Travel

The challenging, immersive journey through forest, mountain and water on Cradle Mountain is a rite of passage that can be relived through all the stages of our lives. By Kate Hennessy.

Revisiting Tasmania’s Overland Track

Pumphouse Point at leeawuleena/Lake St Clair, Tasmania.
Pumphouse Point at leeawuleena/Lake St Clair, Tasmania.
Credit: Supplied

It’s said of the Overland Track in the Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park: “Walk it once in your 20s when you’re fit and carefree, once with the love of your life for shared memories later, and as many times after that as you can before you die.” The same could be said of many places. It’s probably a misappropriated quote about Paris. But I love how it expresses the personal rite of passage that a journey such as the Overland can be. 

Other lifelong walkers understand. When I go for the third time in February, I dodge a question from a woman named Pamela about what I do. Our group of five is driving from nipaluna/Hobart to a decommissioned hydroelectric station on leeawuleena/Lake St Clair called Pumphouse Point. Three nights of communal dinners await, so I say to Pamela, “I’ll tell you tonight.” Sometimes when people find out I’m a writer, they’ll say, “Hey, Kate, will ya write about this bit?” and “Am I going to be in the story?” Pamela does nothing of the sort. She tells me later she assumed my hesitation to reply meant I was either terminally ill or returning someone’s ashes to nature. Pamela from the Sunshine Coast is a kindred soul. 

 

My first Overland trip was in 2017. I was turning 40 and finishing several years of invasive medical treatment. My best friend had pancreatic cancer. When my Tasmanian friend Matt proposed a trip, I said yes straight away. Matt had been an Overland guide years earlier. He could make a campsite cosy with little more than a tarp and called the dirt in our rehydrated dinners “bush pepper”. He dangled a battered enamel mug from his pack to drink from the streams. 

We hiked 15 kilometres south of leeawuleena and camped for two nights among the gnarled myrtle beech trees and pencil pines. Rivulets cleaved moss so spongy and fluorescent it looked like something bought in a craft store, and the wind whirled the treetops in crazed pirouettes while the lower branches stayed still. This place didn’t make sense in any way I could fathom, but part of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” explained it well enough. 

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain 

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Four years later, I returned to do the whole six-day Overland Track. I spoke to Matt. 

“Listen to the guides when they tell you to walk through the middle of the puddles,” he said. “If everyone goes around, the paths just get bigger.” 

The Overland forums talked of bleeding blisters and snapped ankle bones, while one of my editors, Stephanie Convery, told me she’d busted a boot there a decade ago, so her partner donated his. 

“He did 70 per cent of the walk in thongs,” she said. “You really do learn about resilience out there.”

The leatherwood trees were in bloom on that February 2021 trip. Their radiant white petals were underfoot for days as if ushering us into a special event. At night, I listened as the all-Tasmanian group (a pandemic-era specialty) talked about leeches (on eyeballs), blizzards (in summer) and their unanimous disgust at a proposal to run a cable car to the top of kunanyi/Mount Wellington. The trip was led by a botanist and we squelched through sphagnum moss to help him strip Olearia pinifolia bushes of their seeds. These, and the seeds of other endemic alpine plants, were headed to the international Millennium Seed Bank in Britain. My story about the trip won a modest nature-writing prize which, midway through a confused exit from culture writing, gave me confidence to continue. 

 

This year’s trip included a stop at Mount Field National Park. More – and older – memories awaited me there. In May 1998, I went to a blockade in Wandella State Forest in New South Wales to stop trees being sent to Japan for woodchipping. During a tense standoff with the logging crew, a blockader accidentally kicked a hacky sack past a literal line in the sand, which the loggers saw as a provocation. A few punches, tackles and smashed video cameras ensued before we retreated to safety. 

The experience prompted me to travel with the University of Wollongong’s chapter of the students and sustainability group to its national conference in nipaluna that winter. They put us in tents on kunanyi, where I nearly died of cold. We were trained in direct-action techniques and did tutorials with the late Tasmanian biologist Bill Mollison, who was 70 at that time and known as one of the founders of permaculture – a regenerative farming method practised by Indigenous peoples long before him. 

One day, we were paired with a new “buddy” and bused to Mount Field. I’d never seen bush so drippy and green. My buddy was older, mid-20s, and living a zero-waste lifestyle. I was awed by her. We took turns photographing each other crouching near a dead tree and saw our first pademelon. Nowadays, you’d link up on Instagram afterwards, but I never saw her again so I’m free to believe she stayed true to Mollison’s famous quote: “First feel fear, then get angry, then go with your life into the fight.”

Twenty-four years later, the same dead tree is still at Mount Field but the forest is browner and crunchier. I still have the jacket I wore in my photo with it; it’s in pretty good shape. Yet over the same time, plants in lutruwita/Tasmania that can survive only in a cold and wet climate have been exiled further up the mountainsides. What poet could make sense of that? 

 

In 2021, my Overland journey had ended at the northern tip of leeawuleena. This time, our 17-kilometre lakeside walk starts there. Hikers spill out of the bush, ready to catch the ferry, and I recognise their looseness of step and spirit after up to eight days here. A day walk won’t be long enough, I think, but then I see the petals on the moss again and, later, a fat black tiger snake gliding into the water. 

And the sound of the lake! The idea that everyone sleeps well near the coast doesn’t apply to me. Even if it’s not a big swell, the pound of beach breakers carries forces too immense to be restful: the moon’s tug, the ocean’s depths and the violence of storms out at sea. But the lapping of leeawuleena – the palawa word for sleeping water – is light and fleet of foot: a lyrical tinkling anchored by no perceptible rhythm. 

We sleep on the lake at the end of Pumphouse Point’s 275-metre jetty. Water licks all sides of the building like a marooned ship. On the last day I wake early to walk to the lakeshore. It’s misty and bleak and easy to fantasise that the crow flying low from tree to tree – cawing and waiting for me to catch up – is taking me somewhere. 

Wooden pebbles, as gem-like as sea glass, are washed up everywhere. Tossed and tumbled by the water, their woodgrain swirls are smooth under my thumb, but the real marvel is how each crumb of driftwood is sorted in size order. 

Has a fellow guest been working on this all night? Arranging this section of mid-sized branches in straight lines? Reserving this back area for larger logs only? 

Breakfast comes and goes. The fog doesn’t lift so I’m unmoored from time, held by a spell. I realise I need to go alone into nature more often, because other people move from view to vista too fast and I need time in the microcosms. Having the world, as Mary Oliver wrote, “over and over announcing your place / in the family of things”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Overland, through time".

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