Du Cane Circuit

Getting There

This circuit was part of a walking trip to Tasmania organised by Rupert, a native Tasmanian, fellow member of the Canberra Bushwalking Club, and 50-year veteran of exploring the hidden corners of the Tasmanian wilderness. To walk with Rupert guarantees that you will visit places not often seen by the average walker, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to join him.

The Du Cane Circuit, which includes a trackless crossing of this rugged and isolated range to the west of the famous Overland Track, was the first walk. I flew into Devonport from Canberra with Mike, a fellow walker, and we were picked up at the airport by Rupert (who had crossed with his car on the Bass Strait ferry).

A 3-hour drive brought us to Derwent Bridge near the southern end of Lake St Clair, where we stayed overnight and caught up with Alan and Marg, who completed our party of five.

We had not walked together before, so we spent a pleasant dinner at Derwent Bridge getting to know each other better, before heading off for our last sleep in a comfortable bed for several days. It was time to make a last check of gear and food and make sure that it all fitted in the pack - 22kg! When will I ever learn to pack lighter?

The rugged landscape of the Du Cane Range

Day 1 – Lake St Clair to Du Cane Gap (14.5 km - 390m ascent - 90m descent)

Our first day on the track dawned still and cloudy as we packed our gear and headed down to the dock at Cynthia Bay. The first 12 km of our trip passed very quickly – a launch took across the silky grey stillness of Lake St Clair, passing close to the steep walls of Mt Olympus, its lower slopes lined with dense myrtle beech forest and the rocky shore lined with the bleached remains of fallen trees. The mountain looked down on us imperiously, unaware that we had plans for it later. Nearing the northern end of the lake, the sky was still grey above us, but ahead the sun was lighting up the tops of the Du Cane Range, our destination for the next four days. My sense of anticipation was heightening.

Setting off from Cynthia Bay

Looking over Lake St Clair to the cloud-topped Du Cane Range

Before we knew it our launch was puttering slowly between the flat sandy banks of the Narcissus River and mooring at the dock. It was time to put on our packs and walk - 10 minutes up to quaint old Narcissus Hut where Rupert gave us the run-down on the day's walk. Then it was off, northwards along the Overland Track.

Overland Track signpost at Narcissus Hut

Narcissus River

Suspension bridge over the Narcissus River

First, several long sections of boardwalk took us over the low boggy parts of the valley to reach the suspension bridge over the Narcissus River. A bit more boardwalk and then we found ourselves following a well-formed earth track that wound its way through a series of of damp mossy gullies, filled with myrtle beech and celery pine, and drier ridges dominated by tall eucalypts. Occasionally, a bush full of lemon-coloured banksia candles lit up the path.

Drier eucalyptus forest

The damp shade of myrtle beech forest

An echidna "hiding" from the passing walkers

The sun was now shining through the canopy, which gave the occasional glimpse of the fluted rock walls of the Acropolis ahead and to our left, as we passed a stream of walkers heading southward on the last leg of their Overland Track adventure. After a couple of hours they had all passed and the track was quiet apart from the gentle twittering of forest birds.

The fluted rock columns of The Acropolis

One by one we reached “new” Windy Ridge Hut (we had been wandering along to our own rhythms on this easy section of track). The hut was situated to look out over the forest to the dolerite columns of the Acropolis and Geryon, the crown jewels of the Du Cane Range. It was the perfect place for lunch and to rest weary legs – a 20+kg pack always feels heavier on the first day of a walk.

View from Windy Ridge Hut

Lunch over, our next section was shorter but steeper as we climbed steadily up to the Du Cane Gap beneath a canopy of tall myrtle beech on a track gnarly with the roots of trees, as it followed a green moss-lined stream tumbling down from the heights above. The atmosphere was still with the humidity of the forest and, by the time we reached the drier flats near the gap itself, my skin was moist with perspiration.

