Mount Field and the Tarn Shelf

Where we went: Mount Field National Park

When we went: Autumn 2019

Autumn is, in my professional opinion, one of the best times of year to visit Tasmania; controlled burns, wood fires and seasonal mist mingle to create a heady scented air that tempers the crispness of the promise of winter; the usually harsh Australian sunlight is filtered into a delicate golden-red; and, most significantly, the fricken’ leaves change colour on the fricken’ trees. Not just any trees either! Just the one, rare and endangered tree, that only grows in alpine regions and only in Tasmania, and if you don’t think that’s some epic druidic magic foreshadowing stuff then you obviously don’t know a lot about druidic magics. I am talking, of course, of the Nothfagus Gunnii (Fagus) tree, known as ‘the humble tree’ to the indigenous land-owners, and ‘tanglefoot’ to others.

Fagus is a winter-deciduous beech closely related to the American and European beeches, but it is considered an old Gondwanaland species in Australia (it’s basically the OG beech tree, and I’ll fight anyone who disagrees). It is the only native winter-deciduous tree on the entire continent of Australia, it only grows in inhospitable places and, probably on account of the whole ‘growing in inhospitable places’ habit, it has an incredibly short space of time in which the changing leaves can be fully appreciated before they drop in preparation for winter. Tasmanians take the Fagus tree incredibly seriously, there is a dedicated ‘Fagus week’ in which park rangers study the trees, assess when the best week to view the leaves in all their glory will be (it changes every year), and then send out a public notice so that thousands can make their autumnal pilgrimage up either Mount Field or Cradle Mountain to go and see some fricken’ leaves change colour on the fricken’ trees!!

Sommelier and I chose Mount Field for our autumnal pilgrimage, partly because it is much closer to Hobart (only 1.5 hours away) than Cradle Mountain will ever be (it’s really difficult and inconvenient to move mountains), but also because, on this particular day my knees decided that being normal, functioning knees was overrated and Mount Field has some very easily accessible Fagus trees, for the deciduous beech fiend with minor disabilities. The Lake Fenton carpark, for example, consists of an entire Fagus grove that could be (with minor assistance) considered wheelchair accessible – although, the full Seager’s lookout walk is, sadly, not as accessible. There are also small 10-15 minute rock-scramble tracks through some Fagus trees if you are travelling with children who are a little hike-curious and want to experience a rocky track without fully committing to a long hike. We chose the Tarn Shelf circuit because, by the time we got to the mountain and started moving around a little, my knees conceded to a more cooperative lifestyle – also, my mother treks up to the Tarn Shelf with school groups on the regular, so we figured it’s probably the sort of walk that is challenging without being soul-destroying. Mount Field, while it is highly accessible by vehicle, is a national park, so a parks pass is essential. Passes can be purchased online, from the tourist information centre in Hobart, or from the visitor centre at Mount Field. We renewed ours online before we got there, because there is often a long queue of people looking to get a parks pass and we didn’t fancy standing in line first thing in the morning.

The Tarn Self, along with a few other alpine tracks, is accessed through the Lake Dobson carpark which has a picnic area, a walker log book, and toilet facilities, it is also deceptively sheltered, so do not take the comfortable temperature in the carpark as an indication of the weather further up the maintain. The signs alerting you to the need for warm weather and wet weather clothes are not being over dramatic. We travel with a light-weight, small-folding rain jacket each; 2ltrs of water each and then one or the other of us carries a spare water bottle as well; sunglasses; SPF50+ sunscreen; thermal underwear; beanies; gloves; a hand-knitted hiking ascot, and a change of socks. We add either more water or more warm weather kit depending on whether we are walking in hot or cold weather. Our first aid kit, given my new list of health complaints, now consists of 5 bandages (for snake bite reasons) and permanent marker (also for snake bite reasons – mark the wound site on the outside of the bandage with the marker so that doctors can cut away a portion of the bandage to run envenomation tests without having to remove the entire bandage), Ventolin (my lungs do not appreciate cold air), Panadol, pawpaw ointment, and a bar of soap. Feeling sufficiently equipped to climb the mountain we headed off, forgetting the good camera as we did so.

We were running a lot later than we had hoped to be; we set our wake-up alarm for 5:30am and, when it went off, literally laughed at our stupid past selves and all they had expected of us, then went back to sleep for several hours. As a result, we were only starting at around 10:30am, which, when you are planning a 6hr walk with side-quests, is a little late in the day. As the name suggests, the Lake Dobson carpark sits right beside Lake Dobson, there is a walking track that loops around the lake, and I’m sure has some very fine specimens of temperate rainforest plants, but we were running too late to partake in such shenanigans.

We took the Urquhart track through the rainforest and out onto the literal road with multiple signs warning pedestrians to lookout for skiers and vehicles (who seem like literally the worst 2 candidates for a shared track, but that’s a debate for another day). It takes a little while, after the initial Urquhart track, to feel as though you are engaged in actual hiking. This is due, in part, to the walking on an actual road thing, but the presence of the government huts right off the road was also a distraction from the sense of wilderness. Our feelings of not-wilderness-enough were quickly shattered when the path turned from a road into a boulder scramble with views straight down into the valley below. It became immediately apparent that this would be just the right level of challenging for us.

The higher up we went the colder it got, and we were forced to add a new layer every so often. The wind, in particular, was a hazard – which is to say that it was ‘bracing’ in that don’t-stand-too-close-to-the-edge-or-you-will-we-be-blown-over kind of way. The most difficult and unpleasant part of the walk occurred very early on, within sight of the Tarn Shelf and the ski fields. The steep uphill levelled abruptly into a flat, duck-boarded plateau with clear views of the ski lifts and the Tarn and the bronze and copper leaves of the Fagus trees reflected in the water there. The set-back was that the shelf is formed in such a way that, given the right conditions, a brutal wind tunnel is created. We happened to be traversing the path in exactly the right conditions to be absolutely battered by icy wind (just imagine wind strong enough to make very gentle little rain drops feel like actual needles being driven into your exposed skin and you will have a rough idea of kind of weather we were dealing with). The Tarn itself is mercifully sheltered and, as though we had suddenly stepped into a completely different realm, the wind that had wuthered all around us in a howling gale suddenly stopped and, as we regained our faculties, the perfect tranquillity of a gently ruffled lake, surrounded by low-hanging trees covered in leaves that look like little copper coins, glittering in the soft gold sunlight revealed itself to us.

The Fagus is also known as tanglefoot because of its gnarled trunks and roots, an unobservant hiker could definitely gain a serious injury traversing a full grove, so boots with good ankle support are recommended. We picked our way carefully through the other hikers, the rocks, and the tangle of trunks and branches ‘til we found a comfortable spot to have lunch. We warmed up quickly once we were out of the wind, but we did also throw our rain-jackets on like blankets so that we didn’t cool down too much while we rested (also because there was a slight rain coming in). A few Fagus leaves had already come loose and were floating in the water, gently steered by the breeze. The only thingthat intruded on the perfection of the moment was all the other people. It wasn’t crowded, by any means, but we had yet to have any proper alone time with the mountain, which is what we wanted. Our chance for tranquillity came when we realised that most travellers were doing the 1.5ish hour walk up to the Tarn and then turning around and going back the way that they came, rather than doing the full 6hr loop. Not feeling particularly tired yet (and not at all willing to walk back through the wind tunnel of tiny needles) we carried on along the narrow path through the trees to take the very long way back down the mountain.

