You can best enjoy the pristine wilderness and spectacular landscapes of one of Tasmania’s most popular tourist attractions by visiting in the cooler months.
Why Visit in Autumn?
Cradle Mountain is one of Tasmania’s most popular tourist attractions, with close to 200,000 visitors annually, more than half of them coming between November and March. During the peak season it can be difficult (or impossible) to avoid crowds and getting into the Dove Lake parking area to capture the best views of the mountain can involve hours of queuing.
Early arrivals will be able to photograph fresh snow before it has been trampled by visitors’ feet.
In the cooler months you can usually drive straight in, enjoy the magnificent vistas and take photographs without anyone intruding in the scene. The rainforest areas are more attractive in the damp and misty conditions that occur in autumn.
Latitude and altitude combine to make the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park area an exciting place for photography. The park’s alpine vegetation is very diverse and unaffected by forest fires.
Visitor numbers increase briefly in autumn during the turning of the fagus (Nothofagus gunni) or deciduous beech, the leaves of which change from bright green to rust red and brilliant gold, usually beginning around Anzac Day. The spectacle lasts for about two weeks before the leaves are blown off to carpet the ground with gold.
The fagus (Nothofagus gunni) contrasts nicely with wet rocks on the Dove Lake Loop Track.
The fagus is Australia’s only cold climate winter-deciduous tree and only occurs in Tasmania. It seldom grows higher than two metres and is characterised by twisted, ground- hugging branches that have earned it the nickname ‘tanglefoot’. Some of the best fagus is found around the Dove Lake Loop Track, along the Crater Lake track, and on the easily-accessed Weindorfers Forest Walk near Waldheim.
The higher peaks above the snow line are home to low-growing alpine plants and interesting lichens, with stands of Tasmanian snow gum to be found at slightly lower elevations. Rainforest trees and shrubs dominate the valleys surrounding the mountain, with broader valleys covered by buttongrass and pandani. Colourful fungi can be found within the forests, growing on tree trunks and fallen branches and leaf litter.
Wombats are a common sight throughout the area, while pademelons and echidnas can also be seen from most walking tracks. If you’re lucky, you might encounter a platypus foraging in one of the shallow streams in the rainforest.
To see Tasmanian Devils you will probably need to visit Devils at Cradle, which is located just outside the national park and provides day and evening tours. This facility focuses on the preservation of Tasmania’s three carnivorous marsupials, the Tasmanian Devil and the Eastern and Spotted-tail Quoll. Day tours run between 10am and 4pm, with night feeding tours at 5:30pm (plus 8:30pm during daylight savings periods).
Fortunate photographers may get the chance to photograph a platypus close-up on a wet day in the rainforest.
Throughout the year, the weather can be changeable and unpredictable and visitors to Cradle Mountain must be prepared for snow, heat, sleet, rain and windy conditions ““ even in summer. The latitude of around 41 degrees south places the area in the path of the ‘Roaring Forties’ winds, which carry moisture from the sea and dump it once they encounter mountain barriers.
The average annual rainfall for the area is around 1900mm, with July, August and September being the wettest months, each averaging more than 200mm. Snow is most likely to fall during this period and tracks can become icy and very slippery.
Some tracks have long stretches of boardwalk, which make it easy to reach scenic spots, even in rain and snow.
Getting There/Getting Around
Cradle Mountain is about 90 minutes’ drive from Devonport via the B19 and B14 south to Sheffield, then C136 and C132 to the park entrance. From Launceston, it takes about two- and-a-half hours via the Bass Highway (A1), then along the signposted route through Sheffield. From the west, it’s two hours along the A10 and C132 from Queenstown or 90 minutes from Burnie via B18 through Ridgley to reach the park.
While the access roads are sealed, parts of each route involve steep, winding stretches of road. Caravans, campervans, motorhomes and trailers, as well as vehicles over 6.5 tonnes and/or vehicles over 8 metres in length are not permitted in the National Park, although they may come as far as the Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre and Transit Terminal car park.
Entry to the National Park attracts a daily fee of $16.50 per adult or half price for children aged 5-17, with a family comprising two adults and up to three children paying $41.25. If you’re staying in the area for more than two days, an eight-week pass costs $30 per person or $60 per vehicle (covering up to eight people).
Fresh snow along the edges of Ronny Creek near the start of the Overland Track. Three pandani (Richea pandanifolia), a plant endemic to Tasmania, can be seen on the right hand side of the picture.
From the Visitor Centre, a regular shuttle bus service runs to Dove Lake seven days a week, with stops at the Interpretation Centre and Ranger Station, Snake Hill, Ronny Creek and Waldheim before turning around at the Lake Dove car park. The cost of the shuttle bus may be included in your entry pass in less popular periods.
A boom gate controls vehicle access to the park and on days of high visitation all visitors (including those with an annual pass) must wait their turn ““ or use the shuttle bus service. In adverse weather conditions, only four-wheel drive vehicles may be allowed to use the access road. Occasionally, the road is closed to private vehicles.
