Friday, 21 December 2018

Frenchmans Cap (TAS) - Lyell Hwy to Lake Vera

The first day of the Frenchmans Cap Track, this first section of the track leads walkers from the car park on Lyell Hwy to the first hut at Lake Vera. Crossing the Franklin and Loddon Rivers via suspension bridges, the track avoids the worst of the Sodden Loddons by following the dryer Laughtons Lead. Featuring lovely Buttongrass plains and lush rainforest, this is an excellent first day on one of Tasmania's best bushwalks

Distance: 14.5  km
Gradient: Gentle walking from the car park to over the Franklin River, then a moderately steep incline up the Franklin Hills and descent down to the Lodden River. Undulating and then moderately steep ascent before descending to Lake Vera Hut
Quality of Path: Very clear and well maintained. A lot of work has gone into hardening some of the swampy sections, and the result is a mostly dry track with some muddy sections
Quality of Signage: Largely well signed, with a clear and informative trailhead and some markers along the way
Experience Required: Previous Bushwalking Experience Required; this is not an easy walk and it is best that potential walkers gain experience on easier trails in Tasmania before tackling the Frenchmans Cap Track
Time: 4-5 Hours
Steps: Many steps, both formal and informal
Best Time to Visit: Summer
Entry Fee: Yes. National Park Fees apply
Getting There: Access is via Lyell Hwy (A10). From Hobart, follow the A10 through Derwent Bridge. The car park is a further 29.1 kilometres west along the highway

To cap off an incredible year of adventure (our greatest to date), Alissa and I decided to finish 2018 on a high note by heading back to Tasmania for our third multi-day hike in the Apple Isle. 8 months after our list visit to complete the Walls of Jerusalem Circuit and exactly two years to the day since we set off from Ronny Creek to start the Overland Track, Alissa and I found ourselves at the car park on Lyell Hwy as we set off to tackle a four day hike of Frenchmans Cap - the toughest of the three alpine walks promoted as Tassie's Great Bushwalks.

From Lyell Hwy, the walk begins gently enough as it follows a series of steps down to the famous Franklin River.

Even at the early stage of the walk, Alissa and I were enjoying the lush, moss-covered rainforests of South-West Tasmania - and this was only a mere hint of the lush rainforests we would encounter over the next four days.

As with the Walls of Jerusalem, a walker's registration booth is located a short way into the walk. Given the easy access to the trailhead on Lyell Hwy, it is probably prudent that the trail's logbook is kept a short distance away so as to prevent any vandalism or tampering with the information.

Shortly after signing in at the logbook, Alissa and I reached the Franklin River and the first suspension bridge of the Frenchmans Cap Track. In years gone by, the river crossing was made via a manually-operated cableway, and while this would have been really cool, the suspension bridge is a much more practical option. It was great to finally see the Franklin in person as its fame as a battleground for the environmental movement preceded it; the prevention of a dam being built on the wild river was major victory for the environmental movement in Australia, and was instrumental in the founding of what eventually became the Australian Greens. Given its importance, it is no surprise that this spectacularly wild part of the state is known as Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park - one of the major parks that make up the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

On the other side of the river, a brush down station has been put in place to limit the spread of Phytophthora Root Rot. Coming from Western Australai - a state that has been ravaged by the effects of this fungal infestation - I can't stress how important using these stations are for the protection of the environment. If you've ever seen a before and after of what a place infested with Phytophthora looks like, you'll know what I mean.

From the river, the track rises up the other bank. This ascent is relatively short, but is a taste of what is come later in the day.

Just beyond the river, the track leaves the rainforest and enters an open area of Buttongrass Moorland. The track work here is an example of the huge efforts that have been made over the last 10 years to improve the walking experience of the Frenchmans Cap Track. Prior to 2008, Frenchmans Cap was known for being one of the most muddy tracks in Tasmania, with the Sodden Loddons section of the track to Lake Vera being known for being an at-times waist deep slog through mud. Some accounts have referred to the old Frenchmans Cap Track as being little more than 'endless torture', so we really have to thank Dick and Pip Smith for pitching in $1 million over a ten year period to improve the quality of the walking experience. While not a dry boot walk, the mud is never more than ankle deep with much of the track between Lyell Hwy and Lake Vera being relatively straightforward and non-technical walking.

