January 29 – February 1, 2019

Tasmania 2019 Adventure Trip

Three Capes Track Traverse:  Port Arthur to Denmans Cove to Fortescue Bay

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Region: Tasman National Park (Tasmania)

Starting Point: Port Arthur Jetty

Way Points: Safety Cove & Crescent Bay & Port Arthur Bay & Denmans Cove (boat ride via Port Arthur tour boat);  Three Capes Trailhead & Surveyors Hut & Arthurs Peak & Ellarwey Valley & Fortescue Track Junction & Munro Hut & Fortescue Track Junction & Retakunna Hut & Mt. Fortescue & Fortescue Bay Viewpoint (hike via Three Capes Track)

Ending Point: Fortescue Beach

Campsites: Surveyors Hut & Munro Hut & Retakunna Hut

Side Trip: The Blade & Cape Pillar (hike via trail)

—Side Trip: Cape Hauy Lookout (hike via trail)

Approximate Total Stats (including both sidetrips):  30 miles traveled; 5550 feet gained and lost.

——————– Trip Overview ——————–

History:

The Three Capes Track is a new hut-to-hut trail system located within Tasman National Park in southeastern Tasmania.  It is fashioned after the immensely popular “Great Walk” trails of New Zealand and has been beautifully constructed (at a cost of AUS $17 million) to provide a splendid coastal-upland backpacking experience.  Indeed, the Overland Track may be Australia’s most famous and popular trail, but the Three Capes Track must surely be its most elegant and scenic.  The name refers to three geographic capes—Cape Raoul, Cape Pillar, and Cape Hauy—located on the Tasman Peninsula, and the trail extends to the tip of the latter two capes.

The trip takes four days, and the Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service allows up to 48 hikers per day on the trail.  Permit fees are about AUS $450 per person, which is actually quite reasonable given the quality of the trail and accommodations.  Although the trail opened only a few years ago (in 2015), it is usually booked up months in advance throughout the summer season.  The trail and huts are open year-round, so a quieter wintertime trip would also be possible.

Three Capes Track Logo

Trail Route:

The Three Capes Track officially begins at Denmans Cove, across the bay from Port Arthur’s historic penal colony site.  From the cove beach, the trail gradually ascends to a broad upland plateau and extends eastward until descending to Fortescue Bay on the eastern side of the Tasman Peninsula.  This is not a great distance if taken directly, but there are two must-do sidetrips that branch off from the primary trail.  The first is a long hike out to the very tip of Cape Pillar, and the second is a shorter hike out nearly to the end of Cape Hauy.  Your total distance travelled will be 30 miles when both sidetrips are included.

Three Capes Trail Map & Profile

Boat and Bus Transport:

Each permit fee for the Three Capes Track conveniently includes your transportation to and from the ends of the traverse.  Day 1 involves a fast tour-boat ride down along the coast of Cape Raoul (one of the “three capes”), then back across Port Arthur Bay to the starting trailhead at Denmans Cove.  Day 4 involves a bus ride from the ending trailhead at Fortescue Bay back to your car at Port Arthur.

Port Arthur Tour Boat

Flora and Fauna:

Most of the Three Capes Track passes through forests of eucalyptus, beech, gum, pine, and other coastal trees, along with meadows of buttongrass.  The capes themselves largely consist of vast heathlands featuring a variety of dense shrubs.  Off-trail travel through these heathlands would be excruciatingly slow and difficult if not downright impossible (as many of the early explorers discovered).

Retakunna Hut Helipad Access Trail Thru Meadow

Common wildlife in this area includes possums, wallabies, and rabbits, perhaps with an occasional quoll or echidna (an adorable little critter that looks as though a bunny, a porcupine, and an ant-eater were genetically blended).  Tasmanian devils are, sadly, a rare and endangered animal, so you would be very fortunate to see one in the wild.

Echidna (stock photo)

Weather:

Tasmania lies approximately within the same latitude band as Oregon, and both are coastal states.  Not surprisingly, their weather conditions tend to be somewhat similar.  For a January trip on the Three Capes Track, one could reasonably expect to have weather similar to that of the Oregon coast in July.  During our four days on the trail, we experienced the following:  temps as high as 80F and as low as 40F; dry and sunny days; overcast and humid days; nighttime thunderstorms; spitting rain; and howling winds.  Depending on the wind direction, we also had intermittent smoke from the huge brushfires that were burning in northern and central Tasmania at the time.

