After our previous attempt at the Ducane Traverse was thwarted by the weather (we didn’t start as we couldn’t see the range in the mist!), we decided to have another crack in December. Originally planning to complete the traverse in an anticlockwise direction, starting with a scrub bash up Falling Mountain, this time due to the weather window, we headed up to Pine Valley first.
This is not a route for inexperienced walkers. Although I’ve got a good cardio base from running and have done lots of hiking, you also need to be good at rock scrambling and strong enough to lift your body weight, plus pack weight, up and down over various boulders. Map reading and off-track navigational experience are essential. The walk was challenging for me and I was lucky to have an experienced hiker/climber in Mark for the route finding, general scouting and pack hauling! This type of adventure was type 2 fun*.
The excitement was building as we caught the early ferry across from Cynthia Bay to Narcissus Bay. I peered into the depths of Lake St Clare looking for a platypus, but as per usual was unsuccessful. The ferry was full of older day trippers who were in awe of our large packs and planned route when we pointed out the ridge line in the distance. They were less in awe when the ferry picked up the Overland Track (OLT) finishers at Echo Point and Narcissus with their sweaty backpacking smell…
We had a quick morning tea and sunscreen application at Narcissus Hut, where we listened to some award presentations for a guided group. We laughed at their award for “The Least Amount of Mud on Shoes”, when obviously the extensive duck-boarding on the OLT had saved them all from a proper Tasmanian mud experience…
The pleasant track to Pine Valley took about 2.5 hours and I was surprised at how different it felt compared to when we walked the same route in March. Back then it was raining and everything was really wet, with heaps of colourful fungi growing in the damp, dark undergrowth. This time there were still lots of twisting roots to avoid, but it was much brighter in the forest. Making a similar itinerary mistake to before (going to Pine Valley on a weekend), we set up our tent on arrival. However, it wasn’t that crowded, except for a fairly annoying group of eight who had taken ownership of the hut.
As we had missed out on summitting the Acropolis on our previous visit to Pine Valley, after lunch we headed up to do some ‘acclimatisation’. Following the first steep section through the forest, it was nice to pop out onto the plateau with great views across to Mt Gould and lots of lovely pandani and Tasmanian waratah. The easy stroll then became a little steeper until we started traversing around the cliffs on the eastern side of the Acropolis. There were a few climbing moves required on the last steep scramble and then we were on the rocky summit. The views were great and we could see our objective – the Ducane Range – stretched out in front of us. Although I’d seen it before from Mt Ossa, I’d forgotten how boulder strewn it was, with no alpine plateau to amble across, just a hard scramble from one end to the other!
At the summit there were a group of OLT walkers (the part of the group of eight who in their words were “bothered to do more walking”), excited at being able to YouTube. We couldn’t work out why people like that were out in the bush.
Back at camp after ‘deck drinks’ variously interpreted as cup-a-soup on either the helideck or the deck of the tent platform, we enjoyed a tasty meal of pearl barley, peas, carrots, salami, dried apricot, almonds and lashing of Moroccan spice. Gourmet as usual on our hiking trips!
The long range weather forecast predicted that this was going to be the worst day, cloudy with some rain forecast. We knew this would make the Labyrinth atmospheric, but were confident of walking through to Lake Elyssia. Depending on the conditions we would set up there and wait for the weather to clear, or continue on to the head of Pine Valley or potentially Lake Helios.
As expected, after the hour required to climb to the saddle below the Minotaur, there was mist everywhere. Sporadically the mist would clear, allowing us to see the lakes, rocks and king billy pines of the Labyrinth. It’s one of our favourite spots in Australia, and lovely and tranquil in the mist.
We continued on to Lake Elyssia, where there was already another tent pitched. We chatted with the occupants as we put up our tent, just in time as it started to rain. We pottered around the lake a bit, but we couldn’t see any of the mountains and the bad weather set in. It was back to shelter in the tent; playing cards, reading Chapman and trying not to eat too much food!
