Since I’d first visited Cradle Mountain National Park during my second year in Australia (with my sister and my nephew Ben), the Overland Track had cemented itself near the top of my Oz Bucket List. The terrain reminded me of Alaska, and the mountain trails felt like home.
My Nephew Jon and wanted to do a multi-day hike together, and this holiday season seemed like an ideal time for him to visit Oz and tackle the Overland Track together.
Day 0 — Sydney to Tassie
We flew into Launceston, checked in at the hotel, and headed to Kathmandu since it was the only outdoor store open past 5:30. Their fuel canisters only worked with their stoves — what? Given my recent experiences at Kathmandu, it’s pretty clear: nice employees, really bad gear. It’s not the REI of Australia. It’s the backwards, expensive Walmart of outdoor gear. Friends don’t let friends shop at Kathmandu.
Day 1 —The Origins of Overconfidence (Ronny Creek to Windermere)
After a 4 hour trip courtesy of Overland Track Transport (our driver Michelle was excellent), we hit the trail at 11 AM, quite a bit later than I’d hoped.
En route, I realised I hadn’t packed my baseball cap. Luckily, the one pit stop the transport made was close to a petrol station selling baseball caps. I found a great looking black one, but then…. a Dominic Toretto, Fast & Furious, pre-worn, mechanic style baseball cap announced its presence. Every stitch said, “I am a redneck.” I knew it would make the perfect first impression on everyone I met on the trail.
The normal route would end Day 1 at Waterfall hut, but the hut was closed for maintenance, and we’d heard sketchy things about the trail down (and back up from) the replacement Scott Kilvert hut, and Charlie’s blog had already seeded the idea of doing two sections in a single day to make room for some side trips.
In the first 10 minutes of the hike, our trip almost ended — I stepped on a rock the wrong way, and almost fell completely over, heavy pack and all. It felt like my ankle had been right at the breaking or spraining point, and somehow I’d escaped and maintained my balance. I stepped more cautiously after that.
According to the schedule, it should have taken us six and a half hours to make it to Windermere. We were a bit ahead of that pace as we hit Marion’s Overlook, but the final three hours of trail took us only 1:50 for a total of well under five hours. We had been trucking, even with 17kg (40 pound) backpacks.
Day 2 —The Forest of Disappointment (Windermere to New Pelion)
Our least favourite day was cloudy and the trail stayed inside a swampy forest, where all you could see was the muddy trail. The last minute Kathmandu gaiters I had purchased weren’t effective, and we lacked the excitement of the previous day.
During the less beautiful parts of the trail, you need activities to keep your mind active. We created nicknames for all the other groups of hikers: Failure to Launch, Trina & the Mule, Club Singapore, Chicken Bone & The (redacted) Bunch, Vanilla Couple, Fly Zone, Mother & Daughter, Actual Mother & Daughter, Heavy Pack Solo, and others that helped the fact that we really didn’t know anyone’s name.
We were the first to wake up, and left Windermere just after 7, arriving at the my favourite hut, New Pelion, around 11:35.
Jon’s right arch had started to hurt on the trail— one of those hiking injuries that just happens from use — and now he had five more days of trail in front of him.
There are tons of side trips on the Overland Track. We checked out the Old Pelion Hut where we spotted the first of several echidnas on the track. Our suntanning angered the rain gods but only briefly. I scrambled up to the top of Mt. Oakleigh and back just before dinner, and was rewarded with two scraped and bloody legs from the branches along the crowded trail.
Day 3 — Mountaineers! (New Pelion to Kia Ora)
Day 3 began with the smell of bacon (not ours). We began the ascent to Pelion Gap, then began the “side trip” up the stairs towards Mt. Ossa, the tallest peak in Tasmania.
The well crafted boardwalk stairs gave way to a “Shire”-like road of stones. We thought we might be the first to summit Ossa for the day (a couple coming down had turned around) but then out of nowhere, the “Ghost of Ossa” or the “Ranger Imposter” (later learned he was “Volunteer Pete”) emerged from the clouds and gave us some advice about navigating the snow patches.
Our first view of Ossa looked like a scene from The Two Towers where Legolas is walking on the snow and Gimli is plowing through the drifts. Jon’s leg went through a snow drift and one point but he escaped with only a scraped knee. We ate lunch in a small cave that gave us some shelter from the wind.
