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Saturday, January 14, 2012

The South Coast Track

The South Coast Track is probably the toughest on-track walk in Tasmania. In fact it's clearly tougher than many an off-track walk. It runs through an extraordinary variety of environments: alpine peaks, pristine beaches, alpine meadows, dense rainforest, wet sclerophyll forest, dune communities, dry coastal forest and more. It's long been on the radar of some of the Sons, and this summer we seized the opportunity to make it happen. David Plunkett soon to be of Dartmouth College in the US joined the walk.

People take seven to ten days to do the walk with the occasional party of tiger-walkers doing it in five. We aimed to go for seven, not giving us any rest days. It can be walked from Melaleuca in the far west of South Tasmania to Cockle Creek around 80 km to the east or the other way around. We elected to walk from Melaleuca: that way if you plane gets you in you can be sure of finding a bus at the other end. Walking from East to West risks arriving at Melaleuca with no food, and finding weather has closed the airstrip for a few days.

So on 5 Jan we boarded our little plane:

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We were lucky; our flight got through but one leaving the same time turned back for electrical reasons and the flights were cancelled for the rest of the day due to a front coming in. The flight itself is amazing; flying low between mighty peaks of the Arthurs.

We arrived at Melaleuca after less than an hour, to find that it consists of a container in the middle of an airstrip, a hide where you can see the rare Orange Bellied Parrot if you are lucky, and a bushwalkers hut for those coming the other way stranded by a closed airstrip. We got really lucky: we saw a pair of the parrots by the trackside near the hide! There are thought to be about twenty in existence.

We then headed out over a boardwalk over button grass plains (seasoned Tasmanian walkers will know what that would have been like without the boardwalk) and after a few hours we arrived at a remote beach on Cox Bight:

We walked along the beach to Point Eric, and cross the neck of the point. While crossing the point we see the first of many lovely flowering herbs which is perhaps some kind of Stylidium?

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Crossing over the neck brought us to our campsite for the first day. It had been a lovely and easy six hours walk, and we quickly put up the tents and the cuban tarp before any rain. This was a good move: it rained on and off all evening but we were able to sit under the tarp and look out over the lovely beach and enjoy it all while having a leisurely dinner. It's always worth having a light tarp on a long trip: it makes all the difference when there's rain.

Here are a couple of us at the campsite having erected the tarp:

And here is Plunkett looking pensive at the colour of the water at the creek a few metres up the beach (it's just tannin of course, the water is beautiful to drink)

And finally here's the view from the beach that the tarp was able to afford us!

During breaks in the rain we were able to explore the lovely beach:

As you can see, rain was never far away. It rains half the time in summer in the South West!

Day 2: Point Eric to Louisa River

The next day we packed and set up shop, and used the simple facilities that are installed at the campsites. This one has a canvas privacy screen to protect you from others coming down the track. My favourite one, at Granite Beach, was on top of a knoll with panoramic views and no screen!

Then on we went towards Louisa River. Louisa River is the camp at the foot of the Ironbound Ranges, and the track to it is pretty well made. It passes over button grass planes, the occasional small forest around rivers, and the Red Point Hills. Here's an image of us heading ever closer to the Ironbounds:

The highlight of the day was our first, and likely last, sighting of a Spotted-Tail Quoll in the wild:

It was wandering around the track in the middle of the day quite unconcerned. I imagine it must have got used to scavenging walkers food, and must have few predators. I've never heard of this happening to quolls  before.

As we approach Louisa River campsite we have to cross the river. It was pretty low, unlike some of the other rivers. This one had a safely rope:

Day Three: Crossing the Ironbounds to Little Deadman's Bay

The next day was crossing the Ironbounds. The track to the top looked intimidatingly vertical on the Western side; but was well made so it was merely a matter of keeping your heart rate in the sustainable zone and eating lots of scroggin! As we got higher the views got better:

And near the top it was extraordinary:

It was only then we realised something odd. The Louisa Plains we had crossed were covered in Alpine flora, even though they were at sea level. In this photo you can see the plains (and the easier section of the track as it follows a spur up)

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But as we descended the south-easterns side of the mountains two things happened. The first was that the flora went from alpine to rainforest! A complete, dramatic change which contributed to making the thousand metre descent quite challenging. The other thing was that the well made track ended; that was the last of well made tracks until the final day. So what we were left with was descending what was alternately a muddy trench or a root filled running watercourse down a thousand metre descent all overgrown with rainforest undergrowth. The horizontal distance was about 2k; it took almost five hours. The challenge was not to break your leg by getting it caught, or sink too deeply into the mud and lose your boots. Swinging from tree to tree was often more practical than walking! We were very relieved to arrive at Little Deadman's Bay campsite. After we arrived an Austrian chef called Thomas arrived having done almost twice what we did. He was utterly knackered; so much so all he could do was smoke a cigarette and sleep without eating.

