Hiking Tasmania's Beautiful South Coast Track

6 September 2015

It was not until I was looking over the rugged mountain ranges of south-west Tasmania, my stomach dropping with every bump of the six-seater plane from Hobart, that I realised just what I was in for – and that it was too late to turn back.

I hadn’t even done an overnight walk before and I was flying into the heritage-listed wilderness of Tasmania to hike the South Coast track, from Melaleuca to Cockle Creek, over the next seven days. I was nervous.

The mountains looked impossibly steep. The pilot kindly pointed out where the land had become bog up to six metres deep and my perspective from the plane clearly revealed just how absolutely isolated the track was – a tiny trail through dense ancient rainforest.

I’m not a bush walker. I’m pretty active but walking for days on end has never been something that appealed to me – mainly because I thought I would be bored.

But recently I’ve had the urge to do more adventuring. I’d love to do a trip to South America, especially Patagonia, in the next few years so I thought the 84-kilometre South Coast track would be good practice. It was January, peak time of year to walk in Tasmania, and our weather forecast was looking good for the next three days at least – after that, we’d find out when it happened.

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No Huts, No Guide And No Cook

The South Coast track is not like the Overland track, Tasmania’s most popular walk. There are no huts and it’s not guided. We would be cooking all our own food, carrying our gear the whole way and carrying out all our rubbish.

But first the preparation. My attempt to wear in my new boots consisted of one 15-kilometre day walk in the Namadgi national park in the ACT. Packing consisted of laying out everything I was going to take and swinging wildly between “I have to carry all of this!” and “This is all I get for seven days?”

Our menu for the week consisted of muesli with milk powder for breakfast, dried fruit, nuts, jelly beans and chocolate bullets for snacks, mountain bread, cheese, sun dried tomato and salami for lunch and freeze-dried meals for dinner.

We went with Backcountry Cuisine. My favourite meal, due to its close resemblance to real food, was the spaghetti bolognese.

For clothing I took shorts and a shirt to walk in and warm and wet weather gear – thermals, down jacket, beanie and gloves, plus some comfy clothes to wear around camp (I chose my Wonderwoman T-shirt for morale).

My pack ended up weighing 14 kilograms but there were others on the track who carried up to 26 kilograms, lugging around fold-up chairs, ingredients to cook a three-course meal, and luxurious toiletries such as soap and camping showers.

And this was without water – we drank from beautiful spring-water creeks the whole way and only used water purifying tablets once.

 Trying to stay calm: the view from the tiny plane. Photograph: Anna Madeleine for the Guardian

The only access to the starting point at Melalueca is by light plane, mostly via Par-Avion Wilderness Tours. A false start on day one – the fog was too thick for the plane to land – made it clear why most hikers choose to fly in and walk out rather than the other way, risking getting stuck in bad weather waiting for a flight back to Hobart.

Dig Your Own From Here On In

But we woke up the next day to clear blue skies and finally touched down at Melalueca’s tiny airstrip. We had our last real toilet stop (before having to dig our own loos), lathered on the sunscreen, and filled our hydration packs – the plastic bladders we attached to our packs with a hose for drinking from (amazingly convenient! I wanted to hang one above my desk at work when I got back.)

After snapping the standard “before” shot next to the track sign, we set off through Tasmania’s classic button-grass plains of scratchy bush scrub to our first campsite at Cox Bight.

The South Coast track is notoriously muddy. And not even 2 kilometres into our journey, I misjudged a step on the narrow boardwalk and my entire left leg sunk thigh deep into a swamp. But making that first stumble made it easier – I was wet and dirty now, why try to avoid it?

The first day was one of the shortest and easiest days of walking, but for me it was more about getting used to it mentally – the gear, the food, the rhythm.

I had a newfound appreciation for things like my gators – the funny looking bits of fabric hikers wear over their shins and boots – which protected my legs from scratches, mud and most importantly, snakes (apparently, I walk faster after seeing a snake).

What I also noticed that first day was the feeling of disconnecting from the world. I had no phone, no internet, no Twitter – nothing – but I could feel myself instinctively looking to check them every few minutes.

That night we set up camp and enjoyed the novelty (which wore off quickly) of freeze-dried food. I was comfortable and content, even if still a bit nervous about the next day – which at 17 kilometres was to be our longest on the whole trip.

