view gallery Horseshoe Falls, Mt Field National Park. Image Credit: Flying Freddy/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This pristine wilderness is just an hour from Hobart

  • BY Ian Connellan and Gail Maccallum |
  • April 06, 2017

Mt Field National Park is a pocket-sized degustation of the best that Tasmanian wilderness has to offer.

IT’S A BRIGHT SUNNY morning at the Mt Field Visitor Centre and the joint is jumping. Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS) officer Melanie Peters is busy behind the counter, answering a stream of day-trippers’ questions about the park, the impressive array of stuffed and mounted wildlife specimens behind her and the path to Russell Falls, one of the most visited spots among all of Tasmania’s national parks.

Visitors traipse the fern-shaded path to stand at the base of the picturesque cascade and hope for a glimpse of the abundant platypuses that live in the rushing creek’s banks. It’s beautiful – and crowded. Last year 150,000 people visited Russell Falls, just one tiny point in the 22,494ha national park, which spans six of the state’s eight habitats, from temperate rainforest to alpine moorland.

“Well over 90 per cent of the visitation is here at the falls, but not many people get beyond here,” says Brendan Moodie, the park’s ranger-in-charge. “Russell Falls is fantastic, but you’re on the doorstep of something bigger and more amazing. You get the chance to go from the tallest flowering trees in the world up to an alpine landscape that’s pretty rare and packed with wildflowers in summer, and to see the little lakes strung out on the Tarn Shelf – it really is spectacular.”

mt field tasmania

Spore bearing capsules – sporangia – on one of the myriad forms of moss that clothe trees and man ferns on the Russell Falls Nature Walk. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

UP IN THAT alpine area, at the peak of the park, a small crowd of enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders is lining up to buy the distinctly retro-priced $30 tow tickets at the Mt Mawson ski area, while tow manager Ian Johnston fires up the tow’s equally retro diesel engine. By winter-resort standards, the atmosphere is almost surreally friendly and uncool, partly because most of the folk here know one another. Almost all are members of one of Mt Field’s seven ski clubs that, combined, form the all-volunteer Southern Tasmania Ski Association. The clubs run the ski field on rotation and today it’s the turn of the Mt Mawson club; Ian, his fellow tow-operators, and ticket-office supremo Pam Holdsworth, are all Mawsonites. The merry band of ski/snowboard patrollers is drawn from across all seven clubs.

“The really good thing about Mt Mawson is that when something happens, everyone is prepared to pitch in and help,” says long-serving patroller Liz Koolhof. “Everyone’s there to get the best result for whatever the problem happens to be, whether it’s digging out a tow, or going over to help replace a rope on a tow in mid-season, which is a massive job, or if it’s an injury.”

Under a wide blue sky, the diesel thumps in the machinery room, where an eccentric set of wheels and pulleys forms a cat’s cradle of rope, fuzzed here and there by fraying. People clad in a haberdashery-offcut-assortment of colours and styles clink their rope-grabbing ‘nutcrackers’ closed for the tow uphill.

Late in the morning, Ian, who seems excited, heads west to get the Rodway tow started. “The Rodway gives access to Tasmania’s only double-black-diamond run!” he says – mountain-talk for a very steep slope. But battery trouble prevents the team from firing up Rodway’s diesel. Ever ready, ski patroller Simon Allen pulls the battery out of the unused University tow and carries it in a backpack the 1km to Rodway, but success nevertheless eludes them.

We snowshoe across tarns – lakes formed in remnant glacial cirques – and wallaby-tracked snow for 1km or so along the Tarn Shelf, following the lead of ski-tourers on back-country forays. Looming above us, the Rodway Range is blanketed under metres of sparkling, wind-sculpted snow – a pattern of white against the dark dolerite of the range. It’s snow-muffled quiet and so still it feels like standing in an Ansel Adams photograph.

Back at Mt Mawson we see Liz and wax lyrical about the back country. “I just love it out there,” she replies. “It’s just so nice to see all the snow and the different forms and all the different patterns. It’s one of these places where, whatever time of year, there’s always something new to see, or to see differently, or something that’s changed.”

mt field tasmania

A passing snow shower dapples the sky above Lake Seal, centre, and nearby Platypus Tarn. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

THE FUN OF THE SKI DAY, its sparse crowds, changing weather and beautiful landforms neatly sum up Mt Field’s appeal. About 70km north-west of Hobart, it’s an enduring favourite of outdoor enthusiasts, who can choose walks ranging from doddle to extreme. The visitor centre and 20-minute round trip stroll to Russell Falls are situated at the park’s base, at an elevation of 180m.

Just up the road, a walk through a forest of towering swamp gums gives a taste of the sky-scraping trees that have prompted so many of Tasmania’s wilderness protests. Their 80m-plus height ages them at a few hundred years, but these are mere toddlers compared with the King Billy and pencil pines that dot the landscape on the park’s only road, the 15km stretch to Lake Dobson. The lake’s edges are guarded by conifers up to 1000 years old and a grove of 3m-high pandani, the world’s largest heath plant, which dates back to the prehistoric continent of Gondwana.