Day 4: Little Deadman's to Osmiridium Beach.

The next day started with some by now traditional mud. Here is an easy stretch, easy enough so that we could get cameras out!

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Soon however we were at spectacular Prion Beach

The light kept changing, and storms were never far away

One of the great glories of the walk is the four or five km along this beach. But it was all too soon over, and we reached the New River Lagoon which crosses the beach. It's far to fast and deep to wade at the estuary, so you have to walk a kilometre upstream to where there are boats. There are two rowboats; the plan is that you row across to the other side, and then hitch the two boats together and row back, and then leave one boat where you started and row over a third time! The wonder is that no-one seems to defect. I've never heard of a boat not being on both sides.

Here we are (including Thomas) on the Lagoon with Precipitous Bluff in the background:

And here are folk looking dubious about the boats:

Thomas took first row. The current was really strong, and half way over the wind rose. A bad combination: the current wanted to take us out so sea, and fighting against that meant that the boat was often parallel to the rising waves.

Still we got over, and swapped rowers and rearranged the boats.

We then walked on to our intended campsite at Prion East. When we had almost achieved it we found that (not for the first or last time) storms had destroyed the track work, and there was a twenty metre almost vertical sand and slippery rock climb to get to the campsite. When we got the campsite, we found that there was no water: the only water was in soaks at the bottom of the climb! Reason dictated that we move on to the next feasible campsite at Osmiridium Beach. This proved very pleasant. After dinner we explored the beach in the dusk. Here's a photo, with Precipitous Bluff looming in the background:

Day Five: Osmiridium Beach to Granite Beach

This was a relatively easy day, except for some hairy climbs and difficult crossings! The mud was also starting to build up: here's another mudogram:

Day Six: Granite Beach to South Cape Rivulet

This was easily the hardest day. Plunkett and I had been warned by a stranger in a cafe in Hobart when we were poring over the maps! And the people who came in the other direction arriving at Granite Beach camp were shellshocked. It started with a relatively tolerable 600m climb through moderate mud and up waterfalls laughingly called track. But when we got to the top, there was a traverse across the ridge line  for a few km that was extraordinary. Many people were getting in the mud up to their waists. I managed my thighs but no higher. Extreme caution was required at all times so the levels of concentration required were considerable. There were some views, but it was a little hard to enjoy them! At the top, previous walkers trying to avoid mud had created a massively confusing array of twisting mud channels which made it very easy to get lost. One party spent many hours searching for a friend whose screams they could hear, but due to the wind they could not tell from what direction they were coming from (she was found unharmed). After the traverse the descent was perhaps slightly less bad. Here's a photo of an easy section which still had the power to break legs!

As we began the descent we started to meet parties going in the other direction who had left too late. One of the parties we met, including a kid, who had been travelling five hours, blanched with horror when we told them we had been going seven hours. We really didn't see that many of them would make camp by nightfall.

Close to the end I managed to break yet another trekking pole; this time on of Mr Leki's relatively heavy duty carbon poles!

At the bottom of the descent we came to one of the crossings where South Cape Rivulet flows across the beach into the ocean. A couple of parties we had passed going the other direction had forded it at chest height; a piece of dangerous madness. It would be easy to be swept out to sea. One family with a horde of young teenage girls had done this, to our astonishment. The recommended procedure is to wait for the tide!

The tide was in our favour, and we crossed at knee height in the rain.

It was then that the only mildly disturbing thing happened.  It had been a cold and intermittently rainy day, and a couple of us had walked in our shells the whole day. They were, therefore, pretty moist inside and out. While walking this was fine. But we decided on arriving at camp not to change immediately into dry clothes, for the fairly good reason that they would  be needed overnight and it was raining and we couldn't keep them dry. Morale dropped a little when the rain intensified just as the tent body went up, which got rather wet while we were rapidly putting the fly over it.

