Tasmania’s iconic Overland Track was blazed almost 100 years ago and since then the island state’s tourism offering has evolved in harmony with the environment. We trace these steps on the eco-conscious Cradle Mountain Huts Walk.
It’s 30 December 1943 and a walker from Launceston writes of ‘good fun in the snow’ on the Overland Track that day. Their words, committed to the logbook 70-odd midsummers ago here in Old Pelion Hut, are somewhat of a comfort to read as I shelter for a few moments defrosting my fingers. It’s late spring and outside the unseasonal snow is settling knee-high.
But strange as it first seems to me and my small cohort of walkers – and as tempting as it is to call climate change – by both historic and contemporary accounts this is not a totally freak occurrence nor a contemporary phenomenon. “I’ve seen it snow every month of the year,” ranger Melody confirms when we cross paths with her back out on the track. Our guide Jill says she experiences about five white-outs a year. That’s the beauty and power of Tasmania’s Central Highlands: way up here in this remote alpine world it’s raw, unpredictable and so completely captivating because of it.
Over the course of four days in Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park conditions are wild and our seasoned guides Jill and Ziah don’t disagree. We follow the Overland Track on Tasmanian Walking Company’s Cradle Mountain Huts Walk, passing through glacially carved valleys, myrtle-beech rainforest and buttongrass moorlands and skirting alpine lakes lined with pencil pines and the sentinel of Cradle Mountain (the longer six-day signature walk continues on to Lake St Clair in the south).
The very first day sees an icy blizzard knocking me sideways as we traverse an exposed plateau; it whips so hard that one side of my face turns numb. From ground to sky, in front and all around me, all I see is white except for blue orbs glowing, almost extra terrestrially, from deep wells made by the boots of my fellow hikers up ahead. The famous boardwalk first laid out in the 1930s is down there somewhere and I better hope my foot finds it otherwise I’ve stacked it again – my pack like a paperweight in the freshly laid snow. Last week hikers were swimming in Dove Lake.
But for every challenging stretch and misstep there are moments of magic and majesty that few people get to experience up here. We complete the steep climb to Marions Lookout and the ragged peaks of Cradle Mountain tear through leaden clouds like the gothic castle of Gormenghast. Dove Lake – gunmetal grey today – lies like a moat at its foot. We watch in wonder as a frosty wombat shuffles across the snow and disappears into its burrow. And we walk through the aptly named Enchanted Forest as the sun breaks free for golden hour and illuminates the snow melt on the canopy. Everything glitters around us like a disco ball.
On our final day we follow the Arm River Track away from the Overland, cutting a path through bronze-green buttongrass moors so typical of the landscape here; with the sun shining as we begin our descent from the alpine plateau, the distinctive round tussocks finally emerge in their burnished beauty from under an icing-sugar layer. We wind down through lush forest and as I breathe in the eucalypt of the bush and splash through the water that’s streaming fast all around us, the weight of my pack and the 100,000 steps behind me disappear; I suddenly feel light and nimble.
Sloshing shin-height through one last stream, I am exhausted but elated as we reach the trailhead. And when we climb into the minibus to head back to Launceston, I feel resolved to hold onto the unique mix of strength and stillness achieved only by the meditative act of putting one foot in front of the other for days on end. Walking, surely, is the ultimate in slow travel.
As we all look for ways to recalibrate how we travel – ways to slow down and truly soak in and safeguard our environments in favour of buzzing here, there and everywhere in the name of box ticking and Instagram likes – we’ll realise Australia has been doing many things right all along. From the legendary Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory to the Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia, long-distance hiking that treads lightly on the landscape is one of them. And the Overland Track blazed the trail.
Just like the country’s environmental movement, ecotourism in Australia has roots in Tasmania. With 40 per cent of the wild island state protected in national parks and reserves, it’s perhaps no surprise that its tourism industry evolved in harmony with the environment.
Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, recognised for both its natural and cultural heritage: for tens of thousands of years, the palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal) people have used, managed, modified and lived here among the alpine heaths and rainforest. Early European activities of hunting, surveying, mining and logging never quite took grip although several of the area’s present-day walking trails were made for these purposes.
The area’s history as a nature-based tourist destination began at Christmas in 1912 when pioneering Austrian botanist Gustav Weindorfer and his wife Kate opened the first accommodation in what is now the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. Waldheim (Forest Home) was built from local King Billy pine for minimal environmental impact and Weindorfer doubled as both guide and cook, baking bread and serving freshly ground coffee for guests. He was instrumental in the area from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair being declared a scenic reserve (later national park) in 1922 and soon visitors began undertaking the journey between the two spots; today an accurate reconstruction of the historic chalet marks the start of the Overland Track.
Lest walkers lose their way, a local hunter named Bert Nichols blazed a trail and marked a track from the Pelion Plains to Lake St Clair that connected an existing loose network of trails, some of which are rumoured to follow Aboriginal paths. In January 1933 Nichols took out an advert in the journal Tasmanian Tramp spruiking his “five-day trip of scenic wonders” through the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair Scenic Reserve. “Tramp across the roof of Tasmania,” he wrote, “but see it between December–February when it is carpeted with alpine flowers.” Other former trappers, including the legendary Paddy Hartnett, began guiding bushwalkers and building huts too, and in 1937 the track was formalised and dubbed the Overland.
