Tarn Shelf Circuit
Start - Lake Dobson Rd
Length - 15.6km (Loop)
Grade - Red
Terrain - Single Track, Boardwalk, Rock Hopping
Vertical Climb - 604m
Summit - 1265m ASL
Time - 4-8 Hours
Signed - Yes
Cost - National Park Fees Apply
Date Hiked - 2nd November 2018
Best Time - All Year Round (Take Care in Winter)
Traditional Custodians - Lairmairrener People
Directions - Located 1.5hrs west of Hobart, take the Brooker Hwy north and follow the signs for New Norfolk. Pass through the town and follow the signs for Mount Field National Park. Drive up the winding road all the way to the car park at Lake Dobson.
The Hike - Waking up on the final hiking day of my Tasmanian adventure was a bit of a bittersweet affair. Having enjoyed three weeks away enjoying Daylesford, the Three Capes and then a week on my own exploring the Huon Valley and Mount Field, I was ready to head home and see the family again. I had one final hike to get through and that was the famous Tarn Shelf, a 15km loop taking in some of the most scenic views in the park and a great variety of terrain. One thing that could have potentially ruined my day was the weather forecast that was showing high winds, rain and later on that night, a blanketing of snow above 900m. With a bit of drizzle around when I woke up, I had another lovely homemade breakfast of fresh bread, eggs, muesli and coffee thanks to Greg and Patricia's kind-hearted hospitality.
Having a chat to Greg and Patricia, they said it could be dicey up there but still encouraged me to go after hearing about my adventures on the trip so far. Given the track is marked I didn't feel too bad if I got white-out conditions as sometimes they produce some excellent photos but I was secretly hoping that the wind would blow all the weather away pretty quickly. Driving out to Mount Field was again a pleasant experience with lots of small towns to pass through and the views of the mountains but Mount Field was shrouded in cloud as I arrived. Driving up the narrow road to the start at Lake Dobson was cool as the mist in the lower rainforest section provided a lot of atmosphere. I reached Lake Dobson and not surprisingly in this weather was the only car there. While it was grey and a little bit windy, the conditions weren't too bad so after checking out the Tassie Parks hut and signing in (also make sure you register at the visitor centre for alpine walks as you drive in), I made my way down to Lake Dobson to start the Pandani Grove section of the walk. One of the 60 Great Day Walks, this little loop track around Lake Dobson is great for visitors who want to experience the alpine Pandani plants in great numbers but don't want to do a big hike.
It's a fantastic experience and the best concentration of Pandani's I had seen in Tasmania so worth the drove up here just for this short loop. Walking through the thick jungle of these tropical looking plant was extremely fun in the moody conditions and there was so much more to see than just the Pandani's. Funky looking mosses and fungi's clung to weird places and it all different shapes and sizes. Walking along the lakes edge you were occasionally brought out of the deep shadows of the Pandani grove but then the track would take you back into the dark confines of the orange and green forest. As the Pandani shed their tough leaves and grow taller, the old leaves stick around for quite a while causing this amazing spectacle. Much like the Xanthorrhoea (grass tree) varieties of WA, this creates un unusual effect of the plant looking dead until your eyes reach the top and the spikey green and red section can be seen. At the end of Lake Dobson the Pandani Grove Track loops back around towards the car park but for me I was continuing on towards the Tarn Shelf via a few of the lower lying lakes and tarns.
Joining the 4x4 track that takes you up to the various ski lodges during the right time of the year, this was by far the least interesting part of the day. To compensate you are provided views of Eagle Tarn to your left and this makes it slightly more palatable. Luckily the road walking doesn't last very long and you are soon pointed into the forest to begin the gentle downhill stretch where you have the opportunity to take in a few side trails. The first of these came with a sign pointing you down towards Platypus Tarn. This one excited me a lot as seeing a platypus in the wild is something I wanted to experience on this trip and my efforts so far have not been successful. The track down to the edge of the tarn almost caught me out a few times with the overnight weather making it quite a slippery journey. I had expected the rocks to be the most dangerous so took caution but it was the exposed tree roots that had me sliding everywhere, some encased the track so much that you had no option but to place your weight evenly and hope for the best.
I made it with both ankles intact and started exploring the banks of the tarn for any signs of a sneaky platypus (bubbles on the surface are a good indicator I had read). Down in the protected area of the tarn the wind was still blowing quite a lot so if I was a platypus I wouldn't want to be near the surface either. I kept looking though and found the reedy section of the tarn that looked more suitable for feeding platypusi (not sure if that is the right plural). Staying very still I observed the water in the cold wind for a while but it wasn't to be for me that day. Climbing back up the path to join the main track I had an easier time getting up than walking down. The hike from here immerses you in the thick forest as you make your way past smaller tarns. The variety of wildflowers here was quite impressive and added some colour to the bleak overhead conditions. As you reached the smaller tarns the tree line opens up a little bit and you get the views across to the higher peaks across from Seal Lake.
