Josh sits cross-legged under the tarp, tending his eerily quiet methylated-spirits camp stove as we brew up yet another round of coffee. The canopy, tautly rigged between some big gum trees on the edge of the forest, turned out to be an inspired gear decision. The reliably good summer weather of Tasmania's East Coast has abandoned us. Last night's sunset on the rocky spires of Cape Raoul has turned into a thick, muggy cloud this morning. A light rain drips off the tarp edges.
But Josh, a seasoned Tasmanian climber and hiker (they call hiking “bush-walking” down here) is unfazed. In fact, we're both content to be on this wild coast despite the drizzle, and ready to complete the epic 50 kilometer route along the stunning edges of the Tasman Peninsula. We sit over our coffee sharing tales of other wilderness trips to distant lands, and review our options for the day. We've got all the time we need, two more days, and are in no hurry to pack up and get wet.
"Look at it this way," Josh says with a crooked grin and his engaging Aussie accent. "If it weren't raining, it would probably be blowing a gale, so we win." The topo map seems to bear him out. I see our camp here at Lunchtime Creek is situated squarely between Tornado Ridge and Hurricane Heath. It’s an ominous sign, but the soggy southeaster spinning the mist up from New Zealand stirs not a breath of wind. We might be wet, but at least we won’t have to worry about getting blown off the highest sea cliffs in Tasmania, an actual and authentic feature of this seldom-done route.
We're about halfway through the magnificent four day hike that traces the Tasman Sea shoreline of this wild and surprisingly empty peninsula on the east coast of Australia's island state. We've already been out to Cape Pillar on a trail that skirts a high rim of sometimes heart-stopping exposure along the tops of thousand-foot-high coastal cliffs. The way was dotted with off-shore sea stacks and rocky islands that churn the ocean into foam as the Tasman Sea surf crashes ashore.
We camped last night in a clearing among the low brush and eucalyptus trees of the high plateau north of the cape, deep in the cloud-draped gum forest where huge yellow-tailed black cockatoos swoop and cackle. It's a sure sign we're not in Kansas anymore. Further evidence of that comes at dusk and my first sighting ever of a wombat, about the size of a small, fat dog. Left to evolve down here on its own, the wildlife of Tasmania--wallabies, wombats, even Tasmanian devils, tragically afflicted by a disfiguring mouth cancer--might be best described as quirky. But scary might also apply. I learned early on to let Josh go first on the trail, the better to spot the king and tiger snakes, of which we've seen one about every five miles. The snakes have a venom that can be absolutely lethal, but bites are extremely rare. Josh, with years of experience, is vigilant, but relaxed, so I follow suit.
From camp we’ve got two days left on this long, convoluted route. We'll work up the forested slopes of Mount Fortiscue and take the side trip out to Cape Hauy. One of the scenic high points of this wild hike, the cape is home to the impossibly thin, vertical column of rock rising plumb-line straight toward the sky. This spire is known to climbers worldwide as the infamous Totem Pole.
From there, it’s farther north along the coast, past Fortiscue Bay, to our final camp at Bivouac Bay on the last imposing stretch of this archetypal coastal route. The entire 15 miles of coastline above Fortiscue Bay is dotted with dramatic geological features, in-cuts and caves, as the dolerite shoreline gives in to the relentless pounding of storm and surf. The hike ends at one of the most impressive of these erosional features, a foaming, roiling sea cave called the Devils Kitchen.
I’ve warmed up for this long backcountry journey on two of Tasmania's other famous East Coast routes, the Bay of Fires and the Freycinet Peninsula. What's most amazing is how wildly different in character all three hikes have been. Now, nearing the end of my two week sojourn down here, I’m a little panicked about the prospect of having to leave. Tasmania is a phenomenal place to hike, uncrowded and aggressively scenic. Just as winter sets in for North America and Europe, hiking season is just beginning here. And even after a full couple of weeks on the trail, I feel I’ve only gotten my feet wet.
It all started with the long Qantas flight from LA to Melbourne (one of the longest commercial flights on the planet) and then the short hop over to Launceston, which might be called Tasmania’s second city (to Hobart). There's no cure for jet lag like hiking, so I don't dally even a day. After just one night in town at the seaport, just below Cataract Gorge, it was off toward the northeast corner of Tasmania and the start to the 25 kilometer walk out to Bay of Fires.
The Bay of Fires
The drive to the coast follows meandering two lane country roads, a veritable tour of rural Tasmania, out to the former tin mining settlement of Derby, and eventually out to beaches of startling white sand and turquoise water. The surf looks inviting on a hot February day, but beware: Antarctica is jut over the horizon, and the water here in the Tasman Sea is so cold only the hardiest of bathers can stay in for more than a few minutes.
