Tasmania, Northern Territory, New South Wales, Australia
By Kate Cypcar
National parks boast some of the best places for bushwalking in Australia. This is largely because they preserve the country’s greatest expanses of natural territory, although the availability of expert advice and well-marked trails attract bushwalkers from across the globe. Since bushwalking is such a popular pastime, equipment, including backpacks, boots, and tents, is available for rent from camping stores in city and country areas. This is really good news for travelers who want to evade the fiasco of oversized and overweight luggage on international flights. Now, for a sneak peak at three truly exceptional bushwalking regions: Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, the MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory, and the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.
In 1922, Cradle Mountain became Tasmania’s first national park. Since then, its distinctive jagged peaks have become internationally recognized as a symbol of the state’s natural environment. Cradle Mountain Lake St. Clair National Park occupies 400,000 acres and stretches 50 miles south to the shores of Lake St. Clair, the deepest freshwater lake in Australia. The Overland Track is rated very high on Australia’s list of greatest bushwalks. It traverses 50 miles of outback, unbroken by roads, and passes through scenery ranging from rain forest, alpine moors, buttongrass plains, and waterfall valleys. Much of the track is board-walked, but be prepared for the occasional slip ‘n slide through thigh-deep mud. Several of the side-walks along Overland Track lead to starting points for climbs of the surrounding mountain peaks.
At the northern end of the park you can test your luck with a climb up the second highest mountain in Tasmania (5,100 feet). And if you’re feeling slightly more adventurous, take a timeout at the Overland’s halfway mark to scurry up Mount Ossa, the state’s highest peak, measuring in at 5,300 feet. The direct walk on Overland Track takes an average of six days, stopping overnight in tents or public and private huts en route. If you want to meander along some of the side-walks, allow eight to ten days. There are plenty of unpolluted fresh water streams to drink from. The best time to visit is during February and March when the weather has stabilized, although it’s likely to rain at some point, and may even snow. The track is most crowded in December and January. In May, the park is ablaze with the autumn colors of Tasmania’s deciduous beech tree, commonly known as ‘Fagus.’ Most people walk north to south, which is more downhill than uphill, but you can register at either end in the national park offices, where you will have an obligatory briefing and have your gear checked out to make sure it is adequate. You will also need to buy a parks pass.
The MacDonnell Ranges
Eroded remnants of an ancient mountain chain that was once as monumental as the Himalayas, the still impressive MacDonnell Ranges contain scenic gorges, waterholes, and hiking trails galore. The ranges run east and west of the town of Alice Springs and are easily accessible, making them popular with day-trippers. Simpsons Gap, located 6 miles from town, is the first of a series of gorges in the MacDonnells, and is home to some rare local plant species. Nearby is Standley Chasm, a narrow and deep gorge displaying sheer rock faces that glow red under the midday sun. The 60-foot deep permanent waterhole within Ellery Gorge at Ellery Creek Big Hole is a swimming spot worth taking a dip in. Serpentine Gorge, 12 miles farther west, is another narrow gorge created by an ancient river. For a great view of the gorge’s winding path, veer off on the hiking trail that leads to the lookout. The 985-foot high walls of Ormiston Gorge tower over Ormiston Creek. The gorge consists of two layers of quartzite, doubled over each other, thus making it twice the height of others in the region. South of here lies the Finke Gorge National Park, home to Palm Valley, an unusual tropical oasis in the dry heat of the country with a host of rare and ancient palm species. On the other side of Alice Springs, the East MacDonnell Ranges boast some sites accessible via the Ross Highway. Trephina Gorge is the most spectacular of the East MacDonnell sights, featuring quartzite cliffs, red river gums, and a number of scenic walks.
The mountains are named for the blue haze caused by the release of oil from the eucalyptus trees. Exploration of the region is easy due to a variety of excellent drives and hiking trails; and what better place to start than Grose Valley?! The Heritage Center, located 2 miles from Blackheath along Govetts Leap Road, outlines the geological, Aboriginal, and European histories of the region, as well as information about the local flora and fauna. Park officers are also available to offer advice on the best walks in the area. Govetts Leap Road, with its views across Grosse Valley, provides a point of orientation and is the trailhead for many routes. A cliff-top trail leads off in a southerly direction past Bridal Falls, the highest waterfalls in the Blue Mountains. The steep, arduous 8-hour return trek into the valley leads to Blue Gum Forest, so called because of the smoky blue trunks of the eucalyptus species that dominate the woodland. The Grand Canyon, which begins from Evans Lookout Road at the south end of town, is a must (even if it does test your level of fitness)- this 5-hour walk winds through deep gorges and sandstone canyons, and it said to reveal the geological mysteries of the mountains.
Don’t be fooled. Bushwalking is not simply a stroll in the bush. It is the term for self-sufficient hikes ranging from a day to a week, or longer – and in Australia, bushwalking is serious business! One record journey of approximately 600 miles was documented in 2002. I can only imagine how long and intense that bushwalk would have been! For those of us who aspire to one day successfully complete a bushwalk of that caliber (most everyone but the Australians would label us masochistic), I say bring it on!