Three Capes Track (day 3): Munro to Retakunna via Cape Pillar
Leading out to the end of Cape Pillar for unparalleled views of Tasman Island and the dramatic dolerite coastline, our third day on the Three Capes Track has us gasping at every single turn. Even though it’s a longer walk today than either of our previous two days combined, the 19kms positively whiz by as we are able to leave our big packs at Munro, make the walk out to Cape Pillar and The Blade entirely unencumbered, and then continue onwards only a short distance to Retakunna for the night. “Spectacular” absolutely does no justice to the scenery.. someone pinch me.
Trail stats: Munro to Retakunna via Cape Pillar
Trail hours: 5.25hrs, including 14 “storyseats”
Highlights: Unrivalled views of Tasman Island, The Blade, and Cathedral Rock; exciting walk along the cliffs of Cape Pillar; panoramic views of the peninsula’s iconic dolerite columns; some of the trails most inventive storyseats
Lunch spot: Seal Spa
Campsite: Retakunna Hut
Waking up to clear weather after a fairly apocalyptic night of storms, Cal and I forgo a hot breakfast and instead rush to ready our bags for the hike. We were anticipating poor visibility today due to bushfires upwind, but the rain seems to have cleared some of the smoke particles from the air and granted us a window of opportunity— given that this is the most spectacular day of our walk, it’s not an opportunity we intend to miss. By 8.15am, our packs are safely stowed in the shed, our little summit pack is full of water, snacks, and extra layers, and we are on the trail.
Eileen left earlier than us this morning, and Cal soon zips off ahead as well, leaving me and dad to settle into a comfortable pace together along the well-graded track. Our plan is to hurry out to Cape Pillar and The Blade before any inclement weather (be it smoke or rain) rolls in, saving all the storyseats for our return journey back. In reality, we are pulled out onto every single lookout by the ever-improving views of the jagged coastline, so we don’t actually save any time in our walk out. But it is worth it.
Walking across Perdition Plateau, so named by the two trailblazers from Hobart Walking Club that we read about on yesterday’s hike, dad and I are nearly knocked to the ground by howling winds. One of the most beautiful storyseats provides an opportunity to learn all about how these fierce gusts, reaching up to 169km/hr at Cape Pillar and estimated to be around 75km/hr today, have shaped the landscape of the Cape. Much of what we’re walking on is actually wind-driven sand, funnelled up from the coast and whipped around by fierce winds— a natural feat even more impressive when you peer over the edge and see just how far we are above sea level. More than just the wind-shaped geomorphology of the area, though, it’s also fascinating to consider the resiliency of the plants in this region. Brachen fern and heath seem to thrive even in the unbelievably strong winds, lining the sides of the trail for most of our walk. Dad gets a closer look when his hat is stolen off his head (even with his chinstrap tightened), swirled 20m in the air, and dropped into a huge mess of spiky heath.
Our first unobstructed views of Tasman Island come shortly after this around Resolution Point, from where we can really start to appreciate the isolation that Tasmania’s lighthouse keepers (and their families) endured. The weather today is perfect for this scenery, lending an undeniably romantic quality to the white lighthouse and wind-swept island, surrounded entirely by plunging sea cliffs and the tumultuous Tasman Sea, some 300m below.
Our Closer Encounters book tells a horrifying story about the young daughter of one particular lightkeeper taking ill, requiring her family to frantically signal passing ships and eventually send 12 carrier pigeons off into a storm in the hopes that someone would come to their aid. They did finally convey a message to Hobart after a bonfire was seen by a passing ship, but by the time the family arrived on land to see a doctor, the little girl was beyond help and died within the week. It’s a wonder anyone accepted lightkeeper position in those day, what with the isolation your family would be forced to endure (and the desolation that would nearly drive you mad), but Tasmania has a great many lighthouses that probably tell similar tales. This particular family returned to the island (with their remaining children) that same month to continue manning the light.
As we learned on our recent tour of Bruny Island’s lighthouse, every light flashes at a different rate, which allows ships to determine their exact location (using a chart that matches each speed to a specific lighthouse). The Tasman Island light flashes every 7.5 seconds, reaching ships more than 70km away, and likely helped thousands of ships find safe passage to Australia since its erection in 1906 (the standard sailing route being Britain — Rio de Janeiro — Cape of Good Hope — passing south of Tasmania to travel up the east coast).
