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Sunday, March 31, 2013

"The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there

Robert M. Pirsig

     Since I can remember Tasmania has been well ciphered in the deepest core of my sleeping hunger for wilderness. After living in Australia for almost 2 years, I had no choice but to finally answer her desperate calling flowing through my veins for too long. Surprisingly the iconic South Coast Track ticked all criteria for us to want to hike it: no road access to the start of the track, no huts, no camp facilities, no guided tours, no ranger stations, no radios, no food supplies, no bridges to cross the flooded rivers... The track was promising satisfying amount of unpredictable stream crossings, introduction to Tasmanian mud in all its elemental qualities and quantities, and last but not least an exposure to viciousness of southern winds and notorious Tasmanian weather which is normally terrible. We could not have asked for more.

Day 1: Melaleuca Airstrip to Point Eric at Cox Bight, 13km, 5 hours

     The low flight from Hobart to Melaleuca, a small airstrip deep in the heart of Tasmanian wilderness, taking only the two of us through the clouds over the impressive peaks of the Arthurs, was a very dignified way to start the South Coast Track. The flight offers a few nice glimpses of the track which aren’t distracted by any signs of civilisation apart from some boardwalk over the largest swamplands. After 60 minutes of decent turbulences towards what seemed clearly as a direct path of an approaching storm (no matter how many reassuring smiles a 19 year old pilot throws at you), our initiation was complete. To a sincere surprise of all of us we landed without any problems in a nice sunny weather just to head off 30 minutes later in torrential rain.

     The first thing that strikes you when you get off the plane in the middle of vast unprotected plains of Melaleuca are the extreme Southern winds that bring the opportunity to experience four seasons in one single day. Which any time can turn a storm that seems many hours away into your status quo of this very moment. After purchasing two canisters of camping gas from the pilot, we signed the registration book, packed up our rain gear and then unpacked it again. It is not easy to start a 7-day day track in a heavy rain, but since you can easily wait the whole day for the rain to stop, we accepted it as part of our Tasmanian experience even though there was a slight chance it will be the only experience. We put on our gaiters and headed out over grassy swamp-filled plains towards the horizon where we felt the Southern Ocean might start.

     Don’t get fooled by the boardwalk over the swamplands on either of the ends of the track. Having suspected correctly that the track will generously make up for it in next days with miles of untouched plains of mud in its purest form, we tried to be grateful for every unsubmerged step. The start of the track was relatively flat and easy with a few short ups and downs leading us for about three hours along the pleasant New Harbour Range. As we approached a little hill separating us from an open bay at Cox Bight, the feeling of the end of the world has never been so palpable. Crossing the hill granted us with the first sight of the Southern Ocean: uninviting but welcoming at the same time, powerful and unpredictable, chasing and joining itself, as it encircles the Antarctica by the world's longest ocean current. The rain had stopped by now and we could just sit on the beach breathing in the remoteness of this very special place washed out on us with every crashing wave.

     We continued along the beach for about an hour to the Eric Point clearly protruding to the ocean on the horizon. Near the outlet of the lagoon at the end of the beach we passed a small campsite hidden well in the coastal scrub just off the beach. Since we still had almost 3 hours to sunset, we decided to go on for another 45min around the Point Eric to a larger campsite right on the beach. Since the first two spots had already been taken by another group, we kept going along the beach and found an amazing soft grassy spot right by the beach. We collected fresh water at a small creek about 200m up the beach and made our first dinner eagerly slicing off every eaten gram from our tomorrow's backpacks.

Day 2: Point Eric at Cox Bight to Louisa river, 17km, 7-8 hours

     You can almost certainly count on one thing on the South Coast Tract: your day will never be shorter than you expect, but it can very easily be twice that long. We wake up at 5.30am giving ourselves enough time to pack the tent before the sun came up, to have the most amazing breakfast at the beach watching the sunrise and to head off relatively early to avoid any wilderness’ surprises. At least we thought so.

     We walked along the beach for about 2km crossing a few streams which were easily waded. Soon, we started to look for the familiar orange buoys turning the track inland, but couldn’t see any of them. As we approached the back of the beach and looked at the high cliffs right in front of us being regularly swallowed by crushing waves, then we realized. The track did continue along the coast and around the Black cliffs, but the crossing was entirely tide dependent. We turned around and noticed we weren’t the only ones who didn’t read the track notes properly. There was another group of three trampers approaching the Black cliffs and looking similarly surprised.

