In the stunning Thousand Lakes region of Tasmania’s Central Highlands, Cyclist tries its hand at fishing, rock-hopping and fire building – oh, and we cycled a little too

Words: Scott Mattern

Photography: Jasper Da Seymour

Untouched is the first word that comes to mind when describing the Thousand Lakes and Central Highlands of Tasmania. Unlike anywhere else in the state or on the mainland, this is true wilderness that gives you an eerie feeling as you move through the vast surrounds. There’s a humility that comes as you travel through these parts – like you don’t belong, or that your passing will go unnoticed.

Riding through this region is all about exploration. Many of the ‘roads’ aren’t visible on standard maps. Instead, this high country is a warren of tracks sitting on the edge of World Heritage Listed sites where mountains reach for the sky. If you’re looking to spend countless nights under the stars, this is the place.

I like to approach a trip like this with a solid dose of planning mixed with a sprinkle of improvisation. This is our adventure, and every good story needs a twist to make it truly great. A little adversity and a splash of the unknown should be expected – tired, bruised bodies and dirty bikes set against a backdrop of rain, cold and wind. Delve deeper, however, and you’ll also discover glimmers of sunshine, laughter and the pursuit of pure joy that comes with riding a bike into the sunset.

We’re dropped at our start point with bikes underfoot and fishing rods in hand. The region is sometimes referred to as Thousand Lakes, home to arguably the purest strain of brown trout in the world, and we fully intend to discover what the waters have to offer while we’re here. The sun settles into the hills and, in the dark, we make camp under the haunting yellow light of the nearby public toilets of the campgrounds. Okay, so the ‘adventure’ part is taking a little while to materialise.

At dinner, we check the forecast with Tony Mills, who runs the local pub. ‘Good chance of snow – it’s going to be cold, boys,’ he tells us with a wry grin. We settle into our sleeping bags, dreaming of the coming days free in the wilderness in company of good mates and, if we’re lucky, with a few trout inside our nets.

Cold starts and coffee

With just a local chicken for company, breaking camp proves to be a low-key affair. Little more than a word is spoken between us as we apply a multitude of layers and prepare ourselves for the day ahead. The sunlight rising over the shoulder of Mount Rowland does little to warm our bones as we mount up and set off in the cool, crisp air.

The first descent into Cethana Gorge brings a rush of blood. Long, ribbon-like roads intermingle with hairpin turns that make for a tricky start as we balance feathering the brakes and wiping our watering eyes dry. We cross the Forth River along a pink lichen-covered bridge and quickly double back as we skirt the river’s edge in full view of the dam wall of Cethana Lake and its imposing spillway. We switch our way around the hill to the top of the wall and then dive down again to the lake’s edge.

In a tricky start, long, ribbon-like roads intermingle with hairpin turns

The sealed road gives way to gravel, which then gives way to goat-track-like conditions. Here comes the struggle. For reasons beyond our knowledge, the track towards Lorina is closed, and we immediately turn our attention to the map in search of a solution. Under the shadow of Oliver’s Hill, we commence climbing immediately just as the road quality begins to deteriorate. Thankfully, as quickly as the road turns nasty, we change course onto Cockatoo Road, which by comparison is a lovely little piece of unsealed terrain. Crisis averted.

No fish in this river

We take a brief stop at the crest of our second big climb for the day, if only to gather ourselves and check our luggage straps before ploughing down towards the Mersey River and beyond. We make our way unnoticed by the world except for the local ladies who, in between early-morning moos, momentarily glance in our direction.After crossing the Mersey, it’s time to pull the fishing rods out. Cycling and fishing isn’t the most familiar combination you’ll see across the bike-packing community and, as such, there’s an air of individuality around the approach. This time, we’ve opted for a wet fly rig and a spinning set-up. We apply quiet concentration to the crystal clear waters as we keep a keen eye for any sign of our beloved prize. We cast into the stream with a glimmer of hope, but before too long we’re forced to declare that ‘there are no fish in this river.