Our next storyseat, and my favourite so far (aesthetically speaking) looks out over Tasman Island from a slightly different angle, describing the monumental task of transferring materials to build the lighthouse and, later, supplies to sustain its keepers and their families. The haulageway and flying fox isn’t very visible on this side of the island, but the Zigzag Track, the only alternative route off the island, can be faintly seen. The same lightkeeper’s wife, 38-weeks pregnant, was forced to walk this track when inclement weather preventing a ship from mooring below the flying fox, which meant hiking down the steep and narrow trail, dodging tumultuous swell to hop into a dinghy, sailing across to Port Arthur, and taking a public bus to Hobart. All while moments away from popping a baby out!
Even the haulageway involved quite a bit of logistics, though. To transfer supplies from a ship to the island, you needed to hop into a dinghy, row across to the flying fox cable, wait for an operator to lower the basket into your boat, climb inside with all your supplies, wait for an operator to winch you up to the platform, transfer all supplies into the trolley, ride up the vertical cliff face 250m above the sea, transfer supplies to a horse-drawn tram, all before finally arriving at the lightkeeper cottages. It’s unsurprising that deliveries weren’t very frequent. All of this information only adds to Tasman Island’s feeling of remoteness, but also to some of its strange allure.
From here, dad and I detour to another half-dozen little viewpoints, each more spectacular than the last, before finally running into Cal who had climbed The Blade and then turned around to come find us. Together, we continue towards the track junction, one side of which will carry us up a set of rock stairs to The Blade. Every bit as magical, if not moreso, than I had expected, the views from this towering spire are mind-blowing. Looking directly out onto Tasman Island, back onto Cape Raoul, and out to Cape Pillar, we are surrounded on all sides by dramatic dolerite columns, rising collectively out of the violent sea to form the most spectacular coastal scenery I’ve ever seen.
It’s nearly impossible to tear ourselves away from the intrigue, but we finally scramble back down and take the next fork towards Cape Pillar, eager to experience the landscape from another angle. Crossing paths with Eileen right before the end of the track, we reach the Cape and its own incredible views just before some wicked wind starts up again and sends our entire lunch flying.
Just before we reached the top, we passed another storyseat that described how Tim and Reg (those same original bush-bashers) made 4 attempts through rough and overgrown terrain before successfully reaching Cathedral Bluff behind us. In 1966, they hoped to be the first to travel to the end of the wild cape, but were surprised to find a cairn already erected by a surveyor (James Sprent) more than 100 years previously. Bearing that same obsession for reaching the true summit (or true farthest point) that most mountaineers possess, though, the men descended all the way to the sea, crossed over at low tide to the towering dolerite stack that extends beyond the cape, and scaled Cathedral Rock. You’re not at the end til you’re at the end, and these men were indeed the first to reach the true end of Cape Pillar. In Tim’s own words, “the legend of Cape Pillar had been true after all, for this was undoubtedly the real end of the Cape, and not even Surveyor Sprent had stood here before”.
Driven down by the wind, Cal and I finally get to stop at the Seal Spa storyseat that we missed on the way up, from which we have yet another phenomenal vantage point and can even hear seals barking far below. Around this same area, an additional storyseat is under construction, but we still read about how Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first to plant a flag on Tasmania in 1642. He soon continued onwards to New Zealand and the Dutch lost interest in the small island, more than 100 years passing before British explorers Bass and Flinders were sent south from Sydney to investigate “Van Diemen’s Land”. Around the same time, several French explorers were also surveying parts of Tasmania, which prompted Governor King of Sydney Cove to send a heap of settlers and convicts down to lay final claim to the island for the British in 1803.
Never mind the Palawa people who had lived in Tasmania, sustaining a deep and respectful connection with the land, for more than 12,000 years. What followed was a violent and shameful conflict with the aboriginal people, the more damaging results of which Tasmanians are still trying to rectify today by recognising the Palawa people as the ongoing custodians of this land and by collaborating with tribal elders in things such as the development of the Three Capes Track.
After continuing along sections of boardwalk and level trail for about 20min, passing some of the lookouts and storyseats that we enjoyed on the way out to the cape, we reach the head of a giant snake. Thankfully it is not real, rather a stone artwork contributed to the Three Capes Track by the local aboriginal community, and there is a corresponding snake tail at the end of this 2.5km stretch of boardwalk that we saw on the way in. We are prompted to consider some of the many snakes we have encountered in Tasmania over the last few weeks, which has been far too many for Callum’s liking.
