Three Capes Track adventure

By Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum 8 December 2015
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Purpose built on hard-won foundations, a new multiday walk in south-eastern Tasmania is intended to be a coastal version of the beloved Overland Track – and then some.

THE LAST FEW steps have always been the hardest. Some stout pushing with legs to ascend the larger steps; a handhold here and there on cold, hard rock; a watchful eye on the extraordinary gulf to the left and right. And then you’re atop The Blade, the majestic, narrow wedge of dolerite columns that juts above the south-eastern tip of the Tasman Peninsula. 

The view is the reward – unless the weather is so inclement that you literally can’t see your hand in front of you face. At the least it’s likely to be windy, with clouds in various shades of grey roiling above a whitecapped ocean. 

As the black currawong flies, you’re only 65km from Hobart. If you look west, back along the narrow finger of land you’ve just traversed, along the line of towering dolerite cliffs that here are battered at the base by rolling Southern Ocean swells, you can see West Arthur Head and Cape Raoul. Due south, topped with a lighthouse and three keepers’ cottages, is Tasman Island – the point at which Sydney-Hobart yachts turn west for Storm Bay, and the River Derwent. To the north-east looms the half-dome bulk of Cape Pillar, riven by the Chasm and its giddying 280m straight plunge to the sea. North-west, the clean sweep of Munro Bight leads the eye past Mt Fortescue to the distant bumps of Cape Hauy and the Lanterns, Deep Glen Bluff and, way off north, Maria Island.

three capes track tasmania

Views down on climbers atop the Totem Pole is a feature for walkers reaching Cape Hauy on day four of the Three Capes Track. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

For many years, this view’s been savoured only by those who have walked here one way or another from Fortescue Bay, on tracks that are pleasantly legible but not intended for the less experienced. That has now changed: capes Pillar and Hauy are two of a planned trio of high points on the Three Capes Track, the eastern part of which opened in December 2015.

Planning stages 

Very few renowned walking trails spring out of the landscape fully formed. The Overland Track owes a great deal to prospectors, trappers and hunters. The West Coast Trail in Canada was made primarily as a way back for shipwreck survivors.

The Three Capes Track is different mainly in that it owes more to walkers. In a part of Tasmania best known for its proximity to the former Port Arthur penal colony, Hobart Walking Club (HWC) began cutting a scenic track between Waterfall Bay and Fortescue Bay in the early 1970s and by 1992 they’d completed a comprehensive network of tracks on the peninsula, providing foot access to landmarks such as Cape Hauy and Cape Pillar, Shipstern Bluff and Cape Raoul. In 1999, the several disparate parcels of state reserve and forestry land containing the tracks was proclaimed as Tasman National Park, and the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS) dubbed the HWC-made tracks that joined Waterfall Bay and Cape Pillar the Tasman Coastal Trail. 

In 2005, then Tasmanian premier Paul Lennon instructed PWS to investigate the potential of a new multiday walk to rival the Overland Track. A seasonal walker-fee system had recently been introduced on the track and its popularity hadn’t diminished a jot. Was there another place in Tassie that might attract 10,000 walkers each year?

“Lennon had walked the Milford Track,” recalled Stuart Lennox, the recently retired PWS director of visitor services. “So I said to [then-PWS General Manager] Peter Mooney, rather than us all just throwing a dart at the map, why don’t we try to understand what the consumers are looking for?” 

three capes track tasmania

Walkers on Cape Hauy Track (day 4 of the Three Capes Track). (Image: supplied)

Extensive market research of walker desires and considerations such as proximity to transport led members of the scoping study team to the virtually unanimous choice of the Tasman Peninsula. 

“There were so many things that led us to the peninsula, one being that it’s an hour from Hobart airport,” said Stuart. “But also [such things as] the resilience of… the landscape, and net benefits in terms of regional jobs.” 

In 2006, Premier Lennon commissioned a $100,000 feasibility study, which was released the following year. The study identified the Three Capes Track route, considered market research, the route and huts, environmental issues and business-case issues such as staffing and operational costs, and flow-on benefits to the region.

Among other things, the study identified the work needed to upgrade or realign existing routes, and create new tracks, to complete the Three Capes Track. It recommended huts with mattresses and cookers (thus reducing walkers’ pack weights), and an Overland-type booking system with up to 60 walkers a day setting out on the track. Subsequent economic analyses reckoned that Three Capes Track walkers would bring an additional $19 million to the Tasmanian economy and generate more than 70 new jobs on the Tasman Peninsula.

