Adventures often don’t go to plan. The wilderness can smack down even the best and most experienced explorers; Alice, Mich and Issy were neither of these things. This story chronicles their harrowing journey along the South Coast Track, on Tasmania’s exposed southern edge and distils the raw psychology of wilderness hiking to the rise and fall of triumphant and despairing paragraphs.
There’s that time in every great adventure when you stop, look around at your wild and rugged surroundings, feel the ache of cold working its way into your bones, wiggle your soggy toes in your water-logged boots, and ask yourself:
“Why the hell did I think this was a good idea?!”
For me, that came around day 4 of our trek through the wild South-West of Tasmania, Australia. Standing riverside, staring into a boat filled with water, I was nauseous, cold and exhausted. Tears were running down my face and pooling on my red, high-tech, hired Goretex jacket.
I was about 42km along the South Coast Track in Tasmania – a spectacular hike through remote wilderness, dense old forest, and huge stretches of barren beaches along the edge of the ferocious Southern Ocean. It’s been described as “a real journey…not for the faint-hearted” and is recommended as a trek for those who have already done all the easy ones.
Cold Meals For All
Despite travelling to Tasmania with three potential camping cookers, at the last minute we’d gone technical and borrowed a fancy, fail-proof, MSR cooker. On night one, soaked through from a river crossing gone wrong, the only possible redemption for the day could be a hot cup of chai.
I’m sure you can imagine the pain, horror and devastation when we realised we couldn’t work the thing. While the later realisation that this hiking faux pas was the same, down to the model of stove, as that committed by our trekking inspiration Cheryl Strayed was some consolation, nothing could make up for the fact that we now had no hot food. Or tea. Or just anything warm to break the icy monotony of rain, wind, dampness & cold.
I had carefully prepared dehydrated food – months of drying veggies, planning meals, packaging lightly and as waste-free as possible – and now my gourmet meals were reduced to soggy veggies, soaked in river water inside our drink bottles until they became somewhat chewable (but not entirely edible).
I don’t know if the uncontrollable retching I now encounter when eating undercooked mushrooms will ever go away.
On the fateful Day 4, I’d woken up in our slightly damp camp on the side of the path, under some trees. On the first night, too exhausted to walk another step, we’d committed our first wilderness explorer no-no and camped on the path under potentially deadly branch-dropping trees. After swearing it would just be this once, our wilderness skills had not vastly improved in the subsequent three days and once again we’d piled ourselves in an exhausted heap on the side of the trail.
So, after waking up damp, cold, and smelling vaguely like Shrek we packed up camp, ate some cold leftover lentils soaked in Issy’s drink bottle and started along the misty path.
We arrived at the river mouth, too deep, wide and close to the angry ocean to wade across as we had done at the others. A boat waited on the sandy shore, just as we’d been advised. What we hadn’t considered was that the storms would fill it to the brim with fresh water.
This was my breaking point. Staring at that water-filled boat, seeing the vast distance across that river and knowing that even if we emptied it out we still had miles to go. That no one was going to help us or pick us up. That this had been my stupid idea. That I’d dragged my poor friends along with me, promising serenity, peace and a beautiful nature connection only to deliver howling winds, a constant battle with mud and branches and weather and rocks and more mud.
I cried. If I’d been alone I probably would’ve just curled up into a foetal position there on the sand and let myself gradually be washed out with the tide, or eaten by Tasmanian tigers.
Fortunately, this terrible fate was avoided thanks to my highly specialised team. Issy, with her wise advice that once again I was looking too far ahead and needed to just focus on where we were and what was right in front of us. Mich, with her endless ability to just keep on going, despite the worst blisters I’ve ever seen, zero hiking experience, a ridiculously heavy pack, and an ability to trip over every obstacle in her path.
Armed with a bucket provided near the boat, a shovel, and an enamel mug, we slowly emptied out the boat until the water level allowed us and our backpacks to awkwardly board and set off across the raging river. It was at this point, with me sitting on a bench shouting ‘stroke, stroke, stroke!’, Issy and Mish holding an oar each and facing the wrong way, the boat drifting in slow circles out to sea, that we realised we didn’t know how to row.
“I cried. If I’d been alone I probably would’ve just curled up into a foetal position there on the sand and let myself gradually be washed out with the tide, or eaten by Tasmanian tigers.”
Day 4, which started out so horrendously, eventually ended with us arriving at an actual campsite-esque clearing. We found dry wood and enough energy to start a fire, stripped off the soggy stinky clothes and threw ourselves naked into the icy stream, then huddled close to the flames, burning tiny ember holes in our socks & undies as we hung them over branches to finally dry out.
Moments On The South Coast Track
There were actually many moments like this, magical ones, with that pure fresh kind of joy that only comes when you’ve really earned it. Like the spotted quoll (a cute, dotted, usually nocturnal marsupial) that visited us while we were sitting on the ground snacking on trail mix at the top of a particularly tough mountain incline. Or striding along wide flat beaches, following tiny trotting birds and belting out tunes from the Lion King into the wind. There were also colourful wildflowers, square wombat poo, mystical fungi, ancient trees, snuggling into a sleeping bag, misty mornings, waterfalls onto beaches, peace.
But there were also other moments: when my whole leg disappeared into a mud puddle leaving me stranded like the horse in Never Ending Story. When we were stuck fast in a cluster of branches, struggling along a non-existent path, taking three hours to walk five hundred metres. Moments where I seriously considered throwing myself down a steep bit of path and using the PLB that we’d rented to call in an emergency helicopter.
“There were actually many moments like this, magical ones, with that pure fresh kind of joy that only comes when you’ve really earned it. Like the spotted quoll (a cute, dotted, usually nocturnal marsupial) that visited us while we were sitting on the ground snacking on trail mix at the top of a particularly tough mountain incline. Or striding along wide flat beaches, following tiny trotting birds and belting out tunes from the Lion King into the wind.”
Those are the ones that I remember. The bits that sucked. The bits we had to pull each other through (or out of). The tears, frustration, annoying fragments of songs stuck on a loop in my head. Blisters, hip bruises, falls, aches and slogs. The bits that turned it from a walk in the woods into an epic adventure in the wilderness.
What Not To Do
At the end of the trail, after seven long days, we arrived to a clearing, a couple of small huts and a bird watching site. There were no cheers, star jumps, or celebratory dances. We all took our boots off and lay in the sun outside the bird observatory, napping and eating the last of our trail mix until the plane arrived. Too exhausted to celebrate and still too in the moment to reflect on the magnitude of the journey.
We all hit our breaking points, then helped each other to keep on going, to smash through new and even harder breaking points. We’d gone over the Ironbound Ranges, through Deadman’s Bay and across the New River Lagoon without needing a helicopter rescue, outside assistance, expensive hiking equipment or vast technical knowledge.
With just three friends, a guidebook and some old-school adventurous spirit, I learnt a lot about the wild, and what not to do. Surprisingly, this didn’t involve stoves, food supplies, equipment testing or trip planning. In the end, the most dangerous thing to do is to not do, to be too afraid to get out there in the first place.
Thank you to See Tasmania for giving us a lift out to the trail, and for not telling us not to go. We appreciated your advice and wisdom. Also thank you to Olympus Australia for supporting the trip. And most of all to Issy and Mich, without whom I would now still be on that trail (probably eaten by quolls) and also without whom it would not have been such a magical, wonderful, inspirational adventure.
All photos and video by Mishku
Get inspired. Challenge yourself.