Being a slightly wet and overcast day would not have been ideal for climbing to the summit of Frenchmans Cap, however the wetness helped give the mossy rainforests along the walk that extra magical sheen. Alissa, a major fan of forest walking, really enjoyed the lush forests we were passing through along the trail. The rainforests here were lusher than what we had encountered on most of the Overland Track, with the closest comparisons being the last stretch from Echo Point to Cynthia Bay and the lower levels of Mt Field National Park on the Lady Barron Falls Circuit.

Being a Tasmanian trail, it was only a matter of time before we would encounter some boardwalk, and when we encountered our first extended stretch it felt like seeing an old friend again!

While the first two kilometres of the walk are relatively easy, kilometres three and four of the first day are a continuous 200 metre increase in elevation as the track climbs up Mt Mullens in the Franklin Hills. While not insanely steep, the tangle of roots in the rainforest make the walking slower going than it would be in an equivalent incline in Western Australia or Victoria.

Along the ascent through the rainforest, Alissa and I were really impressed by a particularly fern-filled section that overlooked a valley and then ran alongside a large wall of rock. The lushness on display was outstanding, and reminded Alissa and I of Lamington National Park's Coomera Circuit in South East Queensland - but without the stifling humidity. The cooler weather made the walking all the more enjoyable.

Up at the top of the ascent of Mt Mullens, Alissa and I began our descent down the other side. In clear weather, this point of the track provides walkers with their first views of Frenchmans Cap, however Alissa and I were not quite so lucky.

With the weather alternating between light showers and partly cloudy but fine weather, the mountains in the distance were largely enshrouded in clouds, with only intermittent views of the rugged landscape beyond.

Reaching the bottom of the descent, Alissa and I encountered our first truly muddy sections of the track. From this point on, Alissa and I were walking with wet boots, however it was far from being the continuously muddy trench of old.

The muddy stretches were mercifully short too - most of the walking was on hardened, dry track that allowed us the freedom to enjoy the Buttongrass plains without having to constantly check where we were putting our feet.

Located about 7 kilometres into the walk, the suspension bridge over the Loddon River represents the halfway point for the day, which Alissa and I encountered just as the rain really set in. At this point, Alissa and I overtook a duo of female hikers we had met briefly in the car park as we decided to press on to Lake Vera Hut without stopping for a meal.

Beyond the Loddon River, the track continues through more Buttongrass Moorland. This area looks to be significantly inundated at times, and Alissa and I were grateful for the provision of some serious boardwalk through this section. We were immediately reminded of the Pingerup Plains on the Bibbulmun Track - a stretch of the track often called 'the flooded section' in late Winter-early Spring - and wished that a wealthy benefactor could provide a similar boardwalk for the Bibbulmun given the almost yearly diversion that is required when the waters get too deep and prevent access to the outstanding campsite at Lake Maringup.

The new Frenchmans Cap Track avoids the worst stretch of the Loddon Plains and instead takes a much easier and enjoyable high route. Keeping with the catchiness of the Sodden Loddons, this new route has been named Laughtons Lead. Behind the sign, Alissa and I could see the faint remnant of the old track which has now been abandoned to return to nature.

The walking along Laughtons Lead is more undulating than the elevation chart presented by John Chapman in his notes for the walk - something we've come to expect from Chapman's often smoothed-out charts, and has give rise to the term 'John Chapman flat' as a result! Nevertheless, this dry, easy-going track is a real pleasure to walk, and while the scenery is at times more pleasant that spectacular, it can be walked with a certain 'set it and forget it' ease.

At one point along Laughtons Leads, a fallen tree across the track reminded Alissa and I the Donnelly River Roller Coaster day of the our Bibbulmun Track sectional End to End. At the time, two massive Karri trees had fallen across the track, and Alissa got me to take a photo of her casually lying down under one of the trees. I asked Alissa if she wanted to recreate the scene here in Tasmania however a considerable pile of mud under tree soon put an end to that idea as Alissa respectfully declined.

Continuing along the trail, the forest transitioned away from the somewhat drier sclerophyll-dominated forest we had encountered earlier to lusher rainforest.

