Southern Circuit (1. South Coast Track)

Getting There

After completing the Du Cane Circuit and Cuvier Valley / Olympus Walk, Rupert drove Mike and myself back to Hobart. Rupert was staying with his relatives there, Mike was heading back to Canberra by plane and I fould a nice backpackers hostel in the city centre to pass the weekend in doing lots of washing, making minor repairs, adding a few extra supplies and enjoying the low-key lifestyle of this small but fascinating city.

Early on the Monday morning, Rupert picked me up again and we headed south for the 2-hour drive to Cockle Creek, trackhead for the South Coast Walk and the start of our semi-circuit. I say semi because it wasn't going to be quite a return to our start point. In fact, we stopped at Geeveston to meet up with the local bus, following it to Mystery Creek, a few kilometres west of Lune River, where we parked the car. Rupert had arranged with the bus company to drive us from here the remaining 35km to Cockle Creek, passing historic sites such as Port Esperance and Recherche Bay, named by 18th century French explorers. In fact, we couldn't go any further - this is end of the most southerly road in Australia.

With the car at Mystery Creek, we could now walk our semi-circuit, taking in the eastern part of the South Coast Walk before heading up the New River Lagoon to climb the aptly named Precipitous Bluff and turning back to the east along the Southern Ranges to reach the car parked at Mystery Creek. With coastal and mountain sections, this walk had much to promise. Coupled with the previous walks in the the central mountains, Rupert was certainly offering a diverse sample of walking in Tasmania.

Cockle Bay - end of the southernmost road in Australia

Day 1 – Cockle Creek to South Cape Rivulet (12.5km - 120m ascent – 120m descent)

After a bite of lunch at Cockle Creek, we set off on our walk in this south-eastern corner of Tasmania. With food for eight days in my pack, it now weighed in at 24 kg and my legs were not that happy carrying such a load. They complained but kept on going as we set out on Tasmania’s famous South Coast Track, heading quickly away from the shallow sandy inlet of Cockle Creek, guarded by its army of soldier crabs.

Cockle Creek - start (or end) of the South Coast Track

View across Cockle Bay

Wet forest fringing Cockle Bay

Passing through a shoreline thicket of tea-trees, we soon found ourselves in drier forest as the track edged its way up the slope. Big purple dianella berries and bright pink heath bells were scattered along the route, which eventually brought us back down to the dry swamplands of Blowhole Valley.

Drier eucalypt forest of Blowhole Valley

Boardwalk across the swampy grasslands

Here, long sections of boardwalk led us across the bronzed carpet of swamp grasses and sedges. The first five kilometres had gone very quickly despite the heavy packs.

In the tea-tree heath of the old dunes

Leaving the swamp, we found ourselves wandering through the richly vegetated depressions in the old coastal dune system, until the sound of surf grew louder and we popped out of the bush to overlook the Southern Ocean – slate grey sea beneath a dove grey sky. At the far end of these cliffs, a set of wave-damaged steps took us down onto the long white sand beach. How I like to stroll along an isolated beach and breathe the negative ions in a stiff breeze.

The track opens onto the Southern Ocean - with views across to South Cape

Coastal cliffs

Young sea elephant basking on the beach

As we neared the appropriately named Lion Rock, a blonde-furred sea elephant stirred briefly from its slumber amongst the grey rocks – a serendipitous event. The young female cast a disdainful eye in our general direction, yawned and went back to sleep, unaware of the excitement its presence had caused. With their nearest breeding colony on Macquarie Island, some 1500 km to the south, you can count the number of sea elephant sightings in Tasmania per year on your fingers - we were indeed fortunate.

Sea elephant portrait

The tide was out, so we decided to push on via the low route. However, after Lion Rock, the beach ran out and was replaced by a jumble of sandstone boulders left after the cliffs holding up Coal Bluff had collapsed. It was hard work picking our way across this puzzle of angulated blocks and slabs, but the coastal scenery was spectacular.

Part of the low route past Lion Rock

The collapsed cliffs of Coal Bluff (with South-East Cape in the background)
Eventually we reached the end of the rocks to again wander across the soft white sand of the beach and join up with the high tide route (that had climbed over Coal Bluff) again. A small detour inland, then it was back onto the beach for a final half kilometre stroll that led us to the mouth of tannin-stained South Cape Rivulet.

