Elemental immersion on the Overland Track, Tasmania

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.

Awe and wonder await from the first day of the trek, whatever the weather.

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.

My home in Tasmania lies 85 km north-east of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park and Cradle Valley, where we started the Overland Track. The red line shows the extent of the walk – from the Valley to Cynthia Bay at the southern end of Lake St Clair. Map source: assets.cicerone.uk.co.

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 Overland Track has varied topography, mostly above 900 m asl. The low latitude, relatively high altitude, and exposure to the ‘roaring forties’ winds means that snow and wild weather is possible at any time of the year. I wanted to experience and enjoy the track ‘as it is’. So apart from taking the appropriate hiking gear, I kept my pre-reading about the walk to a minimum. Having guides and a local expert on the trek made this an easy decision. Diagram source: weekendnotes.co.

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

Jann at Marianne’s lookout with Crater Lake in the background.

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.

A well-prepared companion approaching Kitchen Hut, the first of the historic huts acting as emergency shelters.

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.

Looking across Waterfall Valley, late afternoon.

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 (1559 m asl), a distinctive feature on the Overland Track, can be climbed as a side trip.

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.

Looking south-east with the enticing Lake Windermere in the mid-ground.

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.

Rocky outcrops near Lake Windermere. Mt Pelion East, with its distinctive ‘nipple’, is located in the centre background.

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.

Quartzite beach detail, Lake Will. The catchment of the lake was formed by glaciation.

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

Forest dappled with light, Day 3.

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.

Sunlit spider’s web in Cool Temperate Rainforest dominated by beech, Nothofagus cunninghamii.

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.

The distinctive Richea pandanifolia, a species endemic to Tasmania, expresses this tree form in wetter forests. It is the tallest heath in the world.

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.

Old Pelion hut resplendent with its authentic restoration, undertaken by the Mountain Huts Preservation Society between 2015-2017.

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

A special hybrid tree towering above us in the forest, immortalised by poetry.

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).

The ‘false summit’ of Mt Ossa seen from Mt Doris. The impressive twin peaks mark the track to the summit of the mountain, the highest point in Tasmania at 1617 m asl.

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.

Helicopter pad in buttongrass moorland near Kia Ora hut.

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

Fire-tolerant vegetation communities growing close to Hartnett Falls on the headwaters of the Mersey River.

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.

Fire-sensitive vegetation growing on the edge of the Mersey River – this site is adjacent to the vegetation in the previous image.

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.

Old fire scar and sign at Du Cane Gap, 1070 m asl.

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.

Gas fire in drying room, Windy Ridge hut. My boots were kept a safe distance from the fire as excess heat can melt the glue bonding the soles.

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

Forest, buttongrass moorland with Mt Gould and Pine Valley in the distance as we walked along the Narcissus River that flows into the northern end of 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.

Suspension bridge over the Narcissus River with Mt Olympus in the distance.

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.

Also made of Metal, and indispensable on the walk, was my adjustable aluminium trekking pole. It made a big difference to hiking in these rugged landscapes. The ‘elemental‘ brand was a wonderful bonus!

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.

Lunch box and fork, cleaned and reused each day. Any leftovers from meals were composted.

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.

The Overland Ferry, Ida Clair‘ – looking roughly south across Lake St Clair which, as a result of glaciation, is Australia’s deepest freshwater lake.

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.

Our group at the start of walk, in the rain. The engaging and energetic guides, Jorgia Hamilton (on the left) and Gemma Killalea, are kneeling at the front. Everyone is smiling, something everyone continued to do throughout the walk. The cohesion of the group made a big difference over the six days.

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.

My father-in-law Trevor has lived in the same house for sixty years. He is an exemplar of sustainable living and admirable role model. Each year he grows vegetables that he shares with us. I am looking forward to the tomatoes and beets that have just been planted. Like Trevor, it is paramount that we live lightly and respectfully on the planet and revere wild regions like the Tasmanian Wilderness.

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.

Reflections on Lake St Clair, a meeting of Wood and Water. We plan to return.

6 thoughts on “Elemental immersion on the Overland Track, Tasmania

  1. Wow, Jann. It’s great to get your insight into hiking the Overland Track, especially through your intuitive selection of an element for each day. I hope you have not inspired too many people to take on the challenge! 😄 It was really good to read about Trevor, and to be reminded of the necessity for us to acknowledge the extent of the damage that has already been done to our planet, as well as acknowledging its beauty. That photo of the moorlands really does look like a painting!

    • I’m pleased that you like the elemental perspective. If Water hadn’t been so dominant on the first day of the trek I wonder if the idea would have presented itself?! It would be interesting to know what elements other people would select, as how we respond to our our environment is quite personal. Fortunately there is a cap on the number of walkers per day on the Overland Track. Around 8000 people make the journey each year. That’s definitely enough. The changes to the planet over Trevor’s lifetime have been phenomenal. For example, the world population has increased nearly 4 times (from ~ 2 billion to ~ 8 billion). He hopes that to help humanity and the Earth survive, people will be happy with lower-impact lives from now.

  2. Wow, absolutely excellent reading material. I felt I was walking with you and experiencing nature there. I love your photos. Thanks so much for sharing the journey through nature with us Jann.

    • It is a pleasure Gaylene. Selecting the photos from the hundreds I took was quite a task! The Overland Track really is an amazingly photogenic place. Unfortunately the cold weather on the first day drained my phone battery very quickly. There was a striking image of a wet eucalypt with mist in the background that will now only ever be in my mind’s eye. Still, that’s the way people have been appreciating nature for most of human history. Have you thought of writing a blog with lots of photo essays? That would be a way of widely sharing your amazing nature photos, especially the bird photos.

  3. Wow Jann, that was magical! Again, another fascinating, captivating and informative read! I love hearing how you experience and interpret the natural world with your rich knowledge of and intuitive connection with Mother Nature! Thankyou for sharing your inspiring experiences and highlighting the grave climate concerns upon us… Your writing is very powerful and poignant. Thankyou for so much fuel for thought! xx

    • Thank-you Hannah! I love that you love the post. It means a lot. Walking the Overland Track was a different and complementary experience to the Three Capes Walk where we met. Both are remarkable regions of natural beauty and bounty; one with vast expanses of mountains and the other with vast expanses of sea. Tasmania is fortunate to have so many spectacular places that can so powerfully affect people. With that comes the responsibility to care for and look after them.

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