Where the big eucs grow

Mossy creek near Du Cane Gap

A cluster of pandani

This was as far as we were going on the Overland Track, as the gap forms the eastern end of the Du Cane Range and our entry point to it. Rupert took out his GPS to verify the location and we headed bush, scrambling down through the thick scrub for a few hundred metres to reach a small clearing, spongy with peat-moss, in the valley below. A small creek flowed 60 cm beneath the mossy surface, breaking through as a series of waterholes.

The secret campsite - Du Cane Gap

Time to relax

It was the “secret” campsite that Rupert had been aiming for and we pitched our tents and settled in to this pleasant nook surrounded by tall forest trees and hidden away beneath the rocky dome of Fallen Mountain. Unfortunately the mosquitoes also found it pleasant, but that did not stop us enjoying the late afternoon sun as we checked our gear and rested up for the next day. Tomorrow we would be climbing 500m off-track to reach the tops of the Du Cane Range.

Day 2 – Fallen Mountain
(4.5 km - 550m ascent - 180m descent)

The wake-up call came at 6.30am and we had eaten breakfast, packed up and were ready to walk by 8am. Already the day was shaping up to be brilliant, with only a few clouds in the sky. The walking ahead was not quite so promising, as we had to get our packs up 500m of scrub scree and massive blocks of dolerite to the top of Fallen Mountain.

Rupert led us off, first scrambling our way up the valley beneath the mixed myrtle beech, pine and eucalypt forest, pushing through the knots of branches and rustling past the dry leafed trunks of pandani (the world's largest heath plant) to reach a ridge that headed up from the gap. Above, the bluff face of the mountain looked scornfully down on us. We turned and followed the ridge upwards, passing through a tangle of deciduous beech to reach the waist high scrub of the upper slopes.

Some very tall pandani

Short break on a scrubby slope ...

... before tackling the boulders

Crossing the dolerite blocks on Fallen Mountain

Our trajectory steepened as we picked a “path” through an increasingly rocky habitat and stops became a bit more frequent. As the dolerite scree turned into a jumble of massive blocks and boulders with the occasional shute of soft pineapple grass, the route became more tenuous – a backtrack here, a sidle across a rock face there, a couple of tight pushes and pack-hauls up through narrow gaps and on we progressed. At one pinch, one of my water bottles abandoned ship to hide in a deep rock cleft for all eternity, while my camera bounced 10m down the rock face (and still worked – kudos to Canon!). As we climbed, the views opened up down the Mersey River Valley to the north and out across the flat lake-filled plateau of the Traveller’s Range on the far side of the gap.

View over the upper Mersey River Valley

With a final effort we pushed over the top of the rock face to reach a flattish puzzle of boulders on the southern end of Fallen Mountain – the orange dolerite beautifully patterned black, grey and white with lichens. From here a magnificent panorama awaited us – Olympus to the south, the amazing walls of the Acropolis and Geryon, the boulder strewn ridges leading from here to Mt Massif, further away a midline silhouette of Mt Ossa and Pelion East, while Barn Bluff and Cradle Mountain formed the northern horizon. It had taken four hard hours of climbing to get here, but our efforts had their reward and we declared this our lunch spot to take in the superb views as fluffy pillows of cloud drifted across the sky from the east.

Panorama of Geryon and Mt Massif (from Fallen Mountain)

While the climb was over, the hard work was not. From the top of Fallen Mountain, we had to pick our way around and drop steeply another 100m on the massive boulder field (the instability of carrying heavy packs in such terrain was being clearly demonstrated). After a slow and careful descent (including dropping down through a rock underpass), we found ourselves on the saddle between Fallen Mountain and the next bump in the range.

Surveying the route ahead ...

... which sometimes went under rocks ...

... as well as over the top

Tarn backed by Mt Pelion East

Crossing to the northern side of this saddle, a new set of superb views opened out – back to the steep walls of Castle Crag and across the valley to the magnificent fluted cliffs of Cathedral Mountain. The saddle held a series of still water pools in its hollows and it was good to have a chance to top up our supplies again.

