Sunday, March 22, 2015

Ode To The Overland Walkers: Mounts Ossa, Oakleigh and Pelion East from the Arm River Track

There once were some Overland walkers
Who really were terrible squawkers
Whenever it rained
They grew very pained
Those squawking Overland walkers.

Preamble: Mount Ossa at 1617 metres is the highest peak in Tasmania. With the highest peaks in Queensland (Mount Bartle Frere), the Northern Territory (Mount Zeil), Victoria (Mount Bogong), and NSW (Mount Kosciuszko) under our proverbial peak bagging belts, climbing Mount Ossa was just a matter of waiting for a weather window. 

The great thing about Tasmania is there are so many things to do (climbing, walking, peak bagging, kayaking) in a small area. The terrible thing about Tasmania is the weather. It always seems as if you have a one day weather window for a three day trip, or perhaps a two day weather window for a six day trip, or any other similar ratio of good weather days to time required to do the trip. The exact ratio may vary but is virtually never one for one.

Mount Ossa from Mount Oakleigh

After hiking up Cradle Mountain on a gloriously sunny day, we had another wet and rainy day, and then the forecast was for one sunny day, one cloudy day, and followed by several days of rain. Our plan was to hike into Pelion Plains and camp near the new Pelion Hut on the sunny day, climb Mount Oakleigh in the afternoon, hike up Mounts Ossa and Pelion East on the cloudy day, and get up early in the morning on the third day to hike back out, hopefully before the weather window slammed shut and it began to rain - again. Amazingly, everything pretty much went to plan.

Day One: Arm River Track to New Pelion Hut, Mount Oakleigh:

There is a bridge out on the Arm River Road so the access to the Arm River Track is via Maggs Road about an hours drive south of Gowrie Park on windy minor roads. The only signage you will see is at the junction of the Arm River Road and Maggs Road. The last 18 (or so) kilometres is unsealed but well graded. 

The Arm River track is in excellent and improving shape thanks to a hard working track crew who are putting switchbacks up the only significant climb on the track to the February Plains. It was quite a surprise to encounter switchbacks here in Tasmania where we have quickly got used to tracks that go straight up. 

 Lake Ayr and Mount Oakleigh

In any case, the track climbs up on the north side of the Arm River to tiny Lake Price and a view of Mount Pillinger to the south, before ambling through low heath lands and descending gently to Lake Ayr. At Lake Ayr, Mount Pelion West and Mount Oakleigh come into view and we had a pleasant half hour lunch break on a big boulder overlooking Lake Ayr. A few black swans, with chicks, make an unlikely home at Lake Ayr. 

Lake Ayr is two kilometres long and a significant amount of the track is on boardwalk. Mount Ossa begins to come into view across Pelion Plains and, just before the new Pelion Hut, you pass the track to Mount Oakleigh and cross a suspension bridge. The hut and surrounding campsites were deserted when we arrived (3.5 hour walk in) which was a bit surprising as we were now on the Overland Track. We found a tent site, had tea, and then I set off up Mount Oakleigh. Doug read the signage in the hut which indicated the track to Mount Oakleigh was boggy (imagine that) and decided to stay behind. 

It was 3.15 pm when I set off so I was going as fast as I could which, actually turned out to be quite slow until I worked out how to deal with the submerged track. The first one kilometre of track is across flooded button grass plains and I was struggling to sink only ankle deep. After faffing around quite a bit, I simply decided to take my boots off and walk/wade barefoot along the "track."

This was all going swimmingly well (foreshadowing) until I got to a particularly deep looking flooded section. In fact, the path ahead seemed to go directly through a river. However, in one section, the bottom looked to be only about 30 cm deep (knee depth) so I confidently strode in expecting to touch down on the weedy bottom I could see below. 

 Cathedral Mountain from Pelion Gap

There was, however, no touchdown as my foot punched through a mat of weeds cleverly disguised as a river bed, I was crotch deep before my wits woke up enough for me to fling my self onto the submerged bank before I went any deeper (I still had not touched bottom). Now I was soaked almost to the waist and the most sensible course seemed to be to carry on so my body heat would dry my clothes out. 

