A landmark for colonial-era sailing ships navigating Tasmania’s west coast, and convicts mounting escape attempts from brutal Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, Frenchman’s Cap first appeared on my radar in the early 1990s, when I swam (naked and goose-bumped) in the Franklin River to celebrate its escape from being dammed for hydroelectric power.
Strung above the rocky shore from which I waded into the near-freezing water was a flying fox that carried walkers and packs across the river. Hikers losing fingers in its mechanism saw the flying fox replaced with the suspension bridge I crossed a quarter of a century later to begin the multi-day hike to the top of the quartzite dome that crowns Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Some bushwalkers bag the 50km-return Frenchman’s Cap hike in three days, making a push for the top on a long, hard day walk from Lake Vera. But the weather in this part of the world can change suddenly and dramatically so allowing four or five days, with a night/s at Lake Tahune, at the base of Frenchman’s, gives you more opportunities to summit – and longer at the top if you make it. You’ll need 6 days to do a guided trek with Tasmanian Expeditions (www.tasmanianexpeditions.com.au), as I did, thinking it unwise and unsafe to tackle this adventure hike solo.
And I’m glad I didn’t go alone, for the route is littered with hazards obvious and unapparent. Early on our first day, on a benign section of track (compared with what was to come), a group member slid two metres down a bank into a creek and (we later learned) cracked three vertebrae. Our guides Maddy and Will teamed brilliantly, organising John’s after-dark evacuation by helicopter and getting the rest of us to camp.
Day 1: 15.7km (4-6.5 hours) Carpark to Lake Vera Hut
On day one, we negotiated the Franklin and Loddon rivers, boggy button grass plains, stands of eucalypts, she oaks, wattles, and pockets of rainforest suggestive of Middle Earth in Lord of the Ring, on boot-wide suspension bridges, gravel tracks, boardwalks, roughly rooted ground, rock and wooden steps, and the Laughton’s Lead reroute.
Opened in 2013 as part of an ongoing 10-year track upgrade jointly funded by entrepreneur Dick Smith and the Tasmanian Government, 4.6km-long Laughton’s Lead detours the infamous “sodden Loddons”, on-line photographs of which show hikers hauling companions out of thigh-deep bogs!
Views of the surrounding ranges and the distinctive quartzite dome named for its perceived likeness, from some angles, to the Liberty cap worn during the French Revolution (1789–1799), lured us southwest to Lake Vera Hut.
Day 2: 7km (4-6 hours) Lake Vera to Lake Tahune
Day two kicked off with a memorable walk-cum-clamber along Lake Vera’s boulder-strewn and root-entwined north-west shore, navigating logs slippery with moss and lichens and tree-trunk ladders with no handholds – a kilometre of careful foot placements through a fairyland of greens that took more than an hour.
Then the climbing started: about 400m in altitude over 3km, to Barron Pass. This grandstand lunch spot, nestled between pointed peaks, overlooks a lake-jewelled valley surrounded by mountains painted red and gold with fagus (deciduous beech) in autumn.
From there, we traversed the steep south-west face of Sharland’s Peak (1140m) before the track flattened out across a plateau planted with skeletal King Billy pines killed in a devastating 1960s bushfire. This leg of the walk gifted us a panorama of the Overland Track ridgeline and a daunting view of tomorrow’s route up Frenchman’s Cap.
Steep ladders took us down to Lake Tahune hut (2018) at its foot.
Day 3: 4.8km return (3-5 hours) Summit
It’s only 4.8km return but an almost non-stop climb to the top of Frenchman’s Cap from Lake Tahune, initially through fagus and pandani (the world’s tallest heath) then up a scree slope and rocky tiers. Part way up there’s a chute with narrow handholds which several members of our group, including me, couldn’t climb solo, so it took teamwork to get everyone beyond this spot.
The view from the summit, roughly the size of a footy oval and sloped southwards to a precipitous drop, is worth every challenging step to get there. On a perfect day you can see the Southern Ocean but moody grey sky and snow drifts added physical and visual drama to what awaited us.
We later learned that our evacuated companion underwent surgery in Hobart for his broken back as we stood there, surrounded by multiple shades of blue Wilderness.
Days 4 and 5
Some people set out from Lake Tahune in the dark to catch sunrise from atop Frenchman’s Cap. An alternative option is to begin day 4 before dawn and take in sunrise from the plateau above the hut. After our grey day on the mountain, the sun put on a spectacular show for our departure, rising behind the Overland Track ridgeline and illuminating the quartzite dome behind us.
From there we backtracked to Lake Vera for the night and walked out the following day along the same route we trod on day 1.
The group celebrated surviving the Frenchman’s Cap hike with a scrumptious burger at the Hungry Wombat Café in Derwent Bridge (gateway to Lake St Clair), about 25km east on the Lyell Highway from the Frenchman’s parking area.
Tasmanian Expeditions’s 6-day Frenchman’s Cap Trek operates January to May. The cost of $1795.00 per person includes 4 dinners, 5 lunches and 4 breakfasts, minibus transfers from/to Launceston, and national park fees. Go to http://www.tasmanianexpeditions.com.au
I was a guest of Tasmanian Expeditions.
The Frenchman’s Cap trek is described in detail in my third book, Top Walks in Tasmania, published by Explore Australia and available on line.