Hiking Frenchman’s Cap

Frenchman’s Cap is a white mountain, made mostly of quartzite, in Tasmania’s southwestern wilderness. It doesn’t look like a Frenchman, or a cap, but apparently some convicts thought it did so that was that. On a clear day you can get a glimpse of it from the Lyell Highway as you cross the island from east to west, and it stands like a smooth shark’s tooth above the black and craggy peaks nearby.

Going off a recommendation from a reliable source (once again, thanks Karl) we decided to try the 46 kilometre hike from the highway to the summit and back. The walk is supposed to take between three and five days.

Getting There

Preparation for this kind of hike starts in a supermarket, where I tried and mostly failed to remember what I ate for dinner last time I did a multiday hike. We did this in a town called Oatlands, a charming convict-era town of stone cottages that were evidently built before eaves were invented.

The second phase of preparation involved finding a place to leave Steve, our home on wheels, as we’d heard from several sources that cars parked at the trailhead make easy targets for thieves. Local tension between environmentalists (“greenies”) and the locals (“bogans”) from nearby Queenstown (home of the “Tasmanians are inbred” stereotype) occasionally manifests itself with robbed and vandalised vehicles at the Frenchman’s carpark. We aimed to spare Steve such indignities by leaving him in the care of a pub at Derwent Bridge, 30 kilometres up the road.

We spent the night before our hike in phase three, drinking schooners at the Derwent Bridge Hotel and furiously befriending any grey nomad who might give us a lift to the trailhead the following day. Next morning we stood by the highway in a misting rain, waving a sign that simply read “Frenchmans,” and watched each of our new friends roll to the edge of the road and slowly pull out, straight past us, empty seats unfilled.

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Hailee’s “I’m not a serial killer” face.

For a few seconds they were so close we could make out their vacant smiles, their gazes determinedly nailed to the road ahead so that it was conceivable, perhaps, that they missed our smiles and waves from the shoulder. In those moments I found myself embarrassed on their behalf, imagining the empty silence between these 50- or 60-something couples as they gathered speed and rounded the first bend.

Of course, I was in the midst of cursing “some Sydney yuppie couple who looked right at us and kept driving” when they reappeared and asked where we were headed. Sometimes you just need a moment to discuss.

“We thought you were Frenchmen or something,” said the driver, pointing at our sign. “Where are you from?” he asked once we’d piled into the rental car.

“I’m from New South Wales and she’s from the U.S.”

“Huh. Same with us.” He was from Sydney, she from Texas. Fancy that.

The misting rain was still going when we arrived at the carpark, soaking the forest as we set off. This mist became heavier throughout the day but in such a gradual way that by the time we thought to don waterproof jackets, we were already drenched. We splashed along a trail that mostly went uphill, through bewildering forests where trunk, branch, root and stone were equally coated in a mossy fur, and across sodden buttongrass swamps.

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I’m lichen it so far…

The redeeming feature of the Frenchman’s Cap track on a day like this is the two huts built at intervals along its length, dry little homes filled with bunks, benches for cooking and a communal table for candlelit conversation. The hut at Lake Vera was full of dripping socks and smelly bodies when we arrived to claim our bunk, and it filled so much that some latecomers were forced to pitch tents outside.

Holidays tend to sneak up on you when you’re drifting, and we unwittingly picked the Easter weekend to attempt Frenchman’s Cap. The trail was full of bushwalkers and, unbelievably, young Tasmanian parents who thought that coaxing their tiny offspring up a steep and muddy mountain for four or five days might make a good holiday.

I’ve been ruminating on this and several other features of Tasmanian life as they seem puzzlingly unique to this island. You won’t find many mainland children on punishing multi-day bushwalks, after all. What makes Tasmania different? My theory is this: Tasmania has no bros.

A Word on Bros

If you’ve been to Australia, or even a foreign country where Australians tend to congregate, you know who I’m talking about: Loud, chiselled young men in pastel-coloured short shorts and loose singlets – “stringlets” – that maximise their biceps’ exposure to both the sun and the admiring eyes of the “fem-bro.” Now, even though I just made up the word “fem-bro,” the word puts an instant image in your mind, doesn’t it? She’s deeply tanned, wearing her straight hair in a tight ponytail and sporting even tighter clothes, and she’s flouncing down a city street on her way to the gym. She drinks just as hard as her bro boyfriend. She fights less than him, but vomits more. Someday she’ll be a yummy mummy in Lorna Jane.

