Tasmania’s Wild, Rugged (and Muddy) South Coast Track

When your friends invite you on their “bucket list” backpacking trip, you say “yes, please,” even if it isn’t on your bucket list. So when Katy and Stuart, who moved from Portland to Melbourne, Australia five years ago, invited us to join them on the South Coast Track of Tasmania (a trip that had been on Stuart’s bucket list for 20 years), we jumped at the chance.

We were doubly excited by the fact that, for the first time in six months of travel, we didn’t have to do any of the planning. Katy’s friend, Gaye, organized the hike while Katy bought the plane tickets and booked our pre-hike lodging. All we had to do was show up with our tent and sleeping bags…and our sense of adventure.

The South Coast of Tasmania is a wild place, designated as both a National Park and a UNESCO world heritage area. It is also remote, requiring these two nervous flyers to board a six-seat Cessna, for the 45-minute journey from Hobart to Melaleuca, deep in the Tasmanian bush.

That’s one small plane!

Alex and Katy look excited. Me, not so much.

The flight was beautiful over the rugged mountains, untouched and untamed wilderness as far as the eye could see.

But we were happy to land safely on the 400-meter-short airstrip, as the clouds descended and drizzle moved in. In addition to the anticipation of the amazing hike ahead, we were giddy with the chance to see the Orange-bellied parrot — Melaleuca being its nesting ground. With only 50 or so birds left in the wild, it is the most endangered bird we have ever been lucky enough to see. Its diminuitive stature and vibrant colors also made it one of the most interesting we’ve seen.

Unlike almost everything we have done on this trip, we did no research on the hike itself, preferring to be surprised. And we were! Apparently, the hike is known for:

  1. A steep 1,000-meter (3,337-foot) climb and even steeper descent across the Ironbound Range;
  2. An 8-hour day of slogging through hip-deep mud across the South Cape Range;
  3. A huge lagoon that you cross in a small rowboat; and
  4. A few rope-assisted cliff drops and climbs for good measure.

It poured rain just two days before we set off on the hike so we prepared for the worst of numbers 1 and 2 but, uncharacteristically for the South Coast, a little bit of drizzle on the first day was the only rain that fell until a short sprinkle on Day 7. Instead, we were treated to multiple clear bluebird days, with just enough clouds thrown in for a few stunning sunsets.

The hike itself, which meanders for 78 kilometers, is primarily through three types of habitat: buttongrass plains, old growth eucalypt and beech forest, and sandy coastline. Once you leave Melaleuca, you cross a large expanse of buttongrass, some of which includes boardwalks to keep you elevated above the mud, otherwise you gingerly sidestep the sloppy stuff,  every so often flushing an Eastern ground parrot along the trail.

Towards the end of the first day, you reach the stunning coast, waves crashing on the white sand beach, Australian pied oystercatchers searching for food in the surf.

First view of the wild coast

For the next six days you walk from beach to beach, scaling headlands and mountain ranges of various heights in between.

Particularly challenging is the hike over the Ironbound Range on Day 3. Given that the hike is only 12.4 kilometers (about 7.5 miles), we couldn’t fathom why the guidebook said it would take 7-9 hours to complete. And then, just after crossing the Louisa River, we started the climb. Straight up from sea level to 1,000 meters with no respite from the sun. It was here that we learned there is no such thing as switchbacks in Tasmania. But the views up and down the coast and across the National Park are truly stunning.

Alex tackles the first section of the steep ascent

Members of our group take a well-deserved rest half way up the Ironbound Range

The hike up was difficult, but it was the hike down that really blew our minds. It was slow and arduous, requiring careful foot placement and often the use of all four limbs as we grabbed hold of vines and tree trunks to steady ourselves  and avoid a twisted knee or rolled ankle on the impossibly steep, wet and muddy descent.

Can you find the trail in this photo?

Alex does his best to stay upright

Towards the end of the day, when we had begun to emit a sigh of relief at the end of the steepest section of trail, Alex stopped dead in his tracks in front of me. “What?” I asked exasperatedly, almost running into him. “Snake,” he replied quietly. And then I saw it too. A 5-foot-long, girthy black snake in the trail ahead of us. I quickly recalled what Frances, had read to us from the guidebook the night before. “The South Coast Track has three snakes, all of which are venemous.”

“Do you think this one is kill you venemous or just hurt you real bad venemous?” I wondered aloud. (Later we would determine it was a tiger snake, which has highly toxic venom that can cause muscle and central nervous system damage, affect blood clotting and lead to kidney failure.)

We gave the snake a wide berth as it slithered up the trail, a scrub wren noisily alerting others to its presence. Finally, it crossed the trail and headed downhill. We saw it curled up just a few feet from the track as we passed.

We were utterly spent as we hobbled into camp that night at Deadman’s Bay, a full 9.5 hours after we began the 7-mile hike!

Deadman’s Bay Camp a welcome site

The fun didn’t end there.

