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Monday, April 11, 2011

April 2 – 4, 2011 Cradle Mountain, Tasmania

We awoke at the crack of dawn so that we could drive back to Melbourne, return our rental car and get to Tullamarine airport by 11:30. Our flight was to depart Melbourne at 1 PM, arriving Launceston, Tasmania, @ 2 PM, however, it was delayed, and delayed and delayed. We finally departed around 3.  We had booked a rental car at Lo-Cost Auto Rent, one of the very few available. They have no kiosk at the airport, and we had been advised to phone the agency upon arrival, which I did and was advised to phone back when we actually had our checked bags in hand. OK. We called back when our bags arrived on the carousel and after following instructions about where to meet our driver we waited another half hour or so. Finally a woman arrived in a raggedy economy car and bounced us for a good twenty minutes to the offsite rental office. It looked more like a port-a-shed in the Texas backcountry. She then commenced to pull out pages and pages of paperwork for us to complete. Hadn’t I already done this online? She instructed us complete this and that and sign here and there and of course we asked all the WRONG questions, which we would discover all too late. We were tired and just wanted to get underway.  We still had a 3-hour drive to Cradle Mountain. Once the paperwork was finalized she led us right back out to the raggedy little car – ugh – with stained and torn seats and smelling heavily of cigarettes. I mentioned that this looked nothing like the car we had reserved. Her terse response was that it was all that was available given the lateness of our arrival. Lord. She then informed us that the fuel tank was empty and directed us to the gas station that was NOT in our intended direction. I asked myself if I had been praying for patience lately, because this was truly taking up all that I had stored in reserve.

Hungry (no time for lunch), and thirsty and ready for adventure, we stocked up on junk food, water and soda at the small gas station. Frank gasped at the fuel price and I tried not to hyperventilate at the cost of the junk. We were thrilled to be underway. The drive to Cradle Mountain was actually quite enjoyable. Tasmania is beautiful. The roads are slow going yet because of the natural beauty we didn’t really mind. We were going to be very late for our hotel check-in, but no matter because we were prepaid so we just enjoyed the twisting and turning road ahead. Eventually the elevation began to rise as we traversed up the mountain. The beauty turned to horror as we noted the utter devastation of the countryside. Beautiful trees and greenery became knarled stumps, burned out landscape and dead and twisted skeletons of what must have once been majestic trees. Truly it looked holocaustic. What on earth has happened here? We began to dread what awaited us. But then we turned into the Cradle Mountain National Forest. WOW. The scenery began to change and the greenery became denser. Thank goodness! We eventually found our way to the Cradle Mountain Lodge.  When we saw our cabin we put all the annoyance of our trip here behind us. It was perfect. By now the weather had turned quite cold and rainy and although all we really wanted to do was to sit in the spa and then cuddle up by the fireplace in our fluffy robes afterward, we forced ourselves to head back up to the main lodge for dinner. The lodge is magnificent, large, welcoming and cozy at the same time. There were literally dozens of people grouped about sitting on large leather wingchairs and sofas, reading, playing board games and cards, sipping cocktails and warming up beside any number of the many large stone fireplaces. It was historic, grand and homey all at once. The lodge houses a pub and a fine dining venue. We ventured over to the pub for a delicious meal and then attended a slide presentation of the history of Cradle Mountain, including wildlife to be watching out for. We learned that lumber companies in the late 1800’ s/early 1900’s caused the wreckage of the landscape. They took what they wanted and left the rest to ruin. Very sad.  Excited about our hiking prospects we returned to the cabin for a warm-up by our own fire.

On Sunday we enjoyed a large breakfast at the lodge before our day hike. We set off, following the trails on a little brochure we’d picked up at the reception desk. It was very cold out but the sun was shining. Immediately we were struck by the beauty of our surroundings, streams and brooks, waterfalls and boardwalks through the bush made it one of the most picturesque hikes we had ever been on. I was keenly on the lookout for wombats and wallabies. In our slide show tutorial the previous night we were told to watch out these and a variety of wildlife including snakes and leeches, but that there are no kangaroos or koalas on the island of Tasmania. About 15 minutes into our hike we spotted our first wallaby. We saw several dropping of wombat scat – which oddly is perfectly cubed. I took some photos but Frank wasn’t real pleased with my taking pictures of poop so I deleted them. I was truly impressed at their “squareness”, however. So onward we roamed until we found ourselves back at the main lodge about an hour later. That was the scenic, nature hike. We decided to find something a little more challenging so, consulting our notes we took off in search of a longer route.

