Tasmania’s best-kept secret
The first day of any trek is tough: you’re not yet warmed up, not accustomed to the terrain or carrying a full pack of gear and probably haven’t found your stride. In the Walls of Jerusalem, high on a plateau in the middle of Tasmania, this is especially true, but our six-day trek starts in a deceptively easy fashion: with a three-hour drive west from Launceston.
It’s a join-the-dots journey through Deloraine and Mole Creek, past honey farms and wildlife parks, followed by a picnic by the rushing Mersey River. Then it’s time to prepare — by putting on knee-high gaiters (to protect our legs from spiky scoparia bushes; one of our guides says gaiters also make you feel “at least 20 per cent tougher”), shouldering our packs and beginning the climb.
This is the relentless uphill slog our guides had warned us about, right after lunch and in the heat of a summer day, our packs as heavy as they’re going to get because we haven’t yet eaten any of the group food we’re carrying. It takes us two hours to cover the first two kilometres to Trapper’s Hut, a replica 1940s possum-trapper’s refuge; one of my fellow walkers throws up. But our two aptly named guides, Victor Traill and Steve Trudgeon, are expert at ensuring we pace ourselves with frequent stops.
They also keep us present to the Beauty around us by pointing out pretty pink mountain berries, yellow dogwoods and nearby Clumner Bluff, which we see through gum-topped stringybarks dancing in the breeze. After a while the track levels out and we spread out, walking alone or in pairs, settling in to the pace and this place. It feels peaceful and remote. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see how such a start could, and does, discourage people from coming here.
Despite being right beside the ever-popular Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, Walls of Jerusalem National Park is an often-overlooked piece of Tasmania’s natural heritage, the girl-next-door to Cradle’s screen siren. Not that the Walls is plain, far from it. Many Tasmanians, including Victor, regard it as their favourite park in Tasmania. It just gets fewer visitors than its better-known neighbour: about 3500 annually compared to the 162,000 people who visited Cradle Mountain last year (including 7168 who tackled its famous Overland Track).
Why so few? For one thing, there’s no road access. The only way in to the Walls of Jerusalem is on foot: it takes at least half an hour to reach the park boundary, a further two hours to reach the plateau itself; it’s another two hours to the first campsite (there are no huts for trekkers, so it’s BYO tents) and the most scenic section of the park.
It’s also Tasmania’s only true alpine national park. Unlike, say, the Overland Track, where you climb to high points during the day and retreat to lower huts or camps at night, most of the Walls of Jerusalem lies above 1200 metres, which means you’re vulnerable to sudden and extreme changes in the weather. Trekking at this altitude might sound tame compared to trekking in, say, the Himalayas, but when you factor in a latitude of 42 degrees south, exposed landscapes because the tree line is at 1000 metres and Tasmania’s fickle maritime climate, things start to get serious.
Summer snowfalls are not uncommon. There’s ice on the tents one morning on our trip, in early February. And even on warm, sunny days we carry rain jackets, thermals, fleeces and beanies because, as Victor puts it, “the weather can change up here like flicking on a light switch”.
Of course, that’s all part of the adventure, and the fact that the Walls isn’t as popular as some other parks in Tasmania is one of its chief attractions. My seven companions and I have come from all over Australia seeking what Tasmania promises in spades and delivers in double-spades here: a means of getting far from the madding crowds and escaping the human-centric world for a week. And if you’re up for the challenge, you’re in for a treat.
One of six national parks that make up the 1.3-million-hectare Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area — which includes Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair and Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers national parks — the 51,000-hectare Walls of Jerusalem puts the “wild” back in “wilderness”. It was created by grinding glaciers thousands of years ago and features dolerite monoliths and fortress-like walls, fairytale forests of pencil pines and broad valleys that glitter with tarns (the Walls and the adjacent Central Plateau Conservation Area contain almost 4000 glacial lakes and tarns).
It’s also ideally suited to base-camping: carrying in everything you need for a few days, setting up camp on the plateau and exploring in various directions without packs on subsequent days. That’s how we come to wander pack-free on our first morning in the park — two of our six days are day-walks, which aren’t days-off, incidentally. You might not be carrying a pack but you’re still covering a lot of ground, making the most of Tasmania’s long summer days.
Our first day-walk feels like a Sunday-school excursion at first, thanks to biblical names bestowed on the landforms around us by two pious men: surveyor James Scott in the summer of 1848–49 and Launceston solicitor and keen bushwalker Reg Hall in the 1920s. Two-plank boardwalks lead us through a pass called Herod’s Gate, past Lake Salome and between King David’s Peak (1499 metres, on our right) and Zion Hill (1395 metres, on our left). We stop to admire their reflections in the pond-like Pool of Bethesda before strolling on to Damascus Gate. There, we leave the track to scramble up a scree slope and through a slot canyon to the top of Solomon’s Throne (1450 metres), which gives us a view of some of the high points on the Overland Track — Cradle Mountain, Barn Bluff and Mt Ossa — just 40km to the west as the raven flies.
Although the Walls of Jerusalem is a relatively young national park, having been declared only in 1981 (Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair was designated in 1922), its landforms are older than old. As we look down on the valley we’ve just walked along, Victor gives us a lesson in glaciology. When the last ice age peaked, 10–12,000 years ago, he says, everything below where we’re standing was covered by the largest ice sheet in Australia, which was 100 metres thick in places.
Now the Walls is littered with telltale signs of its icy past: mountains as flat as tabletops, their jagged crowns having been worn away by ice; low hillocks called glacial moraines, where glaciers once bulldozed the earth; and, underground, plenty of highly flammable peat, which formed after the glaciers retreated (the reason the Walls is a fuel-stove-only park and campfires are banned).