The project was broken into three construction stages: one and two on the eastern side of Port Arthur, with tracks reaching capes Pillar and Hauy, and stage three to the west, taking in Cape Raoul. Joint state and federal funding of $25 million for stages one and two was agreed in 2010 and the Three Capes Track started to take shape. By May 2012, an upgrade of the existing path between Fortescue Bay and Cape Hauy saw stage one complete.

Three Capes Track Tasmania Cape Pillar

The spectacular Cape Pillar from Tasman Island. (Image: Tourism Tasmania)

Fly-in cabins 

“When we surveyed walkers about their preferences for a new track, the most significant aspect was the quality of the accommodation,” said PWS’s manager of project and procurement, Andrew Wagg.

Hobart-based JAWS Architects were selected for their reputation for innovation in designing modular homes, and by December 2015 AJR Construct, Island Workshop and VOS Construction had completed 18 buildings including cabins for ranger and walker accommodation, kitchen and dining ‘hubs’ and toilets.

“The design had to be readily broken down and transportable by helicopter, in 800kg loads,” Andrew said. “So it’s a classic flat-pack building – an Ikea hut. It also had to be able to deal with three different building types – a ranger’s hut, which is basically a house; communal spaces for cooking/eating/socialising; and cabins for sleeping. The other big factor was making sure it would survive a bushfire.” 

Three Capes Track Tasmania Cape Pillar

View of Cape Hauy and Hippolyte Rock from the deck at Munro Cabin. (Image: supplied)

Wagg told us that, when a bushfire analysis was done, “We discovered very quickly that with 60 people departing each day, you weren’t going to evacuate [everyone on the track] by helicopter very quickly – helicopters were likely to be used in the firefighting effort. So we had to design safer on-site refuges, to allow a fire front to pass through and the buildings to survive.” 

The final design employs timber – blackbutt – that’s flame resistant: in the event of a bushfire, it will probably char, but it won’t collapse and burn. Structural gaps and openings are designed to stop spark penetration, and materials chosen for roofing, cladding and insulation are non-combustible.

The cabin’s interiors are spacious. Its futuristic windows immediately catch the eye: they’re angled down at 20 degrees to minimise the risk of birdstrike and reduce reflection – an effort that includes external colour choice, to make the cabins blend into the landscape. 

The cabins sleep 48 people in nine sleeping rooms, with each walker allocated their own bunk platform and mattress. The separate communal hubs have a kitchen with gas cooktops, a selection of pots, pans and utensils plus tables and seating. There’s also a small library with reference books for the area, USB charge points, games and even yoga mats.

Track building

During construction, Osborne Aviation Services helicopters flew as often as possible to deliver loads of rock, gravel and timber to the track-work teams. 

The last 9km of track work to be built included some of the alignment’s easiest and hardest sections, and Adrian Marriner of Living Trails Australia had both. The Victorian-based track builder has worked in several Australian states, but he admitted that the 2.5km he had to complete on the north side of Mt Fortescue, much of it steep terrain, with many stone steps to build, was one of his more memorable challenges. 

“You’ve got to focus on a small area, and you might get 5m up the hill on a good day,” Adrian told us, when we visited his Mt Fortescue base. “That climb goes for hundreds and hundreds of metres and… it’s a daunting task to do the whole thing. But you start down the bottom, and you do it slowly – you get immersed in the work and the day goes.” 

three capes track tasmania

During track construction, completed last year, helicopters delivered loads of rock, gravel and timber to track-work teams. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

The modern track-builder’s tools include compact excavators, power carriers and hand-held compactors, and helicopters to drop tools and materials in place. They stayed in purpose-built bush camps with tent platforms, showers and dry, comfortable kitchen/eating shelters. But the aims remained unchanged from track builders of the past: build a track that’s easier to walk, protects the environment, doesn’t erode under the first decent storm and eventually blends in to its surrounds. 

The track was being built to Australian Standard Class 3 – which means it’s “dry-boot” standard and about 1m wide, making the Three Capes Track a walk that people of different ages, experience and fitness levels can make. What it looks like is a kind of multiday bushwalkers’ highway; a mixture of stone, gravel and duckboards that allow for fast progress, with a lot of sections where it’s possible to walk and take in the view, without the need to watch one’s feet. You will need to watch your feet on the Mt Fortescue traverse, which will be the final day on track for Three Capes Track walkers.

It was a better story for Adrian at the other section, about 8km west near Denmans Cove. Here, where Three Capes Track walkers tackle their first few kilometres, the track route follows the contours rather than crossing them, and Adrian’s team was able to make rapid progress. 

