Walking the Overland Track in Tasmania was transformative. At the completion of the six-day, 80 km walk my body felt infused to the core with wild nature. This sense of peace, pureness and oneness with life was singularly special. Indigenous Tasmanians, early Europeans, hikers, ‘influencers’ like Sarah Wilson, and many others have traversed the ancient, rugged and awe-inspiring landscape before me. Each person responds to the energy and pull of this place in their own way. My experience was fully immersive in the capricious elements for which the high country is renowned. At the close of each day I intuitively chose which element had captured my spirit the most. On returning home, it was timely to reflect on the local and global environmental changes that have occurred since the walking track was formalised in 1931. The extent and magnitude of these changes challenge the conservation and protection of this rare and precious World Heritage site like at no other time.
Considered one of the finest walks in Australia, the Overland Track draws hikers from around the world. It traverses the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, nestled within the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area. From October to May (the warmer months) walkers travel from the north to the south of the Park, starting in Cradle Valley near Waldheim Chalet. Gustav and Kate Weindorfer built this inviting accommodation in 1912 to attract tourists to the area. They recognised Tasmania’s potential for wilderness holidays and were seminal in the establishment of a National Park to protect the Cradle Mountain region. The high country attracted other European settlers who built wooden huts south of Cradle Mountain to house trappers, miners, graziers and hikers. Several of these huts are now used as emergency shelters along the Track. The period of European occupation pales into insignificance compared to the long history of Indigenous stewardship of the region.
Over the course of 2020 Tasmania became a relatively safe haven from COVID-19. With interstate and international tourism halted, Tasmanians were encouraged to see more of their State and support local businesses. Many of my friends and I independently took this opportunity to experience the wonders of this walk. I chose the guided option with the Tasmanian Walking Company (TWC), spending October 17th to the 22nd on the Track. The Company provided shelter and food and we carried the rest, walking at our own pace.
The idea to intuitively select an element to represent each day of my adventure arose in the first 24-hours of the walk. Based on philosophies used around the globe for millennia (see fireupwaterdown.com and elementaljapan.com for more detail), I chose six ‘physical’ elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, Wood and Metal. Because the land and skyscapes of the Overland Track are extremely photogenic, a photo essay and supporting text is used to tell the story of each element from varied perspectives. This was my response to the immersive experience of walking the Overland Track.
Day 1 – WATER: Ronny Creek to Waterfall Valley
It was wet and windy when we started the walk near Waldheim Chalet in Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. By the time the steepest section of the track up to Marianne’s Lookout had been traversed I was pretty damp, and exhilarated! The waterfall in the background was one of many experienced along the way. They were flowing with immense energy with the extra water provided by the rain. The wind blowing on the surface of Crater Lake was spectacular. I was surprised to see climbing chains near the top of this section. They rekindled powerful memories of my pilgrimage to the majestic Ishizuchisan with Shugendo friends in Japan.
It was snowing and bitterly cold when we reached Kitchen Hut. A hot drink and lunch inside the hut provided the internal energy required to continue. The walking track was like a creek in many places with the amount of water it channelled. As the snow fell on the track-side ponds it formed beautiful droplets. Water was everywhere. The freezing and dangerous conditions were a timely reminder of the unpredictable and extreme elements of the high country.
As we approached the first nights camp in Waterfall Valley the rain stopped, replaced by low mist (water in another form) on the surrounding ridges. While landmarks such as Barn Bluff were hidden from view, the vivid colours of the wet eucalypt bark, the water dripping from branches and the rich smell of the vegetation and soil after rain were a delight to the senses. Making it through the testing conditions of the first day gave a sense of achievement and appreciation of the power of the elements.
Day 2 – EARTH: Waterfall Valley to Pine Forest Moor
Barn Bluff was visible from several angles on the second day. The isolated tor is of igneous origin, primarily sculpted by glacial action, and characterised, for the most part, by the dolerite columns, slabs and boulders typical of many sub-alpine and alpine regions of the State. Created around 180 million years ago, Jurassic dolerite is one of the defining geological features of Tasmania. It is formed by the cooling and hardening of magma or molten lava. Imagining such a dynamic Earth is exciting and engrossing.
