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Cliff hangers

This story appeared in Great Walks, Dec 2015/Jan 2016

Three Capes Track officially opens in Tasman National Park on 23 December 2015. Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service granted Great Walks access in early October when cabins and trails were still under construction and the so-called seating forms were yet to be installed. Over three warm spring days I walked most of the route to find out what’s happening and what’s to come.

In this traditional territory of the Pydairrerme people the vegetation is mainly coastal heathland, open moorland, marshland, native grassland, eucalypt scrub and forest, and cool temperate rainforest. It’s a place of land, sky and sea creatures: spotted-tailed quolls, devils, wombats, all three of Tasmania’s land snakes, eagles, swift parrots, fur seals, dolphins, the occasional turtle and seasonally passing pilot, humpback and southern right whales. Vertical rock walls, such as those that drop 300-metres from the blade of Cape Pillar to the Tasman Sea, are columns of dolerite that intruded during the Jurassic Period.

As a location to develop somewhat of an Overland Track of the Southeast – though shorter, far less steep, dry-boot and crammed with vertiginous rock-your-world views – it’s the obvious choice. To carry through with such an idea is something else.

This is the “second biggest project [Tasmanian] Parks have run and its biggest ever construction project,” Justin Helmich, the current project manager, tells me from the top of Arthurs Peak. Cape Raoul, in the distance, is like a grainy photograph through the sea spray. Helmich lists the major stakeholders as birders, bushwalkers, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, 4WDers, miners and local businesses. A diverse group to communicate with as you spend 30 million dollars of state and federal funds while balancing, as always, park protection and access.

As with any change, there’s been plenty of criticism about how certain aspects of the project have been dealt with. Though what Parks haven’t done is fall back on stale old architecture, traditional interpretation boards or stock standard track design. There’s a level of creativity, artistry and innovation going on that I didn’t expect and, from what I can see and imagine it will be, the overall style is cutting-edge kickass contemporary Tasmanian.

Change of track

The stethoscope-shaped Three Capes Track is a combination of upgraded sections of the existing trail between Fortescue Bay, Cape Hauy and Cape Pillar and fresh new routes between cabin sites or in places where the ‘old’ track was too steep or too close to the top of cliffs.

An attempt to limit the spread of phytophthora has also factored heavily in rerouting decisions, and the direction of the hike – Denmans Cove to Fortescue Bay – was chosen because phytophthora has been identified as more prevalent nearer Fortescue.

The physical track is mainly stone steps, gravel pathway and timber duckboard with very little railing overall. The intention is for hikers to walk side-by-side on the metre-wide track if they wish. That might not be possible for everyone, but a smoother, wider surface means less need for people to constantly watch their feet. 

Stone staircases, constructed where the gradient gets beyond about 13 percent, are works of art.

Adrian Marriner of Living Trails Australia has sourced dolerite and sandstone locally though says the rounded “bush rocks are the best to work with because they don’t look out of place” and he likes to mix what’s already there with the quarried rock. Marriner has been building trails for 23 years and tells me “you try to make it as one with the environment as you possibly can”.

Despite the track’s proximity to cliff tops, especially on the north side of Mt Fortescue and out on Cape Pillar, no fences have been erected. Instead, hikers are encouraged to use natural lookout points. Boulders have occasionally been placed where people might step forward for the view at spots where the soil slips away. I also notice that rocks now fill in the you-wouldn’t-survive-that-if-you-misjudged-it gap between the second highest and the highest columns on Cape Pillar’s blade.

Although 46 kilometres in four days will be a challenge for some, Parks know other people need more than that to be satisfied so various side trips will be developed over time. Parks are also taking the opportunity to rehabilitate fragile areas like Perdition Ponds where hikers won’t be encouraged to go at the moment.

The sleepover

“We’re not selling a track, we’re promoting an experience,” says Parks’ Communications and Marketing Consultant, Ben Davidson. Both he and Helmich – neither of them creative interps types – stress that the huts are key aspects of Three Capes Track.

Surveyors, Munro and Retakunna – more eco-lodges than cabin or hut sites – are clusters of beautiful buildings in the bush. Constructed using fire retardant material and lifted off the ground, they’re technically safe shelters in a bushfire. Windows are angled down to reduce bird strike. Pellet heaters – burning processed waste material – will take the chill off the air during colder weather and there will be cooking facilities, running water, solar lighting, books, yoga mats, comfy seats and incredible views.