Campsite on the forest verge

Rupert crossing South Cape Rivulet

South Cape Rivulet in a reflective mood

As we didn’t want to be trapped on the wrong side by the high tide in the morning, we waded the fast-flowing shin-deep stream to better position ourselves for an early morning departure. Rupert found a nice sheltered campsite just in the forest and we set up camp. A little later, Kezio, a solo Japanese walker arrived and moved in next door. The bank of the rivulet was a great spot to while away the evening, sitting on a log with a cup of coffee and chatting to Kezio as we soaked up the views across the ocean towards South East Cape (the most southerly point of Tasmania). It had been a good start to the trip and, as I crawled into my tent for the night, I was looking forward to falling asleep to the sound of the Southern Ocean surf, as the waves rolled in and broke on the beach with a hypnotic regularity.

Day 2 – South Cape Rivulet to Surprise Bay (mud mud mud) (13.5km - 860m ascent – 860m descent)

Another day of grey skies greeted us, even a few spots of rain, though that was to be all for the day. Today promised to be long and hard as we had to cross the South Cape Range – notorious for its mud. Setting off, we soon found ourselves deep in the coastal forest, following the track through its dense ferny undergrowth. Gradually we climbed up towards the cliff edge, where a couple of clear spots offered glimpses out to sea and to the cliffs themselves. Then it was back into the forest, dank with humidity and the ground wet beneath – already I was starting to feel clammy.

Big euc in the forest

A brief glimpse of the coast line .....

... and back into the ferny forest

Crossing an open button-grass flat

The track now descended to an open area of button grass and low shrubs near Blackhole Creek, where a long section of boardwalk took us quickly across. We were now at the foot of the South Cape Range and the climb began in earnest.

The track meandered its way steeply up between the roots of tree and shrub, wet track becoming muddy, muddy track becoming a quagmire. Using whatever handholds we could plus the occasional staircase of gnarly roots, we squelched our way upwards. I rarely wear gaiters, but looking down at my mud-covered boots and legs, I was glad that I had brought them along. Reaching the top of a hill at 400m, we passed the old track-cutters camp, where I had a brief chat with a German who had spent the night camped in the middle of the moss-covered forest.

The crossing of the South Cape Range starts ...

A section of liquid mud - aka "the track"

... up steps of gnarly myrtle beech roots ...

.... across tannin-stained streams ...

... and along deep shady gullies

Deep in the South Cape Range

From this campsite, we descended the track to cross a small tea-stained stream, and then the climbing began again, up a narrow mud-sticky track beneath the dripping trees (which didn’t matter as I was already saturated from within). The forest was still, apart from the occasional sweet whistle of an unseen bird. Reaching the top of the range, we also reached the next section of track – pools of liquid mud interspersed with the normal quagmire. It was easy to see why – there is only 20-30cm of soil cover on a bed of hard rock. On these flats where the water cannot drain, it forms pools of liquefied mud. On the slopes where water can flow, the track remains muddy, but without these pools.

The worst part of this slow “danse macabre” through the muddy pools was that there was nowhere to take a break. Eventually we found a spot that was just damp, not wet, where we could have a late lunch and load up with more energy.  Soon after, we crossed another open area, before finally starting the descent – slippery at best. Without the trees to hide it, the view ahead over Granite Beach and the rugged profile of this coastline and its offshore islands was spectacular.


View over the heath to the distant islands of Surprise Bay

Then it was down into the heath to cross the last really boggy area – Flat Rock Plain. Leaving the plain, the descent continued steeply towards the coast on a path lined with ”trip-sedge”, whose long serrated leaves lay across the path, waiting to snag the unwary hiker and give him a face-plant in the mud or on a rock (your choice). The sound of the ocean gradually grew louder and soon we reached the campsite at Granite Beach. It was not quite the sea, but this dry and sheltered spot atop a low cliff was oh so welcome to rest our weary legs. It had taken seven hours to get here from South Cape Rivulet.

Despite our tiredness, we needed to push on to our destination at Surprise Bay. Dropping down from the campsite next to a superb little waterfall, where Sandstone Creek tumbled over the cliff onto the beach below (great place for a shower if you are staying here), we walked the length of Granite Beach on the water-smoothed rocks and boulders that line its shore. Back to the east, the magnificent columns of Fluted Cliffs crept into view as we followed the curve of the beach.

The stony arc of Granite Beach

Crossing Sandstone Creek

A beautiful beachfront waterfall

Heading west along Granite Beach

The magnificent dolerite columns of Fluted Cliffs

Surprise Rivulet

At the end of the beach, a set of wooden steps took us quickly back into the forest. Once away from the sea, the track climbed steadily and interminably through the thick fern undergrowth. The forest may have been beautiful, but frankly I didn’t care anymore – I was on a mission to reach Surprise Bay.

