Thursday 8 September 2016

Three Capes Track: First Impressions

There's a new kid in town,
Everybody's talking 'bout the new kid in town *

We all know that kid. She/he turns up part way through the year, dressed to the nines, driving a flash new car while the rest of us walk or ride a bus. We experience that curious mixture of admiration, envy and suspicion.

Tasmania's newest walking experience, the Three Capes Track, is that new kid. While it has attracted a lot of admirers, there are detractors too. All of this made me keen to get to know the "new kid" personally, and find out what he's really like. Here are some of my impressions **

[The boat trip from Port Arthur brought lots of smiles] 
1) The Boat Trip ... or "The excursion you have to have". 

You start at Port Arthur, the World Heritage convict site on the Tasman Peninsula, and take what could be a simple 10 minute boat trip. Instead it lasts 90 minutes, with the boat describing a series of loops up and down the waters of the large inlet, before it delivers you to Denman Cove where the walking starts. Some critics describe it as an expensive and unwanted excursion. For everyone on our trip it was a highlight: a great way to come to grips with the lie of the land - and the water - as well as a way of including "the third cape", Cape Raoul, in the trip. (You get to see it from the water).

[A wet-footed start at Denmans Cove] 
2) The Track ... or "It's bushwalking Jim, but not as we know it". 

Constructed to "dry boot" standard, and capable of accommodating two walkers side-by-side for much of its length, this is the highest grade track work you'll find anywhere in Australia. 

Some, particularly long-time bushwalkers, consider the track over-engineered, too expensive, and too intrusive on an otherwise wild landscape. In parts - particularly the boardwalk on the way to Cape Pillar - they may have a point. But those who walk it generally love that they are not having to dodge mud or otherwise worry about their footing. Crucially this means that it will - and does - attract many first-time walkers. 

[Ready to walk: Denmans Cove with Port Arthur across the water] 
It also should be said that some of the rocky sections of track are so expertly made that they're almost works of art. The track looks as though it will last for hundreds of years. However it is a 46km walk, and there are occasional steep sections. It still requires a degree of fitness and determination.

3) The Experience ... or "Once upon a time there were Three Capes"

Q. When is a bushwalk not just a bushwalk? 
A. When it's also an experience.

The Parks and Wildlife Service team that's behind this walk speak of it as an "experience" and not just a walk. Of course all bushwalks are more than just a walk. So is this "experience" business just so much tourism wank

The way I read it, "experience" is about integrating those "other" aspects of a walk into your thinking from the very beginning. Here it is factors such as the variety of walking; its rich social aspects; the depth of stories held in the landscape; and the varied ways you're invited to approach those stories, that help to offer a seamless and rich experience. 

[Story-time in the hut: part of the social experience] 
Some examples? The track has a large number of "story starters", various installations, sculptures, or other prompts, that invite walkers to think about the wealth of stories related to this place. Rather than "signs-on-sticks", you are pointed to the informative booklet that's given to each walker. 

But does it enhance the walk? Certainly the walkers I went with thought so. They raved about so many aspects of the walk, but many singled out the wonderfully low-key interpretation, and the thought-provoking installations. 

[Inspecting a "story-starter" on the boardwalk]
Crucially those walkers universally reckoned they'd come again. There was one caveat to that, and that concerns the cost. For some of our group, the usual fee of $495 per person (for 4 days, 3 nights, incl. the boat trip, bus retrieval and a two-year pass to Port Arthur) was too much. They only came because of the special national park centenary offer of $250 per person (which has now ended).

Of course it's arguable that the level of service here, from the boat trip to the high grade track to the presence of host rangers, warrants a higher fee. And then, of course, there are the huts.

4) The Huts ... or "He sees the vision splendid of the sunlit cliffs extended"

When New Zealand trampers thought the new Anchorage Hut on the Abel Tasman Coast Track too grand, they ironically dubbed it the Anchorage Hilton. The three huts on this track attract similar jibes. They're seen as too large, too plush, too intrusive and too costly. It's fair to say they are all of these. And yet ... the walkers who use them (remember quite a number of these are first-time bushwalkers) generally sing their praises.

