It’s a misty morning when I lace up my hiking boots and set off from Fortescue Bay near Port Arthur, an hour’s drive south-east of Hobart airport. Penguins come ashore at dusk here, sometimes there are seals on the white-sand beach too, but I haven’t come to watch wildlife. I’m here with Ashley Rushton from Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service to get a taste of the much-anticipated Three Capes Track, a new multi-day walk on the Tasman Peninsula that promises to be “Australia’s premier coastal bushwalking experience.”
We’re doing a day-walk to Cape Hauy, an ideal preview of the Three Capes Track because the upgrade of this 4.7-kilometre (9-kilometre return) trail in 2012 was the first stage of the three-part project.
Sneak peak of the Three Capes Track
The second stage, to be completed this November, will result in 46 kilometres of world-class coastal hiking and three public huts (more on these below). The four-day walk, which will start with a boat trip from Port Arthur to Denmans Cove in Tasman National Park, will take you via Cape Pillar and Cape Hauy to the end of the track at Fortescue Bay.
These two stages alone are costing the Tasmanian and federal governments $25.3 million, making it Parks & Wildlife’s biggest and most ambitious track project yet.
When the third and final stage of the project is done (there’s no deadline for this stage yet), the Three Capes Track will have five public huts and walkers will be able to spend six days walking 82 kilometres from White Beach, near Nubeena, to Fortescue Bay via Cape Raoul (near Shipstern Bluff, the infamous big-wave surfing spot), Cape Pillar and Cape Hauy.
Four days or six, one thing is certain, if today’s day-walk is any indication: the Three Capes Track is going to be spectacularly coastal.
After walking a short way, and seeing a Bennett’s wallaby hop into the bush ahead of us, Ashley and I take a quick detour onto the currently closed (because it’s still under construction) Mt Fortescue track.
This part of the Three Capes Track hugs the Tasman Peninsula’s 300m sea cliffs, the highest in the southern hemisphere, so closely that every few metres you can step to the side and find yourself on the edge of a precipice getting a sea eagle’s view of fishing boats, soaring albatross and sheer dolerite columns rising straight up out of the sea.
Back on the main trail, two more thoughts strike me: the track is magnificently crafted, a snaking mosaic of stone paths, bridges and retaining walls, with the occasional boardwalk, all built to last; and it’s remarkably mud-free, considering how much rain Tasmania gets.
“The entire walk is designed to be an all-weather, dry-boot experience that can be tackled all year round,” Ashley tells me.
It’s also relatively flat; the highest point, Mt Fortescue, is a mere 450m above sea level.
Having said that, the track to the end of Cape Hauy has a few ups and downs. But even they’re not as arduous as they could be, thanks to the stone steps that make ideal spots to stop and look around – at the steel-grey sea, offshore outcrops and Tasman Island, off the end of Cape Pillar, to our right. “Every step is a lookout,” says Ashley. Best of all, there’s no one else around. (We see only five other people all day.)
A new way to walk
When we reach Cape Hauy itself, the track peters out in a jumble of boulders, allowing Ashley to demonstrate one of the most innovative features of the Three Capes Track: instead of fences and barriers at exposed cliff edges, there’ll be natural bulwarks made of waist-high rocks that walkers can stand behind for views – minus the danger of falling or being blown into oblivion.
The vertical views really are something. I crouch near the edge of one flat rock to peer over the edge at two slender sea stacks, both legendary climbing crags: the Candlestick and the Totem Pole, which is connected to the cliffs below by a horizontal rope, the only way to reach it. (To reach the Candlestick, climbers have to brave the icy, sapphire-blue water to swim to a ledge at its base. Brrr.)
Unlike most other multi-day walks, you’ll be able to walk as much or as little of the Three Capes Track as you like: do a short stroll to a lookout, make a day of it, or spend a weekend or a few days walking from hut to hut. Which brings me to one of the most exciting aspects of the walk: the huts.
When the first three public huts open in November, this will be the first hut-based independent (i.e. self-guided) walk in Australia to provide mattresses and cooking facilities.
With no need to carry tents, sleeping mats or stoves, walkers will have lighter packs. And instead of a single hut building at each location, each passive-solar hut will comprise sleeping modules (to accommodate 48 people) linked by timber decking to toilets, cooking areas and communal spaces. There will also be eco-friendly heaters, rainwater tanks and, bless the hut-architects, solar hot showers.
(A private walking company will be building its own private huts, not unlike those run by Cradle Mountain Huts Walk on the Overland Track, for clients on its luxury guided walks, which will begin in November 2016.)
If there’s one glitch in the matrix, it’s that when the track opens later this year, it will take you to only two of the three eponymous capes: Cape Pillar and Cape Hauy.
You’ll be able to see the third cape, Cape Raoul, throughout the first walking day and from the first hut, and you’ll be able to walk to it separately, but the upgrade of that track won’t be completed until sometime in 2016.
Back at Fortescue Bay at the end of our Cape Hauy walk, I feel as refreshed as if I’d been away for a weekend. Bring on November, I think, when we can all return to spend days, not hours, walking Tasmania’s wild and wonderful south-east coast.
Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service’s website has an FAQ page about the Three Capes Track. For shorter walks, ranging from a few minutes to a full day, check out Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service’s new 60 Great Short Walks in Tasmania iPhone app.