Cradle Mountain Dreaming

PART ONE

KINDRED: A Cradle Mountain Love Story by Kate Legge is the engaging biographical story of Gustav Weindorfer and Kate Cowle, pioneers of early twentieth century appreciation of that stunning country around Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, their love for each other; and the struggle to open up the isolated high country to visitors with the creation of a national park. 

The author has meticulously drawn on original sources from that period, and the story comes alive with quotations and assumptions subtly drawn from those extant diaries and letters. Legge’s journalistic skills blend it all into a fine narrative, with explanations of the political and social forces acting on the main players, in this quest to balance protection of the environment with public access. 

After Austrian Gustav and Tasmanian Kate meet in amateur naturalist circles in Melbourne and become close, she takes him to Kindred, her family home north of Cradle Mountain, and together they explore the area. Gustav is smitten by all three, and they soon start dreaming and hatching plans to share this magical landscape with city folk and others.

Gustav is possessed of enormous energy, physical strength and obsessive curiosity about all aspects of flora and fauna, which he records in forensic ‘scientific’ reports. Kate is a perfect match as they share these exploratory naturalist passions, on their honeymoon camped out on a mountaintop for six weeks, often in horrible weather conditions, living off the land.

Later, using local timber hewn from his own tree felling, Gustav builds Waldheim Chalet, a day’s wagon ride and walk from the nearest small town. This generous frontier home becomes the base for his visitors to share the beauty of Cradle Mountain valleys, and later spread the word.

Like any good love story, there is pathos and even tragedy in the real world ending, which is both bitter and sweet. The national park is today one of the jewels in Tasmania’s crown of natural attractions, and in no small part due to Gustav’s enthusiastic dedication.

My book copy was received as a gift, and it’s no.182 in the second numbered series of the Miegunyah Volumes, so I’m unsure of its availability, but it’s an inspiring read and definitely worth tracking down.

PART TWO

Meantime, I have a Cradle Mountain ‘love’ story of my own to share, about walking the Overland Track in 2003, and written a few months later:

Gone wandering on my own in Tasmania, I decide that the Cradle Mountain Overland Track looks like a suitable bushwalking challenge for a reasonably fit fifty-two year old – 65 kms of high country to cover, national park huts (first-in-first-served) or your own tent for sleeping, and carrying your own supplies. Upmarket guided groups also walk in a parallel universe to fully-catered Cradle Huts, but that’s not adventure, and you pay mega-bucks to be stuck with companions that you haven’t even chosen. Tell ’em they’re dreaming.

I’m a very occasional day excursion bushwalker. My last long solo walk was in 1973 in western Nepal on the Pokhara-Jomsom trail – ten days of dossing in teahouses, a diet of dall & rice, and several kilos lost. So what better 30 year anniversary of that fine achievement of yore than to set out equally naively for a boy’s own adventure from magical Cradle Mountain. 

Travel articles had melodramatic warnings of physical and psychological suffering, the need for top-level equipment, threats of appalling wet, cold weather, and recommendations against walking alone. I guess it helped sell magazines, but it made me a little apprehensive to start. However, I stuck to my plan and prepared a light pack (about 18kg) with bare essentials and just enough dried food and supplies. And after some agonising left my tent in the car, therefore disobeying park rules and gambling on squeezing into the huts. I don’t take up much space.

Setting out from Ronny Creek car park near Cradle Mountain, I feel empowered, and soon work up a good sweat on the 275m climb to Marion’s Lookout. Pausing for a splendid view of Dove Lake and other glacial remnants below, I encounter a group of serious walkers with their mountain guide. Not the upmarket mob, but staying in NP huts like me. 

Among them, handsome young Sarah from Sydney catches my eye. ‘You’re walking alone?’, she enquires with surprise, as she had apparently not considered the option. ‘Yeah no worries!’, I reply nonchalantly. She seems suitably impressed and there is promise of further chats down the track, as I head off. 