Heavy Weather Over Tasman Island Near Tip Of Cape Pillar

Geology:

Geological conditions along the Three Capes Track are characterized by two main rock types.  The older rock type consists of siltstone, sandstone, and conglomerate.  These sedimentary deposits were later intruded by magma that squeezed up through vertical cracks and forced its way into horizontal cracks.  The magma cooled to form a younger igneous rock called dolerite (known as diabase in North America).

Sedimentary Sea Cliffs On Cape Hauy

Although dolerite has a geochemistry equivalent to basalt and gabbro, it cooled off at a rate that was slower than basalt but faster than gabbro.  This intermediate cooling rate resulted in an igneous rock that has a moderately crystalline texture and a tendency to split into tall, slender, irregular (non-hexagonal) columns.

Dolerite Columns On Cape Hauy

In the Three Capes area, the columnar dolerite is fully exposed in spectacular sea cliffs that range up to 1000 feet tall.  There are also many isolated towers comprising just a few clustered columns and even some solitary columns.  Not surprisingly, these towers have grabbed to attention of rock climbers around the world.  The most famous tower, called “The Totem Pole,” is located near the tip of Cape Hauy.  Another dramatic example of is “The Moai,” a 200-foot-tall dolerite needle that appeared on the cover of Ascent magazine several years ago.

The Moai On 2015 Ascent Magazine Cover

Trail Conditions:

What do you get when you spend $17 million on a 30-mile trail system?  A wide, smooth, well-graded track, with lots of fill gravel, stepping stones, rock steps, and wooden “duckboard” boardwalks.  You don’t get mudholes, overhanging brush, or obstacles.  Also, a pleasing level of trail craftsmanship is visible along the entire route.  But don’t let this dissuade you from wearing your knee-high “quagmire gaiters” while on the trail; after all, you may still want to look like a real Tasmanian.

Earthen Trail Thru Heathland On Cape Pillar
Boardwalk Trail Curving Thru Ferns On Cape Pillar

Story Seats:

A very interesting and unusual feature of the Three Capes Track is the presence of two dozen “story seats” scattered along the route.  At the start of the trip, everyone is given an Encounters on the Edge booklet that contains short discussions regarding local history, weather, plants, animals, rocks, and other topics pertinent to the Three Capes area.

Three Capes Track Info Booklet

Each story seat relates directly to a particular topic in the booklet.  Upon coming to a story seat, hikers are encouraged to sit down and read their booklet; clearly, education is given preference over speed on this trail.  The fact that every seat is unique—having been designed by a different student at the University of Tasmania—makes them all the more fun.

Metal Story Seat On Cape Pillar
Brooke At Wooden Story Seat On Cape Pillar

Camping and Accommodations:

With the exception of two established backcountry campsites near the middle of the route, “wild camping” (as the Aussies call backcountry tenting) is prohibited along the Three Capes Track.  Hikers are required to sleep in the huts.  Not that anyone would really want to wild-camp here, because all three huts are architecturally fabulous!

Surveyors Hut Bunkhouse & Kitchen

Conveniently, each hut contains 48 individual bunks (with thick mattresses) so that every hiker is assured of having a comfy bed at the end of the day.  The bunks are arranged in small bunkrooms containing either four or eight bunks, and the bunkrooms are assigned in advance.  As such, our group of four people always stayed together throughout the trip.  Larger groups can be kept together in the larger bunkrooms.

Surveyors Hut Bunkroom Exterior
Surveyors Hut Bunkroom Interior

Aside from the comfortable bunkrooms, each hut includes one or two kitchens (with several propane stoves, a sink, and a full arsenal of cookware), one or two dining rooms, a small library, spacious decks, an exterior latrine, and an array of rainwater tanks.  Solar panels are used to power electric lights and USB ports (for recharging phones and other electronic devices) within the community rooms, and pellet stoves can be used for heat during colder months.  Simply put, these huts are about as luxurious as a backcountry hut can be!

Surveyors Hut Kitchen
Retakunna Hut Dining Room

Drinking and Cooking Water:

Although the Three Capes area is considered fairly wet by Tasmanian standards, there are precious few streams here.  In order to provide reliable drinking and cooking water sources for hikers, all huts collect rainwater from their roofs and store it in large tanks.  Approximately ten tanks are used at each hut to supply the year-round water needs and provide a reserve for drought periods.  The result is an impressive “tank farm” in the backyard of each hut.

Surveyors Hut Rainwater Tanks

Although the park service officially recommends boiling this rainwater before drinking it, we found that none of the “locals” follow this policy.  I can say that our group drank copious amounts of untreated rainwater and never had any gastric distress.

Camping Equipment:

Because the huts are so well appointed, hikers do not need to carry sleeping pads, campstoves, or cookware.  The only necessary camping items are a sleeping bag or quilt, a pillow, dinnerware, eating utensils, personal hygiene items, and food.