I then violated the sacred hiking rule of “Leave No Trace” and placed a painted rock for a friend of mine from Alaska, in memory of a family member.
After more scrambling and a few places where my stomach was in my throat, staring at the drop below us, we reached the top! We are the champions! And then as we descended we saw the train of people following our footsteps: a 9 year old girl, a 10 year old boy, old people, severely out-of-shape people, a guide carrying full pack, etc. We didn’t feel quite as tough.
The rest of the day was a beautiful descent to the smallish Kia Ora hut. The big steps down highlighted how tired our legs were after the ascent.
Day 4 — Waterfalls! (Kia Ora to Bert Nichols)
Our easiest hiking day covered a short trail but we extended it by visiting all three of the waterfalls that were optional side trips. Without the waterfalls it would have been a mediocre day, but with them it was an amazing one.
Of D’alton, Ferguson, and (Josh) Hartnett Falls, Ferguson was our favourite. I meditated as I stared at the falling water, and everything blended together in a feeling I don’t often have: calm. I didn’t want to leave.
Jon swam at the top of Hartnett Falls in a deep and slightly less freezing pool of water.
On the final path to Bert Nichols hut, we encountered a tiger snake (quite deadly but not aggressive, they disappear quickly) and then Ranger Michel, a Japanophile, State-of-Washington loving outdoorsman.
We had started at 7:30, and meandered to finish at 2:30 given our waterfall gazing. Bert Nichols Hut, a.k.a. the “glamping hut” since it is massive and made from corrugated iron instead of wood. I had a tent in case there was not room in the huts, and decided to spend at least one night in the tent to test it out. It might have been the second best sleep of the trip, removed from all the noise of the other hut dwellers.
Day 5 — The Audible (Bert Nichols to Narcissus)
Because we had combined day 1 and day 2, we were ahead of schedule. Originally, the hike from Bert Nichols was supposed to take us to Narcissus where we’d hop a ferry back to the Lake St. Clair Visitors’ Center. Jon, despite every step causing him pain, was a champion and willing to still hike the additional distance.
Originally we thought we’d detour and camp in Pine Valley, but within the first 30 minutes of our hike we had switched plans — we’d go into Pine Valley to see it, hike out, skip the ferry the next day and walk all the way out. We’d stay at Narcissus instead of Echo Point purely because Echo Point was hosting several of the louder groups of hikers and we wanted some quiet.
We hiked the trail to Pine Valley. Despite Ranger Michel’s warning that there could be 20+ people in Pine Valley, only a family of 4 had tent camped there overnight and the hut was empty. The campground was swaddled in trees and felt claustrophobic, so we congratulated ourselves on already deciding to hike back out.
We arrived at Narcissus at 1:10, and relaxed. Only two other people joined us in the hut, yet we had a rough night’s sleep due to the squeaky platform surface that cried out as we tossed and turned during the night.
Day 6 — Overconfidence exploited (Narcissus to Lake St. Clair Visitors’ Centre)
Our last day was a much harder day than expected, and even harder for Jon, who had been fighting and compensating for foot pain for five straight days. The trail had lots of vertical climbing, all in in short bursts, combined with an often swampy trail that cut into the hillside that dropped into the lake. Footwork was tricky and our speed was not our usual. Jon’s left knee kept locking up.
After about four and a half hours, signs for the Visitors’ Centre appeared, and we hobbled in. We splurged on expensive tourist priced cafe food and enjoyed the free showers. We mocked day hikers under our breath.
The sun outside the Visitors Centre was too hot! While just weeks before, trekkers were rescued from the trail, fully in the grips of hypothermia, we had an incredible week of warm weather and almost no rain. A miracle on the trail. We had been lucky with such an amazing week.
After a 3 hour ride to the Launceston Airport (courtesy of the lead-footed Phil from Overland Track Transport — you’re a legend, mate!), a flight to Sydney, and an Uber from the airport, we arrived at my apartment in Manly in zombie like conditions.
The personal journey
While I hiked six days in Patagonia, and four days along the Inca Trail in Peru, and tens of day hikes throughout South America, I hadn’t done a multi-day self-supported hike since the Great Ocean Road with Dan and Cabe in 2013.
To share the experience with Jon was the best holiday gift I could imagine. Jon and I have a special bond that feels more like a friendship of equals and less like Uncle-Nephew paternalism.
There is also no question that the impact of nature on me is growing stronger by the day. What trails or trees or travels await will be answered in time!