April school holidays 2018 saw us heading off to the Pine Valley hut in Tasmania’s Central West. I had heard accolades about the tarns and pencil pines of The Labyrinth for years from Graham. So the lure of such a mystical place and potential for great photos was irresistible!
Driving to Lake St Clair/Leeawuleena
On Thursday 12th of April there was a grim forecast for the weekend – but we were committed. After all we had put a stop-sell on all our accommodation cottages so we could get away. This is one of the downsides of being in hospitality. Also, we had booked and paid for the 09:00 Lake St Clair ferry service the next day.
So off we drove through Launceston down the midland Highway turning right to Longford/Cressy, then up over the highlands via Poatina, Great Lakes, Miena and Bronte Park to Lake St Clair via Derwent Bridge. This is a 270 km five-hour road trip from Tin Dragon Cottages under good conditions.
We arrived at Lake St Clair by early evening. After an enjoyable family meal of fish and chips with drinks at the Lodge cafe (about $80) we bedded down for the night. We were camping in the back of our van parked in the long-term car park area. Parking in the Lodge camping area was too expensive.
Note: There is an additional charge to use the showers in the Lodge camping area.However there is a free camp site for tents near-by,too.
Of course sleeping in our van outside the Lodge camping area meant we missed out on a hot shower before starting our walk. This is because the free public showers (just outside the Lodge) are only open between 10:00 and 16:00 each day and we were on the 09:00 ferry. Luckily the public toilets are open 24 hours, seven days each week.
Note: It is wise to book your birth on the ferry well in advance of arriving at Lake St Clair (or Narcissus).
Tasmania is Such a Small Island…
The next morning we were munching into our breakfast of bacon and eggs (Graham and James) and pancakes (me) when we were surprised to meet up with friends Rosemary and Sean from Jackey’s Marsh. The Jackey’s Marsh group were starting a walk around the lake from Narcissus back to Cynthia Bay. How delightful! We chatted non-stop for the 30 minute journey on-board the Ida Clair.
During the cruise I learnt that the lake, which is very deep in parts (180 m), was formed by glacial activity. I also learned that the ghostly dead eucalypts that stand out in the landscape of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park are most likely the result of continuing natural competition between beech-myrtle and sclerophyll forests. I was relieved to hear the dead trees were the result of a natural phenomenon.
The Walk from Narcissus to Pine Valley Hut
Some more optimistic bloggers suggest it takes about an hour to walk the four km to the Pine Valley intersection with the Overland Track (OLT), then another one to two hours for the next ~ five km to the Pine Valley Hut. For us older folk who like to walk slowly, stop, take photos, enjoy the scenery and eat lunch it takes closer to five hours to walk from Narcissus to Pine Valley Hut.
We left Narcissus at 09:50 and walked under a partially cloudy sky, stopping at 11:40 for a cup of hot coffee, boiled eggs, cheese, cracker biscuits and fudge at the Pine Valley intersection. There are some conveniently places logs here which are ideal for sitting on.
Meeting Other Walkers
Along the track we had encountered several small groups of walkers who were completing the OLT. Some were cheery with bright “hellos!” and others more brusque in their greetings. We stayed briefly talking with fellow walkers at the Pine Valley Hut intersection. We felt particularly engaged by a group of older women. OMG! they have been older than me. We met two men from NZ who had left their packs on the main track while they explored the Pine Valley track. They said it was too wet to walk any further than the first bridge. Apparently they didn’t want to get their socks wet–good luck with that one!
A father and son duo also appeared on their way from the Bert Nichol’s hut to Pine Valley. For a moment, I panicked thinking there could be a crowd at the Pine Valley Hut. We didn’t want to arrive late and miss out on sleeping in the hut. The thought of camping out in the wet wasn’t palatable–and we hadn’t packed a tent! We cut our meal short and headed off ahead of these latest arrivals.
We stopped for lunch and to chat with OLT walkers.
What is the Pine Valley Track Like?
This is the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park and you do walk through heavily forested terrain, so there are brief stretches of board-walks and lots of uneven rocky, slippery tree roots to contend with. The track passes through open button-grass plains, then eucalypt forest, before heading into beautiful myrtle-beech rain forest for the last half-hour of the walk.
Apart from the trip hazards the Pine Valley track is relatively easy. There are no steep climbs with high steps such as you find on other sections of the OLT. It had rained the previous day so initially we were rock hopping across muddy puddles to avoid getting wet boots. But this soon became tiresome, so we ended up plodding through the water and arriving at the hut with wet socks. The wet track conditions also meant that we couldn’t find comfortable places to sit for an additional snack or to contemplate the scenery while taking a “breather”. By the way, when you are older – like us – you do need more opportunities for “breathers”.