Trail and Hut Clothing:

Hikers should bring enough clothing to accommodate a wide variety of weather conditions, ranging from hot, sunny days to cold, rainy days.  Basically, we packed as if spending a week in the Cascades during July.  Our personal clothing kits included a sun hat, a tuque, several lightweight shirts, shorts, long pants, a fleece sweater, a puffy coat, a rain parka, rain pants, and trail shoes or boots.  We encountered the full gamut of weather conditions during our four days on the trail and, at one time or another, used every item of clothing that we carried.

Jim Dressed For Foul Weather On The Blade

In addition to trail clothing, a pair of sandals or lightweight shoes, a clean shirt, and lightweight pants were very much appreciated for lounging around the huts each evening.

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

Our immediate party of four on the Three Capes Track comprised Eileen, Brooke, Callum, and me.  Our entire group of 48 hikers included many mainland Australians (mostly from Melbourne or Sydney), numerous Tasmanians, a handful of Americans, and a few Europeans and Asians.  It was a pretty diverse group by local standards but far less international than typically found on the “Great Walk” trails of New Zealand.  Because every daily group of 48 must stay on the same hut-to-hut schedule, a “hiking peloton” naturally forms on the trail.  As with the Overland Track, this social intermingling was one of our favorite aspects of the Three Capes Track traverse.

Day 1 – Port Arthur to Surveyors Hut:

We left our vehicle in the large (and free) parking lot at the Port Arthur Historic Site Visitor Center and boarded a 2:30pm tour boat at the local jetty.  We stashed our backpacks under the seats and then donned hilariously unfashionable red cagoules to protect ourselves from spray.  I think only the Spanish Inquisition would want to be seen wearing these!

Eileen & Brooke Wearing Lovely Red Cagoules

The boat pilots took us southward along the shore of Cape Raoul for an hour, stopping to describe geology and wildlife along the way.  They then sped across the bay and beached the boat at Denmans Cove.  Here, we all grabbed backpacks and hopped out.

Disembarking At Denmans Cove

Just up from the beach, a signpost marked the formal start of the Three Capes Track.  It was truly a delight to be here, given the fact that this entire area was nearly closed the previous day due to brushfires burning in the vicinity.

Jim & Eileen & Brooke & Cal At Start Of Three Capes Track

It was less than 3 miles to Surveyors Hut, but the heat, humidity, and brushfire smoke made this short jaunt seem much longer.  However, upon arriving at the hut (1.6 hours + 650 feet from beach), all discomfort was immediately forgotten.

Surveyors Hut Marker Sign
Arriving At Surveyors Hut On Day 1

The hut was both rustic and elegant, with architecturally interesting lines.  Wide verandas and generous decks encircled the kitchen/dining buildings and bunkhouses, offering views of the surrounding meadowland and the distant ocean.

Surveyors Hut Walking Decks

We settled into our four-person bunkroom and then got set up for dinner on the viewing deck.  Jessica, the resident ranger, came out and gave a spirited 45-minute talk about the local history, natural features, and hut procedures.  Clearly, we were all in for a remarkable experience over the next several days.

Surveyors Hut Viewing Deck

Day 2 – Surveyors Hut to Munro Hut:

It was a mild morning, so Eileen and I ate breakfast on the viewing deck.  On the ground just below us, a wallaby and a rabbit were nibbling on bushes and wandering around together—as if they had been friends for many years.

After breakfast, our peloton packed up and headed out at various times.  Today was not a long day, so nobody was in a particular hurry.  Once on the trail, we took time to stop at the various “story seats” and read our booklets.  No sooner would one group finish at a seat than another group would stroll in.

Eileen At Trailside Story Seat

The trail wandered close to the seacliffs at several locations, giving us peeks at Cape Raoul across the bay.

Point Brown & Cape Raoul From Trail On Day 2
Maingon Bay From Rocky Perch

We arrived at Munro Hut in the early afternoon (5.0 hours + 1050 feet from Surveyors Hut).  Due to its “hub” location, this hut generally has more activity than the other two.

Arriving At Munro Hut On Day 2

Munro Hut also offers a couple of amenities not found in the other two huts.  One is a promontory that juts out over the hillslope.

Munro Hut Promontory

The other amenity is a pair of outdoor showers, complete with hot water.  We quickly got in line for a shower.

Munro Hut Rainwater Tanks & Showers

The kitchen and dining room here is similar to those of the other huts, except that there is a model ship mounted on one wall.  This model commemorates the S.S. Nord, which sank off the adjacent coastline over 100 years ago.

