A random conversation over glasses of red wine (as always) about walking in Tasmania’s wilderness back in August 2015 ended with us in a tiny bucking plane to the middle of nowhere and our faithful bikes – and us – on a car ferry across the equally wild Bass Strait from Melbourne to Tassie. Our plan was simple: ride from Sydney to Melbourne, take the ferry to Tasmania, ride to Hobart and then fly to Melaleuca, an isolated airstrip in the south-west of Tasmania. From there we would hike the rugged 85km South Coast Track through some of Tasmania’s most beautiful wilderness areas back to civilisation. It sounded simple enough, but would prove to be far more challenging than we expected, pushing body and mind to the limits.
We left Sydney on the morning after Christmas bikes loaded down with riding clothes, spares, fuel, camping and walking gear and enough food for 8 days in the wilderness, much of which we had dehydrated ourselves. Three hours out of Sydney we hit gale-force winds and could smell the distant storm brewing. The rain started as we were approaching the small township of Braidwood and combined with the strong winds and winding country roads, made for some interesting riding. We stopped in Batemans Bay for a night to see my Dad and stepmum (and to dry out) and then hit the road early the next morning bound for Melbourne. We decided to cross the Clyde Mountain and ride down the Hume Highway, a boring but direct road to Victoria. I hadn’t realised just how long the ride would be and at one point stopped to powernap under the shade of a large eucalyptus tree. After 12 hours of riding we arrived in Melbourne and after a few wrong turns found our way to the ferry.
About 20 patched-up bikies from the ‘Immortals’ rode on with us with all the accompanying revving and roaring of tricked up Harleys. Typical!
A beautiful sunrise greeted us in Devonport and we were keen to get back on the bikes and head for Hobart.
The Immortals tore off the boat only to stop at a cafe about 500m from the harbour! We opted for the more scenic Lakes Way which took us through the Central Highlands, providing stunning scenery and crisp fresh air. So fresh in fact that my fingers were numb from the cold by the time we reached Hobart (despite the winter gloves).
Arriving in Hobart, we settled into a small pub-room in Battery Point and prepared our gear for our 6 day wilderness walk. Luckily the Taste of Tasmania festival had just started and we made short work of local oysters and wine.
The next morning we watched the second and third placed yachts in the famous Sydney-Hobart race cross the finish line on the Derwent River – such an accomplishment for boats and exhausted but elated crews.
The flight to Melaleuca on the nine-seater DE Havilland Beechcraft was stunning. The pilot assured us it was still a great aircraft and perfect for the job despite its clear vintage – that was partially reassuring … The plane lurched around a bit and hearing other planes reporting wind shear was a tad unnerving. Plus the occasional rain squall beating on the windscreen. We skirted the southern coastline and had amazing views of the world heritage listed wilderness we were to walk through. Flying over swamps, mountains, deep ravines and dense bush cut buy rivers made us realise just what a bloody long way it was! Were we completely mad?
We landed incident free on a small gleaming white crushed-quartz gravel airstrip in Melaleuca and after picking up our gas supplies and completing the hikers log book we were on our way! Richard shouldered his crazy-heavy pack (too much food and wine!) with a groan and the first of many grunts I would hear over the next six days.
Day 1 of our walk was pretty easy (we said afterwards that we were lulled into a false sense of security), with boardwalks and well-maintained tracks making the 5 hour walk to Point Eric seem like a walk in the park.
We set up camp on top of a small headland overlooking the beach and cooked up our first camp meal which we enjoyed with a well-earned glass of red wine.
Being so far south, it doesn’t get dark until around 9.30pm but we were too tired to wait for the sun to set and so crawled into our sleeping bags before the sun had even gone down.
This was to become a nightly ritual. We completely missed seeing the star filled skies of southern Tasmania!
After a great night’s sleep and a wonderful breakfast of steaming hot porridge, we packed up our campsite and headed off on the next stage of the walk – a 17km trek which would have us crossing rivers, wading through mud and clambering up and down hills. It was pretty hot by Tasmanian standards and carrying our (too heavy) packs was hard work. Red Point Hills proved particularly challenging – it was steep, stepped and we were sweating profusely. But the views from the top were well worth the climb. It was there we saw the first of many snakes we’d encounter on the track.
We descended into open fields and from there wound our way through a stunning forest canopy approaching Louisa Creek. We crossed several creeks which weren’t too high so it was very safe and relatively easy. After walking for about 8 hours we felt that we were getting close to the campsite. We were so wrong. More ups and downs awaited us and what seemed like a never-ending boardwalk lead us finally to the campsite at Louisa River.
Richard and I coined the phrase “The Tassie Kicker” on this walk – there was no anticipating what lay ahead or when each day would finish.
