Category Archives: mountains
Could This Be the Most Unexpected Landscape in Australia? Hiking The Tarn Shelf Circuit in Mount Field National Park, Tasmania
Can you imagine the feeling of every cell in your body waking up out of a sleepy state? Of a bubble of awe and appreciation for all around you building in your body, rising up through your feet right to the top of your head with each and every step that you take? Of a great, great sense of peace and contentment?
This was how it started.
With light feet D-man and I descended down and across the tarn shelf and through a green, rocky landscape dotted with clear water mountaintop lakes. It was still early morning and other than another hiker who had taken the turn off for the extended trek to K Col, we hadn’t seen a soul. This world – a place so different to the expected, stereotypical scenes one has come to expect of Australia – was ours for the enjoying. Mount Field National Park was showing itself to be a place full of visual surprises.
The air was crisp and drinkable yet the sun packed some punch, even at this time of the day. We juggled layers, sunhats, woolen hats. Finding the right balance was an impossible act.
The stretch before Lake Newdegate is scattered with naked snow gums, a scene from a fairytale or a fantasy film, spikes of ghostly pale sticking out at all angles against a green brown scrubland.
We shared our lunch space with another solo walker. He perched himself outside the hut while D-man and I sat of the boardwalk at the edge of the lake, looking out over the water and those spikes of ghostly pale, and observing wisps of low hanging mist.
By the time we arrived at our next stop of the Twilight Tarn hut, we had made our way from a somewhat mystical landscape, past the Twisted Tarn and on into the eerie. Preserved in a state of sepia were old battered boots and wooden skis, creaky floorboards and ageing photos. Onwards.
A small black snake stopped me in my tracks – my first encounter since I arrived in Australia nearly two years ago. Dragonflies danced in front of our faces before landing on the edge of puddles and pools of crystal clear water that glistened in the sunshine. We, humans, felt the indelicacy and invasiveness of our increasingly heavy footfall. There was still some way to go.
And the way to go was downhill over a loosely defined path of rocks, heavy on the knees and demanding of concentration. Surrounded by spindly trees and moving away from the higher alpine wonder of the tarn shelf and surrounding areas, my focus shifted to the finish line.
Barely glancing Lake Webster through the trees, we pushed on along boardwalks and a straighter pathway, across marshy spots and into dryer, enclosed bush land through which a good slither of blue sky could still be seen.
As we drove back down to the main entrance and visitor centre of Mt Field National Park some six hours after we first strapped into our walking shoes that morning, I observed how the imagined cliffs of last night’s drive up were in fact fairly, well, imagined. Mind at rest and body tired from a thorough trek, tonight’s sleep, I realised, could only match that of the night before. Bring it on.
The Tarn Shelf Circuit walk via Lake Newdegate/Twilight Tarn and Lake Webster is approximately 12km of mixed terrain. In places it is very exposed and at times it can be challenging. It took us 6 hours to complete the circuit, which factored in three stops plus regular pauses to take photographs.
- Discovering the Most Stunning Scenery on the Tarn Shelf Circuit (travelola.org)
- Eucalyptus pauciflora – Snow Gum, White Salee (anbg.gov.au)
Discovering the Most Stunning Scenery on the Tarn Shelf Circuit in Mount Field National Park, Tasmania
I must have slept well. Having completed a drive up to Lake Dobson long after sunset that had me gripping the passenger seat with fear of what appeared to be precarious cliff drops off narrow dirt tracks, the relief of arriving must have taken hold, and – together with recent memories of glow worm magic – my body and mind shut down the moment that my head hit the pillow.
Because now I was wide awake, the sun was burning through the last of the dawn haze and I was ready to stretch my legs. It had been too long since my last proper trek. Surely it wasn’t way back in in 2012 during a stint travelling in South America? I love trekking. What happened?
Laced up in hiking shoes and carrying a backpack stuffed full of water and snacks, D-man and me stepped out into a brisk day full of early morning light and signed in at the check hut at the southern side of Lake Dobson before skirting clockwise around the water and onwards along an easy path through a forest full of pandanis.
And then started the upward hike. ‘Best to get this climb out of the way at the start of the day,’ I said, but by the time we reached the huts and sagging lifts of the Mt Field ski village we had to stop for the first break of the day, legs burning. I took off a layer, one of many. Be prepared for all weather eventualities on these hikes, I’d been told.
The next stretch was easier; flats and gentle inclines along solidly built boardwalks. This was a place to make up some time and to take in views down over a craggy landscape, Lake Seal and the Tarn Shelf.
We reached some signposts and the first decision of our day: the option to branch off to K Col and the Mt Field West area, a highly recommended extra 6km scramble. It tempted me momentarily, but we stuck to the plan. Months (and months) without a decent full day hike might not put us in the best state of fitness for a 18km walk. No, stick to the plan.
