‘What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?’ It’s a tough question for a traveller. The experience of beauty is coloured by so many factors other than the scenery – the company, the weather, how much your feet hurt and what you’d recently been eating, drinking or (for some) inhaling.
Moreover, I have criteria which must be satisfied before a place can be designated an Exceptional Beauty Spot:
(1) There must be no crowds, which counts out anything you can reach on a bus tour (sorry, Venice and Echo Point, Katoomba.)
(2) It must be surprising and unusual, unlike anything available elsewhere (out go most cathedrals and waterfalls, however ancient or magnificent.)
(3) It should feel like a small achievement to have got there (one reason I like walking.)
So here goes…A still lake in the high Pyrenees, egrets flying over the source of the Nile in Uganda, Amsterdam’s canals at night, dawn mist swirling round Prague’s Charles Bridge, the sky above Lake Tahoe, most of New Zealand…they’re all etched in my memory.
None of them rate higher on my list than a place in Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain National Park. I don’t mean the peak of that famous mountain, nor Dove Lake below it. They’re certainly stunning, but we’ve seen them in every Tasmanian tourist brochure, so they fall short on my ‘surprising and unusual’ test. However, years ago, during one of my visits to that area, a day walk took us through forest and up a hill to a spot I still rank as the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.
The circumstances were not propitious. Tasmania’s weather had turned nasty. A heavy fall of snow had forced us to abandon our plans to walk the whole Overland Track and rain was forecast. This was January, mind you, supposedly high summer.
I was cold, wet and disappointed, but on a determined quest to see the nature I’d spent a year’s holiday money to reach. So like mad Captain Ahab, I drove my crew out into the weather on a vicious series of loop walks, radiating out from Cradle Mountain campground.
The crew was mutinous; my young teenage son had been pushed well outside his comfort zone and was letting me know all about it. Our equipment budget in those days didn’t run to Gore-Tex jackets, so we had plastic shopping bags pulled over damp beanies to save our ears from frostbite.
The track leading to the Cradle Mountain peak was boggy. At one point my son yelped, and I turned to see him balancing on one leg, a bare white foot poised above primaeval ooze. I had to roll up my sleeve, plunge my arm into the mud and feel around to retrieve the boot, sock and gaiter that had been sucked into the slime.
‘All right,’ I muttered, teeth firmly gritted. ‘We’ll forget about making it to the summit. We’ll take the side route and circle back to the car park. It should only take an hour or two.’
So it was that we arrived at the Twisted Lakes. Maybe on a clear day we’d have zipped past them, paying little attention. But thanks to the weather and the whining we’d easily satisfied my ‘achievement to get there’ criterion. There was no crowd; all sensible people were toasting their feet by the fire in the Cradle Mountain Lodge. We had the place to ourselves and it was pure, amazing magic.
Imagine mountain tarns, a thin layer of ice crackling in their still corners. Along the shores, patches of snow offset dark green pencil pines, their trunks battered and twisted by centuries of wind. Below them is a forest of myrtle beech, tipped in its spring foliage of red and orange, stretching down to Dove Lake. Imagine that the rain stops, the wind subsides and you take the plastic bag off your head, arrange it on a rock to keep your backside dry, sit down and simply enjoy the moment.
Even when we moved on, the flora was equally brilliant. We mainlanders are used to eucalyptus forest and we love it, but the high Tasmanian forest is something else. It’s deeper and darker. Myrtle beech leaves are small and round, and they change colour with the seasons, before falling to the ground to make a carpet of reds and yellows.
Then there are the pines. I’m not an expert. I’m not sure I know my celery top pine from my king billy pine, but I love the way their boles twist and twine. They’d make perfect Ents in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. They grow slowly in a cold climate, so you know that any giant is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.
They play host to masses of epiphytes; mosses that cling to the exposed trunks and ferns that sprout from the high forks. Walking over the tangled roots can be a slipping and tripping ordeal, but I’d be the last to suggest sacrificing them to make a more convenient track.
While other Tasmanian forests are under constant threat, we can be reasonably confident that forest in this area will never be logged. It’s clearly far more valuable as a tourist magnet than as cardboard boxes. A bigger danger is that the pressure on the area from ever-increasing numbers of visitors may lead to more development.
In other parts of the world they’d build a road around anything as popular as Dove Lake, with a cable car to a café on any peak resembling Cradle Mountain. Then everybody could enjoy the view and pay an extortionate price for average coffee. Fortunately Tasmania is well supplied with greenies who understand that enchanted forest is best left as it is.
If in, say, thirty years you visit the Twisted Lakes, tread carefully because my ashes may be scattered there. Or perhaps they’ll be on a drop-in pitch on the SCG. To help me decide, I should go back to take another look at that enchanted forest while I still can.
First published Explore magazine, Fairfax.