Sunday, 25 December 2016

Overland Track (TAS) - Kia Ora to Bert Nichols

Day five of an eight day hike on the Overland Track, the journey from Kia Ora to Bert Nichols is highlighted by a visit to the historic Du Cane hut and numerous side trips to spectacular waterfalls along the Mersey River. After the final ascent of the main Overland Track to Du Cane Gap, the day finishes at Bert Nichols hut - a massive and thoroughly modern hut that even contains public art!

Distance: 11.2 km (one way - 8.6 km for the main track + 2.6 km for all waterfall side trips)
Gradient: Gently undulating over most of the day, with some steep descent and ascents leading to the waterfall side trips. A moderate ascent to Du Cane Gap followed by a moderate descent to Bert Nichols.  
Quality of Path: Clear and largely well maintained, but occasionally muddy. The Rainforest sections are slow going due to a constant tangle of roots.
Quality of Signage: Largely well signed, with clear signage at the side trip junctions. Although D'Alton and Fergusson Falls are well signed, Hartnett Falls feature several unmarked trails and can be less straightforward as a result.
Experience Required: Previous Bushwalking Experience Recommended
Time: 6 Hours, including lunch
Steps: Many steps, both formal and informal
Best Time to Visit: Spring-Autumn
Entry Fee: Yes. National Park Fees apply and an Overland Pass is required to walk the entire track during the hiking season
Getting There: There No direct access to this section - must be done as a part of the Overland Track in season, and not easily accessible otherwise. Access to the Overland Track is via Cradle Mountain Rd (Route C132). Regular shuttle buses run from the Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre to the Ronny Creek trailhead. 

Alissa and I awoke at Kia Ora to the lovely, cool breeze blowing through the mesh of our tent, set up as it was without the fly. It was Christmas Day, and the lovely weather through the night meant we'd had a very good night's sleep. With the sun slowly rising, we savoured the view of the trees towering overhead and the gentle music of morning birdsong surrounding us. After getting out and stopping to wish our fellow hikers a Merry Christmas, Alissa and I packed down the tent and our gear pretty quickly, and we were once again the first people to set out for Bert Nichols. While the mild weather had made for a comfortable night's sleep, the sunny weather forecast had us concerned for the rising temperatures later in the day, and after the sunburn of Mt Ossa we were keen to spend as little time in the sunshine as possible.

The Overland crosses a stream over Kia Ora Creek - the creek that Alissa and I had cooled off in the previous day. From there, the track passes through some very muddy, open sections before entering rainforest. 

Although it was still fairly early, we could already feel it was going to be a hot day and we definitely appreciated the shelter that the rainforest provided. 

Occasional beaks in the forest allowed Alissa and I to take in the beautiful, rugged mountains of the Du Cane Range, with Falling Mountain's collapsing scree being the most dominant landmark at this early stage of the walk. 

2.6 kilometres into the day's walking, the track enters a clearing as it leads hikers to the rickety old Du Cane Hut. 

Dating back to 1910, this very old hut is one of the larger historical huts along the track. As with Kitchen Hut and Old Pelion, Du Cane hut is designated for emergency use only. Judging by the makeshift nature of the furniture, the drunken slant of pretty much everything and the fact its not 100% watertight, Du Cane is charismatic but impractical as a place to spend the night, however it is well worth checking out. 

A table inside the second room provides a good spot for a lunch break. Its a shame then that Kia Ora is so close to Du Cane Hut as its too early in the day for a rest, however I can imagine it being perfectly timed for hikers double hutting straight from New Pelion to Bert Nichols. 

The view from the inner room shows of just how drunkenly tilted the hut is, with the door being particularly wonky!

Back in the rainforest, the track was relatively easy going due to the very gentle undulation and the fact that there were many stretches that featured boardwalks through the forest rather than being a constant tangle of roots. 

Half an hour after leaving Du Cane hut, Alissa and I were pleased to see that we had made good time and were at the trail junction leading to D'Alton and Fergusson Falls.

