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The Overland Track in the Year of the Corona virus

By Chris Mawson

The start of the Overland Track, at Rommie Creek, a short shuttle bus trip from the Visitors Centre.Everyone has a Corona virus/COVID-19 story, this is mine, or at least part of it (and apologies if overly long and, at times, has a ranting nature to it).

The Overland Track (OLT), in the North-West of Tasmania (https://parks.tas.gov.au/explore-our-parks/cradle-mountain/overland-track), is a popular multi-day walk that is likely on the bucket list of many Perth bushwalkers. I last did it 43 years ago, when I was 20. I can't really remember if it was different back then, but I think there were less boardwalks, and more mud and buttongrass to walk on or around, and that the huts weren't as flash as they are now. And the gear we had was probably heavier.

The OLT is a 'recommended' 6 day, 65km, one-way hike. However, there are various side trips you can do, so people often stay longer.

I thought it was about time I did it again, so I offered to lead this as a club trip in March 2020, and had 4 club members (including myself) committed to going by February 2020.

I was also planning to drive across to NSW with my ute and sea-kayak (for a kayak fest at Bateman's Bay), and then drive down to Melbourne to catch the ferry across to Devenport, with the aim of meeting everyone in Launceston a couple of days before the scheduled starting date (24th March).

To undertake the walk does require a fair amount of pre-planning. During the peak season (1 October - 31 May inclusive) you need to book (online) a starting date, which also entitles you to an Overland Track Pass that you attach to your pack (and which you pick up at the Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre). This costs $200 (as at the date of this Venturer). You also need a Parks pass, of which there are various types depending how are travelling, and for how long, which allows entry to one or more of the Tasmanian National Parks.

For interest, you do not book the actual huts, only the starting date of your OLT adventure. Once you start, you can stay as long as you like in the vicinity of the OLT, as long as you start on your 'starting date'. And a bunk in a hut is not guaranteed.

When you book your start date you can also purchase a map and guide, these are not provided for free. The map is certainly helpful (and I took it with me), although the guide is perhaps a bit too bulky to carry on the track. There are also various digital versions of the track/map available via mobile phone apps such as Gut Hook, which I had installed but did not use on the track itself.

As the track is one-way (in peak season) you also need to get to the starting point at Cradle Mountain (the Visitor's Centre), and then somehow get out from the end point at Lake St Clair. Fortunately there are several companies that provide shuttle services from Launceston to Cradle Mountain and from Lake St Clair to Lauceston (or Hobart), costing about $80 each trip. You could also leave your vehicle at Lake St Clair, catch a shuttle back to Launceston on the same day, and then another to the start at Cradle Mountain (the next day ideally as you would then only have the gear you were hiking with you). Then you will have your car available when you get to Lake St Clair.

Of course, our planned walk changed due to the Corona virus/COVID-19.

In mid-March, the Tasmanian government announced a compulsory 14 day self-isolation period for all visitors (and residents) coming to Tasmania, starting from midnight Friday 20th March.

bushfiresIn my case, I was travelling down from Bateman's Bay at the time, to Melbourne, to catch the ferry on the evening of Saturday 21st March, so I would have had to self-isolate for 14 days (and while it is isolated, walking the Overland Track did not count as self-isolation). Other states were also making various announcements re. travel, isolation, business closures etc, so things were getting a bit complicated.

I checked the ferry bookings online, and I could change my ticket to the Friday 20th evening, effectively entering Tasmania before the self isolation requirement (it was based on when you left, not when you arrived).

So what to do?

Around the same time (while I was driving down to Melbourne) I was also getting emails/txts from the others in the group, either telling me they were cancelling or were thinking about it. Of course this was quite sensible of them as they were all still in Perth, so changing dates was more difficult, plus there was a high degree of uncertainly and worry with the whole Corona virus scenario that was unfolding.

So it seemed I had two choices, head back to Perth, or change my ferry booking and get into Tassie before the new self-isolation requirement, and then likely do the walk on my own.

I choose the latter option, although in hindsight (always a good thing) it was perhaps not the wisest option, but who really knows.