From here, a 4–5-hour walk will get you to the 1435m summit of Mt Field West, or on a circuit around the Tarn Shelf and its outlying lakes. Lower down, a rock-hop across giant boulders and a splash through the freely flowing water on the paths to Lake Belcher or Seagers Lookout leads to wide-angle views across southern Tasmania.

Mt Field is all about water according to Brendan Moodie. “Have a look up at the mountains and it’s all glaciation to start with, which is just water moving slowly when it’s frozen... The creeks are constantly flowing, it doesn’t matter how dry it gets here, right through to the cave systems underground. The tallest waterfall in Tasmania is under Mt Field, in Tachycardia cave – it’s called the Bermuda Triangle falls. It’s just a little trickle, but it’s vertical for 170m. Of course, you need serious gear to get there.”

We bump into Brendan clearing away some rubble at the sites of a new main sign that highlights Mt Field’s World Heritage status, and an outdoor interpretive display – dubbed Stonehenge by the park’s employees – that will explain the area’s particular claims to fame. One of the first two national parks declared in Tasmania, alongside Freycinet, Mt Field will celebrate its 100th birthday in August 2016. And since 2013, it has been part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (WHA), one of only three sites in the world to meet seven out of the 10 WHA criteria. With its location and fine visitor facilities, it’s unquestionably ‘the gateway’ to Tasmania’s incredible wilderness region.

“Because we’re only an hour out of Hobart we get a lot of people dropping into MONA [the Museum of Old and New Art] and then out here for lunch and a walk to the falls, and then they’re back to Hobart,” Brendan says. “We’ll often have six or seven coaches in here at a time during cruise-ship season.”

The new sign, Brendan tells us, is aimed at a particular subset of these fast-turnaround guests. The park, like Tasmania in general, is seeing increasing numbers of Chinese visitors, a great many of whom consider it essential to have a photograph taken at the park sign. So, on the advice of experts monitoring visitor behaviour, Mt Field’s new sign is close to the visitor centre and much more visually attractive.

mt field tasmania

Dicksonia antarctica tree ferns guard the path on the Lady Barron Falls Circuit. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

WATER MUSIC – the rushing hiss of Russell Falls Creek – plays next morning as we walk to the falls with Steve Johnson, PWS interpretation and education officer. We’re an hour ahead of the Sunday visitors and Steve has plenty of space to hand-wave with enthusiasm as he describes Mt Field’s tremendous variety of plants, animals and rocks.

“You’ll have a good chance of seeing a platypus in the Tyenna River and Russell Falls Creek,” he says. “If you go to the river at night you can see bats flitting by. And there are Tasmanian pademelons, possums, bandicoots and occasionally eastern quolls down on that grassland – it’s a good place to look for wildlife.”

Steve points out that the pademelon and quoll are now endemic only because they were predated to extinction on the mainland. “Tasmania is really the last refuge for many Australian species. And not just animals: in our alpine regions more than 60 per cent of plants are endemic too.” Mt Field’s plant life in particular gets Steve animated, including the altitude-influenced gradient of species that’s so easy to see from the road to Lake Dobson.

Tasmania is unusual in its patterns of biodiversity, he says. “In most places the widest variety of species are at lower altitudes, but here the number of species actually increases as you go up. You’ve got the change in vegetation communities, then you’ve got the changes in the geology too – from the Permian mudstones down at Russell Falls that go back 220 million years, up to the dolerite, which is later, from the Jurassic. There are all these stories about the break-up of Gondwana that you see in the rocks and the vegetation. It highlights the biogeographical origins – not just of Mt Field, but of Tasmania as well.”

mt field tasmania

The Parks and Wildlife Service has regular Tall Tree walks throughout Mount Field. (Image: Tourism Tasmania and Michael Walters Photography)

In the eucalypt forest around the Russell Falls walk it’s damp- loving species – stately swamp gums, sassafras, myrtle beech and tree ferns – that catch the eye. But as we wander away from the Russell Falls and Tall Trees walks towards Lady Barron Falls, different soil types at the same altitude yield a drier, more open forest of stringybark, white gum and various wattle and heath species.

We bundle into the car with Steve and head up the Lake Dobson road, noting when the sclerophyll gives way to man ferns and smaller soft-fern species in the damp gullies around creeks. Sheltered slopes include sheeny rainforest stands dominated by myrtle beech, celery-top pine and Tasmanian laurel; stout, gum-topped stringybark start to feature. In a band at about 600–700m altitude, bushwalkers’ nightmare, horizontal scrub, and cutting grass grows beneath mixed forest of celery-top, yellow gum and gum-topped stringybark. We stop here, at the park’s shortest nature walk: “2 sec return – amazing views,” some wag has written on the interpretive sign.