After some scouting, I found a less deep channel, waded through and carried on. Eventually, I felt confident enough to put my boots back on but that does not mean the track is dry. There is, in fact, only about 100 metres of track that is not wet. The track climbs gradually at first through dark rainforest then starts up more steeply and pushes through thick pandani forest eventually emerging onto the Oakley plateau where the track is once more very wet. The plateau is a pretty place of dolerite boulders, tarns, streams and low heath lands. The actual summit is at the far northwestern end of the mountain and I did not have time to go that far so stopped atop some dolerite columns with a stunning view south to Pelion Gap, Mounts Ossa and Pelion East, and north to Barn Bluff and Cradle Mountain.

I managed to avoid a dunking on the way back down but still made use of the barefoot walking technique which netted me some fairly muddy legs and a few new leech bites but, at least my clothing was dry. Back at the Pelion Hut, the days Overland walkers had arrived most looking quite weary after a 17 km day. 

 Mount Pelion East and Mount Ossa from Mount Oakleigh

Day Two: Mounts Ossa And Pelion East:

It was a quiet night as there were only about 13 Overland walkers and most slept in the hut. Doug and I slept out in our tent which was soaked with dew in the morning. I got up before dawn, as I usually do, and crept around the hut making a cup of tea. Soon after, Doug emerged, we had breakfast and wandered up the Overland track to Pelion Gap where the mud bog was somewhat improved from my recollection of it in the mid 1980's when I walked the track in winter. 

The Ossa track climbs steeply and wetly at first (there was a trail crew at work when we were coming down so no doubt this track will get better) until it is about 100 metres below the summit of Mount Doris when it sidles around Mount Doris on the south side. 

 The Ducane Range from Mount Ossa

There are lovely views of Pinestone Valley and the Ducane Range. Past Mount Doris the track climbs up a rocky hillside between two "gates of dolerite." There is a very short descent, then a final gradual climb to the summit plateau which is surprisingly expansive and even has a couple of pretty tarns. 

The real summit is the top of a dolerite column, easiest to ascend/descend from the moister west side. I'm not sure how many walkers tag the real top as it is a bit of an exposed scramble (class 4 YDS). Doug and I took it in turns to stand on the tiny summit and then retired to a more comfortable flat boulder for a break. 

 Doug on the summit of Mount Ossa

The first of the Overland walkers were coming up as we went down and, by the time we got back to Pelion Gap, we had seen all but two who staggered up looking somewhat fatigued while we were having a quick break at Pelion Gap. Ironically, the only packs that the Currawongs had managed to breech (these clever birds have learned to open zippers) were the packs of the guided group staying at the private huts. There were various things strewn about Pelion Gap when we arrived which we stuffed back into various pockets. When we came back after climbing Pelion East, the birds had pulled out a whole different selection of items. 

It is only 300 metres elevation up Pelion East on another boggy to start track. About a third of the way up the track enters talus fields and dries out as it gradually heads north around the dolerite gap and climbs steeply up the final somewhat loose gully to the top. This time, the views include Cathedral Mountain and Lees Paddocks. 

 Looking back at Mount Ossa as we head up Mount Pelion East

I was by this time dying for a cup of tea so after surveying the view we hurried down passing the last two Overland walkers who were on their way up Pelion East instead of Ossa. Doug ambled back but I fairly galloped and was shocked (horrified) to emerge at the new Pelion Hut where there were 17 tents (!) and a slew of people also in the hut. Our small tent felt fairly surrounded and we ended up deciding to sleep in the hut as it was quieter and seemed less embattled than our tent. 

All the Overland walkers were, however friendly, mostly quiet exhausted and also very sick of the rain (more of that to come). The hut was very quiet as people went to bed at 8.30 pm! So early, in fact, that I was not tired and lay on my bunk for a couple of hours before finally dozing off. 

Day Three: The Door Slams Shut:

I woke up at 5.30 am the next morning and got Doug up soon after. We brewed up, had a quick breakfast and were away at 7.15 am into misty cool wet weather. Off and on during our walk out it rained in a light desultory fashion but never enough to need a jacket (we were under dense trees much of the way). It took us just over three hours to get out to the car and we had no sooner got in and buckled up than the rain began and continued for the remainder of the day. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

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