Hiking the Overland Track (day 1): Ronny Creek to Cradle Mountain
Tasmania’s premier long-distance hike, and indeed one of the country’s finest bush walks, has been high on my list for many years, so it is with great excitement that I finally embark on the 6-day, 70km journey from the Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre. What we find on our first day is wonderful sub-alpine scenery that greatly rivals every other day on the trek, not to mention the challenging ascent of the park’s most iconic feature, Cradle Mountain, which provides sweeping views over the entire valley. If today’s beauty is any indication, we are in for an absolute treat this week as we walk towards Lake St Clair.
Trail stats: Ronny Creek to Cradle Mountain
Trail hours: 6hrs including the ascent of Cradle Mountain
Highlights: Hike around and above beautiful Crater Lake; sweeping views from Marion’s Lookout (1250m); ascent of Cradle Mountain; the most challenging day on the Overland Track
Lunch spot: Kitchen Hut
Campsite: Wild camping near some alpine tarns at the base of Cradle Mountain
After a hearty breakfast in the holiday park, the last of our elaborate scramble creations for the next week while we are out wandering through the Tassie wilderness on the Overland Track, we Tetris all of our packs into the car, checkout, and drive just across the road to the Visitor Centre car park, where we will be leaving out trusty SUV for the week. We have a final pack weigh-in before we walk across the car park: I’m carrying a modest 15.5kg (I am the smallest, after all), Eileen’s got 17kg, Cal’s packing 22kg, and dad’s got 23kg. This is more than I’d usually aim to carry on a mid-length backpacking trip (13kg on the TMB), but much of my weight comes from the tequila we’ve shoved into the side of my pack for mountain margaritas and the big mirrorless camera hooked onto my shoulder strap, both luxuries that were completely necessary in my mind.
Having already checked in for the trek yesterday afternoon and purchased our park passes a few days previously, we head to the shuttle bus queue and enjoy what feels like a standup comedy routine from our driver as we enjoy the 20 minute ride to Ronny Creek. The shuttle is crammed full of day-hikers and families out for an excursion in the National Park, but I am incredibly surprised that our party of 4 is the only group of Overland Track hikers on the bus, especially given that we are on the second bus of the morning. Throughout the day, we encounter plenty of these day-hikers on their way up to Marions Lookout or Cradle Mountain, but we don’t meet very many people doing the full trek. I suppose it makes sense, as the park imposes strict limits on the number of independent hikers allowed to undertake the Overland each day (34). It’s also pretty nice for us, since the trails empty out considerably after we pass the day-use area this afternoon!
From Ronny Creek, our first steps along the Overland Track are deceptively easy, undulating rather gently along a serpentine boardwalk. Even though it’s 9am as we set off, all the morning cloud cover has already burnt away and the day is well on its way to being a scorcher (27C is hot when you’re weighed down by a full pack). Before long, the trail starts to ascend along rocky steps and intermittent boardwalk. It doesn’t take long for us to all start sweating, but it also doesn’t take long for us to spot our first snake of the journey, an adolescent copperhead snake baking in the sun that nearly gets squashed under Eileen’s boot as she hurries on past, unsuspecting. It’s only a few minutes before we spot our second, this time scuttling away from my trekking pole.
By the time we reach the idyllic shores of Crater Lake and begin walking up and around towards Marion’s Lookout, the ascent has begun in earnest. The knowledge that this is far and away the most challenging section of the Overland Track keeps me moving steadily upwards, until finally we level out at a viewpoint just 15 minutes from the high point. We have a spectacular aerial view of crater lake, as well as a number of other small lakes on the opposite side, but we don’t allow ourselves to rest too long before getting back onto the trail for the final uphill slog (some of which involves the use of chains, but all of which has me thankful for my trekking poles). The difficulty of this section is tolerable due to its rapid conclusion, but also the views that await from the Lookout. Cradle Mountain dominates the landscape, rising above a number of glossy tarns and Cradle Country’s characteristic orange and yellow shrubs. The effect is staggering and quickly all the sweating and grunting of the last 15 minutes fades.
No sooner do we reach the top of the lookout, though, than a storm rolls in. Thunder in the distance has everyone rummaging around for rain jackets and pack covers, but I still manage to take (and force Callum to take) plenty of beautiful photos before the deluge finally arrives. Cal and I consider it our cue to get moving again, so we leave dad and Eileen at the lookout and continue on towards Kitchen Hut. The rain comes in intense bursts over the next half hour and we even hear from another trekker that he watched lightning strike a trail marker only a few metres away, but thankfully the skies have calmed down before we arrive at Kitchen Hut, about 3 hours after we began the trek this morning. Here, Cal and I enjoy a rather unfulfilling lunch of beef jerky while we wait for my parents, but at least we are dry and the skies have miraculously cleared just in time for our climb up Cradle Mountain.
After packing a rain jacket and fleece each, some water, and my cameras into my little summit pack (which Callum has the distinct pleasure of carrying), we ditch our big packs in Kitchen Hut and set off towards the Cradle Mountain summit. According to the sign, it’s a 2.5 hour return journey, but we have been moving quicker than these estimates, so it seems likely that we can shave off a bit of this time. The first section of the hike is a steep, somewhat uneven trail that becomes more frequently dominated by loose rock and boulders as we ascend. The going is both hot and exhausting. Approximately halfway to the summit, the boulders have grown so large that we have to stash our trekking poles into some shrubbery and continue scrambling with both hands and feet.
