Saturday, February 12, 2011

Saturday Snapshot: Cradle Mountain

My first look at Cradle Mountain, from near the beginning of the Dove Lake Circuit.
I'm a sucker for national parks. Maybe it's having all but grown up in them, but plunk me down in a national park with plenty of trails to walk, night sky to stargaze at and wildlife to marvel over and I couldn't be happier. So when I heard from a couple of Aussies (Queenslanders) my parents and I met in Utah's Zion National Park in the U.S. this past September that Australia's island state of Tasmania is 40% national parks, I decided I had to get there.

Cradle Mountain and the pristine waters of Dove Lake.
Freycinet National Park with its charming bays and coastline was lovely and I'd have liked to spend more time in Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, but it was Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park that made me feel like camping out forever might just be a viable life plan. Known for its six-day Overland Track that stretches from near Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair itself, Cradle Mountain NP is a backpacker's dream, with trails ranging from easy but visually stunning walks to challenging climbs over rocks and crags to reach a view that could take your breath away.

Cradle Mountain hangs dramatically above the northern end of Dove Lake and the Dove Lake Circuit.
Tasmanians say that you can expect to see Cradle Mountain itself one day out of every three but, after my humbling drenching in Freycinet a few days before, the powers that be must have decided I deserved a treat, because I was lucky enough to get two days of crystal clear views.

Cradle Mountain from the opposite (northern) side, a shadowy backdrop behind the lovely greenery of Cradle Valley.
There are places in the park where you can't see the mountain at all and wonder where it's gone off to, then you come around a bend in a path or crest a small hill and it appears, striking against the sky and a rugged contrast to the Tasmanian rainforest below.

A morning at Cradle Mountain, with Dove Lake and its boat shed in the foreground.
If you ever get the chance to visit Tasmania, be sure to include Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park in your itinerary. There's a peace and quiet in the air, not to mention heart-stopping views, that absolutely should not be missed.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Hiker With the Black Umbrella

The crazy Tasmanian weather means you can go from this
beautiful sunshine over Freycinet National Park's lovely
Wineglass Bay to cranky thunderstorms in an hour or less.
You have got to be kidding me, I thought, looking up as the first raindrops hit the rocks around me. What had happened to the bright, sunny afternoon I'd been enjoying? I was in the second half of an 11km (not quite seven-mile) hike in Tasmania's Freycinet National Park with a friend and, with scrubby trees and wiry bushes leaving just enough trail to walk on, there was absolutely nowhere to go. I heaved a sigh and reached for my pack.

Before you start wondering just how much of a wuss I'd have to be in order to be that put out by a few drops of rain, let me tell you a little about family vacations when I was a kid: they usually involved a couple of weeks in national parks in the U.S. or western Canada and the one question my dad could always be counted on to ask before we left home and as we set out from our campsite each day was, "Do you have your parka?" (In Pinneo family lingo, "parka" means "waterproof jacket," not "big, heavy, snow-proof coat.") With much eye-rolling and face-making, I would say yes, grumpy that I had to lug such an unwieldy thing around all day, with little likelihood of actually needing to wear it. Parkas are ugly, I would complain. It's too big, I look stupid. Whenever I could possibly get away with leaving the thing behind, I did.

Clouds starting to gather near Wineglass Bay.
So it was a bit ironic that, prior to leaving for Australia, a waterproof jacket was on my to-buy list, since one of my first stops would be Tasmania, capital of unpredictable weather conditions. I found a few I liked online, but wanted to make my purchase in-store, since I wasn't sure of the sizing. No worries, I thought; since I would be spending a few days in Los Angeles before heading across the Pacific, I could just pop into an REI store and find what I wanted. Unfortunately, it turns out that REI stores in Southern California don't really carry Outdoor Research (OR) products, which was what I'd been looking at. There was a similar jacket by The North Face that could have worked, but it was a little heavier than I wanted for the Australian summer weather, and REI's own similar line was more expensive than OR's. So I decided I'd wait to buy a jacket until I got to Australia, either in Tasmania or once I was settled in Sydney. In the meantime, I'd just have to tough it out with an umbrella and hope for clear skies.

I had not, however, planned on ending up on a narrow Tasmanian hiking trail, in pouring rain, with nothing waterproof at hand except a black, travel-sized umbrella. If it had been just me and the usual hiking paraphernalia in my daypack, I would have kept on going and ignored the rain, no problem. I had a hat to keep water out of my eyes and it wasn't cold, by any means. But I had my Kindle and my iPod in my pack and no other way to protect them from the downpour, so, rolling my eyes at my own idiocy, I popped open the umbrella, hitched it over my shoulder so that it covered as much of my pack as possible and set off at as fast a clip as I could manage, eyes focused enviously on the water rolling off the hood of my friend's jacket.
The sky over an isthmus on the Freycinet Peninsula,
looking a little more foreboding just before the rain started.

The image of myself in my mind's eye as I hiked made me want to both laugh and bang my head against a wall. Hiking with an umbrella, I thought. Could I be any more ridiculous? The umbrella, wider than my shoulders and much less easy to maneuver, snagged on bushes and branches every few steps and I gritted my teeth as I continually yanked it free, trying to climb without bending over and exposing the bottom of my pack to the rain. The few hikers who passed us gave me puzzled looks and I smiled sheepishly, wishing I could disappear into the ground and take my absurdly out-of-place umbrella with me.

An hour or so later, my friend and I made it back to the carpark and scrambled into our tour's minibus to laughing applause. Soaked to the skin - this hadn't been any gentle shower but a steady downpour, complete with rolling thunder - we collapsed in our seats and I gratefully put away my umbrella, sure of three things: 1) I never wanted to hike with an umbrella again; 2) I was buying a waterproof jacket the minute I found a sporting goods store back in Sydney; 3) My dad was never going to let me live this down.

And there you have it: the day I became "the hiker with the black umbrella."