Of the three varieties here, (copperhead, tiger, and white-lipped), all are poisonous, but frankly none are overly aggressive. We have crossed paths with about 15 snakes of widely varying sizes on our many Tassie bushwalks, more than Cal had seen in his entire life on the mainland, and thankfully every single one of those snakes slithered away upon feeling our approach. Ranger Jess even told us on our first night that, since the official opening of the Three Capes Track in 2015, there have been zero reports of snake aggression on the trail, and even though people are bitten in Tasmania every year, there hasn’t been a death from snakebite since the 60s. Still, Callum spends most of our walk along the snake boardwalk darting nervous glances into the bushes and jumping at any faint rustling (which always ends up being a baby lizard).
Beyond just their frequency, though, Tasmanian snakes are additionally fascinating due to their unique cold weather adaptations. As cold-blooded reptiles, snakes obtain all their necessary heat from the sun and the surrounding environment, but often there simply isn’t enough heat in the ground, particularly for baby snakes. Unlike snakes on the mainland who lay eggs, Tasmanian snakes actually birth live young, as the eggs would just freeze on the cold ground. Staying warmer longer in mum’s belly, little snakes are able to develop further before entering the world, which gives them a much stronger chance of survival in this cold climate.
At the end of our snake walk, the next topic of conversation is “sex on the cape”. Although dad later reports that he mistook the storyseat for a giant collection of rusty nails, it is actually a large stamen (the part of the flower that produces pollen), representative of the flower fertilisation process that is aided by birds and bees. More intriguing, however, is the knowledge that female echidnas are typically impregnated while they are asleep, forced into position by any number of eager males who then have at her with their four-headed penis. Strange but true.
Not quite as uplifting as echidna mating, the expanse of coastline in front of us also provides a valuable opportunity to discuss climate change and its potentially catastrophic effect on the biodiversity of Tasmania’s oceans. In addition to hosting a disproportionately large variety of marine species, the sea immediately visible from our bench is also warming at a rate four-times that of surrounding waters, meaning that the plentiful and unique aquatic life here are being threatened by changing conditions.
What’s more, climate-related alterations in the ocean currents, namely the East Australian Current, have resulted in dangerous new introductions to the fragile ecosystem. From reef destruction to the plight of the “real bastard trumpeter” (who is at risk of extinction due to loss of habitat), climate change is a growing problem, and one that is hitting southern Tassie particularly hard.
On that somber note, we resume our descent along the boardwalk, passing through orderly banksia and sheoak, on to vast fields of “hurricane” heath, scanning for signs of the little purple Eyebrights that are endemic to the Tasman Peninsula, and finally into the forest. We are closing in on the final stretch of our walk back to Munro Hut and thankfully we are pleasantly sheltered from the wind by now, as it has been raining on and off for the last half hour and things seem to be picking up. Still, there is a palpable feeling of elation as we recall our incredible views and fortuitous timing in tackling Cape Pillar, not at all smoked out as was predicted by our ranger.
By midday, we arrive back to the hut and retrieve our packs from the shed. Cal and I cook up a hot lunch on a table outside while we wait for dad and Eileen to arrive, and soon after they do, we set off again, unfortunately fully-laden this time. Even though we still have great clarity (that bushfire smoke never did make an appearance), the wind and rain have really amped up, dramatically dropping the temperature. I am eager to reach Retakunna Hut and warm up in my sleeping bag, so we power along the trail. Having walked almost this entire section of track yesterday, save for the 5min from the junction to tonight’s hut, there is little need for stopping and we arrive much quicker than the 70min estimate.
After unloading in the room and rugging up in a few additional layers, we stake out a prime table in one of the kitchens and settle in for a long afternoon of reading, eating, and mingling. The rain continues on and off throughout the day, which should mitigate some of the fire risk resulting from the nearly 400 lightning strikes to the cape last night (according to Ranger Hannah), but we are still happy to be indoors when the sky opens up. Several mountain margaritas and a lot of cheese dip later, we are the last ones out of the kitchen, puttering around camp in the dark and finally passing out in our bunks to the sound of the neighbour’s violent snoring (soon in harmony with dad’s own trumpeting).