Note: It is wise to pack a generous supply of socks.
The track follows beside the Cephissus Creek and crosses the creek twice. The bridges are first-class!
Less than 500 m into the Pine Valley track you cross over the Narcissus River for the second time.
The Cephissus Creek is crossed twice.
Sections of the Pine Valley track
The Pine Valley Hut
James, tired of hanging back with us, reached the hut 30 minutes ahead of us at around 14:00. He had unpacked and collected kindling for the fire by the time we arrived. On arriving we had the hut to ourselves. An hour or so later the father and son we had seen earlier, and a brother and sister from Canada–who had been up to the Labyrinth–arrived; so there were seven of us in the hut for the night. We spent the hours of remaining daylight eating (afternoon tea then dinner) and enjoying the sun set. Dark comes in early in April. The light was fading by 16:30 and completely dark by 18:00.
Note: I have heard that the Pine Valley hut often reaches maximum capacity on weekends during summer. So you really should carry a tent.
The Pine Valley hut is nestled in the rain forest. Here is the view from the verandah of the hut (right-hand photo). The bush toilet is 50 steps down a rough wet track from the hut and the timber platforms for attaching tents are located nearby in the rain forest.
I spent a blissful hour day-dreaming, surrounded by the alpine beauty of Pine Valley. This is Mount Gould reflected in the shallow mossy ponds beneath the helicopter pad behind the Pine Valley hut. The silence was interrupted only by a low chorus of frogs and far-away screeches of Currawongs.
As the dark came in, the hut’s seven occupants fired up their fuel stoves for the ritual of evening meal preparation. BTW we were impressed with our recently purchased 360 degree Furno and 1.25L Sea-to-Summit collapsible cooking pot, and really pleased with the locally produced dehydrated bolognese (Strive, Hobart). As with all the huts on the OLT there was a tank of fresh drinking water for us to use in our cooking. However, as an extra precaution I added a sterilising tablet to the cold water in our drinking bottles.
Unofficial Hut Protocol
In accord with unofficial camp protocol, conversation around the table started slowly with introductions then became more detailed and more interesting as various people opened up.
And then another it’s a small world experience. Turns out that Ian (of father & son duo) and I had attended the same post-grad Uni of Melbourne course about 10 years ago. He recognised me! I was able to catch up on some of the happenings with our mutual employer since my retirement three years ago. This conversation amply reassured me that I had made a good decision to leave.
The Pine Valley Hut Mice
Above the door to the hut there is a large cavity inhabited by mice. James just had to flash his torch into it! Not pretty. During the night Graham had an unwelcome visitor run over the beanie on his head. The noise of mice squeaking and fighting over a plastic bag bonanza kept me awake for several hours. Previous (inconsiderate) hut occupants had left a plastic bag containing some soiled food-packet waste in a corner of the hut. The mouse-pee smell of the torn bag the next day was most unpleasant.
Note: You really do need to hang-up all your food and secure your packs in the Pine Valley hut. Note to self: Remember to take a few mouse traps (and peanut paste) on our next overnight stay at Pine Valley hut.
Problem with the Lake St Clair Ferry Service
The Canadian brother and sister were truly bushwalking hards. I was awe-inspired by their recent adventures, the latest of which was the OLT. Although generally impressed with their Tasmanian experience when compared with New Zealand and Canada, they had a complaint about the last day of their OLT walk. The commercial walking companies had a block booking on their preferred 13:00 Narcissus to Cynthia Bay ferry service and their travel connections meant having to catch the 09:30 ferry. Do the maths on this. They were understandably angry. Actually everyone was angry when their extremely loud emergency siren woke us up in the dark at at 04:00!
Walk to The Labyrinth
During the night it started raining, becoming heavier then culminating in a loud thunder storm around midnight then settling to light rain by 04:00. The temperature in the hut dropped below 10 deg C.
We set off for the Labyrinth about 10:00 with light to moderate rain falling. Thermals, warm coats, beanies, rain coats and later gloves were needed to stay warm. We packed day packs with snacks including hot water in a thermos, boiled eggs, cheese, crackers, chocolate and drinking chocolate.
The first easy-walking section of the walk winds through classic temperate rainforest of myrtles and increasing numbers of pencil pines–all beautifully green and mossy, punctuated with bright coloured fungi. Apart from a few short lengths of board-walk close to the hut, it is a natural unformed track of exposed tree roots, soft leaf litter and rocks with orange markers for guidance. In some of the higher sections, you also need to look for the small rock cairns.
