The Western Arthurs

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January 16th 2016
Published: December 8th 2016
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Even somewhere already as rugged as Tasmania's famed southwest, some places have a special reputation for their wildness and beauty. The Western Arthurs, a compact chain of mountains sprinkled with lakes some 80 kilometres west-southwest of Hobart, are one of those places. Indeed, every Tasmanian bushwalker worth his or her salt has seen the Arthurs, or has plans to go there one day.

A few obstacles lie in the way, most notably the weather. Guidebooks go to great trouble to point out that the weather in Tasmania is notoriously unstable. Indeed, the southwest of the state is famed for its utterly foul weather, which can strike at any time of the year and swallow the foolhardy bushwalker whole. Storms appearing out of nowhere nowhere, bringing fog and freezing rain in the middle of summer, "snowfall in any month of the year" (one of these books' favourite phrases): the Western Arthurs bear the brunt of weather systems crashing in from the west. Given that what most normal people would describe as "good weather" is quite rare in these parts, never lasts more than a few days, and that even a modest exploration of the range requires at least three or four days, venturing into the Arthurs requires some careful planning and preparation for all weather-related eventualities. And it is so, after multiple preparatory meetings, that a friend and I embark on our first foray into the wild Western Arthurs...

For a place so frequently touted as "remote", the Western Arthur Range is remarkably easy to get to from Hobart: a mere three-hour drive up the Derwent Valley, westwards into the state's heartland before turning south along the eastern shore of Lake Pedder (one of the state's largest hydroelectric lakes), followed by a robust six-hour hike across the Arthur Plains, past the headwaters of the Huon River. The Arthurs can be accessed from the plains via a few different routes, all of which follow glacial moraine spurs up to the mountains. The only decent route - and the one we unsurprisingly take - is up the westernmost Alpha Moraine. It's a steep but thankfully short climb up: we are carrying about 20kg each of camping gear, cold-weather gear, wet-weather gear, windy-weather gear, sunny-weather gear, cooking gear and food. The view back north to the Arthur Plains, Lake Pedder and Mount Anne is predictably impressive, and makes a welcome break from staring at our boots as we huff and puff up the steep incline. The path flattens out considerably as the moraine deposits us high up on the ridge near the summit of Mount Hesperus in a swirl of mist and cloud. As we make our way southeast along the ridge, the mist begins to clear and small tarns and lakes begin to appear: Lake Fortuna, Lake Pluto, Lake Neptune. Much as the peaks and lakes of the Walls of Jerusalem have been given Biblical names, here in the Arthurs Roman and Greek mythological names predominate. It isn't long before we find ourselves overlooking the small but beautiful Lake Cygnus, which is to be our base camp for the duration of the trip. We make our way down the steep slope to the lake's edge where the designated campsites are located. As is to be expected in these parts, there's not much by way of facilities: some reinforced camping platforms and a pit toilet which is most alarmingly full. But, self-sufficient and well-equipped as we are, it's more than enough.

Thankfully there is plenty of daylight remaining to set up a comfortable camp, prepare a tasty dinner - as for our walk along the South Coast Track between Christmas and New Year, this is most definitely a 'gourmet bushwalk' - and head back up to the ridgeline for some stupendous sunset views northwards to Lake Pedder and Mount Anne, and southwards as far as Bathurst Harbour. Then it's time to zip ourselves up in our sleeping bags and dream of the walk ahead.

