I’ve been off-line lately whilst we’ve been on holiday. Not that I would call what we’ve done ‘relaxing’. Far from it. But we completed something that we’ve always wanted to do: the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair Overland Track in Tasmania.
Let’s show the kids a bit of Tassie they wouldn’t otherwise see, we thought. And do it before we’re too old. Sixty-five kilometres in six days, we can do that.
It’ll be cold, everyone said.
Yeah, we know, we said. We’re from Tassie. And, it is summer.
I admit this publicly here and now: in the fourteen years since we’d left Tasmania, I’d forgotten just how changeable the Tasmanian weather can be, even in summer. I’d also forgotten how cold it can get, even in summer. I’d forgotten how blustery the winds can be, even in summer, and how much mud there is, even in summer. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is so that I will never forget it again …
We bought most of the gear on the list – we won’t need a second set of thermals, I thought – and packed our bags and flew southeast. The weather was terrific on the morning the bus picked us up – blue sky, fluffy white clouds – and we climbed aboard in shorts and t-shirts, excited and chatty and looking forward to our adventure.
As we neared the mountains, the air cooled. By the time we disembarked at Dove Lake, I had already donned my fleece and waterproof jacket, beanie and mittens, and was telling myself, Surely, it won’t get any colder. It is summer, after all …
We set off as the wind gusted and a light drizzle started. Minutes later, the wind was a howling gale, and the rain was starting to soak our clothes. We scrambled up the mountain, hand-over-hand up the chain, and into the cloud. At Marion’s Lookout, we could only see mist and fog as the rain and wind stung our faces. Already, #2 child ahead of me was crying and loudly asking to return home, and #4 child directly behind me was sobbing quietly to himself.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, in my most encouraging and motivational voice. ‘Just keep moving. We’ll get there.’
But as I spoke, fingers numb and the cold whipping straight through my jacket and thermals, doubts about our decision crept in. Still, I held myself together as we trudged over the moors, and kept repeating my mantra to the crying children: ‘Come on. Nearly there …’
The rain became horizontal. And frozen. And pricked our cheeks.
The kids ahead and behind continued crying.
By the time we reached our first stop – Kitchen Hut – only a couple of hours into the walk, I was wetter and colder than I ever remember feeling. We stepped inside, amongst the heat of about twenty other cold, wet bodies crammed against each other. My fingers were numb and swollen and unable to move — we were meant to eat lunch but I didn’t know how I was going to pick mine up.
The two kids were still crying and when a third looked at me with tears about to spill, I said, ‘Don’t,’ and shook my head. ‘I can’t cope if anyone else cries.’ She pulled herself straighter and I patted her arm.
I was wet and cold, and unable to get warm. All I wanted to do was to think about me — look after myself, get myself warm — but I had four hypothermic children that I’d brought with me. I did briefly wonder if the same rule applied here as on planes – that you put your own oxygen mask on before attending to your child’s – and if I’d be forgiven for neglecting my kids while I warmed myself up.
Someone wrapped my daughter in a thermal blanket and handed a dry thermal to my son.
‘I want to go home,’ cried Daughter #2.
‘So do I,’ I said.
I was beginning to worry that we were all about to perish. Truly. Just get to camp, I thought. And we’ll work out how to get out of here then. Luckily, I had no idea how much further we had to trek in that cold wind and horizontal rain.
‘I have water in my boots,’ I said to one of our guides.
‘Oh, a foot spa!’ she said.
I think my body language gave away what I thought of her foot spa.
We made it to camp and set up our tents, fingers frozen, feet numb, as it rained and howled around us. I crawled inside the tent – cold, wet, exhausted – and bawled. I didn’t care who heard. I just cried. I didn’t think I could keep going. Five more days of this … I tucked myself into my sleeping bag and, still unable to get warm, lay shivering while the rain drummed against the fly of the tent and the wind hurled through the trees. Normally, I found these sounds comforting, but not that night.
By next morning the rain had settled and a glimpse or two of blue sky shone between the grey clouds.
We packed up our tents, pulled on socks and boots that were stiff with wet and cold, and set off. By the time we reached our next campsite, the clouds were white, the sun was out, and we were dry. And warm! So warm that we’d shed a few thermal layers, and once we’d set up our tents, we slid into bathers and took a dip in Lake Windermere, which reaches a cool 5ºC maximum. About thirty metres off-shore is an island with a book in which you can sign your name. I ran into the water and dived under, did a few strokes, went numb, and climbed out. At least I can say I swam in Lake Windermere. The rest of the family swam to the island and recorded their names.
However, things were looking up and they stayed that way for the remainder of the trip. There was more cold and rain to come, as well as leeches and mud, and the distinctive aroma of the drop-loos, but nothing was as bad as that first day …
We decided this trek had to be viewed as a personal challenge – that was the only way to approach it. To get through it, to be able to say, ‘We did it!’, and look back on it as an achievement. Once we thought of it like that, we enjoyed it – the scenery, the colours, the fauna. Even the weather. For the tougher the trek, the tougher we must be. My husband and elder daughter even added to their challenge by climbing Mt Ossa, the highest peak in Tassie, and they encountered snow!
Despite the complaints and the countdown to the end of the trek, we all felt proud of ourselves at its completion. We proved we were stronger than we thought we were.
Things that were good:
1. The beauty of the landscape. From the majestic mountains that loomed overhead, to the warmth and colour of the trees and the flowers. Spectacular.
2. The variability of the terrain – from rainforest to flat windswept moors; from mud and slush up past your ankles to still dark lakes; from trickling streams to gushing waterfalls.
3. The people. Our guides, the other family who were in our group, and all the people we met on the way who were walking the track at the same time as us — we were all on the same journey, all finding it challenging, chatting briefly as we passed each other, swapping stories, encouraging each other with smiles and laughs — and yes, that horrifying first day often came up.
4. No one fought. No one even got angry. We all knew we needed to band together. How sturdy, stoic, and laid-back Tasmanians are, and how refreshing that down-to-earthedness is.
5. How, when hungry, everything tastes good.
6. Humour – how much it can lift your spirits.
7. How much fresh water there is in Tasmania – lakes and streams and rivers.
8. How close you get to everything when walking and how much more you experience.
9. How truly beautiful nature is, and how perfect is what she has made.
10. How nice it is to be warm!
11. The pride of achieving something, of doing something tough and gruelling, and actually making it.
We did the trek with Tasmanian Expeditions who provided our tents, sleeping bags, back packs, food, etc, and all we had to bring was our personal gear. It made it a lot easier than going it alone.
If anyone is contemplating doing this walk – I’d recommend:
1. Getting in peak fitness!
2. Go prepared — buy that extra set of thermals.
3. Get a pair of good walking boots – ones with thick soles, ankle support, and that are water-proof. Foot spas are highly over-rated.