Cycling and fishing isn’t the most familiar combination

’A small consolation for our effort awaits in the form of coffee and our pre-packed lunch. We’re now approximately 200 metres above sea level, the rolling hills across temperate rainforest littering our journey. The mood is high as we make our way to the intersection that leads to our destination for today: Sandy Lake Hut. Little did we know how interesting the afternoon was about to become.

The devil has arms

The road again turns to gravel as the gradient kicks upward. Dead thighs and sore legs begin to set in as we climb close to 1,000m before reaching the Highlands proper. The landscape changes quickly from lush to dry alpine. The temperature drops in correlation to our increase in altitude and, as we get closer to the top, the wind picks up and droplets begin to fall from the sky. A few more drops turn to many before the chill of each sphere becomes too cold for us to consider it rain. We find a quiet moment of reprieve on the side of the road to replenish our water in a mountain stream. As we hit 1,200m, the road begins to flatten, and soon we reach the plateau.

The aftermath of a fire through this area two years earlier has left its mark. The alpine landscape is slowly regenerating while the remaining ghost-coloured trees and shrubs serve as a reminder of the damage done. The wind picks up once again as we make it to the shore of the lake and scope our approach to the hut. Soon, we reach the end of the road where the trail ends.

At the opposite side is the Hut – with seemingly no simple way to access it. It’s summer now (you wouldn’t know it), and based off the satellite imagery we investigated prior to departure, our next steps are all down to luck. The images had revealed a small isthmus that could be used to cross between the lakes and across to the hut – if the lake was low. Alas, today wouldn’t be our day as we begin the slow four-kilometre push to reach our destination for the evening.

The wind is unkind and cold, the footing is precarious and with our rock-hopping skills in limited supply after a long day, we instead do our best along the sodden, marshy grounds one step at a time. It’s tough going, but just like the glimmer of light within, the wind dies and the final afternoon rays of sun shine brilliantly across our frozen faces. The trail begins to open and we arrive at the hut.

The wind is unkind and cold, the footing is precarious, and our rock-hopping skills are limited

The hut is everything we could have hoped for, and with a ready fire soon blazing, we settle in to prepare for our final meal and to warm our cold, tired bodies. As the evening settles in, we share the duties of feeding the fire with hardened wood and feeding our bellies with a bottle of Launceston Distillery’s finest single malt. Outside, the precipitation is too thick to be labelled rain, and continues to batter against the walls. We tuck ourselves in close to the fire on the floor and drift off into trout-filled dreams.

Set the sails

A cold start greets us in the morning, but the rain has not settled as snow. The wind is gone, the skies are blue, and what looked like an insurmountable track around the lake yesterday doesn’t look as daunting today.We make our breakfast and coffee, and prepare our bikes. With daylight, we discover that the outdoor toilet requires a tent to be erected around it, or else you’re treated with 360-degree views. We opt for the views.

The morning return by the lake doesn’t seem so imposing as we push, haul and hope our way back around its edge. Once back to the road, we commence our descent on the bikes, stopping in for a visit that we skipped the previous evening due to the failing light. We stand atop vertical dolerite cliffs 220 metres high – formed along a narrow glacial gorge known as the Devil’s Gullet – and we’re treated to spectacular views of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair, Mount Ossa, the Fisher and Mersey River Valleys and the Walls of Jerusalem. We sit and take in the view and note that snow has fallen and settled on the hills around us.

We’re left with a pleasant roll along country roads to the township of Deloraine, where fresh pastries await

One thousand metres of gain soon becomes 1,000m of descent. The gravel, although rough in sections, grinds away under our tyres as we throw our foot, drop forward over the bikes and lean into the corners. As we make it to the bottom, the layers of clothing required at the top are suddenly cooking us in the mid-morning heat. More importantly, there are smiles all round. We’re now left with nothing more than a pleasant roll along country roads to the township of Deloraine. Happily, we arrive just in time for the last call on pastries.

The highlands of Tasmania have many of these adventures and stories just waiting to be found and told. This is just one route of many possibilities within the Thousand Lakes region. With little more than a fishing rod and a keen eye for a road less ridden, a story of your own can unfold.

