Leonards Tarn is a small lake west of the Overland Track, situated in the middle of the valley that bridges Mt. Thetis with Mt. Achilles and Perrins Bluff. Despite the lack of formal tracks, it is a popular and very scenic camp spot for those tackling these more remote Abels, or completing the traditional Ossa-Pelion West circuit.
Date: 28th and 30th December 2019.
Distance: Leonards Tarn is a little over 3km south-west from Frog Flats, just south of where the River Forth crosses the Overland Track. (The walk in/out from Arm River added another 17km each way.)
Time taken: Typical guidance is about 4 hrs. We took over 6hrs on the way up due to straying from Leonards Creek and the stifling afternoon heat. Our return journey took a little over 3 hrs. (Allow at least 5 hrs walking time, each way, from Arm River to Frog Flats).
Difficulty: Even maintaining the correct line along the eastern bank of Leonards Creek, this is a tough walk with a lot of fallen timber, tight tea-tree and other dense scrub to negotiate, all the while climbing some 400m in elevation in the inwards journey. Our unfortunate example shows just how important it is to identify and stick to the Creek! (Arm River Track and the Overland Track are very easy and safe walking by comparison!)
Type of track: There are a few faint pads on the eastern side of Leonards Creek in places, but otherwise it is an off track scrub bash with a lot of fallen timber and other obstacles to deal with. (Arm River Track/Overland Track are formal, well marked tracks.)
Access from: Frog Flats. Due to the Overland Track booking system being in affect, we accessed the OLT from Arm River Track.
As for many people I’m sure, the Christmas-New Year holidays are our only extended block of time off work each year. Thus we’re always keen to get in the kind of longer, more ambitious trips to far-flung Abels that just can’t happen in a two- or even three-day weekend.
After much to-ing and fro-ing in the dying weeks of December on what options would give us the best ‘bang for buck’ for our precious holiday time, our big post-Christmas plans were Mt. Thetis, Mt. Achilles, Perrins Bluff and – potentially – Mt. Proteus. The first three Abels are located within a few kilometres of each other, west of Mt. Ossa, encircling a small lake known as Leonards Tarn, that provides both shelter and reliable water for overnight stays.
The plan went something like this: big walk into Leonards Tarn on the first day, using the Arm River Track to access the Overland Track, then leave the OLT at Frog Flats to make camp at the Tarn. Summit Mts. Thetis, Achilles and Perrins Bluff on the second day. Walk back out Frog Flats on the third day and head north on the OLT to Pine Forest Moor and make camp. Summit Mt. Proteus on the fourth day. Pack up camp and walk out via Arm River Track on the fifth day.
That all sounded suitably ambitious but very much doable, and with a bit of flexibility to boot. Alas, it didn’t quite work out that way!
Wanting an early start to beat the summer heat that’d finally found its way to Tasmania, we made the two-hour drive into a crowded Arm River Track carpark late the night before and slept in the Mazda. This allowed for a vaguely more civilised waking time, though it proved to be in vain. The sun was already making its presence felt by 7am, and we had the sweat pouring off us as we made the initial climb up the infamous Arm River Track switchbacks with our big packs on.
With the main climb behind us however, we made good progress along the remainder of the track and covered the 13km to New Pelion Hut in under 4 hours. We took a break at the hut to refuel and had the good fortune of bumping into none other than Shelly Napier, the PWS Parks Ranger on duty and only the second woman to have completed all 158 Abels! Suffice to say we made most of the chance meeting and were grateful for the first hand advice offered for our plans.
Speaking of plans, it’s always a good idea to share your intentions with the ranger-on-duty if you’re on or around the Overland Track or another area with active Parks staff. This way they know how many people are likely to be in areas off the main track, should weather or bushfire become a concern. We knew that hot and windy weather was forecast in the coming days, which is definitely something we as bushwalkers need to be mindful of when out and about in the summer months.
Shelly also informed us we wouldn’t be alone around Leonards Tarn, as a couple of other groups were planning on making a stay in the next few days.
A half-hour later we hit the track again, this time heading ‘up’ the Overland Track for about 4km to Frog Flats, an open marsh area just below where the Forth River crosses the OLT.