Eventually the rain stopped and it started to clear around 4pm, too late to set off for another campsite. However, it meant we had plenty of time to wonder around Lake Elyssia admiring the stunning location beneath Geryon and the Acropolis, and check out the views back to Walled Mountain. We had a very scenic dinner by the lake and if this had been the only place we went on our hike, we still would have been very happy!
Were up early and it was a glorious day; blue sky and hardly a cloud in sight. We packed up and trekked to the head of Pine Valley. The walking was easier than I remembered previously (and this time I had my pack!), in no time at all we were at the very special Pool of Memories. This is a beautiful location, in the middle of no-where with some ‘crazy paving’ to protect the fragile vegetation on the banks of the pool. It was then uphill via the Cephysus creek watercourse to the alpine saddle which joins Ducane/Geyron with Hyperion. This is a truly fantastic spot so of course we stopped for morning tea! There are tarns dotting the alpine moorland, with splendid sights in every direction – down Pine Valley to Lake St Clare, out to Frenchman’s Cap, across to the remote Eldon Ranges and of course good views the local identities (Hyperion, Acropolis, Geyron). This was as far as we had previously explored, so it was now we were about to venture into new territory!
We continued on, gaining some height until we were at the top of Ducane Able. The next obstacle was Big Gun Pass. Going down wasn’t as steep as I’d expected and ‘the gun’ itself was quite amazing, a giant rocky tower that is much bigger in real life than in photos. Then we headed across a small valley to start the climb up Mt Massif. At first it wasn’t too bad with a few cairns, and a rusty billy, to mark the route. However, as the boulders got bigger, the cairns stopped (all the harder sections on this trek are unmarked) and it was difficult to know how far we needed to contour around to avoid the cliffs at the top of the peak.
There were some difficult moments and at times I was directed to go under the boulders, squeezing through cracks instead of being allowed to clamber over them. I ended up with more grazes and bruises, but was very thankful of wearing some cheap gloves to protect my fingers (which had taken a battering on Mt Anne and were only just recovering). We kept pushing on further and further around until Mark found a gully that we could follow all the way to the top.
We had lunch in the bowl of Mt Massif. It was amazing, from inside none of the surrounding mountains could be seen, only the walls of the bowl. There was some snow remaining and with the low alpine grasses growing, it would not have seemed out of place to see a few sheep grazing. The other couple we had met at Lake Elysia also turned up here. We joked that this wasn’t Lake Helios which they had originally planned to camp at, but with the good weather they had also decided to hike the traverse. We compared routes, worried we had taken a long detour to get onto the Mt Massif summit, but had taken a similar path. Even though I lacked some confidence (and skill!) on the boulder scrambling, we had also taken a similar time.
After our lunch break, we pushed on aiming to get to a location further along the ridge which had been described as a possible campsite. Although many groups stay in the Mt Massif bowl, we thought that by continuing further today, it would make completing the traverse easier the next day. We headed along a nice pincushion plant area on the summit plateau before dropping into a steep gully to navigate around the cliffs on the north-eastern side of the mountain. We lost a lot of height quickly and then began to contour around to re-join the ridge line. There was then some more scrambling, supposedly around (but it felt like over!), a small knoll. It was becoming obvious why it was going to take so long to cover the short distance (5km) of the ridge line. There were a few tough spots where I had to pass my pack to Mark, I wasn’t strong enough to lift it, and myself, up and over the rocks.
We continued looking for somewhere flat and sheltered to camp. There weren’t many options and although there was still lots of light, continuing on to Falling Mountain after 9 hours of hard walking (including a long lunch break) wasn’t a good idea. We found a small rock ledge which we though would offer some protection and set up the tent. There was a small tarn nearby and some stupendous views whilst we cooking dinner. We tucked into an experimental meal of beef jerky stroganoff with dried oyster mushrooms. It turned out quite well and will be repeated on further hikes!
