Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Tasmania -- the western wilderness

As continued from the April post "Tasmania"

Day 8

This day was just possibly the most expensive day in Tasmania. After taking a shortcut over the middle of the island (luckily car repairs was not the expensive part!) we were at Bruny Island Cruises.

Even though the same tour in Port Arthur was supposed to be better, the Bruny Island cruises were not bad; in fact, it was well worth the money! Despite the shortcut over a mountain, we came late, but got onto the last of four boats. After safety briefing the boat was off, and in no time, we were under the cliffs at Fluted Cape, the second tallest cliffs in the southern hemisphere -- we were at the tallest three days earlier.

The tour guide showed us caves, reefs, beaches and lots of seals. At the southeastern end of the island, there were some tall rock towers in the sea, with lots of seals and seabirds. On the way back a little further away from shore, there was a pod of dolphins following the boat.

Back on dry land, we visited a small museum. I did not expect much, but found maps, 300 year old globes, old newspaper articles, a tree explorer James Cook moored at, and much more.

The day was finished with a short walk and a sighting of the rare Bruny Island albino wallaby.

Day 9

March the ninth was my little brother's birthday. Not much could be done to celebrate, but he got some presents and a visit to a cafe.

We departed from Bruny Island by ferry. Next stop was the Tahune Airwalk. I liked the treetop platform itself, but was disappointed with the swinging bridges walk. So, if you want to visit the airwalk and have time for a walk, don't go to the swinging bridges and go see the much more impressive Huon Pines, some of the oldest trees in Australia (the oldest one was born with the Roman Empire!)

Mount Wellington was great. It had an amazing view and few mountains on the eastern side of Tasmania can match its height. We continued to the north, skipping the MONA art museum (some people say it's kind of creepy and some say it's awesome, and surprisingly there is absolutely NO middle ground. I guess nobody wanted to take the risk at the time, because nobody mentioned the museum as we were planning the rest of the trip at Port Arthur. We felt guilty afterward). The sun slowly turned from bright yellow to orange as the road led into the hills and into the forest. And as light darkened, we pulled into the campground in Mount Field National Park, a good campground by a river with friendly neighbors.

Day 10

Mount Field is unique mainly because of the great variety of habitats. At the lower end of the park, where the campground was, it was rainforest with the tallest flowering plants in the world, swamp gums, dominating much of the dry ridges. In the valleys were some spectacular waterfalls. A little higher, between 600 and 800 meters above, is much drier rainforest, the canopy lower.

Above 800 meters you enter the realm of Tasmanian snow gums, very low, densely packed trees that always grow on slopes and never rot after dying. I hope some authority claims that Tasmania has the lowest tree line in temperate regions, at just 1000 meters, where the trees cut off entirely and a variety of alpine shrubs has a higher biodiversity even than the rainforest below.

On that day, our first destination was Pandani Grove (pandani is the highest heath in the world) and Lake Seal lookout. After walking around the lake past many Pandani plants, we walked up the steep road to the ski lifts, now abandoned in the summertime. Seal Lookout, an outcropping of rocks just above the tree line, was very nice, with views of several lakes and "tarns", complexes of small ponds that freeze over easily -- keep to the path!

We walked back through Pandani Grove. The contrast of shapes and colors of the pencil pine, pandani, and several other plants, I thought was to an alpine forest as Wineglass Bay is to a beach; not exceptional, but perfect.

The next destination was Russell Falls, which we walked to from the campsite. Russell Falls is truly spectacular, apparently the most beautiful falls in Tasmania. A long walk up steps led us to Horseshoe Falls, a somewhat less spectacular waterfall. A long walk through rainforest led us to a grove of swamp gums.

The walk led me to the base of a swamp gum so tall I had to crane my neck and stand back to see the top. The trunk was so wide it would take a classroom of children to make a circle around it. Apparently, it was 89 meters tall. A respectable tree in a redwood forest. There were swamp gums down south one or two house's height away from being the tallest trees in the world! The walk passed by Lady Baron Falls and climbed a staircase with at least a hundred steps back to the campsite.

The day was finished with a walk to see glow worms, which I had never seen before, which looked like little stars twinkling under the rocks.

Day 11

Another driving day. Much of the driving was from Mount Field to Lake St. Clair. We did not stay long, as it was cold and rainy. But we got to see the lake. It must be special to people because it is like a fjord, and the valley was formed by glaciers. But Iceland has more fjords, ones that look nicer, and so does the rest of Scandinavia and Canada, so if you have seen a real fjord, Lake St. Clair is nothing special. I imagine it must still be nice walking by the nice weather.

The next stop was Zeehan. As we entered the valley we saw ruined mountains, mounds of dirt and piles of rubble. There were mountains chopped in half and left to grow back again. Zeehan was spookily quiet, all the shops had long closed.

In a museum, I learned that there once was a gigantic mining industry here. People had drilled holes in every mountain from the Tasmanian west coast to the mountains. But mining was increasingly taken over by machines, and in this area, plants, so everything shut down, and everyone moved to the western coast to fish. The museum is a good reminder of those mining days.

I was very interested in the museum's collection of minerals. It had practically every named mineral on earth, and featured crocoite, a mineral only found in abundance in Tasmania. Kind of like opals in Coober Pedy, except crocoite is less valuable than gold. After that the day was mostly over. We camped in the Cradle Mountain area that night, a beautiful campground. It was raining.