     We looked at the sharp rocky coastline rising steeply from the beach now completely submerged by the raging swell. The high tide has just started to come in and it hasn’t even reached its highest point: it would take another 9 hours for the ocean level to drop and reach the crossable level again. As we found out later, the last hikers, who had crossed the cliffs only an hour and a half before we got there, waded the place waist-deep in the strong tidal waves just to end up completely soaked and exhausted 200m further up on the next beach. We couldn’t afford losing one day so early on the track, so we looked at the three meter high dunes on our left covered with impenetrable thick coastal scrub. We definitely wouldn't be the first ones who would try to get around. With the help of other three hikers we finally climbed on the dunes and managed to cut our way through the dense dry forest to the other side of the cliffs.

     We rendered the Black Cliffs to their tidal mood and continued along the beach until the familiar buoys and fishing nets signalled the time to leave the ocean behind us and head inland. The longest inland section of the track starts with 4km hike through the scrubby plains and an unexpected acquaintance with the first real Tasmanian mud before it ascends steeply to 400m high Red Point Hills. The first skill to pass during our first ascend was the unbearable non-lightness of breathing as we started to face the windward side of the hills. We quickly forgot about the idea of stopping for a lunch on top of the hill and tried to enjoy amazing views as we went without any desire to share it verbally or motionless. Due to the ever-present southern winds the rain never seemed far away. But it had not rained for 24 hours and at that point we couldn’t know how incredibly lucky we were going to be since the storm on our very first afternoon was pretty much all the rain we were going to get during the whole trip. This is less than usual though because during summer months it rains here in average every second day. This only showed the extraordinary resilience of Tassie’s muddy swamplands which simply do not dry out even during an exceptionally dry summer Tasmania had in 2011.

     From the Red Hills there was a gradual and surprisingly very pleasant descent to the first stream crossing at Faraway Creek. During the descent we enjoyed spectacular views of the whole valley surrounding us in all shadows of quietness and green up to the horizon where fearless ranges of the Ironbounds were impatiently waiting for us. 


     From the top of the hill it is still almost 10km walk through an open valley and a few light forests, each with a small stream crossing and plenty of ups and downs, until you reach lengthy boardwalk towards the Louisa River campsite at the very base of the Ironbound Range.

     The Louisa River is the largest stream that needs to be crossed on the South Coast Track. There is a safety rope to assist and the water level is normally easily waded. Although it does get dangerously flooded and it’s not unusual to have to wait a whole day for the water level to drop. There are campsites on both sides of the river in case you get trapped on either side. Despite the good condition of the track and relatively easy terrain it was quite a long and exhausting day and we were glad when we arrived at a pleasant campsite on the bank of the Louisa River flowing carelessly around the base of 1000m high Ironbound Range. It gave us pretty clear idea about how our next day on the South Coast Track was going to look like.

Day 3: Louisa River To Little Deadman’s Bay, 12km, 8 hours

     At the first glimpse of daylight we set off towards intimidatingly vertical wall of the eastern side of the Ironbound Range. Our backpacks were still quite heavy and the boots still wet from yesterday’s countless stream crossings, but we were excited about the challenge ahead of us soaking contentedly in the morning light.    
     In just 12km the track climbs steeply on the 1000m high mountain, crosses the series of the ridges on the Ironbound Range and descends back to the sea level at Little Deadman’s Bay. Nothing that we wouldn’t have experienced too many times before on our previous hikes. What we didn’t expect was that it was going to be probably the longest 12km we’ve ever experienced. After leaving the Louisa River at 7am it took us 11 hours to arrive at the campsite just over 12km away.

     Climbing the western side of the range turned out to be actually the easiest part of the whole day.  We reached the first summit within 2 hours and started crossing what felt like endless line of separate ridges. The summit of the Ironbound Range is usually swallowed up by thick clouds and icy 60km winds which can bring rain, snow or hail any time of the day. By some miracle, the stormy clouds had just missed us, but the incredibly strong winds proved to be challenging, especially while having to walk on the narrow boardwalk over the muddy swamps (yes, even on the alpine plains!).