Making our way along the trail, Alissa and I noticed a lot of recent track work and an assortment of tools left on the side of the trail. This got us excited as we thought that the boardwalks and tools might be a sign that we were getting close to Lake Vera Hut.

Alas, this was not to be. While the boardwalk section featured some stunning scenery, it was not the home stretch to Lake Vera we had hoped it to be and there was more ascending to do. This was one of the classic examples of why John Chapman's smoothed out elevation charts are not super helpful - there was a clear stretch of flat and even descending elevation before the ascent, but his chart simplifies the journey to be basically flat before the big ascent without any nuances of the trail's undulations.

At least the ascent featured some incredibly beautiful rainforest walking. This is one of the aspects of the Frenchmans Cap Track that is really great - most of the ascents feature lovely scenery as a reward for the effort.

Up and out of the rainforest, Alissa and I were now truly on the home stretch as we headed along some hardened track that passes through the Buttongrass plains. Alissa and I didn't know this for sure, but we were cautiously optimistic and I decided to push on ahead so I could get to the hut and take off my pack and soggy shoes.

Descending through a tunnel of tall heath, I had the familiar feeling of elation I've come to know from Bibbulmun Track hikes when the sight of the campsite toilet confirms you're at the hut!

A short walk down from the toilet, Lake Vera Hut is nestled in a sheltered valley surrounded by a series of low hills. Built in 1979, the architecture style of the hut will be familiar to anyone who has done the Overland Track as its asymmetrical double pitch roof and overall layout is nearly identical to the huts at Kia Ora and Pine Valley.

Due to the there and back nature of the hike, Lake Vera hut is currently a bit of a bottleneck as it has to accomodate hikers going up to the summit and making their way down. On the day of our arrival at Lake Vera, there were enough people at the hut for it to be an uncomfortable squeeze to get everyone in on the bunks.

While a long term solution to the overcrowding at Lake Vera would be for there to be a second hut (maybe one for ascending and one for descending), Parks and Wildlife have done a good job of providing high quality tent platforms of Overland Track standard. Due to the crowded nature of the hut, the increased privacy of the platforms is an inviting alternative - so much so Alissa and decided it was better to set up our tent and deal with packing up a wet tent in the morning than be packed in like sardines in the hut.

While the mountains near the hut were enshrouded in cloud, the view of the clouds rolling around the mountains made for a dramatic scene. Photos do not do justice to the drama.

As with the Overland Track, the tent platforms feature retractable chains to tie the tent down to. This is truly the best tent platform design Alissa and I have encountered and it amazes me that this style has not been incorporated in later tent platform designs on newer trails like the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail and the Grampians Peaks Trail.

After setting up the tent, Alissa and I went back into the hut to chat with the other hikers. Interestingly, we found that the demographics for Frenchmans Cap were very different to the Overland. The hikers were overwhelmingly Tassie locals, with a small contingent representing the mainland. We discovered most groups were coming down from the mountain, with one couple having been stuck up at Lake Tahune for 24 hours due to the terrible weather. Other than the two girls we met at the car park, a group of five on a mission to get a photograph for Scouts would also be joining us up at Tahune the next day. 

While the second and third day of our four day itinerary would be even more impressive, Alissa and I really enjoyed this first day of the walk, with its two suspension bridges, pretty Buttongrass plains and stunning rainforests making for enjoyable and engaging walking. While the trail is a lot easier than it used to be when it went through the Sodden Loddons, the general consensus amongst the many hikers at Lake Vera was that the day was nevertheless somewhat challenging - though in our case it may have been due to not eating while walking. Whatever the case, we were grateful for not having to deal with the torture of years past. The fact that this is the least exciting day of the walk is not so much a reflection of this section's quality as much as it is a reflection of just how exceptional the walking get from here to the summit.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Don,

    I hope you guys are having a great New Years.

    I've just got into Singapore and some decent wifi, logged on and noticed your Frenchmans Cap post.

    I was very interested in this post, I haven't been to Frenchmans since the new track was cut so it was interesting to see the changes on the ground, the new track looks to be a vast improvement on the old one! I always feel a little trepidation approaching a hut, will it be full/empty, will the inhabitants be friendly/aloof/or just plain rude. I think I would of gone for the platform too, I like a little bit of my own space at the end of the day. Looking forward to the rest of the walk.

    Cheers Kevin