Where we went: Sentinel Range, Southwest National Park
When we went: Early spring, 2020
Estimated time to complete walk: 3-6 hours
Time spent on walk: 5 hours, 12 minutes (with well over an hour in breaks)
Experienced hiker trail (note: we have found that “experienced” can mean anything from a grade 3 to a grade 5 hike. We recommend completing The Needles before attempting Sentinel Range). It is also worth noting that, while this trail is on par with other grade 4 walks we have done (Mt Amos, Mt Maria, Bishop and Clerk, Mt Roland) the Sentinels come with the added challenge of navigation. The path is minimally marked and completely unsigned. We found ourselves following multiple social trails. This is not a major issue in daylight, but can be dangerous in low visibility. I memorise landmarks around social trails so that I do not follow them again on the way down.
Sentinel Range, or, as my phone (which I do most of my writing, editing, and note taking on) breathlessly insists on calling it ‘Sentient Range’ is a very steep, minimally marked, unsigned experienced hiker walk in the notoriously wild Southwest National Park. There are 2 peaks that can be traversed (hence the massive discrepancy in the time estimation), and there are views across the Franklin Range, lakes Gordon and Pedder, Mt Wedge and a million miles of pristine, wild Tasmania. It is also one of the most challenging mountain walks we have ever accomplished. We highly recommend this walk to the greener and keener hikers who want to get some training and experience in before embarking on grade 5 voyages.
Located around 2 hours from Hobart this stunning quartzite monolith can be climbed as a day walk. We left the city at around 9am, after a casual wake-up and a big homecooked breakfast. We double checked our day packs and triple checked our bandage collection because it is coming into snake season and we like to make sure we always have at least 5 bandages on us to ensure a reasonable amount of pressure can be achieved.
We were merrily on our way travelling along the Gordon River Road, just past ‘The Needles’ when Sommelier casually asked me where the turnoff for this particular walk was. He genuinely thought me, the one with the navigation skills of a wounded bumblebee, might have a single idea of where exactly in the northern part of the Southwest National Park we were aiming. I had only a VERY loose idea based on a blog glance and a hotel flyer. We hastily learned that there is no phone signal to be found along the Gordon River Road. We consulted a frankly unhelpful map-book, said a series of swear words and drove up and down the road in the general vicinity of the Sentinel Range carefully examining every turnoff.
The walk leaves from the Wedge River picnic area. There is a sign that once said “Wedge River” but it is now so faded that it is just a blank white sign. There is no further signage, we found the place by fluke when we stopped at the lookout to try and telepathically commune with the mountain (on the off chance that it is sentient) and Sommelier spotted the small concrete structure of the picnic site. There was a fallen tree across the road before the picnic area so we ended up parking at the lookout and walking (we were sure to notify our point of contact about the tree so as not to slow down a rescue mission, should one be needed).
The track plunges immediately into the bush in the general direction of the range. It crosses the river via a fallen log (we very highly recommend always waterproofing your packs and camera equipment and would like to reaffirm that recommendation now).
After the river the trail snakes off into the swampy button-grass plain on the other side. The walker’s logbook is located here, we logged our walk and texted our point of contact (including the time of our departure, on account of the lack of signal problem), and set off along the flat, narrow path.
It was a little muddy on our day, but we have just included hiking poles to our check-list and had no trouble getting through. The buttongrass turns, gradually to stunted gum trees and long burned banksia skeletons before it crosses a small stream and the second phase of the hike begins – the quartz granite lined zigzag.
The track in the quartz granite lined zigzag is occasionally marked with very well camouflaged cairns and ascends the base of the range with remarkable ease although this is where we suffered the most from accidental social trail following. We do not recommend this walk in low visibility (for navigation reasons, also because without the view from the top it’s just a really steep, rocky walk).
