Hiking the Overland Track (day 2): Cradle Mountain to Windermere
Following a spectacular first day on the Overland Track (complete with surprise mountaintop injuries), day 2 brings even more jagged peaks and reflective tarns as we make the 11.5km journey down into Waterfall Valley and over to Windermere Hut. The walk is undemanding, but punctuated with wonderful views that keep us all entertained and encourage even the most aching feet to keep moving towards our camp. As it happens, Lake Windermere is the perfect spot to round off another day in the Tassie wilderness, and it is in this idyllic setting that we finally become acquainted with the rest of our “15-Jan” family.
Trail stats: Cradle Mountain to Windermere
Trail hours: 5.5hrs
Highlights: Descent into beautiful Waterfall Valley; views of Barn Bluff throughout; amazing fields of vibrant wildflowers; sparkling mountain lakes, including Lakes Holmes and Will
Lunch spot: Waterfall Valley Hut
Campsite: Windermere Hut (bunks in the hut)
Amazingly, I wake up in my snug sleeping bag this morning to an ankle with very minimal swelling. Despite the worst of my fears, it doesn’t appear to have worsened at all since the sprain yesterday afternoon, and I am ecstatic that this means I can continue onwards, even if it does mean walking a bit slower than usual and skipping the side trip to Barn Bluff this morning. Dad and Eileen are already packing by the time I poke my head out of the tent, our campsite enjoying prolonged morning shade thanks to the surrounding hills, and they set off towards the summit after making plans to rendezvous with us at Waterfall Valley Hut around lunchtime.
Only 30 minutes behind, Cal and I strike off towards the hut around 9am, shocked by how quickly the morning chill has turned into scorching sun. We are anticipating a fairly gradual journey, approximately 4km to the hut that was actually meant to mark the official end of day 1, but what we find is a narrow, uneven, rock-strewn trail that gives my ankle plenty of trouble and forces us to plod along at an almost unbearable pace. The trail levels and boardwalks become much more frequent after we come up and over the hill, but the relief is somewhat short lived— the descent into the valley means awkwardly spaced stairs that slow us down yet again.
The sign at the most recent fork said just 30 minutes to the hut, but it feels like several hours have passed before we finally see a roof pop up out of the trees. Even this short distance into the track, we’ve already noticed wild inconsistencies in the way sections have been timed. Supposed “30 minute” sections that take 15 minutes even at a slow pace are followed by “30 minute” sections that are well over an hour’s walk. It drives me particularly crazy this morning, as I keep expecting to find the hut just around the next bend and am repetitively disappointed to the point of anger (although Callum astutely notes that this is classic hanger, since we have been saving our breakfast for the hut).
Upon our arrival at Waterfall Valley, after what feels like a lifetime of shuffling along the trail, we are greeted by the hut warden, who expresses concern at not having seen us last night. As a safety measure, all the Overland Track hikers who departed on the 15th have been tagged with numbers 1-34 and apparently each hut warden tries to touch base with groups as they arrive in the evening. My ankle sprain may have been a fair excuse for having wild camped near the base of Cradle Mountain rather than carrying on into the valley last night, but the warden strongly encourages us to continue to the next hut tonight rather than stopping short at Lake Will. In his own words, “if you can make it to the lake, you can make it to the hut”.
Callum and I head into Waterfall Valley Hut, which we are lucky to have all to ourselves for lunch, and quickly take our boots off, unpack our food, and stretch out along the benches. It’s been an undemanding morning by any standards, but it still feels great to get my feet up and dig into a big margarita pizza wrap. In a matter of seconds, lunch is over, which leaves us with several hours before dad and Eileen are due to arrive. We spend this time drinking multiple litres of the hut’s delicious rainwater, playing cards, and, in my case, typing this blog post on my iPad.
A little more than 4 hours since we arrived at the hut, we finally see dad and Eileen coming down the trail, exhausted from what has been a much more active day than our own. They both say Barn Bluff was a beautiful hike, but that it was just as steep and scrambly as yesterday’s summit of Cradle Mountain, which means I’ve definitely made the right call for my ankle by giving it a miss.
After a short rest, we all put our packs back on and hit the trail with intentions of getting back on track for our 6-day hike, which means cramming the entirety of what was meant to be day 2 into this afternoon. It’s only a short day, estimated to take around 3.5 hours, but everyone is a little worse for wear after this morning and the forecast of afternoon rain only adds to the challenge.
From Waterfall Valley, we begin our walk with a short section of downhill steps, immediately crossing paths with a full grown copperhead snake who thankfully, true to the old adage, does appear to be more afraid of us than we are of him and quickly slithers off into the shrubs. Hearts now racing, the hour walk to Lake Holmes flies by, punctuated only by frequent stops to photograph the incredible autumnal flowers in front of Barn Bluff.
The next half of our walk, on the other hand, is characterised by frequent arguments about whether we are better to stop and set up camp now or better to continue towards the hut. We sit down and start to unpack, argue more, pack up and keep walking, only to sit down a few dozen metres down the track and do it all over again. We’ve done all the climbing already. Unfortunately, the final stretch is downhill on mostly uneven bits of rock, which is also now wet from the thunderstorm that came through before any of us could get our jackets on. Conditions are far from ideal, everyone is tired, but in the end we power through the last 90 minutes of our walk and roll into the hut cranky and desperate to get out of our boots around 8pm.
Even though I am moments from collapse, our day continues as we parade up and down the boardwalk, searching for an available tent platform that apparently does not exist. Before we even get the opportunity to ask about squeezing in at the group campsite, a guide approaches us with the very generous message “just before you come over here and ask to camp with us, no”. Considering that the next hut is 12km away and clearly not an option, we are starting to feel a little panicky about tonight’s accomodation— on the one hand, I am not taking another step; on the other, there is literally no way to pitch a tent atop this Arctic tundra. Just as we have resolved to sleep on the helipad and hope that no one comes by to observe what I’m sure is an extremely illegal campsite, some kind people from the hut do a bit of reevaluating and realise that we can fit onto a few available bunks inside.
High off relief, we trudge inside and all but throw our packs to the ground just to be free of the weight. After tossing on some evening attire (puffer jackets), we head to the kitchen and set to work on an enormous meal of skillet bread, margarita pizza, and pasta puttanesca courtesy of Packit Gourmet, all tied together by the litre of red wine we’ve been carting through the mountains for this very moment. The rest of the evening is spent enjoying our amazing meal, mingling with the lovely people already in the hut, and generally feeling elated to be back on schedule after my injury.