Last March I visited Tasmania, a long-awaited voyage to the home of my favorite childhood animal, the thylacine. Since the trip occurred before I rebooted this blog, I didn’t post about it in real-time. This month I’ll take you on an anniversary tour, posting a highlight from my ecological adventure every Sunday. Catch up on Parts I and II, and hit that follow button so you don’t miss a moment!
ALL VISITORS MUST TURN HERE.
The massive sign funneled me back around the massive visitor’s center at Cradle Mountain National Park, and I cursed in frustration. Today’s weather promised a single perfect day before a week of rain. We had one chance to tackle Tasmania’s iconic summit, but we couldn’t even get out of the carpark.
“Maybe we’re just supposed to take the bus,” said my Laddie, surveying the vast lot equipped with its own gas pumps.
“Forget it! The park website says we’re allowed to drive personal vehicles into the park before eight a.m. Why do you think we got up so early? I don’t want to hike in a gaggle with everyone else.” I indicated the day trippers hurrying to queue for the first shuttle, colorful jackets ablaze in the grey dawn. Determined to be several miles down the trail before they even got on board, I ventured past the bumptious sign to the gate. Posted hours confirmed my interpretation of the transit policy, and the stile lifted. A winding one-lane road delivered us to Ronny Creek carpark. Ethereal morning mist clung to the ground, transforming the terrain into spectral silhouettes. It was scenery Tolkien might’ve dreamed up after a few margueritas on a Mexican beach: brooding mountains, surrounded by spiky succulent-like plants.
Barely a mile down the Overland Track, I had to pee ferociously. There had been no toilets at the carpark, and the map didn’t indicate any facilities along the way. Might as well do the necessary thing now, before shuttles flooded the trails with families. “I’ll catch up,” I told my Laddie, and ducked into the shrubbery.
When I caught up with him over the ridge, he did an abrupt about-face. “Don’t look,” he said, biting back a smile.
“Sorry!” someone called ahead. Another couple stood beside the trail, the man standing guard while the woman hastily did up her pants.
“Do you need a minute?” I asked.
“That’s all right. I thought since there was no one on the trail, I’d take the opportunity…”
“Oh, I’m not judging—I just did the exact same thing,” I told her cheerfully. All four of us laughed. Caught between stone and sky, social sanctimony evaporates like dew. How can one feel embarrassed about answering nature’s call on a boardwalk paved with wombat dung? The signature square pellets were so pervasive that some waggish wanderer had scratched out the final letter of every sign for Wombat Pool, directed visitors to “Wombat Poo.”
Cheeky signage couldn’t diminish the landscape’s majesty. Crater Lake shone the same unearthly blue as the identically named body in Oregon, reflecting the cliffs behind it. Past Marion’s Lookout, the trail crossed open alpine terrain studded with tarns, like sapphires strewn across carmine velvet. Geology dominated the skyline, from the rectangular Barns Bluff to the jagged double peak of Cradle Mountain. As we began our ascent, I realized it wouldn’t be like the rounded summits of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian ranges I’d conquered back home. It wasn’t even hiking. It was rock climbing, straight vertical in places. Boulder by crevasse, we hauled ourselves higher. As if to illustrate the perils, an older couple and their young adult daughter passed us on their way back. Blood trickled down the man’s shin. We exchanged a few remarks about tricky spots on the route and continued.
A gash seemed the least injury we should expect as the traverse grew more challenging. Slender white pipes jammed in the rocks provided the only direction through an obstacle course. In all my high-elevation adventures, this was the first mountain that gave me moments of true fright. My cap visor blocked my upper vision, and I banged my skull on an overhang; my backpack caught in a few narrow places and threatened my balance. I paused at a particularly treacherous spot for a few deep breaths.
“You got yourself up this mountain, girl,” I growled softly. “So you can damn well get yourself down again.”
I focused on one move at a time. Grab here. Step there. Climb. My world contracted to the grey rock in front of me. I hauled myself over a ledge, and sunlight kissed my cheek. The eastern side of the slope dropped away. Clouds skidded over the landscape far below. My Laddie welcomed me with the silent offering of a protein bar. Perched on a large rock, we basked for a moment in warmth and peanut butter before beginning the arduous return. Being able to see the route ahead made navigation a bit easier, but we also had to contend with other hikers on their ascent.
“Did you see Tony Abbott?” one of the women asked, breathless from either the exertion or the brush with celebrity. “We saw him on the way down with his wife and daughter—I was so busy watching my step, I didn’t even recognize him! I suppose you could be anyone up here.”
“Yeah, you’ll never guess who I am,” said my Laddie cheekily.
“He’s my body guard—I’m that famous,” I quipped, skidding down a boulder. “And after this, he’s fired!”
Chuckles accompanied us downhill. At last the monoliths eroded into scree, the slope flattened to a walkable grade, and we tagged the trail marker where we’d begun.
“That was…a challenge,” I pronounced. “One I’m not sure I ever need to do again.”
My Laddie nodded. “I think what I’m going to remember most about that hike isn’t the terrain. It’s the interaction with people.” I goggled at my introvert, and he went on. “There’s a camaraderie that puts everyone on the same level. I mean, we can talk to a former prime minister and not even notice—he’s just another guy with a cut on his leg.”
Much as Apsley Gorge had humbled me before nature, Cradle Mountain had humbled us humans before one another. Self-focused social media trends distort our perspective of our footprints in the world, like how our upturned boots mimicked the distant peak as we sprawled on Dove Lake’s white-pebbled shore. But set those shoes on rugged ground, and they’re the same size as everyone else’s. The indifferent earth renders us pissing, bleeding, sweating, laughing equals…and perhaps better co-travelers despite a difficult path.