First they went through with chainsaws and brush-cutters to clear an easement, and then Adrian followed in a compact excavator ‘lead benching’ – moving major rocks and levelling the course. His son Jordan followed in another excavator, creating a bed for the gravel and ‘trimming the batter’ – smoothing the cut earthen bank. Follow-up work included laying rocks on the track edge and downhill bank, laying and compacting gravel and doing a final tidy and trim on trackside vegetation.

three capes track tasmania

The Three Capes Track is constructed to be “dry-boot” standard and is about 1m wide. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

Adrian paid careful attention to keeping the trackside plants as intact as possible. “Once you clear a lot of the native vegetation you open it up to weeds and it just looks horrible,” he said. “What you generally aim for is to walk through a tunnel – to get the canopy to meet at the top, block the light, and suppress the vegetation growth below.”

From where we stood we could clearly see the Port Arthur Historic Site, about 3km across the water to the west; about 10km south-west, forbidding Cape Raoul loomed behind Mt Brown. 

“I don’t particularly want to be able to see this track from the sea,” said Adrian. “Right now you can’t see the walking track from the beach, unless you really know where you’re looking, and when plants grow back you won’t see it all.”

Regrowth disguise 

Vegetation regrowth is just one of the things entertaining the minds of those at PWS who lived and breathed Three Capes Track for several years. PWS has kept a true course on at least one thing: the Three Capes Track started with market research nearly a decade ago, and the process of seeking feedback has continued to the present.

“What we’re finding is that the track’s such a good standard that it’s easier than people think,” said Andrew Wagg. “We’ve taken a whole range of different people – of different abilities, different fitness levels – out on track and asked them, ‘Would you walk 13km?’ And their first reaction is ‘Oh, that sounds a long way’. And then we go for a walk and after three hours we say, ‘do you realise you just walked 13km?’ And they say: ‘Oh really?’” 

That seems a good start to achieving Overland-by-the-sea status for the Three Capes Track. If you’ve walked out to Cape Pillar in the past it’s hard to imagine 10,000 walkers a year going there, but that’s no reason why it won’t happen. These projection have already been fulfilled, with bookings reaching that target within 11 months of the booking system opening in September 2015.

Andrew says he likes the way the track is settling in. “What’s particularly heartening is, the areas that have been done a year or more, they’re kind of softening,” he said. “There’s leaf litter everywhere, [vegetation] on the side is starting to sprout up, so it looks like it’s been there for a long while, which is nice. And as the treated pine [of duckboard sections] greys it’ll soften up again.” 

Echidnas are commonly spotted by walkers on the track. (Image: supplied)

Given that so much thought and work has gone into the track, it’s ironic that the best outcome will be if paying customers don’t really notice it at all. It oughtn’t to be their reason for coming.

However one moves in the remote reaches of the Tasman Peninsula – on foot, by boat, in the air – the experience is essentially a kaleidoscopic melding of cliff, sky, sea and wind. Cold waves pound into cold dolerite. Cloud obscures peaks and fog blankets valleys. Wind wafts away the fog and blows in rain, then whisks it out again, bending trees and shrubs all the while: local features such as Tornado Flat and Hurricane Heath were named for good reason. Aiming to create something so that less experienced walkers could enjoy this environment was always going to be tough challenge.

Over time, as we’ve talked to PWS staff leading the Three Capes Track effort, we’ve been struck by their attachment to the project. It goes beyond mere enthusiasm. The first time we met Andrew Wagg he talked mainly about the cabins, but his words could as well apply to every part of the Three Capes Track effort. 

“One of the design parameters was to try and produce something that’s simple and elegant,” he said. “And you probably appreciate that simple is quite hard to achieve – it takes a lot of effort. There’s been a huge amount of thought gone into the whole thing.”

In brief

  • The 46km eastern portion of the Three Capes Track, in Tasman National Park, Tasmania, opened on 23 December 2015.
  • Walkers can book their departure day online, and pay a track fee of $495 per adult which includes:
    • Site entry, car parking and secure lockers at Port Arthur Historic Site.
    • Pennicott Wilderness Journey cruise, departing Port Arthur at 11.30am and 2pm daily.
    • Three nights accommodation in cabins on the track.
    • Bus transfer from Fortescue Bay back to Port Arthur Historic Site.
    • Guide book with maps.
  • The track starts at Denmans Cove and walkers follow it counter-clockwise for four days to Fortescue Bay.
  • Mattresses, gas cookers and a selection of cooking utensils are provided at the three overnight stops – at Surveyors Cove, Munro and Retakunna – so walkers need only carry a sleeping bag, food and personal gear.
  • The stop at each hut will be restricted to one night.

Visit for more information.

This article was originally published in the May-June 2015 edition of Australian Geographic Adventure magazine.