Finally crossing the saddle at 190m, a steep descent took us down to the campsite, sheltered in amongst the tea-trees, but with great views down the mouth of creek and across the bay to Pretty's Point. How good it felt to take my pack off after nine hours of muddy effort.

Surprise Bay and the mouth of the rivulet (from the campsite)

Golden sunset over the islands of Surprise Bay

As a reward, the South Coast Track treated us to a spectacular sunset, as the sun painted the low cloud golden to frame the silhouettes of off-shore islands. I settled wearily into my tent to yet another night’s lullaby of waves crashing on the beach below. In between the fitful dozes that pass for sleep in my tent, my mind began to wander. Today we climbed and descended over 800m in saturating humidity in the rain forest and walked through several kilometres of squelching mud. This would be good training for anyone wanting to walk the Kokoda Track, I thought – now there’s a good idea!

Day 3 – Surprise Bay to New River Lagoon (18.5km - 360m ascent – 360m descent)

After another night of listening to the distant roar of the surf, we were greeted by a grey and overcast sky. I left my sandals on to make the quick descent from the campsite to the water of the Surprise Rivulet – no point wearing boots, as they would be quickly off to wade its shin-deep waters. Booted up again on the other side, we strolled across the soft white sand of Surprise Bay to reach a set of steps at its far end. These took us up into the old dune system. Rupert suddenly realised that he had dropped his hat and went back in search of it – we would catch up a few hours later at Prion Beach.

The western end of Surprise Bay

Forest of the old dunes

Tannin-stained creek

The next section was an undulating journey through the various habitats of the old dunes – coastal heath, mossy creekbed, humid hollow filled with ferns and tall open forest on the ridges that caught the breeze.

A series of climbs and descents from open fern-lined ridgetop forest to dank and mossy rain forest hollow followed, until eventually the track emerged onto the Rocky Plains, a region of open heath and button grass slopes to the north of Osmiridium Beach.

On the high ridge

Heath and button grass slopes backed by the Ironbound Range



In the damp gully

First glimpse of Precipitous Bluff

Further west, the blue haze of the Ironbound Range appeared for the first time and I got my first glimpse of the imposing pinnacle of Precipitous Bluff. By now, the sun was shining weakly through the high cloud. The muddy track climbed up through thickets of bottlebrush to a saddle, where I took a break to take in the coastal views; east over the low heath to Pretty’s Point and west out to Point Vivian and its offshore islands – exquisite.

View over the heath towards Pretty's Point

Button grass and heath near Osmiridium Bay

The track continued through this thick and boggy heath before climbing once more onto a forested ridge, which I followed until it suddenly emerged onto the entrance of New River Lagoon. A steep set of steps brought me down to the soft white sand of this spectacular setting – the lead coloured water backed by the sweeping white sand of Prion Beach and beyond it, the ocean on one side and the Ironbound Ranges landwards.

New River Lagoon and the Ironbound Range

The tranquillity of New River Lagoon

Precipitous Bluff reflected in New River Lagoon

Rounding the corner, the outlook was even more spectacular as a long white dune flanked the lagoon entry, reflecting the brooding shape of Precipitous Bluff. I paused to pass the time of day with a group of walkers heading in the opposite direction, before de-booting to cross Milford Creek and climb steeply up the backing dune on a set of crumbling wooden steps.

View over the lagoon and offshore islands from the "dune of endless humps and hollows"

Thus I reached “The Dune of Endless Humps and Hollows”, as the overgrown track meandered through dense vegetation. Finally, one last descent brought me to the Prion Campsite, where I had lunch on the beach while waiting for Rupert and watched two girls rowing across the lagoon from the far side South Coast Track. They had spent a week walking the South-west Cape Track beofre picking up an airdrop of supplies at Melaleuca and heading off on the South Coast Track from west to east; You girls are tough - I salute you!

South Coast trekkers crossing the lagoon

The shoreline near Prion campsite

When Rupert arrived (plus hat!), he had a late lunch and we then pushed on, as the cloud was again getting thicker. This is where we left the South Coast Track, heading northwards instead to follow the sand / mud edge of New River Lagoon.

Walking the fringe of the lagoon

The "road" to PB

Reflections in a creek pool

Crossing the creek on a fallen tree trunk

Fortunately, the water level was low, so we pushed through the first couple of kilometres with barely a splash. Then the edge began to get cluttered with fallen timber and wind-drift, forcing us more often into the water. We also waded the first of several creeks that flowed into the lagoon - some shallow, some not so shallow.