Every time I think we are nearing the summit, we come up over a crest to find another field of rocks and a higher peak in the distance. This happens at least half a dozen times until we finally see a flurry of activity atop the nearest high point and figure we must actually be close for real this time. The scrambling has been quite a challenge, but it’s also been extremely fun, so I’m surprised to find that an hour has passed when we do reach the summit of Cradle Mountain, grinning excitedly between rasping breaths. Panoramic views, even more impressive than those we enjoyed throughout our climb, take in nearby Barn Bluff (tomorrow’s side trip), countless alpine lakes and tarns, and an expanse of heavily textured landscape that Callum remarks is not totally unlike Victorian high country. I seize the opportunity to take photos in every direction, as I didn’t allow myself any photo breaks on the climb for fear of losing my upward momentum. Dad and Eileen are not far behind, and soon we are all gathered for family photos atop the first summit of our Tasmania trip.
Reluctant to leave the electrifying buzz of the summit behind but eager to keep moving along the trail towards camp, Callum and I finally peel ourselves away, leaving dad to chat with a local geologist who used to live in Seattle, and begin the descent. As physically taxing as the climb may have been, I’m always wary of any descent, and not just because of my achy granny knees, but the feeling of general unbalance that seems only to come from scrambling downwards. Just a couple minutes from the summit, we notice that we’ve lost all the trail markers and also all signs of other humans. After a few moments of confusion, we eventually realise that we’ve ran down the wrong side of the mountain, which means a bit of backtracking and a loss of much of the lead I was hoping to maintain on dad and Eileen so that I would have time to stop for photos on the way down.
Ultimately, though, this winds up being extremely fortunate. Stepping innocuously enough onto the one-millionth boulder of the day, my right ankle snaps sharply into forced dorsiflexion (it feels like my toe nearly makes contact with my shin, although I have been known to exaggerate). There’s an audible pop that could have been from a rock or from a ligament, but either way, I find myself crumpled and crying on a boulder atop Cradle Mountain as Callum moves faster than I’ve ever seen him move to grab my leg from under me and get my boot off. In the moment, the pain feels almost unbearable and I’m hyperventilating just trying to get it under control. As with most injuries, the pain does subside relatively quickly, which thankfully leaves me to visually inspect and palpate for any possible fractures or connective tissue damage. There’s pain on most sides of my ankle, but there are definitely no breaks, which at least means I have a chance of getting off the mountain on my own two legs.
Just as I’m calming down, dad and Eileen come climbing down the path and quickly spring into action upon seeing that I’m injured. I tentatively stand up on a nearby rock to see if I can weight-bear, which thankfully I can as long as my ankle is in a fairly neutral position. Still, I am keenly aware that neutral ankles and scrambling down mountains are unlikely to go hand-in-hand.. Eileen has a collection of tape that we wind around my ankle in stirrups to provide additional support before I shove my foot back into my boot and lace up as tightly as I can around my ankle. With the help of the whole family, I manage to make it off the summit and down to the steep trail, largely through the use of what Eileen calls the “five points of contact” (aka sliding on my bum) and being pushed/ pulled/ caught by dad and Callum. Once on the trail section, it’s not entirely comfortable given the uneven surface, but my trekking poles act almost like crutches and I manage to make it back to the Overland Track trail in about 2 hours — well behind the 45 minute descent we had predicted, but at least not in a med-evac chopper.
As we decided during the descent, even if I feel like I can keep walking once we hit the boardwalk, we should setup camp at the nearest available site so that I can take time to rest and elevate my ankle and hopefully be well enough to walk a short day tomorrow (obviously minus the planned ascent of Barn Bluff). On flat ground, I limp along to some small tarns about 1km down the trail while the rest of the group heads back to Kitchen Hut to grab the packs. Even though he’s hauling his own enormous pack and mine on his shoulder, Callum still passes me on the way to our campsite. Not long after, dad and Eileen arrive and go off to scout the perfect place to pitch our tents, which is eventually determined to be on a small hill above the lakes, right in front of Cradle Mountain. The views at our impromptu campsite are beautiful, so no one is particular upset by the change in plans. Nor does anyone seem bothered by my request for our Mexican dinner of cheese dip, burritos, and margaritas from Packit Gourmet. Tequila is just what we need.
We spend the rest of the late afternoon and evening admiring the scenery, splashing around in the cool tarn, and cooking up a feast on my backpacking stove. As much as an injury on the first day of a 6-day hike is not ideal, I’m so glad that it wasn’t worse, that it happened after I summited, that I was able to make my own way off the mountain, and that I’m not in writhing agony right now (although the painkillers/tequila have definitely helped). I’m even optimistic that, after a rest tonight and tomorrow morning, I’ll be able to continue along the track without too much discomfort over the coming days. Today truly was the hardest day, so if I shave off some of my planned side trips (as much as it pains me to do so), I should actually have a pretty manageable few days left to go. Compression socks on, medicated up, and foot raised on top of my pack, I’m crossing my fingers that tomorrow morning brings a happy, healthy ankle.