Climbing Tasmania's abels | Photos

Abel bagging is a convenient term for a practice more accurately defined as locating the most remote, desolate and preferably unmarked places in Tasmania, and then visiting them.

It is a pastime that can leave those involved isolated, vulnerable, endangered, cold, wet and completely exhausted.

But it is also an invitation to view some of the state’s best-kept natural secrets and explore places every bit as stunning and photogenic as the iconic tourism vistas the state sells itself with.

Off the beaten track just doesn’t do it justice.

Abels are defined as Tasmanian peaks over 1100 metres high with a clear drop of at least 150m to the surrounding terrain.

With nearly half of the state above 600m high (and 85 per cent of land over 1500m on Ben Lomond) there are 158 of the critters.

Named after the Dutch Tasman fellow of 17th century fame who also gave the state and the sea towards New Zealand their names, they range from the well known like Cradle Mountain, Mount Wellington and Federation Peak to some truly obscure and isolated outposts so far into the South-West National Park that you’re more likely to encounter a thylacine than another human being.

England and Scotland have their own versions.

As of last year, the youngest person to complete all of England’s 214 Wainwrights (mountains over 3000 feet) was six years old. The youngest to complete all 282 of Scotland’s Munros (ditto) was aged 10. But the youngest of just eight people to have scaled all Tasmania’s Abels was 50.

Fastest completions? Wainwrights - 6 days and 13 hours; Munros - 39 days; Abels - 18 years.

The Examiner has reported on Zane Robnik who has set himself the challenge to climb all of Tasmania's Abels in 18 months, a feat that would break several records.

Inspired by the 24-year-old’s story, and keen to see more of the state, myself and a couple of fellow bushwalkers decided to bag ourselves some Abels.

We lined up a schedule of climbing four in three days, interspersed with nights at campsites to indulge in some of James Boag’s finest work and reflect on how brave and adventurous we were.

My conclusion was that if you gain pleasure from being repeatedly whipped across the lower body by a colourful assortment of Tasmanian flora while simultaneously being subjected to varying degrees of water torture by prevailing weather conditions, then Abel bagging is for you.

We swiftly came to three realisations.

Firstly, that no Abel worth its salt is going to be easy.

Secondly, that gaitors are as essential a part of a walker’s kit as a raincoat.

And thirdly, that nearly every Abel involves, at some stage, a scree field.

Traversing a scree field is a fun way to spend an hour, or five. It is one of those tasks in life that appears relatively easy and painless but in reality is tediously arduous, like defleaing a dog.

Discarded by lazy glaciers that couldn’t be bothered to carry them any more, scree fields consist of dolerite rocks of various sizes that turn a pleasant walk into a monotonous minefield.

This is because about every 20th rock you stand on decides to move. When that particular rock happens to be larger than your family car, it can be a little unnerving.

It does, however, make it easy to stay in touch with your walking companions as every few minutes you will hear a wobbling noise, usually accompanied by an equally loud and nervy profanity. It is an endless source of entertainment.

Most Abels are navigated not by any discernible path but by following either cairns or strips of marking tape.

Cairns are unnaturally arranged piles of rocks, situated amidst naturally arranged piles of rocks, while the tape is often exactly the same colour, texture and shape as stringy bark peeling off a gum tree, so both methods present their challenges.

As a result the general rule is to keep heading upwards as that will, eventually and inevitably, lead to a summit.

Any bagger’s bible is The Abels – A Comprehensive Guide to Tasmania’s Mountains Over 1100m High, Volume 1, second edition, edited by Bill Wilkinson ($39.95, available at Petrarch’s).

It is invaluable in providing such information as estimated time, condition of track, grade and height etc.

However, it does suffer somewhat from Wilkinson’s penchant for rather flowery language which results in many descriptions reading more like a Thomas Hardy novel than a guide book.

For example, the passage: “Walking on the extensive beds of rock invokes a strange feeling - that of sailing past the lightly-timbered vegetation and its scrubby understorey” can be more helpfully translated as: “Brace yourself for two hours of ankle-snapping rock-hopping.”

Our first encounter with an Abel, and indeed its scree field, was Sandbanks Tier, the 1401m monster that looms high to your left when driving south along the eastern side of Great Lake shortly after climbing Poatina Hill.

Later that day we took on the 1140m Mount Penny West on the southern shore of Arthurs Lake. Plans to tackle a third were thwarted by a combination of time restraints, common sense and the possibility of being accidentally shot by deer hunters.

Day two took us to the opposite shore of Great Lake and the 1393m Rats Castle, so-named because it was allegedly used as a bushrangers’ hideout. After two hours of scree field climbing, we found it quite appropriate to drop the C of Castle and decided that anybody who gets to the top has earned the privilege of evading the law.

Our final day involved the 1340m Drys Bluff, beginning more than 1000m lower down in the backyard of Bob Brown’s old home in Liffey.

Rumour has it that the former Greens leader has climbed the peak 72 times, once for each year of his life. We, however, are happy to stick on once.

Signs stating “experienced bushwalkers only” offered wise advice. There were at least half a dozen places where fixed ropes assisted the ascent and for most it would almost certainly have been impossible without them.

Unintentionally, we had taken on a mountain, a tier, a bluff and a castle – although the latter didn’t exactly offer a drawbridge welcome.

Other Abels include peaks, tors, bens, sugarloafs, crags, spires, ranges, domes, moors, heads, thumbs, knobs, hills, portals, lookouts and towers, suggesting the naming is almost as enjoyable as the conquering.

At least we had visibility, company and the occasional cairn for guidance. People like Mr Robnik who head off alone into the far South-West might have none of that.

I have no desire to follow in Zane’s intrepid boot prints and conquer all 158.

However, I am happy to seek to increase my tally of Abels as an excuse to continue to unearth Tasmania's seemingly limitless hidden gems.

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