Day 2 was a hard, hot 10-hour day but once again the scenery and sheer beauty of the place made every unrelenting step worthwhile.
The campsite at Louisa River was spectacular and we enjoyed the late afternoon sunshine and even braved a swim in the icy waters to soothe our tired muscles. We cooked up a storm….pumpkin soup, followed by gnocchi with pan seared haloumi, pesto, cherry tomatoes and a glass of Rose (of course!).
The view of the dreaded Ironbound Range from the campsite reminded us that Day 3 would include a 900m climb and so we were off to bed early once again, the sounds of the Australian bush and the gently flowing river lulling us into an exhausted sleep.
We had planned an early start so packed up our camp site by 6.30am and were on our way shortly before 7.00am. We were amazed that other campers had already left (we heard later that they got away at 5.30am to beat the heat) as this was the most difficult day of the walk. It began simple enough, starting in the forest by the river, then leading onto the open plains at the foot of the ranges. The Ironbound Range is an intimidating sight as you head up the steep steps – most of the 905 metre climb happens in just 5 kms. It is as unrelenting as it is beautiful. I love climbing up hill and even with my 18kg pack I found the going pretty easy. Richard didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as me and with 27kg on his back he spent a lot of time puffing and cursing! And in typical Tasmania style, just when you think you’re at the top another hill appears. And then another. And another. Ah, the good old ‘Kicker’…. The mountain, it seems, always has the last say. But finally we reached the top – it was incredibly windy and exposed, but we enjoyed kicking back for a while and enjoying the stunning views while rehydrating and snacking on our dehydrated apples and bananas for energy .
And then the long and difficult 7km descent to Little Deadman’s Bay began (we were to feel like dead men when we arrived!). The track is very rough, steep, wet and muddy in parts though Richard took it in his stride where my not-so-long legs were a definite disadvantage. We clambered over trees and tree roots, slid down rocks and at times got down on our hands and knees to crawl under fallen trees or through particularly difficult areas. There is no clearly defined track to follow and every step is carefully considered. Breaking a leg or twisting a knee was a constant hazard and getting air lifted out of here would not be a straight forward task. It was the most mentally and physically exhausting downhill trek I have ever done.
The range ended after what felt like and eternity and our map told us was about 3.5 kms from the Little Deadman’s Bay campsite. I breathed a sigh of relief, but some days 3.5 kms can feel like 35! The ‘Kicker’ hit us yet again. The final walk into camp seemed to take forever and we were both completely exhausted by the time we got to Little Deadman’s Bay to set up our camp site and celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Richard cooked up a storm of course and we enjoyed a beautiful dinner on the rocky beach of Little Deadman’s Bay drinking a bottle of Tasmanian Pinot Noir watching the colour of the sky change from blues to pinks as the sun slowly began to sink. New Year’s Eve happened at around 9.00pm for us – after a tough 10 hour hike there was no way we would be awake at midnight!
Despite two long and hard days of walking, we decided to combine what the maps recommended as Day 4 and Day 5 into one long day. Suckers for punishment I guess. What a way to start the New Year!
We set off along the rocky beach and then climbed onto the headland and into a buttongrass plain which we renamed muddy plain (and it hadn’t even rained!). I lost my footing at one point and ended up lying on my side in the mud with the pack weighing me down unable to get up unassisted. Very ‘cockroach-like’ Richard informed me. We crossed a couple of small creeks before reaching a long stretch of beach that would lead us to New River Lagoon. Here we negotiated a boat crossing in pretty strong winds and once across the lagoon we set out again for Granite Beach, a further 11 km to the east.
We followed the track along the top of the dune catching glimpses of the long beach and lagoon below us. The track ended quite suddenly and we were greeted by a rope dangling precariously over a very large and steep sand dune. Apparently that was the way down! We threw our packs off the edge and clinging to the rope lowered ourselves onto the dune.
From there we dragged our packs behind us as we skipped and ran down the steep dune. What fun! At the bottom of the dune I realised I had left my walking pole on the bush track at the top of the dune….so I clambered back up on all fours, climbed up a tree branch to get back onto the bush track above the dune. And then the fun began as I swung down on the rope and ran all the way down the slippery, sun-warmed sand dune. Woohoo! We crossed Milford Creek and then walked, shoes in hand, along a slim stretch of sand on the edge of the lagoon at times walking in the lagoon where fallen trees blocked our way on the beach.