The hut

Sandy Lake Hut is nestled on the shores of Lake Mackenzie – one of the highest bodies of water within the Chudleigh Lakes, which sit behind the Mole Creek, Caveside and Chudleigh districts. However, it wasn’t the original hut in the history of this area.

The original hut was built in 1903 in response to the increasing interest stemming from fishing and hiking in the area. The original build, situated on the sandy shores of a small golden strip of sand, would be available only to adventurous fishermen and hikers, such was its difficulty of access. Earning the right to fish these waters was as much a part of the adventure as standing on the lake’s shore, hoping the fish would be beguiled into taking your lure or fly. Without a road leading to its cosy confines, access was restricted to those on foot (or hike-a-bike) via Parsons Track.

Over the following three decades, the harsh environment began to take its toll. Evenåtually, what remained of the hut was destroyed by fire, its stone chimney acting as the final monument to its existence. With the Hydro-Electric scheme at around the same time came infrastructure and roads into this wild area and the ability to access more of these lakes by vehicles instead of foot.

However, it was all too late for the original hut. The last evidence of this once-proud accommodation – its chimney – was pulled down in 1969 as part of the hydro-damming of Lake Mackenzie, which then flooded and consumed Sandy Lake.

Fast forward 45 years and the hut was finally finished in early 2018, but this time on the shore of Lake McKenzie overlooking the now submerged original site. The build, undertaken by the Mountain Hut Preservation Society of Tasmania, is an exact replica of the 100-year-old mountain hut, and is free to be enjoyed by the public.

The writer’s ride

Specialized Diverge Expert X1, $6,200, specialized.com/au

The conditions of the sealed roads in Tassie and the Thousand Lakes are sometimes worse than the gravel ones. The Diverge was a good choice given the assortment of road surfaces found in these parts. Competent as any gravel grinder could be, it’s also a nice option for lightweight bike packing. No matter the road surface, the Diverge soaks it up. Even a bit of light trail riding does little to rustle its rugged feathers. The Future Shock (the squishy bit under the stem) really comes into its own when the surface turns sour. I used an off-the-shelf Expert X1 and found little need to change or tweak the specification. The 38mm Sawtooth tyres were a particular standout, despite assuming I’d need to change them for this trip. We fitted the range of Burra Burra bags mainly so we could safely carry our coffee hand grinder, espresso kit and enamel mugs.

By the numbers

Welcome to Stat-mania

2,000 metres climbed

160 kilometres ridden

8 kilometres walked (when the road ended and the hut was not yet reached)

1,270 maximum elevation

0 fish caught

1 fish eaten (A mathematical anomaly made possible by packing a smoked salmon from our good friends at the 41 South Tasmania salmon farm)

200 volume, in millilitres, of Hangar 17 whisky consumed

GETTING THERE

The start point of this ride is Gowrie Park, a former Hydro town nestled in the foothills of Mount Rowland. It’s a pleasant day’s ride from Launceston of approximately 100km. Deloraine and Elizabeth Town are the logical refuel and/or end points for this trip.

FIRST NIGHT

Once you get there, you’ll find a caravan park and a free public camping area to choose from to stay the night. The Old Black Stump Pub is located in the caravan park and serves up a really good meal that can be enjoyed next to the wood heater to keep you warm.

LET THE RIDE BEGIN

Gowrie Park is a great spot to start. There are so many different routes right at its doorstep, and it provides access to the Cradle Mountain and Walls of Jerusalem World Heritage regions.

FLYING IN AND OUT

Launceston has a major domestic airport with flights to most major cities in Australia. The accommodation, food and drink options are varied. Launceston has a thriving cycling community with many great day rides and multi-day rides available. Alternatively, there’s nothing to say you can’t kick things off a little further south in Hobart – time allowing, of course.

THANKS
A big thank you to Specialized Australia for their support with the ride and gear, and to Mission Workshop for their support with clothing. A special thanks also must be extended to Ryan De La Rue and Jasper Da Seymour for coming along on this ill-conceived ride that turned out to be a nice little weekend adventure.

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