On the high plateau, sumptuous alpine meadows are spotted with colourful lichens on rocky outcrops and perfectly shaped button grasses. Distant valleys fold away on either side of the track. An hour later I meet two middle-aged blokes returning from Barn’s Bluff mesa to Waterfall Valley, where I’m heading for first night’s rest. John and Trevor will join the fraternity of shared huts there.

A spectacular ridge descent leads me to Waterfall Valley Hut by late afternoon. In fact there are two huts: a new, spacious cabin, with sleeping platforms and gas heating; and the old slab hut with four double bunks and no heating. An exuberant group of American exchange students and their Aussie companion guides is already established in the former, so I go for the ‘authentic’ old hut. Roommates are a Tasmanian group of confirmed walkers: seniors John & wife Willi, their younger friends Gavin & Sue, and solo Gordon from Geelong. My new matchbox-sized titanium stove gets it’s first tryout for afternoon tea and performs brilliantly. 

The ranger in residence briefs us on park etiquette: huts are shared irrespective of the number of occupants, no fires, all rubbish to be carried out. Groundwater and streams are protected from the onslaught of humans by eco-friendly compost toilets at each hut, and nearby drums and helipads indicate that the fertiliser is flown out. Toilet towers sit literally on a huge pile of poo, dusted with wood shavings by each user, and surprisingly it works well, with little odour apparent.

Huts have no bathrooms, only tank water; and no electricity, with walkers’ lamps providing the only illumination.  Bunks are simple plywood platforms without bedding.  However the overall effect is congenial, with shared tables and spaces encouraging an active social life. 

To lessen the impact of 8,500 walkers annually (over 9,000 these days)) on the track, numerous boardwalk sections have been constructed, particularly where soggy soil and fragile vegetation prevail. Amazingly, tidy discipline is followed by everyone, and I never see any litter during the entire walk.

Arrivals increase at nightfall, including the group with fair Sarah, who had climbed Barns Bluff on the way. Tents are pitched between the huts, some on platforms, and the valley is soon transformed into a small tent city with over sixty occupants. And not much opportunity to catch up with Sarah. Welcome to busy bush civilisation! Some walkers are heading north to Cradle Mountain, but like me most are taking the traditional route south to Lake St Clair. 

First night conversation turns to sore feet. Having ignored another basic bush walking tenet by buying new boots for the walk, I discover they have already inflicted solid blood blisters on my feet. I swear the boots felt perfect in the shop last week! Blisters are taped up, along with other friction points on my feet, for the duration of the walk, to allow the skin to regenerate without exposing raw flesh.

Next morning is clear and I head off early to try and get ahead of the crowd. A couple of hours steaming along on my own through more alpine meadows, and I arrive at Windermere Lake. After a picnic by the lake and inspection of the attractive new hut, it’s still only 11 am, so I decide to push on to Pelion Hut, 14 kms away.  

Plateau scenery continues, with panoramic views from the escarpment near Frog Flats (camping allowed). A couple of hours later I stop for lunch beside a stream, and chat to two Swiss girls heading north. Walking Cradle Mountain Overland Track is the main objective of their Australian holiday. 

Then a young couple arrives, Lisa and Hayden from Adelaide, both biologists and full of information about the natural world, which they share with me while walking several tiring kilometres together through primeval forest towards Pelion. Chatting helps disconnect the mind from an increasingly unwilling body and tired legs, as we follow a rising track of bumpy tree roots, cool and dark under the forest canopy.

New Pelion Hut appears across the valley, but before heading there we decide to check out Old Pelion. Slab construction, tiny windows and rough plank bunks make it dark and unwelcoming, so we opt for modernity. New Pelion is the palatial Ritz of huts, with several bunk rooms, spacious dining & cooking room, and wide verandas looking over a grassy plain towards rocky Mount Oakleigh.