Although it is often said that the side trips are less well maintained than the main track, the track down to these first two falls is quite good and easy walking in terms of the quality of the track maintenance. 

The only down side of this side trip is that its a pretty constant switchback for much of its length, and the journey back up can be a bit of a slog (though thankfully very brief and without a full pack). 

There are some interesting steps along the way, especially in some of the steeper sections of the descent. 

Although Fergusson and D'Alton are the main two waterfalls along this side trip, there are a number of minor waterfalls running along the streams and creeks that feed the Mersey River. 

The trail reaches another junction, with D'Alton Falls to the left and Fergusson Falls to the right. 

Heading towards D'Alton Falls, the track passes over the top of another broad but minor waterfall before descending to a spectacular vantage point overlooking D'Alton Falls. 

Although Hartnett Falls is often considered the best of the three waterfalls between Kia Ora and Bert Nichols, Alissa and I thought that the multi-tiered elegance of D'Alton Falls made it the most beautiful waterfall of the day. The high vantage point immediately opposite the waterfall definitely helps, framed perfectly by ferns, moss and the sheer cliffs of the river's rocky gorge. As a result of our visit to D'Alton Falls, Alissa and I had the Eagles song Doolin-Dalton stuck in our head for the rest of our hike!

Unlike the elegance of D'Alton Falls, Fergusson Falls is epic - a seriously massive rush of water surging violently over the edge. 

Unlike D'Alton Falls, the vantage point from which to view Fergusson Falls is not quite as good as it is too close to the falls to really get a sense of what it looks within the context of the landscape. It does look like there is a bit of a ledge just behind the waterfall, however given that you'd certainly be pummelled by the raging torrent and then fall to your certain death if you attempted to walk under the falls, there is no really point exploring any further than the vantage point. That being said, kudos to Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service for not fencing the area off and leaving it as a wild experience while providing plenty of signage advising hikers to be safe when exploring these waterfall side trips. 

After walking back up the switchbacks to the main track, Alissa revealed that her cold was getting worse after pushing it the day before, and that the ascent back up had taken it out of her. As we walked through the tangle of roots leading to Hartnett Falls, we agreed that I would go check out Hartnett Falls by myself while Alissa watched our bags and rested. 

Although slow going due to the tangle of roots, it is less than a kilometre from the D'Alton/Fergusson Falls junction to the Hartnett Falls side trip. While I was getting my day pack sorted out, a group of young guys who had been hiking the same itinerary as us arrived. Although they were very fit and fast hikers, we were surprised that they could have caught up to us so quickly. They revealed that they hadn't bothered with the side trip to D'Alton and Fergusson Falls and had come straight to Hartnett Falls instead. While we thought they had missed out given that D'Alton was particularly beautiful, I was happy that other hikers would be nearby while I checked out Hartnett Falls just in case something went wrong. 

The trail is initially quite manicured as it leaves the trail junction, however once it clears the rainforest the trail can be slightly overgrown and very scratchy to be walking through. There are times where the track branches off on false trails that lead no where, however as long as you stick to the most obvious path it is straightforward enough to follow. 

The vantage point from which to view Hartnett Falls from the top of the falls is overgrown, and as such is not very satisfactory. The guidebook that we had bought for the trail - Warwick Sprawson's The Overland Track - had suggested that Tasmania Parks and Wildlife discourage hikers from venturing further than this point, however John and Monica Chapman's more up to date guidebook Overland Track indicated that a trail leads down to the foot of the falls. With the unsatisfactory view from the top, I decided to follow the Chapmans' advice and head down to the river. 

The track heads downstream along a path lined with scratchy, overgrown heath. Although it keep walkers away from the cliff's edge for the most part, there are some occasional points that run along the gorge rim. Eventually, the track descends down a more gradual slope, taking walkers to the bottom of the gorge.  

It is not 100% clear what to do once you make it down into the gorge, however a series of stepping stones lead to a vegetated island in the middle of the river. 

