Hilly, forested, and wet Tasmania is regarded by many Australians as their most picturesque state, a kind of Vermont of the Southern Hemisphere. It is also considered the nation's hiking mecca, but because many of the trails cover mountainous terrain, only the hardiest of hikers have been able access them.
With that in mind, the Tasmanian Government conceived a coastal track with a broader appeal. Less than two years ago, the state's Parks and Wildlife Service finished construction of the Three Capes, a 29-mile track that starts at one of Australia's most important historical sites and takes in some stunning coastline over a hike lasting four days and three nights.
The track comes with a trade-off: This piece of the natural beauty now has an entrance fee of about $400 US to access a track that used to cost only blisters, sunburn, and time. But the fee has generated the funding to turn a sometimes-strenuous rocky trek into an easy-to-moderate walk that more people can enjoy. No roads extend into the area, which means that the materials for the track and huts had to be delivered by helicopter and assembled by workers living in temporary camps.
The venture that has been created includes custom-designed accommodations, a spectacular boat ride, and miles of boardwalks smooth enough to skateboard on. Visitors can borrow books and binoculars and even yoga mats.
It has been a huge success. Only 48 people are allowed on the trail each day, but it attracted about 10,000 hikers in its first year. The walk is full of professionals and young families toting the latest in sleeping-bag technology and wearing fashionable apparel. You would be hard-pressed to see the kind of hardcore hiker who came here in the past.
"It's a necessary evil to allow so many people to explore the area," Tim Farrell, a 25-year-old Australian traveling with seven friends, said one night in a heated, pristine dining hut while families sat about playing Scrabble. "I like not being totally spent by the end of the day."
The trail begins at Port Arthur, a village on the Tasman Peninsula, which juts out into the Southern Ocean from Tasmania proper. A tragic site in both history and modernity for Australians, Port Arthur was a brutal penal colony from 1833 to 1877. The open-air prison, which now is an immaculately maintained national heritage site, is one of Tasmania's top tourist destinations. In 1996, a young, mentally disturbed man from the city of Hobart committed Australia's worst modern mass shooting at the site, triggering a period of national introspection.
The tragic backdrop provides a moody start to the Three Capes Track, which begins on water, rather than land, with a one-hour boat trip around the ocean inlet that used to be the penal settlement's main route to civilization.
The ride was interesting and exhilarating. The crew provided facts about the geology, geography, and sealife of the spectacular cliffs that dominate the area, then spun the boat so hard that seawater sprayed over us. We were deposited onto a small, sheltered beach, where we began our walk through rain forests, woods, grassland, heaths, and along sea cliffs that plunged 1,000 feet into the ocean.
Even though there are 1,500-foot changes in elevation over several days, the Three Capes walk is easy enough for preteens and reasonably fit people in their 60s – figure on walking four hours daily over four straight days and carrying a pack with sleeping bag, food for each day, and necessary clothing for temperature changes. The path is mostly composed of packed dirt and gravel or wooden boardwalks, with steps for steeper sections. Wooden benches overlook interesting views, including a rock ledge popular with seals at Cape Pillar.
Animals that make appearances along the walk include eagles, seals, dolphins, and whales — and deadly snakes, although no one has died of Tasmanian snake bite in decades.
Each night, we stayed in a different cabin. Made from blackbutt (a coastal Eucalyptus), they were in immaculate condition. Every walker is assigned a room from the start, which means there is no need to rush ahead to get the best spot. Each room has bunk beds. There are separate kitchen and dining areas, all with tank water, sinks, pots and pans, kitchen utensils, and cleaning supplies. One site boasts a hot shower. There are mobile-phone chargers, too.
Yoga mats and lounge chairs can be used on the decks surrounding the cabins. Each site has a small library of Australian fiction and reference books, including two by Man Booker Prize-winning Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan. The collection is identical at each hut, to allow walkers to leave a book behind and pick it up again at the next location.
Each night, a resident ranger briefed us on the next day's weather, local history, and wildlife, and answered questions.
The walk includes two capes with spectacular views: Cape Pillar and Cape Hauy. At Cape Pillar, it is possible to walk up a steep stone staircase and stand on a rock platform about the size of a child's bed, with cliffs plunging on three sides to the sea below. The walk up and view down are not for the queasy. Even though it was spring, the mountains in the distance were covered with snow.
But that is only two capes. Where is the third cape on the Three Capes track? "We get asked that question a lot," a ranger named Daniel said, sounding a little sheepish. "The third cape is part of the national park." Cape Raoul is located on the other side of Port Arthur and is not part of this walk, but it has recently been upgraded, also. That hike is about nine miles roundtrip over five hours.
A private company is building its own cabins and plans to start operating a rival walk in September. For about $2,400, it will provide two guides, beds with linens and three-course dinners.
Patrick is a writer based in Sydney. Find him on Twitter: @apatrickafr.
Three Capes Track
Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia
Access to the Three Capes Track is controlled by the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, which accepts bookings only online and charges about $400 US for adults and about $320 US for children. The four-day walk starts at the Port Arthur historical penal settlement, which is a one-hour ride by car or bus from Hobart, the state capital, and a popular tourist attraction in its own right. Walkers are required to stay in the provided huts, which have bathrooms, showers, cooking facilities, and utensils. Food must be carried in. Each visitor is issued a detailed booklet containing walking notes and information on the area's history, flora, and fauna.