We didn’t have a good sleep as it was windy overnight; bushes brushed against the tent, there was lots of flapping of the fly and a bit of a slope to contend with. We poked our heads outside at 7 am and it was a white-out, we could only see about 15 metres ahead which was going to make it difficult to navigate up Falling Mt. For a brief (five second) moment I had seen across to Geyron and the Acropolis which were clear, so we hoped the cloud was just localised to the saddle where we were camped. We packed everything except for the tent, and after much deliberating and procrastinating, at 9 am we decided to go for it anyhow.
After phaffing around for so long, five minutes after we set off the whole area cleared! After a short section of following pads through vegetation and boulders, it was back to rock scrambling (for something different on this traverse!) As per the other scrambling sections, the way was initially cairned up Falling Mountain and whether we lost the cairns or they petered out, it became tougher to see what route to take. Again it was hard to know how far to contour to avoid the cliff sections which seem to occur on the top of all these peaks. When it looked like we might be close, Mark headed to up to confirm that there were no major obstacles that I wouldn’t be able to navigate. He had been very patient as he wanted to be able to keep pushing head to scout for the best path, but couldn’t leave me floundering about on my own below him! He had a hard time understanding what I found easy and difficult. I kept surprising him with hard stuff that I would (inelegantly) scramble and then ‘easy’ places where I would get stuck and need assistance! In the end, about two hours after setting off from our camp site, we arrived on the plateau of Falling Mountain/ Castle Crag.
The views were great, looking out over the whole valley enclosed by the Ducane Range. After visiting the summit of Castle Crag, and after fanning out to try and find the route down, we found a gully which seemed to be the best way off Falling Mountain. There were now two difficult bits remaining – getting down the steep part of the mountain and then bush bashing through to the Overland Track.
I employed a bum shuffling technique for the down climbing, and made use of the vegetation to assist. At one point I was directed back up and around to come down a narrow chute between two large dolerite boulders. It was about shoulder width, quite steep, nicely covered in pineapple grass and made an excellent slide! It was not what Mark had intended as my way down, but it was good fun!
As we came down and headed into the joys of the scrub (hello our prickly friend scorparia!), we mused on which direction we’d rather complete the traverse. It definitely seemed easier to come down through the scrub than to bash up. I felt a bit sad as off-track walking isn’t really leave no trace as you push through all the shrubs… We made it into the eucalypt woodland, where it was less scratchy but denser, and found a large boulder for a lunch break. I almost missed boulder hopping after the bush bashing! We checked our location on Google Maps – only 400m to the Overland Track. Soon enough, and with much jubilation, we exited from the forest and hit the track!
It wasn’t long before we’d overtaken some OLT walkers who weren’t all that happy about strange people bursting out from the undergrowth to question them on why they hadn’t climbed Mt Ossa in such fantastic weather. On the ‘highway’, the walking was fast and we made it to Windy Ridge Hut by about 2.45 pm. Although it was tempting to sit down and not get up, after refilling our drink bottles (the last tarns on the ridge had been a bit suspect), we continued on to Narcissus Hut.
We had dinner, followed by a pleasant ramble along the riverbank. I really like Narcissus, there are lovely trees filled with birds and picturesque views along the river and the lake. It’s a peaceful place to sit and reflect on your hiking adventure, before being thrust back into the real world.
We slept in to 7 o’clock, which was a mistake – those who had gotten up at 5.30 am had seen multiple platypuses! We took the first ferry back in the morning, which was crowded with school kids who had completed the OLT. Looking back across the lake towards the mountain ranges I was very satisfied at what we had achieved. Now I just had to wait for the scratches to heal, bruises to fade and the type 2 fun to wash over me.
*Type 1 fun is enjoyable at the time, Type 2 fun is only enjoyable after the event – typically when the pain/danger has diminished over time!
Postscript: After writing this post, I was saddened by an ABC News article about social media ruining some Tasmanian ecosystems. The Ducane Range, even though it is accessed from the OLT, feels very rugged and remote. However, it is easy to see how even a small amount of foot traffic creates pads in the alpine environment, and even hard hikes like this one are getting more popular. I feel a bit conflicted now about off track walking as there is never zero impact, even practising “Leave no Trace”.