Mount Bridges is the main feature from these vantage points that sticks out but at 1208m, it is lower than the highest point you'll reach along the Tarn Shelf. The boardwalk sections here get longer as it winds its way past the thick tufts of grass. Reaching the turnoff for Lake Seal, I was sceptical about the chances of seeing seals given my unsuccessful visit to Platypus Tarn. While only a short side track to visit the lake, I was more concerned about the weather I could see blowing in and decided against a visit to check out the non-existent seal colony. In hindsight this was a trip I should have done but at the time I really wanted to reach the Tarn Shelf before any potential white out conditions hit. Passing the wonderfully named Fairy Tarn I spotted a couple of fairies hovering in the reeds (not really) but it look very pretty with the still water reflecting the grasses and trees in the background. The track from here leads you through a variety of undergrowth styles with boardwalk covering the wetter areas and a thick scrub lining the track when you reach harder ground. It was here that a good variety of wildflowers appeared and brightened up the day.
As you approach Lake Webster the landscape opens up and you are treated to one of the first of many spectacular moments on this hike. Walking on a combination of single track and boardwalk the views here are amazing with the hills rising from the lake and behind them are are snow covered slopes of the upper peaks above the Tarn Shelf. Some dark cloud formations had blown in and gave a very moody atmosphere to the scene. While the track here points you west, I found myself constantly facing south in an almost crab walk so I could soak in the views for longer. This is one point where I took way too many photos as the landscape kept changing subtly and that required a new set of shots to match. Eventually though I reached the bridge crossing the Broad River and had another laugh at the crazy low load limits on foot bridges in Tasmania. This one was rated at one person with backpack at a time, which seemed very low considering it's made of steel and wood.
Right after crossing the bridge you begin the climbing that will take you from around 830m ASL all the way up to the highest point at the end of the Tarn Shelf at 1265m ASL. The first part to reach Twilight Tarn is the steepest section of uphill you'll experience with an average gradient of about 17% during the kilometre of climbing to reach the flat section around Twilight Tarn. With a healthy forest surrounding you, it was a welcome relief to have some shelter from the wind for a while and there was a lot to see here. Mosses, clumps of grasses, a few wildflowers and some mature trees lined the track, making the effort seem like nothing as I'd often stop to take a photo or admire water droplets on the new growth. As the track flattened out you got a great first view of Twilight Tarn and the forest surrounding it. The hut is reached by a side track that passes by a smaller tarn that was perfectly still, reflecting the towering trees and orange rusted rock poking out from the surface. As you get closer to the hut the undergrowth clears away and you get some idyllic views of this old ski lodge.
A rock hop across and you are standing at the front of the hut, which is now only used as an emergency shelter (this is a designated campsite with a toilet out the back but you must stay in a tent). Having read Donovan's post on the Tarn Shelf I was excited to peak inside and inspect the artefacts from a bygone era. I had to take a photo of the door as it looked like a hazmat warning but spells out "Ski" in the logo at closer inspection. Once you step inside it is like being transported to a different age, more so in the room to the right than the left as it contains relics from the days of this being a functioning ski lodge. A collection of old tins, cutlery, skis, cups and photos are on display so you can see what life was like back in the day. It was all fascinating to see and read about and I could imagine it wasn't easy to travel all the way from Hobart and up the mountain to reach here with your gear. Apparently in the dead of winter Twilight Tarn used to freeze over and they skated on it.
The main room as you enter is a bunk room with a very old looking hammock/couch hybrid that looked pretty cool in the light streaming through the window. This room had more of the creepy vibes to it so I didn't linger (there is also another room that has been boarded up). Leaving Twilight Tarn I followed the track around the edges of the water and onward to start climbing once again. With the track getting wetter, rockier and muddier, the strong winds added to the wildness as I came out of the protected area surrounding Twilight Tarn. Every now and then the trees would thin out a little you would get some better views looking across to distant peaks. The now familiar orange and white stained rocks became more prominent and larger boulders started to appear more regularly. Reaching a raging creek, this is where the track makes a sudden turn to the west. Initially I wasn't sure which path to take as the grey poles serving as trail markers were well camouflaged into the landscape of dead trees and branches but I figured it out and began plotting my course over the creek.
Stepping on a series of rocks over the creek was good fun and on a rocky island I paused for a few minutes and admired the scenes around me. I was in the middle of an alpine stream surrounded by snowy slopes with dark clouds all around and a fierce wind to boot. This was the rugged Tasmania I had come to experience and it took a moment of still reflection for that to hit home. Continuing on I hopped off the last rock crossing and moved on towards the boardwalk section that would take me all the way to Lake Newdegate. Ahead of me was nothing but snowy peaks, grey skies and a face full of wind. Skeletons of Pencil Pines that had been killed in fires stood as a solemn reminders of what used to be here as I made my way to Twisted Tarn. With the views opening up here I could see all the way down the mountain range towards the end of the Tarn Shelf and it was a truly epic view.