From the trail head at Stumpy's Bay, in Mount William National Park, the route actually follows the sandy beaches--turned such a brilliant white by the mica in the sand reflecting the overhead sun--for most of the way to the first camp. Our group of seven includes Brits, Americans and mainland Australians, for whom Tasmania is every bit as exotic as it is for we foreign visitors. We string out along the perfect strands of white beach to walk in pairs or by ourselves, occasionally clambering over headlands of weird granitic boulders covered in a blood red lichen. It's a surreal landscape. Combined with the blue sky, turquoise water and blinding beach sand, the hike is a sensory overload of visual stimulation. There's not much elevation gain, but walking in the soft sand with a full pack makes for tired calf muscles by the time we reach the interim tent camp, about 10 kilometers from the trailhead.
The second day is longer, but the hiking starts earlier, so the 15 kilometers goes by in a blur of beaches and sunshine and turquoise surf. A highlight here is hiking over the headland of Eddystone lighthouse into the Bay of Fires itself, a crescent of beach to rival any I've seen. The bay was so named by Caption Cook after the cooking fires of the indigenous people he could see from off-shore. Our small band lucked out with a cloudless day in February, high summer down here, which made the colors even more vibrant. The flip side was a complete lack of shade for the entire distance, which can be dangerous. Down here, where the ozone layer is problematic, repeated applications of sunscreen becomes as important as drinking sufficient quantities of water.
The Bay of Fires hike is usually done as a guided walk, very handy for visitors as it includes trailhead transport. The real payoff for doing it that way is the destination, which comes about 3 p.m on the second day. That's when you arrive at the stunning Bay of Fires lodge, an architecturally radical structure that manages to be informal, elegant and comfortable all at once. The greenest of green lodgings, here at the Bay of Fires lodge you've got to pump water--rainwater collected off the roof-- by hand up to a holding tank for that first luxurious shower. But then it's out to the deck for a glass of Tasmanian chardonnay and stunning views of the coast. The food and wine of Tasmania, like the hiking, is a cut above, and is definitely part of the fun.
The final day at the lodge can be spent any way you want: paddling a kayak through the nearby inlet, or strolling the beaches at leisure, watching the wallabies hop around in the forest, or reading in the library. I took advantage of all four options, and by then felt sufficiently restored from the long overseas journey to take on the next leg of my East Coast hiking tour: the Freycinet Peninsula. The final day at the Bay of Fires excursion includes a short hike out to the road and then by car to the funky seaside town of St. Helens. From there, it's only a couple of hours south to Coles Bays, center of activity for Freycinet National Park.
The distinctive red granite peaks of the Freycinet appear long before you reach the park itself, but you've got to earn the other big payoff here: Wineglass Bay is often called one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and the only way to see it is to go in on foot. I've come here to do parts of the Peninsula Circuit, named one of "the five great bush-walks" of Tasmania. But I've organized my hike so I can start from Freycinet Escape, a new, ultra-low-impact camp at the bottom of the Peninsula that melds a degree of comfort with wilderness hiking.
Mark, the boat pilot, meets me a Coles Bay for the 40 minute run down Great Oyster Bay to the camp at Bryans Beach, a pristine crescent of white sand near the southern tip of the Freycinet Peninsula. Tim, who created the lodge, is waiting on the beach as we arrive, and together we walk up the sandy track to the unique structures he designed to make up the environmentally sensitive camp. Innovative fabric-on-frame designs rest lightly on the land, and can be completely removed, with no trace, at the end of the season.Separate cabins afford camp guests quiet and privacy, while a bigger, central structure houses the kitchen, lounge and dining room.
That evening, over a dinner of a Tasmanian scallops and lobster, served with a Springvale chardonnay, I meet Debbie and Collin, here from Perth. Life-long Australians, even they are blown away by the beauty of the Freycinet. Over the cheese plate, Tim fills me in on the details of the hike bck up the peninsula to Coles Bay. From Bryans Beach I'll hike with Hunya, of the Escape staff, up and over the highest peaks in the park on a long day back to the road and civilization. We could camp at Cooks Beach, or Hazards Beach, on the way, but to save weight we'll do the entire hike in one extended push. On the way we'll not just see but actually hike the full length of storied Wineglass Bay. But tonight, the comforts of the camp seem paramount. The remote setting, and the quiet, make me glad I'll have at least one full day here to explore the nearby beaches, do some kayaking and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere before the hike out.
