The Tasmania wilderness area is the largest conservation area in Australia covering almost 20% of Tasmania. This area also contains one of the few temperate rainforests in the world.
Our first excursion after purchasing Lil’ Beaut was into the wilderness area of Tasmania.
Mt. Fields National Park
Moss covered the forest floor and its fallen trees. Fungus, moss, and ferns crept up the base of trees creating a conglomeration of green tones all joined together to mute the sounds of the outside world. A small movement caught my eye and I stood still to watch a wallaby hunkered over her dinner eating while silently watching our passage.
The scene, except for the wallaby, was reminiscent of our hikes through Hoe National park in Washington state, also a temperate rainforest but not a jungle, like the Amazon rainforest.
Fern and Woolly butt Trees
Ferns have always fascinated me when they fill the undergrowth of the forest. It makes me think of fairies and mystical stories. Here, unlike any I have seen before, they grow as trees. The amazing fern trees are primarily found in the Southern Hemisphere. In Tasmania, they are in abundance. The man fern, scientific name: Dicksonia Antarctica, is native to Australia. It typically is 5 meters (16 feet) high but can grow as tall as 15 m (49 ft). It is a fascinating tree as is the grass tree and the woolly butt tree.
The Woolly butt tree or Gum-topped stringybark is a eucalypti tree that wears its name proud as it sheds bark only from the upper branches and truck giving it a woolly butt appearance.
Camping in the quiet wilderness
After exploring the trails and waterfalls in Mt. Fields National Park we drove our newly-acquired motor home Lil’ Beaut straight into the middle of the wilderness area toward Gordon Dam, through one of the few roads with access to this beautiful landscape. This road was built before the area was declared a Wilderness World Heritage Area and any new road construction was halted.
We found a little knoll where we could park for the night just before dusk. We try to stay off the roads between dusk to dawn to avoid making new roadkill, so far so good. Due to the abundant wildlife here, Tasmania is also known as the roadkill capital of Australia. We watched the sunset, then closed our curtains for the night and settled deep under our blankets to stay warm.
The building of Gordon Dam ignited one of the biggest ecological controversies in Australia. The construction of the hydro-electrical dam began in 1964 and the first power was produced in 1978. It is the largest hydroelectric dam in Australia and Gordon lake, the result of the dam, when at full capacity is the largest lake in Australia.
Phase two of the hydro-electrical plans was to build a second dam below the current Gordon Dam but construction was halted in 1982 when 2,500 protesters from around the world formed a blockade at the proposed second site. The mounting controversy resulted in a massive protest of over 20,000 people. It was and still is, the largest protest ever held in Australia. The second dam was never completed as proposed and the area is protected as a world heritage site.
Controversy over Gordon Dam still exists and some have proposed dismantling and returning the area to its previous natural environment. I wonder though if they ever do it, would it ever be the same?
Things that can not be undone
The Lake Pedder earthworm (Hypolimnus pedderensis) whose only known specimen was found in this region  and the Lake Pedder planarian (Romankenkius pedderensis), an endemic flatworm  were never seen again after the dam was built and the area flooded. The Pedder galaxias, an Australian freshwater fish, is also listed as extinct in its natural environment. However, a few still live in captivity in two separate locations.
The lake by this time has removed the thin layer of topsoil previously clinging to the rocky cliffs surrounding Gordon Lake. Also, what power source would replace the hydro-electrical dam, a coal plant? I wonder sometimes is there a point of no return?
The mounting controversy is fascinating, you can read more about it in the Blockade section of this Wikipedia article.
Lake St Clair
Lake St. Clair is the deepest lake in all of Australia with a depth of 160 meters (520 ft). It is also located at the southern end of the famed Overland Track. The Overland Track is listed as one of the top ten hikes in the world according to Lonely Planet, right along with the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Everest Base, and the Zion Narrows.
As we hiked near the lake, water dripped from snowy branches while the sun warmed our trail. The lake water is clean with a translucent brownish tint as are many of the streams. They obtain their color from the tannins in the button grass that dominates much of the area.
The button grass is a result of the continual fires set by the Aboriginal people to keep the island navigable and the animals easier to hunt. The fires over the years created the peat moss that is ideal for the button grass. Fire also helps the Banksias and hakeas trees reproduce as their seeds are stored in a woody fruit capsule that can only be opened with the presence of fire.
We arrived at the Cradle Mountain visitor center around 11 AM. Because of the late start, we chose one of the hikes listed as a half-day hike, or at least that’s what we originally planned to do. It was a beautiful day and we wanted to take advantage of the sunshine.
We talked to the rangers and obtained our bus passes. Much like Zion National Park in Utah, shuttle buses are used to take visitors into the park to reduce traffic on the narrow winding roads. We got off the bus at Ronny Creek and followed a beautifully maintained boardwalk over the marshy fields of button grass.
Wombats, darker in color and bigger in size than the ones we saw all over Maria Island, wandered around. Soon the field gave way and the path led into a tiny valley with a temperate rainforest. We shed our jackets and took in the mossy surroundings with a small brook cascading next to the trail. Within 30 minutes we emerged on the other side of the small forest into an alpine region. Our jackets immediately were placed back on our shoulders and we continued the hike up to Crater Lake.
