2005 March. Tasmania Walking the South West Cape.

It wasn’t my intention to write about this walk. I thought I’d struggle to physically get through the walk, stay dry and keep a clear head. Let alone have time to scribble the random thoughts that seem to bombard my empty head. If things go wrong out here it’s a long way from help. It’s almost as remote as you can get in this modern world. A real chance to “tune out” on civilisation. The South West of Tasmania had fascinated me for years. I started visiting “The Island” when I was at school and was always blown away that the South West was simply shown as green on maps, no roads, no towns, just a big expanse of green. How do you get in there I thought. I spotted an advertisement for  Tasmanian Expeditions They will fly you in to a tiny airstrip drop you off and lead you back along an old convict track to Tasmania’s version of civilisation (Cockle Creek) over nine days. I got excited and worked hard on getting a mate just as excited, step forward Trevor.

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Fly from Hobart to Melaleuca then walk 80 klms to Cockle Creek,  re-enter civilisation.

I slowly fed Trevor information once we’d signed up. Waist deep mud, raincoats supplied by the tour company because they felt only theirs would actually keep the ferocious rain out. We were both a little scared at what we were about to undertake but that’s a healthy respect right ? Of course we don’t do enough training and alas too soon we are on a flight across Bass Straight to Hobart. Our free day in Hobart is consumed buying lightweight everything as concerns mount over how we will handle carrying tent, camp gear, clothes and food for nine days. We head out for a final proper sit down meal and a few relaxed drinks. All future food will be eaten out of a small metal bowl crouching around a small spluttering burner whilst busily swatting mozzies. Should be fun ?

Day 1.

Morning and we spot the four other walkers and two guides. Our packs have been opened and inspected, weighed and the contents unceremoniously spilled onto the floor to ensure we have all brought exactly what the list requested. This has the effect of putting everyone on edge, they are serious about the isolation and want to ensure we are as prepared as we can be. Trevor whispers that the only girl, Linda, looks like she will be the weak link. I shall remind him constantly over the next nine days as she kicks his butt on a daily basis, arriving and having her tent erected well before he arrives.

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Dan, Gary, Peter, Linda, Sean, Trevor. me and Ben our guide.

We head off in a mini bus to the local airstrip and search for our plane but the only ones there are tiny, with Par Avian written on the side. We march into the container size office dragging our loaded packs. The guides have divided some of the food between us. Their backpacks however are monstrous. We are weighed, our packs are weighed and then we are divided into two even groups and sent to the two aircraft. I am still shaking my head at the leader’s pack, I thought mine was heavy at just over 22 kgs but his weighs 32 kgs. I wouldn’t be able to walk a straight line with it on my back.

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No chance to lie about your weight every kg weighed before loading.

We somehow jam everything into the two planes and with the engine revving wildly we head off. Immediately we start to bob and dip into the head wind as we push Westerly towards Melaleuca, a dot on the West coast. It’s an old tin mine run by a bloke, Deny King from the mid 1930’s. The tailings/scrap from the tin mine were used to build the tiny airstrip which glistens brightly in the sun. The plane drops suddenly aiming straight at this speck of shiny, silvery airstrip, the only straight line in a sea of green trees. As one, our stomachs churned and I was sure we were going to vomit. It would have only taken one of us then a chain reaction and our first bonding moment. Instead, mouths tightly closed we bumped wildly along the airstrip and came to a halt, it was deathly quiet as everyone took a deep breath. We had made it back to ground safely, we stepped gingerly from the planes and took in the silent surrounds. We squinted at the shiny tin tailings at our feet, eased on our backpacks, adjusted the straps at our hips ready to bear the unsteady load. i was very conscious that to fall over on the tarmac with my full pack would have been seen as poor form. I breathed in and walked straight, as straight as I could.

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Our light aircraft arrives at Melaleuca

There is a bird hide at Melaleuca manned throughout the year by twitchers and university students counting the rare orange bellied parrots. It would be a lonely life stuck out here in a very beautiful but extremely isolated location. The local ranger is keen to chew the fat with our guide and anyone else who will entertain him, his need for human contact like a junkie itching for a fix. Eventually we traipse off, following a mud smeared grassy path towards the coast and Port Davey.

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First view of the coast.

There are some boardwalks between Melaleuca and the coast. Much of it has submerged and as often as not you find yourself in a dirty sinister pool of thick goo, sinking fast. It’s not a sensation you become accustomed to. The wind blows hard, there is nothing to stop it really, no obstructions. Half a world away to the West is South Africa and directly South is Antarctica.

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Trevor enjoying walking into a brisk breeze ?