After about 5km of ups and downs (which seem normal now) we came to Surprise Bay which was totally stunning. We sat in the sunshine and were tempted to spend the night in this gorgeous little oasis. But we knew there were a couple of climbs ahead and we wanted to get at least one of them behind us today. From Surprise Bay we reluctantly climbed up the steep bushy slope (almost on all fours at times) to the crest of a high spur over Shoemaker Point. From there we descended steadily onto the western end of Granite Beach. We were relieved knowing the campsite was just at the other end of the beach. And there we met the ‘Tassie Kicker’ yet again…
The sandy beach became rocky and made walking with a pack difficult. We were conscious of the large waves splashing up over the rocks and stayed as high as we could. We negotiated the rocks and came to a beautiful waterfall. By this stage of the walk we were hardly surprised to see marker buoys indicating a campsite high up on the cliff. Slowly and carefully we clambered up the cliff face, crossed a small creek, climbed a bit more and eventually reached a spectacular campsite offering views of the beach and rocks below. A number of walkers were already settled in and we found a lovely spot next to a gorgeous young couple from Melbourne. We spent a couple of hours cooking, talking and laughing with them before another exhausted sleep enveloped us.
We awoke to the sound of scraping and movement outside our tent. As we quietly unzipped the tent we gazed into the gentle eyes of a Spotted Quoll, a carnivorous marsupial which was once widespread throughout Eastern Australia. With urbanisation and increased habitat destruction quoll populations have declined sharply and it is rare to see them in the wild. Sadly the spotted quoll has joined the long list of Australia’s threatened species and we considered ourselves incredibly lucky to have seen one ‘up close and personal’.
Although we only had a 10km walk ahead of us on Day 5 we had been warned that it would be pretty tough and very muddy and would take about 5 – 7 hours to complete. We were used to long hard days and started our walk with the enthusiasm of now seasoned walkers and campers. The warnings rang true early in the walk with steep muddy climbs and challenging tree-root covered descents. There was so much mud!
At one point I followed a side track to avoid the knee deep mud but ended up deep in the forest instead with no defined track to follow. I could hear Richard (who had decided to wade through the mud) calling out but my calls back were muted by the thick vegetation. Richard’s calls became more urgent as the minutes ticked by and he was unsure where I had disappeared to. The sense of urgency I could hear in his voice made me nervous and I had to stay very focused to find my way out of the thick tangled vegetation and back onto the main track. A good lesson learned – don’t stray off the main track no matter how muddy it gets and carry a whistle. You can very quickly become disoriented in the Tassie wilderness!
We continued on for hours over hills, along boardwalks, through forests and finally onto coastal cliffs that eventually lead us down to the South Cape Rivulet. We crossed the Rivulet (quite shallow and slow flowing although we hear it can be very treacherous) and set up our final camp on the beach sheltering from the strong southerly wind which had picked up through the day.
There was nothing between us and Antarctica and the fresh winds were testament to that. We cooked a delicious meal, blocked the wind from entering the tent as best we could and were in bed well before sunset once again, ready for our final walk out to Cockle Creek the next day.
We enjoyed a relatively slow and lazy start to the day and hit the track at 9am knowing we only had a 4 hour walk ahead of us.We climbed steadily away from the beach and enjoyed beautiful views of the beach and rocky escarpment.
We decided to veer off the main track and take the alternative low track along the rocky shoreline along the base of Coal Bluff. We scrambled over rocks and pinnacles, picking our way carefully along the edge of the Southern Ocean. The views were breathtaking and we enjoyed being out of the bush and mud for a change. We approached Lion Rock and hurled our packs over a particularly steep rocky outcrop before clambering down onto the last stretch of beach for some easy walking before joining the higher track again just past Lion Rock. We walked parallel to the cliff top enjoying the views and stopping to take a photo at Australia’s most southern point.
We were approaching the end of our 85km trek through some of the most challenging and beautiful forests and coastal areas in Australia. As we walked the last few kilometres, we met many day walkers who smiled encouragingly as they saw our tired, wind-blown yet happy faces and eyed the heavy packs on our backs. We were struck by how clean they were! Many of them carried only water bottles for a quick walk to the Southern Cape and back.
We reached Cockle Creek around 1.30pm on Sunday 3rd January and were ecstatic to find two comfortable camp chairs set up outside the Ranger’s hut. We immediately sunk into them, taking off our wet boots and socks one last time and letting our sore and tired bodies enjoy the unexpected comfort as we waited for our prearranged ride to arrive.
Richard noticed a handwritten sign on the screen door of the Ranger’s hut and was surprised to see my name on it. Imagine our dismay when we read “Sonja Duncan: Bus will be back 1pm Monday 4th January.” No way!
With a weak signal and 4% charge left on my phone we called the guys at Tas Wilderness Experience, expressed our dismay and arranged for a driver to leave Hobart immediately and pick us up as arranged. We made the most of the 3 hour wait by walking (yes walking!) to the end of the beach and plunging into the beautiful waters of Cockle Bay and enjoying the warm afternoon sunshine as we reflected on one of the most amazing and challenging walks we had ever experienced.
Now just a 1300km ride home – piece of cake …