Cathedral Mountain and the Mersey River Valley

Cushion plant in flower

The distant peak of Frenchman's Cap

Our progress continued slowly as cloud started to build up and, scrambling westwards, we climbed away from the low part of the saddle. Rupert knew of a small campsite amongst the rocks in this area and, after seven hours of effort, we found it – a superb little tarn with a small area near the edge of the ridge just big enough for four tents. It was the perfect spot to set up camp and slowly recover our energy as we watched the incredible changes in cloud, light and colour to the north over Ossa , Barn Bluff and Cradle Mountain.

Another beautiful tarn on the Du Cane Range

Late afternoon reflections

Evening light over Fallen Mountain

Campsite on the saddle between Fallen Mountain and Mt Massif

Rainclouds over Barn Bluff and Cradle Mountain

The last rays of the sun illuminate the crest of Fallen Mountain

The sun returned to shine on us as rain showers fell on distant Cradle Mountain, while the south and west remained clear enough to treat us to a spectacular mountain sunset. In this difficult terrain, we had walked more hours than kilometres, but the score for the day was a tie – hard work 10, rewards 10!

Rupert watching the sunset

Day 3 – Mt Massif and Big Gun Pass
(4.5 km - 340m ascent - 260m descent)

After a cool night, our cosy little circle of tents stirred for another day on the track (metaphorically, that is). Below us, wisps of cloud were rising out of the valley, while thicker cloud drifted about the summit of Ossa on its far side. Here on the Du Cane Range, the sun shone brightly, as we set out to explore it further.

Pelion East framed in the morning mist

The route ahead - towards Mt Massif with Mt Ossa to the north

The pattern for the day was quickly revealed as we traversed around the northern flank of the big hump in the middle of this ridge. We once again found ourselves crossing big boulders of dolerite scree, before descending the jumble of massive blocks on the hump’s western end.

Every step and hand-hold was carefully chosen as we inched around edges, went down slanting slabs and stretched over deep clefts, with the occasional patch of ankle high scrub thrown in for good measure. On several occasions we had to remove packs and lower them separately to get past tight spots. Concentration was the key, as falling 5-10m down a very hard and coarse jumble of sharp-edged rocks while wearing a 20kg backpack was simply not an option.

Looking south over the Narcissus Valley towards distant Mt Olympus

The jagged edge of Mt Oakleigh

Moon set above Mt Massif

Tarn on the saddle of Mt Massif

In fact, this morning I joined the others and put on a pair of gloves to help get good grip on the coarse crystalline rock surface without the dermal abrasion therapy of yesterday – they worked.

Cloud swirling about Mt Ossa

Eventually we reached the next saddle, only to be confronted by a seemingly impassable bluff at the eastern end of Mt Massif. Rupert, unphased, knew the way around and led us lower down the northern slope to pass under the bluff before again heading upward, hand and foot, up a smaller and less steep scree slope.

After one false line and retreat, we found the pineapple grass-covered access gully that took us to the mountain top.  Three hours after setting out we arrived at a small depression covered in a wonderful mosaic of cushion plants, a good place to take a break and take in the views.

Once more into the boulder field

On the slopes of Mt Massif

Crossing the tarn-filled "Bath Tub"

View of The Acropolis and Geryon from Mt Massif

The big cushion plant (ca. 50m2)

Filling our water bottles from a shallow tarn, we set off on the easiest walking of the day, gradually ascending the grassy southern slope of summit region of Mt Massif, with glorious views of The Acropolis and Geryon beyond.

Not long after we found ourselves looking down into a tarn-filled bowl in the middle of the mountain known as “The Bath Tub”, backed by the distant blue of the West Coast Ranges. We dropped into the bowl to pick our way across between the superb cushion plant mosaics (one over 50 m2!).

