West Macs

West Macs

Thanks to Mr Budgie we weren’t even remotely near where we’d planned to be on the date that we departed Alice Springs so we sat down and worked out an alternative route for the next 10 days. Instead of backtracking to the Fink Gorge we decided that it would be better to drive out to the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja) and go the long way around back to the gorge.  

The Macs, as they are known locally, are a 644km long series of mountains that cut Alice Springs almost perfectly in half (divided into East and West). They were named after Sir Richard MacDonnell (a previous governor of South Australia) by the explorer John Stuart who “discovered” the range in 1860. The ranges lay claim to the 5 highest mountains in the NT and are approximately 300-350 million years old. Realised pretty quickly they are also an incredibly popular tourist location and the busiest place that we’ve been so far this trip.

Because there is so much to see in the area we decided to keep it simple and just work our way across from right to left stopping at the destinations that interested us. We skipped Simpsons Gap with the intention to visit it later making our first stop Angkerle (Standley Chasm). We were more than happy to fork out the entry fee of $12pp to the traditional owners as Angkerle is the most dramatic of the numerous chasms in the range. The red quartzite walls towered 80m above us with the gap itself only 8m wide. Continuing along the road we came upon our campsite for the night at Ellery Creek Big Hole intending to go for a swim in the beautiful waterhole amongst the cliffs and trees. Despite the warm and sunny weather it wasn’t to be, enthusiastically splashing into the water we were greeted by the most freezing liquid I’ve ever put my feet into. I used to surf in Tasmania in winter and have had numerous ice baths in my time and it had absolutely nothing on this water. It was that cold it made my bones ache. I managed to get up to my butt and Matt hit the middle of his shin. We decided to spend our time more wisely by sitting on the sand and reading our books in the sun until it was time to go back and make dinner then head to bed.

The next day we woke up reasonably early and made our way back to the waterhole to watch the birds come into drink. We saw grebes, painted finches, budgies, a kingfisher, various honeyeaters, and some very nice Black-fronted Dotterels. After breakfast we went on the Dolomite Hike an enjoyable short but varied walk. Our first stop for the day was Serpentine Gorge, as the name would suggest this narrow and shady gorge snakes its way through the range and towards the horizon. We were feeling a bit lazy so we did the lookout walk and wandered into the waterhole. On the way back Matt spotted a Little Button Quail and I spent 20 minutes trying and failing to photograph the tiny, speckled bird. We popped into the slightly uninspiring Ochre Pits for lunch (the Lyndhust ones are so much better). By this point I was feeling pretty rubbish, tired with body aches thanks to my second Pfizer vaccine I’d had the day before so instead of going into Ormiston Gorge for another hike we pulled up at a stunning little campground called Big Gum. I’d just got comfortable in my hammock for a bit of R&R and Panadol when Matt pointed out a group of women that were struggling in the soft sand a couple of campsites over. Matt wandered across and suggested that they reverse into a bit of harder track. Well they floored it in reverse and wedged themselves straight in a dune. Thinking that we might have to tow them out we drove Egg over and set about digging in and placing our recovery boards. Matt jumped in the drivers seat and got the car out and back on the track, with a push from me and the girls. So much for a restful afternoon!

Following a peaceful night on the river we ended up back tracking to Ormiston Gorge. At one of the other campgrounds we’d been told that the Ormiston Pound Circuit hike was one of the best in the ranges and couldn’t be missed. It was stunning. I feel like I’m saying it every single post but this walk was and remains my favourite of the trip so far. We started quite early as the temperatures are pushing into the mid thirties most days now. The first part of the walk followed a creek and then climbed over a short rise where about 20 Spinifex Pigeons called home, we continued climbing steeply to a lookout then around a ridge, down the other side, and a bit further along into the gorge. The final part of the hike is a wade through the waterhole and then an easy stroll back up to the visitors centre. We ended up having lunch in the little attached café which was great, the food was nice but a Western Bowerbird popped in for a visit and I managed to get a photo of the bird that I’ve been looking for during the past 2 weeks! A short drive down the road we made camp at Redback Gorge, a clean site with an outlook directly onto Mount Sonder. The campgrounds were quite small and close together but almost all the people staying there were getting up at 4am to climb to the summit making it a very quiet evening.