We walk to the coast through mud and slush, enthusiasm high and new respect for the elements as our gear is put to the test. The weight of our backpacks has us wobbling like drunken sailors. We learn to pull in the waist strap, carry the load through your hips, not your shoulders repeats our guide, Ben. There’s still plenty of weight swaying about and you feel that if you fell you’d wriggle as helplessly as an upturned turtle.

Our first camp is a grassy knoll looking straight out to sea. We all agree it’s the best meal we’ve ever had. Made up of a mixture of the day’s exertion, the remote location and the fact that our leader whips it up whilst we set up the tents. Somehow our leader, Ben has managed to carry in a pavlova and Trevor uses his last energy to whip the cream into a frenzy. Too tired to talk we all nod in unison as we scoff the pavlova and then scurry to our tents for rejuvenating sleep.

Day 2. 

Up early, we pack and head towards Louisa Bay, its eighteen klms away. Our walk takes us through thick vegetation, across small rivers and creeks stained dark by the local tea tree. The water glistens golden in the sun and the water takes on a super soft feel.

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Brackish water, the colour of tea from you guessed it local tea tree.

We arrive at another pristine camp late in the day, there is little conversation, we are all spent. The roar of the ocean is the one constant, that and the wind. Ben appears to be as bright as he was when we started this morning. Our eyes follow him as he sets up the cooking equipment and prepares our dinner, no-one offers to help not even Sean his assistant. It appears that Sean is more story-teller than bushman. He’s also suffering from a rather nasty looking rash on his legs and is applying some potion regularly. We eat and stumble to bed, the pattern has been set. Walk, eat, sleep.

Day 3. 

We wander through the shallows to explore Louisa Island. It is only possible to wade there at low tide. The island feels untouched its only visitors over hundreds of years would have been aboriginals, convicts, whalers, tree fellers and the occasional lost fisherman. We can feel the water start to turn and its lapping our shorts by the time we are back at camp.

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Morning rest on our first day, sun is out, life is good.

Day 4. 

Today is a long day only 13 klms but we climb up and over the Ironbound mountain range. I think everyone is awake well before we hear the call of “ok guys” and a rather authentic cock-crow from Ben. Its pitch black outside and after stumbling about half asleep, half blind in the darkness we are ready to break camp. The path is rather un imaginative although its day break before we actually see it. As straight as an arrow it points straight towards the summit. There is no reprieve at the summit, the wind is blowing hard. I stop for a moment but the wind on predawn sweat causes me to shiver, I have no option but to plod on. The promise of spectacular views will never be seen as thick cloud swirls around us. I doubt anyone has ever seen it.

The descent is roots and mud, its hard on the knees, magnified by the heavy packs. I consciously try to slow my breathing, I sounded like a train climbing up to the summit. I relax and my breathing improves but my judgement as to what is a deep hole of mud and what is shallow evade me. Its tough walking but we knew that. Trevor offers some sage advise to Peter who snaps back, the strain is already showing….

Just when we think that the roots and mud will never go away we hear the pounding sea in the distance, a few steps further on we are treading on soft, forgiving sand and are drawn towards the water. It’s an hour further on to our camp and the mud and slush is momentarily forgotten. We are able to have a fire at this camp evidently due to a Tasmanian Government Minister who liked to walk in here and have a fire. He had a subclause added to the park laws… Actually he probably came in here by boat on my taxes.

We load up with new supplies here. Before the season starts Tasmanian Expeditions send a boat around the coast and load some large buried drums with provisions. Its four days of dry provisions but no-one is complaining about the camp meals that Ben is producing. Along with the provisions he drags out a ragged wetsuit, mask and flippers. Off into the ocean he goes reappearing a short time later with a small bag of abalone. He bashes the delicacy against the rocks then proceeds to cut the abalone into fine slivers to eat before dinner. I was amazed at this taste of the sea, I had never eaten them before. The location, Ben’s basic hunting skills and the freshness meant they were always going to be savoured. Our pasta with olive and pesto sauce was another winner, together with a cask of red wine from the stash we sat about feeling rather content. Before anyone falls asleep in front of the fire we trudge to our tents and another zombie sleep.

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Day 5.

The wind has been blowing hard all night. The skies are threatening as we crawl through the flaps of our tents and try to stand like normal human beings. Cornflakes and real coffee chaser have me believing I’m ok but it’s just the coffee dulling my senses. Up a rise out of camp the track is a shiny black goey muddy strip. the problem is it doesn’t let on as to its depth.I sink down and suddenly its crutch level and I’m going deeper. The pack with renewed provisions loaded has my arms flailing as I try to control my balance. My forward momentum, the weight of my pack and the unexpected has me tottering forward then face down in the stinky mud. I can’t get out, its like the pack is holding me under. I manage to roll myself onto my side and tug at anything that might draw me to firmer ground. I’m not getting any help from the others who are either bent over laughing or capturing my awkwardness to use against me later.