Bros and their fem-bros are depressingly common in mainland Australia, and our society has changed to accommodate them. Obnoxious gyms have sprouted in fashionable suburbs, with glassy walls facing the street so your bro can be seen working his glutes. Tanning salons linger nearby, like remora fish on a shark. Bros killed the Big Day Out and now have their own subset of summer EDM festivals. The bro mating ritual of drunkenly mashing fists into each other’s faces has forced Sydney to introduce lockout laws, effectively killing off nightlife in the inner city. And so on.

But neither a bro, nor a fem-bro can survive Van Diemen’s Land for long. The sun comes out too seldom for effective bronzing, and tanning salons are few and far between. The modest economy down here revolves around agriculture, tourism and scientific research, so there are no high-powered financial corporations or law firms for bros to “suit up” and work in.

In their absence, the subgroups that tend to flee the mainland’s omnipresent bro culture are flourishing in Tasmania. Hipsters and hippies, bushwalkers and bogans, scientists and farmers, goths and geeks are found in concentrated numbers, filling the cultural vacuum loudly and proudly without the menace of a tribal tattoo. That is why you find a startlingly high number of small children on the gruelling Frenchman’s Cap walk, utes burning tyres by the Cygnet cricket oval and musicians in suspenders taking over Hobart’s New Sydney Hotel to finger their fiddles.

We Now Return to our Feature Presentation

The second day did not start well. Predictably, our socks and boots did not dry overnight, and while I found our breakfast porridge creamy and wonderful, I forgot that Hailee prefers a thicker mix. On a wet morning with a day of trudging hanging over you, this is enough to cause a little friction in any relationship. The morning’s hours of slipping and splashing our way upwards – ever upwards – through a tunnel of twisted trees did not help things. Rather than lift our spirits, a series of small waterfalls seemed to mock us for resisting gravity’s pull.

Deliverance would come, I was sure, at a place called Barron’s Pass, but when the forest walls dipped and then fell away I thought we still had an uphill kilometre or two ahead. Instead, the mountain rewarded us just a few metres further on with a short flat saddle hung between a pair of white stone needles.

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Hailee on Barron’s Pass

The place was like a gate, a gap in the wall surrounding the capital of some mighty mountain kingdom. It felt a little like the Asterix and Obelix comic books I used to read as a kid, where the heroes leave their little Gallic village and journey to some great centre of the ancient world – Alexandria, perhaps, or Rome. The heroes take a moment to admire the great city from afar, and in the next panel they’re walking through streets filled with exotic strangers.

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Our city streets and famous landmarks were the faces of sheer rock that jutted out of the forest, and the lakes below that some early 20th century explorer must have named after his sisters: Cecily, Millicent, Gertrude, Nancy. The exotic strangers were lumps of semi-transparent quartzite, soaring wedgetailed eagles, shy pademelons and Huon pine trees – the highest-altitude grove of its kind. For its part, Frenchman’s Cap was putting on quite a show of hiding in a single tuft of cloud that clung to its sheer south-eastern face. The rest of the sky was clear.

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Bashful Frenchman!

We took a moment to munch on the concoction known to most of the world as “Trail Mix,” but which Hailee’s family calls “Gorp.” (It stands for “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.”) The wind was strong, however, and we soon layered up and began walking once more. The trail took us along the mountain ramparts to the right (west), and we approached Frenchman’s from behind. The sun was out, and in every direction there was a new mountain or another deep stretch of untracked forest. Inside those forests, we knew, it was tangled, dark and dripping. But from up above they were magnificent.

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We aren’t photogenic, like those obnoxious outdoorsy couples you see on Instagram, but we do take the odd selfie.

