Thursday, 22 February 2018

Finding Tanglefoot - The Labyrinth, Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park

A steady stream of bushwalkers head south along the narrow track. But, we are walking north - against the flow.  I wait off to one side as the latest group pass. A lady looks up in surprise; she says – "Oh, you're going the wrong way!" 

I want to whisper to her our secret - that this is what it takes when you are hunting Tanglefoot, when you are pushing deep into the high mountains, searching the hidden corners of The Labyrinth that lies beneath Mt Geryon, named for the fearsome giant of Greek mythology. Ssh, I want to say. Don't tell anyone. 

Technically she is correct, as we are on Tasmania's famed Overland Track. And, when it comes to the Overland Track, there really is only one way to walk in peak season. All Overland walkers are required to travel north to south. It is no surprise so many of them are confused by us, as we dodge wave after wave of walking groups. 

However, on the final leg of the Overland Track, from the Pine Valley turn-off down to Narcissus Hut and Lake St Clair, bushwalkers can go either away and this allows us to push west, reaching other trails and mountains located at the southern end of the DuCane Range. And at this time of year, Autumn, we are walking into this secluded corner of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park to search for the unique, rare and elusive Tanglefoot. 

It is such an evocative name for what is essentially a small, humble tree - Deciduous Beech (Nothofagus gunnii), or fagus as it is better-known. It usually grows to no more than 2 metres. The name, Tanglefoot, comes from its habit of growing in twisted, ground-hugging branches forming impenetrable forests that will trip up the most determined off-track walker. 

Yet this small Tasmanian tree can claim something few other Australian plants can. It is Australia's only cold climate winter-deciduous tree, and you will find it nowhere else in the world except Tasmania. Its autumn display is superb, turning a spectacular range of colours from rust red through to brilliant gold, during late April and May.

After we turn off the Overland Track, heading west, the crowds disappear and the trail wends its way through wet scherlophyll forest with the last kilometre to Pine Valley Hut entering one of those enchanted Tasmanian rainforests – the hut is tucked amongst dark woods and surrounded by pandani and myrtle beech trees. It is about a two and a half hour walk from Narcissus Hut to Pine Valley Hut. We pause there for a quick lunch, re-load and continue deeper inland.

From Pine Valley Hut we climb a wet, rocky, slippery route onto the range. I catch glimpses of Tanglefoot on the hillsides. Emerging onto the saddle at the southern end of a mountain called the Parthenon we come face to face with our first bit of fagus. It is light orange in colour, the distinctive "crinkle-cut" leaf is the size of a ten cent piece. 

A family of four, walking down off the plateau, give us differing accounts of the quality of the fagus up high. The father says good, the daughter says not so good. We push on to see for ourselves. 

This high plateau, dotted with numerous scenic and tranquil lakes is known as The Labyrinth. Another drawcard here is Lake Elysia and the view across to Mt Geryon's remarkable profile, reflected perfectly on the lake's mirror still water. From Lake Elysia we continue on to the Pool of Memories. The fagus all the way along is beautiful – a lot of yellow, quite a bit of brown, splashes of red, deep oranges. In the river valley below the plateau, the forest is pure fagus. The midday sun lights it up like a rich, golden carpet. It makes the most perfect day. We walk in t-shirts and shorts. I am deeply impressed by this world of texture. The landscape is an intricate mosaic – pine tree green, silver eucalypt, a golden fagus, the new red growth of heath plants, pandani spikes. 

Fagus prefers cool, damp places, so it is often best seen in remote highlands. But non-bushwalkers can find some very accessible stands of fagus at Lake Fenton in Mt Field National Park, where there is an observation area. Some of the best fagus is also found around Cradle Mountain. The Loop Track, which circles Dove Lake, is an easy 2 hour walk that passes through patches of Tanglefoot but the walk to Crater Lake is best. 

Our most incredible view of the autumn fagus is a couple of days later. After wandering the high plateau we return to Pine Valley Hut and set off early one morning for the summit of the Acropolis. The track passes old King Billy Pine and at our feet a maze of tree roots and tiny blue eyeball toadstools like fairy parasols. Then a steep, steep climb onto a plateau of large eucalypts and impressive pandani. We pass through a band of brilliant fagus, a tangle of white tbranches tipped by black twigs sporting bright yellow leaves. There is a variety of plant life here – snow gums with stripes of red, yellow and grey, sword sedge, snowberry. A pink robin flies within arm's reach, hopping onto three different perches, before disappearing like a trick.

Approaching the base of the Acropolis there are views of its impressive dolerite pillars to the north. The path climbs up and down, over scree slopes and large boulders, ascending up a gully with a couple of tricky climbs before breaching the top of the flat-top mountain and stopping dead in our tracks. The view is stupendous – to the west sits Walled Mountain and Mt Gould poking above a blanket of thick cloud, beneath that blanket we can see the deep Cesipphus valley and glimpses of the Labyrinth. Caz stops for photos but the sun emerges from swirling cloud atop the Acropolis and so I race for the summit. From here the view is even more impressive - taking in views of the wicked, crazy, sheer eastern face of Mt Geryon below which lies a dense, long impressive carpet of pure yellow – Tanglefoot. 

I stand there trying to imprint the image on my mind. Tanglefoot in its autumn blush adds such a unique beauty to the mountainous landscape. Dolerite columns, below the peak of the Acropolis, add grandeur to the view, the colour adds feeling. 

After an hour, I reluctantly turn my back on that spectacular view to begin the trip back to Pine Valley. Then, while researching this story I stumble upon a map showing the distribution of fagus across Tasmania. This map surprises me. There is not much fagus in the world. 

According to an ABC story, fire remains the greatest threat to the survival of the species. Fagus is extremely fire sensitive as it has thin bark. In alpine regions on Mt Read in Tasmania, areas of Deciduous Beech that were burnt haven't been re-invaded after 60 years. However, in some buttongrass areas the tree can re-invade earlier. Where fagus stands have been destroyed by fire they may take 1000 years to recover. The tree's main option after a fire is to gradually re-invade a site from the edge where other Deciduous Beech might remain. But seeds of Nothofagus gunnii can't travel long distances. They have no adaptions for wind dispersal and are said to drop like a stone. Usually they don't spread more than 100 metres from their parent tree.

Back at Pine Valley Hut we meet a friendly young National Parks worker who has walked in for the day to complete some chores (raking the poo flat in the pit toilet) and to carry out all the lost property that lazy and forgetful hikers leave behind - shoes, beanies, sleeping mats, clothes, food - a garbage bag full of gear! We get talking about the fagus and he tells us stories of the obsessive fagus photographers who hunt the mountains high and low looking for the best stands of fagus and comparing notes in online forum's with other keen photographers across the state. As he rolls his eyes at these strange folk, we laugh politely and I jot down the website address. This is what it takes when you are hunting Tanglefoot.

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  1. We have just discovered your beautiful blog. Our blog styles are so different (I'm boringly into detail) but our love of nature have taken us to some of the same places and your words and photos are inspiration for future trips. Looking forward to following your blog from now on.

    1. Hi Guys. Thank you so much for your kind words. You have certainly covered some ground in your travels. Great blog! Look forward to crossing paths out there one day.