The vastness and form of the landscapes encountered on the second day was breathtaking. They owe much of their genesis to multiple glaciations during the Pleistocene Ice Age. The maximum extent of ice occurred around 1.5-2 million years ago, covering the majority of what is now the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. As recently as around 10,000-20,000 years ago ice sheets continued to shape the spectacular geomorphology of the region. Lake Windermere and many other impressive waterbodies were formed as the glaciers retreated. I would continue to marvel at the extraordinary impacts of glaciation especially on the last day of the trek in the Narcissus Valley and at Lake St Clair.
During the multiple glacial events in the high country, large rocks (glacial ‘erratic’ boulders) were deposited as the ice melted. These are a notable feature of the landscape between Barn Bluff and Lake Windermere. Several of my walking companions commented on them. Glacial retreat also provided the opportunity for the accumulation of organic matter and soil formation. These processes are relatively slow as a result of the extremes of the high country environment, resulting in thin soils. It is important to stick to the tracks and not disturb them or their associated vegetation.
The sun shining through the clouds made all the difference after the rainy first day of the walk. Distinct shadows could be seen, providing a striking contrast to the surrounding landscape. Quartzite rocks sparkled along the track. They were eye-catchingly beautiful. The beach sand in Lake Will was created by the break-down of these rocks. The beaches are a beautiful microcosm of the spectacular quartz beach of the original Lake Pedder, one of the world’s natural wonders. The geological processes that create these landscapes occur at large scales over long periods. These expressions of the Earth held me in awe and wonder.
Day 3 – WOOD: Pine Forest Moor to Pelion Plains
Intoxicating! That’s the best word to describe the diverse and stunning forest types we experienced on the third day of the walk. The life-force exuded by the forests was enhanced by the glorious sunlight filtering through the canopies. The Japanese have coined the term Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) to describe the transformative effect spending time in a forest can have. Immersing yourself in the atmosphere of the forest is known to promote good health and happiness. As we passed through these majestic ecosystems I could feel the energy wash through me.
The rain falling across the National Park on the first day of our trek continued filtering its way through the forests, creating moisture-filled mosses and lush earthy aromas. The sunlight gave rise to rainbows on this spiderweb. In Autumn (around April/May) brightly coloured mushrooms grace the forest floor. The diversity of smaller organisms that help break-down forest matter are a critical part of the cycle of life in these majestic ecosystems. Beauty is evident at all scales.
Wood was underfoot almost the entire day. In this image an old boardwalk made of eucalypt is disappearing into the ground. Further along the track, tree roots, mud and rocks take considerable concentration to navigate. The roots are especially slippery so avoiding them is good for both the protection of the trees and hikers. In some places new boardwalks made of pine were in place. These last longer, but are not as appealing as the old boards.
Wood is the building material of choice on the Overland Track for old and new huts. The tree species used and construction methods have changed over time. King Billy Pine (Athrotaxis selaginoides), a fire-sensitive conifer endemic to Tasmania, was used to construct Old Pelion Hut in 1917. Now the species is protected. The log books at the hut lauded the protection the timber shelter provided from the elements. Forests can help our wellbeing in many ways.
Day 4 – WIND: Pelion Plains to Kia Ora
As I walked each day I imagined my Haiku-writing friends putting pen to paper, finding stimulation from wild nature. So it was a great pleasure to hear a poem written and narrated by Jorgia, one of our guides. The story related the origins of the hybrid tree Athrotaxis X laxifolia, with Shakespeare as the inspiration. The east and west winds played a crucial role in bringing two ‘lovers’ together to create this impressive individual, a blend of King Billy Pine and Pencil Pine (Athrotaxis cupressoides).