“Walkers will be greeted by a host ranger at each cabin site,” Davidson explains. These people will be “as much a concierge as a ranger”.

Each site has an 8-room dorm and 10 other rooms of four bunks; everyone gets a mattress. Hikers travelling in groups can secure a room together when they check in at Port Arthur and arrive anytime they like. The food preparation area is expansive. Toilet blocks are obviously essential but Parks have also decided to install a shower for the second night. The issue of heating this water, however, may continue to be a work in progress this summer.

The art of walking

Interpretations coordinator, Fiona Rice, has worked with Parks for nearly two decades and says she appreciates having been given the “flexibility to do something quite different and creative that hasn’t been done before” and “the opportunity to create quite a remarkable product to match such a remarkable place”.

Part of Rice’s role has involved collaboration with UTAS Furniture Design students and lecturers from Launceston to develop seating and resting points. These are linked to provocative story starters like The Lightkeeper’s Daughter, Messy is Good, Fire is Food, Sex on the Cape and will be artfully positioned along the entire track.

Dear Eliza, for example, is a weathered colonial seat supported by leg irons with a copper-coloured love token embedded in its back and a reflective view across the water to former convict settlement Port Arthur. All 37 stories are in the walkers’ guidebook, Encounters on the Edge.

Each of the three hut sites has a different theme. Surveyors is convict, Munroe is mariner and Retakunna, meaning ‘creaking limbs’, is in the most likely place Pydairrerme people would have spent their time in this area – on the edge of moorland where the wildlife is most diverse. Aboriginal clans throughout the state are contributing to various interpretations, particularly in relation to Retakunna.

Fiona Rice’s passion for story is infectious. Over the phone on my return I’m captivated by her tale of an incomplete navigational chart leading to the wreck of the Nord a century ago, carrier pigeons launched from Tasman Island in heavy weather, desperate seamen scaling the dolerite cliffs and scrub bashing across the peninsula, the pigeons reaching Hobart, a rescue party dispatched and no death. The Nord is now a dive site 40m down on the ocean floor directly below the cantilevered deck at Munro. A ship builder’s replica is on its way from a Swedish maritime shop to be mounted in the dining room.

Graphic patterns created by the project’s public artist, Alex Miles, will be incorporated into things like deck chair covers, bunk room door nameplates and general ‘merch’.

As a matter of fact

The majority of companies and individuals involved in this project are Tasmanian. Since 2007 around 40 people have been employed to work on the track at any one time and Three Capes, if successful, will continue to generate employment. These things are really important for Tasmania, as is the growth a sustainable tourism industry as the economic alternative to mining and logging of the state’s ancient forests.

“Aboriginal people have been very supportive of us working with the land rather than taking from it,” Davidson says.

Unlike the Overland Track, Three Capes is a year-round trail and there is no wrong season to go, just inappropriate clothing. The cost per person includes the Port Arthur Historic Site, secure parking and a locker, a Pennicott Wilderness Journey, Tasman National Park access, three nights of accommodation, walkers’ guidebook (with stories, daily walk notes, flora and fauna guides and maps) and bus transfer from Fortescue Bay back to Port Arthur.

Despite the name, Three Capes Track currently entails walking to Cape Pillar and Cape Hauy but viewing Cape Raoul from the water. The next stage of the project integrates Cape Raoul into the hiking route, which may or may not need to come to fruition.

The original track we know and love to do for free will still be maintained to a “minimum standard,” says Davidson. There will be two campgrounds; one at Wughallee Falls and another site north of Munroe with drinking water, tent platforms and toilets. The poor old campground at Bare Knoll is off to rehab.
Parks have done what they can to keep the two ‘experiences’ separate.

After three days I leave feeling excited about coming back and digging deeper into this landscape I know little about beyond its extraordinary visuals. But I’m even more excited that people who don’t yet have a close relationship with trees and rocks might decide they can manage a Three Capes Track style of hike and come here and be blown away and then treat the natural world differently for the rest of their lives.

This landscape has that capacity.

Published in travel stories