Galen flew into Hobart Saturday evening and I met him the next day. He is living and working in Sydney, and he and his lady friend Kristin do an excellent blog on life Down Under. We toured the Harbor, bought some great apricots at the farmers market, and food for the upcoming South Coast Track.
This is a biggie. The South Coast Track traverses the wild and wet southern coast of Tasmania … look off to your right, and there’s nothing but ocean until Antarctica. 85km doesn’t sound long, but the track is minimally maintained, has a few big ups, and the weather is less than idyllic. This is such a big wilderness, the only way to start the route is either a 5 day walk in, or a bush plane lift to the start. At most 4 people start this each day. What’s there not to like?
Well, mud for one thing …
The 6-seater drops us down out of the sky onto a short strip hacked out of the bush. Galen and I, and another couple hop out. The plane takes off and is gone. No turning back.
The landscape is very different. I cannot recognize a single plant. The start is flat, and largely underwater. Boardwalk consisting of 2 2×8′s provides some initial confidence, but some of that is submerged also, and then peters out. Our feet will not be dry again until we are back in Hobart. But on this day, the sun is briefly out, we reach a beach, and walk along it, the Great Southern Ocean rolling in on our right, and it’s glorious. We climb over a headland, back down to another beach, and then up again, this time higher. The ground is essentially a big sponge. Even higher up there is standing water and mud where the track has been beaten thru the vegetation. I briefly see a tiger snake – deadly poisonous – and Galen spots a Quoll. That is not a typo, and no, we had never heard of a Quoll either (of the 140 species of Marsupials native to Australia, most do not exist anywhere else). I see a Wombat shooting across the trail. Except for the Tasmanian Devil – which really does exist outside of Warner Brothers cartoons (but is endangered), Australian animals are admittedly quite cute, with even cuter names.
It’s raining on and off, and our wonder at the unique landscape is tempered by our wimpyness regarding the conditions. We just aren’t good mudders. Galen was one of the best mountain runners in the world, and while his great attitude and strength really showed, he is an Arabian in this Draft Horse environment. And while due to my complete lack of speed, I may attempt to lay claim to instead being strong or tough, the truth is I don’t particularly like to get wet or dirty. I’m really quite squeamish about it. I’m happy to go out for a big 16 hour day, but at the end I’m ready for a hot shower and glass of wine. Neither would be waiting for us at the end of this day.
At 7:30 PM we rolled into Louisa Creek Camp. One basically has to sleep in the suggested sites, not due to any regulations, but because if you don’t you will either be rendered immobile by impenetrable bush or will be laying out your sleeping bag in standing water. We quickly set up our nice Sierra Designs tent … and then there was nothing to do, because we don’t actually cook or prepare meals; we just walk and walk, and eat bread, cheese, and salami along the way. But not the locals … a group of 5 guys, dressed to the max in thick wool, invited us to the campfire they had somehow lit. They had just finished grilling their steaks. We put that thought out of our mind, and enjoyed the fire, drying out our feet before going to bed; a welcome way to ease into this trail.
The next morning was the big climb; 3,000′ up over the Ironbound Range. We thought about our different styles while powering up this. A 900 M climb means nothing to us … we enjoy it actually, and Galen especially can just saunter up stuff like that without cracking a sweat. But we balk at wet feet, and grinding out slow miles thru the mud. The 5 friendly locals we shared a fire with last night were quite content to spend a week out there, moseying along in the rain, lurching under enormous packs. We on the other hand, had packs so small they never failed to elicit stares and questions, and would much rather bust out a 13 hour day in order to the heck outta here, rather than sit for one additional hour in the cold rain.
We were feeling good about ourselves, cresting the range as the wind-driven rain turned to freezing sleet, and started zipping down the other side towards warmer and hopefully dryer conditions. But such was not to be. Re-entering the trees, we encountered the gnarliest section of trail I’ve ever seen. Having been to South America three times, the Alps, Nepal and Tibet twice, and most everyplace on the North American continent, saying this is the most difficult trail I’ve ever seen is notable. The twisted mat of roots protruded 10″ above the steep muddy trail which was a flowing stream. We hit our heads on branches, came to complete stops to negotiate the roots, and basically were not feeling real smooth. It took 5.5 hours to go about 15 km. Then a few more beaches, over some more headlands, and into the “mud pit”. An unavoidable section 30 M long with every step shin deep in black guck. Galen went up to his thighs at one point. At the next beach we stopped and washed our shoes and socks out. We are doing this route in 3 days instead of the usual 6 – 9, and feel this is a very good choice. I should note that our weather was much colder than normal, and that the Parks Service is not to blame for the trail – this is just extremely difficult terrain in which to construct a trail. We are amazed they did it at all – there is no way anything like this would even exist in America – and laud their ambition and heartiness, even as we don’t know their motivation.
The conditions on the third day ease up, and toward the end more boardwalk has been constructed, so we pick up the pace dramatically and horse it on in, reaching the other trail head at 5 PM – an 8.5 hr day, 13 hr day, and now 9.75 hours. But now what to do? We’re at the end of a long dirt road, with no services here. The once/day bus comes tomorrow at 12:30 PM. We sit under the awning of the hiker registration stand, watching the cold rain fall, and shivering. Galen hangs up his sleeping bag which is so waterlogged it is dripping a pool of water onto the ground. We don’t really want to get into that; we don’t really want another night out, and we have nothing left but cashews for dinner. Like I said, we are wimps. Fortunately we are nice wimps … sort of like the Koala Bear, people are willing to take care of us. The Aussies are extraordinarily friendly people – a man walks back up to us in the rain, saying he and his wife have cooked some pasta and invite us to their camp. Another couple walks up and with no prompting, invites us to get warm by their campfire. The highlight was when a group of three smiling locals walked up in the rain with a huge plastic bag (these people are definitely not wimps). It was full of Oysters they had cheerily harvested 5 minutes ago. Each one weighed about a pound. So the guy take an equally big rock, whacks one open, holds the half-shell up to his mouth, and it’s gone. Then it’s our turn. Nothing but cashews left … it’s still quivering … slurp! But then a German couple comes off their dayhike, puts us into their campervan, and drives us into Hobart, driving around the city until we find a hotel and dropping us at the front door at 10 PM.
Some routes are worth doing every year for the rest of your life (the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Longs Peak), while others are great to do once (Leadville, the Colorado Trail, Aconcagua); you tic them off, feel real good about it … and even better about not going back. The South Coast Track is remarkable, an amazing route, a once-in-a-lifetime experience … and if I knew what it would be like, it may have been less than that.