On the way to Melbourne I was also stunned by the amount and extent of devastation caused by the NSW/Victorian bushfires (see photo above).

So, I arrived in Devonport early on the Saturday 21st March, just 'beating' the self-isolation deadline.

I had originally booked an AirBNB for 3 of us for the nights of Saturday (21st) - Monday (23rd), as we were catching a shuttle to Cradle Mountain early on the Tuesday (24th) morning, and two of the other bushies had planned to arrive on the Saturday. I was also planning to drive my ute down to Lake St Clair on the Monday, and then catch a shuttle back to the AirBNB in Launceston on the same day so that after the Overland Track two of us could continue down towards Hobart to do the 3 Capes walk.

Birdsnest AirBNBFortunately AirBNB had introduced a free cancellation service for Corona affected travelers who had booked prior to the announcement of the self-isolation requirement (and other associated travel bans). So I cancelled the original booking and found a very nice, well priced, 1 bedroom AirBNB just out of Launceston in the hills of Riverside, a perfect place to hang out for a few days till the start of the hike (see photo).

I also had to notify the shuttle bus company we had pre-booked that there was now only one person travelling, and I also received a refund for those tickets.

What I did not realise at the time was the compounding effects of the Federal and State government's responses to the Corona virus situation.

Later on that Friday I received an email from the shuttle bus company that they were also cancelling the Tuesday trip, but could still do the Monday shuttle from Lake St Clair to Launceston. Thus I now had no way of getting to Cradle Mountain, but could still drop my car off at the Lake St Clair end. The other main shuttle bus company I knew of, were, by then, closed for the weekend, and their website was showing no service running on the Tuesday. But I emailed them anyway to enquire if a shuttle lift was possible. Other shuttle services I googled seemed to be closing down as well. I also contemplated an Uber to Cradle Mountain, with the app saying it would be about $220 (so this was Plan C).

So what to do? Well, I could cancel the Overland Track walk, and get a full refund, and then I guess find some other walks (and kayak trips) to do in Tassie. This was certainly an option, but I had come this far so didn't really want to give up on it quite yet.

Thus I googled a few Facebook hiking groups and other online forums looking for a lift, but not really expecting much.

However, I did get a response from 'Paul' on a 'Bushwalk Australia' forum, offering me a lift. At that time, (Sunday I think), I was still looking at options, so did not confirm with Paul immediately, and who gives strangers lifts to Cradle Mountain?

Later on that weekend the 3 Capes Track announced they were closing the track, but would refund anyone affected (which at $495 for 3 nights was greatly appreciated). This also meant that the accommodation I had booked near Port Arthur was no longer really required, so I cancelled that as well (and fortunately also received a full refund).

I was also now starting to appreciate the severe impact the 14 day self-isolation requirement was going to have on the tourist industry in Tasmania. Tourists were not going to come and were now cancelling in mass.

On this weekend, the National Parks people also emailed, and then rang me, to inform me that the huts would be closed, and that it was tents only, and only 12 people starting a day. And 'did I still want to start?' So things were getting even weirder. But, I thought, this was actually a once in a lifetime experience, only 12 people a day on the OLT. So I said 'Yes'.

But by Monday I was getting desperate for a lift, so I took Paul up on his offer, also offering to pay for petrol and his time (I thought $100 was reasonable given the circumstances, and it would effectively be a 5 hour return trip for Paul).

the uteOn the Monday I also had to drop the car off at Lake St Clair (see photo at right) and then catch the shuttle back to Launceston. So checking out of my AirBNB on Monday morning I started the 2.5 hour trip to the central highlands/lakes region. I had also booked a bunk in a cheap BackPackers in Launceston CBD, so that I had somewhere to sleep Monday night, as all I had with me on returning to Launceston was my Overland Track backpack and gear for the walk, and the clothes I wore.

In addition, I had also rung the OLT office at Lake St Clair to check if the OLT itself was still going to be open, albeit 12 people and tents only. I didn't want to drop my ute off at Lake St Clair and then end up at Cradle Mountain to be told the OLT was now closed to all. They told me that to the best of their knowledge it would still be open Tuesday morning (which it was, but all Tassie National Parks were closed a few days later, so I wasn't being too paranoid afterall).