Munro Hut Model Ship

Day 3 – Munro Hut to Cape Pillar to Retakunna Hut:

Following a night of lightning and rain, we awoke to cool and unsettled weather.  Today’s agenda called for a must-do sidetrip out to the tip of Cape Pillar, so bunkrooms were cleared out, backpacks were stashed in a shed, and everyone headed out with rucksacks. Brooke and I hiked together and enjoyed our walk through the forest and heathland.

Decorative Trail To Cape Pillar
Boardwalk Trail To Cape Pillar

As we neared the end of the cape, the trail repeatedly curved out to the tall seacliffs.  Tasman Island, with its historic lighthouse perched on top, sat closely off the cape’s tip. Three separate families lived on this island concurrently when the lighthouse was manually operated.

Brooke Studying Tasman Island From Cape Pillar

We eventually encountered Callum on the trail, and the three of us took a short detour up to The Blade, a distinctive prow of rock.

Rock Steps Leading To The Blade
Dolerite Sea Cliffs Near The Blade

Our trail continued out nearly to the tip of Cape Pillar, where we met up with Eileen.  Closely to the right, we could see The Blade.  Far to the left, we could see Cape Hauy, our goal for tomorrow.

The Blade From Tip Of Cape Pillar
Cape Hauy From Cape Pillar

During our hike back along the cape, a windstorm kicked up, and the gusts almost knocked us off our feet several times.  We reached Munro Hut at 1:00pm (4.9 hours + 1700 feet RT) and had a hot lunch in the outdoor breezeway.  Activity gradually increased as hikers from the next group were starting to arrive from Surveyors Hut.

Munro Hut Breezeway

Around 2:00pm, we packed up and began our short hike over to Retakunna Hut.  Our only stop along the way was to check out an intriguing “stick den” just off the trail.  It was tantalizing to imagine that this structure was built by ancient aborigines or a prehistoric animal, but the rangers believe that it was actually built recently by some industrious trail workers.

Stick Den Alongside Three Capes Track

We arrived at Retakunna Hut in mid-afternoon (0.9 hours + 150 feet from Munro Hut).

Retakunna Hut Marker Sign

By now, the hut situation and people were very familiar to us, so we quickly settled in for an afternoon of conversation and appetizers, followed by dinner and more conversation.

Brooke Relaxing On Retakunna Hut Deck

Day 4 – Retakunna Hut to Cape Hauy to Fortescue Bay:

Hut activity was more hurried than usual this morning because half of our group was scheduled to leave Fortescue Bay on an early-afternoon shuttle bus.  In order to tuck in a sidetrip to Cape Hauy Lookout, they needed to leave the hut by approximately 7:00am.  Eileen, Brooke, Callum, and I were scheduled for a later shuttle bus, so we could afford a more leisurely breakfast.

I was the last to leave, at 8:30am, and eventually caught up with Eileen below the top of Mt. Fortescue.  The morning air was cool and relatively clear, due to a shift in the wind direction.

Eileen At Cape Hauy Viewpoint

Upon reaching the Cape Hauy trail junction, we stashed our backpacks and headed for the lookout.

Eileen On Trail To Cape Hauy

Brooke and Cal had gone out ahead and reached the lookout by late morning.  Eileen and I arrived shortly before noon (3.3 hours from Retakunna Hut).

Brooke & Cal & Eileen & Jim At Cape Hauy Lookout

Cape Hauy Lookout sits directly across from The Candlestick and above The Totem Pole.  Both of these dolerite towers are famous and difficult rock-climbing objectives.  It was obvious that just getting to the base of either tower is a fairly serious task.

The Candlestick On Cape Hauy
The Totem Pole On Cape Hauy

By our good fortune, two climbers were starting to ascend The Candlestick when we arrived.  Eileen and I spent nearly an hour watching their progress up the first pitch.

Climbers On First Pitch Of The Candlestick

After returning to the trail junction (2.8 hours + 850 feet RT) and collecting our backpacks, we were left with only a few miles of descent to Fortescue Bay.  A nice “photo op” marker is situated above the bay.

Eileen & Jim On Three Capes Track Overlooking Fortescue Bay

We reached the white sand beach at 3:00pm (6.7 hours + 2000 feet from Retakunna Hut), with plenty of time to catch our 4:00pm shuttle bus back to Port Arthur.  All four of us agreed that this is an exceptionally scenic and luxurious backpacking trip—like nothing we’d ever done before.

——————– Route Map / Sketch ——————–

Three Capes Trail Map & Profile

——————– Photo Gallery (click to enlarge) ——————–