Pure heaven, but also hell: my trek to find the Disappearing Tarn

Growing up in Hobart in the 1980s, I traipsed all over the stunning dolerite uplift of the mountain framing our harbour city – Mount Wellington, today dually named kunanyi. We regularly drove up the mountain road to picnic in fern glades at The Springs, near the site of a hotel that burnt down in Tasmania’s catastrophic 1967 bushfires. At high school, our geology class forensically measured the way the crystal size in the rocks changed with the cooling speed of the lava squirt that made the mountain.

After I’d left Tasmania to go to university, threads of after-party gossip would reach me from secret summer mountain raves away from the tourist tracks, where people carried in sound equipment with generators. Meer onlangs, the Mona Foma festival has drawn next generation revellers. And while Hobartians have been cooped up through Covid-19, this unspoiled nature reserve has become a more popular escape hatch than ever.

Partly that’s down to the pull of kunanyi’s ephemeral mountain pool known as the Disappearing Tarn.

The tarn’s iridescent, turquoise water appears only after unusually heavy rain and disappears after a few days. It shot to fame as an Instagram destination in the tough Tasmanian winter of 2020. I’d never heard of it; people who aren’t dedicated bushwalkers or Insta followers still haven’t. “That’s at Mount Field?” a Victorian recently asked. She has a thing for Tasmania’s mountain country, as “the only place I have every felt truly at peace, a weird and strange peace”. That resonates in these jangled times. So I dusted off my hiking boots to seek the tarn for myself.

Another dump of freezing rain had pounded Hobart through Friday. Tuesday dawned with the clearest skies and warmest November sun. The next day’s forecast was patchy, so I Googled directions and drove up to The Springs. I started my ascent – alone – with everything I thought I needed to loop up and back on a shortish day walk. Hat, sunscreen, swimmers, warm layers, waterproof jacket, scarf, water, sandwiches, mandarins, sjokolade, torch and a printed map in case my phone died. I’d also checked in with a friend about my plans, remembering a news story about a local couple who got lost on the mountain after dark while seeking the tarn in September – they were saved from hypothermia by police search and rescue.

In their case, the tarn wasn’t even there. It hadn’t rained enough.

I didn’t know if it would be there for me until I started meeting walkers coming down the mountain who’d set off at daybreak. First came a bouncy couple in their 30s, wearing baseball caps and gelled sports shoes, who’d run up the mountain as well as down. It was great to hear the tarn lay ahead. Less wonderful to hear I’d reached barely halfway. After a challenging upward slog through sticky, slippery mud, then rock-hopping across a tricky obstacle course of lichen-decorated dolerite, I’d hoped I was nearly there. Onwards and upwards, upwards and upwards.

The next human signpost – there are no written pointers on this trail – was a group of women older than me who looked as though they might die of exhaustion. The face of one crumpled when I asked her what came next. She gave careful instructions about locating the tarn when I got closer, “so you don’t overshoot like we did’’. Right-hand side of track; check. Near a pole with an orange marker, and a large, green-limbed eucalyptus coccifera, a magnificent Tasmanian snow gum whose leaves smell of peppermint; check.

That trail kept rising before me, with those endless stones. I kept following it, jumping across rocks like the mountain goat I’ll never be. With each landing, every toe smashed into the front of my boots. I wished I’d packed thicker socks. Onwards and upwards. Surely it was close now?

I spotted a pole with an orange marker. Then another, and another, and another. I reached the crest of another stony rise, and the poles kept stretching ahead. Those scented snow gums were all around me now, all magnificent, framing tantalising glimpses of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and Bruny Island far below, in endless shades of soft sea blue. I pushed on. The midday sun bit down as hard as the rocks underfoot. There was no human sound, only wild birdsong. Reaching an eerily familiar boulder field of stones like giant potatoes, I realised I’d overshot too.

Then I fell. Badly bruised but, luckily, nothing was broken. Picking my way gingerly back down the trail, suddenly, by some miracle I found the tarn.

It was like tripping into paradise. The water was more clear and cold than any I’ve plunged in across the planet. The air shimmered and a breeze floated across the eucalypts, rippling the skin of the tarn. Giant sparkles moved underwater like fish or spirits, swirling living jewels I couldn’t hold in my hands or catch with my camera. Despite concern I’d find crowds crushing the tarn, just three of us shared that long moment – my companions were two chatty millennials, who’d last been there in the snow.

Did I feel at peace? Not so much – I now had to get back down the mountain. Downhill is strangely harder than uphill. Why hadn’t I packed walking poles like the team of champion hikers who’d passed me at the start of the track? The bruises and blisters kicked in slowly but surely, and every waist-down muscle screamed in protest.

I fell again on the rocks, much harder this time. Flat on my back staring up at those gumtrees and that bright empty sky, and listening to that birdsong, I wondered if I might meet my maker. Everything hurt. But a big cry always does wonders. And by another miracle I still wasn’t broken. Somehow I clambered back down over all those stones, and through all that mud, into which I tipped over just a couple more times.

My face didn’t crumple, not once, when newly ascending climbers asked me expectantly about finding the tarn. One was a university student from China, also walking alone, curious about the place where she’d been caught by Covid-19 border closures. Another was a Hobart teenager playing hooky from school – sullen and shy on the way up, there was no stopping him sharing the wonder of the tarn when he lapped me on the way down. And there was a couple from India doing their faster-tracked visa time in Hobart, who kindly pulled me out of the mud. They wanted my honest take on the trek – “well, mine was pure heaven, and it also was hell!” They asked me to describe this heaven. Then they each smiled, and walked together with fresher purpose up the mountain.

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