     After we finally reached the top of the last ridge, we couldn’t wait to start our descent and hide from these treacherous winds in the thick alpine forest. The views that the traverse of the Ironbound Range offers though are spectacular: in a clear weather you can see all the way up to the South Cape protruding into the infinite Southern Ocean.

      It was half past twelve when we came across an emergency high camp and started to descend steeply hoping to reach Deadman’s Bay by 3pm. What we didn’t expect was that on the south-eastern side of the Ironbounds the alpine flora changes suddenly into dense and muddy rainforest which turns the steepest descent of the whole track into one of its hardest sections. Boring alpine boardwalk transformed quickly into vertical descent on hardly definable route as natural as it gets. We were endowed with four hours of climbing over, crawling under and sliding down the track which was either a watercourse running steeply downhill through the rotting roots and moss-covered rocks or deep muddy pools full of drowned tree trunks. Or both. Our environment changed into dense tea-tree forest so thick that it completely swallowed even the ever-present sound of the ocean providing no acoustic or visual relief of the closeness of the coast. Suddenly there was nothing but too much mud-ness, too much verticality, too much slipperiness. I never thought how quickly can one's mind become over-saturated with too much presence. With nothing but focus on preserving your physical integrity and with not enough room to absorb the moss-covered magic of the enchanted rainforest surrounding us.

     After reaching a small campsite at Ironbound Low Camp, we were still about 3,5km from the Little Deadman's Bay. The track winded further up and down through some serious muddy sections and continuously difficult terrain at the foothill of the mountain. Finally we descended down to a beautiful fresh-water creek where we refilled our water bottles. After crossing the creek we climbed once more onto the last forested ridge separating us from the Little Deadmans Bay. At that point we started to think we might had missed the campsite and even though that couldn’t be possible since we’d been nowhere near the ocean for the whole day, it still made more sense than the incredibly slow speed we were moving on. Suddenly we entered a beautiful pine forest saturated with the saltiness of the ocean. At 6pm we finally reached the coast near a small sheltered cove and arrived at the campsite being on the track for more than 11 hours.
     Little Deadman's Bay is one of a few campsites where you can have an open fire in the designed fireplace. The other parties that we knew from the previous night have arrived exhausted just half hour before us. After finding a nice campsite near the creek there was only one mission left to accomplish: to crawl into our sleeping bags with a hot can of beans and dive into the hypnotizing irregularity of the ocean surf. We soon forgot about the fact that the world is indeed a giant planet of rotting mud, so that we could remember it the next day all over again.

Day 4: Little Deadman’s Bay to New River Lagoon, 9.5km, 4.5h

     Today was going to be the easiest day on the track and even though we’d learnt by now to be cautious with such claims until the day is over, we decided to enjoy a nice morning at a beautiful rocky beach near the campsite. We left at 9.30, crossed the creek and followed the track onto the rocky beach. After crossing the second creek we turned inland and soon found ourselves in the middle of vast muddy plains. It was a very magic (yet very wet and mucky) start of the day in the middle of nowhere with the closest forests being completely lost in the fog and low clouds. It didn’t rain though and we soon entered the forest leading to the western end of Turua beach. We continued along the beach for another 300m to Deadman's creek with a small campsite and then to the rocky point at the end of the beach.

     We climbed into low coastal forest above Menzies bluff and descended at the western side of the Prion beach. After easy crossing of the Grotto creek (where you’re supposed to wash all the dirt from your boots to prevent carrying soil born fungal diseases to other parts of the track) we followed the Prion beach south-east for about 5km. This is a very long and exhausting yet incredibly spectacular part of the track on one of the purest, wildest and the most remote beaches you’re ever going to experience. We followed the beach for more than an hour in complete quietness watching the amazing birdlife and the Southern Ocean washing out under out feet. At about 2/3 of the beach, where the dune vegetation above the beach ends, we turned  inland, crossed the sand bar and turned right to the shore of New River Lagoon.

     There is a row boat on either side of the lagoon that you need to use to cross the lagoon. After rowing one boat across to the other side, you have to tie up and tow the other boat back and return in the first boat to the other side so that there is a boat on both sides when you finish. When we arrived at the lagoon, we managed to catch up with the family which left the camp earlier in the morning. We waited until the father rowed his family across the lagoon and returned with the second boat. Thankful that we just saved ourselves two additional trips we jumped into his boat and paddled to a small beach at the other side of the lagoon. It was low tide and the water surface was calm. Due to the distance from its estuary to the ocean, the lagoon never gets too rough for the boats, but it can get waves and  it’s better to plan the crossing during low tide.

     The New River Lagoon is one of the most spectacular places on the track and we were pleasantly surprised when we found out we have the lagoon only for ourselves. The other party decided to move on to the next campsite and nobody else crossed the lagoon that afternoon. There is a small campsite in a nice forest just 50m from the beach. We knew the drinking water is not easily available at this campsite, but we found some about 200m up the beach. It was quite a poor quality and black-coloured from tannins, but after treating it, it was sufficient for one night.

     We spent the afternoon exploring the coast, watching the birdlife and swimming in the lagoon sharing it only with the black swans. The magic of the New River Lagoon in the afternoon light is just out of this world. The dark and incredibly calm surface of the lagoon sweeps away to the west where endless mountain ranges disappear in pure wilderness.

     We spent the night surrounded by three little wallabies guarding our tent restlessly until the sun came out.

Day 5: New River Lagoon to Granite Beach, 12km 5-6 hours

     The next morning we had again a full-day of hiking in front of us. Just when we were ready to leave our private campsite at the lagoon, a wallaby mum came to say goodbye carrying her baby in her pouch! We headed off quite early hoping to catch up with the previous party soon since we were all aiming to reach the famous Granite beach tonight, one of the highlights of the South Coast Track.
     From the campsite the track continues south-east along the New River Lagoon outlet for a few miles through some nice but quite thick rainforest most of the way. We knew we had to cross the Milford creek on the next beach so we hurried up since we’d only had a few hours before the tide started to come in. Descending to the creek can be pretty challenging since the wooden steps leading down the steep sandy dune have been completely washed away. Usually it’s hard to tell how deep the dark tannin waters of Tasmanian creeks are, but because it was still low tide, we crossed the Milford creek easily. The views of the Precipitous Bluff which started to show off in its reflective mood in the lagoon as we continued further up the beach are absolutely breathtaking and we could now feel clearly why this is one of the best wilderness hikes in the world.

     Very soon we could see another set of steep stairs leading back to the forest hill above the beach. The track slowly opened into the wide Rocky Plains where after about an hour we came across a small junction with the route leading to Osmiridium beach, a popular alternative to the New River Lagoon campsite. After 3 ½ hours of hiking we started our descent onto the western side of the Surprise Bay.

     We continued along the beach for about 900m around some dramatic rocky outcrops to the Surprise Rivulet which was waded easily. After crossing the creek the track headed inland again up the steep stairs to an elevated campsite with clearly the best views on the whole track. If you have an extra day, plan staying at this campsite for a night. After having a very modest lunch (and kind of realizing we were running low on food), we had to move on. We knew the next 3.5km separating us from the Granite Beach were especially challenging, whereas tomorrow was supposed to be the hardest day on the track. There was no way we wanted to experience both sections in one day.


     From the Surprise Bay campsite the track climbed steeply over the high ridge above the Shoemaker Point and descended again onto the western end of Granite Beach. At the very end of the beach, not even 1000m from where we stood, we could see a waterfall falling down the rocky cliff and marking the way to the campsite. It took us a whole hour to get there. At about one third the beach changes suddenly from the sandy coastline into the rocky beach covered by large, wet and slippery rounded stones which make the walking extremely slow and difficult. Granite Beach obviously does not give up its treasures easily and the place at its campsite has to be earned appropriately.

     Approximately in the middle of the stony beach we crossed a creek that had a small campsite about 50m inland. At the end of the beach a steep rock climb up leads to the top of the waterfall. We crossed the little creek and headed further up on the right to a large sheltered campsite. The views from the top of the campsite as well as from the edge of the waterfall are just unforgettable. To watch the ethereal mood of the setting sun over the clashing Southern Ocean is all that we really needed that afternoon. Wilderness as pure as it can get. This is what we came for all the way down here.

