Tasmania's greatest mountain quest
Cradle Mountain has a distinctive bowed shape that makes it one of the most recognisable peaks in Australia. (Peter Walton Photography/Getty)
For a time in the early 20th Century, the Australian island state of Tasmania was marketed as the “Switzerland of the South”, with its multitude of mountains drawing comparisons to the Alpine nation.
But look around Tasmania's high country with a less quixotic eye and there is a more ready likeness to Scotland, with the buttongrass plains resembling moorlands, and the craggy mountain tips looking moulded from the Highlands.
It is a comparison that has found a practical equal in Tasmania's Abels, an aspirational list of mountains more than 1,100m high that is modelled directly on Scotland's famed Munros.
The Munros, a collection of 282 Scottish peaks above 914m (3,000ft) in height, are a hiking phenomenon. To a legion of “Munro baggers” they present the ultimate hiking challenge – to climb, or “bag”, as many, or all, of the Munros, whether across a lifetime, a single summer or, as in the case of Englishman Stephen Pyke in 2010, in less than 40 days.
In comparison, Tasmania's Abels – named for Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer who, in 1642, was the first European to sight Tasmania – are almost unknown, yet they offer walkers a carbon-copy challenge across an island marginally larger than Scotland.
Rules of play
The list of Abels was conceived in 1994 by a group of local Tasmanian bushwalkers in a book titled The Abels: A Comprehensive Guide to Tasmania's Mountains over 1100m High: Volume One, edited by Bill Wilkinson. Volume two followed 17 years later.
The rules for inclusion on the list were definite. Mountains need to be higher than 1,100m above sea level and be separated from other mountains by a drop of at least 150m on all sides. By this set of topographic regulations, 160 peaks across the island qualified as Abels.
Though there are fewer Abels than Munros, the task of completing them is a more complex task. There are simple summits on the list – from the Tasmanian capital, Hobart, it is only a 20km drive to the top of 1,270m-high Mount Wellington, which overlooks the city – but there are other mountains so remote they require days of hiking to reach.
Climbing the six Abels in the brutal Western Arthurs Range, located inside the World Heritage-listed Tasmanian Wilderness Area that covers 20% of the island, necessitates a walk through such difficult mountain terrain that it can take walkers up to two weeks to hike what is often described as the most difficult bushwalk in Australia.
The toughest mountain on the list, the fang-like 1,224m-high Federation Peak in Southwest National Park, requires the blind courage (but not the equipment) of a mountaineer, with the summit reached on an exposed near-vertical rock climb. Along the south coast, 1,120m-high Precipitous Bluff is one of the lowest peaks on the list, but conditions are so notoriously bleak year round that the mountain consistently foils hopeful summiteers.
The Famous and the forgotten
To work through the Abels list, however, is also to visit some of the most famous and recognisable places in the state. The tower-topped Mount Wellington massif is Hobart's defining feature, rising like a defensive wall behind the city, and four Abels – 1,2781m Mount Wellington, 1,130m Mount Marian, 1,160m Trestle Mountain and 1,260m Collins Bonnet – rise from Wellington’s plateau.
At 1,545m above sea level, Cradle Mountain in the state’s northwest is Tasmania’s fifth-highest peak, with a distinctive bowed shape that makes it perhaps the most instantly recognisable mountain in the whole of Australia. It can be climbed in a day from the shores of Dove Lake, requiring some gymnastic scrambling over large boulders as the trail nears the summit. It is also at Dove Lake that the Overland Track, Australia's most famous long-distance walking trail, begins. For Abel baggers, this 65km trail is a guiding line to a host of peaks.
The Overland Track is stitched with side trails that lead to the summits of six Abels: Cradle Mountain, 1,559m Barn Bluff, 1,386m Mount Oakleigh, 1,461m Mount Pelion East, Mount Ossa (Tasmania's highest peak at 1,617m) and the 1,480m Acropolis. For the more determined, it is also possible to branch away to more than a dozen other Abels, some easy (Mount Campbell, Mount Emmett) and others, such as Mount Pelion West and Mount Geryon, that are among the most challenging mountain climbs in the state.