Three Capes Track (day 4): Retakunna to Fortescue Bay via Cape Huay
Winding along a pleasantly shaded forest trail before emerging once more onto the dramatic sea cliffs, our fourth and final day of the Three Capes Track certainly gives yesterday’s stunning scenery a run for its money. Today, we find ourselves at the end of Cape Huay, enjoying the last of the trek’s dramatic views in perfect conditions and truly wishing that it wasn’t time to head back to town so soon.
Trail stats: Retakunna to Fortescue Bay via Cape Huay
Trail hours: 5.75hrs, including 14 “storyseats”
Highlights: Climbing Mt Fortescue, the track’s high point; incredible views of The Totem Pole, The Candlestick, and back onto Cape Pillar from Cape Huay; refreshing swim in crystal-clear Fortescue Bay; the end of the Three Capes Track!
Lunch spot: Cape Huay
Zipping away from the hut this morning barely after 8am (which is still practically nighttime for me), Cal and I immediately begin ascending Mount Fortescue. According to the elevation profile in our book, we have a steep and demanding climb ahead of us, but according to the track notes, the trail has been contoured so well that we “won’t feel a thing”. Immediately having written off that possibility, imagine my surprise when we reach the second storyseat of the morning and learn that we are already half way. Just as promised, I hardly even noticed we were ascending!
Only moments after departing Retakunna, the landscape has changed from open plains to a vibrant wet forest, providing some much-appreciated shade to our walk, but also introducing a new landscape full of stringybarks and prickly shrubs. All three storyseats during the climb invite us to consider the new flora and fauna of the wet forest (one step below a rain forest), including a number of carnivorous, blood-sucking invertebrates like leeches and velvetworms and some curious herbivores like millipedes and springtails.
Before too long, we emerge through the trees, thankfully without having seen any leeches or velvetworms, and find ourselves at the top of Mt Fortescue, a modest 482m above sea level. The view from the top looks right back onto yesterday’s Cape Pillar with the true end, Cathedral Rock, also visible. During the right time of the year, we might even be able to see epic whale breeches from this high vantage point.
Every winter, some 20,000 humpback whales make the marathon swim from Antarctica to the warmer waters of Far North QLD to breed and feed, returning south in September or October, often with calves in tow. These beautiful giants pass right by Tassie on their 10,000km journey, as do Southern Right Whales, many of whom come straight to the Tasman Peninsula from June to September.
Even if we can’t see any whales on our summer hike, though, there are literally millions of short-tailed shearwaters fishing in the water right around the Capes. I’m not normally very interested in birds, particularly plain ones, but I am undeniably fascinated to learn that these migratory birds return to Tasmania to breed each year, always with the same partner and always in the same burrow. So these birds, after a 60,000km flight around the Pacific, locate their burrow alongside 18 million other shearwaters and lay a single egg that is incubated by both mum and dad until the parents depart for another year of migration, leaving a chubby baby bird behind. Perhaps even sweeter, some shearwater couples never breed and still enjoy 20 years of monogamy together, so I am admittedly captivated by these unique animals and it’s hard to pull me away from the lookout (although Cal does eventually manage).
We leave our viewpoint to continue walking, almost entirely downhill until we reach the track junction out to Cape Huay. Within 10 minutes, we have to turn around and climb all the way back to the lookout to retrieve the trekking poles I forgot, but then we are back on the descent, motoring along through beautiful rainforest. We pass two storyseats in this time that describe our scenery, specifically the plants that have evolved from ancestors dating back more than 100 million years.
Interestingly, scientists have used many of these plant species to understand where and when the supercontinent split. Many of the endemic plants found here in Tasmania bear striking resemblance to plants in specific parts of Africa and South America, reminiscent of the time that all three continents were joined, but perhaps most amazingly, fossilised pollen grains of similar plants have also been discovered in Antarctica, leading scientists to believe that our icy neighbour may have once been covered in forest and connected to the supercontinent, too.
After our peaceful walk through the forest, we step out of the trees and onto another lookout. Dad and Eileen have already spread themselves out over the storyseat, admiring the coastal views, but we continue onwards through the eucalypts, eventually coming across an even more breathtaking lookout. Standing atop a bunch of hulking dolerite columns, we can see Munro Bight and its layers of Permian siltstone immediately to our right.
These rocks were formed about 260 million years ago, the result of sediments depositing in compacted layers as ocean levels gradually dropped. Nearly 100 million years after that, molten igneous rock forced its way through the sedimentary layers to introduce dolerite columns into the same landscape. It really is ancient history, but there’s nothing like a beautiful view to make you consider rocks in an entirely new way.
Dropping our packs at a large storyseat just before the track junction, we shove a few things into a daybag and set off toward Cape Huay. A sign indicates 2hrs return, but we’ve been consistently walking at about 75% of the estimated time, so we are hopeful of reaching the final viewpoint in around 40min. As we descend several hundred stone stairs (dreading the hike back up with each step), I look out for many of the unique plants growing on the dolerite using a handy plant identification guide in our book. Unsurprisingly, my botany skills fall short and I only manage to correctly identify heath (which is basically every second plant) before we are onto an uphill section. This downhill-uphill repeats again, broken up only momentarily by a storyseat offering an incredible view of a dolerite rock arch below, before we finally arrive at our destination.