It was immediately apparent that the full track is a less commonly traversed. The duck-boards were rickety in places and dilapidated or completely worn away in others. The sense of remote wilderness adventure is heightened by the state of the path (just don’t step on the boards with eyes in the wood and be ready to catch yourself if you foot falls through). The only thing that improved the sense of solitude were the parts of the walk where the path basically didn’t exist. There are a few areas where leaping on rocks through streams is actually part of the marked path. I was incredibly glad that we had good boots on, but we both agreed that it would be terrifying in the snow (apparently the various tarns actually freeze over in winter). The full track took us past Rodway Range, Twilight Tarn, Lake Webster and a few other little adventures along the way. Each step took us closer to complete seclusion until the sounds of fellow travellers was completely vanished and only the occasional (presumably extremely cold) frog call, and bird song was all the we could hear. We managed to walk for at least an hour without seeing a single other person and those that we did see between the Tarn Shelf and the Lake Dobson carpark return loop were few and far between.

Like much of Tasmania, there are several distinct stratospheres along the mountain, so that scenery changes dramatically the further you go. We saw wide open areas, swamps, rivers, tarns (which, according to my research, are just lakes that have occurred on a mountain), rainforests, and a whole bunch in-between. Somewhere, between a button-grass plateau and a eucalypt grove, where the path was just a narrow strip of worn dirt, rather than boards or rocks, I was casually admiring a particularly tangled looking tree root in the grass that had the audacity to spring forwards and reveal itself to be, in fact, a snake. The snake, formally known as a tree root, bumped into my root, thought better of its attack strategy and then ended up upside down and in a tangle between my feet (revealing a red belly as it did so). I, intrepid traveller that I am said “oh dear!” (only I didn’t say ‘dear’) then I very helpfully yelled “SNAAAAAAAAAAiiiiiiiiiiKE!” while fleeing the scene. I got three paces before I remembered that I had abandoned my poor, somehow-often-incapable-of-seeing-snakes, fiancé at the mercy of the danger noodle so I turned around to tell him to stop, stand still and see the snake (all very sensible snippets of advice) as well as a certain swear word beginning with ‘S’ (it was a very stressful time) but, sadly, my brain and my mouth refused to cooperate and all that came out of my mouth was a series of hissing sounds (helpfully interspersed with a failed attempt at mime/interpretative dance) that did very little to assuage Sommelier’s suspicions that I am, in fact, a parselmouth. Thankfully he found my behaviour so bizarre that he had, naturally frozen in place (the most advisable strategy when faced with a snake). The offending reptile, lying in wait across the path, actual inches from Sommelier’s feet, took some very heavy persuading before leaving the path. It turned out to be a whipsnake, which is Tasmania’s smallest, most cold tolerant, least-venomous snake. There are no recorded fatalities from a whipsnake bite, but it is a venomous, and this particular one had perfected the art of the jump-scare.

Newly pumped full of adrenaline we barely felt the exhaustion of the rest of the hike, although we were forced to skip a few of the side quests because we were running out of daylight hours and I wanted to be at the Lake Fenton carpark at sunset because when the light hits the water and reflects onto the Fagus grove there it is like standing in a dream, surrounded by light, at the edge of the universe. We made it just in time to see the last breath of sunlight for the day before it sank under the ridge of the mountain and plunged us into dusk.

Mount Field is the perfect place to see Fagus trees in autumn, there are parts of the mountain where they can be accessed by car, there are others that are wheelchair accessible, and there are walks that the more intrepid hiker can undertake that will take them both to the humble tree and then on to isolation, the perfect tool for self-reflection. The Fagus tree can be seen, in full glory, from either Cradle Mountain or Mount Field, your choice in alpine destination is up to you. I prefer Mount Field because it can be done, with ease, as a single day trip from Hobart. I also tend to find that it is easier to immerse myself in solitude and silence on the slopes of Mount Field than Cradle Mountain. Mount Field is, to me, the local pub, while Cradle Mountain is the fancy restaurant, and, while everyone fights for a reservation at the fancy restaurant, you just can’t beat the comfort and homeliness of your local pub

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