Cross Section of the Track

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Climatic considerations

The Three Capes Track enjoys a maritime climate that tends to iron out the temperature extremes that affect other parts of Tasmania. Low/high mean temperatures at Tasman Island are 11.2°C/17.4°C in Dec–Mar, and 6.9°C/9.1°C in Jun–Sept. Mean annual rainfall of about 800mm is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, with February’s mean rainfall lowest, and September’s highest. (Mean annual rainfall comparisons: Brisbane 1148mm; Melbourne 648mm; Sydney 1215mm). The wind is the unknown. Large parts of the Three Capes route on days two and three are exposed to winds off the Southern Ocean, the occasional ferocity of which is reflected in the names of landscape features such as Tornado Flat and Hurricane Heath. Entirely still days are rare.

Best season to walk

There’s a reason in every season to get out on the Three Capes.

Summer (Dec–Mar) features the warmest and most stable weather and long daylight hours. Peninsula wildlife is up and about – including snakes – clear skies are more common. It’s also the time that Tasmania is at its liveliest, with various food, music and other festivals and cool annual events such as the Sydney–Hobart yacht race.

Winter (Jun–Aug) is the Capes’ season of change and drama. Shorter daylight hours are brightened by soft winter sun that’s superb for photography. When the wind rises, ocean swells shining with spindrift crash into the cliffs and spray can be whipped hundreds of metres upwards. Clear night skies are lit by a superfluity of stars – and the occasional bonus aurora.

Both spring and autumn feature whale migrations, various plant species in bloom and variable weather.

Am I fit enough?

It won’t surprise you to hear that the best way walkers prepare for a long walk is to go for long walks. If you’re already a regular walker (or exerciser), you’ll likely have no problems. The track is so well made that even the longer days seem, well, shorter.

In the end, all you have to do is walk, and you already know how to do that, so legs that are a bit sore and shoulders that need a rub aren’t the end of the world, and the views and basking of a task completed are more than enough of a reward.

If you’re happy with that, skip the next paragraph and join in again at “Wear a backpack …

If not, the thing is, you’ll have more fun if you’re fit to walk.  If you’re down on fitness and you want to improve, start several weeks out with shorter (30–45 minute) walks every second day, and slowly increase the frequency (to five days a week) and length (by 10–15 minutes per week) of your walks. If you’re keen on gyms, use the stationary bikes and do weighted squats. Use the stairs rather than the elevator at the building where you work. All these little things add up. Aim to complete 2–3 consecutive days of “actual length” walks a week or so before your departure date, and keep doing lighter walks afterwards. Make sure you eat and drink during training walks so your body gets used to the routine of fuelling-up on the go.

Wear a backpack when you can, even if it’s just a daypack, to get used to the feeling of it. And it’s really helpful if at least once you go for a decent walk with a full size pack (if you don’t have one, beg or borrow) so that you can get a sense of what it’s going to feel like when you’re here. It also helps sharpen your focus about what you need to pack (and carry) and those things you can do without. (Gail thinks meaningfully here of the extra kgs of shoes and clothes unworn she’s muttered about going uphill behind Ian.)

Last, make sure you wear the hiking boots or shoes you’ll use on the track while you’re training. If they’re new, it will wear them in and help you avoid blisters. (If you’ve already walked in them regularly you probably don’t need telling about blisters.) Last tip: invest in some good hiking socks. We know it sounds mad (did we say socks?), but get advice from your local outdoor supplier. Two layers of socks – a thin pair to wick moisture away, and a thicker pair for cushioning – is one of the best ways to avoid blisters and keep feet happy. (Gail would like to say that when Ian first suggested this she thought he was an utter loon, but after her first day’s – happy footed and blister-free – test, she thought he was the smartest man alive. On the second day he showed her the secret to the never-untying shoelace and she loved him for ever.) 

Getting to and from the track

The Three Capes start/end point, Port Arthur Historic Site, is about 100km from central Hobart and 86km from Hobart airport. Travel time from the city is typically about 90 minutes, but there’s a lot to see on the peninsula and you’re well advised to plan some extra time for sightseeing – for which PWS have made a helpful downloadable Peninsula Touring Map. Remember that your Three Capes pass gives you entry to the fascinating Port Arthur Historic Site for two years.

If you’re walking with a partner or small group and planning to do some exploring before or after the walk, a rental car might be the go. All the major car rental companies have offices at Hobart airport and in the city. There’s a car park for walkers at Port Arthur.

There are three regular coach services running between Hobart and Port Arthur, operated by Gray LineTassielink and Pennicott Wilderness Journeys. Pennicotts also run the Three Capes first-day boat transport and last-day shuttle bus from Fortescue Bay back to Port Arthur.

