January 23rd, 2011

Tasmania (Dec '10)

Tasmania had been on our list for quite a while already. And after we read a book about the world's greatest trekView over Tasmanias describing Tasmania's Overland Track as one of the best, we decided that the time had come to prepare our backpacks and head into the bush!

We arrived in Launceston, Tasmania's second-largest city, on Saturday afternoon, and quickly went into an outdoor shop to buy some additional equipment (shops close early here!). We thought we were all set, but we underestimated the volatile Tasmanian weather. Saturday's sun was quickly replaced by a chilly night and pouring rains on Sunday, and we had to go back to the outdoor store to buy more stuff (backpack liners, rain trousers, better sleeping bags, more fuel, gloves, etc.). It started to dawn on us that this track may actually be quite a bit tougher than we expected...

Overland Track - about to get started!Fully packed with backpacks that weighted a ton, we left Launceston on Monday morning with a TassieLink bus to Cradle Mountain - the starting point of the Overland Track. After getting our passes at the Visitor Centre, we took a shuttle bus to Dove Lake to take some of the postcard-photos of Dove Lake with Cradle Mountain in the background. From there, the track started. The weather was still nice and sunny, and we were hoping to have a dry trip to Waterfall Valley... But those hopes were destroyed halfway up a steep hill when it started to rain (and didn't really stop for another four hours).
Overland Track - close to Waterfall Valley Hut
We finally made it up the steep hill to reach Marion's Lookout, and we were rewarded with stunning views, with a lake in front and mountains as far as we could see. And all through today's track, we had great views (though often hidden by clouds). After a brief stop-over at Kitchen Hut, we prepared for the last two hours. The last hour was grueling - the backpacks were already heavy, and they soaked up the rain to add another few kilos... It was tough, but we finally made it to Waterfall Valley.

We decided to stay in the hut rather than in our tent, as it looked a lot warmer and more comfortable - and in addition, our soaked clothes had a chance to get dry... We prepared a delicious freshly-prepared dinner, and we got some envious looks from other trekkers who were spooning up some freeze-dried meals - it was worth carrying it after all! When we went to bed, it was still light as it only gets dark in Tasmania at around 9.30pm.

After a good night sleep and a big breakfast of oats with nuts, raisins and maple syrup, we left for the 3-hour trek to Windermere Hut. The views along the way were again stunning, with views on Barn Bluff, Cradle Mountain, and rolling hills as far as we could see. The weather was alright, but we kept on our rain gear as it snowed/rained occasionally (yes: it is summer here!) and it aOverland Track - little wallaby at Windermere Hutlso protected against the strong winds. Diana managed to step in several mud pools, leaving her shoes soaked. Combined with the opccasional snow fall, you can imagine that she needed some rest & relaxation when we arrived in Windermere hut. Luckily there was still space for us - we didn't feel like a tent tonight... We prepared a big lunch, had a nap, took some close-up photos of the resident wallabi, quall and mother-and-baby possum, and spend the afternoon talking to the other trekkers.

After a good night sleep and a big breakfast, we left at around 8.30am for the long trek to Pelion Hut. This was a 14km trek that would take us at least 6 hours without breaks, so we expected to arrive at around 4pm. The trek itself was beautiful, with perfect weather and a nice variety of buttongrass swamps and dense forests. We stopped at River Forth Lookout for views across the valley, and 1.5 hour later we stopped for lunch at Pelion Creek. Here we caught up with a couple of other trekkers who also used this shielded spot for a break. But quite soon we got cold and continued for the long trek uphill to Pelion Hut. This was very tough indeed, and we spent a long 3-4 hours climbing uphill through muddy trails in a rain forest (we got our shoes soaked again, of course). When we finally arrived, we saw a helicopter with a couple of park rangers (probably to drop off fuel for the heater, pick up toilet waste, or leave some rangers who typically spend a few days at a hut for maintenance or track repairs).

Pelion Hut is rather new (from 2001) and large (sleeping 60 people instead of the usual 24). But rather than spending the night in the hut, we put up our tent (so we used it at least once). The weather was nice and it didn't look like it was going to rain, so we decided to take a chance... Let's hope it's not going to be too cold!

Well... As it turned out, it wasn't cold but it was wet. Sometime during the night the clear afternoon skies got replaced by rain clouds and it didn't stop raining since. And as we also discovered, our tent was great for fine-weather camping but not for a Tasmanian downpour - the result was a wet tent (inside and outside), some wet clothes and partly wet sleeping bags. Not great.
Overland Track - Kia Ora Hut
Rather than taking it easy and waiting for the sun to come out and dry things, we decided to just pack up and quickly make the 3-hour journey to Kia Ora Hut. Kia Ora is a Maori word that means 'happy, laughing and playful', and it seemed like a great place to relax for an afternoon, dry our stuff, and sit in the sun (which is exactly what we did!). But first the track itself: it started with a muddy trail, rain and snow, and a steady uphill climb, but later it got better and we had some of the best views along the way at Pelion Gap (a small platform in the middle of a wide plain): Mt Ossa on the right, Mt Pelion East on the left, behind us Mt Oakleigh in front and Barn Bluff and Cradle Mountain in the distance, and ahead of us Cathedral Mountain and the Du Cane Range. It was great.

