Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Backpacking Tasmania's Overland Track

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The Overland Track wanders through some of the world's most interesting terrain in the mountains of Tasmania.
Walking with Wombats in Tasmania

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A wallaby on the Overland Track.

Nothing says 'Thanksgiving' quite like dehydrated, leathery beef teriyaki and rice for two, scooped out of a boiler bag with our plastic sporks. Fresh, untreated rainwater collected from the roof of our hut makes for an adequate beverage, although my wife and I would prefer a nice Tasmanian Chardonnay. Dessert is from our precious horde of dates.


Jeannette and I think of our family and friends back home and speculate on who they’re eating their turkey and cranberries with on this most traditional of American holidays while we dine al fresco under the Tasmanian sky, surrounded by mountains.


We’re at the heart of the Overland Track, which wanders through the mountains and rainforests of western Tasmania. This 45-mile trail is considered one of the Top 10 hikes in the world, and, I imagine, one of the muddiest.


If you’ve ever hiked Isle Royale on Lake Superior in Michigan or the Appalachian Trail, you would certainly appreciate the Overland Track, which presents similar challenges and rewards – as in rain, cold, wind and miles of hills to climb under a heavy pack, assuaged by the pleasure of spectacular scenery and wildlife.






These mountains can be cruel. In 1824, eight convicts from a British labor camp escaped into the southern half of this range. Two starving men turned back, but the rest wandered lost for weeks among these grim peaks. One by one they killed the weakest and the lame among them, devouring their flesh.


In the end, there were only two -- each afraid to fall asleep, fearing that the other would seize their sole axe. Irish convict Alexander Pearce stayed awake the longest and made the cut, so to speak. Pearce was captured a few weeks later, but his tale of cannibalism was so incredible that the authorities didn’t believe him. He soon escaped again with another young convict, who he quickly dispatched for dinner. Pearce was captured with some of his mate’s body parts in his pockets, and this time he swung for it.


Life in the mountains has much improved since then, but still, this trail can be tough. We started out 1,500 feet up a mountain trail in a light rain which soon turned into a downpour with gusts of wind reaching 60 miles per hour, knocking Jeannette completely off her feet three times under the weight of her heavy pack. By the second day the trail had turned into a stream from the rain washing down from the mountains. We walked for miles through ankle-deep water and mud, often across fields of thousands of rocks, boulders and rotting timber ties along with some much appreciated boardwalks.


Overland Track, Tasmania, Planet Backpacker
A suspension bridge on Tasmania's Overland Track.
Tasmania, Overland Track, Planet Backpacker
Like mud? BRING YOUR GAITERS!

Yet at the end of each day, the Tasmanian Parks authority kindly provides a network of huts to sleep in -- dormitories which include wooden pallets to sleep on. Our bedfellows included hikers from many lands: Switzerland, France, Venezuela, China, Germany, Sweden and mainland Australia among them.


There are also many unusual animals on the trail: a small kangaroo called a wallaby nibbles at the grass while her Joey hops in and out of mamma’s pouch. And a curious wombat comes calling at night: it’s a marsupial groundhog about the size of a young pig with a quizzical expression on its face and an armored butt that protects it from harm when it burrows into its den. Like the koala bear and the wallaby, the wombat is indescribably “cute.”


If large, poisonous snakes are your thing, you’ll be happy to know that the Overland Track is literally crawling with deadly Tiger snakes. A snake estimated to be as much as seven feet long is found coiled near one of our huts, but thankfully these critters are a timid bunch who’d rather flee than bite. No one has died of a bite in this park since 1950, and it turns out that 80% of snake bites in Australia are caused by someone trying to kill the critter.



Still, they do make a bloke a bit nervous and I tap with my walking stick as we wander through what the Ozzies call “the bush.”
Tasmania, as you may know, is one of the southernmost islands in the world, lying off the coast of Australia. There’s nothing between here and Antarctica but the vast Southern Ocean.

It’s a picturesque place that looks a bit like old England combined with a prehistoric Lost World that’s outside the realm of the earth’s evolutionary course; and yet, in a strange way, Taz shares something in common with Northern Michigan. While we live at latitude 45 degrees in the north, the Taswegians live at about the same latitude in the southern half of the planet.

We spent seven days on the trail, with our last night in a rough old wooden hut which measured 14 feet square, said to be infested by rats and possums who made mischief at night. I spent 45 minutes desperately trying to get an antique coal stove started - who knew it was so difficult? By the grace of God the coal finally lit to relieve our misery of being soaking wet and cold.

Soon, there were 10 of us crammed into a hut designed for eight, with some of us sleeping three to a bunk so that no one would have to sack out on the floor. The hut was crammed full with our wet clothes and packs hanging from the rafters while other packs, cooking gear and muddy boots littered the filthy plank floor. We fell asleep on the top bunk by 9 to the patter of rain on the roof, straining to hear the scramble of possums and rats on the floor below.

Thankfully, they never showed up.

DETAILS:  Reservations through the Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service are required to hike the  65k Overland Track, with a limit of 60 hikers allowed on the trail per day.
    The season runs from November - April, since the winter months (May-October) are too hazardous for hiking.  You are required to carry a tent since the huts along the trail tend to fill up during the busy summer season.
   It's not cheap: $200 per hiker and $160 for kids under 17 and seniors.  You'll also need a Tasmanian Parks pass.  The fees go toward trail maintenance and the huts, which you will surely appreciate.
  Contact the Tasmania Parks service for further info at http://www.parks.tas.gov.au

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Fellow backpackers at a rough cabin at Echo Point.
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