A walk on the wild side in Tasmania’s rugged and majestic Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park
We’re still a couple of hours away from Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park and I’ve already lost both WiFi and mobile phone reception. Not to worry, I have complete confidence in my husband’s ability to handle the challenge of our four kids while I’m off the grid for a few days. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
I’m on the Apple Isle to join the Tasmanian Walking Company’s Cradle Mountain Huts Walk. The six-day tour takes hikers through, up and over the spectacular and diverse landscape of this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site without sacrificing the creature comforts of cosy beds, warm showers and delicious food.
Our group of 11 is picked up early in the morning and taken to Quamby Estate, a picturesque farmhouse about 30 minutes’ drive from Launceston (you can also choose to stay here the night before).
This is where we load up our packs and stow any luggage that isn’t essential for the walk. We also meet our guides, Pat and Jill, both locals and passionate nature lovers. They check our gear, making sure we have thermal layers, gaiters and waterproof jackets.
The Overland Track has its own weather system, and you can get snow at any time of year. We are warned to keep our pack as light as possible – under 10 kilograms – and this information turns out to be essential.
The two-and-a-half-hour drive to the trail is a great opportunity for the group to mingle and learn a little about each other. We are four Americans and seven Australians and range in age from our 40s to our 70s. The Americans are all avid hikers, two of them with more than 35 years’ experience as rangers in the US National Parks Service. I’m clearly in good company.
I’ve had great hiking experiences with Tasmanian Walking Company in the past, but I have also heard that the Cradle Mountain Huts Walk is probably the hardest.
The six-day, five-night adventure starts five kilometres north of Cradle Mountain and finishes at Lake St Clair. It covers a total distance of about 75 kilometres, depending on how many side trips you do, and a fairly good level of fitness is recommended.
Tasmanian Walking Company has been operating for more than 30 years and offers the perfect balance of comfort, adventure and wilderness. The company is based near Launceston with more than 100 staff who all know this beautiful island inside and out.
We start the hike at Waldheim and I’ve been warned that today is going to be one of the more challenging days. It starts out easy enough with a leisurely walk on a timber boardwalk through the button grass, and a very quick cold plunge in the 13-degree Crater Lake.
From here it is straight up to Marion’s Lookout, a steep climb aided by a chain railing. The vista is special, looking down on Dove Lake to one side and up at Cradle Mountain on the other.
Those who were smart enough to bring a walking pole are looking rather smug, and though I have never used one, I can see where they would come in handy on this trip.
There are spectacular views of Cradle Mountain, which we thankfully won’t be climbing on this walk. This is an option on the Cradle Mountain Huts “adventure” walk, but I think you would need to be part-mountain goat to navigate the sheer jagged terrain.
Today we’ve been lucky with perfect weather and enjoy our picnic lunch in the sunshine alongside Plateau Creek. By the time we roll into Barn Bluff, our private hut for the evening, it’s 7pm. We’ve been walking since 11am and are exhausted.
Thank goodness one of the guides has run ahead and not only started dinner, but also prepared a selection of Tasmanian cheeses and wines, which taste like heaven after our long day.
We unwind by the fire, swap stories, and discuss sore muscles while dinner – a delicious smoked salmon miso noodle soup and a chocolate fudge mousse for dessert – is served. The huts are surprisingly well appointed with six bedrooms, two composting toilets and two showers with solar hot water.
There is a gas fireplace in the main room and one in the drying room. The huge communal dining table is where we gather for meals, board games and impromptu sing-alongs.
I don’t know if I’m just lucky, but we have a fantastic group and are belting out John Denver songs by the second night (there is a guitar in each hut).
As the week unfolds, we drop into a rhythm and become “pack fit”. We almost forget the extra 10kg on our backs. Almost.
The scenery is constantly changing from temperate rainforest and glacially carved lakes to alpine plateaus and 2,000-year-old King Billy pines.
And no matter how difficult the day is, there is always a cosy fire and warm scones with jam and cream or some other tasty treat waiting for us when we arrive at the hut.
The food is remarkably delicious considering anything fresh is carried by the guides and non-perishables are air-dropped to the campsites twice a year.
The day we climb Mount Oakleigh (an optional side-trip) is the day I am pushed to my limit. Having already walked close to five hours to reach the base, I have a choice between walking another 30 minutes to the hut to relax with a glass of pinot in front of the fire or spending the next four and a half hours grabbing at tree roots to pull myself up the side of a mountain.
I decide the pinot will taste even better post-summit, and so do seven others in the group. About halfway up, a fellow hiker realises the soles of his boots have detached and the only thing holding them in place are the strap on his gaiters. Jill comes to the rescue with first aid tape, which does the trick until we make it back to the hut where boot glue finishes the job.
On our last day, when we finally reach Lake St Clair, a few of us take a celebratory plunge before boarding the ferry that takes us back to civilisation. WiFi and mobile reception return, but I’ve come to quite enjoy my time off the grid.