Overland Track - soaking up the afternoon sun!We arrived at Kia Ora just before lunch as one of the first, claimed a good place in the hut, put our stuff out to dry and just lazed around for the rest of the day. The weather was great, and we spent quite some time getting a tan on the tent platforms near the creek. It was great talking to the other trekkers, as most of them are like-minded people, from all over the world and well-travelled. We also talked quite long to the park ranger, who told us that normally the summers are hot and dry here, with dusty tracks. Only this summer was different, and the wettest in six years - just our luck!

The next morning we packed up early and left Kia Ora for the 3-4 hour walk to the Bert Nichols Hut at Windy Ridge. This part of the Track is known for its side trips to waterfalls Overland Track - old trekkers hutand we reserved a few hours to see those as well. After 1.5 hours through nice forests we arrived at the first junction, where we left our backpacks and descended to Fergusson Falls. This was a very powerful waterfall, and standing right next to it we could really feel its energy. The next waterfall, Hartnett Falls, was 700m further and was great as well. We couldn't get very close, but then we had to be far away anyway to see its full height... We had a nice lunch on the river bank, before climbing back up to the junction and continuinOverland Track - Hartnett Fallsg our trip to Bert Nichols Hut at Windy Ridge. We got there by mid-afternoon after a long hot climb uphill, and put up the tent (yep, another try!) on a tent platform with great views on Mount Acropolis. We spend the rest of the afternoon in the sun, had dinner with an excellent view and generally had an great time. Overall, today was a beautiful day with clear skies, temperatures of 25-30 degrees, a nice track to walk and a fantastic place to sleep - we loved it.

After a very good night of sleep, we left Bert Nichols for the recommended 3-4 hour side trip to Pine Valley (not on the main Overland Track), which was an easy walk with just one highlight - four venomous tiger snakes sleeping in the sun next to trail, until Diana nearly stepped on top of them to pose for a photo. After a quick lunch we left to climb Mt Acropolis (640m high). It was much more difficult than expected, steep and rocky with little support, and we sometimes literally had to Overland Track - view from Mt Acropolisscramble over huge rocks to continue. But the views were more than worth it - it had extraordinary 360 degree views over the Overland Track, the Labyrinth, the Walls of Jerusalem, the Du Cane Range and many other mountains as far as you could see. It was fantastic, breath-taking, and well-worth the hike! The way down wasn't easy but not as bad as we feared, and we got back to the hut by around 7.30pm. For dinner we shocked everybody by preparing a nice big salad with fresh vegetables and olives (on day six of the trek)..Overland Track - view from Mt Acropolis. Most people had been eating dehydrated ready-made meals for a week, and the sight of a big fresh salad was nearly too much for some - but to their delight, we shared... :-)

The next morning we walked back from Pine Valley to the Overland Track, where we completed it by walking to the Narcissus Hut, taking the ferry across Lake St Clair, and taking the bus back to Hobart for a well-deserved and much-needed hot shower!

Kangaroos at the Tasmanian Devil SanctuaryAfter a great night sleep (in a real bed!) we left Hobart in the morning and stopped along the way at a fruit farm near Sorrell, where we picked our own fruit - nearly 2.5 kg of cherries, strawberries, raspberries, logan berries, and redcurrants. It was delicious!

The next stop was at a Tasmanian Devil conservation centre, where they had several kinds of animals. We first hand-fed some kangaroos, and then went to see the Devils. They are now an endangered species, with 80% of the wild population wiped out since 2000 due to a contagious face cancer that spreads easily whenever they fight and bite each other - and they fight all the time over anything, with loud screams that earned them their name. They are small black animals that are built a bit like hyenas (strong shoulders, big head, small hind legs) that are meat-eating marsNow you know how the Tasmanian Devil got his name!upials (with a pouch, just like kangaroos). They're not hunters but rather scavengers, eating anything that's left behind by others, and they're not picky eaters - we saw them swallowing some pieces of meat with skin and bone... two bites and it was gone. The people are trying to isolate some Devils on a peninsula, to keep some healthy animals in the wild. We hope that this will be successful, and that they won't go extinct in the wild.

Port ArthurWe camped at the idyllic Fortescue Bay, walked around the great beach there, and went down to the Port Arthur Historic Site. This is the former high security prison of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania's old name). Van Diemen's Land itself was already a prison for British criminals, and they were sent to Port Arthur if they committed further crimes (such as being disrespectful to a prison guard). It was supposed a grim gloomy place but we found it lovely, with beautiful old buildings and landscaped gardens like in the English country site. There was a beautiful sunset that evening, and the place was actually very nice - probably bad in winter, but definitely not gloomy today!
Fortescue Bay, on Tasman Peninsula
On 28 December we started with a healthy breakfast of yoghurt, cereals and the fruits we picked yesterday. Now Beautiful cliffs near the sea around Tasman Peninsulawe were ready for the Tasman Island Cruise, which is a 3-hour trip by speedboat around the cliffs of south-east Tasmania and Tasman Peninsula. Nothing is between these cliffs and Antarctica, and the shores are beaten continuously by huge waves. But we were lucky and didn't encounter any 14 meter waves - instead we had a smooth sea, clear skies and sunshine.

