Hiking the Three Capes Track in Tasmania

Opened in late December 2015, the Three Capes Track is a 46km walk through forest, across coastal heath and atop the spectacular dolerite cliffs of the Tasman Peninsula. Describing this as a track is, however, a bit like calling Da Vinci a fair painter. Parks and Wildlife prefer to call it an “experience” and describe the Track as “carefully conceived and lovingly crafted”. It is without doubt the most artistic designed and built walking track that I have ever experienced. Built over four years it involved over 17,400 helicopter flights to bring in equipment, supplies and labour. Otherwise and  so as to protect the environment, very little of the track construction involved machines – instead hand winches were used to shift rocks into place. Unsurprisingly, such construction came at a cost with about $25.3 million having been spent on the project thus far. One consequence of which is that the Track could presently be more aptly named the ‘Two Capes Track” as it currently only extends to Cape Pillar and Cape Huay. Funding issues have delayed track construction to Cape Raoul (although tenders for the work have now been awarded). All in all, the Three Capes Track takes you to some spectacular scenery in relative comfort and ease with lots of wildlife to see along the way. Whilst many would disagree (including nearly all of those walking the Track at the same time as us), and while I enjoyed walking it, I would have preferred if the Track could have been a bit less lovingly crafted, kept a bit wilder and the money saved used to construct more multi day hiking tracks in Tasmania.

Time/Distance.

The track is 46km and is walked over 4 days (the first day’s walk is only 4km). The most elevation gain you have to undertake in any one day is about 450m.

Getting there and away.

The closest major city with an airport is Hobart. From Hobart it is about a one and half hour drive or bus ride to Port Arthur from where the experience starts and ends. The track website lists the companies which provide a bus service to and from Port Arthur.

Accommodation

Accommodation on the track is in award-winning huts divided into communal eating and sleeping spaces (rooms of either 4 or 8 bunks with memory foam mattresses). The huts have gas cookers, pots, pans, water, games and yoga mats so all you need bring is your own plates, cups, eating utensils, sleeping bag, clothes, food, water bottle, toiletries and torch. There are eco toilets but only one hut has a shower of sorts (when we hiked the Track it consisted of a bag with nozzle into which you pumped cold water).

Surveyors Hut, Three Capes Track
Surveyors Hut, Three Capes Track

Cost and booking.

The track costs $495 per person and is booked through threecapestrack. Up to 48 people can book to start the walk on each day of the year. The popularity of the walk has exceeded Tasmania Parks and Wildlife’s wildest imagination so if you want to start the walk on a specific date or you want to walk over the Summer period in Australia (December to the end of March) book early. Note that the price includes entry to Port Arthur (a historic Australian convict site) and a wildlife cruise to the start of the Track.

Who should hike the Track.

The Track suits anyone who wants to see some amazing scenery and experience some Australian wildlife up close. Whilst some fitness helps, the Track is not hard and the hut system allows people who may be relatively new to multi day hikes to undertake the Track in relative comfort and safety. At $495 per person it is not cheap, but is fairly good value when you compare it to the offerings of private tour operators. It is also a bit more of an upmarket offering than most of the New Zealand Great Walks. Unsurprisingly, to date the Track has mainly been walked by middle aged, reasonably well off Australians.

Car parking

Three Capes Track walkers can park in the long term car park at Port Arthur Historical Site, if space is available. We had no trouble getting parking, but availability may be more of an issue if arriving later in the day during school holiday periods. The long term parking area is basically a bit of cleared bush with no security, but all of our gear was safe and sound when we returned several days later. There are also lockers available at Port Arthur to Track walkers. We, however, found that these were located outside and were not rain proof so in the end decided to leave all of our gear in the car.

Wildlife

Echidna, Three Capes Track
Echidna, Three Capes Track

One of the great joys of hiking in the Tasmanian bush is the wildlife. On the Three Capes Track you can expect to see pademelon (rufous wallaby), Bennett’s wallaby, yellow tailed cockatoo and echidna. Other possible sightings include wombats, bettong, snakes, seals and whales.

Artwork

A collaboration between University of Tasmania furniture design students, the Arts Tasmania Public Art project and the Tasmanian Aboriginal community have produced a series of installations along the Track. I suspect that my friends and I are all philistines as we largely ignored the installations except to give an indication of how far we had progressed each day. For those who are more interested in such things, the Encounters booklet provided to all walkers provides background to each of the installation pieces.

Risks

The Three Capes Track is designed to take full advantage of views over the dolerite cliffs of Capes Pilar and Huay and the only barriers in place are the occasionally artfully placed rocks. Parks and Wildlife through their brochure, website and rangers are pretty keen for users of the Track to realise that the degree of risk to be assumed for any fall is entirely a matter for each individual walker. Conservative people like me can be quite content looking at the views at a distance from the edge whilst others, for whom the all important picturesque selfie is important, are quite at liberty to get as close to the edge as they desire.

Getting close to the edge, Three Capes Track
Getting close to the edge, Three Capes Track

There are three types of snake in Tasmania and all are poisonous. That said no-one has died from a snakebite in Tasmania since the 1960s and the general rule is that if you leave them alone they will leave you alone.

Best time of year

The Track can be walked at any time of the year, however Winter is likely to be diabolically cold and wet (although Tasmania can get cold and wet at any time of the year). Mid December to the beginning of February is the Summer vacation period in Australia and the busiest and most difficult time to book the Track.

Day 1 Port Arthur to Surveyors Hut (4km – 1.5 hours plus boat cruise).

