Australian philanthropist Dick Smith has given a glowing endorsement of how his $1.1 million donation has been used to enhance Tasmania's iconic Frenchmans Cap bushwalking experience.
Inspecting the track upgrades and hut rebuild for the first time, the well-known entrepreneur declared: "It was a million dollars well spent as far as I'm concerned."
The New South Wales-born and based businessman has been a regular visitor to the region with his wife Pip for more than half a century, but a hike in 2008 left him shocked by the degradation of the track.
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Following the success of his many business enterprises, which began with Dick Smith Electronics in 1968, Mr Smith has been making large charitable donations for decades and decided Frenchmans - with its notoriously boggy section through the infamous "sodden Loddons" - also needed his help.
His subsequent contribution - spaced out over the next decade - was matched by Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service and enabled a re-routing and significant upgrades to the track as well as the rebuilding of the Lake Tahune Hut, situated in the shadow of the 1446-metres quartzite peak in the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.
Making a flying visit to inspect the work, the father-of-two, who turns 77 later this month, was delighted with the result.
"It's my first time back to see the completed hut and I'm very pleased with it," he said. "It's far better than I ever thought, it's quite fantastic.
The hut is the most magnificent I've ever seen. The only thing I can compare it to is some of the deluxe huts I've seen in the Alps in Switzerland. It's probably one of the remotest and most difficult places to put a hut because it's quite high and a credit to the helicopter pilots who lifted everything in safely.Dick Smith on the Lake Tahune Hut
Widely travelled with numerous global aviation records to his name, Mr Smith believes the four-day, 44km hike off the Lyell Highway, west of Derwent Bridge, is unsurpassed anywhere in the world.
"I've done most of the well-known walks in the Southern Hemisphere - the Milford Track, Routeburn Track, Three Capes Walk - and this to me is the most magnificent of all of them. The Cradle Mountain walk (Overland Track) is beautiful but this is harder.
"I'm not too keen on too many people doing it and think this is going to be a problem. I can imagine one day they're going to have to have a booking system like Cradle Mountain because it would ruin it if you have too many people here.
"For someone who has successfully done Cradle Mountain, they could do this walk, it's the next step up but it requires more fitness."
Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service was grateful for Mr Smith's financial support and delighted to show him the completed work during a routine inspection of the huts at Lake Tahune and Lake Vera.
North-West regional manager Nic Deka said: "It's quite important for people to see where their philanthropy leads and rewarding to take someone like Dick into the area and show him how his money has been spent.
"There was no question that at some point we would have replaced the hut but Dick's investment made that happen sooner rather than later.
"This was a wonderful opportunity. We are very proud of the result we have delivered and it is great to be able to share that pride with one of the major contributors.
"Dick obviously values this place and the experience of coming here and wants to ensure others can experience what he has in the past."
As he toured the beautifully-designed $440,000 triple-glazed refuge a kilometre above sea level, which is also the first hydro-heated bushwalker's hut in Tasmania, Mr Smith reflected on his long-standing association with a stunning area of Tasmanian wilderness.
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"I have been bushwalking for over 60 years and my favourite walk is still Frenchmans Cap. The magnificent scenery, the rainforest and the extraordinary views from the top of the Cap are unsurpassed.
"We first came in here 53 years ago. We were newly-engaged and got married a year later. We returned 20 years later, then 40, then 50.
"The very first time I came here we didn't get to the top of Frenchmans Cap, but we did when we came back on our 20th anniversary. We did again on our 40th but on our 50th we only got to Lake Vera.
"Pip and I came up with the idea of the $1 million donation after we had seen the terrible damage that had been done on the Loddon Plains on the 40th anniversary of our first walk.
"The damage that had been done by us walkers was staggering with the mud and I thought 'this is really bad, we should do something about it'.
"You were told to walk on the track and you'd be knee-deep, but it got to a stage that it was waist deep and there were 15 tracks and it looked to me as if feral pigs had got in and started chewing up the area. It was very bad and took the pleasure away from doing the walk.
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"It was completely over-used and there were no toilets. It shocked me what had been done by people loving it. It wasn't as if it had been vandalised. It just was not designed to take that.
"We decided then to instigate the 10-year program, hoping that when we came back on our 50th anniversary walk, all would be good - and it was.
"The National Parks brilliantly came up with a re-routing of the track which took it away from the bad parts and we were delighted to do that. Then they asked if we would put some extra money in to the hut and we said yes, and that was the catalyst for building the hut.
"I think my offer came with motivation for them to put an equal amount of money in. I think it all just got loved to death and Parks were allocating their resources elsewhere."
A key component of the works involved re-routing the track from Philps Lead, which went through the sodden Loddons, along a new course further north and higher in altitude, called Laughtons Lead.
"When we came up with the offer we didn't want it all to be done with duckboarding so there's very little of that because walking on that the whole time is not the in-thing I don't think. We didn't want to make it too easy.
"The brilliant thing was one of the rangers came up with the diversion around Philps Lead and it's a lovely walk. It's above the water table and made it so much better."
Mr Smith, who was named Australian of the Year in 1986, said Tasmania retains a special place in his heart.
"I've often told people the only place I would live other than Sydney, where I was born, is Tassie.
"It's because when I was 17 in 1961 I came down here in the boy scouts and the in-thing to do was the Cradle Mountain walk.
"So I flew down to Launceston and got a bus via Devonport to Wilmot and did the Cradle Mountain walk and have virtually come back to Tasmania every year since then.
"I love the place. The beautiful thing to me is there's not too many people here."Dick Smith
"I love the place. The beautiful thing to me is there's not too many people here."
The track improvements and hut redevelopment may have changed that, but Mr Smith takes obvious pride in having helped to share the area with a new generation of explorer.
"To see so many enthusiastic young people is tremendous," he said.
"I'm so pleased about the number of young walkers who can come in here because it takes me back to when we first walked in. Back then the track was pretty good, there wasn't much damage done.
"When I first came here it would have been seven months before I started Dick Smith Electronics so I was working in a factory never thinking I'd ever have any money.
"If someone had said 'you're going to be able to donate a million dollars towards upgrading the track' I just would have laughed at them, but it's one of the best things we've ever done."
A walk on the wild side
Frenchmans Cap is described on the Parks and Wildlife website as "one of Tasmania's most challenging multi-day walks".
The page also advises: "Walkers should be experienced and well-prepared. Take the time to go over our walk notes to ensure you are ready for all that Frenchmans Cap has to offer."
In the aftermath of COVID, a booking system is in place but, being voluntary, appears to have been widely ignored and we passed people from Hong Kong, Poland, Brazil, France, Singapore, Sweden, South Africa and just about every mainland state before we saw another Tasmanian.
A rough guide consists of:
Car park to Vera Hut: 15km, 5-7 hours
After crossing the Franklin River, the track climbs through rainforest to the slopes of Mount Mullens (from where Frenchmans Cap makes its first appearance) before descending via the new Laughtons Lead and over the Loddon River to Lake Vera.
Vera Hut to Lake Tahune Hut: 5.5km, 4 hours
Beyond the shoreline of Lake Vera comes a beautiful but hard uphill rainforest slog to Barron Pass before an exposed and windswept rocky alpine plateau to Artichoke Valley. A heathland meander leads to the superbly-reconstructed Lake Tahune Hut.
Lake Tahune Hut to Frenchmans Cap summit: 1.6km, 1.5 hours
The 450m climb towards North Col, which traverses terraces above Lake Tahune, is well cairned but includes some zig-zags, steep scrambles and the P&W warning: "We do not recommend you summit in strong wind, heavy mist, snow and/or ice."
- More info: www.parks.tas.gov.au