Graham wisely fended off the rain with an umbrella
Climbing the Creek
The track soon leaves the softness of the forest and starts to ascend. Initially a track of exposed tree roots, then uneven rocks, before it winds up along a creek bed. The lower stretch of the creek was composed of smaller gravelly rocks and wasn’t too difficult despite the streaming water. There were more tree roots and larger rocks as the track traversed the side of the valley.
Then there was the final steep ascent of larger rocks and increasing streams of cascading water. For me this last stretch seemed endless. I wanted to give up on several occasions; but was motivated by Graham to keep going. After all we were chasing the photo opportunity of a lifetime.
Who could keep complaining about the gushing water when surrounded by these elegant Pencil Pines?
The Weather Deteriorated
As we reached the Parthenon plateau the scenery opened up, revealing Mount Gould. In the opposite direction we could see Frenchmans Cap (our next walk?). It was bitterly cold and dark clouds were gathering with another squall heading our way.
While admiring the fleeting view out to Lake St Clair I opened my day pack to find my DSLR camera floating in water! Words fail me. Thankfully James had managed some great mobile phone shots which are published here. Would you believe there was excellent five-bar mobile reception?
We sheltered as best we could against some rocks and had a reviving hot chocolate drink and snacks. We made a quick decision to abandon our walk across the plateau then started the trek back down the hill chased by increasing rain. I found it much easier going down the hill, and much faster.
Back at the Pine Valley Hut
We reached the hut by 14:00 on wobbly legs. After emptying the water out of our boots, we wrung out our soaking wet gloves and socks and hung up our wet coats. The rain was becoming heavier and the wind started howling. This was more fun than I could possibly have imagined. Not.
Of course James had reached the hut before Graham and I. What a treasure! He had the coal fire burning. Amazing how dry clothes and a warm fire can revive a tired shivering body.
Another family group had arrived, so the hut soon resembled a steaming laundry. The conversation was pleasant as we sat around the table (close to the fire) and ate our meals. Everyone was packed up and ready for bed by 18:30.
Ahhhhh Camp Life!
No really, why do we do it? It’s a form of voluntary torture. As you get older you can feel your joints and muscles aching (Voltaren is my friend) as you lie in your sleeping bag wishing your bladder wouldn’t fill up. But of course there is the obligatory walk out into the cold and rain along a wet track (50 steps) to the toilet. Here the strong ammonia acts like smelling salts to wake you up–thus ensuring another few hours of wakefulness. Such bliss!
BTW during the night a resourceful mouse (or two) found their way into a back pack to feast on unprotected food. One of the family learnt that a plastic bag is no match for a determined mouse.
And Then it Snowed…
During the night the rain pelted down and the hut groaned in the strong winds. I recall trying to huddle further into my sleeping bag and pulling my beanie over my face. By first light the wind had dropped and so had the temperature–to below zero.
Our teenage hero got up to stoke the fire and took some photos of the snow. As the hut warmed up everyone busied themselves for an early departure. The family were going to try to walk up to the Labyrinth, but I didn’t fancy their chances with the additional challenge of ice and snow. We decided to head back to Narcissus and Cynthia Bay, cutting our planned stay short by one night.
James’s mobile phone shots of early morning snow near the Pine Valley Hut
Return to Narcissus
It was a silent, still winter wonderland with softly falling snow as we left the hut around 08:30. Despite the snow, sleet, rain and water running over the tracks–mid-calf depth in places–it was the most wondrous and enjoyable of walks. There were moments of pure bliss. So this is why we do it! Multi-day walking in Tasmania, that is.
Snow in Pine Valley as we left the hut. Cephissus Creek was starting to flood. (James’s mobile shots)
The snow crunched under our feet and the ice-laden bushes chilled and wet our legs as we walked. We had to place our feet carefully on the board-walks and the swing bridges.
Without my good camera and dry places to sit we reached Narcissus in under four hours…
At Narcissus we joined ten or so cold, wet OLT-refugees in the hut. There were no births on the 13:00 ferry service. It was bitterly cold. No coal fire here. We chatted, we drank hot chocolate, we shivered and we waited for the 15:30 ferry. Then Graham, James and I led the charge to the ferry. It was a relief to reach the van, change into dry clothes and turn the heater on as we drove away from Lake St Clair. It was even more of a relief to fall into my own bed at home that night!
If you wish to learn more about our tourist accommodation in North East Tasmania, please explore our Tin Dragon Cottages web site. We look forward to hosting your next stay in Tasmania!