From the island, the trail crosses over the run along the gorge wall as it leads to the foot of the falls. The intrepid feel of walking along the bottom of the cliffs to the foot of the falls was the highlight of the day's walking for me, and it reminded me of how much I enjoy walking in canyons and gorges. 

A broad ledge provided the perfect vantage point for me to take a photo of the falls in action. I could potentially have gotten closer if I had taken off my boots or followed another path to the other side of the river, however I could feel the spray from here and could foresee my camera lens dotted with water droplets or fogging up if I went any further. After heading back up to the top of the falls, I inadvertently took a wrong turn. This route apparently leads through the Never Never to Junction Lake and onwards to Walls of Jerusalem National Park, however after a few metres of following the fairly thin and convoluted pad, I realised my error, turned around and found the main trail back to the Overland. 

Meeting back up with Alissa, I decided to eat lunch before heading on. Grabbing a Le Snack from the front mesh compartment on my bag, I saw a leech crawling on the Le Snack packet, and I quickly dusted it away. This would be the closest I got to being bitten by a leech, however Alissa would become very well acquainted with these bloodthirsty but relatively harmless worms on our last day from Echo Point to Cynthia Bay. 

After Hartnett Falls, the shelter of the rainforest gives way to a typically Australian Eucalyptus woodland. While the wildflowers along this stretch of track were lovely, the open terrain meant we were getting the full brunt of the Sun and I could feel the scorching UV rays on my arms and the back of my neck.

As a result shady gullies became very welcome respites from the heat, however they were few and far between. I don't enjoy walking in the heat at the best of times, and this is exactly the kind of searing hot weather we were hoping to escape by going to Tasmania! With Alissa walking slowly due to her cold and me desperately wanting to get out of the heat as soon as possible, we agreed to split up so I could rush to the end while Alissa could take her time. 

After reaching the high point at Du Cane Gap, it was a relief to enter rainforest as the trail descended towards Bert Nichols hut. 

Still hot from the warm day, I was relieved to finally reach Bert Nichols. A massive, thoroughly modern structure, Bert Nichols is the most architecturally impressive hut along the track. Hut is an understatement - its more like a massive ski lodge!

Although many of the huts along the track have a mud room, Bert Nichols takes it to the next level thanks to a massive drying room that is larger than some of the smaller huts!

Considering its size, we were surprised to find that Bert Nichols actually sleeps less people than New Pelion in spite of the more utilitarian sleeping shelves in each of the hut's three bunk rooms. 

The dining room is seriously next level, with high ceilings and plenty of tables throughout the space. Given the size of the room, the gas heater in the corner seems comically inadequate, and I can imagine this place not really heating up enough in Winter. 

Amazingly, the hut even features art! Due to a government requirement that all public buildings have artworks, leaf sculptures hang from the dining room ceiling. 

Built in 2008, Bert Nichols replaced an older hut that was called Windy Ridge. The new hut is named in honour of Bert Nichols, a notoriously cunning hunter and poacher who eventually became a pioneering guide on the Overland Track.

Initially, Alissa and I had wanted to sleep in one of the bunk rooms, however the afternoon sun really warmed up the hut, making it stuffy and uncomfortable inside. Although most of the group had gathered to celebrate Christmas, Alissa's illness and the heat meant we spent the early evening once again setting up the inner mesh of our tent before having an early night. 
It was far from the ideal Christmas Day or visit to Bert Nichols that we had hoped for, however we agreed it was better that we both rest up in preparation for our last two days on the track given that we were taking the side trip to Pine Valley. 

Sickness and heat aside, Kia Ora to Bert Nichols was another beautiful day on the Overland Track, with its focus on waterfalls and the evolution of hut design instead of mountains making it a fairly unique day. The beauty of D'Alton Falls, the sheer power of Fergusson Falls and the intrepid adventure that is the journey to the foot of Hartnett Falls made the day, and I would consider all three to be relatively easy side trips that are worth checking out. 

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