Best Laid Plans
Our original plan was to hike up the beginning of the Overland Track to Marion’s Lookout, then take the Marion Lookout link down to Dove lake. The trail connects near the south end of the lake where the shuttle bus pickup point is. The last bus leaves at 5 PM. It would be a 24 KM (15 miles) hike back to Lil’ Beaut if we missed the bus.
At Marion pass, we sat to take in the views. Behind and below us was Crater Lake, and in front of us even further below was Dove Lake. Jagged rock ledges adorned the horizon. These steep rocky ledges were the final ascent to the top of Cradle Mountain. Patches of snow still clung to the sides of the mountains. One snowpack displayed a blue crack typical of snow/ice caves and appeared as if it would avalanche at any moment.
Still feeling energetic we decided to press on further and make a bigger loop passing through the Kitchen Hut and the Face Track trail that would take us to the far end of Dove Lake before heading back to the shuttle bus stop.
Face Track Trail Warning
Warning signs greeted us at the start of the Face Track trail. I thought back to our little venture on the wrong trail around the Quilotoa Crater in Ecuador. While maps.me had a skull and crossbones on the far end (that we didn’t see till after traversing the trail), at least here in Australia dangers are clearly marked. In my mind, I thought that if it was impassable surely the path would be closed. There were other trails marked as not yet open for the season.
We navigated through some swampy areas and across snowpack. We carefully placed each foot as we stepped across the snow. I could see a small stream at the end of the snow line suggesting that there could be empty spaces below the thin crust of snow. If we broke through we would plunge into the freezing waters. It wouldn’t be devastating or even injurious, we just didn’t want wet, cold feet.
The point of no return
A nice section of the boardwalk appeared which gave us hope, something that was instantly dashed as the boardwalk ended pretty quickly. We looked around us for the next trail marker. We finally located it up the hill and beyond the section of snowpack where we currently stood. There seemed to be no clear set of footprints between the two markers.
I stepped onto the snowpack and within two steps one of my legs punched through. I found myself in an awkward position with one leg butt-deep in snow and the rest of me flailing to keep my balance. Thankfully I didn’t end up in the stream, but I did need to sit back on the snow to try and extract my leg. Trin was trying not to laugh.
Forced to take the lower route through the snow we climbed a tree and across the branch, then through the rest of the snow to the next trail marker. I was hoping that this would be the most difficult part of the trail.
We stopped to take note of the time. If we continued with no more issues we could make it to the bus stop by 4 PM. But if we ran into too many more sections like this it could detain us to the point of missing the bus. Our other option was to turn around now. If we went back and took the original descent down to the south end of Dove Lake we could make it back to the shuttle bus by 5 PM. This was the point of decision, once we continued there would be no turning back and still make it in time for the last bus.
Frozen fingers and the cliff of snowpack
We plowed on, and soon I realized that I was wrong about having the toughest part of the trail behind us. We reached what I assumed was normally a very narrow passage, but was currently covered with snow. The footpath was only as wide as we made it with our feet in the snow.
I grabbed onto the snow on my right as I slowly made my way across the slick. My hands quickly went numb and began to sting. Logically this wasn’t as dangerous as the trail in Ecuador. If I slid it wouldn’t be too far and there were trees and shrubs that would keep a hiker from plunging down the cliff. We would then just have to punch our way back up the snow to the path, but it still made me quite nervous.
“That looks scary guys,” a hiker on the other side of the snowpack called to us. He had come up to this point from Dove lake.
“It is,” I replied as I climbed the final ascent to the trail, thankfully on barren rocks.
“Are you headed across?” I asked the hiker.
“Not today,” he laughed.
After a bit of small talk, we hurried on our way. We still had to descend to Dove lake and descents always take me longer than the normal hiker. At this point we checked maps.me again. It estimated arrival for a normal hiker at the bus stop at about 4:45 PM from our current point.
Scurrying Down the Mountain
We slowly made our way down. The landscape was absolutely spectacular dotted with glacial lakes, snowpack, alpine tundra, and rainforest down below. Eventually, we descended below the snow line and then out of the alpine region. Soon we were down in the temperate rainforest that surrounds Dove Lake with Fern trees, moss, and warmer temperatures.
When we finally arrived at the loop trail we walked the flat section at a brisk pace and made up enough time that we could still do a small detour to one of the glacial rocks to take a few more photos.
We scurried along running up the few stairs and made it to the bus stop with time to spare and chat with the other hiker we had met at the snow patch. Once we reached the information center we drove Lil’ Beaut out toward the isolated Lea Lake to park overnight.
As the sun set we sat inside the warmth of Lil Beaut looking out at the wombats and wallabies scurrying around. We woke up in the morning to a fresh layer of snow.
There are many hiking trails in the Cradle Mountain National Park and it is the starting point for the Overland Track. Maybe we will come back in the summertime to do the overland trail. It is calling to me.
What trails do you have on your bucket list?
Extinction notes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Pedder