The Three Capes Track is Tasmania’s ultimate coastal hike

There’s a moment, standing high on dolerite cliffs that drop like a knife’s edge into the ocean, when the rest of the world fades to insignificance. Sheepwash Bay is remarkably still, and the sky is crisp and eggshell blue. Then we hear it – whale song, melodic and haunting. I have goosebumps. The bay is a natural amphitheatre, and the pair of southern rights we eventually spot are not shy about using it as their stage.

Their calls reverberate around the pipes of stone and seem to bounce back at us from Tasman Island and its lonely lighthouse, just offshore. There are 15 of us gazing out to sea. And not a single soul can find the right words to express how special this encounter is. Truth be told, over the course of four days hiking along Tasmania’s wild southeast coast, I’m treated to an endless parade of these ‘pinch me’ moments.

I’m here with Tasmanian Walking Co on its ‘Three Capes Signature Walk’. It’s a spectacular journey along some of the world’s highest sea cliffs. I’m exploring the history of the world’s oldest living culture and wandering among the dozens of microclimates. This is all in Tasmania’s newest nature reserve, Tasman National Park. Tasmanian Walking Co is the only private company with permits to have lodges in this part of the state. Hiking the Three Capes Track means that the days are long. I become intimately acquainted with every single muscle in my body. Nights are a heavenly relief in plush beds with water bottles and woollen blankets.

We split our time between two retreats. The Three Capes Track cabins both have hot showers, lounges with sink-into-me sofas and fireplaces, and wood-clad dining rooms. This is where wine flows freely and stories (and sing-alongs) unfold over canapes. Dinner follows and is always a hearty affair of curries, roasted meats and salads. There’s no road access to either lodge, so the vast majority of supplies are choppered in. Fresh produce is carried on each hike by guides. Our guides are the insanely knowledgeable Mike Smith and Steph Wilson, who are not only the fittest people I’ve ever met – their packs weigh twice the amount of guests, and they make light work of steep ascents – but also have an encyclopaedic understanding of Three Capes Track and this pocket of Tasmania. 

DAY 1 

We’re loaned backpacks that we will carry each day, as well as heavy-duty rain jackets. After getting kitted out, we drive from Hobart to Stewarts Bay, a crescent of sand that is devoid of human presence. There are, however, a pair of bottlenose dolphins playing just offshore. Pinch me. It’s a short cruise across Port Arthur to Denman’s Cove, where we’re treated to nature’s cryotherapy in the form of a wet landing and a three-minute walk to shore. There’s not much between us and Antarctica right now. Invigorating is an understatement.

As if to serenade our start, a wedge-tailed eagle circles overhead. The 48-kilometre Three Capes Track took five years and some $40 million to complete. And oh my, what a job they did. It’s brilliantly maintained with steps in all the right places and additional quirks. This includes a series of 18 benches made by the University of Tasmania students that tell stories of the sights you’ll see along the way. Like the one overlooking Port Arthur, clad with shackles and chains that nod to the history of this former penal colony. And another named ‘Sex on the Cape’, where Mike boils a billy and takes time out to tell us about echidna reproduction. Turns out these prickly critters have quite the stamina. We don’t see any couples going at it, but we do spot a rare albino echidna, tucked away in a hollowed log.

The aroma of silver peppermint bushes and banksia perfumes the air as we walk to Crescent Lodge. This is where our host Kim has the fire going, the kettle on and the plum cake sliced. Boots are shelved, lodge slippers are donned, and anything wet is hung in the drying room. All the bedrooms here are named after shipwrecks, which is apt given that there are more than 400 off the south Tassie coast. And tomorrow while we’re hiking the Three Capes Track we’ll get to experience some of the weather conditions, that no doubt led to their scuttling. 

Echidna on the Three Capes Track
Echidna on the Three Capes Track © Tourism Tasmania

DAY 2 

I’ve lost count of the number of hikes I’ve done. Having pleasant weather is certainly nice, but having inclement weather sets my heart aflutter. Having winds that force me to walk with purpose, and feeling the prick of rain on my cheeks. I know I am alive on day two of hiking the Three Capes Track. We’re well prepared with our sturdy rain jackets and backpack protectors. The only thing impacted by the conditions are photos. But to experience nature’s drama at its most ferocious is worth the lack of happy snaps.

Today, we’re on our way to Pillar Lodge. Before we get there, though, we have to summit Arthur’s Peak through a forest of tall blue gums. Mike sprints ahead and has tea on the boil when we reach the lookout. It has incredible views of Crescent Bay to the west and the phenomenal Dolomite cliffs of Cape Pillar to the east. Tasman National Park covers just one per cent of Tasmania. However, it’s home to a staggering two-thirds of the state’s flora and fauna. 

Today, we walk through six microclimates. This includes a dreamy cloud forest that is all moss and pineapple candle heath. There are also maroon helmet orchids, no bigger than a pinkie nail. We arrive at Pillar Lodge via the ‘Driveway of Doom’, a hidden 80-metre track of switchbacks that takes 15 minutes to ascend. But at the top, we’re welcomed with warm drinks and the prospect of the clouds parting. 

Walking along the trail of Three Capes Track
Walking along the trail of Three Capes Track © Tourism Tasmania

DAY 3 

This morning, the sun is shining and it’s the perfect start to a day with many wilderness highlights. We wander through wet sclerophyll forest on our way to views of the Southern Hemisphere’s tallest sea stacks: Cape Pillar, Cape Raoul and Cape Hauy dolerite cliffs tower 300 metres above the ocean, and are those that our trek is named after.

In small groups, we scale the steps of the ominously named ‘Blade’, a narrow rock formation that juts into the ocean. Our packed lunch is enjoyed just metres away at ‘Seal Spa’, named after the wildlife that frolics in the sea’s froth below. 

Admiring the cliffside views of the Three Capes Track © Tourism Tasmania
Admiring the cliffside views of the Three Capes Track © Tourism Tasmania

DAY 4 

Our final day of hiking the Three Capes Track sees us transported into a fairytale world of the Gondwanan rainforest, cloaking Mount Fortescue in a veil of sassafras, soft ferns and moss. I half expect elves and goblins to peek out from their tiny tree-hollow homes. It’s the most magical of preludes to Cape Hauy, where we ditch our packs and spend two hours climbing out to what feels like the end of the Earth. It’s not far off. The colours seem brighter, the air cleaner, the wilderness wilder. It’s at once humbling and awe-inspiring. And like nature’s tonic for the soul.

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