I once heard a geologist explain the history of Earth, the whole 4.6 billion years, as if it had happened in a single year. On this scale, the first lifeforms, primitive bacteria, appeared around May, the first land animals and plants arrived in late November and dinosaurs lived for just two weeks in December. Humans came into being only a couple of hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve and the first Aborigines arrived in Australia six minutes before midnight.
Victor expands this “six minutes” by placing some of our trekking poles end-to-end on the ground in front of us to represent 45,000 years of Aboriginal culture in Tasmania. “Here,” he says, walking along his timeline and pointing to a spot a few centimetres from one end, “is when white man came to Australia. In that last five centimetres 45,000 years of Aboriginal culture was lost.” Artefacts from the Big River Tribe have been found in central Tasmania but today, sadly, there are no records of even Aboriginal names for features in the Walls of Jerusalem. We take a few silent moments to acknowledge the people who called this place home long before glaciers, pious surveyors and walkers made their marks. A wedge-tailed eagle soars below us.
Back down on the plateau again, we walk past two Bennett’s wallabies grazing in the shade of 2500-year-old pencil pines and ponder all that has happened in the human world since these trees were saplings, before strolling on to Dixon’s Kingdom. This dark, eerie pencil-pine forest — with its cubbyhouse hut made of weathered wood — is named after trapper and grazier Reg Dixon, who first came here in the 1930s and allegedly saw a Tasmanian tiger nearby in the 60s, long after the last thylacine is believed to have died in captivity, in Hobart Zoo in 1936.
That afternoon, we climb Mt Jerusalem, at 1459 metres, for another view. It’s a gentle ascent, around boulders and past strawberry pine, pineapple grass and long-dead trees spindly against the blue sky — many of the park’s conifers were destroyed by bushfires in the 1960s and, because there are no termites in Tasmania, dead trees can stay upright for 20 or 30 years.
On the days we’re not day-walking, we travel across the park, moving from north to south, often leaving the marked trails to explore. “One of the great things about the Walls,” says Victor, as we follow him through the bush on the morning of day three, our packs on our backs again, “is that Parks Tasmania doesn’t discourage off-track walking as it does in other parks.”
Unlike the Overland Track with its trekking permits, fees and quotas (there’s also a rule that you can only walk from north to south during peak season, November to April), the Walls feels refreshingly free. Of course, that puts the onus back on us to travel responsibly — which is easier with a guide. Whenever we come to soft ground, for instance, Victor and Steve remind us to fan out to minimise the impact of 10 pairs of hiking boots on the plants underfoot. We also have to avoid walking on cushion plants — low, lurid-green blobs that can cover several square metres and are harder than their name suggests; each one is a colony of symbiotic species, like the polyps that make up corals and just as fragile.
Twice, we camp beside lakes. Once, we swim, at Lake Meston, where the water is especially clear and inviting after a hot day of walking, with driftwood making patterns on the sandy bottom. It’s warm, too, at least where it’s ankle deep. A few of us put on our swimmers and wade out but, the deeper we go, the colder it gets. By the time I’m up to my knees, I can’t feel my feet. When we’re waist-deep, we decide we’ve come too far to retreat and dive in — and all resurface gasping and yelping. I shiver back to the shore and, as I’m wriggling into thermals and fleeces, it strikes me that it’s not every day you get to swim (albeit fleetingly) in a remote glacial lake in alpine Tasmania.
Later that evening, we all heed the sunset call and return to the lake’s beach, where we watch the water relax into stillness and listen to frogs talking to each other, like squeaky hinges. After dinner, Victor and Steve surprise us with dessert: home-made chocolate mousse, chilled in the lake. Dinners aren’t often a highlight on hiking trips but night after night our guides present us with everything from risotto and udon noodle dishes to apple crumble and miso soup — magically conjured from ingredients we’ve carried in our packs (including a banana each on day one, caramelised at camp that evening).
Day-walking on day four, we see another group of trekkers, the first and last we see all week. They pass us in single file in open country, silent as Maasai warriors, seemingly intent on preserving the illusion that they’re alone in the wilderness, as we all are, anyway, a few moments later. The next day we put on raincoats for the first time — it’s not actually raining but we’re just high enough to be walking in clouds — and cross a place called Blizzard Plain. A recent bushfire has left the trees blackened and in the mist it’s a magical, monochromatic landscape.
On our last morning, after negotiating a maze of buttongrass and following a narrow track through a eucalypt forest and down off the plateau, we arrive at Mersey Forest Road, the same road we’d left a week ago. Heading back to Launceston, we see Pelion East, one of the Overland Track’s landmark peaks. Cradle Mountain and its legendary walk really do dominate this part of Tasmania, but they can’t tempt us now. The wild Walls of Jerusalem and its fair-weather fairies, which have smiled on us for six days straight, have made converts of us all.
Facts to go
Getting there: Walls of Jerusalem National Park is in central Tasmania, three hours’ drive west of Launceston (hiking trips begin and end in Launceston).
Hiking there: Tasmanian Expeditions has four itineraries that include the Walls of Jerusalem, between October and May. The two main ones are the four-day Walls of Jerusalem Experience (which also has snowshoe departures in July and August) for $1095 ex Launceston; and the six-day Walls of Jerusalem Circuit for $1695 ex Launceston. Cost includes two experienced guides, transfers to and from the track, national park entry fees, all meals, camping gear (tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats etc) and some hiking gear (waterproof jackets and pants, gaiters, backpacks, trekking poles). Some pre-trek fitness training is recommended. See www.tasmanianexpeditions.com
Staying there: The Sebel Launceston has 51 suites from $179 a night. See mirvachotels.com/sebel-launceston
More information: discovertasmania.com