Cradle Mountain treks into fairyland

Gemma Najem
Cradle Mountain is full of ancient pine forests, waterfalls, valleys and wildlife

It was a crisp morning with mountain mist hanging in the air when I unwittingly took my first step into a fairytale.

At first glance, the short walking track at Cradle Mountain Lodge looked like any other charming trail that crisscrosses Tasmania's treasured alpine terrain.

But after turning a few corners, I stumbled upon a scene that took me back to my childhood imaginings, where elves and fairies ruled the land and woodland creatures lived in toadstools.

Sunbeams shot through the tops of ancient pencil pines, the light danced off the frosted moss carpeting the undergrowth, and the air glimmered against dappled tree trunks dressed with lichen and liverworts.

Underscored by the strains of a babbling brook, stately roots of myrtle beech and leatherwood trees intertwined below, while gnarled branches protected the rainforest's secrets above.

Each step took me further into another world, an oasis inhabited by wombats, pademelons, platypus and echidnas, who remained hidden beneath their burrows.

Soon enough the trail turned into button grass moorland with white frosted tips and I was greeted with the finale of the aptly-named "Enchanted Walk" - a cascading river.

The 20-minute trail captures Cradle Mountain's variety of terrains, which took me by surprise.

After flying to Launceston from Sydney the previous day and driving straight to the mountain, my friend and I had planned to lunch then immediately head out - the early winter sunset left us with limited time.

We set off from the famous Overland Track at Ronny Creek, where scores of hikers trek for 65 kilometres over six days to reach Lake St Clair, although our ambitions were simply to make it to Marion's Lookout and back in time before the last bus at 4pm.

Along the way I was struck by how quickly the landscape shifted around me - one minute I was squinting in the glaring sun while trying to spot wombats among an expanse of shrubs, the next I was in a rainforest full of pandani and sassafras climbing alongside a waterfall gushing down the mountainside.

It's no wonder that in 1910 botanist Gustav Weindorfer proclaimed: "This must be a national park for the people for all time. It is magnificent, and people must know about it and enjoy it".

It took years of tireless campaigning, but in 1922 a national park was created.

The park has experienced a resurgence in tourism in recent years, with 258,000 people visiting last year.

Most travel during peak season in the summer months, making winter the ideal time for those seeking a quieter trip - and the chance to experience snow.

By the time we reached Wombat Peak - 1105m above sea level, a quick quiz of other hikers determined that climbing up to Marion's Lookout would be too risky under our time pressures, so we made the most of the view of Crater Lake to the right and Dove Lake and Lake Lilla to the left.

One of the best decisions we made, thanks to a friendly tip from the Information Centre, was to descend into Cradle Valley along a different path, allowing us to pass by Wombat Pool and trek around Lake Lilla, thereby maximising our experience of the mountain.

We found the spontaneous nature of a self-guided hike enlivening, from the unpredictable terrain to unexpected encounters with other tourists from around the world, and in our case, a man inexplicably leaping down the mountain in such a rush his long curly hair streamed behind him.

Just be sure to record your trip intentions in a walker log book before you set off.

Whether it was a stroke of luck or my assiduous friend pushing us along, we made it to the last bus at Dove Lake with barely two minutes to spare.

Suddenly I didn't regret turning my back on Marion's Lookout.

Altogether the 6km hike took about two hours and although I could have spent a whole day on the mountain, I was eagerly awaiting a dip in the spa bath back at the hotel, complete with Himalayan salts.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: You can fly to Tasmania's Launceston direct from Sydney in under two hours. Cradle Mountain is about a two-hour drive away, with a scenic route that passes through many small farming towns.

STAYING THERE: The King Billy Suite at Cradle Mountain Lodge is the definition of comfort splashed with luxury. With a spa bath, private outdoor hot-tub and personal fireplace, it's easy to enjoy a technology detox. Prices vary. Visit www.cradlemountainlodge.com.au

PLAYING THERE: There are many hikes, with varying difficulties in and around the national park. Fee for park entry is $16.50 per adult and $8.25 per child aged over five. You can go to the visitor centre and catch a bus to drop off points at Ronny Creek and Dove Lake. For more info, www.discovertasmania.com.au

For some post-hike relaxation, indulge in a private sanctuary experience at Waldheim Spa, where you can unwind in your own steam room, sauna, cool plunge pool and large hot-tub all while overlooking the Pencil Pine River - $120 for 60 minutes or $170 for 90 minutes. Visit www.cradlemountainlodge.com.au/waldheim-alpine-spa/

The writer travelled with assistance from the Mantra Group and Tourism Tasmania.