Currently Reading: Cassandra Pybus – Truganini | Richard Flanagan – Death of a River Guide | Favel Parrett: When the Night Comes
This article first appeared as a travel blog entry on the Allgoods Website on 17 November 2020www.allgoods.com.au
Are you looking for an adventure to shake off those lockdown blues? Would you like to witness the world’s waking from atop vertigo-inducing sea cliffs and experience unfenced-nature firsthand from the safety of a thoughtfully conceived, carefully curated and architecturally unique trail?
If you’re looking for an overnight hike to cut your teeth on, or you’re only ever going to do one multi-day walk and you want maximum bang for your buck, this one ticks all the boxes. From penal colonies to high tech boats and from wildflowers to wildlife – wombats, wallabies and frolicking whales are amongst the creatures you might encounter on your Three Capes journey.
In late October, I set out with my brother, his girlfriend and our cousin, to hike the Three Capes Track on the Tasman Peninsula.
I have done some fantastic long distance hikes in Australia, Europe and the United States over the past 20 years, and one thing that I have noticed on each of these journeys is the sense of camaraderie that forms between you and your fellow hikers over the course of your shared experience. On both the Camino de Santiago in Spain and the Appalachian Trail in the United States (known in hiker circles as the AT), I found myself in what’s called a ‘hiker bubble’ from quite early in the trek, as each night you find yourself in the same shelters and campgrounds as other hikers with whom you are keeping pace. Stories and jokes are shared around the fire (or table) each evening as faces become familiar over the course of your walk. There is something about engaging in physical endurance activities with other people that enables these bonds to be forged in a quicker than average timeframe.
The Three Capes was no different. The fact that all hikers who commence the Three Capes Track with you are staying at the same shelters each night, makes for the rapid bonding that comes from the shared experience of having traversed the same section of trail each day. Hence, though shorter than the month-long Camino, or six-month-long Appalachian Trail, or even the week-long Overland Track or two-week Southwest Track (both hikes that you can do here in Tasmania), the sense of a trail family (or ‘tramily’, as it was fondly referred to by AT thru-hikers) starts to form from the first night, and is firmly established by the third and final night on the trail.
I discussed this with my three hiking companions upon completion of the hike, and as individuals from diverse backgrounds (ex-military, former teacher, police officer and academic), we each attested to the fact that this is a common trait in our respective lines of work as well. Whether it be the endurance exercises that a military or police officer is put through as part of their training, or the experience of teaching a particularly tough group of kids at school or university level, close bonds form in the face of adversity, in the face of physical and mental endurance, and in any shared experience that presents a challenge to be overcome.
The huts ordinarily sleep 48, with a reduced capacity of 36 at present due to Covid restrictions. Ours was a small group of 19, and we were all referring to each other by name by the end of the hike, knew a little of each others’ lives beyond the trail, and had shared knowledge, painful and awkward experiences, food, laughter, games, and some fascinating conversations. This, of course, was aided by the spectacular weather that arrived in the latter part of day two and stayed with us through the final two days of the hike, allowing us all to sprawl on the deck at both Munro Cabin – with its stunning views out to Cape Hauy, the Hippolyte Islands and beyond – and Retakunna Cabin, nestled among the tranquil smells and sounds of eucalypt scrub and button grass plains (and the daunting form of Mt Fortescue that we knew we had to climb the next day).
Our group size was unusual for this time of year as the huts are ordinarily full to capacity and solidly booked out from October to May. As with our party, the numbers in each group have been consistently low throughout the early stages of reopening since the lockdown resulting from the pandemic, but due to the grandeur of the trail’s scenery, the hike is gaining increasing interest amongst Tasmanian hikers taking advantage of the incentivised ‘make yourself at home’ tourism promotion, and providing the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service a much needed income stream.
While we slept comfortably in our beds, the ground received a gentle overnight soaking, and we woke on Day Two to rain on the deck and a rainbow over Cape Raoul. Although there was some wet weather still to come, we set out for our second day of hiking (11km) during a break between showers, with regularly recurring patches of blue beckoning us on. The second day saw us wandering through button grass heath shrouded in mist – a rugged, quintessentially Australian version of Brontë-esque moors.
Whilst on the subject of books, I never go anywhere without: a) a book, and b) my journal. In the interests of keeping my pack under 15kg however, on this occasion I carried a Moleskine mini and a slim fifty-page Penguin Modern pocket edition (three short stories by Steinbeck). As it turns out, so immersed was I in enjoying the lived experience of the trek that I did not pick up my pen at all for the four days of our adventure, and thus, for the first time in my long-distance hiking career, I did not journal while the hike itself was taking place. This is testament to the ever-increasing role our smartphones are playing in keeping a running record of our daily lives. I was sad, in hindsight, not to have made the effort to journal, as it has long been a staple of my hiking routine, so I will continue to take my journal with me on future hikes.
