Snow. If you’re reading this in Germany, for example, then maybe not such a big deal for you. If you have to battle your way through it on foot, or by car, or on public transport, just to do the boring job that pays the boring bills to keep you warm through the boring winter, then maybe snow symbolizes the worst time of year for you. But for me? Would I have traded that day, stepping out in warm dry boots with a light pack and barely 4 hours of walking before the end of the OLT, for just another boring, sunny Australian day? Shit no.
They say your body becomes ‘conditioned’ as you walk the OLT, and that certainly felt the case for me. I felt strong, healthy and confident that morning. The head-cold I’d begun the track with had totally disappeared. No aching muscles, no creaking joints. I’m sure the Swiss, with their affinity for all things efficient, would have nodded in appreciation at the walking machine which I had become. I knew it was all downhill from here, a gradual descent through mostly light forest to a swingbridge and then Narcissus Hut on the southernmost tip of Lake St Clair, where I would be calling the ferry to return me to civilisation. Was I disappointed not to be walking the extra day around the long bank of the lake? I’d interviewed everybody coming that way, and researched it thoroughly, and the near-unanimous opinion was that it was not worth it. Another full, long day of mud and tree roots I did not need.
My boots stayed warm for a long time, despite crunching through two inches of snow at every step. Because I was the first to leave the hut, I broke the trail, and was using my hiking poles to tap snow off overhanging branches before I ploughed through them. I noticed immediately that while it was cold enough to snow, it was not cold enough to freeze the standing water, or to begin icing the edges of running water. Standing water developed a slushy texture, without an icy crust to break through. A degree or two either way would have made the difference, either melting the snow or freezing the water, but it hadn’t happened. It did continue to snow, with the occasional stiff breeze reminding me what wind-chill meant to the overall equation. Without it, conditions were very mild, but with even a moderate breeze the comfort-factor went south, fast. I had a balaclava in my pocket, ready, but never used it. Eventually, my boots and gloves and beanie would be wet through and bitterly cold, but for most of the walk I felt like I was walking through Narnia, with the White Witch about to make her appearance.
Instead of witches, I found the junction to Pine Valley, unmarked by footprints. If the Swiss had gone that way they hadn’t re-emerged yet. Happy to be the first footprints on the path since snowfall, I continued crunching my way towards Narcissus, often stopping for pictures, which was something I’d almost stopped doing after days and days in the same-same rainforest. This was something I wanted to remember, and every time the sky momentarily cleared or the sun peeked through, I had the iPhone out, snapping away. It slowed me down, let the warmth leak out of my boots, but it was bloody-well worth it. When I did eventually meet another group of four, coming the other way with big smiles on everybody’s faces, we stopped for a quick chat, and I told them how I wished it had snowed like this from the start for me, how instead I’d had five days on the Underwater Track and how the snow felt like a reward. They just laughed and carried on; but about that time, my toes began to get properly cold, and I asked myself if I really wanted six whole days of this, trawling through a slushy mix of mud and ice, the thought of navigating those exposed moorlands, poorly signposted in places, under a few feet of snow with a 50kph wind in my face? Maybe not.
Arriving at the swingbridge across the Narcissus River told me I was almost at the end. Was I a bit sad about that? Definitely, but also not, because I’d had my adventure, the one I’d wanted for a long as I can remember, and it had been as difficult and testing as I’d wanted it to be. Some sunshine would have been nice, and perhaps another day of snow. Instead of the four seasons we’re told to expect, I saw one, but was also lucky to be on the OLT during a period of unprecedented rainfall. Lots of people walk the OLT in the summer, taking photo after photo of majestic mountain ranges framed against a perfect blue sky, but how many of them experience what I went through? Instead of being unlucky, maybe I was lucky to experience a meteorologically unique phenomenon: the highest rainfall every recorded on the OLT.
The rest is a blur. Narcissus Hut, where eventually five of us would gather and get the ferry across the lake. An hour under the shower in an overpriced cabin. Turning on the television and just sitting there like a mute, looking at moving pictures that made no sense. A bed that was too comfortable to sleep in. So much food on one plate that it made me feel a little nauseous. Coffee so rich it made my stomach turn in circles. Then a bus to Hobart, another hotel room, and a morning spent wandering the streets of that cold town, waiting from my afternoon flight. I saw a seal in the harbour eating a fish, tossing it across the surface of the water with a lazy flick. A taxi driver, a departure lounge, enough time to read a book from cover to cover. Then the short flight, my son waiting for me at the baggage carousel, and the drive home through familiar streets to my beaming wife and my other son. Those welcome-home hugs are always nice, I have to admit. We go away so that we can come home again.
That was Monday, and this is now Friday. Do I think about the Overland Track every day? Yes. Was it what I’d expected? No. As I’ve said a few times, the OLT is MOSTLY a rainforest walk. You won’t find this stated explicitly almost anywhere, and all the photos you see are of mountain ranges and button grass, quaint huts and smiling selfies of people in high places wearing t-shirts and sunglasses. The OLT is mostly under the canopy of trees. That was okay for me because I love forests, and the primordial Tasmanian rainforests of beech and myrtle are something out of a different age — but if you don’t like walking through quiet watchful places, then factor in how you’ll feel spending four days out of six in a place I’ve likened to Mirkwood once or twice, but which is also sometimes Lothlórien.
Final words? I’ll be back.