The beauty of dolerite

Edging around a bluff

The easy part of the day was now over, as we once again found ourselves traversing our way across the massive scree of orange, black, grey and white boulders that tumbled down the north side of Mt Massif. Another two hours of delicate rockhopping alternating with ungainly scrambling, plus the occasional climbs or descent to get around impassable bluffs followed.

Rest stop with views out to Hyperion and the distant West Coast Ranges

The brooding east face of Geryon

This brought us to a point where we could look down on to Big Gun Pass, backed by the formidable cliffs of Geryon. A steep final descent to the narrow pass and we were there – it was a relief to finally take my gloves off – as my hands were a sweaty mess from the sun-warmed  rock we had traversed on Massif’s north face.

View over Big gun Pass and Mt Massif (Mt Ossa to the left anf Fallen Mountain to the right)

One last task faced us – getting up the other side of the pass. A faint pad and series of cairns took us directly up the steep rocky (needless to say) spur, past a massive rock spire and on to the next mountain (herein referred to as Geryon North). Cresting the spur, we found ourselves in a high plateau of tarns scattered in a rolling grass, cushion plant and low shrub landscape beneath the boulder-covered tops.

The ascent of Geryon North

Tarn on the plateau of Geryon North

Crossing the high plateau (easy walking at last!)

After a conference, we decide to camp on this mountain – almost nine hours of walking was enough for one day. An easy stroll across the gentle saddle led us to a beautiful spot on the western side – good flat tent sites amongst the cushion plants, yellow daisies and alpine crocus, sheltered from the southerly wind and close to a series of spring-fed ponds.

After setting up my tent, I soaked my feet in the warmth of the late afternoon sun looking out at the distant mountains. It was magnificent – only a cold beer and the fair Nello by my side would have made it better (or should that be the other way around).

The fluted spires of The Acropolis

Barn Bluff (in duplicate?)

Evening shadows on the southern Du Cane Range

The ponds at our camp site

The mountains of Tasmania in blue and black

A golden sunset

Rupert watching the sun set (in pink and blue)

The evening settled in with a glorious sunset, golden in the west and pastel shades in the east, as low clouds rolled in over the distant mountains. Not long after, the cloud bank rolled in to envelop us in a gentle white mist. Would it leave or was tomorrow going to be a very different day? Having had three days of superb weather and views we were already pushing our luck in this region notorious for its capricious climate.

Day 4 – The Labyrinth and Pine Valley
(17.5 km - 160m ascent - 910m descent)

It was a very different awakening – the heavy mist that had enveloped our campsite last evening was still there. As we ate and prepared to leave, the clouds drifted across creating clearings that revealed other cloud covered mountain tops or vistas of the tarns in the valley below, before closing up again to lock us in a foggy bubble. The trend though was for increasing clear patches and by the time we broke camp the sun had won the day.

Early morning fog on the plateau

A band of cloud wrapped over Mt Ossa

Clear skies with a few remaining wisps of cloud led us down the slope to a hanging valley dotted with a myriad of tarns. From its rim we could look out to Lake St Clair beyond the brooding shadow walls of The Acropolis. Further away, Frenchman’s Cap reared its distinctive head – yet another amazing panorama.

Looking down on to the tarns of the Upper Labyrinth

Lake St Clair and the dark edge of The Acropolis

We soon picked up a “pad” which led us down from the hanging valley, first via a narrow rocky shute, then winding through the a head-high pine scrub dotted with taller pencil pines. On reaching the plateau below, we followed a track across a series of rocky knolls offering glimpses of lakes or of Pine Valley far below. All along our eastern flank was dominated by the darkly foreboding ramparts of Geryon and The Acropolis.

Descent through the scrubby pines

The Lake of Memories (I think!)