The Steinbeck was equally superfluous (though I did read it so as to warrant its place in my pack), as each of the huts’ common areas includes a well-stocked library. The library is designed in such a way that the hiker who begins reading a book while staying in the first hut can locate an identical copy of the book when they arrive at hut two and again at hut three.
Unfortunately several editions from the third hut’s collection have magically disappeared into hikers’ packs over the years. As a book lover, I understand that the pain of separation from a book that you are thoroughly into is very real, but the rangers do urge you to consider other hikers when making this decision. I have often found that books I’ve started and had to abandon in hiking huts, hostels and B&Bs around the world turn up later in second-hand bookstores and on friends’ shelves when you least expect it. It always feels serendipitous when you come across a book that you have unfinished business with in this way. So my recommendation, if you get to the end of your stay in the National Park but have not yet come to the end of your journey with your chosen book, is to return the book to its place on the shelf and allow room for that happenstance to take place somewhere else down the line. Who knows what fortuitous connections that book might yet have in store for you?!
When I am travelling, I try to read books that are set in the place I am visiting, that feature characters who occupy that space, or that are written by authors who hail from the local area. There is something about the way ideas become infused with some essence of the environment in which they arise. I have been reading a lot of Tasmanian literature this year, and though I didn’t take a book about the Tasman Peninsula on my hike (for the aforementioned reason of weight restrictions), I did read a fantastic book ahead of my hike that takes the peninsula as its setting, and that is written by an emerging Tasmanian author, someone whose next work will be something to watch out for. This book is Erin Hortle’s The Octopus and I. It is set in and around the Eaglehawk Neck area, and features wonderfully drawn characters and is a beautiful evocation of place. It deals with many contemporary issues that factor into Tasmanian coastal life, is culturally sensitive to indigenous practices, past, present and emerging, and touches on broader global questions around climate change, sustainability and rates of species extinction.
On that note, one species that was pushed almost to extinction by the whaling industry but which has made a remarkable recovery since the implementation of a worldwide moratorium on hunting them in the 1980s is the Humpback whale. And they were migrating south past the Tasman Peninsula as we hiked. We started hearing whispers about the possibility of a whale sighting from the moment we stepped on board the Pennicott speedboat for our journey across the bay.
After departing the button grass plains and climbing through eucalypt forest to the summits of Arthurs Peak and Crescent Mountain (neither ascent too arduous and both boasting spectacular views out to Mount Brown, Crescent Bay and Cape Raoul), we arrived, in the early afternoon at Munro Hut, where the whale whisper had become an excited murmur as we crossed paths with the previous day’s group of hikers, returning from their long trek out to Cape Pillar. When we first arrived at the hut, the sky was overcast and the deck was still a little wet from that morning’s rain, but by mid-afternoon we were lounging in deckchairs under a clear blue sky, warmed by the late rays of sun, which, as luck would have it, would follow us for the remaining two days of our hike.
As a demonstration of just how quickly you get to know who is in your group, we all noticed and commented on the unfamiliar faces that appeared at Munro as we trickled in from the north-west and they trickled in from the south-east. ‘Hang on, were they in our group? I don’t think I’ve seen them before…’ All was explained at our 6pm briefing, where each night the hut ranger provides a weather report for the following day and describes the expected itinerary of the next day’s hike. Because Cape Pillar is beyond Munro hut, hikers get to leave their packs behind on day three for the 16km return hike to the tip of the peninsula, then pick them up for the final hour of hiking to the third and final hut. These fresh faces we were seeing had just returned from that 16km outing and were aglow with the excitement of having seen migrating whales. And not just humpbacks – Southern Right Whales as well.
I had a great chat with one member of this group while standing on the Munro Hut helipad, looking out towards Cape Hauy, the Hippolyte Islands and Munro Bight. In a microcosmic demonstration of the speed at which trail etiquette breaks down normal social barriers, we skipped the small talk and proceeded directly to a candid discussion of present fears, future hopes, and the vital necessity of dreaming big and enacting positive change in our lives. Then I returned to the deck to put my feet up and she was off to her next destination. So brief was our encounter that we didn’t even exchange names. Like ships in the night. Or whales in the Bight…
Day Three dawned clear and bright and we were all incredibly eager to set out on our quest for the Blade and Cape Pillar, with unhindered views across Tasman Passage to Tasman Island, site of Australia’s highest operating lighthouse (first lit in 1906, but de-manned due to the introduction of electric light in 1977). Another example of fantastic Tasmanian literature, John Cook’s memoir The Last Lighthouse Keeper provides a direct account of life on Tasman Island during this period.
Leaving our packs behind, we virtually skipped the 8kms to the Cape, which includes a 2.5km serpentine length of unbroken boardwalk through Cape Pillar Sheoak (Allocasuarina Crassa), a variety of sheoak endemic to the Tasman Peninsula. Stopping for a short break at one of the many ‘Story Starter’ seats that are placed at regular intervals along the trail, I overheard a conversation about the origin of the sheoak name.
