Trekking in Tasmania? Oh, You Devil.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
We hadn't meant to court danger that day. But here we were, staring straight over a Tasmanian cliff at a lake 200 feet below and wondering how to get there on a trail that seemed headed into thin air.
Five hours of rock scrambling had left our quadriceps aquiver, and we were beginning to worry about sunset. So my husband and I did what we had to: We scooted down on our fannies, grabbing at roots and rocks to slow our descent. Eventually vertical became horizontal, and we were headed toward dinner, a warm fire, a bottle of Syrah.
In a part of the Southern Hemisphere best known for serious multi-day walks along famous "tracks" such as Milford and Routeburn in New Zealand and Overland in Tasmania, we chose something a bit less complicated. Call it "trekking lite" -- long, challenging day hikes from a comfortable home base that is not a tent.
And there is no better place to try it than rugged little Tasmania, Australia's island state. Scenic, unspoiled and manageable, "Tassie" boasts 19 national parks, all of them crisscrossed with thousands of miles of trails ranging from daredevil to desultory.
The advantage of trekking lite -- as opposed to planning, often months in advance, lengthy outings requiring permits and guides or camping expertise -- is simplicity. An added advantage is affordability. For our visits to two of Tasmania's best-known parks, Cradle Mountain/Lake St. Clair in the interior and Freycinet on the east coast, we spent less than $1,000 over the five days we were able to snatch from a business trip down under. We overnighted in self-catering cottages in both places and ate out a couple of evenings, but otherwise made simple fare in our own little cabin kitchens. The cost included our $50 parks pass and a rental car ($300, plus gas).
To trek comfortably in these parts, as part of a group accompanied by an outfitter with access to private lodges along the trail and meals, can cost upward of $300 per day per person. And reservations are best made about six months ahead.
We'd done most of the planning for our trip, which gave us three full days of hiking, on the spur of the moment -- in an afternoon on the Web.
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So what to expect if you decide to taste the Tasmanian outdoors? Expect encouragement. Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service wants people out of their cars and into their hiking boots. At Cradle Mountain, the park service even provides free shuttle buses every 10 minutes from a large parking lot outside the gates to most major trail heads. And if demanding isn't your preferred brand of ramble, there are miles of gentle boardwalks stretched over low-lying bogs. Some are stroller- and wheelchair-friendly.
Expect weather -- lots of it, including rain and cold, even in summer. Heard of the Roaring 40s? Tasmania sits astride those latitudes. The westerly wind howling across the Tasmanian mountains last saw land at Tierra del Fuego. And it can bring a sharp change in less time than it takes to locate a fuzzy in the bottom of a day pack. A walk through the Tasmanian mountains may require everything from T-shirts to turtlenecks, and all in the same day.
Central Tasmania is but 1,900 miles north of the Antarctic Circle, about the distance between Washington and El Paso. Sensible hikers carry extra gear, and signs warn of sudden thermal changes on every trail.
If you choose to be a trekker lite, don't be intimidated by the trekking heavies. At our bed-and-breakfast in Hobart, Tasmania's capital, we were gently teased by a fellow guest, who called us "wussies." An Australian, she was off to do the Overland Track with an outfitter. Later, about the time I was staring over that cliff, I figured she was settling down to afternoon tea, served by her guide. Seemed like I had the tougher deal.