We went to the tarp to eat dinner, and two of us rapidly started to shiver and go numb and feel very, very cold. Speed of thought reduced too! Anyhow we ate a lot of hot food (I had a five serve of freeze dry which added up to a thousand calories, which I'm very glad I had because I think I may have slightly too little food per day most days) and got into our tents and soon were warm and fine, but it was just a little alarming. It made me think that there needs to be a procedure for getting warm at camp when it's raining and it's been raining all day (in a no-fire zone). Apart from bringing camp clothes (which is weight madness if they don't double as sleeping clothes) I think the only solution is to cook in the vestibule having gone into the tent and changed into the warm clothes. Perhaps this could be improved by pitching the tarp connected to the tent as a porch, or getting a tent that has a lightweight tarpy porch. But the tarp located elsewhere was not a good solution that night. It turned out that it had rapidly dropped to near freezing and there was a bushwalkers weather alert out, but we weren't to know that at the time!

Interesting how psychology changes: at the cold moment I would have paid thousands to be transported back to civilisation. Warm in my sleeping bag I would have paid a lot *not* to be transported out and miss out on completing the walk!

Day 7: South Cape Rivulet to Cockle Creek

We got up at 5 AM on the last day, to make absolutely sure we got the bus which leaves Cockle Creek at 12.30. The timings for the track seemed very variable in their accuracy (I think track conditions varied a lot locally based on very local facts about rainfall). So we didn't want to risk it. It was slowish going at first, thought this was much mitigated by sighting a Padelmelon with Joey:

Eventually we got to Lion Rock:

At this point the path gets much better made as people go to the Rock from Cockle Creek as a daywalk. We motored along this part at great speed and arrived with hours to spare. Here we are having a celebratory lunch waiting for the bus:

Turns out there had been a bushwalkers alert for days, and parties were discouraged from walking. And the weather had halted the flights for days! But we had a great time in this amazing piece of World Heritage wilderness. A highly recommended walk. But even though it is a navigational snack, in other ways it isn't, and some inexperienced parties could get into trouble very easily.


  1. Hey guys,
    Fantastic article, so blo....dy excellent. Love the words and images.

    Please, please may I nab a pic and add it to a post at Our Hiking Blog so I can encourage our readers to head over here and read this excellent piece?

    Please let me know,
    Frank (frank@ourhikingblog.com.au)

    1. Certainly can! You should be able to click through to Smugmug and get a link; if you can't get that to work then use get back in touch and I can email something.....

  2. ps, have linked to it on our FB page

  3. Hi Sons of the Desert,

    What a fantastic trip report and awesome pics! I did the walk about 10 years ago with my now wife, and would head back down in a heartbeat to do it again!

    I hope it is ok but I have put a link to this post on the Outdoor Agencies Facebook page as there are some good shots of you guys using Osprey packs!

    Thanks - Ben

    1. No problems! Great packs; I for one own a few different models of Osprey for different conditions!

  4. Hey top blog post, love the photos, great humour. Hoping to tackle the South Coast Track next Christmas. Thanks for the info!


  5. hi there! Awesome stuff, very inspiring love the images. Heading to Tassie next month can't wait! Had to say the quoll is a spotted not eastern (they only have spots on the tail and are tiny in comparison). Enjoy the next trip look forward to reading about it.

    1. Ah yes you are quite right: the eastern is a little more gracile than the spotted-tail and doesn't, um, have spots on the tail...fixed.

  6. Great photo's, classic track. My son and I thought 3 days was ideal:

    1. Whoah! 3 days! Jeez, you wilderness runners...

  7. Hi there! Loved the summary and pics. Thanks for sharing!
    How did you manage for water?!
    Thanks, Mia

  8. Great trip report. I did the track in 1992. We walked east to west. Fantastic walk. Would definitely do it again. We saw a quoll at Point Eric that behaved exactly the same as the one you saw. We named him Eric. I want to go back.

  9. Excellent photographs. I wish there were more. We had a similar experience at the Rivulet in January 2009. We arrived after a 12-hour walk over the South Cape range on a cold rainy day and it became even colder and windier in the evening. We found it hard to keep warm throughout the night despite wearing every item of clothing we had. The next morning we saw it had snowed on the mountains.

  10. Awesome blog post and fantastic pictures - we did South Coast Track last week and we had amazing conditions, just 24 hours of light rain. I believe there's been some upgrading of the track since your trip (although the Ironbounds descent sounds the sane!), and all the pit toilets at our campsites are now fully enclosed lol. It was the journey of a lifetime, my first hike longer than 3 days, and I am still reliving it!