On Day 4, we spent the morning hike puzzling out the math for the row across Prion Bay:

You have two rowboats, one of each side of the bay. You must get your group of seven (7) across and leave a boat on each side. The boat can only hold three (3) people with backpacks, including the rower. There is not a tiger on the boat with you.

We determined that it would require (fill in the blank) round trips, including one final trip across to leave the requisite boat on the side where we began. However, when we reached the bay, a group of three people were just starting their crossing. No worries, we decided to have lunch as we watched them row across. But when the group’s rower brought the boats back across with the extra boat tethered to the boat he was rowing (smart), we realized he left the extra oars on the other side of the bay (not so smart). So while everyone finished lunch, I joined him and his friend for the ride back across the bay in order to get the oars. After rowing the boat back to the starting point, I finished my lunch while everyone else ferried across the bay. With Alex rowing the tethered boats back at the end to pick me up.

I take an unexpected leg of the river crossing with the not so smart ones

Stuart and Gaye paddle the lagoon

Ten minutes after our rowing adventures we came to a cliffside sand drop followed quickly by a knee-to-thigh deep wade at the edge of the bay along the cliff on the other side of the creek, finally reaching a rope and ladder assisted climb to the top of next headland. Phew!

We were all pretty wiped by the end of all that and thankfully the remaining hike to camp was relatively flat. The reward for our hard work was a picturesque and nearly deserted beach camp and a spectacular and enduring sunset for New Year’s Eve (although no one actually stayed awake until midnight to ring in the near year).

The next day was a fairly easy walk through some of the most beautiful old growth forest we have seen on this trip so far. Massive myrtle beech trees 8-10 feet in diameter with an understory of tree ferns, native laurel and flowering leatherwood, created a feeling of stepping way back in time.

I half expected a triceratops or brontosaurus to step in front of us on the track. Add to that a waterfall shower on a rocky beach when we got to camp, and this was by far my favorite day of the hike.

We were all a little nervous as we ate breakfast on Day 6, wondering just how deep the mud would be as we crossed the South Cape Range. Although only half as high as the Ironbound Range, it can be equally difficult to cross due to its infamous stretches of deep mud. But given the near perfect weather we had experienced over the previous five days, we hoped for the best, knowing that this was as dry as the track ever gets.

It seems strange to say that we got lucky with mud that was only ankle- to  knee-deep crossing the mountains, but given the horror stories we had heard along the way, we definitely felt like luck was on our side. That said, it was still no easy trek that day and we were all covered in mud by the time we reached the South Cape Rivulet.

Stuart goes “up the guts” while I attempt the side step approach

For a laugh, look closely at the faces in this photo

When we made our final descent and emerged from the forest it was paradise found; a gorgeous, wide, flat, white sand beach, the camp nestled between the surf and the river, surrounded by towering Eucalyptus trees. This was the most beautiful camp of the entire trip and the perfect end to a real bucket list adventure.

Baby pademelon seeks nourishment in its mama’s pouch

We are so grateful to Katy and Stuart for organizing the trip. And to Gaye, Frances and Anne for letting us tag along on their hike!

Australia birds so far: rainbow lorikeet, common myna, magpie lark, little wattlebird, spotted dove, orange-bellied parrot, eastern ground parrot, australia pied oystercathcer, yellow-throated honeyeater, tree martin, welcome swallow^, crescent honeyeater, green rosella, black currawong, tasmania scrubwren, beautiful firetail, galah, major mitchell’s cockatoo, sulphur-crested cockatoo, australian ringneck, apostlebird, new holland honeyeater, jacky winter, pacific black duck , noisy miner, eastern rosella, australian white ibis, australian pelican, sacred kingfisher^, royal spoonbill^, yellow-billed spoonbill, great cormorant^, red-rumped parrot, little corella, white-winged chauf, emu, blue-faced honeyeater, crested pigeon, willie wagtail, australian wood duck, masked lapwing^, nankeen kestral, australian magpie, hooded plover, silver gull, pacific gull, forest raven, superb fairy wren, grey fantail, bassian thrush, black swan, sooty oystercatcher, brown thronbill, tasmanian thornbill, strong-billed honeyeater, olive whistler (^ denotes birds seen previously in other countries on this trip)

3 thoughts on “Tasmania’s Wild, Rugged (and Muddy) South Coast Track

  1. That tiger snake looks like a badass. From Wikipedia “The tiger snake can grow up to ten feet in length … untreated mortality rate for a human bite is 40-60%”. Yow!


  2. I’m getting 3.5 round trips, although 2 boats does make 2 of the trips concurrent, saving time. Interestingly, I get the same result even if Separate-the-oars-from-the-boat guy hadn’t brought a friend and 2 of you could have gone on the first leg.

    Amazing trek! Such impressive photos – I encourage folks reading here to check out the Flickr site with more photos. https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexanderin/with/24159638206/


  3. Sylvan, if we hadn’t been there he would have taken THE ONLY OARS with him when he took himself back in the boat, leaving us with an oarless boat. So one of us would have had to swim and push the empty boat across just to retrieve the oars. Did you factor that into your equation 🙂


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