New River Lagoon and the Ironbound Range

At one creek entrance, we scrambled our way 100m inland to cross the deep black pools of its two branches on fallen logs, repeating this exercise the next creek along before continuing northwards up the watery road. I made 4km with dry feet, but eventually the water poured into my boots as we crossed one of the deeper creek mouths.

Hard going on the dolerite "beach"

Rupert takes to the water to avoid the fallen timber

The bleached trunk of a fallen giant

One of the deeper wades on this route

The north-westerly wind had picked up, creating small waves on the shoreline – surf was up at New River Lagoon. Over the last part, the soft sand/mud was replaced by a shore of rounded dolerite stones – harder to walk on and hard on the feet.

Each right hand corner provided a new and closer view of Precipitous Bluff looming ahead. Eventually, with a mixture of in water and out of water progress, we reached the campsite sheltered amongst the tall trees near the mouth of Damper Creek, 3 hours after setting out from Prion.

Ever closer - Precipitous Bluff beckons us on

It was off with the wet boots and socks and, after hanging them out in the wind to dry, we pitched our tents and our day was done. At the campsite we met a Canadian who had kayaked up from Prion in a 2.5kg inflatable kayak that he carried in his backpack – now there is a way to get around.

PS If you wonder about the seeming pre-occupation with Precipitous Bluff, this is our destination for tomorrow, all 1150 m of it. Let’s hope that the thick cloud is nothing too ominous – it is not a place to be visiting in a fog.

Day 4 – Climbing PB (8.5km - 1140m ascent – 80m descent)

I am writing this in my tent on Plateau Camp, just below the rim of Precipitous Bluff, that iconic peak of Tasmania’s south coast. The cold wind is buffeting the tent walls, but I am feeling snug and contented inside, though there were times today when I wondered whether I would be.

The wind had picked up during the previous night, rushing through the treetops around our sheltered campsite on the shores of New River Lagoon. Morning was still windy with thick grey clouds gathering over the Ironbound Range to the west – not a propitious day for climbing Precipitous Bluff. Still, you take the weather you get while bushwalking – we set off at 8.30am. A scattering of blue, orange and pink tape guided us out of the campsite through magnificent temperate rain forest; fallen trunks and boulders covered with moss, groves of tall tree ferns, drooping vines, all beneath a canopy of towering myrtle beech. Crossing a creek on a fallen trunk, we reached the start of the climb.

Rupert checking out a forest giant

A big fern tree

Rain forest near Damper Creek

Climbing up amongst the tall eucalypts

A several hundred year old myrtle beech
arching across the path

No gentle lead-in here – the climb started immediately and steeply, scrambling hand and foot to reach the spine of the heavily timbered spur that led up to Precipitous Bluff. The wind was now howling through the tree-tops, though here on the forest floor we were relatively well protected. We pushed our way steadily upwards, across a narrow ridge of jagged limestone and through the odd sink-hole, to pick up a nice path that wound through a ferny understorey beneath the giant eucalypts. I looked up at all the branches above us, I looked around at all the dead and broken timber on the forest floor, I listened to the wind howling, I hurried on.

One of the giant eucalypts (for scale the
blue spot is Rupert's pack)

The gradient was increasing and we found ourselves pushing up through muddy steps, climbing over one big fallen branch, squeezing under another, wedging between trunks and heaving ourselves up boulders. A light drizzle had started, but barely penetrated the canopy, which did not necessarily mean keeping dry, as I was soon damp from my own perspiration.

At 650m, we decided to have an early lunch break. Not moving, I quickly chilled down, so it was out with the goretex. Just as well for, not long after, the drizzle turned to rain. However, a final push saw us reach the rock face, an impressive sight with massive walls disappearing into the mists above. The bluff was indeed precipitous.

Precipitous by name, precipitous by nature

Waterfall tumbling out of the mist above

The wall of PB appears in the rain and mist

Waterfall at the base of the bluff

The route now led along the base of the rock walls and as we were now well and truly exposed, it was time for me to put on the waterproof overpants as well (Rupert stayed in his signature stubbies).  Then it was into the face of the wind, driving the rain into our faces as we picked our way along, passing beneath impressive waterfalls that plunged off the top of the bluff somewhere in the mists above (just to make sure our drenching was complete). It was at this stage that I began to wonder about pitching a tent on top in driving wind and rain.

The cloud lifts from the ascent gully to reveal New River Lagoon

Back into the mist-filled forest

Wind-swept cloud obscuring the bluff

Reaching a point where the rock walls dropped another 50m into the forest, we were forced to lose precious elevation, scrambling down and then up again through the tangle of wet vegetation and blocky boulders. This whole exercise was repeated as PB tested our mettle, though at least we were sheltered from the wind when we descended into the forest.