Further along we have to scrub our gear down to ensure a soil disease is not transferred to a pristine area we will pass through. Needless to say that is a bigger job for me caked in this now drying slop. We call it lunch and dine out whilst staring out over the fine sandy beach in front of us. Walking in this fine sand is more energy sapping than you realise as your feet sink deep with every footstep and you have to literally draw your whole foot out. We seek the edge of the water and some firmness but the sand grains simply don’t bond as you’d expect.

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Transferring everyone across the lakes.

We finally arrive at the tinny boats which transport us across the lagoon. Trevor stands on the bow like Captain Bligh demanding more of his crew, which would be me…. Our stop today is supposed to be Deadman’s Bay but due to Sean’s ulcerated sores we head further on. Another guide is making their way from the South with medicine for him.

Day 6.

It’s a late start the following morning. We wander along the edge of the lagoon attempting to clean the buildup of grime on our legs, each day another thin layer adheres. I stick to my sleeping bag, it isn’t a great feeling. Big news at breakfast was the last of the cornflakes were consumed. Each day they have become a little smaller, shaken and crushed as they travelled along the track in someone’s backpack. It is obvious we are hanging about for a reason we are unaware of. At 10am out of the bush crashed Tarzan’s Jane, actually her name was Arana and she had run in with much-needed antibiotics for Sean’s legs now a mass of unsightly pussy sores. Arana had taken two days to run in, that’s four days of bushwalking after being dropped at Cockle Creek. Sleeping at the top of one beach until the tide was no longer bashing against the cliffs she’d then clambered down onto the beach and kept running. A part-time guide and uni student she glowed good health and barely looked fatigued after such a massive effort. We were all in awe. I headed back down to the beach late afternoon to watch the crash of the giant waves on the cliffs. It was like a sonic boom.

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Wild bleached tea tree pushed by the relentless winds.

They rolled in, huge sets of rolling monsters. little to slow them down as far as the eye could see. Like the wind, there are few obstructions and the waves just grow and grow. Evidently some of the biggest waves in the world finish their journey near here. Dinner is an exotic array of curries, dhal, cous cous, raisins and pappadams. We lounge about,grazing on the dishes like wandering travellers have for centuries. Sean looks on from afar, hopefully he’ll be able to move with us tomorrow.

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Carpet of moss down to the water soon after the heavens opened up.

Day 7.

The next morning the thunder of the waves is replaced by the steady slap of rain on the walls of my tent. A look outside tells me its been going on for some time. Everyone is busy trying to pack from inside their tents. attempting the impossible of keeping somethings dry, anything. Wet equals cold and the thought of getting into damp wet bedding tonight is causing some angst. And then there is the issue of last night’s curry. Between packing there is a steady stream of customers for the most scenic toilet in Tasmania perched on a clifftop, definitely advisable to hold on tight and don’t look back. We all blame the dhal…

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Ben shows us where to cross.

The track to Surprise Bay is hard to find so by the time we are confident we are heading on the right path we are all in wet boots except for Gary smiling and boasting the virtues of Goretex. We walk the water’s edge of Surprise bay and have our lunch at the end. Condiments and lollies are starting to outweigh meat and fish but that was to be expected. We try to outdo each other on weird lunch rollups. My combo of Vegemite, cheese and peanut butter with beetroot will surely give me nightmares and looks remarkably like the mud we’ve been wading through.. Fill up on brackish tea-coloured water from a nearby stream and trudge towards  Granite beach. The surf is angry, five metre waves slap against the cliffs sending spray for hundreds of metres and the boom can be felt in the ground we are walking on. We cross a small river and make for a waterfall which is also our route up off the beach and our camp for the night. We clamber up one eye on the path, one on the incoming tide and those big waves. Arana had climbed down this in the night ! The afternoon is drying everything out in the weak afternoon sun.

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Delicious barefoot walking on pristine sand but it didn’t last.

Day 8.

Ben has been calling us since 5am, today we climb over the South east Cape. Trevor refuses to move and Ben returns to give him a push through the tent walk. There’s little talk in the dark this morning. a scoop of muesli in a bowl and a strong bush coffee that causes your eyes to bulge. We step from our camp as the first light appears. Its upward from the beginning, the route an even mix of intertwined tree roots and rich mud. I’m sweating in a t-shirt and it is only seven-twenty am. We lift our heads up as a light rain falls willing it to cool us down. Gary and I trudge on getting progressively wetter, turns out it was a bad move. The ridge is reached and the mist is now a steady rain accompanied by a wind which causes me to shiver vigorously, uncontrollably. I don’t hang about, I grab a cherry  chupa chup from the sweets bag and start downhill.