Other alternatives include various charter bus operators and taxis. You’ll be able to reach them through the Tasmanian Visitor Information Network at Port Arthur, via email or phone +61 3 6251 2371 – available 9am–5pm local time.

At the start

Three Capes reception is downstairs at the Port Arthur Historic Site visitor centre. You need to bring your booking confirmation and some identification; if you’ve booked on a concession price you must have your valid concession card with you. You’ll be issued with your backpack tag, Encounters on the Edge guidebook and access pass to the historic site. You can leave luggage in the lockers or – for larger items – in the secure holding area. The departure point for the ferry is about 400m from the visitor centre.

The walk

It’s your experience and we’re not going to spoil it. The bare bones information is:

Day One (4km): You’ll spend about an hour aboard the Pennicott Wilderness Journeys ferry taking in the sights around Port Arthur. After landing at Denmans Cove, use the boot washdown station (to prevent the spread of pathogens such as the plant-killing fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi) then set out for Surveyors cabin, about 4km south.

Day two (11km): There’s plenty of variety in landscape and vegetation as you make your way south then south-east to Munro cabin. Highlights include the views from Arthurs Peak and changing vegetation assemblages, from dry forest to the broad moorlands of Ellarwey Valley.

Day Three (17km): Leave your backpack at Munro for what is arguably the track’s highlight: a walk along the dizzying cliff line to The Blade. After returning to collect your pack, it’s a short walk to Retakunna cabin.

Day Four (14km): From Retakunna you tackle the walk’s biggest climb, up Mt Fortescue, then roll downhill almost all the way to Cape Hauy. End your day, and walk, at Fortescue Bay, meet your bus and head back to Port Arthur.

In the huts

The modern, eco-friendly cabins are arranged at each site in a small complex joined by timber decks. Sleeping cabins are separate to the communal cabin in which shared kitchens and dining and living areas are located. There’s ample room indoors and out to relax. The communal huts have pellet-fire heating, basic cooking facilities and ware, running (tank) water, solar-powered lighting, and 5-volt USB charge stations for smartphones and similar portable devices. The sleeping quarters – unheated – are divided into 4– and 8-walker rooms. You get a bunk bed and a generous-sized (203 x 90cm) mattress.

You’ll be greeted at each hut site by a Host Ranger, who’ll help settle you in and provide all the information you need, and then some. Host Rangers can help you with all manner of things – backpack adjustments, first aid, flora and fauna information… rumour has it they’re even dab hands at repairing shoes. If your Host Ranger is doing an introductory talk or leading an exploratory walk, we strongly suggest you join in.

At the end

Walker shuttle buses – which you’ll pre-book – depart Fortescue Bay at 2pm and 4pm. The trip back to Port Arthur, mostly through state forest lands, takes about 30 minutes. The shuttles are timed to connect with bus services departing Port Arthur for Hobart (Gray Line at 3pm and Pennicott Wilderness Journeys at 4:45pm).

What’s the coolest thing you can see?

Depends on what floats your boat. We’re rather fond of the marine mammals, which include dolphins, Australian fur seals and migrating humpback and southern right whales. (Former Tasman Lighthouse keeper John Cook once watched a blue whale track through the Tasman Passage, between Tasman Island and Cape Pillar. Now that’s cool.)

The bird life’s pretty fabulous, too. Sightings of white-bellied sea eagles are commonplace, although various species of small heath birds, particularly honeyeater types, and black currawongs are probably the most frequently seen. Peninsula mammals include echidnas, wombats, quolls, bandicoots, pademelons and wallabies.

As for other stuff… it’s pretty hard to go past a night-time aurora australis (southern lights) display. Can you find out if one’s coming? Sure: time you met the folks at Aurora Service

Am I going to be okay with the heights?

Yep. In places the track runs near the cliff top but there’s always space to stay further back if you prefer, and you’ll still get the view. If you’re of the sort that likes to look over the edge, be careful, right? Assess the wind and various other matters. Are the rocks wet? Is there any slippery debris – such as she-oak needles – around? All things considered it’s much better to get down on your belly and inch forward if you want to look over the edge.

About mobile phone reception…

It’s not so long ago that a fair bit of Tassie outside of major towns and cities was out of mobile range (it still is – if your provider uses something other than the Telstra or Optus networks). Out on the Three Capes you’re likely to get at least some reception every day – pretty reliably on the first two days, here and there on day three and most of way on day four. Surveyors and Retakunna huts enjoy reliable reception but it can be a bit sketchy at Munro. A lot will depend on your mobile provider’s network (see earlier comment in brackets).

