From Cradle to Rave

Back when I was planning my Tasmania trip, my original focus was on hiking: doing the fabled Overland Track, maybe the mysterious and undeveloped Tarkine Wilderness, slogging through sand on the allegedly epic Bay of Fires trail…

Yeah, well, so much for that.

Tessellated Pavement day walk (really a minute walk) on the Tasman Peninsula, en route to Port Arthur. One of the few walks I did manage to do.

In the end, I did a lot of short walks, and a couple day hikes, but nothing on the scale of what I’d planned. The relentlessly rainy weather was partly to blame, but I was also dealing with an unforeseen health issue that put a damper on things. At the time, I thought I was just being a slacker and lazy, and unused to hiking after 14 months of limited movement in Antarctica. Turns out, according to a blood test I had done shortly after leaving Australia, that I’m severely anemic. Like, ridiculously so. The average hemoglobin levels are 16-45 and mine, at the time of the test, were sitting not-so-pretty at three.

My doctor prescribed iron tablets and also a change in diet.  Or, as she put it: “Google ‘iron-rich foods’ and eat them.” So now I’m on a meal plan that involves a lot of red meat, after years of swearing it off, and frequent indulgences in two of my secret loves: Braunschweiger and Guinness. Don’t judge.

I also eat my weight in spinach most days.

Of course, in hindsight it makes sense that I often found myself utterly wiped out on the trail. At the time, however, all I knew was that I was seriously wimping out, at least in my opinion. What can I say, I am my own worst enemy.

So, when I got to the famous Cradle Mountain end of the famous Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, all full of famous trails, I was dreading putting on my boots. It hailed heavily, with a persistent thick fog, the first two days I was there, so I used lousy weather as my excuse. On the third day, however, with skies overcast but generally calm, I knew I had to either hit the trail or head elsewhere, as I had limited time.

First glimpse of Cradle Mountain, arguably Tasmania's most famous piece of natural real estate, from the Dove Lake carpark.

I wimped out on my initial plan to climb into the mountains and settled instead for the Dove Lake circuit, a graded loop of about four miles around the lake at the base of Cradle Mountain. It was an easy walk, which meant, of course, that there were way too many people on the trail for my liking and most of them were tourists, not hikers…

Okay, wait. I realize how obnoxious and elitist I sound. I want to make it clear that I am not against tourists in general–I am one myself, often enough. I just despise that particular sort of tourist who seems completely unaware of/indifferent to his or her surroundings. The kinds of tourists who litter because they can’t be bothered to find the trash can. The kinds of tourists who feed the wildlife trying to get a “funny” picture or take “souvenirs” in the form of broken-off stalactites or go tramping off the trail disregarding “fragile habitat please keep to path” signs. The kinds of tourists who talk, loudly, the entire time a guide is giving his spiel. The kinds of tourists who block the path walking four abreast, yammering on so loudly about the most inane things to each other that they don’t even hear a faster walker behind them saying, repeatedly, “coming up on your right, excuse me. EXCUSE ME.”

Whew. Okay. Got that out of my system.

Another shot of Cradle Mountain with Dove Lake in foreground. Note the tannin-rich water. All it needs is a slice of lemon and it could pass for a nice Orange Pekoe.

Anyway, yes, Dove Lake had too many ugly tourists to suit me. And, while the environs were pretty, they weren’t as jaw-droppingly breath-taking as I’d been lead to believe.

Moody, broody shot of Cradle Mountain from its base at south end of Dove Lake.

The Dove Lake circuit is listed as “Level 2 with a moderate hill,” by the way, but I would say it was a super-easy walk, even for someone with the red blood cell count of a vampire victim. The hill was a bump and about 90 percent of the trail was flat gravel or boardwalk.

My favorite shot of Cradle Mountain, with the old boathouse in the foreground. If you're thinking "hey, these shots all kinda look alike," well, yeah. And interestingly, despite people touting all the trails in the area, almost all the photos I've seen online and in tourism promotions feature this view. So I don't feel like I missed much.

The next day, with the skies opened up again in a great gray deluge, I decided to skip a few other lowland walks I’d been considering and instead head east to the Walls of Jerusalem National Park.

The Walls are much less visited than Cradle Mountain. The access point–a trailhead leading into the rainforested mountains from a tiny gravel carpark about 25 miles from civilization–means it’s impossible for big tour buses to get there. The fact that the carpark is so remote and then you have to hike a few miles up a steep trail just to reach the park makes it unattractive to, you know, a certain sort of tourist. And, as the National Parks site puts it, “there are no facilities for casual visitors.”

Hells yeah.

The first day I tried to go to the Walls, it was pouring rain and I was feeling under the weather in more ways than one. So I went to Trowunna Wildlife Park and got to cuddle a wombat, which was exactly what I needed. The next morning dawned clear with a brilliant blue sky, the finest day I’d seen in Tasmania, with temps in the 60sF–perfect hiking weather.

I drove out to the carpark and, well, I nearly didn’t get out of my car. I was very sick, the sickest I’d been since my mysterious malaise had taken hold. (Of course, again, at the time I chided myself for being such a wuss.) I tell you this not for sympathy, but because it explains why, when I finally talked myself into standing up and wobble-stepping toward the trail, every step feeling like Jacob Marley dragging his chains through the netherworld*, and after I slowly lumbered up the side of one mountain, through a bog and over rocks up the side of another mountain, through a pass and finally into the Walls of Jerusalem themselves, it was, well, kind of a religious experience.

