia! I wanted to cycle across Tanzania! Walking was becoming boring. And walking in Melbourne was even worse.
But when the opportunity arose to trace Tasmania’s Overland Track with Intrepid Travel, I jumped at it. If I couldn’t get to Tanzania this year, I wasn’t going to say no to Tasmania. It’s still technically ‘overseas’, after all.
I’d forgotten how liberating it feels to carry your whole world in a 15-kilogram backpack … I’d forgotten what it’s like to have frozen feet but a fire in your belly that’s stoked on fresh air and no mobile reception.
So I reclaimed my hiking boots from the depths of the garage, dusted off my discarded backpack and crossed the Bass Strait (in an aeroplane, no less—remember them?) to the bushy wilds of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park.
The Overland Track has become something of an Australian pilgrimage ever since fur trappers Bert Nicholls and Paddy Hartnett first blazed the trail back in the early 1930s.
But the history of this land dates back much further than that. For tens of thousands of years, the palawa Tasmanian Aboriginal people lived and managed these alpine plains and myrtle beech forests. They would use button grass to weave baskets and cut canoes from tall scar trees; in fact, it’s safe to assume that this trail would’ve first been cleared by palawa people.
The trail itself is 65 kilometers of boardwalk, tree root and mud that runs from Cradle Mountain in the north all the way down to Lake St Clair in the south through an ever-changing landscape. One minute you’re reapplying zinc while trekking across a sun-drenched, exposed alpine heath and the next you’re zig-zagging through a glacial valley, wind whipping at your back.
And while nowadays those of us willing to brave the region’s savagely unpredictable weather fronts are more likely to be fitted out in Gore-Tex than wallaby fur, the track—and even the location of the campsites—remain the same.
Our Intrepid Travel guide for the week is Stan, and Stan’s favourite thing about the track—besides the first class ‘office’ views—is the story of the pioneers. “I just love the history of the place, all the characters who shaped the trail,” he tells me
“I’m no good at remembering Latin plant names, but I can take you to Paddy Hartnett’s hut or tell you about Bert Nicholls making wombat stew,” he says, looking every bit the weathered pioneer himself in his wide-brimmed hat and knee-high gaiters.
You see, Stan is a veteran bushwalker, and this is his 90th overland journey. That’s almost 6,000 kilometers spent trekking through dense eucalypt forest. That’s over 13 million steps across alpine moorlands. That’s more than 500 nights camped beneath a canopy of southern stars. If anyone is going to reinvigorate my love of walking, it’s Stan.
Joining our small group of 12 trekkers is Ryder, Stan’s assistant guide, who’s on his very first guiding season. Ryder is enthusiasm where Stan is wisdom; a Padawan to his Obi Wan. Before we hit the trail, Stan and Ryder give us a safety briefing. Which is less ‘what to do if you get a blister’ and more ‘look out for the lecherous leeches and pickpocketing possums’.
They tell us to avoid sunbathing snakes and crafty currawongs (birds that have taught themselves how to unzip hiking packs). They hand us half a kilo of scroggin, triple check we’ve packed thermals and welcome us to ‘the stroll’. Which I’m sure is their way of downplaying the difficulty of the next six days.
Two hours later, as I’m scrambling up a slick granite boulder to Marion’s Lookout, I’m proven right. This is no stroll. This is no walk in the park. This is an adventure.
You see, I’d forgotten how liberating it feels to carry your whole world in a 15-kilogram backpack. I’d forgotten how exhilarating it is to hike up, and out, of a valley and traverse the shoulder of a mountain. I’d forgotten what it’s like to have frozen feet but a fire in your belly that’s stoked on fresh air and no mobile reception.
I’d forgotten—but it’s all starting to come back to me.
While our first day is only 10 kilometers on foot, rain chases us all the way and by the time we get to camp I’m expecting our group to be a bunch of disgruntled, soggy trekkers. But Ryder’s quick off the mark—pouring steaming cups of coffee and with Stan’s help we make light work of pitching our tents. There’s not a frown (or blister) in sight.
We average five hours on the trail each day. Ryder sets a comfortable pace and Stan brings up the rear as we navigate creek crossings and traverse the boardwalk, swapping travel stories and sharing scroggin.
As a group, we tackle the hills slowly but bounce across the moorlands. We break up our longest walk, which is 17 kilometers from Lake Windermere to Pelion Plains, with hot zucchini soup in a timbered forest. The oldest trekker among us is a sprightly 70-year-old and the youngest is just 20, but the track suits all adventure levels and no walker gets left behind.
Every afternoon, we make camp somewhere new, and somewhere magic. At Waterfall Valley Hut, our tents sit snug in a mossy green copse. It’s like something out of Lord of the Rings. Elven, you could call it. At Lake Windermere Hut we wake up to a sea of spider webs – hundreds of perfectly crafted mandalas glistening silver in the dewy sunrise, lining the trail like Christmas baubles. At Kia Ora Hut we soak our weary feet in icy river water and warm our bellies with hot chocolate.
“I want to help people enjoy the park, but I also want to teach them how to care for it and treat it with respect too.”
- Ryder, Overland Track guide
I fall back into camp life easily. I become reacquainted with the pleasure of a warm sleeping bag; the joy of camp conversation with new friends; the satisfaction that comes with changing your socks at the end of a long hike.
I fall back in love with my body, too. After a year spent locked in to Melbourne’s urban sprawl, it feels good to be using it to explore Tasmania’s wild parts. To be jumping creeks, climbing ladders, breathing eucalyptus-scented air. To feel bone-tired but alive.
Only four of us decide to tackle Mount Ossa, Tasmania’s highest peak. It’s tricky climbing and treacherous in parts, but on a good day, when the clouds clear, you can look out over thousands of acres of pristine, protected wilderness. You can see every hill and trough, lake and waterfall.
Sitting on the roof of Tassie, I’m quickly reminded that this is still a wild place. It makes me contemplate all the creatures that call it home. Pademelons and possums are one thing, but what about the vicious Tassie devil? Or the carnivorous quoll? Hell, could this still be Tasmanian tiger territory?
Over salad sangas at the summit, Ryder tells me that the last known thylacine (Tassie Tiger) died in 1936 at Hobart Zoo, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of people reporting ‘sightings’ ever since. One man claimed to have taken photographs of the creature just last week (though the claim has since been disproven).
In what is an excellent attribute for an up-and-coming guide, Ryder is full of interesting facts. Like, did you know that Tasmania is home to a fish that can climb—that’s right, climb—from one water source to another? Over land? Like a lizard?
When I ask Ryder why he decided to become a guide, his answer is simple: “I want to help people enjoy the park, but I also want to teach them how to care for it and treat it with respect too.”
Stan and Ryder have worked hard to make sure our footprint is minimal—which is also part of the wider Intrepid Travel philosophy. The toilets are composting, we never tramp off track, we’ve accumulated next to no food waste and we’re traveling in a small group. In fact, if COVID-19 has been good for anything, it’s been the tightening of trekker numbers allowed into the park each morning.
On our final day, sweaty and content, we hike out of the last stretch of bush to greet Lake St Clair in all its sapphire glory. I take a seat on the ferry and I hang my head out the open window, and maybe it’s the fresh air or the proximity to water or the past six days spent in nature, but I feel revived. I feel like I’ve woken from a year-long slumber, energized and alive.
If you asked me today to join you on a walk, I’d politely accept. In fact, I’d probably tell you that I haven’t even taken my boots off yet.
Tayla Gentle is a freelance writer and producer specializing in adventure travel. Her work has featured in outlets such as Lonely Planet, AFAR, AWOL and Red Bull Australia. Her spirit country is Myanmar.