We made the hut at Lake Tahune, nestled in a sort of crater partway up the mountain, and in the kind of mood that can only exist on sunny days, we decided to take a crack at the summit that very afternoon. We left our packs and sleeping gear on an unoccupied bunk and spent a good hour scrambling up the steep and increasingly barren mountain.

The day had become cloudy again. As we neared the summit we had that feeling of being up near a ceiling – it’s a lot like standing on a ladder inside your house. At 1446 metres, Frenchman’s Cap is one of the higher peaks in the area, and from this height Tasmania is a turbulent ocean of crags, ridges and mesas, thrown together without any apparent rhythm or reason. Away to the west, the actual ocean was visible beyond black mountains.

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Brilliant views from the summit.

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Other Hikers

At first, we thought hiking on the tail end of the Easter long weekend was a mistake. There is a selfish tendency among nature lovers to think that humans spoil everything. While this may be true in some respects (from the way the National Parks people talk about managing crowd numbers, you’d think they’re advocating for compulsory sterilization), it’s also true that road tripping in Tasmania can be a lonely business.

Now that I think about it, there have been many days over the past two months where Hailee and I haven’t spoken to anybody but each other. This isn’t necessarily for want of people – we occasionally find an isolated campsite or sneakily sleep in places we shouldn’t, but generally there are other travellers around at night. No, we aren’t solitary for want of people, but for the cold. The grey nomads retire early into their caravans (presumably to catch “Deal or No Deal” reruns), while the European backpackers recline in the backs of their vans or, lacking that, simply sit in the front seats of their station wagons. This means that Hailee and I can find ourselves in the most crowded of campgrounds, surrounded by caravans and vans, and feel alone enough to have spirited debates (recent topics include: how much soy sauce is too much, and the case for optimism in the face of overpopulation and climate change) or pre-dinner dance parties without too much self-consciousness. To find friends, it seemed, we just had to hike into the middle of nowhere.

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Lake Tahune.

Colin and Jenna from Sydney were loud, but they had some entertaining stories about the schemes and stories needed to survive bribe-hungry policemen on a road trip in Collin’s native Zimbabwe. Suzie, also from Sydney, had just walked off the Overland Track – and every possible side track – and was so keen she’d jumped straight into Frenchman’s.

“I clean my pots and pans with my toothbrush,” she said in the hut at Lake Tahune the night after we made the summit. “It’s not gross if I’m the only one using them!”

Joshua and Justin were a father-son couple from Tassie’s north coast, a couple of hiking nerds out in their element. They tutted when the UV light we were using to sterilise water malfunctioned, and they winced at the vegetables we and others had lugged up the mountain for dinners. For their part, they’d made ample use of a friend’s dehydrator before leaving, and so each night they simply added hot water to a home-cooked beef stew or Thai curry, and stirred.

“Smells good,” I said as Joshua, the son, sat over his steaming pot one evening.

Justin, the father, piped up from the bunks nearby. “I remember when we were on the Overland Track, and we were cooking dinner one night. The people beside us looked over and said, ‘Gee! What’s for dessert?’”

“They laughed when we replied: ‘Christmas pudding.’

“Then they were surprised to see that we weren’t joking! We’d actually brought some Christmas pudding along with us.”

They chuckled companionably, and I supressed a violent urge to spit into their butter chicken.

Then there was Janet and Martin, in their mid-60’s from Adelaide. Janet played in a woodwind concert band that had just competed in Hobart – saxophone in this case, although she also played the flute – and she did most of the talking. Martin was an academic who only occasionally came out of his shell to tell a story. They hiked extensively in South Australia. They trained guide dogs. They tried to visit Tassie once a year.

We shared the hut with them on all three nights, and every morning Janet’s light blue sleeping bag was laid out straight, as if she was sleeping on her back. Beside her, Martin’s black and red bag was curled, because he was on his side and cuddling up to her.

And with that happy image, let me say goodbye for now. One more Tasmania post left, and then we’re back to dodging bros on the mainland.

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Done!

2 thoughts on “Hiking Frenchman’s Cap

    • Tough indeed! But well worth the effort, especially if you get good weather. I suspect it might be a bit more pain than pleasure if it rained the whole time! Thanks for reading btw 🙂

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