We soon picked up a “pad” which led us down from the hanging valley, first via a narrow rocky shute, then winding through the a head-high pine scrub dotted with taller pencil pines. On reaching the plateau below, we followed a track across a series of rocky knolls offering glimpses of lakes or of Pine Valley far below. All along our eastern flank was dominated by the darkly foreboding ramparts of Geryon and The Acropolis.

Geryon and the Acropolis backlit over the pine forest

We undulated and meandered our way down to the Lake of Memories, a beautiful pond surrounded by pencil pines and deciduous beech, whose waters reflected the black massifs above. This brought us to a scrubby ascent of a drier eucalypt covered hill and, once over the other side into the heart of the wonderful Labyrinth landscape.

The land and lake-scape of The labyrinth

As the track meandered around this place of hill and hollow, a series of magnificent tarns and lakes revealed themselves, one after the other – some framed by pencil pine and eucalypt, others with backdrops of rocky ramparts or distant pyramids. It was simply superb.

The delicate beauty of dolerite spires

Geryon in blue and green

View over Lake Tartarus

Tarns of the Labyrinth

Lake Ophione framed by Geryon and The Acropolis

Lake Elysia with Mt Gould
in the background

At the western end of Lake Ophione, we followed the wrong pad, ending up on having lunch on a rocky hill on its southern shore before descending this to cross the creek and rejoin the main track at the end of The Labyrinth. This was just in time for a short sharp climb up the flank of The Parthenon, followed by a traverse of its western side in drier eucalyptus forest. In the hot afternoon sun, it was time to take the legs off my walking trousers and pull out the old walking pole (unused since we left the Overland Track some three days ago).

Looking towards Mt Gould from
The Parthenon saddle

Deep in the myrtle beech forest
Reaching a saddle beyond The Parthenon, we commenced our final descent of the Du Cane Range, on a track that plunged steeply off the ridge – first through scrub, then taller eucalypt forest and finally into the superb stillness of the myrtle beech forest. How nice it was, and how cool, to wander past those mossy trunks and gnarly roots beneath trees that reached as high as 40m. How hard it is to capture the mood of forest in a photo!

Forest giant

In the deep shade beneath the myrtle beech canopy

Creek beneath the myrtle beech

The forest continued once we reached the valley floor and the track brought us out to Pine Valley Hut, full at 3pm with wilderness walkers. Pine Hut is the spot from which many choose to explore this remote area. The fact that it was full was not a problem, as our destination lay further on – another three hours to Narcissus Hut. Despite the beauty of forest and streams this last section became a bit of a chore at the end of a long hard day.

Suspension bridge across Cephissus Creek

Reflections in the Narcissus River

A dark pool in Cephissus Creek, speckled with leatherwood flowers

Boardwalk across a sphagnum bog

We finally pulled in at 6.30pm, footsore and weary. A group of young backpackers were already ensconced there, but there was plenty of room for more. Rupert and Mike preferred the quieter ambience of their tents, but Alan, Marg and I opted for the hut (being just too tired to bother pitching a tent). It was good to have somewhere to lean your back for a meal.

Swampy area near the Pine Valley -Overland Track intersection

Button grass flats in the Narcissus Valley

And so ended our four day circuit of the Du Cane Range, an incredible blend of rain forest, dry forest, alpine meadow, marshy flats, boulder-covered slopes, glacial tarns and lakes. We had put in long days, sometimes for little horizontal progress, but each day had brought its rewards and left us in awe of the landscapes of central Tasmania. This was even more so, when the features about us carried the names of the Greek pantheon. To ice our bush-walking cake, we had excellent weather for the entire period, which in fact was not yet over. From Narcissus Hut, Rupert has planned to continue with a three-day complementary walk that will take us into the isolated Cuvier Valley and to the top of Mt Olympus. I can't wait.

Thanks to Rupert for showing us this rarely visited part of Tasmania and to Marg, Alan and Mike for their company - the days may have been long and the scree and scrub tested muscles and equipment, but at the end of each day we could all still share a smile and laugh and revel in the beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness.