Tasmania

Braving rain, mud and forbidding terrain

 

The New York Times

I stole my first glimpses of Tasmania’s rocky southern coastline from about 2,000 feet up, peering through the rounded pane of the cockpit window whenever I felt composed enough to look up from my sick bag. Beside me, our pilot, Thomas, was riding the yoke as if it were a mechanical bull, trying to keep the single-engine Cessna steady as gusts roared in from the Southern Ocean.

My wife, Lauren, and I were on our way to the starting point of the South Coast Track, a seven-day tramp along a trail that remains as untamed now as it was more than a century ago, when the route was first blazed to help shipwrecked sailors find their way back to civilization. This swath of wilderness, protected as part of the 2,300-square-mile Southwest National Park, is the last stop from Australia before Antarctica. Its remoteness, rugged terrain and often fearsome weather have kept it essentially uninhabited and unexploited — for good reason, as we would soon find out.

We had ordered a slim guidebook to the trail — the only one available — and were reassured to read that “many experienced walkers regard the track as easy.” The route spans a modest 52 miles, with campsites peppered throughout, so we decided to finish it in seven days (the guide recommended seven or eight) and splice a demanding three-day side trip to a nearby mountain peak into the middle, for a total of 10 days. After all, we didn’t want to squander our vacation on an insufficiently challenging trip.

Thomas finally turned the plane inland and pointed into the distance. We could see a tiny splotch of white in the otherwise unbroken sea of green scrubland: a patch of flat gravel that would serve as our makeshift airstrip. From here we would hike back down to the coast, then follow it from the southwest corner of the island to the southeast, finishing at the southernmost tip of the southernmost road in Australia — a spot marked by a wooden sign engraved with the words “The End of the Road” — where a pickup truck would be waiting to shuttle us back to Hobart, the Tasmanian capital.

That first day — after our inner ears had regained their equilibrium — was idyllic. After three hours of walking across gentle buttongrass plains, we reached the coast and camped in a sheltered grove of eucalyptus trees next to a creek. As the sun set, we strolled along a beach dotted with starfish, watching wallabies and pademelons — mini kangaroos, essentially — feed among the dunes, while oystercatchers swooped above the crashing waves.

We woke the next morning to the steady patter of rain on our tent — not a big surprise in a region where it rains an average 250 days a year but a gentle reminder that the trip wouldn’t be all moonlit walks and cute marsupials. We hastily strung up the ultralight silicone-coated tarp we’d bought specially for the trip and breakfasted under it in relative comfort. Then we hoisted our packs and set out eastward along the beach.

Although the route follows the water as much as possible, there are stretches where the coastal cliffs are impassable. This necessitates long inland detours across poorly drained moors, through lush rain forest, over two subalpine mountain ranges and through dense scrub that’s “as thick as hair on a cat’s back,” as one of the original trailblazers described it in 1906.

Much has been done since those days to smooth the passage of the modern traveler — boardwalks over some of the swampier quagmires, ropes strung across deep river crossings, basic pit toilets at some of the most common camping spots. Still, no two trips along the trail follow exactly the same path, thanks to the constantly shifting coastline and the tides. Picking our way along the route, we started to get a taste of the coastline’s stunning topographical diversity: beaches alternating with rocky inlets, gnarled trees twisting away from the salty wind, columns of water erupting from blowholes at the base of dramatic cliffs.

Partway through our second morning, we reached a set of cliffs that jutted out into the water, blocking the beach we were trying to follow. Skirting the base of these cliffs is “normally easy except at high tide,” our guidebook blithely assured us. Seeing that the tide was still rising, we hurriedly began to pick our way from boulder to boulder, scurrying along the sand between waves.

It turns out that oceans are much less regular and predictable than we, in our landlubbering ignorance, had presumed. Rocks that had been comfortably out of the water during one set of waves were suddenly under two feet of pushy surf in the next set. Soaked to the thighs and clinging to the abrasive cliff face with white knuckles, we eventually made it to the other side with a recalibrated sense of what “normally easy” means.

The challenges intensified the next day, when we were scheduled to climb from sea level to 3,000 feet then back down again to cross the Ironbound Range, the highest point on the trip. This time we woke not to rain but to the rat-a-tat of hail slamming into our tent, and the discovery that a swamp rat (or some similarly destructive rodent) had chewed through Lauren’s pack and at least three layers of plastic to feast on our stash of dried pineapple.

A sturdy trail led us up the western side of the Ironbounds, along grassy slopes bursting with pink, yellow and blue wildflowers, but the weather worsened steadily. By the time we reached the top, after three hours, we were being alternately buffeted by gusts of white-out snow and fusillades of stinging horizontal hail that seemed to intensify every time we stopped for a break. (Our bag of M&Ms soon contained as many ice pellets as pieces of candy.)

And the worst was yet to come. The wind-sheltered eastern side of the range is covered with thick, wet rain forest. Instead of a trail, we faced an endless succession of man-eating sinkholes linked by steep mudslides, choked with razor grass and impenetrable scrub, and barricaded by downed trees the size of SUVs.

It took us twice as long to get down the mountain as it had taken to climb it. The hail turned to rain. I had to move our bag of salt from our food stash to the outer pouch of my pack, ready to peel off the leeches that periodically attached themselves to our arms and legs. By the time we stumbled into our campsite, our mood was existential. Why, on our preciously rationed vacation days, were we here?

Adversity is an inevitable part of wilderness travel; for many, the struggle is part of its allure. But if you’re not also enjoying the moment, then any future pride will seem awfully hollow. And at this point in the trip, we really weren’t having much fun.

So we called an audible. We scrapped the three-day side trip and decided instead to slow down and treat each of our camping spots as a destination to be explored rather than merely as a place to sleep en route to the trail’s end.

For starters, we took the next day completely off. Using thin strips of sappy gum bark as tinder, we managed to get a fire going in the intermittent rain and kept it going all day to dry our boots. We scouted the coastline up and down from our campsite, scaling lookout points and clambering down into hidden coves. With string and a safety pin, we tried fishing in a nearby brook; we got one nibble, but the fish seemed otherwise uninterested in the green gummy candy we were using as bait.

We returned to hiking the next day with renewed enthusiasm and found that our eyes were once again open to the beauty — and novelty — around us. Lauren discovered that the gas-filled flotation pods of giant kelp beached in the recent storms made a satisfying pop when stepped on — the sandy path in front of us was suddenly transformed into a 3-mile-long carpet of natural bubble wrap.

We now had several easy days with no more than a few hours of hiking ahead, camping each night at another private beach sealed off from the rest of the world by rocky headlands. Each one had different charms: beachside waterfalls, vertiginous cliff-top tent sites, mysterious caves with sets of animal tracks leading in but not out.

The stormy seas had turned some normally reliable freshwater sources brackish. At one campsite, short on water, we cooked our pasta with half saltwater (which tasted much better than semi-brackish muesli the next morning); at another site, we dug into the sand at the base of a cliff to collect water from a freshwater seep. With plenty of time to spare, these challenges now felt more like brainteasers to solve than stressors.

Still, the track never got easy. Even as we approached the end, we cursed the prodigious mudholes and the fickle skies. But we also marveled at the sight of a pademelon carefully grooming the tiny joey in its pouch, so unused to humans that it seemed not to even notice us.

After climbing into hilly terrain one morning, we stopped to look back at the coastal plains we’d just hiked across. In the distance, a rainbow curved down from the sky to the very place we’d camped.

“Look,” Lauren said, “it’s moving.”

Sure enough, the arc was sweeping majestically along the coast toward us, illuminating the beaches and hills and fluted cliffs along the way. We stared, transfixed — and then realized what it meant. We quickly shrugged off our packs and yanked our rain gear on, then turned back to the trail and hiked on as the drops began to fall.

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