The path hugs the pink quartzite cliff-face for the entire ascent. We were walking in the wetter season and found that there was an almost constant freshwater drip over the cliff and onto our heads. As we were very hot this was a welcome relief, although it did add a certain slip-factor to some of the stones underfoot and we both found ourselves grateful for our hiking poles.
I have never used hiking poles before, and have always been mildly opposed to them as they pose an environmental risk if they have not been properly cleaned of all dirt from other walks, or if they are driven into young shoots. It is up to the user to be careful. Personally I always examine the ground before I drive anything into it and try an contain my pole to the area ahead of me on the path (rather than off to the side of it). It was while I was assaying the ground where the base of my pole lay when we (the pole and I) were set upon by a very unexpected, very furious crayfish (who appears to hate all poles and the people who control them).
Tasmania has a collection of very strange invertebrates, the habitat and distribution of which is very poorly understood as research missions can be harmful and distressing to them. This specimen was about 2cm in length, mostly translucent, and not at all thrilled by our intrusion so we left it alone after a few failed attempts at photography. We were sure to look out for more but did not find any. I think Furious-Mountain-Shrimp (not their official title) might be a fairly rare sight and recommend treading very carefully.
Not long after our encounter with the Furious-Mountain-Shrimp we came across a large boulder. Seeing the footprints of fellow hikers around the base of the boulder and a reasonable series of foot and hand holds I concluded that the only way onwards was upwards. Sommelier patiently watched my valiant scramble before stating “that was very impressive, but I can see a marker past this tree….”. He took the “much safer route” around the boulder, even though it is mostly obscured by tree (we both used this allegedly safer route on the way back down again).
We ate lunch nestled in the gully overlooking Lake Pedder, flanked by two pale pink cliff faces before embarking on the final, significantly steeper leg of the journey.
The last 45 minutes before the summit is overgrown but not in such a way as to be impassable. It is very steep, but we were feeling very pleased with our pace until my body (rudely) realised to had eaten a sulphite sometime in the last 2 days (yup, it can take 2 days for symptoms of food intolerances to manifest, especially if only trace amounts are consumed – my allergist assures me this is normal) in what can only be described as a spectacularly inopportune moment. I am lucky that my allergies, while they are a major medical inconvenience, are not a medical emergency. I always carry medication with me and the pain, lethargy and nausea do not incapacitate me, they just slow me right down. If you are also afflicted with a medical condition that might render you in a spontaneous state of medical emergency I strongly advise you to carry an EPIRB you can hire them from Service Tas.
As we were within sight of the summit we agreed to take a slower pace up and have a long rest once there. The summit is reached with surprising ease, there are no giant boulders to scramble over, it is just a narrow, natural rock-lined path to the top. While the track is tame the views once at the crest are anything but. We had perfectly clear weather. Panoramic scenes of the Western Wilds bathed in afternoon sun unfolded before us. The hundreds of peaks and troughs of the Tasmanian wilderness were scattered all around us begging to be our next challenge. The vein of the Gordon River Road wove a long line, disappearing into the horizon. A cool breeze was a very welcome relief to my nauseous, headachy self and it helped to dislodge some of the sulphite fog that was settling in my brain. Sentinel Range feels like standing at the edge of the world.
Sommelier was still feeling strong, and likely would have had enough energy for the second peak, but every good hiker knows their limitations and I had reached mine. We settled on the agreement that he could explore along the ridge of the range, so long as he remained within sight of me. This is not the recommended way to the second peak (which appears to involve some backtracking all the way to the buttongrass plain and then a second ascent – but we never found the trail). Unwilling to leave me for too long he walked along a path to the South to look at the views on the other side of my lofty vantage point and returned within half an hour.
We descended at a moderate (read sluggish) pace in the late afternoon. The sun’s angle cut deep, dark shadows into the cliffs which were otherwise bathed in the magic of the golden hour. The pink edifice soaked in every last ounce of the fading light, repelling the chill of the night; wrapping us in a tender embrace as we debarked from the edge of the world, back to the electric glow of the city.