The Eldon Range – Magnet for the Slightly Deranged

Tasmania’s Eldon Range seems to be a magnet for the slightly deranged: from the salted-meat chomping, tweed-wearing pioneers of old to the obsessive peak baggers and scrub warriors of today.

Between the three of us, I think we just managed to scrape together the requisite amount of madness and masochistic tendency to justify a trip.

Situated deep in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, and visible from parts of the famous Overland Track, this sprawling dolerite range is remote: Ten days of nasty off-track walking remote. At its centre is Eldon Bluff, a colossal nugget of rock whose 1000 meter long, 300 meter high vertical face deserves the kind of wilderness-calendar saturation that the (relatively) piddly Cradle Mountain enjoys.

When we informed one of the park rangers of our trip, her response was “Ohh, where’s that?” The range’s isolation and general bigness means there are number of possible approaches, none of which are particularly easy. We chose the “traditional” traverse, which starts from the boat-accessed northern end of Lake Burbury and heads east 70 km to Lake St Clair, where we envisaged stumbling dramatically out of the scrub in front of a group of unsuspecting Overlanders.

The adventure began before we had even Velcroed of gaiters on. Getting to the start of the route involved a 5am wake-up, a dubious take-away breakfast, a specially charted minibus from Lake St Claireto Lake Burbury and a bouncy ride in an aged dingy helmed by an equally aged fisherman who can be described, fairly uncontroversially, as a “character”. Our ferryman dropped us and our obscenely heavy packs on the far side of Lake Burbury – two days walk from the road – and motored off into the distance.

We set off, heavily-laden but sprightly, buoyed by Jared’s insistence that the first day would be “a cruisey three hours.” Eight and a half hours of sloppy navigation later, we waded out of the Eldon River into a beautiful rainforest campsite. Dinner was eaten out on the shingled rocks.

The destination for day two was Eldon Peak: 3 km east of us and nearly 1.2 km above us. The morning’s other daunting statistics included: the dry weight of my pack (24kg), the number of litres of water I needed to carry (3) and the number of scrub free routes to the summit (0). Upwards was the main motif of the day, at first through open rainforest, then tighter stuff, then proper, bona-fide scrub (ex-Army Mark offered to lead – we graciously allowed him to) and finally boulders to the summit.

The route ahead was worrying. The main ridge connecting Eldon Peak to Eldon Bluff could be accurately described as a spine, assuming of course, that the owner of said spine had kyphosis and a severe case of disc herniation. It did not look like fun.

We pitched tents on ledge just below the summit and did some serious, 270 degree-view-aided relaxing for the rest of the afternoon.

We got up early on day three, packed up and pushed on. The dolerite mayhem began. Car-sized boulders jutted phallically in all directions, leaving big person-swallowing, leg-breaking, skin-scraping holes between them. A fairly uniform pattern emerged: When the boulders got too hectic we would drop down low into the scrub, and after half an hour or so of squeezing packs under dwarf myrtle and spiky Richea Scorparia, realise that actually, no, anything is better than scrub. So we would climb back up to the ridge-top, see the gaping holes and towering pillars and begin the cycle again. After six hours of inching our way forward over the spine’s seemingly infinite number “vertebrae” we reached a saddle, and collapsed for lunch.

Afterwards the fun continued.

More boulders!

More scrub!

More agonising little hills!

We reached a high plateau by late afternoon and pitched tents. Jared’s fanatical peak-bagging nature overcame his exhaustion and he decided to do Eldon Bluff that evening. Weirdly, I agreed to go with him. For some reason I wasn’t tired anymore; perhaps it was delight of finally taking my pack off, perhaps the “Growling Dog” energy bar I had for lunch was laced with something, or perhaps (more likely) the unending repetition of boulder after boulder had wreaked so much psychological havoc that I had come to enjoy it.

We got up there in a bit over an hour, and what was left of my mind was blown by the views. Jared’s sedentary city lifestyle made itself apparent on the return, but I was still in state of boulder induced mania and bounced my way back to the tent, climbing in and crashing after almost 13 hours on the move.

On day four we awoke to rain, hail, cloud and tent deforming wind. I don’t think the call to have a tent day was actually formally made, we just kind of lay there and waited. I stunned myself with my daytime napping ability.

Day five was marginally better: the wind wasn’t as bad, but it was still wet, and freezing. We packed up soaked gear with numb fingers and slipped on down to the saddle where the ascent of Eldon Bluff starts. It is generally advised to climb over the Bluff and drop down the other side, but we decided to sidle the Bluff instead. We were sidling like pros that trip. Wet, steep, slippery scrub ensued as we stuck close to the cliffs that are potentially the highest in Tasmania.

A couple of hours later we came to a grassy plateau that led out to Dome Hill, a fairly unassuming, no-nonsense little lump that Mark and Jared were set upon climbing. Getting out there was the easiest walking of the whole trip, and while it wasn’t a particularly exhilarating climb, it was quite something to think that there was not a single road, walking track, man-made object or human being for 20 km in any direction. The view back to Eldon Bluff was also quite something.