It was possibly the best decision we made that day.
- Mt Field National Park Activities (parks.tas.com.au)
- Di’s Walk a Month: Tarn Shelf, Mt Field (blogspot.com.au)
- Photo Essay: Tarn Shelf Circuit (bushwalkingblog.com.au)
- Bushwalking: Tarn Shelf Circuit, Mt Field National Park (walkweb.net)
I had been warned: it will be cold. Wanting to keep my luggage to a minimum I partially ignored the warnings. February in Australia, the end of summer, would surely still feel like summer, at least a little bit, right?
But this wasn’t just anywhere in Australia, this was Tasmania, located over 2,000km south of my departing airport in the Gold Coast and 42° south of the equator (only a 9° difference in distance that my home country, England, sits north of the equator). Surely, then, I could expect some chills?
I wasn’t totally naïve. Tasmania is rumored to be a little unpredictable and so I had dug out some woolens, base layers and trek socks and shoved them into a little carry-on suitcase. Wearing closed shoes and jeans for the first time in months, I felt well enough equipped. What more would I need?
D-man and I arrived into Tasmania with a bumpy landing and rainy downpour. Our weeklong holiday looked threatened by grey cover and a pessimistic weather forecast but we were undeterred, filled with excitement for wilderness treks and time together.
Except it wasn’t looking good, at all. ‘You’ve arrived to the worst weather in a long time,’ said my friend Becky as we looked at the incoming storm on the charts, predicted to hang around for most of our time in Tasmania.
Becky’s partner, Hugo, mapped out options for our week that might match the weather movements. A trip to Bruny Island didn’t look like the go as the storm was heading straight for that section of coastline, and the near on plague of mosquitos on the south coast ruled that out as an option. Cradle Mountain was predicted to be swathed in a layer of clouds with the additional threat of hail storms, and the west coast looked as though it wouldn’t be any better weatherwise than the east coast, often cited as a safe option when all else was rained out.
Really, though, Hugo’s advice was simple: follow the weather. Head wherever makes sense on any given day. Over planning? Bleurgh. Unrealistic.
Realising we were ill equipped, he proceeded to dig out everything we might possibly need for a week camping out and about in Tasmania: stoves and five season sleeping bags, head torches and fishing gear and surfboards, double layered hats and down filled jackets. Oh, those last editions were the most welcome of the lot.
And so we left Hugo and Becky behind in Hobart and headed inland for Mt Field National Park to get our first taste of the highlands, fresh air and vastly fluctuating temperatures of Tasmania.
And believe me, Australia really does get cold. Oh yeah.
Having picked up some maps at the tourist information by the docks, planned a few desired stop-offs and hired a car for the day, we were ready to drive the coast road that wraps around Tahiti Nui and smaller Tahiti to the south-east. The constructed concrete and development of Papeete slowly faded into the background as we sped south down the smooth roads of the west side of the island into a scene framed by thick, dark green trees and mountains that raised up from the roadside.
Our first stop was at Grotte de Maraa caves barely 30km south of Papeete, a public garden bursting with every tone of lush green imaginable, despite being but a machete strike away from the main road. The detail of fanned leaves, the variation in plant patterns and the odd splash of water and other colour created a world in which I wanted nothing more than to walk alone and once again get lost in the thicket of nature whilst Joel and Matt headed up into the jungle, following an overgrown path.
The caves themselves gave cover to pools of water on which lilies clustered, some white petals on display. To the side of the main cave was a sign hidden behind foliage that stated No lifeguard on duty, surely a joke of sorts. Matt went for a paddle and the water barely reached his knees (although apparently further into the belly of the cave it drops away).
Back behind the wheel and we drove on down to Teahupo’o on Tahiti Iti, Tahit Nui’s little sister joined to the main bulk of the island by a slim stretch of land over which passed two roads. A few young teens body boarded on little waves on the edge of the village whilst the infamous Teahupo’o break smashed about a couple of kilometres out to sea. We walked by empty houses and quiet air, accompanied by a stray dog.
On the way back up north we decided to head to the Taravao Plateau, stopping first at a little spot off the beaten track by a river where we dunked in cool waters and got nibbled by creatures in a murky river bed. At least I did. Joel and Matt, my crew mates from the Pacific crossing, swam against the river flow, then let themselves get carried for a little while. I guess it had been a long time at sea without exercise.
The viewpoint of Taravao Plateau itself took us out of the jungly lowlands, high enough to get a wide look over both parts of the island. A little hut shaded us and the gentle yet constant trickle of tourists who pulled in for a quick glance. Beer tops, a few empty bottles and a smattering of graffiti hinted at a place that went beyond that of a lookout. This place saw it all. Or some variation, at least.