The Trip In…
The Frog Flats lead is one of two main off-track routes to Leonards Tarn described in The Abels and elsewhere online. The other is via the route to Mt. Thetis over Paddy’s Nut, which is also accessed off the OLT not far from the Old Pelion Hut turn off. This second route appeared to be the more popular option, with many reports of people going in via Paddy’s/Thetis, then coming out of Leonards Tarn via Frog Flats. Tracey however wasn’t keen on negotiating the steep and rocky descent off Mt. Thetis with a heavy pack loaded with 5 days of supplies, so we figured the short (4km) route from Frog Flats would be the better option.
I’m sure you can see where this story is going… 😉
The Abels notes for Frog Flats to Leonard’s Tarn sounded simple enough: follow the buttongrass plains south-westerly below the Forth River then stay within 20m of the creek that drains from Leonards Tarn (some maps logically identify this creek as Leonards Creek), ignoring other minor creeks until the scrub diminishes and a pad becomes noticeable.
A number of narrow but well defined pads could be seen leaving the southern side of the duckboard just before the bridge over the Forth River. We picked the most likely one and duly headed off, but predictably is disappeared under the tuffs of buttongrass and we were soon making our own way through increasingly dense patches of scrub. It was now early afternoon and the full heat of the day was bearing down. After some 18km already underfoot, we were starting to really feel it.
Less than one kilometre in, we made a major error; after much heated debate, we crossed what turned out to be Leonards Creek, me thinking it was one of the tributaries off Thetis that we’d be warned to ignore. Unfortunately neither of our GPS units nor our on-phone mapping applications actually displayed Leonards Creek, leaving us to use the surrounding contours to gauge the bottom of the valley and guess where the main creek was. Tracey was gracious enough to only say “I told you so” a dozen or so times over the next 6 hours of scrub-bashing torture.
(Since this trip, both Tracey and I have started using Avenza Maps in conjunction with the 1:10,000 maps available in their map store in addition to our Garmin InReach devices and the Motion-X app. The maps are cheap at $1.49 each and provide the same level of detail as the classic TASMAPs including vegetation shading and 10m contours. Well worth checking out.)
This meant that we ended up straying about 200m west from the creek. That doesn’t sound like much – and it isn’t – but as we’d eventually find out on our return trip, it made for vastly more difficult terrain. Enormous mounds of buttongrass would alternate with thick, barely penetrable stands of tea-tree and cutting grass that constantly had us search for any way through.
I’d hoped that as we gained elevation the scrub would lessen, but it wasn’t to be. Every time the scrub opened up to knee-level boronia and scraggly eucalyptus and gave us hope the worst would be over, it’d no sooner close up and repeat the same torturous cycle of tea-tree. Every metre was a struggle and as the heat of the afternoon wore on we found ourselves having stop regularly to cool down – both physically and mentally – before tackling the impenetrable mess of flora ahead.
With less than two kilometres to go until Leonards Tarn, we hit an imposing 4-5m high cliff line of sandstone. No break in the rock could be found for 100m in either direction, and the only chink in its armour was a slightly lower section with an adjacent tree alongside. In no mood to back-track, out of desperation I managed to wedge myself between the stone wall and tree and ungracefully worked my way up between the two until I could manage a secure hand hold and pull myself up onto the higher ledge. Tracey mustered her remaining strength to lift up each of our packs high enough where I could get just a hand to their top loops and haul them up without falling down myself, then finally dragged herself up onto the cliff top.
This little roadblock ended up consuming over half an hour of time and sapping us of our dwindling energy reserves. The cliff behind us, there was a welcome reprieve as we crossed a flatter section of boronia and snow gum, but once again this proved short lived as we pushed into the western side of the valley and found scoparia marsh and then even more tea tree. The four hours we’d conservatively estimated the section from Frog Flats to Leonards Tarn had now well and truly passed, and even though our GPSs said we had less than 2km to go, our current rate of progress had us genuinely wondering if we’d make the tarn before dark.
Water was becoming a problem too. We’d taken several litres between us from Frog Flats but due to the heat, challenging progress and lack of suitable refill points we were now holding onto our final mouthfuls and – despite already taping into Tracey’s emergency mini Coke reserves – were starting to suffer dehydration because of it.
