Along with the documentation for our trip Susie from Tasmanian Odyssey sent us a booklet of 60 Great Short Walks in Tasmania, and we’ve been working our way through some of them since we arrived. Today is a travelling day – we stayed the night in the evocatively named Beauty Point and will be heading east all day to end up at St Helen’s. On the way we plan to do another two Great Short Walks, both to waterfalls. But first we’ll call in at Lillydale Falls, which aren’t mentioned in the booklet.
Things start well. Lillydale Falls are fairly easy to get to. We park in a decent car park and walk upriver for a few minutes, surrounded by ferns and eucalypts to an attractive cascade waterfall. White water tumbles over a series of rock ledges and past a fallen tree trunk that has been swept downriver in a flood and is now wedged hard against the falls. All very peaceful, very beautiful.
Then things start to go downhill, or to be more accurate, uphill. The next falls we are to visit are the Ralph Falls. The most direct route is a gravel road through the mountains. It looks OK on the map, so we decide to go for it.
Generally speaking the quality of the roads in Tassie is very good. There have obviously been a few problems over the winter during the unprecedented floods that affected, in particular, the north of the island, and in various places we’ve driven through we’ve seen gangs of roadworkers making good the damage. But the tarmac roads are mostly excellent, and to date the gravel roads (or “unsealed” as they tend to be called here) have impressed us too.
A lot of Tassie’s minor roads are unsealed, but they’re in good nick. We’ve visited all 50 US states over a period of about 20 years and during that time have driven on a lot of gravel roads, and Tasmanian unsealed roads compare well with most of them. So we’re confident that the road to Ralph Falls won’t cause us any difficulties … after all, if it’s unusually challenging the state government would put up a sign to warn unwary drivers before they did anything silly. Wouldn’t it?
The road to Ralph Falls heads deep into the mountains. It’s steep and winding. The road surface is rougher than any unsealed road I’ve driven in Tassie, with hefty rocks rubbing shoulders with impressively gaping potholes. The road narrows, and I realise I’ll be in trouble if I meet a car coming towards us as passing places are few and far between. But there are no cars coming down, the road is entirely deserted but for us and our valiant Toyota Camry. Strange, I think to myself, what do they know that I don’t?
I become increasingly concerned that the Camry might not make it. After all it’s only a regular sedan, low slung and just asking to have its suspension knackered or sump knocked out by one of these randomly distributed rocks and potholes.
The road narrows further, and we wind around the side of the mountain. On Julie’s side there’s a sheer drop. No crash barriers, of course. If I lose control and go over the edge we’re gonna die, no question. I grip the steering wheel more tightly and rehearse my favourite Anglo-Saxon phrases. It dawns on us that maybe we shouldn’t be doing this, but there’s nowhere to turn around, and anyway it’s bound to flatten out soon. Isn’t it?
But it doesn’t. We’re still climbing. We’re going very slowly now, in marked contrast to my heartbeat which is racing wildly. We continue to debate the relative merits of going on versus those of trying to turn around and going back down. The phrase “buggered if we do, buggered if we don’t” offers itself up for consideration, and we agree that it just about sums up our situation.
But finally, just when I’m about to surrender to the panic that I’ve been trying so hard to control, the road opens out and to the left is a modest parking area. We’ve made it to Ralph Falls.
There’s still the small matter of the Short Walk before we get to see the cause of all our misery so we trek steeply downhill through the myrtle rainforest, reflecting as we go that what goes down must go up and it’s going to be bloody painful when it does. Then, at last, we turn a corner and spot the falls, a streaming ribbon of water plunging off the rock face. At over 90 metres Ralph Falls is Tasmania’s highest single drop waterfall, and is an impressive sight:
And so it’s on to our third waterfall, the St Columba Falls. I note with satisfaction that we don’t have to drive back down the road we’ve just ascended, and am quietly confident that, in the words of the song, things can only get better. Silly boy.
The road is just as rough, the rocks and potholes just as unforgiving. And just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse we turn the corner and are confronted by a scene of muddy devastation. The forest in front of us is being logged, and the logging track is about to become one with the road we are driving. Thanks to the logging trucks our road is covered with deep slippery mud, which serves to conceal the rocks and potholes without eliminating the danger they pose to our wretched Camry.
Logging trucks – could these be our nemesis? I’ve ranted about logging ever since I’ve been in Tassie, and am under no illusions that your average logger thinks he’s the dog’s bollocks. Most drivers of logging trucks think they’re invincible, and let’s face it when the opposition is a Toyota Camry there’s no bloody competition. These roads aren’t big enough for the two of us: if I meet a logging truck there’s only going to be one winner and it won’t be me.
So here’s my dilemma – I desperately want to be off this road, which suggests I should drive the like the wind until I am. On the other hand, putting the pedal to the metal increases the chance that I’ll write off the car and bring our trip (and possibly our very existence) to a premature end.
But Dame Fortune must be looking down kindly on us today. Logging trucks are notable only by their absence (drivers on a tea break, maybe?) and we make it down through the forest to a road junction without incident, although my nerves are in tatters. Minutes later we pull up at the St Columba Falls car park, and take the Short Walk to see them.
Like Ralph Falls the drop of St Columba Falls is around 90 metres, but in a cascade rather than a single drop. It’s difficult to capture the full extent of the cascade in a single photo, so this picture possibly doesn’t do them complete justice:
Amazingly there are two other visitors to the St Columba Falls, though they’ve approached from the other (much more sensible) direction. One of them takes a photo of us:
We reciprocate Her camera takes real film; we haven’t seen one of these for years. We ask why she doesn’t go digital, and she explains she likes the excitement of opening the pack of developed photos, not knowing until that moment what they’ll look like, whether they’ll be any good. I mutter some pleasantries but am secretly thinking that if Julie still took traditional photos we’d be bankrupt by now … wombats can do that to a photographer, you know
So, our Short Walks completed and the three waterfalls digitally recorded for posterity we wend our weary way slowly towards St Helen’s where we’ll be staying in a B&B for the next two nights. When we get there one of the owners, Jan, asks about our journey and we tell her the route we‘ve taken and the pain it’s caused us. In carefully measured tones she says “Yes, I’ve heard it’s a bit rustic up there.” She keeps her expression neutral, giving nothing away, the undoubted mistress of understatement.
John, her husband, is less circumspect. “Around here we call it a goat track,” he chuckles.
Well I guess that sums it up nicely.