Tumble on trek in Tasmania pushes walker to limits

WHAT was I thinking? I stare down the vertical hillside, chains offering handholds over rocky scree as far as I can see. Up above, the same.

My pack pushes me forward. My trusty branch with its grip of silver duct tape is a few steps in front - useless on the chain descent.

With one knee strapped and bulging and the other swelling nicely, gravel rash and blood down my left lower leg and bright bruises deepening on my shins, I sit and cry.

What was I thinking? It started out well. My friend and her son's partner were doing Tassie's Overland Track - Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair. Did I want to come?

I'm a walker. I love the freedom of pulling on your boots and heading into the great unknown. I've walked everywhere from bush to beach, Hinchinbrook to Kokoda.

Seven days, 65km plus side tracks carrying a full pack. Why not? Strangely a voice said "No" - you're not pack fit and Christmas was rainy, you haven't got the mileage up. But my friend's a nurse, strong and resilient; we've walked tough terrain before. And her son's partner is an army mechanic, mentally and physically fit. One to heal and one to carry - I'll be fine.

And the gods are smiling. Tassie rolls out perfect weather. We set off from Ronny Creek over the wire-covered walkways under bright blue skies.

Our Army Amazon sets a cracking pace but I am fresh and confident; adventure here we come.

The guide book describes day one as the hardest with a moderate climb past Crater Falls and Crater Lake to Marion's Lookout. It's all uphill, of course, with the last section a short heave up on sturdy chains. But the effort is worth it; there's a magic view of Dove Lake with Cradle Mountain towering above.

We've done the hard bit and it's an easy walk to our hut at Waterfall Valley. Why was I worried?

ABOVE: Jo Leslie and friends on the Overland Trail. TOP: An echidna forages next to the track. LEFT: Cradle Mountain at sunrise, photo by Tourism Tasmania/Jason Charles Hill.
ABOVE: Jo Leslie and friends on the Overland Trail. TOP: An echidna forages next to the track. LEFT: Cradle Mountain at sunrise, photo by Tourism Tasmania/Jason Charles Hill. Jo Leslie

A brief stop for photos and food and we shoulder our packs for the march to the foot of Cradle Mountain. It's a rare, clear day - why not climb up? With our packs stowed at nearby Kitchen Hut, my body floats, released of its weight.

The mountain is up ahead, 1500m of dolerite rock. Gravel, dirt and rock give way to huge boulders, flung by a moody giant at play's end. Gaping holes hint at dismal outcomes for the unwary but handholds are plentiful. Up we climb, my heart reminding me of my fear of heights. Jumping, climbing, legs getting wobbly - I can do this.

Holes are bigger, grade is steeper, hanging on the precipice. "I'm staying here," I yell. As the others climb out of view, I sit in the wind; sensible to stop when fear grips your guts. Legs are trembling. I stay put and breathe in the jaw-dropping scenery.

About 20 minutes later we head down the same boulders. Safe at the bottom, I breathe easy - warm hut and cuppa coming up. A handful of nuts and we're off, tethered by our packs to the earth, over country formed by ancient glaciers.

It's flat but footing is tricky. We're eager to reach the hut. Our pace quickens. I lift my head; the sky is a deep blue and we are flanked by hardy green and gold flora. Suddenly I'm on my back, two concerned faces peering at me.

My pack is whipped off; my body's fine, just blood oozing from a graze down my leg. I catch my breath. I need a rest. My legs are still wobbly from my mountain fear.

"Nothing hurt, only my pride," I smile, shrugging on my pack. And so we're off again, across and up before a long downward trek to the green moss-carpeted Waterfall Valley and our hut.

Day two is an easy walk, just a few hours across the flat. There's a side trail to icy Lake Will where I can soak my leg and ease my swelling knees. Morning ablutions are painful; I hobble up the stairs to the drop toilet. But it is an easy day.

Pack on and my knees scream. The others charge across the flat; I lag. My friend eyes my limp; my knees feel unstable. A cold swim eases nothing and my friends are concerned.