We bashed down through a grove of Richea pandanifolia whose serrated fronds were just looking for an eyeball to slice [Editor’s note – Yikes! Please be careful], and reached Lake Ewart. For some reason, Parks and Wildlife have installed a log book at the lake’s edge (evidently, I lied a bit about the man-made object part before) which, since 2010, has had a grand total of three entries.

To reach our campsite there was a climb, and more scrub. It was bad. I was tired. Mark described the mood rather succinctly: “This is quite shitty.” However at the top after nine and a half hours, with tents erected, the sun setting over the Eldon Bluff and food bubbling away in our pots, the mood could not have been better.

On day six, I slept in while Mark and Jared climbed the nearby Castle Hill. Apparently I didn’t miss much. We packed up camp just before midday and headed on across a series of ridges and knolls to the base of High Dome. The good weather didn’t make up for unpleasantness of the scrub. It wasn’t impossibly thick, but it had a constant level of nastiness, the nature of which varied subtlety according to the particular variety of scunge we were walking through.

In the great struggle of man against flora, the vegetation will always triumph.

We set up camp on a saddle, climbing to the summit of High Dome just before the onset of darkness and rain.

Day seven greeted us with wind, serious cold and virtually every possible form of precipitation. We abandoned our plans to reach Lake St Clair and decided to scamper south down to the Lyell Highway. We headed south, scrubbing it up past Five Duck Tarn, and down into a valley. The going got steep, the forest got thick and things began to look a bit nasty. Then someone said: “Hey, this has been cut!” It was true. There was a branch, a whole bush, sheared off cleanly by a very un-wildernessy force, one most probably associated with a power tool. Someone had cut a track. There was no tape marking it, no real signs of use and no foot pad leading into it. Just a reasonably wide path cut in the middle of nowhere. Was this an attempt to recreate the historical Ewart track? Someone’s secret route into the Eldons? A maniac with a brush cutter and a deep hatred of native vegetation? Despite its illegality and questionable wilderness ethics, we were grateful. A minor victory for the humans.

We reached the bottom of the valley and the track stopped, reappeared for a short time, then ended completely. We spend the rest of the afternoon bashing upwards towards Junction Hill. The wind was strong and it was too cold to stop for a break. The only sheltered campsite was underneath Rocky Hill and we had no idea how long it would take to get there. Remembering Jared’s time prediction on the first day, his suggestion of “maybe an hour” wasn’t particularly reassuring. I caught a peek of the ridge between the two hills and I really felt like giving up there and then. It was already 4 PM and from the look of the scrub I could imagine it taking well over 5 hours. The others wanted to go on and despite some mutinous thoughts I begrudgingly followed.

The chainsaw wielding saviour was back! Sometimes the destruction of untouched wilderness can be a wonderful thing. We followed Brushcutter Bob’s (Stan the Chainsaw Man’s?) path of carnage across the ridge, climbed another small hill and slithered down through wet scrub to a lovely, pine covered shelf where we camped.

Day eight probably had the worst weather of all, with more rain and wind gusts that turned our tents into pancakes. I was quite keen to get to the highway but Mark was not in a good way. The previous day had knocked him around and he was on the edge of hypothermia. Another tent day was the only responsible choice.

The weather finally came right on day nine and we skedaddled out of camp and down a long bumpy ridge. It was mostly button grass and scrub, but as always, our power tool loving hero was there when we needed him most. Mark called his wife on the satellite phone and organised a rendezvous on the road. As we climbed over the last little knoll on the ridge we could see the car.

The end – a shifting, abstract concept that had alluded us for the last few days – looked like it was finally here. We stumbled down the last slope, expecting to wade across the ankle deep Collingwood River and stride triumphantly out onto the sweet tarmac of the Lyell Highway.

We’d forgotten about all the rain; the river was almost flooded. This was problematic for a number of reasons: a) the bridge was a full day’s walk away, b) I was the only one could swim with any degree of proficiency and b) the Hungry Wombat Café in Derwent Bridge close their kitchen at 4PM.

It was a race against time. I jumped in and swam across, leaving my pack on the wilderness side of the river. I headed towards the road, found Mark’s wife and the car, which (thanks to Mark’s foresight) contained a rope and a life jacket. I took the rope back to the river, tied it to a tree and threw it across.

It was too short.

I adjusted the knot and tried again.

Still too short.

I swam back across with the rope and water temperature almost sent me into convulsions. It was just long enough to hook my pack to, but not quite long enough for people. Like a pendulum, I went back across with my pack. I tried a bit further downstream but I couldn’t throw the rope across.

I tied my drink bottle to the end for weight.

The drink bottle broke.

I tied a stone to the end.

The stone slipped out.

I found a better stone.

About eight throws later Jared managed to catch the rope with his outstretched foot. We got Jared and his pack across. Mark, who can’t swim at all, refused to cross without the lifejacket. I couldn’t throw it across. Swim number four. Weird little jaw muscles I didn’t know I had went into cold induced spasms. Mark, life jacket clad but still terror stricken, got hauled across with his pack. Swim number five. We were all bedraggled and panting, but across.

We picked up our water filled packs and fought our way through our last bit of scrub towards the waiting car. I almost felt nostalgic.