Friday, February 27, 2015

To Cap It All: Frenchmans Cap, Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park

About an hours walk from the Lyell Hwy, the Frenchmans Cap track crests the south shoulder of Mount Mullens and across the button grass plains and the Lodden River, the castellated towers of Sharlands and Philps Peaks rise to either side of precipitous Barron Pass. All the land to the south and most to the west, is wilderness. Every craggy peak and deep bush filled valley, every winding river, every dark hued lake and tiny alpine tarn. All the small storm tossed islands, sheltered bays, windswept beaches, all the wild land and water. Standing on the edge of this magnificent wilderness something takes your breath away and leaves you struck in awe at the beauty of the untamed landscape.

Barrons Pass tucked snugly between Sharlands and Philps Peaks

I have wanted to walk up Frenchmans Cap since my first days bushwalking in Tasmania when I first heard whispers of the arduous (much harder then than now) journey through thick bush, deep mud, and over high passes to the stunning white quartzite dome that is a prominent feature of the southwest corner of Tasmania. Back in those days we wore wool pants and shirts, dressed in heavy oil skins, and the track to Frenchmans Cap was rough, ready, and infamous for the six kilometres across the floodplains of the Lodden River, humorously referred to as the "sodden Loddons" where mud was only knee deep, if you were lucky. Now, the track is walked by 800 people a year, there are two huts, three campsites, two toilets, wooden ladders, bridges and duck-boarding and the rigours of the track are a shadow of what they were thirty years ago. But, while the track has been tamed, the wilderness has not and this is still a wonderful wild walk into the heart of the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.

 Lakes of Livingstone Rivulet

There are all sorts of different schedules for walking Frenchmans Cap. Most people probably take three days, although many seem to have a relaxed five day schedule and I believe ultra-runners have done the entire trip in a day. We decided to have two nights at Lake Vera rather than lugging our overnight packs all the way up to Lake Tahune simply to hump them back down again. As old, retired alpine climbers our motto "don't carry your big pack higher than you need to" originally conceived in Canada remains every bit as appropriate in Australia. 

It is a very pleasant and remarkably easy walk into Lake Vera, a far cry from the old sodden Loddon days. Starting out in rain-forest, the track descends to cross the Franklin River on a suspension bridge, climbs out of the river valley and travels south and west across scattered button grass plains to climb just over 150 metres to the shoulder of Mount Mullens where a first view of Frenchmans Cap, Barron Pass, Sharlands and Philps Peak offers a tantalising view of the next days walk. 

 First views into the high country

Descending through more green tinged rain-forest, a second suspension bridge over the Loddon River (small campsite on the north side) leads out to the Loddon Plains. The track has been rerouted from Philps Lead and is now alternately raised track and board-walk across all the minor creeks, melaleuca and button grass of the Loddon Valley. A gradual climb leads up through more rain-forest to open plains and the final descent to Lake Vera. The Lake Vera hut stands back from the eastern shores of Lake Vera and there are several good campsites further along the track on the north side of Lake Vera. We swam in the refreshingly cool dark waters of Lake Vera (walk along the lakeshore about 5 minutes past the reed beds and campsites to find a good spot between trees where you can swim into the centre of the lake) before settling in for an afternoons' relaxation. It's about a four hour walk into Lake Vera from the Lyell Hwy. 

 Doug near Artichoke Valley

We were away shortly before 8 am the next morning after having spent the night in the unusually empty (we were the only occupants) Lake Vera Hut. It is about a 14 km/1200 metre (elevation gain) return trip (rough estimates) to Frenchmans Cap, and, in our usual Canadian alpine style we kept up a steady pace all day (a round trip of about 8 hours for us including stops). The first kilometre around the shore of Lake Vera has many minor ups and downs, over tree roots, around boulders, up and down steps cleverly carved into leaning logs. At the southwestern end of Lake Vera the track follows the inlet stream and begins climbing steadily past small cliff bands, dark treacly creeks, caves, bluffs and boulders until, about 1.5 hours from Lake Vera, you suddenly stand atop Barron Pass and look out over the Livingstone Valley with Livingstone Rivulet creating several small lakes surrounded by dense forest. The crags of Clytemnestra face you across the valley, Frenchmans Cap floats in the clouds, and the towers of Philps and Sharlands Peak provide a spectacular background. 

Doug on the final climb to Frenchmans Cap

For the next two kilometres the track tackles an improbable route under the west face of Sharlands Peak traversing between 900 and 950 metres (ASL) across to Artichoke Valley to reach a small pass south of Pine Knob. This is all scenic walking and it is hard to keep an eye on your feet when you are goggling at the views in all directions. The track enters some denser bush and then descends steeply on ladders and steps down to Lake Tahune and the smaller hut. Lake Tahune lies in a deep cirque under the east face of Frenchmans Cap and can only really be seen from above. 

A steep climb up a rain-forested gully on the west side of Lake Tahune leads to the cleverly routed track which winds up slabs, and small rock bands to emerge on the big broad summit plateau where, all around you, is this magnificent wilderness country. We stayed a half hour on the summit, dressed in our warmest clothes (a similar experience to Canadian summits) before scurrying back down to Lake Vera hut. 

 Doug on the expansive summit of Frenchmans Cap

Here we met Terry, the ranger, who, while friendly enough, has perhaps been banished to this far flung outpost as he seemed to regard the Tasmanian wilderness as a place to be kept sacrosanct from walkers and climbers, the less visited the better. Doug and I have seen more walkers in Tasmania in two weeks than we have in two years in the rest of Australia and have been gratified by the number of ordinary people actually getting some exercise that does not consist solely of bending the elbow joint. In truth, it would not be hard to imagine Terry as some kind of walkers version of the climbing bolt chopper, heading out under cover of darkness to pull-up duck-boarding to restore the track to its original state. 

Back at Lake Vera hut, a large group was in residence, six Sydneysider's, a garrulous American, and a quieter German. We spent the evening out on the heli-pad where a weak sun shone through the drifting clouds, enjoying the quiet of the evening away from the jostle of the hut. 

 Looking down on Lake Tahune

The predicted rain began overnight, but, around 6.30 am, it tapered to a slight drizzle and gave us the opportunity to quickly pack our gear away and scuttle into the hut for breakfast. I thought walking out would take us a little longer than the way in with slippery ground to negotiate, but we were right on about four hours, and, as we walked up the last hill from the Franklin River crossing, a few patches of blue drifted across the sky behind us. The parking lot and track were busy with the next batch of hikers walking out into the wild, all looking forward to their own adventures in the expansive and alluring Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. 
 Go somewhere wild.

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