Traversing Tasmania’s Western Arthurs

By Dave Cauldwell | May 18, 2012

This 70km walk in Tasmania’s southwest wilderness scales some of the most demanding and scenic terrain in Australia.

EXPLETIVES FILL THE AIR and bushes rustle to confirm my walking partner Stephen Haley is still alive. For the last 20 minutes he’s been enveloped in a dense pocket of forest which is turning out to be an annoying punctuation in today’s walk. Rainclouds are gathering over the eastern end of the Western Arthurs. The wind is howling.

I’m standing on the edge of the forest, at the base of the ranges on the Arthur Plains, calling out to Stephen and suggesting that he follow faint animal trails to find his way out. More branches shake and snap. Could he be in a wrestling match with a wombat? His language is filthier than our bodies which haven’t seen soap for ten days.

When he finally emerges, his face is covered in soot from rubbing up against charred branches. There’s a sizeable rip in the back of his shorts. “That tree just assaulted me,” he says, pointing and rubbing his backside.

western arthurs tasmania

The western end of the ranges looms under mottled skies. This end of the range is most frequently walked because it has the most dramatic scenery. (Image: Dave Cauldwell / Australian Geographic)

Tasmania’s stunning yet punishing terrain

You have to be slightly sado-masochistic to attempt a traverse of the Western Arthurs, which are found in Tasmania’s world heritage-listed Southwest Wilderness, approximately 90km from Hobart. The range is 15km long with 22 major peaks and – apart from a small section at the western end of the ranges – the walk traverses the entire Western Arthur range. The terrain is punishing to say the least.

Expect to clamber up steep, mud-infested paths; twist and turn down knee-knocking descents on loose rock; and battle through narrow gullies filled with tree roots that will either trip you up or bruise your shins (or most likely, both). Arduous undulations abound – sufferers of vertigo may want to walk around Hobart Harbour instead. You should also prepare for some hairy down-climbing on slippery rock, all the while carrying a backpack which is likely to weigh in excess of 25kg.

western arthurs tasmania

The view from every ridge crest in the Western Arthurs seems like a portal into a prehistoric world. (Image: Dave Cauldwell / Australian Geographic)

Steve and I have both spilt blood on this trip. While scaling the Beggary Bumps – a notoriously undulating part of the traverse – I was down-climbing when a branch lashed me so hard across the face that I was spitting blood for minutes afterwards. Bruises of all different shapes, sizes and shades blot my legs.

And judging by all of the scrapes and cuts on Steve’s arms, perhaps he’s been practising his wombat wrestling moves. Prickly scoparia scrub is the main culprit – there are times when it’s tickling your jugular.

Tasmania’s majestic Western Arthurs

The flora may be unwelcoming, but the scenery is spectacular. Superlatives become superfluous in describing the majesty of what is the most dramatic mountain range in Australia. Quartzite formations rise like jagged pillars that would puncture the sky if they were tall enough.

Many of these rocks started life as beds of sand and silt at the bottom of a shallow sea more than a billion years ago. The original sand grains metamorphosed and re-crystallised over time to become quartzite. Tectonic shudders folded the rocks which are now adorned with wavy patterns.

western arthurs tasmania

Dawn light colours wind-sculpted alpine foliage on Mt Hayes, part of the Western Arthurs. (Image: Dave Cauldwell / Australian Geographic)

You cannot help but be swept up by the tranquillity of the Western Arthurs. It is a land that has never seen conflict, and, apart from the timber board campsites and the track itself, there are no signs of human interference.

Registration data collected by Parks Tasmania throughout the 1990s and early 2000s suggests that visitor numbers on the track were pretty static; the number of walkers hiking along the track at present is estimated to be 400-500 a year. Walkers traversing the range in summer will more than likely bump into other trekkers, although not that many – this is nothing like the Overland Track. 

western arthurs tasmania

After a night at the idyllic campsite beside Lake Cygnus (to the right of the small beach), the track winds gradually up a rocky path and is bordered on one side by a sheer cliff-face. (Image: Dave Cauldwell / Australian Geographic)

Western Arthurs: the land that time forgot

Having lunch atop a peak in the Beggary Bumps with Lake Ganymede sparkling below, time became timeless; its structure dispersed like ripples in the lake. I merged with the land. I was taken in by the roots of Nature, nurtured and covered in her soil. Sitting on that peak it felt as though I was floating on a sliver of Gondwanaland that had managed to sneak away from the rest of the world.

As Steve and I trek away from the dense forest and back towards Scotts Peak Dam, where our adventure started a week-and-a-half ago, I look back towards the range. The mountains have been shrouded by hazy rainclouds and have completely disappeared. I suspect my memory of this walk will be a little harder to erase.

Dave Cauldwell is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer based in country Victoria.

Quick facts

Getting there: From Hobart, it is a three-hour drive via New Norfolk and then Maydena, after which you’ll turn off the highway and head towards Lake Pedder and Scotts Peak Dam car park.

When to go: February and March are the driest months.

Climate: Expect any weather any time of year.

Further information:  You’ll need to purchase a Park Pass to access the Southwest National Park. Go to www.parks.tas.gov.au for more details.

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