Our last stop-off was driven by the need to get to the water’s edge once again. Whilst the west coast beaches seemed unreachable and – where visible – chunked up with rocky entries, the east coast offered up a good dose of sandy beaches. Finding an unmarked place to pull in, the boys were quick to the water whilst I lay down, full stretch, and the warmth of the sand against the length of my body made me sleepy.
I dozed through all the fun – the body surfing, the local kids playing up to the Go-Pro camera, the refreshing splashing around – and roused only for the homeward stretch, a half hour drive with a red dusk sky backdrop
And we were back. In Papeete, at the pontoon, within the rock of the boat. Home.
‘What are you up to tomorrow?’ asked a friend during a Skype call. ‘Ah, I think I’m going to go and climb a volcano’, I told him, ‘an active volcano’. The island of Isabela is, after all, made up of six volcanoes (five of which are active) and to visit the Galapagos and not take in some volcanic splendour would surely be a half-hearted effort. As with many activities on the islands, local laws require you to be accompanied by a guide so doing it totally off my own back wasn’t going to be an option. I booked in for the $35 tour.
Tomorrow had arrived and here I was with a group of unknowns sheltering from the damp air, drizzle and grey skies, waiting to start the great ascent to Volcán Sierra Negra, one of the largest active volcanos in the world. But with this turn of bad weather and such poor visibility, would the trek go ahead?
It hadn’t started like this. Oh no.
Less than an hour earlier I had ran through sun soaked streets and arrived, in a sweat and seven minutes late, to an empty Tropical Adventures shop. No cars were waiting. No tour guides around to tell me off. They had left without me. Oh, crap.
I started to walk back towards the main square in search of breakfast. A jeep drove by, five, maybe six people crammed inside. Someone waved. Was that one of the guys from yesterday’s Los Tuneles tour? Another car beeped and pulled up alongside me. “Quick! Get in! You’re late!”
No rucksack, no breakfast and late. It was shameful. I made my apologies. People were gracious, on the surface at least, but maybe their tolerance was tested when half an hour later we were still driving through the streets of Puerto Vilamil doing random pick-ups and drop-offs and who-knows-whats.
And so, having driven north east from Puerto Vilamil upwards into an increasingly hostile weather front, here I was standing snuggled in with a bunch of about twenty strangers, and all those efforts to get here seemed to be in vain. It was surely a no go. This weather encouraged thoughts of duvet days and movie sessions, of chatting and playing music by the fireplace with friends.
Stop. Doubt not. This weather was, apparently, totally normal. ‘English speaking with me’, said our young guide who later told me how much he loved doing this job in between surfing the islands various breaks. The variety in landscape and climate, he told me, made Galapagos the best place to live.
And what about city fun? Wild, chaotic moments? Didn’t he crave a bit of breaking loose at times? ‘The mainland’, he said, ‘sometimes’. I found out from a few people that Guayaquil and Quito (on the mainland of Ecuador) offer them an escape at times, but do nothing in trying to tempt them away from the tranquillity of the Galapagos Islands.
For an hour we climbed along muddy, cracked pathways. The drive up must have dealt with a good chunk of the 1,124m altitude because the physical climb was the gentlest I could have imagined. As we ambled along, I chatted with French tourists and a young German couple, with an Argentinian wanderer and a chatty entrepreneur who had left his entire family and cultural sensibilities behind in India for a new life in Australia. As travelling often allows, I saw way beyond what was right in front of me, leant more about the world in a broader sense.
At the main lookout I realised my expectations of what a volcano might look like were limited to glossy photos in magazines that showed spewing lava flow and an excess of red and orange hues tipped with flashes of bright white heat.
This expanse of flat, cracked blackness that stretched off into the far distance was strikingly different to the volcano images in my mind. The drop off into the crater, although steep, was not as dramatic or as deep as I might have imagined, and swaths of clouds were swept along the surface by a moody breeze.
It was, undoubtedly, a unique landscape, all 10 kilometres of parched rockiness. We stood for a little while and looked out over this section of Sierra Negra. As recently as 2005 she had belched up a load of lava, and before that, 1979. There was a good chance that she might erupt again, right now. A sign stated ‘since the magma chambers are approximately two kilometres deep, there are cracks where every so often the fumes vent or lava erupts’. It could happen.
Onwards we walked, skirting along the eastern side of Sierra Negra, our grassy path contrasting with the bleak gravel of her belly spread out below us. The landscape started to change. More rocks, more slip, more hostility.
Those in the group who didn’t have boats to catch back to Santa Cruz continued on over shale and scatter towards Volcán Chico whilst the rest of us turned around and backtracked through ferns and hairy trees, walking and talking and stopping for a quick picnic lunch. Within two hours we were back at a still drizzly starting point, ready to descend back down to Puerto Vilamil.
One of the most active places for volcanic activity? Pah. Really? It all seemed very gentle and relaxed, dreamy even. Today, in any case.