Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

69. Melaleuca and Lake St. Clair

Back in Hobart, while reading the tourist paraphernalia that accumulates in the corners of campers kitchens all over Australia, Karen and I happened across a brochure for a scenic flight to Melaleuca. No roads lead to this tiny speck on the map of south-west Tasmania. It can only be reached by air, sea or foot. Two famous walking tracks terminate at Melaleuca - the South Coast Track and the South-West Track. Both of these walks take about six days, and both walks are notoriously wet and boggy. Having just returned from the mires of the Loddon, Karen and I were neither physically nor mentally prepared for another walk in the mud, so a flight to Melaleuca was a much more attractive prospect.

The flight was expensive but it did have some major attractions, and besides, we figured we were due for a treat. One of the attractions of a flight to Melaleuca is its pre-eminence as the home of one of the world's most endangered birds - the Orange-Bellied Parrot. Karen and I were unlikely to ever see this bird if we did not go to Melaleuca, as it only has a total population of about two hundred.

The Orange-Bellied Parrot spends the summer months in the Tasmanian south-west before wintering along the southern coasts of Victoria and South Australia. It is a very small bird, not much bigger than a budgerigar, and its annual migration across Bass Strait is a hazardous one. It is not helped by a loss of habitat once it arrives on the mainland. I have never had much respect for Jeff Kennett, the Victorian Premier, but when he described the endangered bird as a "trumped-up corella" and proposed building a chemical storage facility in Port Phillip on land set aside for the bird's protection, whatever little respect I did have for the man promptly disappeared.

Karen before take-off

Our six-seater plane took off from Hobart Airport and headed south-west over the Huon River towards South Cape. From there we followed the coast to Melaleuca, virtually following the entire route of the South Coast track. It was a lot easier in the air than it would have been on foot. Precipitous Bluff passed by on our right, while out to sea on our left was the Maatsuyker Island group, home of the last manned lighthouse in Australia.

South coast of Tasmania

The runway at Melaleuca was a narrow strip of white quartzite rubble. Our flight included a flat-bottomed boat cruise on the waters of Melaleuca Creek, a tributary of the drowned river valleys which form Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour. This area of water - four times larger than Sydney Harbour - had been created when sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age. After the cruise we also visited the house of Deny King, a naturalist who lived in the area for over forty years and who first noticed the decline in numbers of the Orange-Bellied Parrot.

An inlet leading to Port Davey

A public information centre and bird observatory has been established at Melaleuca. Because we had arrived at midday, Karen and I felt we had very little chance of actually sighting the rare bird. Outside the windows of the observatory, in the middle of a large clearing, stood a forlorn and empty raised platform scattered with seed. Inside the windows of the observatory stood two forlorn bird watchers waiting hopefully with binoculars at the ready. Nothing happened for about ten minutes. Then I spotted a movement in a tree at the edge of the clearing.

"There's one!" I said, half whispering and half shouting at the same time. All eyes in the observatory focussed on the empty platform, and a minute later two parrots landed amidst the seed and started feeding. The belly of one was unmistakably red! I snapped a couple of photos and continued watching through the binoculars for a few minutes until the birds flew off. Karen and I could not believe our luck. We both knew that we had indeed been blessed.

The Orange-bellied Parrot

The return flight to Hobart would have been anti-climactic had it not been for the attitude of the pilot. Rather than return directly, he decided a slight scenic deviation was in order. He headed towards the Western Arthurs. We flew along the entire range - a distance of only twenty kilometres which takes about six days to traverse on foot. When we reached the end the pilot turned around and flew down the other side of the range. Even the flattening effect of aerial observation could not hide the ruggedness of the mountains. We flew low enough to make out the footpads in the softer going beside many of the lakes. It was magic. One day, I thought, Karen and I would be walking down there. Beside me in the plane, Karen was thinking "No bloody way!"

Part of the Western Arthurs

Back along the Huon we flew, the scars of recent logging clearly visible in the forests below. The cloud covered top of Mount Wellington passed us by on the left as we began our descent into Hobart. I just had time to snap aerial shots of Constitution Dock and the Tasman Bridge before we landed. We had been in Tasmania for over five weeks now, and only one walk remained.

Hobart and the Tasman Bridge

When Karen and I had walked the Overland Track in the eighties we had arrived at the head of Lake St. Clair and taken the water taxi back along the lake to the end of the walk. The walk notes had said that the long slog down to the ranger station at Cynthia Bay was not really worth the effort, while the alternate route around the back of Mount Olympus was longer and more difficult. Afterwards, Karen and I had regretted that we had not really completed the walk, and planned to return to Lake St. Clair one day to fill in the gap. The time had come.

Once more we risked death on the bus trip out to the start of a walk. Karen and I had assumed that the hikes would be the main adventures with the main dangers, but they were a doddle when compared to some of the bus rides! Once we had stopped shaking, we donned packs and headed out.

