Few walks in Australia have a reputation that precedes them in the same way that Frenchmans Cap does. This reputation is not for its inbound hike being a difficult, drawn-out slog, or even for its dramatic views that have inspired generations of walkers. No, this reputation is all about the Lodden Plains, a geographical feature seemingly so mundane that it would hardly warrant a mention. The “Sodden Loddens” may be the best-known section of muddy trail in Tasmania, if not in all of Australia. It was more than twelve years ago that I was first was told of them and only recently that I decided to see what it was all about.
However, the Sodden Loddens are no more. Extensive track work has all but bypassed the mud bath, thanks to a million dollar donation by Dick Smith and a matching half of a million dollar commitment from the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service. The work was predicted to take more than eight years to complete due to the difficult terrain. It may sound like a crazy amount of money to spend on a walking track, but its remote location and poor weather render it all but inaccessible for large equipment. Helicopters are needed to carry in all the required equipment including pallettes of wood for constructing boardwalk sections and a small mechanical digger to move the large amounts of earth and clear trees.
The new section know as Leaghton’s Lead opened up in July 2013, and considering the alternative, is a pleasant stroll. Leaghton’s Lead winds though Nothofagus forest and buttongrass plains while contouring along the side of a small hill, rather than the sodden valley below. The result is a well drained and compacted track. There are some flat sections that are fast becoming muddy, and after a full walking season they will inevitably be notable obstacles. But the comparison between the old and the new sections is, I’m sure, like that between night and day.
I would like to think that the Sodden Loddens would have taken us many more hours and demanded so much more effort than what this new section of track did. But despite the bypass, we completed this section in just over the six hours described in the track notes. This was mainly due to our casual speed, occasional botanising, and mandatory tea stops. The steady rain for much of the day and the steep forested section as we approached the hut at Lake Vera, meant that we arrived at the hut very much tired and wet to the bone regardless.
The summit of Frenchmans Cap – the dominant quartzite peak of the Tasmanian southwest- was a demanding day’s walk from Lake Vera. We had not planned it this way:we had been rained in for a full day at Lake Vera and our trail time was reduced to three days. Spending an entire day in the hut was very comfortable, and it was my partner Jen’s thirtieth birthday after all, so a rest day was more than appropriate. It is a well stocked hut: with playing cards, a dutifully filled in log book which made for good reading and large windows allowing us to take in the surrounds and do some lazy birdwatching.
As the next day dawned, the weather had not improved. At the higher altitudes of the walk, heavy snow had fallen during the night. As we climbed out of the valley, the track changed from a steep climb in humid forest to an open subalpine track exposed to the wind. The sweat that had been trying to cool us was now freezing cold, and the snow covered vegetation overgrowing onto the track dumped snow on us. The leader of our party would brush past an icy branch… and then, as the branch recoiled, wet slushy snow was flung at the next person in the party.
It might be a miserable sounding prospect to some and conditions where less than ideal for walking, but it was undoubtedly some of the most beautiful walking I had ever done. Mist covered towers of quartzite surrounded us and reached far into the sky. Domes of Richea scoparia topped with white snow and burnt out King Billy pines packed with snow on their westward sides lined the track. It was, aside from the mild discomfort of being covered in fast melting, slushy snow and freezing cold wet clothing, simply stunning.
As we ascended the mountain trail, the sight of the Lake Tahune hut just a few metres in front of us was cause for celebration and a hot cup of tea. The party that had stayed in there the previous night had been very cold, and as we stepped inside and changed into some dry clothes the temperature inside was just four degrees. It was still a good deal warmer than outside, and by all comparisons, luxurious.
Our preparations to set off for the summit after this short break were made exciting with the daunting prospect of putting back on the cold wet clothing and frozen shoes. All that was required to warm up our body temperatures was a good fast ascent of a steep hill. Luckily, this is what we had immediately ahead of us.
On the trail high above Lake Tahune, it was possible to see back down to the hut and and then far into the south west. as the clouds lifted and began to break up. Up until this point, we had not seen much of the surrounding landscape, so these brief glimpses inspired us to keep going. Higher on, the track became completely covered in snow and was sometimes coved by deep drifts up to a metre deep.
However, as we climbed so did the clouds. On this very last section of the summit track, we were reminded of everything we had done to earn these views of the landscape: the first day’s walk on the new trail,, a second day of solid rain ,and the third day’s slog up through the forest and snow. All these experiences together gave us a new perspective over the southwest- not only its landscape and weather, but just how unimaginably beautiful it can be.
Snow-capped peaks breaking out of the forest as far as the eye could see drifted in and out of the cloud cover, and shimmered in the occasional spotlight of sunlight breaking though the clouds. The iconic alpine plants of Tasmania, including the pandanus and the tortured snow gums were made even more of a sight by the dusting of snow. All of this was combined with the challenging final climb to the summit, of the perpetually impressive Frenchmans Cap.
We had such luck to have these brief revelations of the world around us that it was almost impossible not to stop and stare in wonder. What more could a bushwalker want from a few days out in the wilderness?
Much more at http://www.stevenpearcephoto.com/blog/
Steven Pearce is a photographer and guide that works between Alice Springs and Tasmania. He’s spent time working as a photographic tutor on Aboriginal communities in the Great Sandy Desert as well as Central Australia. He also runs photographic tours of Central Australia and is hoping to soon start up operations here in Tasmania in 2014. An avid traveller and adventurer, he’s travelled to Iceland, Alaska and Greenland for extended journeys into the wilderness and is currently planning to cross the Greenland ice cap in 2015.
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