Traversing a landscape hewn by glaciers, the Overland Track passes jagged peaks, inky lakes and forbidding gorges on a journey into the heart of Tasmania’s wilderness world heritage area.
The trail from Cradle Valley to Lake St Clair takes hikers across alpine plateaus, where wildflowers peep out below snowdrifts, through moors dotted with buttongrass and grazing wombats, and into majestic myrtle beech rainforests. It’s bucket-list beautiful.
Palawa people have cared for this country for thousands of generations, since arriving during the last ice age. In this remote landscape, their resilience is thrown into sharp relief.
While today’s track won’t challenge fit walkers, you can bet the weather will. Almost half the path is above 1,000 metres, and rain, snow, wind and sunshine can come any time of the year … or all within a single hour.
Just three hours into my four-day hike, I find myself soaked, shivering and getting smashed by a hail-blasting gale that keeps knocking me off my feet, sending me crawling through knee-deep snow. In November.
Half an hour ago our group of nine reached the trail’s highest point, and on cue granite clouds parted to reveal Cradle Mountain’s turrets towering over a slaty lake. But on a path circling the peak with Jill, a Tasmanian Walking Company guide who’s hauling me up when I fall, the shrieking gusts seem to be sucking the air out of me.
I stack it again. “You’ve got to laugh, don’t you?” Jill says, holding out her hand. And just like that, I do.
As the trip goes on, with our TWC guides merely joking that the hail was “a bit rude”, we learn from a ranger that winds of up to 100km/h have closed the trail to independent hikers. Two walkers were winched to safety. Also: just a week ago people were swimming in these lakes!
Need to know: The track starts at Ronny Creek near Waldheim, a two-hour drive from Launceston airport. Some hikers take six days to reach Narcissus, then take the ferry across Lake St Clair. Others take an extra day or two to walk the length of Australia’s deepest lake. From there it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive back to Launceston. There’s a list of transport operators at overland.com.au. Most offer luggage storage.
If you don’t have enough time for the full track, it’s possible to walk for three days to Pelion Plains then exit on the fourth day along the Arm River Track to Mersey Forest. You’ll need to arrange for a shuttle to pick you up there.
Self-guided hikers setting off between 1 October and 31 May must walk the trail from north to south and book in advance, paying $200 for adults and $160 concession. A parks pass is also required.
For less experienced bushwalkers – and for those who can handle a little more luxury (hot showers, no tents!) – one of the private operators, TWC, offers four- and six-day hut hikes, with prices starting at $2,795 per person twin share, including meals, passes and transfers.
The Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service offers a wealth of information that includes a packing guide and a checklist of the absolute minimum equipment needed. This includes sturdy footwear.
On this point I felt confident. But on night one, after 11 hours struggling along slippery, snow-covered boardwalks, I confirm that the boots I bought seven years ago for two treks in Nepal have sprung leaks. (Veteran hikers will have spotted my mistake.) I place them by the fire to dry. (Ditto.)
In the morning, as I’m lacing up for another 12km slog, I discover that the soles have come away. Modern boots disintegrate after five years, I’m told – and overheating mine has trashed them. But there’s freedom in knowing feet can’t get any wetter. Cable ties are applied and off we go.
Flora and fauna: Look for bright green cushion plants – not one species but communities growing together to better battle the elements. But keep to the path: these mounds can take decades to recover from one footprint. Pencil and king billy pines live up to 1,200 years – if they can survive bushfires. They’re descended from plants that grew on the single super-continent of Pangaea more than 300m years ago.
We spot pademelons, wallabies, black cockatoos, wedge-tailed eagles, a pink robin, a peregrine falcon and the grass-green flash of a ground parrot. Our second guide, Ziah, is an encyclopedia of information about the wildlife, stressing that being in this wondrous place and accepting its gifts creates in us the obligation to look after it.
Where to sleep: There are tent platforms and public huts at the end of each day’s trek. Bunks are first come, first served.
Hidden along the track are TWC’s five cosy huts. They’re designed to be ecologically sustainable, though private accommodation on public land remains anathema to staunch conservationists.
Don’t miss: Take a side trip to Old Pelion Hut, a 100-year-old miners’ shelter, to read entries in its visitor book dating from the 1940s. One group of hikers describe arriving in 1960 to “contest tenancy rights with Possum who was well established in bottom right hand bunk. We won!”
When to go: January to March are the drier months, with longer days and less chance of snow.
That said, it’s the wild weather that really makes our trip. There are scores of spills but also thrills – when the sun comes out for whole seconds at a time, turning this wintry wonderland a dazzling white and revealing the moody yet magnificent mountains around us.
• Guardian Australia was a guest of Tasmanian Walking Company and Tourism Tasmania