The mud and roots go on for four hours and the downward momentum causes you to lurch into unknown deep holes, your backpack sweeping you along. My body is tense knowing a poor choice of foothold will leave you upside down or worse with your foot stuck and your heavy laden body heading someplace else.  I have small cuts on my hands from the sword grass. I fell earlier on a slippery wooden bridge and lunged out for support only to be rebuffed by the stinging cuts from the innocuous looking grass. We hunker under a very drippy tarp trying to keep warm and drink packet soup an equal  source of warmth and sustenance. then before we completely seize up we are off again along the coast in swirling cloud and rain. our rain jackets pulled down hard and the hoods restricting our line of sight to two steps in front.

We finally arrive at camp , teeth chattering. Tents go up immediately and everyone scrambles to get inside into our sleeping bags, something dry and warm, something to stop the shaking cold. Ben and Arana arrive and announce that they haven’t spotted Trevor. He must have missed the sign to the camp in the rain. I dress and trek off after him, find him above Coal Creek stumbling along with a full head of steam up. We return to camp the rain hasn’t eased off at all. We sleep for two hours in our sleeping bags then only get out to consume a three cheese Risotto, tea and some butternut biscuits. Food has never tasted so good. There are  polite good nights and everyone scurries back to their tents. The wind is angry, the tent walls slap relentlessly. Well the others tell me that, I sleep straight through, worn out.

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Wild, wild seas and thundering crashing as they slapped the cliffs

Day 9. 

I can smell the strong coffee brewing, I stumble trance like in that direction, onto the “terrace” and breakfast. More muesli and swollen dry fruit to sweeten the mix. Everyone is bleary eyes except for Arana who looks as fresh as a daisy. The thirty year difference in age shows. We eat everything knowing that tonight’s meal will be supplied by the outside world. Soggy wet gear is folded away and we all leave camp with a renewed spring in our step. Trevor is reliving the painful extra steps of late yesterday as he head towards Cockle Creek for the second time. Uphill and onto flatter ground which is good news for Peter. The sole of his boot had come adrift a few days ago. Sean had somehow managed to sew it back on, miraculously it has done the job until today when it simply disintegrated, gave up the ghost. Peter is now wearing Ben’s sandals fortunately the ground is kinder here. We now pass day-trippers who look amazingly clean, all rugged up. Our gear is muddy, smelly and almost moving on its own, they give us a wide berth.

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Yep the ruts were deep and the mud thick and stinky.

Mid afternoon we break out of the forest into a clearing. In the distance we can see the idyllic bay at Cockle Creek. Some small boats bob about but it’s no metropolis. Ben has warned us earlier that civilisation would not receive us well if we didn’t strip our bush gear off and plunge into the ocean before changing into our cleanest clothes. I heed his advise and am still not ready for the mind-numbing, tingling sensation of Southern Tasmania water. I gasp in bewilderment and scrub madly at my skin in a bid to warm it and clean it. I am tingling as I dry off and throw on some cleanish clothes. The mess which is our packs, gaiters, jackets and pants sit there looking defeated. meanwhile we linger around the bus quietly willing the driver to get a move on. First stop is the Dover pub. They locals give us a silent eyeballing but say nothing, they’ve seen it before I’m sure. Crazy city folk embracing the wilderness when there is a perfectly dry bar to sit in, thyre thinking. We order our drinks, salute Ben, who has done an amazing job and drain the glasses immediately. Another round and few travellers and we are back in the bus, buoyant and noticeably clear of eye. We have one last stop to make before Hobart. The local fish and chip shop. It’s every bit the greasy fast food fix we’ve been dreaming of, some have a pie and sauce to round out the experience and settle back into their seats, a glazed look, content bellies.

Back in Hobart there’s a group photo, back slapping and promises of future adventures ? Trevor and I trudge around to Constitution dock and a night of luxury in a swank hotel. Well more luxurious than the last week, that’s for sure. I have a swim in the hotel pool, Trevor simply sinks into the bath and doesn’t move. The group meet one last time. After the last few days being predominately vegetables we are all hankering for a steak something to tear at with your teeth, something to chew on. We meet at the Ball and Chain a bit of an institution in Hobart’s Salamanca Place. We attack the red meat like cannibals, drink far too much of the house red and tell tall tales till they kick us out. Tomorrow morning most will fly off to comfortable suburbia, hopefully all will be stored in the memory bank. Trevor and I spy the bar still open at our hotel and sneak in for one last drink before collapsing into a soft bed. I don’t think I shall ever visit such a remote place again, what an experience it has been, to feel you have left civilisation behind.

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