Not being as enthusiastic about mountain climbing in 35 degrees as our fellow campmates Matt and I decided to complete the cheats option and rather than going the whole way up walk the first (and hardest) 2.5km to the saddle of the mountain. Due to the shorter length rather than starting at 4am we commenced the climb at 8am and what a climb it was. 2.5km of stairs made from stones without more than 100m of flatish track to shake out the legs was much harder than I thought it would be. Sweaty and pooped we reached the top and were rewarded with outstanding views of the range and the summit of Mount Sonder, it was worth the effort. Back in the carpark we barely had time to catch our breath before we were back on the road and driving towards Tnorala (Gosses Bluff). The 4WD track into the reserve was just corrugated enough to make things difficult and we bounced along until we drove through an opening in the cliffs and into the comet crater. We were both completely taken by how big the hole in the ground was, how obvious it was that a comet had smashed into the earth and that we were allowed to drive directly into the middle of it! We did a hike around the middle and a small, short climb to a lookout.

I’d really like to write that we didn’t visit Hermannsburg for a third time, especially since we had more of enough of it the first time but we did…and we went back to the biased mission for lunch. It’s almost become a routine for us now, Hermannsburg, fill up with fuel while trying to work out if the other cars are parked or abandoned, fill up the water next to the footy oval without a single blade of grass while dodging the rubbish, then go and spend money at the mission that did so much to “help” the local indigenous population. If I never visit there again it will be too soon and the government should be disgusted that there are towns in Australia that look in worse condition than those in third world countries, it’s honestly disgraceful. Anyway, enough of my political ranting we left town, turned left and finally returned to the Fink Gorge. I turned to Matt and said “should I just try and avoid looking at animals so we don’t have to rescue any this time?” he responded with a resounding yes.

At the entry to the Fink Gorge is a sign, it says something along the lines of do not attempt this 4WD track if you are inexperienced, don’t have a PLB or EPIRB, don’t have enough food or water for several days, don’t have recovery equipment and so on. It is a very scary sign that made me want to turn around and go in the opposite direction even though we have all of the required things listed. You’d think the track would be an absolute nightmare based on it but no, as far as 4WD tracks go it was pleasant and easy, I drove on worse things doing my course in Tassie. The hardest part was that the soft sand combined with the very slow speeds and heat meant Egg was getting very hot and bothered by the time we pulled up. With the smell of hot engine in our noses we took our chairs down to the river and sat in the cool water while the gorge walls turned red and the birds came into drink. Lovely.

Campsite Reviews

Ellery Creek Big Hole – The waterhole was lovely but the campsite was squashy and there were some idiots the night we stayed. One guy was blasting music from his car and then went and slept on the ground next to the waterhole, another wouldn’t stop flying his drone around. $4pp/pn – 6/10.

Big Gum – 4WD only and I can not emphasis that enough, we were watching people in 4WDs get bogged not only on the tracks but in the actual campsites. Powder soft sand but worth it for the river, trees, and whistling kites. $Free – 8/10.

Redbank Gorge – If you enjoy campsites with a view this place is for you. Mountains and more mountains with a gecko in the toilet and very considerate fellow campers. $4pp/pn – 8/10.

Morwell Fink River – Beautiful, peaceful next to our own private bit of river/waterhole. There were a lot of bugs at night but we got rid of them with a decoy light and the rest were eaten by a resident bat that flew over us multiple times. $Free – 8/10.

3CT – The Final Push

3CT – The Final Push

Distance – 14km
Story seats – 14
Weather – Purely Tasmanian, hot/cold/windy/mist, 5-20C

Our final day of the walk started like all the others, it’s interesting how quick we’ve settled into a routine. The 3 slower walkers (myself included) also happen to be the earlier risers so we get up, make ourselves a coffee and breakfast before the other group emerge. We roll up our sleeping bags, wipe down our mattresses #COVIDSAFE, repack our backpacks and then off we trot.

It wasn’t long out of the plains of Retakunna before we hit the steepest and longest climb of the 3CT, Mount Fortescue. Last night the ranger had told us not to get worked up about it because it looked worse than it was but let me tell you after 3 days of solid hiking it was pretty damn hard. Fortunately my legs, which yesterday evening were worse than useless seemed to have recovered and with a couple of story seat breaks we managed the climb with the second half of our group catching us just as we got to the top. Mount Fortescue was really interesting as it was a rainforest environment (something we had not expected to see on this hike) complete with huge ferns and ancient myrtle trees. It was quiet, dark, and mossy.

After regrouping we began the downhill run to the track junction to complete our second Cape of the walk, Cape Hauy. The reason it is called 3 Capes but only 2 are walked is the plan was originally to make a 6 day walk incorporating Cape Raoul but it wasn’t to be. I’m happy to still count it was we did get an amazing view of it from our first camp. The path continued through the rainforest for a time before climbing out into a more normal eucalypt forest with views of the cliffs along the way. The weather was highly changeable and I felt like I was constantly adding and removing layers as we went.