Lake St. Clair runs from north to south, more or less. It is bounded along its western side by a ridge of mountains, the most prominent being Mount Olympus. Further west of the range was the Cuvier River valley, a broad and flat expanse of button grass plain. Our route on the first day took us up this valley to Lake Petrarch. Button grass plains can be exceedingly boggy, but we were pleasantly surprised by the condition of the track. We hardly even got our shoes muddy!

Mount Olympus and the button-grass plain

Lake Petrarch was idyllic. Under cloudless skies we set up our tent on a white, sandy beach, with views of Mount Byron reflected in the shallow waters of the lake. A variety of eucalypt similar to the snow gum grew nearby, their red, orange and white bark glowing warmly in the late afternoon sunshine. Apart from a couple of hikers coming down the valley just after we had started, Karen and I had seen nobody all day. The lake was deserted, and we took advantage of our isolation to wash in the water just off our beach. It was cool, but not as cold as it might have been.

On the second day we made our way along the northern side of Lake Petrarch and climbed to Byron Gap, a saddle between Mount Byron and Mount Olympus. From the top of the gap we could see our old friend, Frenchman's Cap, on the western horizon. I have heard it said that there are places in Tasmania where on a clear day a person can see from one side of the island to the other. I do not doubt it. Karen and I were constantly surprised at the apparent nearness of familiar landmarks far away.

We descended from the gap through deep forest to meet up with the Overland Track just south of Narcissus Hut at the head of the lake. Once there, Karen and I had effectively completed the walk we had begun almost a decade earlier. We continued along the Overland Track for four or five kilometres before branching off to Pine Valley. On our previous trip into this area we had climbed a fourteen hundred and seventy one metre mountain called the Acropolis. A painting which commemorates this walk is mounted on the wall beside me as I write this. From the top of the Acropolis we had looked across at a lake studded plateau known as the Labyrinth. We had not promised ourselves to go there one day, but as we were in the area it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

After camping for the night near a very crowded Pine Valley Hut, we awoke to a putrid day - wet, cold, raining, miserable. Bugger it, we thought, let's do it anyway, so we donned our wet weather gear and set off for the Labyrinth. We had soon climbed into the clouds along tracks which had become streams. Occasional views of the surrounding landscape made fleeting appearances through the gloom. We skirted the edge of the Parthenon and arrived at the rock plateau of the Labyrinth. When we began walking over ill-defined tracks, we constantly had to look behind us in order to visualise the route so we would recognise it when we returned.

Visibility, at times, was down to a few metres. More than once we questioned whether further progress was wise, but then conditions would improve, the cloud would lift and we would be sucked into advancing another hundred metres when the cloud would descend again.

The rain brought out the colour of the trees

We eventually arrived at the Labyrinth proper, with lakes abounding and gnarled trees paying testimony to the harshness of the environment. The even light caused by the heavy overcast and the rain saturating the trees brought out the colours of the bark perfectly. I snapped shot after shot, when the mist cleared long enough. At one point the weather improved sufficiently for a photo across to the Acropolis, its summit ridge lost in whiteness. If we had been up there today looking towards the Labyrinth we would have seen nothing but the inside of a cloud.

The Acropolis from the Labyrinth

The rain never let up as we returned to pack up our tent. In the afternoon we retraced our steps of the previous day back to Narcissus Hut. After a pleasant and very dry night, Karen and I embarked on another day trip, this time to the fourteen hundred and ninety one metre Mount Gould. Like our trip to the Labyrinth, the walk up Mount Gould was not a life-long wish, but just a pleasant walk to a scenic spot for excellent views down Lake St. Clair. It was also another peak bagged.

Lake St.Clair from the Gould Plateau

In the afternoon we returned to Narcissus Hut, picked up our gear and followed the Overland Track south along the western shore of Lake St. Clair to the Echo Point Hut, about halfway down the lake. We had avoided this section of the walk previously when we had taken the boat. Although it has a reputation as the most boring section of the Overland Track, Karen and I found the walk through the forests along the lake really fascinating. The trees were really impressive, perhaps because we had become accustomed to their stunted relatives at greater altitudes. Rather disturbingly, many of them had also fallen over or lost large limbs. It was with some relief that we finally exited the forest and made our way back to Cynthia Bay on the fifth day.

We bussed to Launceston via the Great Lakes of central Tasmania and flew back to Sydney the following day. Our sojourn in the island state had been refreshing after six months of bike riding and four months of work. It was now time to think about Elle and Mel, still in Darwin awaiting our next move. Karen was still not totally convinced that riding the west coast was a good option, but my desire had intensified. I decided to flex my muscles and try to exert a little bit of authority within our relationship.

"Look, Karen," I said forcefully, "I will be flying back to Darwin and riding down the west coast. Are you coming with me or not?"
"Okay," she replied.

You could have knocked me down with a feather.

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