Camping? Why would I spend money to live in poverty? And when it comes to walking Tasmania’s South Coast Track, it’s poverty plus a week of hard labour. There must be some good reason why I chose to put myself through this. I wake at dawn on a mat on the cold ground, scratch my insect bites and pull on the same clammy clothes I’ve been sweating in for days. I force my legs to straighten and stumble through wet bushes to a clearing. Here I squat over a stinking pit, then rinse without soap in a murky stream. Yep, it’s poverty all right.
Breakfast time. The cheery sign on the packet reads, ‘You’ll love Coles Quick Oats.’
‘Love’ is not a term I use lightly, and I never apply it to gluggy cereal. But it would take me days to hike to the nearest croissant and extra shot cappuccino, so quick oats with powdered milk it is.
Body suitably carbohydrated, I hoist a dead weight onto my back. We’re carrying our own tents, sleeping bags and enough food for nine days. Two of my heavier packets are labelled ‘Dinner Day 7’ and ‘Dinner Day 8’. They’ll be with me for some time yet.
My fellow travellers are also saddling up. Brian the Brisbane fire fighter is intoning, ‘I must become the pack. I am the pack…’ Susie the adventure racer is leading stretching exercises, designed to ease the kinks out of Stan’s dodgy hip.
‘As they used to tell us in the army,’ grins trekking guide Ambor, ‘pain is weakness leaving the body.’ He’s younger and fitter than me, but he must have 30 kilos on his shoulders. Ah, poverty plus hard labour.
We step out of the trees onto the beach, and immediately we’re millionaires. We remember now why we’re doing this. The South West National Park, the largest wilderness area in Tasmania, is as savage, beautiful and untouched as anywhere on the planet, and we’ve nearly got it all to ourselves.
In 600,000 hectares there are no roads, just the crashing surf on our right, the rainforest rising on our left, and behind it the rugged peaks of the Western Arthur Range. We’ll make the only footprints on the sand this morning. If Bill Gates wants to see this, he’ll have to walk in too.
The 83km South Coast Track is one of the world’s great wilderness walks, though due to recent track work and drought it’s no longer the muddy bog that old-timers speak of in hushed tones. Nevertheless, it’s harder going than the famous Overland Track, much less busy and with spectacular wild beaches as well as mountain views.
The terrain varies from button grass plains, stands of melaleuca, rocky alps and dripping rainforest with endemic huon pines, massive swamp gums and 300 species of fern and moss. Much of the trek is not too difficult, and we need to walk just four to six hour days between our lovely campsites, but there are two gruelling eight to ten hour slogs over the Ironbound Range and the South Coast Range. The views from the top are brilliant in fine weather, so we’re told. Coming down the steep slopes is an ordeal in the rain as we scramble through roots and clamber over fallen timber and slippery rocks.
Some members of our party can talk with intimidating authority of iron man events, mountain bike marathons and kayaking expeditions. Young Kai and Anna are doing their first multi-day walk and we admire their guts and determination. I fall somewhere in the middle in experience and sadly lead the pack in age. The South Coast Track is tough enough to keep the athletes interested, but even the novices and the old bloke comfortably stay the course.
It helps to have Stan as our senior guide. His company Adventure Seekers has done all the logistics; booking the light planes which flew us from Hobart to Melaleuca airstrip at the start of the track, providing the tents and buying the food – skilfully balancing minimum weight with maximum taste and nutrition for seven people over nine days.
Stan and Ambor carry first aid kits, an emergency beacon, a GPS device and a satellite phone, but luckily all we need are a few bandaids for blisters.
The guides also do the cooking. Maybe he’ll never earn a Michelin chef’s hat, but Stan deserves at least a Michelin beanie. Out of dehydrated meat, peas and carrots he conjures up Madras curry or Navarin of lamb over the spirit stove each night. Dried orange slices dipped in melted chocolate are a great dessert if you’re hungry enough.
Our track food is the envy of the few independent walkers we meet along the way. The German backpackers from Dresden were hoping to catch fresh fish to eke out their supplies. So far they’ve eaten a lot of rice.
We ford the Louisa River and rock hop over Tyler’s Creek. At New River Lagoon we have the fun task of shuttling across the water on two rowboats. It’s a puzzle how to get everyone over and still leave one boat and one set of oars on each bank for the next group. The solo walker in front of us admits he rowed back and forth five times before he got it right.
We hear birds everywhere, though we seldom see them, apart from a glimpse of rare orange-bellied parrots at Melaleuca and the ubiquitous currawongs and gulls. At dusk pademelons and a spotted quoll creep around the campsite hoping for snacks.
There can’t be too many places left on earth where you can go a whole week without checking your email or hearing news of Britney Spears, so it’s a bit of a shock when on Day 8 graded track sections and the appearance of day walkers in clean clothes suggest we’re nearly back in civilisation.
We emerge at Cockle Creek, at the end of the most southerly road in Australia. To those camped there in their mobile homes it probably feels like they’re getting away from it all. To the hardened nature types we’ve become this week, the place is a buzzing metropolis. Kai and Anna chat to a family from Ireland and are rewarded with a bar of chocolate that we divide seven ways and eagerly devour.
When we’re in mobile phone range I ring home. ‘I survived the wild!’ I report. ‘Good,’ says my wife, ‘because the dishwasher broke, the accountant urgently needs our bank statements for the tax returns, the car’s making that funny noise again and the toilet won’t flush.’ Welcome back to living in luxury.
Richard Tulloch was the guest of Adventure Seekers.
Getting There: Virgin Blue flies Sydney/Hobart from $322 return including taxes.
Par Avion flies between Hobart and Melaleuca for $160 one way.
Tasair flies between Hobart and Melaleuca for $176 one way (min. two persons).
Tassielink buses operate between Hobart and Cockle Creek 3 times a week for $64.90 one way. www.tassielink.com.au
Park Access: An 8 week pass to Tasmanian national parks costs $28.
Guiding: Adventure Seekers run nine-day treks on the South Coast Track for individuals or groups of up to six. Cost $1995 per person including pre-trek kayak trip and dinner, flights from Hobart to Melaleuca and bus return, national park fees, all meals and use of tents.
Three- and five-day Tasmanian treks are also available to Mt Field and Frenchman’s Cap.