Upon arrival at Port Arthur, the unanimous decision amongst our group of six walking the Track (three lawyers and three scientists) was to plonk ourselves down in the café and enjoy some coffee and fast food rather than stroll around the old convict ruins (to be fair, all of had visited Port Arthur on previous occasions). From the Visitor’s Centre at Port Arthur we were herded with the remaining walkers down to the boat for our wilderness cruise and drop off at Denmans Cove for the start of the walk. The cruise was a bit light on for wilderness but did provide an interesting view up to where we would be walking over the next few days. The drop off at Denman’s Cove soon resulted in the first queue I have experienced when hiking in the bush as everyone lined up at the boot cleaning station just off the beach (this may seem a bit odd to people from other parts of the world but boot cleaning before you embark on a track protects the bush from introduced soil borne diseases). From Denman’s Cove, even though it was only a short walk with a few ups and downs to Surveyors Hut we still took the alloted time of an hour and a half mainly because we stopped to take our jackets on and off several times due to intermittent rain showers.

Through the forest, Three Capes Track
Through the forest, Three Capes Track

At the hut we were greeted by William the hut ranger, shown to our assigned cabin and given a tour of the rather impressive facilities. Making full use of the kitchen we were soon enjoying dinner, a hot cup of tea and regaling each other with extracts from the book on animal tracks and scats helpfully provided in the hut library. After dinner a short walk along the track took us to a viewing point for sunset over Cape Raoul before heading back to the most unbelievably comfortable mattresses for a public hiking hut and the gentle (and not so gentle) snores of me and the rest of our group.

Day 2 Surveyors Hut to Munro Hut (11km, 4 hours).

The day’s walk was a fairly easy amble of 11km – the only real exertion close to the start of the day with a climb of about 120m up stairs to Arthur’s Peak. The reward, however, was great clifftop views before heading back into the forest and re-emerging at the windswept coastal heath area of Tornado Ridge. Not exactly the quickest walkers going our progress was slowed even more by our group of lawyers recent found expertise in scat categorisation (one hours study the night before was clearly enough for us to have achieved expertise). We confidently identified the cubed poo of the wombat but were a bit thrown by the brightly coloured conglomerated mess of berry skins and seeds which we occasionally saw (turns out that this was the cast of the currawong). Back into the forest again it was not long before we were at the junction where the track diverged to take us off to the night’s hut at Munro and following day’s walk to Cape Pilar before returning to this point later the next day. From the junction it was less than 40 minutes to Munro Hut, spectacularly perched 242m above the sea cliffs of Munro Bight and providing views across to Cape Huay.

Heading down stairs, Three Capes Track
Heading down stairs, Three Capes Track
View from Munro Hut, Three Capes Track
View from Munro Hut, Three Capes Track

Day 3 Munro Hut to Retakunna Hut via the Blade at Cape Pillar (17km, 5 hours).

Day three of the Three Capes Track is the one which every one looks forward to because of the iconic photographic opportunities at the Blade – a narrow rocky outcrop that reaches out and up over the end of Cape Pillar. Thankfully you can walk most of the day with just a day pack as the walk to Cape Pillar is out and back from Munro Hut before you again leave Munro Hut for the final few kilometres of the day to Retakunna Hut. Unfortunately for us, however, the hut ranger’s briefing from the night before had not been promising. She began with “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that it will be partly sunny. The bad news is that there will be gale force winds with gusts in excess of 75km per hour.” She went on to explain that it would be up to each individual to determine whether it was and safe whether they were comfortable enough heading up the Blade in those circumstances.

To try and beat the weather, we got going early and the day started promisingly – a walk through the forest before emerging onto the coastal heath for a long walk along boardwalk. However once the boardwalk crossed over on to the exposed southern side of the Cape the reality of the weather hit home. At a particularly exposed section after the installation aptly named “My Blood Runs Cold” we were only able to battle through the wind by all linking arms. For the risk averse lawyers amongst us that was enough to determine the fate of the walk up the Blade – we remained at the Seal Spa where we could enjoy the views of the Blade whilst the remainder of the group tackled the 10 minute walk up and down the Blade. Even after they returned and reported that it had been quite safe we remained unconvinced and declined the opportunity to tackle the Blade, instead returning back the way we had come to Munro Hut for lunch before gathering up our packs and strolling the last few kilometres to Retakunna Hut.

View out tothe Blade, Three Capes Track
View out to the Blade, Three Capes Track

Day 4 Retakunna Hut to Fortescue Bay (14km, 6 hours).

Although only 14km, day 4 involves the most up and down of any day on the track and is probably its most strenuous. The day starts with a climb of about 40 minutes up Mt Fortescue (about 200m in elevation gain). Once over Mt Fortescue it’s mainly down through remnant rainforest before once again reaching coastal cliffs and a view of Cape Huay. Then it is down through forest until you reach the track junction. Here you have the choice of dumping packs and taking the trip out and back to Cape Huay (about an hour and a half) or heading straight to the end of the Three Capes Track at Fortescue Bay. Be warned, if you don’t like steps the track out to Cape Huay is not for you as this track has you either walking up or down steps. From the Cape Huay Junction it is a fairly easy, mainly downhill walk to Fortescue Bay from where the bus collects walkers for the return to Port Arthur. We, of course, found time before the bus trip to buy some food from the small store which services the campground for one last, quick, celebratory nosh up.

Rainforest, Three Capes Track
Rainforest, Three Capes Track
Track to Cape Huay, Three Capes track
Track to Cape Huay, Three Capes track

 

 

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