After claiming a bunk space, I reckon my sweat-soaked body needs freshening up and head for the nearby stream. Soap is a difficult existential and ecological question, which I resolve in the affirmative and somehow manage to immerse myself naked in headache-inducing freezing water.

The hut is comfortably three-quarters full with thirty or so fellow walkers. Seated on the veranda with a warming cuppa, watching sunset reflections on the surrounding valley walls and peaks, I reflect contentedly on my record 24 km achievement that day. Heavy rain falls that night.

It’s hard to leave the Ritz in the morning. Lingering on the veranda, I share a coffee with Claire and Colleen, who have decided to stay another night at Pelion. A regular bush-walking duo, I had admired their camping style at Waterfall Valley, including a brandy flask. 

When the rain eases I set off, but clouds and wind accompany my gradual climb through 300m and more enchanted forest to Pelion Gap, where side trips to Mount Ossa on one side or Mt Pelion East on the other, are on offer. Wind and rain intensify as I reach the top of the pass, and clouds obscure all the peaks. I stand in a giant backpack “parking lot”, where eager climbers have left their packs to conquer the heights unburdened.

A Cradle Huts group arrives. Dressed in identical goretex outfits, they have that self-assured upmarket look and keep to themselves. Even their guides seem concerned to avoid contaminating their clients from contact with riff-raff.  A strange parallel universe indeed. Trevor and John arrive, and a woman in the luxury party recognises John, to their mutual surprise. Both are lawyers, and have a surprising conversation about Caribbean tax havens or some such.

After climbing 500m up Mount Ossa in the cold and wet to see nothing but passing cloud, I decide instead to continue to Kia Ora Hut down the other side of the pass. It proves to be an easy walk and total distance of 11 kms from Pelion Hut is achieved by mid afternoon, with weather easing.

Kia Ora Hut is welcoming by name and by nature, smaller and older than Pelion, with one big cosy bunk/living room for roughly 15 walkers. From the small veranda, I watch as the summit conquerors arrive, unanimously telling the same tale of nil visibility from the peaks, but strangely many are still satisfied by their achievements.

Early next morning, with a cloudless sky dawning, I decide to dash back to the Gap for the Mount Ossa ascent, with only some snacks and jumper for ballast. I manage to semi-jog along the track, and end up among the few early climbers. But real effort is required to pull myself up boulder-strewn slopes and rocky walls, passing mini lakes and rich green button grasses. By the top I’m knackered, but the 360 degree view from Tassie’s highest peak is breath-taking, with all the surrounding peaks arrayed, including Cradle Mountain in the distance. 

On the peak, a crowd of exhausted climbers builds up, including John from the Tassie quartet, who cuts a dashing six foot plus figure with his shorts worn over grey striped undies!  Funny how bush walking is an excuse for wearing outrageous thermal tights, beanies and other strange gear. 

Heading down, I pass suffering climbers going up, and reach Kia Ora for afternoon tea on the veranda again. Other Tassie quartet members are already there, having bypassed Mt Ossa. Sue has unexpectedly developed crippling foot blisters despite her old familiar boots, and thinks that her heavier than normal pack load has stressed her feet on a long walk. Her hardy partner Gavin will return to Cradle Mountain to pick up the car, drive it to Lake St Clair and then walk in to help her on the final leg – what a champion!  Willi is a good source of first aid advice and diligently bandages Sue’s feet.

Soon it’s like old home week. John and Trevor arrive, having done both Ossa and East Pelion mountains, which impresses me as they are both in their late fifties. John, a retired country doctor, has explored the wild rivers of Kirghizstan in Central Asia by kayak, and laconically relates hair-raising adventures on the frontier of this former Soviet outpost, over a decade of repeat visits.

Then I notice a female figure reclining in the sun on a tent platform, and next minute another female throws herself on top of her and a long passionate embrace follows. The girl on top eventually looks up, her sparkling gaze meets my furtive one and I smile. She has stunning blue eyes and a cute, impish look, so I am an instant fan. The next day I make their acquaintances down the track. Top girl Christine and her mate are late twenties, inner city Melbourne denizens, and obviously head over heels.