It evolved from there to become what’s recognised today as one of the world’s great wilderness walks. And while independent hikers pitch tents or sleep in the basic timber huts that are dotted along the path (Old Pelion Hut, built in 1917 to house a mine manager and later appropriated as accommodation for walkers, remains as a fascinating piece of living history while nearby New Pelion Hut caters to walkers today), our experience has more in common with that of Waldheim’s early guests – freshly baked bread, good coffee and all.
In 1987 Tasmanian Walking Company installed four discreet private huts on the Overland Track (a fifth was added in 1997), opening the elemental 65-kilometre journey up to travellers who might not otherwise find it accessible. Now with an expanded portfolio that includes outdoor adventures with a dash of luxury in the Bay of Fires, Bruny Island and the Three Capes, the company has always sought to be as sustainable as possible (launching in June 2020 a charitable foundation to support Australian conservation projects), and it’s these cosy huts that were built in line with stringent environmental guidelines that we retreat to at the end of a long day’s walk.
“Something I’m passionate about is the fact there’s this market for people who wouldn’t go on these trips if it wasn’t for the huts,” says Tasmanian Walking Company general manager Heath Garratt, who has joined us on this adventure. He started working for the company in 1998 as a guide and in various permutations has walked the track over 100 times (day one of our excursion, he concedes, is the fifth or sixth “craziest” he’s had). “And the reason I get stuck in and get excited about it is that I love the wilderness,” he says. “I really love seeing people’s reaction to it – seeing them get affected by it. I think connection to the wilderness and the Earth generally is just so critical and it’s something we’ve lost sight of.”
Each evening these warm and welcome sanctuaries offer us refuge and we gather around a large communal table comparing notes on the day. Like Weindorfer, our tireless guides convert to chefs come evening but it’s not wombat stew we’re eating. We eat dinners like slow-baked penne pasta with capers, basil and straight-from-the-oven herb bread followed by apple and rhubarb crumble with custard, complemented by Holm Oak cabernet merlot from the nearby Tamar Valley.
The huts – Barn Bluff, Pine Forest Moor, Pelion Plains, Kia Ora and Windy Ridge – each share the same footprint that remains mostly unchanged since they were first cleverly designed. Simple, solar-powered structures with basic but comfortable bedrooms and bathrooms with hot showers, they occupy a small footprint and are hidden from the view of other path users. Soft plastics are recycled as much as possible and everything that can be composted, is. Black water (toilet waste) is completely removed from the national park, collected in tubs that are flown out twice a year. Grey water (anything from the basins or showers) is left on site to go into the ground but not before it goes through four steps of a filtration system Tasmanian Walking Company designed in conjunction with the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service.
Conversation in the evenings turns naturally to matters of the environment, with topics ranging from the back-burning of fire-adapted buttongrass – as the palawa people have done for aeons – to the concept of wilderness itself. Wilderness is generally taken to mean a place untouched by human development, it is posited, but with a landscape shaped by tens of thousands of years of Indigenous practices, do we need to reframe our thinking? A library of books and field guides in each hut is on hand for further edification.
Later we sip Tasmanian whisky and laugh and feel the sweet sting of a day in the elements warming our face before heading to bed with hot-water bottles and falling hard asleep. We wake in the morning for another day padding through snow and breathing in that huge landscape through every pore. “It’s an interesting thing in the modern world,” Jill considers of the track when we’re on the minibus at the end of the four days and already feeling philosophical. “You can’t make a phone call, you can’t give up, the only thing you can do is keep walking.” And what a wonderful thing that is.
The northern city of Launceston is Tasmania’s gateway to Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park. It is a 2.5-hour drive from Hobart and there are direct flights from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
The Cradle Mountain Huts Walk departs from Entally Lodge, which offers comfortable accommodation 10 minutes’ drive from Launceston. A free shuttle service is offered for those staying in Launceston CBD accommodation or Quamby Homestead – a luxury 10-bedroom retreat based on a historic country estate. We stayed here before setting off on the Overland Track and, with its deluxe rooms equipped with spa baths and house-made bath salts, it makes for the perfect pre- or post-trip pit stop.
Tasmanian Walking Company offers its Cradle Mountain Huts Walk in four permutations: we completed the four-day Waldheim to Arm River version whereas the six-day Overland Track (Signature) is the most popular Overland experience. Both trips are graded as moderate.
Looking for more of a challenge? The Overland Track (Adventure) incorporates some serious peak summits along the way, including Cradle Mountain itself. These trips depart between 1 October to 1 May each season.
After a high chance of snow? The eight-day expedition-grade Overland Track (Winter), which runs from June to August each year, all but guarantees you a landscape transformed into a winter wonderland.
Prices start from $2795pp for the Waldheim to Arm River trip and include twin-share accommodation in private huts during the walk, all meals and non-alcoholic beverages and a limited selection of Tasmanian wines, national park and Overland Track passes, and use of gear including a 50-litre canvas pack and rain jacket.