"We'll carry your pack back to the valley hut - you can't go on." I know it's true. Stupid to lose my footing, stupid to keep someone else's pace, stupid to head off when your fitness is not up to scratch. My heart and head were desperate to walk but what about my body?

This last year has been a strange time. At 57 you're supposed to be wise and sure but life keeps tossing up uncertainty and doubt. Back at the hut my friend straps my knee and hugs me. I reassure her and wave them off.

The volunteer ranger, a woman around my age, makes me a cuppa, heats my food, reassures me. As people drift into the hut, they offer solace.

A seasoned bushwalker and doctor orders a sturdy stick from the young male ranger to aid my exit. The volunteer ranger offers to cart my pack up the first hill where I can call my sister. I am humbled by everyone's kindness.

We set off at 7am. A cold snap has dumped ice on the track and I'm relieved my pack is on other shoulders. My companion goes ahead so I can set my own pace. The air is clean and clear and we chat like old friends.

At the rise, she wishes me well; my sister is on her way, the ranger and my 'sturdy stick' will cross my path later and a second ranger, on his way in, will check my progress. The clear skies mean fellow walkers will fill the track. I am safe.

I set off across the plain, knees burning with the pack's weight. I focus on slow, careful steps. There's no one in sight, just me and the wild. It was a five-hour walk in without the Cradle Mountain climb; I figure it will be a long day. My inner voice is chiding me. "Shut up," I scream. "Just shut up!"

An hour later I hear quick steps. The ranger is handing me a branch, decked in silver tape. "Take the wombat track to Dove Lake," he smiles. "Easier on the knees. You're going well."

As he dots into the distance, I pass Barn Bluff and head around the back of Cradle Mountain; the track is deserted. Skirting the foot of the mountain, I fall. Tears well.

I'm tired. I take off my pack and scoff a muesli bar. I look around. I'm lucky to be here, alone in the wild. And it is beautiful. Cradle Mountain is usually cloaked in cloud but this trip has gifted clear views.

I feel better, stronger. I hoist my pack and head to Marion's Lookout and the wombat track. Day walkers start to meet me, cheery, on their way to scale the mountain. Some look very green; none carry packs.

From the lookout I see Dove Lake and the distant car park. I see a sign to Dove Lake and follow two slight Asian girls in skimpy runners down the track.

A meander downhill and I'm home.

I head down the first drop, holding tight to the chain. The ranger has warned of a short, steep section but, 10 minutes on, the chain persists. I'm having a meltdown. I can't do it. It wasn't supposed to be like this. I need help. I cry. Sweet blubbering crocodile tears. I wallow.

What a pathetic woman; stuck on a steep incline, silver taped tree branch hurled ahead, blue and bloody legs, swollen knees, dirt tracked tears. Briefly I think of hurling my pack and following it down. I smile. A gurgle rises and I'm laughing.

How bloody pathetic.

There's no Captain America to save me. There's just me, two bloody hopeless legs and the track down. Just as I'm regrouping, a topless man with long grey hair and a full pack scampers up the chain. "Is this the wombat track," I ask dumbly. "No, Love - goat track - quickest way down!"

I wipe my face and steady myself, grabbing trees and roots. It's me or no one.

An hour of pure bloody-mindedness gets me to voices; there are people ahead on something akin to flat ground. A woman stares. Do I need a hand? I laugh, trying to keep hysteria at bay. "I'm fine."

Just 15 minutes to the car park and the bus that will take me to my lovely sister. I limp out, one step at a time.

"I think I'm looking for you," says a fresh ranger. He shakes his head at my goat track exit. His "good effort" is my badge of courage.

I lift my chest and limp on. Seven hours after leaving the hut, I'm done in, but I've hammered home something I knew all along.

Life isn't about the destination; it's the journey that shapes us. And, in the end, though you may be supported by excellent people, there is no other way than your own; it's solitary and paced to suit your head and heart space and it is one uncertain step at a time.

PS: My experience of the Overland Track leaves out much of its beauty and wonder and the amazing characters who traverse its breadth. I guess my mind was in a different space. I'm in training for a return trip next year.