It isn't the light which wakes me the following morning, but the smell. Smoke. Tasmania has had an exceptionally dry spell of weather - the hydro lakes are almost dry and, if the press is to be believed, the state's lights are about to go out - and in an area this remote smoke is not good news at all. Extricating myself quickly from my sleeping bag, I poke my nose through the tent flap. The deep bowl we are in is filled with a thick haze. There's most definitely a fire somewhere, but for all we know it could be many tens of kilometres away and we just happen to be sitting in the smoke plume. The only way to find out is to rush back up to the ridge where there is minimal mobile phone signal and check the fire service's website to see if there's anything we should be worried about. There certainly are some fires - including some big ones - burning near the shores of Lake Pedder not too far from here, but nothing directly threatening the Arthurs in the near future. So, despite a rather unsettling feeling, we have breakfast and prepare our small packs for the day's excursion to Lake Oberon. Lake Oberon lies at the very heart of the Arthurs - although few Tasmanians have seen it in the flesh, the lake was made famous by photographer Peter Dombrovskis, whose images of the Tasmanian wilderness are world famous. His photograph of Lake Oberon, the shores of which are festooned with exotic-looking pandani plants, is perhaps one of his most iconic - it certainly played a role in my wanting to do this walk. In fact, the walk from Lake Cygnus to Lake Oberon will take us right past Mount Hayes, where Dombrovskis died in 1996 while on a photography assignment in the Arthurs.

A short distance, by Tasmanian standards at least, but possibly one of the most extraordinary ones I have had the good fortune of walking - in Tasmania or anywhere. Left and right, near and far, the views are stupendous: even with the haze from the fires, we are able to glimpse Federation Peak in the distance. Towering over the track are a succession of imposing, craggy peaks: Mount Sirius, Mount Orion, Procyon Peak. Likewise, tarns and lakes dot the landscape, glittering in the sunlight. While the track is generally extremely well formed and easy to follow, there are a few rather steep and hairy moments, and the path is seldom anything near horizontal. We pass but a tiny number of other walkers, many of whom are bravely attempting the full traverse of the Arthurs, a walk of 7 days or more which - sadly - we don't have the time for. Another time, perhaps.

Despite the haze, the weather is clear and warm - even hot. Not the kind of conditions the Arthurs see every day, that's for sure. It's a particularly steep climb to the ridge which separates Square Lake from its neighbour Oberon, but oh! is it worth it - quite possibly the most impressive panorama in Tasmania. The lake, the formidable peaks encircling it, thick bush covering the slopes down to the water, and of course those famous pandani, those tropical-looking plants which seem so out of place in wet, temperate Tasmania.

The next day is devoted to the exploration of Mount Hayes. It's a relatively easy scramble to the summit - the effort is richly rewarded with spectacular (and vertigo-inducing!) 360-degree views. Yes, once again, it's sunny and clear in the Arthurs. The smoke haze has largely cleared - the wind is simply blowing from a different direction today. Three consecutive days of properly "good" weather - this might just be a record! Back at the camp, it is actually hot enough - yes, hot! - to go for a swim in the still, tannin-stained waters of Lake Cygnus. The top twenty centimetres of water are just about an acceptable temperature, and encourage a lazy swimmer like me to keep moving. Stop for even a second and your body positions itself vertically in the water...any deeper than those 20cm and the water is icy. By necessity it's a short swim - even after 3 years in Tasmania I'm still not quite fully hardy - but as far as wild swims go, this one is definitely up there with the best. For our final evening in the Arthurs, we hike up to Capella Crags, a rough outcrop perched high above Lake Cygnus with - you guessed it - yet more incredible views.

The following morning, we pack up in mist and drizzle - somehow it seems quite appropriate - and get going as early as possible. It's a long trudge back to Mount Hesperus, down Alpha Moraine, across the Arthur Plains and back to the southern shore of Lake Pedder, where we've left car, not to mention the three hour drive back to Hobart. Despite the fact that our packs are perhaps a third lighter than when we hiked in, somehow they always feel heavier on the walk out, which seems twice as long as the walk in. Once we are off the mountain range, however, the weather clears again - every once in a while, we gaze over our shoulders back at the rocky spine of the Aruthurs, filling the horizon from east to west. Plotting the next expedition.

Additional photos below
Photos: 36, Displayed: 28


9th December 2016
Looking north to Lake Pedder

Thanks for the wild hike!
Many of us will never again make it out to rugged, remote, gorgeous mountains like these, so thanks for taking us along. Great photos, but you really must return. I was looking for your exotic pandani plants, but didn't see them--maybe next trip! Glad you avoided fire and rain!

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