Day 6: Granite Beach to Lion Rock, 13.1km, 10 hours


     The next morning we left the campsite just after 6am knowing very well which section of the South Coast Track there was left to conquer. That morning we had to cross the South Cape Range infamous for its muddy mood which we were just about to experience to the core of its elemental qualities and quantities.
     South Cape Range is only about half as high as previous Ironbound Range, but equally difficult and with additional quality of mud it is easily the most challenging section of the whole track. We started immediately with 600m steep ascent and soon found ourselves climbing up in the thick, dark and wet coastal forest surrounded by dense ferny undergrowth. We pushed our way steadily upwards finding the track deeply eroded by water creating a series of one foot narrow mini-canyons filled with liquid mud.

     Although nowhere near flat and nowhere near rocky we finally reached a plateau ironically called Flat Rock Plains. This is where Tasmania will really test the mud-resistance of your boots and the mud-resistance of your soul. The narrow route suddenly transforms into open fields of deep pools of liquefied mud. Because in summer it often rains every second day, there’s just not enough soil in the ground to cover the rocky layer underneath, which means the rain water can not drain and creates these endless pools of liquid mud.
     The hardest thing about this section of the track is that there is nowhere to take a break and loosing the focus means with certainty taking a muddy swim. Most of the walkers try to get around the muddy pools by entering the thick scrub hoping to pursue on a drier course which only creates a confusing network of paths leading nowhere. After another steep ascent we finally reached the top of the ridge and had a short break at the old Trackcutters camp which marks the start of a long, rough and once again very muddy descent. Just when we thought there can’t possibly be any more mud on such a steep descent, we found ourselves wading through some of the deepest and widest muddy pools with no way around and repeated this exercise many times more until the day was over.

     The rest of this rough section descends steeply for about 2 hours to the valley where we were discovered with a huge relief a short boardwalk through some grassy plains near the Blackhole creek. The track crosses another two hills before it ascends to the top of the coastal cliff with some excellent views of the whole coast. After that we descended back to the beach that was soon replaced by a puzzle of sandstone boulders left after the surrounding cliffs had collapsed. There was one more forest hill to cross before we reached the mouth of the tannin-stained South Cape Rivulet with a popular campsite nearby. We waded across and continued 600m along the beach. After turning inland we passed a small campsite and continued down onto the next beach which we followed for about 300m and headed back inland again.

     There are two tracks leading to the Lion rock: the original track following the rocky coastline around the Coal Bluff which shouldn’t be attempted during a high tide and the inland track that climbs steeply into coastal forest above Coal Bluff and descends to another beach in South Cape Bay. We decided for the inland track and after reaching outh Cape Bay we continued for about 100m to a larger creek and found two main campsites, one inland on our right and one at top of the wooden stairs on our left. We decided to stay at a very pleasant spot sheltered among tea-trees right at the foot of a grassy hill and with huge relief took out backpacks off after 10 hours of our muddy effort.

Day 7: Lion Rock to Cockle Creek, 8km, 3.5hours

     The next morning we were up bright and early to tackle the last section of the South Coast Track. Even though we knew the shuttle didn’t leave Cockle Creek until 12.30, we had decided to head off right after our last breakfast just in case there were some last wilderness surprises left. As we went the Lion rock was disappearing slowly in the misty fog and it started drizzling, the first time since the rain during our first afternoon on the track. We just realized how lucky we were having experienced quite possibly the best imaginable weather in South West Tasmania.

     At the eastern end of the rocky beach a wooden staircase has been destroyed by raging ocean. We scrambled to the cliff-top and continued for about 200m enjoying the last views of the Southern Ocean. The track heads inland through pleasant coastal forest for about a mile and continues north-east into the Blowhole valley. Last five kilometres were easy flat boardwalk across some very picturesque valley filled with swamps. The track then turned right into light forest where we crossed the low ridge of Moulders hill and descended gradually to the registration shelter near Cockle creek. Camping is available on both sides of the Cockle creek. We headed to the information hut from where we arranged our transport back to Hobart. After a week of living on a dry food, there was one and only possible reward : we bought one kilo of fresh cherries at one of the wonderful organic farms along the road and ate it all. None of the food in our lives has ever tasted better.


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