We needed to time the start of our second day with low tide so our tide chart, which we printed from the Bureau of Meteorology site, was essential – I had even laminated mine.

With various creek, river and ocean point crossings, I discovered quickly that “just trying to cross quickly” doesn’t keep the water out of your shoes. Take them off – it’s worth it.

 The view from the top of the Ironbound ranges. Photograph: Anna Madeleine for the Guardian

The next day was the big one: the Ironbound ranges. At 12 kilometres, it’s not a long day in distance but the 905 metre climb is steep, rocky and full of false summits.

We started early to avoid full sunlight and as we reached the peak, the sun burnt through the clouds and revealed spectacular views of Tasmania’s rolling mountain ranges, where we’d come from, and stretching coastlines, where we were going.

With frequent stops for jelly beans and water, the way up wasn’t as hard as I expected. What I wasn’t prepared for was the descent down the other side. It was so dense I decided it classified as jungle with mossy branches, big tree roots and rocks constantly obstructing the path.


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Along The Edge Of Australia

It was then that I discovered the magic of trekking poles – not just walking sticks for old people! I used mine to balance and also as a mud gauge to avoid the full-leg disappearing act I had on day one.

After setting up camp that night, I felt the exhaustion and sore muscles beginning to set in, worse than anything my lame attempt at sunrise yoga could fix.

For the next two days we walked along the edge of Australia – across the vast white sand and clear water expanse of Prion beach, to Surprise Bay (clearly signposted, disappointingly) and Granite Beach, where we ended day five with a refreshing – actually freezing cold – shower under a beautiful beachside waterfall.

The days were full of extremes – when the sun was out, it burned. The ocean was incredibly clear but also freezing cold and full of rips. Our swims were always brief.

 Harsh sun and clear blue water on the  walk along Prion beach. Photograph: Anna Madeleine for the Guardian

That night, what began as a few drops of rain pattering peacefully on our tent turned into the heaviest rainfall Hobart has had in three years and the Huon valley had two months of rain in 24 hours.

The next day, the muddy paths had turned to creeks and we were walking through knee deep rushing water and wading through swamps at least 10 metres wide.

I got used to the rain, and the mud. What didn’t get easier were the leeches. They fell from the trees. It was raining leeches!

I don’t usually care much about bugs, but leeches are in a different league. It got to the point where we were stopping every few minutes to peel them off ourselves, with salt ready for the more stubborn ones.

Worse than the leeches themselves was the paranoia they set off in me – you can’t feel them, so I was constantly imagining them or squealing at a twig or leaf which simply looked like it could maybe be a leech.

That day I went into survival mode – I just walked. We hardly stopped for food.

Wet, cold and tired, we finally reached the beach, but pretty quickly our hopes were dashed. The rivulet we needed to cross had turned into a torrential gushing river, clearly unsafe to cross. So we buckled down for the night, in the leech forest, waiting for low tide, with our fingers crossed the rain would ease overnight.

I was anxious: we were already delayed one day because of our false start and we only had one extra day’s worth of food. I was stuck inside a tent watching leeches crawl over the outside but I eventually realised there was nothing I could do except wait.

Exhausted from the day, I finally fell asleep.

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The currents were weaker the next day, but crossing involved walking in water so deep I didn’t even bother wearing my shorts. But we made it!

On the other side, we set off at a fast pace (once fully clothed) and made it just in time to catch the bus along the windy road back to Hobart feeling relaxed, sore, proud and not as happy as I thought I’d be to switch my phone back on.

 Walking out at Cockle Creek, muddy but happy. Photograph: Anna Madeleine for the Guardian

The South Coast track was incredible – the spectacular coastal views, rugged landscapes, dense forests and vast deserted beaches far outweighed the two days of bad weather.

But three sets of bush walkers had to be rescued in the week after we walked out. We got lucky – if the weather had turned earlier, this could have been a completely different story.

Unexpectedly, seven days didn’t feel all that long and I’ve starting researching the world’s best long distance hikes.

Walking the South Coast track proved I could do it and I couldn’t have been more wrong about being bored. I found I settled into a pace – not only physically but also mentally – which was peaceful and I liked that there was no option to do anything but walk – all I had to do was keep on going.


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This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk

This article was written by Anna Madeleine from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.