Most apparent in the park’s middle elevations is the lack of walking tracks, long or short. It hasn’t always been so. Until the road was put through in the 1930s, the only way up the mountain from Russell Falls was on the pack track. Mt Field’s legendary first ranger, Bill Belcher, appointed in 1917, cut the track, helped mainly by his horse, Runic, which hauled track and hut materials.

The same year as Belcher’s appointment, the Derwent Valley Railway was extended from Westerway to Fitzgerald, allowing Hobart residents to catch a train to National Park station, near Russell Falls. Tourism, particularly for winter sports, boomed. Members of the National Park Board first tried ice-skating on Mt Field lakes and tarns in 1922, and the Ski Club of Tasmania, formed in 1926, built the hut at Twilight Tarn soon after its inception.

“Particularly in the ’20s and ’30s people would catch the train out here, walk up the mountain,” Steve says. “They’d go to Twilight Tarn and go ice skating. The story goes that they would carry up their tuxedos and dresses and a gramophone, and skate listening to music all dressed up.”

This era of great romance – and effort – ended once the Lake Dobson road was completed. Cars replaced packhorses, and first steps were taken towards the ski clubs and facilities that exist today.

mt field tasmania

The endangered fagus tree (Nothofagus gunnii), more commonly known as Tanglefoot, is Australia's only cold climate winter-deciduous tree, endemic to Tasmania. (Image: Tourism Tasmania and Geoff Murray)

We drive on with Steve and stop again at the subalpine woodland and dolerite boulder field south of Mt Field East. “I’m a bit partial to this place,” he says. “It’s just this little area you stumble upon, but it’s got this intersection of geology, vegetation and history all in the one spot.”

The old pack track runs for 400m from here to Lake Fenton, through a magnificent grove of Tasmanian snow gum, King Billy pine, pandani and one of the park’s most significant stands of fagus, or deciduous beech – Australia’s only cold-climate deciduous tree, and itself the reason for a significant annual influx of visitors.

The fagus’s ‘colour’ season, in late April, attracts people from all over Australia, some of whom have been making the annual pilgrimage for decades. From the beginning of each year, the visitor centre phone runs off the hook with requests about the leaves’ colour; a recent innovation is an automated update of the beech’s status (dial ‘Mt Field’ and press 3 for fagus information).

Steve has gone autumn-fagus fawning a dozen times, but Brendan, a Queenslander who moved here six years ago, is a new devotee. “I’ve never seen anything like it before – so many people getting hooked into what this plant’s doing,” he says. “There’s generations of people been doing it. I was talking to guys up there this year, and they were brought out here as kids for the fagus and now they come out, have a picnic – a big
family get-together – to look at the fagus.”

For Brendan, this autumn colour represents the part of Mt Field he likes best. “The big thing is that we have seasons. In Queensland it’s summer all year except for a couple of cool weeks, whereas down here you’ve got things like the fagus changing. And winter’s just such a change. You can be up in the high alpine area on a winter’s day – it’s covered in snow and you’ll not see a soul. There’s not many places where you can do that an hour out of a capital city.”

Essentials

When to go

Low altitude and sheltering woodland make Mt Field’s base area, including Russell Falls, a year-round delight. At the park’s higher elevations, November–April is best for bushwalking and July–September for cross-country skiing and snow play. Peak wildflower season in early summer is a particularly good time for high-country walks. In April, leaves of the deciduous beech, or fagus, turn golden before falling – a popular annual event.

Getting there

The visitor centre is a little more than 70km from central Hobart via New Norfolk, on the A10, B62 and B61 roads. The drive takes about one hour. Several tour companies offer day trips by bus to the park, although many only go to Russell Falls.

Where to stay 

The PWS camping ground near the visitor centre has tent and caravan sites next to the Tyenna River, while the rustic government huts, near Lake Dobson, offer an alpine experience. Bookings are advisable for the huts (03 6288 1149 or www.parks.tas.gov.au). There are holiday cottages in the village of National Park and towns of Westerway and Maydena.

Things to do

The park’s bushwalks vary in length from 15 minutes to several days, and the tracks vary from well maintained and easy, to muddy and challenging. In good weather, views from high points are spectacular. The peak season for skiing and snowboarding is mid-July to mid-September; rope tows open on weekends, provided cover is adequate. Alpine weather conditions are changeable at any time of year and visitors should check the forecast at park reception. Mt Field’s best area for wildlife watching is on the lawns near the visitor centre and camping ground, where encounters with brushtail possums, Bennett’s wallabies and pademelons are guaranteed. Wombats and echidnas are also frequently seen, as are platypuses in the Tyenna River and Russell Falls Creek.

More information

Parks and Wildlife Service www.parks.tas.gov.au
Mount Mawson www.mtmawson.info

This article was originally published in the May-June 2016 issue of Australian Geographic (AG#132).