We reached the track junction right on schedule and stopped in the clearing to have lunch. This was the first point on the track that there was unfortunate evidence of other people, an orange peel left on the ground, toilet tissue spread through the bushes. I’d like to be able to blame tourists but since the borders are closed and the rubbish was fresh it was clearly locals doing the damage. I’d like to think my fellow Tasmanians would have more respect for the environment. If you’re bushwalking please don’t forget if you pack it in, pack it out.

We left our backpacks in the clearing, put on our day packs and headed out to tackle the 2,500 stairs out and back to Cape Hauy. It was hard going but at a leisurely pace and stopping to look at the Leek Orchids and numerous skinks it was manageable. I was pleased that I managed to get to the very end and nearly took a sneaky peak over the edge. This walk has bizarrely made me much more comfortable around cliffs, maybe I’m just getting used to them.

On the way back I took the lead, I think mainly thanks to my cycling quads and glutes giving me a big advantage when it came to uphill stair climbing. I had a sea eagle fly over my head and just as I was nearing the top a beautiful little echidna popped out of the bushes and started eating ants out of the stairs in the track. My friends caught up a few minute later, just in time to see Mr Echidna waddle into the bushes having eradicated the stair of ants.

The final section of the walk went very quickly with only one story seat and a photo stop to complete the journey. The 3 faster walkers rushed down to Fortescue Bay for a swim, I tramped along in the middle of the pack, not super keen for a dip. I made it just in time to strip down to my undies and jump in the water making it just up to my thighs before the sting of the freezing Tasmanian sea was too much. 50% of our group fully submerged themselves. So hardcore!

On the bus ride back, eating a block of chocolate carried the entire way, we reflected on the time we’d spent on the walk. The general conclusion was there were too many amazing moments to have a favourite and it was a fantastic experience. None of us wanted to go back to work but instead would have loved to continue for a few days.

For me personally I think the walk gave me a lot of perspective on my life and what I want to do with it. At the moment both Matt and I are really money driven so that we can go on our trip around Australia and have enough set aside to reestablish at the end and that’s ok for now. But living out of a bag on my back for 4 days and feeling the best I have all year made me appreciate that there are other kinds of wealth than financial and perhaps the 9-5 multi home owning slog isn’t really for me. I have a feeling that living 12+ months out of a van is just going to condense those desires.

Do I recommend the Three Capes Track? If you’d asked me what I thought when they’d just finished it I’d have ranted at you about the privatisation of the wilderness, about how Tasmania should remain untouched and unspoiled. But now, having walked the track for myself, witnessed the beautiful buildings, the pristine track, seen the caretakers put in so much effort to look after the environment and instill a love of it in people that would otherwise been unable to access this part of Tassie, 100% I support it, and even with the $495 price tag I would do it again. I have no criticism it was just spectacular.

If these posts have inspired you to try it for yourself, all the information and bookings can be made at www.threecapestrack.com.au.

3CT – Munro to Retakunna

3CT – Munro to Retakunna

Distance – 19km
Story seats – 14
Weather – Cloudy, light wind, 14C

Day 3, the big one. We set an alarm last night so that we’d wake up in time for the sunrise over the ocean. 5/6 of us jumped out of bed and headed for the helipad where we saw the sun come over the horizon and bathe the sea cliffs in a golden glow. It was utterly breathtaking and I felt like I was on the edge of the world. We ate breakfast enjoying almost the same view from the kitchen hut and then organised our day packs which we’d be taking for most of the hike.

I was feeling pretty nervous about today because I have a fairly major fear of heights. Looking off anything over a couple of storeys sends me into dizziness and panic. It’s fair to say we had a few stops on the way out to Cape Pillar for me to do a nervous wee…or 5. Our walk started in wet eucalypt forest and emerged onto the accurately named hurricane heath where we mounted the longest boardwalk section of the track (over 2km). At the other end of the boardwalk we discovered that it had been designed by local Aboriginal people to look like a snake slithering over the landscape. We learnt about the rare Eyebright flower, global warming of sea currents, a very special She Oak which is endemic to the Tasman peninsula, the birds and the bees, and the impact the winds have on the landscape.