September and October can be some of the windiest months on the Overland Track. Apart from the first day, our experience was quite the opposite. I was struck by how calm it was, even on the summit of Mt Ossa. It seemed unusual to have three consecutive days of minimal wind at this stage, which continued throughout the remainder of the walk. Even more surprisingly, northern Tasmania has been calm for most of 2020. The decline in high intensity winds is becoming a topic of conversation in those parts. This is one of many changes in climate now occurring.
During the afternoon I sat in the sun on the wooden helicopter pad, quietly listening and watching the world around me. The wind gently rustled the eucalypt leaves and buttongrass spikes. The air transmitted beautiful bird songs and the calls of frogs. The experience was glorious. Jorgia has given much thought to the Wind element. She wonders if the wind gives trees a voice, or is it the other way around? It could be both. As the sun began to set and tree shadows started appearing, they too were moving with the wind. It made me appreciate that shadows were not only static, well-defined objects that change with the movement of the sun. The wind can cause shadows to move in a different way. I learnt a lot about the wind on this fourth day on the Track.
Day 5 – FIRE: Kia Ora to Windy Ridge
Buttongrass communities provide habitat for numerous plants and animals. On the way to Hartnett Falls they grow in a mosaic with heathland (in the mid-ground) and dry eucalypt forest. All of these vegetation types are highly flammable and regenerate after fire. The sun, a massive fireball 150 million kilometres away, provides the energy (sunshine) the vegetation requires for life. These interdependencies are wondrous and fire is at their heart.
Protecting these unique riparian communities from fire is an increasing challenge as the climate changes. The juxtaposition of fire-tolerant and fire-sensitive vegetation, a feature of the Overland Track, further complicates matters. Tannin-stained rivers and creeks are another feature of the walk. We were lucky to experience a massive volume of water flowing over Hartnett Falls, a legacy of the large rainfall event on the first day of the walk. It provided life-giving moisture to nearby rock-ferns and created a monumental sound. All of my senses were stimulated and delighted over the six days.
Regulating your ‘inner fire’ by wearing layers of clothing and drinking plenty of water is essential when hiking. As well as reminding us to keep hydrated, at the start of each day our guide Gemma advised us to ‘be bold, start cold’. This rang true for me. When I walk uphill my body temperature rises quickly, even if it is cold outside. I learnt this the hard way when mountain hiking through snow in Japan and wearing far too many clothes that were not easily removed. The resultant overheating slowed me down considerably. By the time we climbed the last major uphill section to Du Cane Gap on Day 5 of the Overland Track I had worked out the best combination of clothing. Fortunately it was overcast as it helped my body temperature stay suitably cool.
No wood-burning fires are allowed in the World Heritage area, either inside huts or outside. Gas was used to provide heat in the drying room and main meeting area of our huts. There is something calming about wood and flames, even if the log fire is artificial. It helped dry the wet boots and socks at the end of a days walk. For walkers doing their own cooking, and for our hot drinks along the track, ‘fuel alcohol’ is burnt and used in portable stoves. The TWC huts were well camouflaged by surrounding native vegetation, especially at Windy Ridge. This is essential in a wilderness area, although the potential fire risk did come to mind. Fire comes in many guises that all found expression on the penultimate day of the walk.
Day 6 – METAL: Windy Ridge to Lake St Clair
Each of the six elements highlighted were present on every day of the walk, to varying degrees and with varying levels of interaction. Metal was no exception, expressing itself throughout the walk in the many ways described below. First and foremost the metal Lithium battery and other metal components in my iPhone made it possible to take hundreds of photos along the track. I love taking photos, especially to share with others. This landscape shot is, but one example. It looks like a painting. With new sightings and increasing presence, Metal came to the fore as the dominant element on the sixth day.
The supports for the suspension bridge are constructed of metal posts and wire. It is the only structure of its kind on the Overland Track. In contrast, the metal chicken mesh on the duckboards, used to reduce slipperiness, was seen every day. As we travelled along the track I noticed several rolls of wire waiting to be attached to newly installed pine boardwalks.