Another evening at Kia Ora passes painlessly when a group of young Ballarat friends produces a bottle of bourbon, which has been lovingly packed in a special carry bag; it serves us well for the impromptu five-hundred championship. 

Next morning I resume solo walking, 200m uphill to Du Cane Gap, and after a short side trip to spectacular Hartnett Falls, check out emergency Du Cane Hut. Its historic display features Paddy Hartnett, who first took paying tourists into the area in the 1920s as an adjunct to his alluvial tin prospecting – horses were the preferred mode of transport then. 

Under a canopy of temperate rainforest I trek 12 kms down to Windy Ridge Hut and stop for lunch. I wave to Christine and friend who are enjoying their personal space down by the stream. Feeling refreshed, I head off downhill to Narcissus Hut, 9 kms away at the top of Lake St Clair. 

A couple of hours walking through lowland eucalypt forest brings me to the Lake’s shore. From here final track options are a 16 kms walk along the lake to Cynthia Bay at the southern end, or a $20 boat ride. My walking days thus are over for this one. The old-style hut is nestled lakeside with distant mountains enclosing this top end of the lake, a perfect last resting place.

The final round up at Narcissus is like a school reunion, with the Tasmanian quartet, the Ballarat gang, Geelong Gordon and another new crew from Windy Ridge the previous night.

Claes from Sweden arrives, after only two days on the track from Cradle Mountain!  A fighter pilot by trade, he modestly describes his amazing escapade: first night stop at Pelion Hut after doing the Barn’s Bluff side trip, and on the second day he knocked off Mt Ossa on the way to Narcissus, averaging 36 kms per day! A lean frame and long legs equipped with paratrooper boots must be aided by a huge heart and iron clad mind control. 

I only just manage to stomach my last instant noodle dish and gratefully accept tasty morsels from others emptying their pack larders. After cheery nightcaps, I easily fall into a final well-earned sleep. 

On the sixth day we all gather on the lake jetty to wait for the ferry. Brooding wetlands against rocky mountains are an apt backdrop for the end of the walk. Mist dissipates as the sun warms the lake surface. Large team photos are taken as we link arms and squeeze together. 

On the half hour boat ride down the lake, we admire glacial-sculpted valleys, rock summits and plateaus all around. However, civilisation quickly re-asserts itself at disembarkation in front of the Cynthia Bay Visitor Centre. Repressed food fantasies are given free rein in the bistro, particularly by the young Ballarat crew, who are soon attacking huge hot breakfasts washed down by large beers. Despite five days of deprivation, I’m not up to that sort of food shock, and join the baby boomer, cholesterol-conscious table with a cappuccino and muffin.

Soon we’re saying our farewells. I share a bus seat with Christine back to Cradle Mountain to pick up our cars, as her partner stays forlornly behind to save on the fare. Their sad parting reminds me that I never did catch up with Sarah, the other object of my affections.  Apparently, her group slowed down with side-trips after Waterfall Valley. 

Ah, the agony and ecstasy of Cradle Mountain dreaming! As in, tell ‘im he’s dreaming’.

3 Comments

  1. I did enjoy your Cradle Mountain ‘love’ story. Could there be a prequel based on the 1973 solo walk in western Nepal on the Pokhara-Jomsom trail? Lois and I travelled rather more sedately with two friends on motorbikes from Kathmandu up into the foothills in 1970.

    1. Thanks Dick, there could indeed be a prequel but not sure my detailed memories would be reliable enough. But then again, with some imagination it could be more historical fiction perhaps?

  2. I too enjoyed your story Peter. A time when we were a lot younger & fitter but no doubt a significant physical challenge, with the rich reward of an enduring memory of the natural beauty of that place, & some interesting personal encounters along the way.

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