The road itself is sealed but quite winding and narrows to single-lane width in places. Pull-off areas are provided to allow vehicles travelling in opposite directions to pass. A speed limit of 40kph applies.
On really wet days, the rainforests will provide the best photo opportunities. This is when they appear at their best.
The Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS) manages the entire area, although a number of private businesses have been permitted to set up accommodation and run enterprises within the park boundary, or just outside it. Picnic shelters with electric barbecues are found adjacent to the Rangers Station and Interpretation Centre and there are picnic tables close to Waldheim for day visitors.
PWS does a great job of providing and maintaining access paths to the main areas of interest, with wheelchair-accessible boardwalks close to the Interpretation Centre and a range of other tracks which are only suitable for experienced and well-equipped bushwalkers.
The Waldheim Chalet is a reconstruction of the original home of Gustav and Kate Weindorfer, who pioneered tourism in the area. Displays inside provide an insight into the early history of the Cradle Mountain area. The Overland Track passes close by and several rainforest walks begin near the chalet.
What Gear to Take
Photographers should acquire the Cradle Mountain Day Walk Map & Notes published by TasMap and available from www.parks.tas.gov.au or for $8 from the Visitor Centre and some accommodation providers. It includes notes on the difficulty of each walk, with ratings from Grade 1 (easy with wheelchair access) to Grade 4 (long, rough and very steep, requiring bushwalking experience). Take these recommendations seriously and avoid walks into exposed areas in windy, snowy and icy conditions. Walkers have perished when caught out unexpectedly.
On a clear day you can climb to one of the peaks adjacent to Cradle Mountain for a different view. This shot shows the final ascent to Hansen’s Peak, which is less popular than Marion’s Lookout on the opposite side of the lake. Both routes are steep and involve scrambling over rocky areas; bushwalking experience is required.
All walkers will require comfortable, well-broken-in boots that are waterproof and provide adequate ankle support. Clothing should be appropriate for the conditions. Avoid garments made from cotton, which becomes cold and uncomfortable when wet. Woollen and synthetic fabrics are preferable and it is a good idea to dress in multiple thin layers, rather than a single, thick garment.
A waterproof jacket is recommended, along with a warm beanie (for windy conditions) and a hat for sunny days. Gaiters protect your ankles from mud and prickly bushes. Trekking poles are useful when negotiating steep ascents or descents. Fingerless gloves keep your hands warm without hampering your access to your camera’s controls; look for ones with mitten flaps that cover your fingertips.
You’ll need a waterproof jacket and over-pants plus a warm beanie to venture out when rain is likely.
Sunscreen is recommended in all weathers, largely because of the altitude. Water should be carried on all walks, along with some nutritious, lightweight snacks (chocolate and nuts).
Keep your camera equipment simple and don’t burden yourself with a lot of unnecessary gear, particularly if you plan a half-day or longer walk.
A single camera body with a medium zoom lens (say, 24-80mm equivalent in 35mm format) will be adequate for 90% of the shots you take. We recommend choosing a camera and lens that are weatherproof enough to be used in drizzle and snow.
A viewfinder will be vital on most days, although in the rainforest you can often compose shots on the LCD monitor. Touch focus and shutter release facilities can be handy and you will need fast autofocusing to record most native animals (except wombats, which tend to ignore people).
Take a lightweight tripod for long exposures in the depths of the rainforest, or to capture the colours before and after the sun has set. A good lens hood will help to keep raindrops from accumulating on the front of the lens. Carry a microfibre cloth for cleaning off any that accumulate.
Sunrise casts a warm glow across Cradle Mountain and touches on the buttongrass in the foreground. It pays to get up early!
What to Photograph
If the weather is dry, head for the higher areas for panoramic views of the scenery. If it’s wet, the rainforests will be at their best. A big dump of snow will turn the landscape into a winter wonderland but may prevent you from reaching the higher areas. Snow on the tracks can turn icy when compressed by people’s feet and will be dangerously slippery to walk on.
Snow creates photogenic scenery, even before you reach the Dove Lake car park.
If the scenery is obscured by clouds or mist, concentrate on shooting close-ups of features in the landscape. When it’s sunny, there’s no shortage of potential subjects; your imagination is your only limitation.
Rise early to catch the first light on the mountain tops and sides. Stay late for sunset shots and star trails if the sky is clear. Slightly longer lenses ““ say, 150-200mm equivalent ““ will enable you to take close-up shots of animals and birds. However, they will need to be relatively fast if you’re shooting in the rainforest.
Sunsets can also provide nice photo opportunities, particularly when still conditions allow reflections of the mountain to appear on the waters of Dove Lake.
- Aperture-priority AE is the best shooting mode to use as it will allow you to control depth- of-field in shots.
- Set your camera’s auto ISO limitations to the highest ISO setting you can use without noise becoming obvious and let the camera determine the appropriate level, based upon the aperture you select.
- Avoid apertures smaller than f/11 to maximise image sharpness.
- Be prepared to over-ride autofocus settings if the camera has difficulty in finding focus and when you are capturing moving subjects.
- Effective stabilisation will make the difference between capturing the subject or a blur.
Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 65