Fortune would eventually smile on us though, as a quiet moment of rest in a patch of deciduous beech revealed the telltale sound of trickling water nearby. The small, mostly subterranean creek we soon located was tiny but flowing clear and cold, enough to fill our bottles and bodies! It wasn’t until I’d downed almost a whole litre without breath that I realised how badly dehydrated I’d become. It was a timely reminder about how dangerous it can be to stretch your water supplies in summer for the sake of saving weight.
Refreshed and brought (somewhat) back to life, we continued onwards the northern end of the tarn, slowly and tediously. The dense tea-tree had now receded to head-high alpine scrub of white waratah, lemon boronia and the occasional snow gum. We could now clearly see we were closing in our target ridge line, but the going was still tough as the final several hundred metres were reeled in.
Just after 7pm, some six hours after we set off from Frog Flats, the scrub gave way to ankle height coral fern and a pad appeared as we came up onto the ridgeline and the small lake of Leonards Tarn, surrounded by a decorative ring of pencil pine and fagus, finally, revealed itself to us. I won’t print verbatim what words were uttered as we rounded the eastern shoreline of the tarn, looking for a suitable spot to set up camp in the remaining daylight. Similarly, I won’t repeat what was said when, realising my MSR fuel bottle and pump had at some point been ripped from the side pocket of my backpack, Tracey suggested we could go back to try and find it!
(Side note – losing the fuel bottle and pump was an annoying and rather expensive mistake, but didn’t affect our ability to feed ourselves for the trip. We pretty much use Tracey’s JetBoil exclusively these days, and the old Whisperlite is only ever brought as a backup. Given the high fire danger at the time and the plume of flames fuel stoves use when priming, it wouldn’t have been wise to use it anyway. Needless to say, having a spare cooking option is wise if you’re relying on dehydrated food. As a rule of thumb, every person in the party should have their own stove. Not only does this speed up meal times, but is important for safety if someone finds themselves separated from the main group for an extended period of time.)
We were maybe a bit too tired and keen to make camp to appreciate our surrounds fully right away, but it is an understatement to stay that Leonards Tarn is a truly a jewel of a place. A small oasis of ancient pines and spindly fagus, encompassed on all sides by ragged, rocky peaks. The near faces of Mt. Thetis and Mt. Pelion West were set ablaze in orange, light as we rushed to get ourselves fed and organised for the following day in the fading sun. Not long after, as we slumped our weary bodies into bed for some much needed rest, Mt. Achilles and Perrins Bluff were silhouetted perfectly against a clear twilight sky.
The Trip Back Out
The previous day hadn’t gone quite to plan. Another warm day, combined with our fatigue from the initial trip into Leonards Tarn and a couple more navigational ‘issues’ had meant the walk to both Mt. Achilles and Perrins Bluff had taken a good few hours longer than expected. We’d made it back to camp at nearly 3pm, which would have been pushing it for another potential 3-4hr mission, but we were too tired to even contemplate it. ”Oh well, let’s see how we feel in the morning”, we said. “We can stretch out another day if need be.”
Whilst we enjoyed a lazy evening eating early and resting up, we had also received a message from Chris on my InReach with news that the next day would be hot and windy, with potential thunderstorms and the fire warnings that come with it. We made use of some patchy mobile phone reception to discuss weather conditions with friends, as well as re-research the route back down to Frog Flats. There were already fires burning in the south of the state, and of course having witnessed weeks of news and images from the terrible fires in NSW and VIC, we were in no mood to push our luck. Heading out without having Mt. Thetis in the bag would be a disappointment, but if our state of exhaustion wasn’t enough of a sign to leave it for another day, then the deteriorating weather definitely was.
A friendly chat with the neighbouring campsite of four, who’d we’d met out on Perrins Bluff earlier in the day and had come in via Mt. Thetis, revealed they too would be making a retreat back to the OLT via Frog Flats early the next morning. We suggested it might be a good idea for us to all head down together.
Plans for an early start proved to be academic, as the hot, gusty winds slamming into the tent had us up and sweating before 5:30am. We wasted no time making a quick breakfast and getting everything packed up. Our young hikers next door were still getting packed up when we passed by at 6:45am. Wanting… actually needing to get as much distance covered before the full force of the sun poked its way over the Mt. Thetis ridgeline, we wished them well and set off along a narrow but reasonably visible pad to the east of where the tarn drains northwards.