Eventually we discovered one that promised us a 4 – 5 hour trail and so we took it. It actually led out of the forest into what resembled a field with few trees but with very large clumps of tall grass. Eventually, the trail became much narrower and rutty.  The ruts became very damp, soaking my shoes through so that my toes began to feel cold. After a while, the ruts became running streams and the area so boggy that I was trying to hop from one clump of grassy stuff to another. I kept telling frank this didn’t feel right. Onward he pushed promising that we were on track. After 2 hours my feet were soaked through and I was dirty down one side because I kept falling down. There was no longer a trail, just bog. We were following the rut that had become a stream and it seemed to be wandering in no particular direction. We finally came upon a clump of trees, where we sat for a drink and an apple. I explained to Frank that although I indeed was looking for a bit more challenge, this was no longer very much fun and was far from pretty and interesting.  We were both very cold and damp and now the sun had been obliterated by clouds. Dark clouds were now threatening rain and I surely did not want to be stuck out here in this mess in the rain. He admitted that he wasn’t sure exactly where we were and of course we did not bring our GPS, thinking that we would be on well-laid trails. We were lost. I felt that if we continued ahead we would eventually find our forest again, but we were clearly in the middle of no-where and too far from a forest to spot anything promising. The saving grace is that there were sticks in the ground about every 100 yards with little plastic flags tied around them back the way we had come, so disappointingly, Frank suggested we turn back. I was close to tears at the thought of going back through that awful stuff but we really didn’t have many options at this point. We turned back. Another two hours later, wet and freezing we hit the edge of the trees where we had emerged. We double-checked the signposts to confirm that we were in fact on a marked trail. Hmmm. Mystery why anyone would send people out there! Happily we were back in the protected part of the hiking area and couldn’t to get back to the cabin fast enough.

Once back in the room, we stripped our mud covered clothes tossing them all into the shower. When I got down to my shoes I shrieked! There were leeches sticking out of my shoes, stuck to my shoelaces and one on my hand that had burrowed in through my glove. As I got the shoes off I found blood spots all over my socks, and noticed that there were brown slimy things in the blood. EEK! Leeches were sucking my blood through my socks! I began pulling them off as quickly as I could and only afterward began to realize the pain in my feet. Searing pain. Pain that felt like flaming hot pokers were stabbing me. Frank also had some leeches but not as many because his shoes were leather; mine leather with mesh. He seemed nonplussed by the leech bites (or whatever they are called). I must have been having an allergic reaction because large red welts began to form all over my toes and feet, and the bite marks were very pronounced. I was horrified. We soaked and soaked our socks and shoes and then set all of the wet stuff around the base of our fireplace to dry. There were two leeches still stuck to my laces and as they felt the heat they tried raising themselves up and reaching out, like grisly tentacles. It was grotesque to see these things groping at the air. I seriously thought I was going to be sick. Frank urged me to just go get cleaned up and dressed for dinner. We had reservations in the fine dining restaurant that night.

Later, sitting in wing-backed chairs not far from the fireplace in the large dining room, we enjoyed an amazing 5-star dinner. Our taste buds were so happy that for a short while my stings, bites and burns were all but forgotten. The welt on my finger was an ugly reminder of the trauma earlier endured. We relaxed and enjoyed a lovely dining experience. After our coffee and dessert we ambled out to the reception area where we bumped into the staff member who had presented the previous evening’s slide show. We told him about our experience that afternoon. Shockingly his reaction was admonishment! We were scolded for having ventured out onto forbidden terrain. He went on and on about how dangerous that area was and how fortunate we were not to have encountered deadly snakes and the like. Whu-the??? When we explained to him that the trail markers and signs pointed to it and that there was no warning sign, do not enter sign or circle with a slash through it forbidding entrance to that particular trail he mere shrugged and mumbled something like, well there should have been. Odd fellow.

We returned to our room where I popped into the spa tub to soak my throbbing leech bites. Frank kicked back with a beer and a book. There is no television, radio or internet here. It was a bit too chilly out to sit on our balcony, so he lit a fire and kicked back.

Monday morning, our shoes and socks were still wet so we set them in the back window to dry in the sun. We loaded up on a hearty breakfast and then hit the road. We had a long drive down to Hobart ahead of us.

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