If you look carefully at the photo below, you’ll see the time my train left for Central, the main rail hub of Sydney, from where I would catch a bus to the domestic terminal. A bus rather than the train, because a humongous low-pressure system was bearing down on Sydney from the north, and some rail lines were already underwater. Underwater, remember that word, because it becomes the defining feature of everything that is to follow.
On Sunday 5 June 2016 at 04:17am, while State Emergency Services were evacuating suburbs and watching houses fall into the sea due to a king tide that brought 8 metre waves to redefine Australia’s eastern seaboard, I was scuttling out of the state like a fleeing rat. With other flights being cancelled and delayed, somehow my little plane to Launceston stayed on the board, and we slipped through the eye of the storm across the Tasman Sea with a tailwind that cut our flight time by a third. While I may have escaped Sydney, I’d soon find out that I couldn’t escape the weather.
That afternoon, safely ensconced in my hotel, I went for a walk and found this Val d’Osne fountain in Prince’s Square, pictured above — a twin of the Tourney Fountain in Quebec, apparently. Putting aside the interesting history of this piece, as I stood in my Goretex jacket in the whipping wind and rain, I had what you might call a premonition, looking at one of the statues about the base. Now while I can’t boast this guy’s abs, I felt certain that I’d soon be sitting on a rock slab soaked to the skin. For the record, the Bureau of Meteorology recorded over 200mm of rain across Tasmania that day, with flooding in excess of the previous 1929 record where 22 people died and 5000 were left homeless. These days we are better at safeguarding human life, but two people still died, and thousands of head of livestock were drowned.
At 8am the next morning, Monday 6 June, the minibus that would, eventually, take us to Cradle Mountain arrived; for the next three and a half hours, we dodged road closures, washed-out bridges, sunken cars and flooding to finally reach our destination. Thanks to Hedley our driver, whose local knowledge allowed us, via a series of cunning backroad detours, we bypassed many otherwise impassable obstacles. Finally, after four hours on the road, we stepped out at the Cradle Mountain National Park Visitor Centre. After the warm bus, the outside temperature (13ºC) seemed chilly. I didn’t know at the time, but it was the warmest I would be for the next week. I briefly considered buying a funky beanie to replace the daggy one I’d bought 15 years ago at a supermarket, but then I decided it was all just junk for daytripping tourists. Another clue seemed to confirm this.
Another shuttle bus to Ronny Creek, and with trembling (cold+excited) hands I wrote my name into the logbook. At 12:30, layered in Goretex, I shuffled across the road to take a selfie beside the famous sign that marks the head of the Overland Track. I also discovered that it was too wet to use either my camcorder or my camera, so the iPhone came out as a third option. I had no idea at the time that the iPhone would be the only device I’d be able to use, thanks to the Lifeproof case. I also had no idea that the rain that met me as I took my first steps on the wire-gridded duckboard at Ronny Creek would never totally go away, and by the time (hours later) I actually lost sight of Ronny Creek itself, I would be wet to the skin, something else that would never totally go away.
If the photo above looks bleak, that’s because it was bleak. I knew there were mountains all around me, but I could never see them. Glimpses, maybe, for a second, but then low loud and mist would roll through and obscure the sky again. But none of this mattered as I started out with a brisk step and 22kg on my back. I’d already decided, having promised to say safe and avoid unnecessary risks, that I wouldn’t summit Marion’s Lookout today, there being no chance of a view anyway. So the safe, pragmatic, and famously boring Horse Track would be my alternate route. Safe and pragmatic, maybe, but no easier. In the space of a few kilometres I ascended to 1265m from the low 900’s, and while that doesn’t sound much to the armchair hiker, with a heavyish pack and a slow-grinding, inundated path, you betcha I was working.
In the photo above, what you might think is a creek is, in fact, the track. While I initially thought this was a bit special and cool, I eventually found myself muttering ‘thank christ for Goretex’ over and over again, as I waded through six inches of icy water. When I finally reached the highland, overestimating how far I’d come, I took a mealbreak on the side of a rocky riverine valley and noticed for the first time how dark it was. Only 3:15, yet I was losing light fast, and hadn’t even reached iconic Kitchen Hut, where overnighting is forbidden, let alone my target for day one: Waterfall Valley Hut. Motoring on through the Underwater Track, it soon became clear that days become shorter the closer you get to Antarctica.
My plan had been to stop and make coffee at Kitchen Hut, have a bit of an explore, but instead I paused for this one photo in failing light and raced on. For the record, the main door is 7′ tall, and the shovel on the wall is for clearing snow away from the second storey door in bad weather. Last year a family from Brisbane were ‘snowed in’ at Kitchen Hut. Shaking my head in wonderment, I trudged on, and at 5pm found myself in complete darkness. “Time for the trusty headlamp!” was the answer, but no matter how much I fu*ked with it, the trusty headlamp would not work. Instead, I was reduced to creeping along with a one-watt reading light on a lanyard that I held out infront of me at knee height. A couple hundred metres ahead of me were two guys I’d almost caught up with, who now served as a reference point as I made my way down, virtually blind, to the first hut. When they finally stopped moving I knew I was close, and at 6:15pm with a wild-eyed look of relief crashed through the door of Waterfall Valley Hut ending my first day on the Overland Track.