[Early morning at Retakunna Hut] 
Each overnight site has comfortable dormitory-style rooms, with eight bunks in each, and mattresses supplied. Should the snorers trouble you, the host rangers can supply ear plugs. Interconnecting decks lead to separate rooms for cooking/dining/socialising. Gas cook tops, pots and pans, and basic cooking utensils are provided. Water is supplied from roof tanks, and accessed via hand pumps over large indoor sinks. Toilets are in separate buildings, with fly-in/fly-out "sputniks" to collect the waste, making the smell minimal. 

[Deckchair conversation on the Munro viewing deck] 
It's fair to say that each hut commands a stunning site. That's particularly true of the Munro site, high above Munro Bight. Its viewing deck gives truly stunning views towards Cape Hauy. The deck chairs (yes, they're supplied at each hut) can be taken onto the deck, allowing walkers unique rewards for their efforts in getting here. And sunrise from Munro's nearby helipad can be an amazing experience. It certainly was for our group. Munro Hilton anyone?

[Sharing sunrise above Munro Bight] 
5) The Development Issue ... or "Is this the thin end of the wedge?"

Some Tasmanians (in particular) are not happy with this style of development within a national park. They see it as intruding on the area's rich natural and cultural values to pander to the wealthy and the "soft". And there is a strong fear that this is a "thin-end-of-the-wedge" situation. A counter-argument is that sensitively opening an area to a wider variety of people, and not just hardy bushwalkers, can only increase the number of people who will value its conservation, and push for its ongoing protection.

After walking the track, and seeing many on it who would not otherwise bushwalk, I would lean towards the counter-argument above. The bulk of the track, and the siting of the huts, has been done relatively sensitively, given 21st century fire, building and safety regulations. Personally, I loved the experience, and would happily go back numerous times.

That said, I don't think "traditional bushwalkers" have been adequately considered in the current model. I think there should be a way for them to experience the whole track, and to have the option of camping instead of staying in huts. There is just one camping site provided, at Wughalee Creek, off the Cape Pillar Track. This is hardly an attractive or convenient site, and nor does it allow walkers to experience the first day and half of the track, between Denmans Cove and Munro. 

[Relieving sore feet at the end, Fortescue Bay] 
Given the high cost of providing the track and other services; and given the precedent of camping walkers having to pay the full Overland Track fee, I'm not arguing that Three Capes "camping walkers" should be given a significant discount. But I am arguing that a camping option for the full track should be actively considered in future.

6) The Landscape ... or "So much more than ABC"

Blasé tourists in Europe sometimes use the acronym ABC to refer to the surfeit of grand buildings. (ABC can variously refer to "another bloody castle" or "another bloody cathedral".) In the context of this walk, there were some who thought the experience would attract the ABC acronym with regard to cliffs. How wrong they would be! Simply put, the sheer variety of landscapes on this walk - from cliffs to seascapes; heath to woodland; cloud forest to rainforest - is quite stunning. 

[Walking through rainforest near Mt Fortescue] 
I've been visiting this area for many years, and thought I knew what to expect. I had little doubt that the cliffs would attract the most "wows". But I was not prepared for how extensive and how beautiful the forests would be, particularly the rainforest on the flanks of Mt Fortescue on the final day. I also underestimated the extent and beauty of the wildflowers.

[Cape Hauy, the Candlestick and the Totem Pole casting shadows] 
Of course the cliffs deserve every rave they get, and not only because of the grandeur of the outlook they provide. For the patient and observant, they can also offer views of wildlife that'll keep the jaw dropping. White-bellied sea eagles, wedge-tailed eagles, albatrosses and many other birds can be seen. In the off-shore waters whales and dolphins are frequent visitors, and both Australian and New Zealand fur seals can be spotted resting on the rocky shores.

If I had to sum up the whole experience in just three letters, they would be WOW! If you've been thinking about walking the Three Capes Track, just do it!

There's more information here Three Capes Track

[Looking towards Cape Raoul from near Cape Pillar] 
* from "New Kid in Town" by the Eagles

** The disclaimers: I worked on staff with Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service from 1991 until July 2015. I helped start up the interpretation aspects of this project, had some field trips to, and discussions at, some sites. I also sat in lots of boring meeting rooms. Before retiring, I handed the project on to some very creative staff and contractors. I paid to do this walk, and the opinions expressed are my own, and based on my August 2016 trip.

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