The 25-kilometer Peninsula Circuit is the signature hike on the Freycinet, and Hunya and I see the best part of it even though we'll begin far below it. Starting at the southern end of Bryans Beach, we traverse the long crescent of sand and cut inland on the Bryans Beach Track out to Cooks Beach, a favorite camp for hikers doing the circuit. From the north end of the beach we pick up the circuit track itself, and follow it up to the saddle between Mt. Freycinet, the highest peak on the peninsula, and Mt. Graham. It's steep going up through the thick gum forest as we gradually gain elevation from sea level, at the beach, up to almost 2,000 feet. Annoyingly, a fog bank rolls in just as we approach the top of Mt. Freycinet. The gloom makes the rocky trail slippery but brings a shot of cool air on a muggy day--and adds to the drama if the as ragged streamers of fog blow through the dense gum forest that is alive with birdsong.
Hunya knows her natural history, and identifies the big raptor that soars overhead as a sea eagle, and the brightly colorful little ground feeder as a green rosella, even if it looks more yellow to me. On the way down from the saddle toward Wineglass Bay she expertly scoops up a small lizard known locally as a mountain dragon to give me a better look. You get two peaks for the price of one on this route, as after the hour-and-a-half side trip to Mount Freycinet, the trail from the saddle goes right over the top of Mt. Graham as well. Here the fog begins to break up a bit to allow glimpses down to the famous bay. There's a grisly history to the pretty beach, however: the name, Wineglass Bay, comes not from the shape of it, as most people assume, but the fact that in earlier whaling days the bay was so full of whales' blood it looked like a glass of red wine.
We arrive at the beach in time for a late afternoon snack, and settle in among the driftwood for a rest as we watch a couple of cruising sail boats strain against their anchor chains in the bay. We see our first people here on the beach, as the route from here goes up through a saddle in a sub-range called The Hazards, and down to Parson's Bay. That's the car park for the Wineglass Bay hike, probably the most popular route on the national park. After the solitude of the lower peninsula, it's a bit of a shock to see a dozen hikers, but it would be selfish of us to expect the most famous part of the Freycinet to ourselves.
Taken together, my three routes on the east coast--the Bay of Fires, the Freycinet Peninsula and the Tasman Peninsula--gave me a thorough primer in Tasmania coastal hiking in just two weeks. I'm enjoying it even more knowing it's snowy and cold back home in Seattle. But there's more to Tasmania than world class hiking trails. The people I've met reflect the Tasman sensibility: friendly, relaxed and generous, a special breed of Aussie who put an emphasis on enjoying life in a place they know to be special. The care and pride taken for an even casual meal, and the remarkable wines are part of that equation: life here is sweet.
Just as Tim's camp is unique in the Pacific, and the Bay of Fires lodge deserving of it's growing reputation, the other places in my stay reflected similar commitment to earth friendly practices and human friendly creature comforts. When Josh and I finished the long Tasman route on a stormy day, we made a bee line for Eaglehawk Neck. Here, at the only accommodation around, the Eaglehawk Neck Guesthouse, we found a genuine sanctuary.
In a building that dates to the time when the entire peninsula was a penal colony, we found spacious rooms with big porches on the upper story to dry our gear. The "neck," or isthmus here is so narrow, only a hundred yards across, it could be guarded by “the dog line,” a phalanx of vicious dogs chained together so expertly they couldn't attack each other but no prisoner could pass between. In the 19th century, the peninsula was Tasmania’s “prison without walls," a grim place, as evidenced by the penal colony ruins at nearby Port Arthur.
Our inn keeper, Julia, directed us to a local restaurant where, after three nights on the trail, we feasted on a Tasmanian fish called "blue eye," or trabella, and Ninth Island pinot gris. We laughed about the bad weather on the hike and hatched a scheme for an even wilder route to do next time I can get back. For next time, Josh and I are thinking a full traverse of the Western Arthurs. I'm just going to have to remember to build in a little more time for hanging out.
With time running out on my first trip down here, Josh gave me a lift to Hobart the next day for the flight back to the states. I got just one afternoon in Tasmania's capitol city, big and cosmopolitan but predictably laid back. I caught up on my notes at a café among the historic stone buildings of the Salamanca district, just the spot for reflecting on the past two weeks. The hikes measured up in every way to my expectations, enhanced by the sheer fun of traveling around this uncrowded, remote part of the world.
Australia is a long way from North America and Europe, but easily reached. Qantas
flies direct from LA, New York and London, so you can take advantage of all that time in the air to catch up on work. From Melbourne or Sydney, it's a short hop to Hobart or Launceston, gateways to this unique island state. Tasmania makes it easy to get information
about how to plan a hiking vacation. Guided hikes are available from Bay of Fires
, and other outfitters provide logistical support for hikes all over Tasmania. One recommended itinerary starts in Launceston, with a stay at Peppers Seaport, with dinner at the Stillwater Café, a good starting point for my East Coast hiking trip, and, logically, ending in Hobart at the tony Islington, with dinner at the Marque IV.