For all the dozens of hiking trails and thousands of kilometres I’ve hiked, one experience stands high above all others. It was the week I spent walking Tasmania’s Overland Track in the company of my then nine-year-old daughter. It was probably the heaviest pack I’ve ever carried, and the slowest I’ve ever walked, but there was something entirely refreshing and revealing about seeing the world through young eyes again. Over the course of 65 kilometres and one week, I watched a child absorb the wilderness and come to feel at one with it.
I wrote about my experience of hiking the Overland Track with my daughter in last weekend’s Sun-Herald newspaper in Sydney, and it was an article that had such a great response I thought I’d share it here. It plays to my theme in parenting life – give kids the opportunity to explore and engage with the natural world and they grow in so many ways. My younger son has lined me up this summer for his own ritual walk on the Overland Track, and my daughter hasn’t asked for an iPod for her birthday this week – together we’ve created her a bush-tucker patch in our garden. It wasn’t just a walk, it was a week of growth.
The original Sun-Herald article can be found here.
Hiking Tasmania with children: Small stature, great heights
For many adults, to hike the Overland Track is the challenge of a lifetime, walking for up to a week through the wild mountains of Tasmania. So how is it, then, for a child to hike Australia’s most famous trail? It’s not unusual, after all, to see kids on the Overland Track, and Tasmania’s Parks & Wildlife Service has even published a booklet for children on the track.
When I walked it last summer, my hiking companion was my nine-year-old daughter, Kiri. Sure, the Overland Track is an enormous commitment for a child, but we didn’t leap into it blindly.
Months before, I test drove Kiri with a three-day hike around the Freycinet Peninsula – two days along beaches and the coast, and one day in which we climbed through the mountains to gauge her capabilities. She was brilliant.
Nor was the Overland Track a random choice, for it has qualities that make it manageable for, and appealing to, a child. The daily distances aren’t huge. The longest stretch between huts is 17 kilometres, with other days averaging less than 10 kilometres.
The huts provide places to rest and eat out of the weather, even if you’re camping, and each section of the track has separate, distinct points of interest: waterfalls, mountains, fossils, wildlife and the white beaches at Lake Will.
Part of being kind to a child on the trail is being kind to yourself. The more you tire, the less you can provide mental support for your child. Minimising weight is important, although the hike requires carrying six or seven days of meals, so when we set out, I had 30 kilograms on my back. Kiri began with five kilograms, a load I adjusted each day according to the distance and difficulty of the terrain.
To hike with a child is to hike with a different perspective. As we set out from Cradle Valley at the start of the track, heavy mist lay over the land. Where I saw fog stealing the mountain views, Kiri walked with her hands in the air, trying to feel the clouds. At that moment I knew this would be a unique experience, not just for Kiri but also for me.
The toughest climb of the entire track is the first, to Marions Lookout. I had been concerned at how Kiri would manage this climb with a pack, but instead, with the disparate weights on our backs, I could barely keep up as she scurried through the chain-assisted climb.
Quickly she was at the top, looking down on to Dove Lake with the craggy escarpment of Cradle Mountain fanned out ahead.
Over the coming days, long sections of track passed in distraction. We composed a song about the Overland Track – We Will Walk You, sung to the tune of We Will Rock You – adding a new verse each day about animals, wind, scat, peeing in the bush and leeches.
Another day we renamed the entire ecosystem. Buttongrass became microphone grass, gum trees became chewing-gum trees, and waratahs, with their flowers like upside-down huntsman spiders, became spider trees.
A few months before we walked, Kiri had announced a second intention. She wanted to climb Mount Ossa, Tasmania’s highest mountain, which can be scaled on a side trip from the Overland Track. With this in mind, I planned a rest day at New Pelion Hut, at the foot of the climb to Ossa. It had the double benefit of freshening us for the second half of the walk after our longest day on the track.
By the final climb to New Pelion Hut, about 13 kilometres into our third day, Kiri had slowed to a tired shuffle, but as we reached one of the few remaining patches of mud, delight brightened her eyes.
Through the bog, we sank almost to our knees, black mud licking at the tops of our gaiters. Kiri giggled and screamed her way through, suddenly rejuvenated.
Later, when I asked her about the best thing that day, the answer came without hesitation. “The mud,” she said. “That was the best bit of my life.”
After our rest day, it was time for the ascent of Mount Ossa, and Kiri beamed as though we were Hillary and Tenzing. At Pelion Gap, we dumped my pack and I took Kiri’s, which I had packed the previous night with the gear we would need on the mountain – rain jackets, food, first-aid kit, compass and head torch in case of emergency – to save time at the pass.
The ascent involved some tricky scrambling on little legs, but soon Kiri was up, unbothered by the gymnastics. Two groups of walkers behind us later admitted they only persisted because they could see this small girl ahead, bounding from rock to rock.
As if on cue, the clouds began to clear as we rose to the summit plateau. Mountains suddenly appeared to the north – Cradle Mountain, Barn Bluff, Mount Oakleigh – and I reminded Kiri that she had walked past every one of them, although they seemed so far away now.
She shrugged nonchalantly, stepped onto the summit and proudly declared herself the tallest person in Tasmania. She had indeed reached great heights.