The next morning, Tuesday, at 6am, I checked out of the Backpackers (I always feel bit weird staying in 'backpackers', as a 63 y.o. guy, but no-one seems to mind that much), just as a car pulled into the curb of the hostel, it was Paul. Paul was a local, an avid bushwalker, recently retired, and also a Search and Rescue volunteer (at least that's what he told me, and who was I to argue). And thus luckily we had a lot of great discussions on the 2 hour or so trip to Cradle Mountain, some of it a bit gruesome as Paul recalled bringing out the bodies of dead bushwalkers. I hoped I didn't need his services.

But I had arrived at the start and the rest was easy, or so I thought.

Tuesday 23rd March, 8.30am. Cradle Mountain.

I was last at Cradle Mountain in January 2017, for a couple of nights, and for day walks only. I recall that it was very busy, lots of campervans, cars, hikers and mostly happy campers. What one might expect in peak season. Today did seem different, hardly any vehicles, apart from construction utes, etc, (as a new visitor centre was being built, and mostly complete except for landscaping).

But, it was now the age of the Corona virus, things were slowing down, there was almost a time-dilation motion effect overlaying everything. The Tassie National Parks, while still open, were slowed by social distancing, the visitor centres were closed, local restaurants were closing down, food was takeaway only (with limited customers in the shop at a time), the OLT itself was limited - no huts, tents only 12 people per day. It was becoming somewhat surreal.

Even starting the walk was odd, as the new visitor centre was also closed (before it was open).

There was now a special 'doorbell' button at the entrance, a simple battery-operated one like you may have on your front door at home, labelled 'OLT walkers'. While it was only 8.30am, and not sure if it was too early, I pushed the button. A few seconds later a Nat Parks person opened the door and looked out.

'Good'' he said, 'we weren't sure if the new system would work.'

"Hmmm", I thought.

I wasn't really sure what I should do, but he beckoned me in to the counter, there was just me and him, and then another Nat Parks person joined in to watch, not sure if they were in training, or maybe there just wasn't much to do.

Starting the walk is a bit of a process, but I think it was likely the same pre-COVID-19. But if this is true, I imagine it would sure take quite awhile to get started if things were normal (43 years ago all I recall doing is signing a book in a little shelter at the start, I don't think it cost anything and there was no-one there to check on us, and it was January, peak season).

'Do you have a booking?'

"Yes", I said.

'What's your name?', he said

"Chris Mawson", I said.

'You're not on the list' (of the 12 chosen ones), he said.

"The Lake St Clair people told me I was on their list, I rang them to confirm yesterday", I said (trying to sound confident).

So a stand off for a few seconds.

I suspected there weren't 12 'chosen ones' on today's list anyway, and that they just added me. Or perhaps all the Corona stuff was just getting too much. And afterall, I had paid my $200 (I did for a second think whether I should ask for a discount, given that the huts were supposedly closed, but thought better not to push my luck).

'OK', he said.

So I was now on their list.

Next list.

'Do you have your signed walker safety checklist?', he said.

"Hmm, no I don't", I said (I had seen/read it on their website, but I obviously didn't read it carefully enough. You have to print it off, tick, or not, the boxes, and give them a signed copy (a liability thing I assume).

'Please complete this form then', he said.

So I completed the walker safety checklist:

- 'Tent' - check;
- 'Good quality, warm sleeping bag (kept dry in a waterproof bag and minimum temperature rating -10˚C)' - check, but -10˚C doubtfull;
- 'Good quality waterproof jacket' - check;

etc, etc.

I guess they have to do this as some people are possibly under-prepared, but to me it was getting a bit bureaucratic. They didn't ask about food though, I guess this is not so important?

So now the walker safety checklist was signed, dated and handed in.

'Do you have a PLB?', he said.

"Yes", I said. A small win for me I thought.

IMG 0844I asked. "I know the huts are closed, but are they actually locked? As it would be good to be able to put my food in there away from the possums".

'The huts are locked', he said.

"OK", I said.

Anyhow, he finally gave me my OLT permit and I was free to start (not quite, as you actually have to catch a shuttle bus to the real start, at Ronny Creek).

Also, at the time of this particular OLT walk, the 'normal' hut for the first night (Waterfall Valley) was actually closed due to renovations. So all walkers were being re-directed to another hut, Scott Kilvert. This was actually a significant there and back detour, and was not on the actual OLT. I had been there in 2017 when on a day hike, so I was a bit dubious about this detour, and I had also heard from hikers on the Monday shuttle that it was a real pain, downhill for a couple of kms to the hut, then back uphill the same way the next day, rejoining the OLT. I had also climbed Cradle Mountain before (about a 2-3 hour detour in its own right), which keen people can complete on Day 1, so I wasn't fussed about not doing it again and thus I had a bit of extra time on Day 1.

So I asked:

"Can I double hut the first day?".

He looked at me.

'I don't think so, there are too many people on the track who started yesterday, but let me check the list.', he said.

'Where's the list?' he said (I think to the other person. Eventually he found a scrap of paper).

Park Closure sign'Ok, that's actually a good idea, there are more people starting today than yesterday, so yes you can double hut today', he said.

I was starting to think that no-one really knew what was going on, and so I assumed everyone was just making it up each day, as best as they could, given the changing Corona virus restrictions. Hell, I was certainly making it up day by day.

It turned out I was number 4 on his list as there were only 4 of us at Windermere Hut on my night 1 (their night 2, as I double-hutted the first day). So there was plenty of room.

And that's about it I think.

Except, on Day 2, when I had mobile phone access, I did read in the news that all the Tassie National Parks were now closed, no camping, most day walks closed, all multi-day walks closed, visitor centres closed, accommodation closed, everything. and they wanted us out ASAP. Things weren't looking great for an extended stay in Tassie for me.

Otherwise, I won't go into details about the OLT itself, this has been done many times by many people. And you can get an idea from the image gallery below.

And it is very worth doing, but maybe not on your own :(

The OLT in photos, with captions. Click on a thumbnail to see the larger image, and start the gallery.

Postmortem

Personally, I did not find the walk overly difficult, but you obviously need a certain amount of fitness as you are walking several hours a day and carrying food and gear for 6 plus days. However, some of the 'days' are relatively short, hour-wise, to allow for side trips, so you may get to a hut quite early on. There are also some extended steepish sections, mostly on day 1 and days 3/4 (or so), and if the weather turns bad, or you are injured, then the situation can become more serious as it is quite remote with limited mobile phone access. Hence you also need to take wet weather gear, and you are required to carry a tent with you, and a PLB would be a good idea, just in case.

Also, while about 1/3rd of the track is on boardwalks, the remainder of of the track is fairly rocky and/or root-ridden, and thus it is hard on the feet (or at least I thought so) and slower going than you might expect, plus parts of it are often muddy as well. In one steeper section on Day 3/4, about an 1 hour up-hill (but only 200m over 2km), I averaged 2 km/hour, and I wasn't slow (actually above average based on other walkers I met/passed). It was all due to the zigg-zagging because of rocks and roots.

I would thus recommend hard-soled, high-cut boots (although others may disagree). I wore gaiters as well, but these were probably not necessary in the conditions I encountered (fine weather and not too much mud), nor did I see any snakes. However, gaiters are recommended by Tassie Nat Parks.

PS.

The huts weren't locked, as I was told, so I could put my food/packs in them, and you need to, as the possums are pretty determined. At Windermere Hut there is even a notice warning you of the 'Black Possum'. There is a photo of he/she in the photo gallery above. I did wonder how they were going to survice now that the OLT was completely closed, I guess they will have to go back to eating real food.

And further along the OLT I found a number of people/groups/families were sleeping in the huts, despite the signs on the doors saying the huts were closed. However, I assume the risk was minimal in most cases.

For the record, I slept in my tent.