The hike up to the Walls begins steeply through dense forest, finally opening up (and flattening out a bit) on a tarn-studded plateau from which I was able to see the Cradle Mountain area on the horizon.

[*I have a great fondness for Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s dead colleague in A Christmas Carol. I played him in my high school’s adaptation of the play (hey, when you’re the tallest in your class at an all-girl school, you’re going to get guy parts in all the drama shows. That’s just how it is.) and, to this day, when I’m stressed or believe that I’m being a wuss, I often mutter to myself “Oh captive, bound and double-ironed not to know, not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere would find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one’s life opportunity missed. Yet such was I. Such was I.” This has occasionally led to troubled looks from people on the trail/treadmill/hostel lounge chair beside me.]

The tarns known collectively as Solomon's Jewels. I was struck by the perfect isoceles triangle of a rock in the middle of one tarn. Does it not scream "This is the rock Indiana Jones is supposed to swim out to and turn to open the secret door to the massive underground chamber where Solomon's jewels really are hidden"... or is it just me?

The hike from the carpark to Herod’s Gate, the pass which opens up to the Walls themselves, is probably about four miles. But the change in altitude is fairly substantial for a day walk, starting out at about 2,300 feet and ending around 4,200 feet. It’s particularly steep at the beginning, with an altitude gain of about 1,800 feet in the first two miles.

Approach to Herod's Gate, a pass beside the looming West Wall (on right) that leads up to a glorious plateau

After the initial steep ascent, the trail flattens more or less over rocks and boardwalked stretches crossing a broad fell full of tarns, including a group known as Solomon’s Jewels (because, back in the 19th century when these things were getting named by Europeans, no feature was too small to have a Biblical name).

Just a corner of the plateau beyond Herod's Gate, with Lake Salome at center.

The fell ends abruptly at the base of another steep but much shorter climb up to Herod’s Gate, with the monstrous West Wall looming up to the, er, west.

Looking back, from the plateau, past Herod's Gate. Cradle Mountain is on the far horizon.

Once up and through Herod’s Gate, the trail arrives at another plateau and becomes mostly flat again, and mostly boardwalked to protect cushion plants and other fragile alpine flora. I didn’t mind the boardwalking because I know how slow the plants up in alpine environments grow–one bootprint can destroy decades of growth–but also because it would have been a hard slog through boggier bits where I suspect the black water would have been waist-high at least.

Boardwalked way over deep black water bog and gorgeous cushion plants

The plateau beyond Herod’s Gate is ringed by dolerite cliffs with names such as King David’s Peak and Solomon’s Throne, The Temple and Damascus Gate. I walked around for about an hour, climbing up through the Damascus Gate pass and into Dixon’s Kingdom, a dense alpine forest that has been called “magical” by several people I’d met. Eh. It was pretty and all, but I love me some big, intimidating, treeless cliffs.

Mmm, big, barren, rocky cliffs. Sexy. Solomon's Throne.

It was the first time since leaving Antarctica a month earlier that I had that intense, humbling, awed sense of being overwhelmed by the natural beauty and splendor of a landscape. As far as I’m concerned, the Walls of Jerusalem were a thousand times more visit-worthy than Cradle Mountain.

The Temple, on the plateau. I guess you could also call it the Temple on the Mount, hahahahhaa

I did, in case you’re wondering, encounter Others. You know, other humans. Blech. Mostly it was a couple here and there along the trail, but in Dixon’s Kingdom I ran into, almost literally, one of those obnoxious guided hiking tours, where 25 people walking in a line with their fancy gear and gaiters and matchy-matchy packs and Camelbaks and poles and high-end waterproofs come barreling around an outcrop like they own the place, and when you say “Hi” only a couple say “Hi” back, most of them just looking at you as if to say “How dare you occupy this trail? Can’t you see I’m hiking! I paid good money to walk this trail and have someone else pitch my tent and cook my food and I’ll be damned if I’ll be slowed down one moment by some big-booty chubbette who is not even wearing gaiters!”

Okay. Again, just needed to get that out of my system.

The Walls. Love 'em. And yes, for those of you who have read my novel "The War's End," the voices in my head were so totally at home here. (For those of you who haven't read it yet, look for it soon in eBook format).

Anyway…

There came a time when I knew I had to turn back. The deal I’d made with myself, you see, was that if I got out of the car and onto the trail and stopped whining already, I would do the walk as a day hike and leave my pack, with my tent and food and sleeping bag, etc., etc., behind. It meant I traveled several pounds lighter, but it also meant that I had to get down off the mountain before nightfall.

The view returning to the carpark. That enormous mountain on the horizon is Mt. Ossa, the highest point in Tasmania. But I doubt it's the prettiest.

I got back to my car just as twilight fell, having completed roughly 13 miles of moderately challenging trail. I slept like the dead and the next morning awoke to fog and rain. But what a fantastic place. If I ever return to Tasmania, I would spend all my time at the Walls because it really was such a special place and…

Uhm. Wait a minute.

Another view of Solomon's Jewels

No. No, the Walls were horrible! Awful! Boring! Don’t go! And tell everyone you know not to go!

How about one more tarn?

Leave it all for me.

Walls of Jerusalem--I'm lichen it.

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