The coastline was amazing, with 290 million year old cliffs going up to 306 meter high above the sea (highest in Australia), with Seals cooperate to round up and devour huge amounts of fish... and the seagulls join the party!huge caves and blowholes everywhere. The boat could squeeze into the caves, so we could really get a close look. On the cliffs there were countless bird and seal colonies, and we could watch them from close by fighting for a place in the sun. Later on, we saw a special spectacle at sea, whereby seals work together to round up fish, and then start a feeding frenzy. Lots of birds enthusiastically participated in this, and it was great to watch this show for a while. Especially the albatrosses were very impressive, and we saw it from just a few meters away - better than a documentary!

Towards the end, we sailed around the lighthouse on Tasman Island (three families lived up there, and sometimes had to survive for weeks without supplies, which had to be hauled up by cable from a boat to the top of the high cliffs - impossible in bad Wineglass Bayweather). The lighthouse is a welcome sight for sailors in the Sydney - Hobart race, which would be passing by in the next day or so. We returned to Port Arthur (with some good views on the Historic Site), and went for lunch at a restaurant with a great view over the bay and soaked up the sun in the afternoon, before driving north for a few hours to Coles Bay near the Freycinet National Park. We were planning to spend two nights at a camp site at Wine Glass Bay, which is an hour walk from the car park. But we were quite tired, and looked for a hotel along the way to Coles Bay, but everything was fully booked :-( So we parked, packed up, and started to walk...

IWineglass Bay, in Freycinet National Parkn the end, this turned out to be a great decision, and better than any hotel or B&B could have been. By 8.30pm we got to the beach, and found a protected site right on the bay (the official camp site was actually behind a dune we realized later, but we stayed on the beach anyway as it Wineglass Baywas a much better place). It was a great spot, and we decided to just stay there the whole next day, lazing on the beach, getting a tan, and watching the tour boats come by. We even dared to 'swim' in the sea - very cold, but quite nice for a short dip.

The next morning we walked back, and took the car up north along the splendid coast to Binalong Bay in the famous Bay of Fires (named after the fires of aboriginals that sailors could see while sailing by). After getting a tan on the beach for a while, we drove on through Tamar Valley to Beauty Point in the north. Tamar Valley is a beautiful area with a mPenguins groomingediteranean climate, and therefore also lots of vineyards, olive plantations and even lavender farms (one of which, as it turned out, is one the world's premier suppliers of lavender oil). In the evening, we joined a penguin tour at Low Head at the bay of Tamar River. We saw hundreds of small penguins (there are a total of over 5,000) climbing out of the sea, over rocks and into small bushes where their babies were waiting to be fed. They made a lot of noise, but were so used to people that they literally walked over our shoes.

On Friday morning we started with a visit to the Platypus House and Seahorse World. The Platypus House is a combined research facility and tourist attraction, where you can see these unique animals from close by. The platypus and the reAn echidna - close relative of the platypuslated echydna (shown in the photo) are the only members of the monotreme family, and they have characteristics of mammals, birds and reptiles (they have a beak and webbed feet, lay eggs but suckle their young, and males have a poison gland that can knock out a human being for six months). Having said that, they're adorable little animals... The facility had four platypus, but hasn't been successful in breeding yet. The Seahorse World is the biggest exporter of seahorses for aquariums in the world, and they had a great variety of species. Seahorses are very special, as the males are pregnant and carry the eggs around for weeks. The facility is successful in breeding them, with a 95% survival rate (compared to 5% in the wild), but they are not allowed to place any seahorse back in the wild as they may have developed a disease while in captivity.
New Year's Eve in HobartIn the afternoon we drove south to Hobart, to celebrate New Year's Eve together with some people we met on the Overland Track (Andrew & Jasmijn, and David & Catherine). Hobart was bustling, with hundreds of yachts that had just completed the Sydney - Hobart race, and there were concerts, shows and activities everywhere. After a fantastic dinner in vegetarian restaurant, we went to the harbor to watch the fire works at midnight. The atmosphere was great, the fireworks long and impressive,View from Mt Wellington, near Hobart and all in all it was a great way to celebrate New Year's Eve!

Hobart turned out to be just as much fun the next day, when we visited the weekly Salamanca Market. It was a busy area, with hundreds of stalls, great food, buskers, etc. and we loaded up on local goodies such as honey, chocolate fudge, and cherry wine... In the afternoon we drove up to Mt Wellington for spectacular views over Hobart, the river, the bay and the surrounding mountains. We were somewhat sad that our holidays were coming to a close, but happy that we discovered a new place that we could (should!) come back to!

For more photos, click here.