The knee high boronia and coral fern was pleasant enough underfoot as we quickly lost altitude down into the valley. Skeletal snow gums and the odd stand of tea-tree soon entered the mix but the pad remained visible enough to keep us moving confidently and quickly. This was such logical, easy going; we cursed ourselves for having made such a hash of the trip up!
Eventually the taller tea-tree enveloped the creek and the last signs of a pad disappeared, slowing progress as we picked out our route amongst the tangle of timber, often on quite steep slopes. Knowing when to stray east of the creek to find clearer walking was hard to gauge; some sections of the creek were impenetrable, yet we weren’t letting our primary navigational guide out of our sights either.
Annoyingly, the forest canopy wasn’t offering a lot of protection from the sun, which had now broken over the Thetis ridgeline and was heating up the valley with vigor. Fatigue soon caught up with us again after about 90 mins, or about half way, into our return trip, so we made the most of an opening by the creek to briefly cool down and drink up. By this stage Tracey could not keep any food down and was barely managing water and I was genuinely concerned about her suffering heat stroke and dehydration.
As we were about to head off I noticed the bushes above rustling with movement, then noise. Sure enough, our fellow group – no doubt aided by youthful exuberance and, crucially, youthful legs! – had caught up to us and were making their way through the scrub at an impressive pace. At this stage, we were far from too proud to let someone else “plough the road” as such, so quickly caught a tow on their train and continued onward.
As it turned out one of their group had a GPS route they were following, which conveniently negotiated the worst of the log jams and steep ledges, with only a few tight patches of scrub to push through. Their speedy pace was an effort for us to maintain, but we soon felt the terrain levelling out underneath us as we crossed over a number of minor tributaries – and no less than one impressive waterfall – draining into Leonards Creek.
The denser scrub soon made way to button grass, tussocks over a metre tall that were more easily negotiated jumping top to top than in between. Eventually the gaps between the tussocks opened up to coral fern, and the familiar surrounds of Frog Flats came back into view. Most timely as by now the morning sun was in full force and we were well and truly beat.
Back on the Overland Track, we bid our new friends adieu; they were keen to get to Pelion as quickly as possible, but we were in desperate need of a break. Tracey was still suffering the effects of heatstroke and was struggling to keep any food or fluids down, and I probably wasn’t much better off. The well shaded area around the River Forth bridge offered welcome respite… as did the humour of seeing guided tour members sporting light packs and immaculate lipstick.
The rest of the trip was a slow affair. The handful of kilometres and slow climb between Frog Flats and New Pelion seemed to go on forever. We were completely burnt out by the time we reached the hut. It was still early afternoon and the heat was brutal, so we decided it was best to rest up for a few hours at least before taking on the last stretch along the Arm River Track. I actually gave serious consideration to staying the night, given the state we were both in.
We managed about an hour’s sleep in the bunks before the afternoon arrivals to New Pelion made further napping impossible. Word was a cool change and rain was on its way by early evening, so we cooked up a proper lunch which Tracey couldn’t eat unfortunately, but she did feel better for keeping down a few mouthfuls of Pea and Ham soup, while waiting for the clouds to gather.
We left New Pelion around 4pm, where the overcast conditions soon lifted almost immediately to our disgust (!) and the heat belted down around the open plains of Lake Ayr. Frequent stops and lots of electrolytes became necessary to keep ourselves cool and functional. Eventually the clouds did return and rain threatened a few times though nothing more than a few drops ever eventuated. It was a relief to finally reach the switchbacks and final descent to the Arm River Trailhead. We’d made good time of about 4 hours despite our exhaustion, but it was fair to say we were completely and thoroughly spent by the time we reached the car!
Suffice to say, we learned a few hard lessons on this trip, namely:
- Fully research and understand your route, especially when going off track.
- Listen to your lovely lady when she says do not cross the river…..
- Don’t assume pads will be easy to find or even present. Vegetation grows back!
- Don’t be too quick to change plans when the original plan isn’t working out.
- Never underestimate how much water you’ll consume when it’s hot and the going is hard.
- Pace yourself realistically during warmer weather. Just because you know in your heart you’re capable of covering a certain distance when conditions are cool and pleasant, doesn’t mean you can when it’s 30+ degrees!
- Tasmanian scrub can and will rip literally anything off the outside of your pack! This summer has been rather expensive already… 🙁