The face of PB in ethereal mood

After an hour picking our way around, we finally reached the ascent gully – a break in the rock wall. The rain had stopped and the cloud rolled in, cloaking the cliff face in ghostly mist. Climbing quickly now, we finally emerged from the forest to continue the steep ascent up a jumble of dolerite boulders covered in low scrub. Once again we were exposed to the wind, but, as it swirled the clouds across, it gave us magnificent glimpses of the view out across New River Lagoon, the ocean and the Ironbound Range.

New River Lagoon 1000m below the edge of PB

The last rays of sunlight illuminate the Ironbound Range and New River Lagoon

Leaving the gully, we scrambled over big blocky boulders until, just below the rim, we picked up a well-formed path that led us to the top (thank you, whoever made that). Once over the crest, we dropped into a hollow holding Plateau Campsite – not the best I have seen in its boggy setting. Still, we found a couple of tent sites somewhere between a rock and a wet place and pitched camp. The sun even appeared as we did so! Once the tents were up and protected and wet clothes swapped for dry, the world seemed a much better place. A bit of sun, a bit of cloud, still a lot of wind, but a glorious display of light as the setting sun spread its rays over the western horizon. Bushwalking in this weather certainly reduces life’s pleasures to the basics!

Rest day on Precipitous Bluff (2km - 150m ascent – 150m descent)

What a night – the wind strengthened and rocked the tent. About 2am, it ripped a peg out of the fly and threw it into the scrub, leading to a bit of emergency re-pegging from within to get the tent through the night. The temperature dropped to 2°C and the cold wind was still blowing when I woke, but the sun was shining.

Plateau Camp with the summit in the background

At the campsite - flowering leatherwood backed by Maxwell's Spur

Looking across the King Billy pines to Pindar's Peak

Rupert had declared today a rest day and the morning was spent drying out boots, socks and gear from yesterday (with the wind and sunshine, there was a lot of “dryth” in the air), stabilising tents and generally doing domestic chores. As the temperature warmed up and the wind dropped, it was turning out to be a very pleasant rest day.

The endless ranges of mountains to the north-west formed a splendid blue tapestry

The grand view from near our campsite 1000m above the lagoon

By late morning, two single hikers and a group of six wandered through our tent sites on their way up to the summit of PB, done with light day packs from Cavern Camp. This made me toey to get to the summit myself and, as soon as the day-walkers descended, I set off on the short climb across the scrubby boulders up the “back” slope of the bluff.

Wedge-tailed eagle soaring on a thermal

View of the summit from Plateau Camp

Looking back across the summit plateau to Federation Peak

Call me selfish, but I just wanted a bit of meditational time alone on the summit, and what a place to meditate on the beauty of this planet.

From the top, 360° views extended for kilometre after kilometre and nowhere evidence of the touch of man. Below to the south lay the ocean strip with New river Lagoon sweeping away to the west. Further west, north and east, range after range of mountains faded away in shades of blue – simply majestic.

Classic PB summit panorama - New River Lagoon, Prion Beach with the Southern Ocean beyond and the Ironbound Range

Classic dolerite columns near the summit

Federation Peak behind the
north-west wall of PB

Rupert joined me not long after and we passed a very pleasant couple of hours on the summit before descending. To cap it off, a pair of wedge-tailed eagles soared by, first below then way above as they rode the thermal currents.

Panorama from the summit towards Pindar's Peak and Osmiridium Beach

The summit of PB and beyond (viewed from the northern plateau))

Late afternoon, I took time to explore the tops to the north of Plateau Camp for slightly different views. It was a chance to admire the rocks, vegetation and wildlife on its tops. The rest of the time was spent lazing around camp in the sun, enjoying the distant view of Pindar’s Peak over the stunted King Billy pines, low scrubby heath and dwarfed leatherwood, covered in their aromatic flowers.

Looking down the ascent gully of PB

The south-east wall of PB and the
Southern Ocean beyond

A bronze mountain skink

Good camouflage!

Late afternoon light over our route for the next few days - Mt Wylly, Maxwell's Ridge and Pindar's Peak

It took us four days to get here, but this perfect day on the summit of Precipitous Bluff has been a highlight of my walking in Tasmania. The fact that it took such a big effort to access makes PB a very special place and I shall be sorry to leave.

The walls of PB turn to gold in the light of the setting sun

The perfect sunset - rose tinted clouds above Federation Peak

Evening falls on the mountains of southern Tasmania

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