Amazingly, the weather has been sunny and dry all day, making our view of Cape Huay a wonderful contrast to yesterday’s moody storms at Cape Pillar. Both have been beautiful, and today’s close look at the free-standing dolerite Totem Pole rising out of the dark swell below provides incredible perspective to the landscape. This particular pillar is widely regarded as an incredibly technical (and psychologically challenging) climb, which has naturally earned it quite a reputation amongst rock climbers— dad instantly recognises the thin spire of rock from the cover of Alpinist and goes a bit fan-girly.
Certainly, much of the Totem Pole’s renown is owed to a terrible 1998 climbing accident, when an extremely experienced British climber, Paul Pritchard, set out to tackle the 65m stack with his girlfriend, Celia Bull. Within the first few minutes on the dolerite, a falling rock connected with Paul’s head, leaving him with a 10cm gash as he hung from the rope, badly haemorrhaging. Beyond all imagining, Celia managed to rope-haul a limp Paul more than 30m to a rock ledge (which took 3hrs of pulling!), downclimb the Totem Pole completely unaided, and then run 8km to Fortescue Bay for help.
By the time a rescue helicopter found Paul on the rock 10hrs later, he was battling unconsciousness, but the chopper was unable to land anywhere nearby. Against all odds yet again, one of the rescue workers, Neal Smith, was actually a skilled climber— he was able to climb to Paul, clip to him, and descend towards a rescue boat that was flailing around in 2m swells below. Ultimately, the team did safely get him off to hospital for a series of operations that saved his life.
Sadly, though, Paul suffered significant brain damage and complete paralysis of his right side as a result of the accident. Over the following years, he had to work to re-learn even basic skills like speech, but he never regained the use of his right arm or leg. It is mind-blowing to learn, then, that he returned to Cape Huay in 2016 and made a second attempt at the Totem Pole. Surrounded by a team of 11 other climbers, he was able to finish what he’d started all those years ago and reach the top.
After exploring a number of rocky ledges and enjoying the panoramic views, we all train our attention on that infamous 65m stack of rock, mesmerised by what looks to be a nearly impossible climb, but that Paul Pritchard was able to tackle with only a single good arm and leg. A story that, at once, makes me feel both inspired and slightly ashamed that I’m not doing more with my two good arms and legs..
We learn from another hiker that a group of climbers actually climbed the Totem Pole yesterday and have now set out to do The Candlestick, the thicker collection of dolerite columns immediately behind the Totem Pole (visible in the first gallery photo above). Own own Reg Williams (the same bush-basher who reached the true end of Cape Pillar) was also one of the first men to make this longer ascent, and even though it doesn’t sway in the wind like the spindly Totem Pole, it would still be quite an accomplishment. While we stare down at the water, we finally see a few colourful arms flapping about. The group has apparently climbed down from where we are now, crossed the sea, and begun setting up at the base of The Candlestick for what should be an absolutely epic climb.
Cal and I have a light lunch and hang around long enough to watch the climbers come up the lower face of the rock, but then leave dad and Eileen to get back to our bags. Just as before, we have two downhill and two uphill sections to return to the junction, but it flies by as we consider the beauty we’ve just seen. Soon, we are throwing on our big packs at the junction and setting off along the other trail, noting that it’s now just 1hr to Fortescue Bay.
From here, it is essentially all downhill to the beach, so we shuffle down stone steps and across bits of trail very ready for our afternoon swim. Our last storyseat is a beautifully crafted wooden chair, made from the Oyster Bay Pine that surrounds us now on the track, and then it’s only about 10min to the Photo Finish! After getting some lovely photos above Fortescue Bay, we finish our descent to the beach and finally celebrate the end of our incredible Three Capes walk.
Our first stop is at the little kiosk just past the campsite, where we buy a chocolate milkshake, chicken sandwich, and potato chips to share, and then we hit the beach. Probably even a pond would feel exciting right now, but Fortescue Bay just happens to be one of the nicest swimming beaches I’ve ever seen. The sand is soft and white, the bay perfectly sheltered, and the water impossibly clear. Even though it’s freezing, we waste no time getting all the way in. There’s nothing like a post-hike swim to numb all your aches!
When I do finally get out of the water, I’m absolutely freezing, but so content. Dad and Eileen arrive at the bay about an hour after I’ve been sitting and shivering on a picnic bench, and it is great to hear about the progress of the climbers after we left. And obviously to celebrate the end of a phenomenal trip together! By 4pm, our bus has arrived, her are loaded on, and, after another 25min, back at our car in Port Arthur, officially done with the Three Capes Track. It would be hard to choose a single favourite thing from all our time in Tassie, but if I did have to— it couldn’t be anything other than this.