Walking the Cataract Gorge

On the first day of my holiday, I woke up thrilled. I had entire days without having to worry about work, my exercise routine, or chores. I felt liberated.

And I was, it was my first real vacation in over three years and my first ever without carrying my laptop since I got my first laptop. Before this, every time I travelled, whether it was for work or to visit family, I’d always go prepared to log into work in case something blew up. But here, in Launceston, I was free of my life. It felt like I’d gotten rid of the huge baggage on my shoulder.

I was up at 5. I had no reason to stay in bed. I was in the Launceston Backpackers hostel—a hundred-something-year-old building which looked and felt its age but was so well maintained by the staff. It’s the cheapest accommodation you can find in the city, and it was still way better than I imagined. They even gave me two blankets when I only asked for one!

Almost jumping out of bed on day one, I brushed, yoga-ed a bit, pulled on my long comfy pants, and marched off into the biting cold. Mid-autumn in Launceston is often colder than winter in northern Australia. But for me, coming from Canberra and loving the capital’s winter season, Launceston was perfect. Just the right amount of chilly. Of course, I soon lost all sense in my fingers and toes, but I knew it wouldn’t be for long.

I’d done my research. I headed off to the most popular tourist attraction in the city: Cataract Gorge. It’s a short 20-25 minute walk from the heart of the city, and the main feature of the gorge is the King’s Bridge-Cataract Walk, a beautiful path along the South Esk River. The passage was built by volunteers in the 1890s and is the main pathway leading further into the gorge where there’s a world-renowned chairlift. The longest single-span chairlift in the world, going up to 457 metres. It’s one of the must-do, must-see things in Launceston, second perhaps only to the ridiculous amount of vineyards in the Tamar Valley region. All this, I knew from my research and by exploring the Cataract Walk the previous day, not too long after I landed in Tasmania.

This morning, however, I wasn’t going for the Cataract Walk or the chairlift. Instead, I’d read and heard about another path leading into the gorge. A much more challenging and steep climb: The Zig Zag Trail. This trail, I realised, is much more secluded from the outside. You see, to get to the start of the Cataract Gorge walk, you have to cross the King’s Bridge which runs above the South Esk River. So even while you cross the bridge, you get stunning views of the gorge and the river running through it. As soon as you cross the bridge, the Cataract Walk begins on your left. With the Zig Zag Trail, though, you don’t have to cross the bridge at all. The beginning of the walk is what looks like a pile of large rocks stacked against each other with steps going through it. While the river is on one side of the trail, the other side is a commercial building. Unless you know that it’s the trail leading into the gorge, you’ll likely miss it.

Most people who walk the trail, I later realised, start the walk from within the gorge—after exploring the attractions, the views, and the chairlift, they chance upon the Zig Zag Trail with an ominous message: Steep – Hikers Only. It’s enough to pique the curiosity of anyone, but not enough to tell them how steep is steep.

As I entered the trail from the city, it was just after dawn. The sun was still behind clouds, and a chilly breeze lingered around my ears. My fingers and toes were numb, and my adrenaline at an all-time high. I climbed step after steep step. Within minutes, my heart was pounding in its cage, and I had the highest of highs I’d had in a long time. I stopped to look around, and amidst the dense bushes around me was the King’s Bridge in the distance and the rising sun further behind it. I stood for a good few minutes, entranced but also to catch my breath.

  • View of the Cataract Walk from the Zig Zag Trail, Launceston, Tasmania
  • View of the South Esk River from the Zig Zag Trail, Launceston, Tasmania
  • Zig Zag Trail, Launceston, Tasmania

When I turned back to my path, I had renewed energy—all I wanted to do was to get to the other side of this trail and feast my eyes on the view.

After 15 more minutes of heart-hammering cardio and smiling at the locals who clearly did this every day, I got my view. It was about 8 in the morning. I was looking out at the gorge and the infamous Alexandra Suspension Bridge that connected one side of the gorge to another. It was too early for the tourists, and I got the entire bridge for myself.

View of the Alexandra Suspension Bridge from the Cataract Gorge First Basin lookout, Launceston, Tasmania
Alexandra Suspension Bridge

As I gingerly walked onto the bridge, drinking in the views, it dawned on me how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. All around me, water and forests and wallabies thrived. As the sunlight hit the water, it rebounded on the millions of leaves around, nourishing and feeding countless lifeforms for hundreds of years to come. And here I was, just a traveller with my backpack and a petty iPhone, clicking away as if I could capture the essence of what was happening around me.

Heart full of joy and satisfaction, and a slight disappointment for those who couldn’t be there and experience what I’d experienced, and for those who were there and still had different experiences, I turned to go further into the gorge. For I’d heard that even though the Zig Zag Track ended in the First Basin, there was a much longer and more rewarding track not too far: The Duck Reach Trail.

And like me, if you think it’s a track that’d lead to a pond with a handful of ducks in it, my friend, you couldn’t be more mistaken. More on that later.

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