Can I go swimming?

Depends on a number of things: the time of year, ambient air temperature, how brave you are…

Average summer water temperatures on this part of Tassie’s east coast are about 15–16°C (compare to St Kilda, Vic 18–19°C; Dee Why, NSW 23–24°C; Surfers Paradise, Qld 26–27°C). Once you’re in and moving, it’s really rather pleasant. Or, some say, refreshing. Mid-winter, the average is 12–13°C – which for most people, let alone non-Tasmanians, is kind of bracing, and survivable.

The good news is that the East Australian Current is heading further south and east coast Tasmania sea temperatures are among the fastest warming in the world. So expect those averages to knock up over time.

The bad news is the impact that increased sea temperatures will have on Tasmanian marine life and, more generally, the fact of global warming. Which is why you should be happy you’re taking a walking holiday.

Bottom line: definitely bring your swimmers, and the intent to use them. There’s nothing quite like a cleansing ocean dip at the end of walk.

A Little History

Walking tracks tend to have some sort of reasonably long-ago reason for coming into being. The Overland Track was opened up by prospectors, trappers and hunters. Maori people used to walk the route of the Milford Track to collect greenstone (pounamu). The West Coast Trail in Canada was made primarily as a way back for shipwreck survivors.

But the Three Capes Track really is something made by, and for, walkers.

In the early 1970s, the Hobart Walking Club (HWC) began cutting a scenic track between Waterfall and Fortescue bays on the Tasman Peninsula, then best known as the location of former convict settlement Port Arthur. Named the Tasman Track, it officially opened in 1980, by which point, according to the HWC’s tracks subcommittee, it had absorbed about 2300 volunteer workdays. Later in the 1980s the HWC made other tracks from Fortescue Bay to Cape Pillar, to Shipstern Bluff and Tunnel Bay, and re-cut the exisiting track to Cape Raoul. In 1992 they created a new track over Mt Fortescue, which linked the Cape Pillar and Cape Hauy tracks.

A few years later, in 1999, several disparate parcels of state reserve and forestry land on the Tasman Peninsula was proclaimed as Tasman National Park. Under the management of the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS), the several HWC-made tracks that traversed Waterfall Bay to Cape Pillar was renamed the Tasman Coastal Trail.

In 2005, then Tasmanian premier Paul Lennon instructed PWS and Tasmanian tourism authorities to investigate the potential of a new multi-day walk to rival the Overland Track. A seasonal walker-fee system had been introduced on the Overland and the track’s popularity hadn’t been affected. Was there another place in Tassie, Lennon wondered, that might prove similarly attractive to walkers?

Extensive market research of walker desires narrowed the possibilities down to a handful of locations, but members of the scoping team were virtually unanimous in selecting the Tasman Peninsula.

Their reasons included its proximity to Hobart airport, the resilience of the landscape, and net benefits to the peninsula community – particularly the creation of new jobs.

A $100,000 feasibility study followed, its findings released in 2007. The study identified the Three Capes route and the work needed to upgrade or realign existing routes, and create new ones, to complete the track. It recommended huts with mattresses and cookers (thus reducing walkers’ pack weights), and an Overland-type booking system for peak season, during which up to 60 walkers a day would set out on the track at a set fee. The economic case reckoned that Three Capes walkers would bring an additional $19 million to the Tasmanian economy and generate more than 70 new jobs on the Tasman Peninsula.

Joint state and federal funding of $25 million for stages one and two – to the east of Port Arthur, with tracks reaching capes Pillar and Hauy – was secured in 2010. The first stage, an upgrade of the existing path between Fortescue Bay and Cape Hauy, was completed in May 2012. Jokes about “two capes track” aside, the 46km of new track linking Denmans Cove, Cape Pillar, Cape Hauy and Fortescue Bay, along with three new huts (now known as “cabins”), officially opened just before Christmas 2015.

On 19 December 2016, tenders were awarded to upgrade the tracks to lookouts at Cape Raoul – the third of the ‘Three Capes’ – and world-renowned big-wave surfing spot Shipstern Bluff. More than $7 million of state and federal funding will see these tracks, on the western side of Port Arthur, upgraded to the same dry-boot standard as the stages one and two track, and will allow walkers to access the remaining key points on the Three Capes route.

At this stage, there’s no timetable to complete the track as it was first envisioned, as a five-night, six-day 65km experience starting at White Beach, on the western Tasman Peninsula, and ending at Fortescue Bay. Given the popularity of the existing track, it’s hard to imagine that there’s any urgency.