On pilgrimages in Japan I use a wooden staff/stick (Jp. tsue) when walking in the mountains. As well as providing support, the tsue has significant spiritual meaning. Only one staff is used in Japan, a practice I followed on the Overland Track. Most other hikers on the trek used two metal poles to provide stability and extra energy. You could see the impressions from the tips of the trekking poles on the pine duckboards.
Other Metal objects with me throughout the walk were the fork used each day at lunch, and the braces on my teeth. This tasty pasta included pine nuts, which I particularly noticed as it was consumed. For future reference, the nuts are just the right size to get stuck between the wires and brackets! It was a stark reminder of the metal in my mouth. Next to the lunch container were metal squares on the table-top. These were designed for small metal gas cookers so they don’t burn the wood. This was the first time I had seen them. They reinforced the close relationship between metal and food over the trek.
Arriving at the northern end of Lake St Clair there are two options to travel to Cynthia Bay – the formal end of the Overland Track. One is to walk though the Cool Temperate Rainforests along the edge of the Lake. The other is to take a pre-booked ferry across the Lake, as we did. Over the last day the amount of metal in our lives increased, especially as we boarded the boat and then a bus to return to our cars. Once people reach Cynthia Bay the inevitable urge to reconnect to the world via mobile phones, with their numerous metal components, comes into play. Wanting to extend the phone-free-experience, I waited until the following day to turn off ‘aeroplane mode’.
At the completion of the six-day walk I felt like a new person. Wild nature infused my very being. It was an amazing grounding sensation, one that I will savour forever. Having no internet access helped. Selecting an element each day led to new discoveries and a deeper appreciation of these building blocks of life. Many ‘Shinto Moments‘ (a Japanese nature-based way of life) were also experienced, as introduced in my blog on the Tasmanian Three Capes Walk. On both of these multi-day hikes social interactions were a defining feature. I would like to thank my fellow walkers for their companionship and camaraderie.
When we returned home I discovered that Sarah Wilson, an author and ‘influencer’ on sustainable and healthy living, had also chosen the TWC for the Overland Track. Hiking is in her blood. She writes about her Tasmanian experience on her website (primarily pictures) and in the recently published book ‘this one wild and precious life‘ (text only, with new commentary). The cover has Cradle Mountain and the surrounding landscape wrapped around it – an iconic, glacial-sculpted form. The byline of Sarah’s book is ‘a hopeful path forward in a fractured world‘. Her most important take-home message is ‘You are in danger and you need to act immediately to survive.’ This was sent to residents in areas threatened by the unprecedented bushfires in SE Australia in early 2020. As Sarah writes, it needs to become the rally call for our age. Her advice to those desperate to do something is to start acting now, and start where you are.
Speaking to my father-in-law Trevor reinforced the urgency of this message. He pointed out that he was born in the same year that Bert Nicholls marked the southern part of the Overland Track route. 1931 was also the year Bert lead the first recorded hiking trip from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair. In the decades that have passed the world has changed dramatically and the natural world has been decimated. We often talk about these changes with Trevor, especially the impacts of over-population and over-consumption. Somehow, considering human impacts in the context of the Overland Track, the immensity of the changes grew starker. The Tasmanian Wilderness Area traversed by the Track is one of only two regions on the planet that meet 7 out of 10 criteria used for World Heritage listing. It is a rare and precious place. Like the rest of Earth, it is in danger from climate change. Nowhere is immune.
The protection of intact, functioning ecosystems on land and water, and the restoration of other ecosystems, is essential for our future. Humans and the planet are in danger and we need to act immediately to safeguard nature and survive. My 2019 ESA Gold Medal address highlights the challenges we face and identifies solutions. The presentation includes two quotes from Greta Thunburg who has given a voice to concerned youth around the world: ‘Our house is on fire‘ (in reference to planet Earth) and ‘Everything counts – what you do counts‘. Our individual decisions and actions do count and from my experience can make a vital difference.
The intense immersion in wild nature and the elements I experienced walking the Overland Track made me appreciate even more deeply what is at stake.