Day 12

It was still cold and misty as I woke up, but the rain had cleared up a little. There was a leech on the roof of the tent. How it got up there, I am not sure. It was the only leech I ever saw on the whole vacation, despite walking a lot in bad weather and rainforests; were there less leeches in Tasmania and why? Was the climate too cold for them?

Anyway, the campground was the best campground we ever stayed at on the trip. There were no friendly "gray nomads" but this was a busy tourist destination. The visitors center was within walking distance of the campground, but we went by car anyway.

It is worth mentioning that the shuttle buses leave every half-hour from the visitors center. The people managing the shuttle buses said there was car access to the parking lots at Ronny Creek and Dove Lake, but the rangers wanted to keep down road traffic and space used for parking, so they made a boom gate just past the interpretation center that only let a certain amount of cars in, and then closed. At the same time the shuttle buses were used, also to keep down traffic and let people past the closed boom gates.

The first stop was the interpretation center, which was the trackhead for numerous waterfalls and a rainforest. The next stop was Snake Hill, where a boardwalk by the river came into view.

The next stop was Ronny Creek, the official beginning of the Overland Track, the most famous (and the easiest) of Australia's popular long-distance tracks. I cannot find any such equal in America. The Overland Track is one of five other very popular long-distance tracks; the Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia, which takes months to complete, the Heysen Trail in South Australia, which was built for short walks, the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory, which is hard to access, and the Great North Walk and the Thorsborne Trail in New South Wales and Queensland respectively, which are both impressive but not so much as the Overland Track.

We rode straight to the end of the line, a car park by Dove Lake. From there, we walked around Dove Lake. Most walks above the lake are better than the Dove Lake walk, but Dove Lake is nice in cold, rainy weather when all the rest of the walks are cold and dangerous. On that day, I could see no Cradle Mountain reflected in the waters of Dove Lake, because everything above 1200 meters was shrouded in mist. I could only see "Little Horn", the northernmost summit of Cradle Mountain. It looked intimidating, for it was mostly bare rock and 70+ degree slopes.

The next stop was the interpretation center. There is a model inside the building which models the terrain around Cradle Mountain. It looks way out of proportion, with crazily steep mountains and very deep lakes. But climbers beware: that model has been exaggerated just twice, if at all. Anybody with weak legs should look at the model before considering climbing Cradle Mountain; more people succeed climbing Mount Everest than succeed Cradle Mountain. My mother was one of about fifty percent of walkers who turned back before reaching the top.

We did the Enchanted walk, but that did not meet our expectations, so we walked the King Billy Pine track as well. It is a magical walk, with bright green moss covering everything, and ancient, gnarled trees by the path. The bright green moss grew on the bark of all the trees, and covered the ground so thickly there was no real undergrowth. I imagine the walk would be amazing in snow.

Day 13

We woke up early for the push to the summit. Everything was completely frozen over, even the car windows. But it was a totally clear day, with no clouds. I really hoped it was going to stay that way for the whole day.

We took the shuttle to Ronny Creek. The walk through the low-lying Cradle Valley reminded me we had 700 meters to climb.

The walk continued up steps past a waterfall and to Crater Lake. By the lake there was some native fagus, the only Australian plant to shed its leaves in winter. In Autumn, the fagus was full of beautiful colors and was somehow more impressive than the deciduous trees in other parts of the world.

There was a very steep climb up the side of Crater Lake. The climb was easy because it was on dolomite, possibly the roughest rock in the world. Marions Lookout was a treat. The next stretch of the walk covered the lonely Cradle Plateau. I cannot describe the feeling that came when I walked in the Tasmania wilderness. It was not put on the World Heritage List for nothing.

After three hours of walking, we arrived at Kitchen Hut, an emergency shelter at the base of Cradle Mountain. We spent a time resting up for the summit. As the summit climb began, the climb degraded from a boardwalk to a gravel path to a dirt path traversing rocks and streams. It degraded even further as it drew closer to the summit. There was a sudden sharp right turn, and we were climbing on boulders with sightings of dirt and grass underneath. Finally, the path disappeared completely and followed metal snow poles.

The climb was very long, but not particularly hard for me. My mother had knee problems below the summit ridge. Hiking poles were useless in this terrain. Grass disappeared entirely and we were left climbing on a boulder pile. At what had seemed to be the summit ridge, the track went down and then back up again. That was where my mother, and many younger climbers, gave up.

The climbing into the gulch was hard because everything was covered with slippery ice, even at ten in the morning. It was an easy climb to the real main ridge, but the path climbed down into another gulch. There was a beautiful view of the land up north. The track had finished with the boulder pile and was climbing up grassy rocks on a near vertical slope. After that the walk was finished. Cradle Mountain was only the fifth highest peak in Tasmania, but I could spot the other four. The views extended to the entire length of the Overland track, a walk I had not done, but had just completed the first and hardest day of.

The walk back via Lake Wilks, a beautiful alpine tarn, was just as nice as the route to the mountain. But the entire day will stick in my mind as one of the best climbs of my life.

Day 14

We drove to the Quamby Corner campground the next day. We visited some attractions like the wildlife park, Woolmers Estate, and a gorge. We were back on the ferry at Day 15. As I watched Tasmania vanish over the horizon,  I  reflected on how much we had not seen, Maria Island, the southern half of the Western Wilderness, the west and north coastlines. I also reflected on how much I had seen, Wineglass Bay, Cradle Mountain up close. It was a great experience to me, seeing Australia's largest island.


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