One hiker proclaimed that they must have been so named because of their stature and size, referring to them as ‘girly oaks’, to which another hiker politely demurred, claiming rather that the nomenclature arose from the sound they made as their needles swished against each other in the breeze. (The name actually derives from the similarity of the wood’s texture with that of oak, but that’s not nearly as poetic.) I’ll leave you to guess as to which theory I found more appealing…
Soon after you leave the boardwalk, the sea cliffs begin to come into view. With a 300 metre drop to the ocean below, Cape Pillar boasts the highest dolerite sea cliffs in the southern hemisphere. They do not disappoint. The track is unfenced, meaning there is nothing between you and the void except your good sense. Even though this is the longest day of the hike, with views like these (and the handy fact of not having to carry any weight), you honestly do not even notice the distance you have to cover.
These capes look amazing in photos. And I am yet to meet a person who fails to be stopped in their tracks by the awe that they inspire. But nothing beats the experience of witnessing them first hand. Plus, if you are there at the right time of year, there is a very good chance, on a clear day, that you will get to see migrating whales. We did. A group of us converged atop the Blade and played a half-hour game of ‘spot the whale’ while we ate our snacks and admired the view. Admittedly we were blessed with a surreally serene day – which can never be guaranteed in this weather-beaten part of the world. Regardless of the weather, though, this place is unique in the world in terms of its grandeur and its beauty, and is so worth making the effort to visit.
Day Four, departing from Retakunna, was another stunner of a day. And what a day the trail had in store for us! In addition to the spectacular Cape Hauy that caps your Three Capes journey, this 14km final day includes the lovely rainforested ascent of Mt Fortescue. The initial climb straight out of the gates looks much more challenging than it is. You’re relatively trail fit by this, your fourth straight day of walking these mountain paths, and the steps have been so carefully constructed that you reach the top and are rewarded with an epic view back to Cape Pillar before you even start feel the burn.
Many people skip Day Four’s side-track out to Cape Hauy due to a combination of tired feet, a desire to catch the earlier bus back to Port Arthur (where their car is waiting to take them either home or to some nearby accommodation offering a long hot shower), and the fact that they did the long hike out to Cape Pillar the previous day. (And if you’ve seen one cape you’ve seen them all, right?) Wrong!
The walk out to Cape Hauy is equally mesmerising and so worth the 4500 steps that you still have ahead of you if you choose to make the journey from the track junction out to the Cape and back then down to Fortescue Bay. You’ve come this far – what’s a couple more kms between friends? As a reward, you can soak in the refreshing waters of Fortescue Bay upon completion of your hike, then enjoy a relaxing bus ride back to Port Arthur. The walk will challenge you. But the payoff is so worth the effort.
I think part of the charm of the Three Capes Track is the fact that it cannot be travelled by vehicle. It must be travelled on foot. Even if you have no experience of overnight hiking, you’ll find this walk well within your capabilities. The energy expended is more than matched by what you get back. But as with all things, the difference between having a great hiking experience or an unbelievable experience and being comfortable while you do it is having the right gear.
Good quality socks and shoes are a must. I carried one set of merino clothing for hiking and a second set for camp (the beauty of wearing a base, mid and outer layer of merino is it’s super lightweight but also incredibly insulating, which makes it great in both hot and cold weather). I also carried camp sandals as it’s so important to let your feet breathe at the end of each day’s walking. Other essential items include a raincoat, sunglasses and hat, warm sleeping bag (but you can add a sleeping bag liner if your bag rating is for summer months only), a headlamp, small first aid kit and eating accoutrements. Non-essential but useful were my expandable ultra-light day-pack, small fuel stove, hipflask of whiskey, lightweight book and journal, pack cover and micro-fibre travel towel. Any items not already in your hiking kit can be purchased from the friendly staff at Allgoods.
Books Completed [This list is so long because I was remiss in maintaining regular posts in 2020 – one of my NY resolutions is to get back into a regular posting habit and I thought this trek was a good place to start]: Bob Brown – Green Nomads | Jock Serong – On the Java Ridge | Melissa Lucashenko – Too Much Lip | Jane Harper – The Dry | Bruce Pascoe – Dark Emu | Favel Parrett – Past the Shallows | Jenny Slate – Little Weirds | Erin Hortle – The Octopus and I | David Mitchell – Utopia Avenue | Trent Dalton – Boy Swallows Universe | Jono Lineen – Pure Motion: How Walking Makes Us Wiser | Robert McFarlane – Underland | Sarah Wilson – this one wild and precious life | Imbi Neeme – The Spill | Torbjørn Ekelund – In Praise of Walking | Trent Dalton – All Our Shimmering Skies