The most prominent mountain peak in the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, Frenchmans Cap (1446 m) is a magnificent white quartzite dome.
The well marked track leading to the summit is considerably more arduous than many other Tasmanian walks, including the Overland Track. The walk to the peak typically takes two days. The first day of about 16 km will bring walkers to Lake Vera Hut. This part of the walk includes two steep and prolonged ascents separated by the boggy Loddon Plains. The so-called “Sodden Loddons” are almost always muddy and crossing them may take two hours or more. In wet weather the mud can be waist high. In summer it is only knee high. Water is plentiful (and drinkable) in all seasons. Walk time from Lyell Highway to Lake Vera is between six and eight hours.
The second day’s walk is shorter at 9 km, but steeper. After walking along the shores of Lake Vera the next two hours are spent struggling up the steep inclines to Barron Pass. Once on top the walker is presented with a dramatic view of the majestic Frenchmans Cap. From Barron Pass it is approximately another two hours to Tahune Hut, depending on fitness and pack weight. Water is again available along the way. Walk time from Lake Vera to Lake Tahune is about four hours.
There are two lakes on the way to the summit – Lake Vera, and Lake Tahune – there are huts at both of these locations. Lake Vera Hut was built in 1979 and sleeps 20 people in two two-tier bunk configurations. It is heated by a coal stove. Lake Tahune Hut was built in 1971 and sleeps 16 people snugly, also in two two-tier bunks. It is heated by a methylated spirits stove.
At Tahune, the steep walker’s track to the top of the Cap takes under an hour. If the weather is clear the view includes the West Coast beaches, Lake Burbury and the many peaks – such as Tasmania’s tallest, Mount Ossa – in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park.
The 50 km-plus walk to Frenchmans Cap is typically completed as a return trip on the same track. There is an option to make it a round trip by walking on from Lake Tahune to the Franklin River at Irenabyss, crossing the river and exiting at Victoria Pass, which is also on the Lyell Highway. The walk from Irenabyss to Victoria Pass traverses rugged country and is recommended only for highly experienced parties. Many parties visit Irenabyss as a long day walk. Lake Tahune to Irenabyss takes about 4 hours. Irenabyss to Victoria Pass takes about 12 hours.
For climbers, Frenchmans Cap offers a variety of routes on generally sound, quarzite rock. In keeping with the name of the mountain some of these climbs also have French names including A Toi La Gloire (better known as The Sydney Route) a 380 m, 13-pitch, Australian grade 17 climb on the south-east face and Tierry Le Fronde a 150 m, six-pitch, Australian grade 16 climb on the Tahune Face. Both of these climbs are traditional or gear climbs.
The weather in Tasmania’s high country can change rapidly and Frenchmans Cap is exposed to harsh weather conditions at any time of the year. Access to the summit should not be attempted in adverse weather.
Even though the peak was an early landmark for ships sailing the west coast, the first recorded use of Frenchmans Cap was in 1822 in connection with Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, from where the peak was visible. The origin of the name is a mystery but is attributed to its appearance from some angles as looking like a Frenchman’s cap, notably the Liberty cap worn during the French Revolution (1789–1799).
The distinctive shape of the mountain was used as a guiding beacon by many, largely unsuccessful, parties of escaping convicts as they attempted to struggle through the dense scrub of Western Tasmania to the settled districts further east. It was mentioned as a geographical reference in the account later dictated by convict Alexander Pearce to authorities, following his capture.