The last story chair was particularly appropriate because as we came over the hill the weather turned and a mist started to brew up. Lucky for us because we’d had a bit of an early start we were able to walk down the other side and away from the worst of the weather. The further we walked the more spectacular the views got especially of the incredible Tasman Island. We read about the stories and the hardships of the people that lived on the island and worked the lighthouse to ensure the safe passage of ships. I couldn’t get over the strength and courage of the lightkeeper families, just getting from the sea to the top of the island would have been a huge challenge, let alone living on a windy, isolated rock alone for months on end.

All too soon we reached The Blade and despite my best efforts (crawling) I only managed to get 1/3 of the way up before my brain would let me go no further. Hannie and Callum went bravely on and were soon joined by the rest of our group who caught up with us just in time for lunch. I sat on the blade and enjoyed watching the clouds appearing to wizz up the cliffs and into the sky.

Once everyone was safely off The Blade we continued on our way, skirting the cliff edges and enjoying the wonderful views and scenery. At the turning point we contemplated lunch but ended up heading back to the Seal Spa story chair where there was more to look at and more shelter from the wind. A couple of boisterous scrub wrens joined us, hopping around and waiting for any dropped food.

After what seemed a very long hike we made it back to Munro, slung our packs over our exhausted backs and slowly walked to the cabins for the night at Retakunna. The spot was nice enough with plenty of bird life and Mt Fortescue lurking in the background but it was my least favourite of the huts. Annika and I cooked up our dinner or fried rice and dehydrated crumble and custard before we turned in for the night.

Hiking the Three Capes Track – Port Arthur to Surveyors

Hiking the Three Capes Track – Port Arthur to Surveyors

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. – Albert Einstein

The Three Capes Track booklet begins with that quote which at the time of opening it seemed corny but sitting at my desk having just completed the 48km hike it feels much more poignant. Certainly the modern world with creature comforts of pillows, hot baths, and refrigeration has its appeal but I can’t help but wish I was still out in the wilderness with my only worries my aching feet and the occasional tiger snake.

While sitting in Dunalley with my friends, eating pies for lunch and about to embark on our walk I asked which of us came up with the idea of doing a multiday hike. They think it was me but I’m not certain enough to take the credit. Whichever one of us did deserves a pat on the back for helping me get through 2020. Each week I’d look forward to our training hikes, and always be watching my countdown timer to the big event. We could not have timed it more perfectly, with the hike discounted to $360pp (from $495), the whales migrating, the spring flowers, and the border to the mainland not opening until 2 days after our return

The walk starts from the convict site of Port Arthur, and while our Three Capes Track (3CT) passes allowed us to enter for free we didn’t have time to look around. Instead we boarded our Pennicott Wilderness Journeys boat and then took an amazing 1h cruise around the cliffs, past Crescent Bay and then across the mouth of the harbour with views of the incredible coastline and what was to come. We spotted a sea eagle, cormorants and long nosed fur seals before we rounded the headland and entered Denmans Cove where we were dropped off on the beach, timing our exit from the boat with each wave. It was an easy stroll up the beach to the commencement point, making sure we were sticking to the hard sand to avoid the Oystercatcher nest in the middle of the beach.

We began walking south, back along the coast we’d just seen from the ocean and through eucalypt woodland and coastal heath. It wasn’t long before we encountered our first of 40 story points that are scattered along the track. These rest spots, often including a bench or chair were a good place for us to have a relax and learn about a topic specific to the area. Our first one, Dear Eliza described the difficulty and sadness convicts experienced while trying to communicate to their families and loves back home. I somehow ended up being the dedicated reader for the entire trip, even though one of our party is a teacher…

After stopping at our second story seat Waving Arms we rounded the coast and dropped down to the last place we’d be at sea level for the walk, Surveyors Cove. Some cheese and dip was extracted from a pack and we sat around watching the ocean, listening to the black cockatoos fight, and watching cormorants (maybe even a few that we saw on the cruise) dive into the shallow water and pop up with a fish. With a belly full of cheese we climbed up the stairs, into more forest and then into scrub before finding ourselves at the Surveryors camp.

The cabins on 3CT were outstanding. They blended in with the environment beautifully, had all the creature comforts that you would need (kitchen, mattresses, USB charging ports), and each had a ranger that would greet you and run over the plans for the next day as well as answering any questions that you had from the walk. Because of COVID the daily walker groups were restricted to 36 which meant despite only having 6 in our party we were able to spread out in our own 8 bed cabin.

For dinner we made the most of the BBQs and had sausages and burgers with salad while watching the sun set over Cape Raoul.

Distance – 4km
Story chairs – 2
Weather – Sunny, light/no wind, 16C