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.