Edge of the world

Trekking to Cape Hauy.
Trekking to Cape Hauy. Photo: Andrew Bain

It's foot traffic only on the hiking track that hugs the Tasman Peninsula's cliffs and wild coastline, writes Andrew Bain.

Stand atop any of the capes on Tasmania's Tasman Peninsula and it's like looking onto a Greater Ocean Road. Tasmania's highest sea cliffs tower more than 300 metres above the Southern Ocean, sea stacks stir the ocean, and seals, penguins, whales and dolphins inhabit the waters. All that's missing is the road.

These are views that can only be earned in footsteps, by walking to discover a coast of such raw, dramatic beauty, it quickly eclipses the recent images of bushfires across the peninsula.

Sheer magic: edging close to Cape Pillar.
Sheer magic: edging close to Cape Pillar. Photo: Andrew Bain

Five months after Tasmania's most destructive fires in almost 50 years, the scene approaching the Tasman Peninsula is still desolate. The bush and earth are blackened and, in the town of Dunalley, the chimneys of burned homes stand like architectural headstones.

Cross through the fire scars, however, and the peninsula is virtually unscathed and unchanged. Connected to mainland Tasmania by an isthmus only 30 metres wide, the peninsula is like an island unto itself, a filament of land that's all things to all people. It's home to Australia's best-known convict station and famed among rock climbers and surfers for its slender Totem Pole sea stack and the wild waves at Shipstern Bluff.

The Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service hopes the Tasman Peninsula will one day be equally famous among hikers, with the $33 million construction of the Three Capes Walk, billed as "Australia's premier coastal walk".

When completed, the six-day, 68-kilometre walk will stretch between White Beach and Fortescue Bay. Stage one of the trail - the upgrade of the Cape Hauy track - was finished in 2012, and stage two - Denman Cove (near Port Arthur) to Fortescue Bay - is expected to be completed by November 2015. It will then operate as a shortened four-day walk until the final stage from White Beach to Safety Cove is constructed.

Though the Three Capes Walk doesn't yet exist, it's possible to reach the three capes in question - Cape Hauy, Cape Pillar and Cape Raoul - on foot, and tour operators are already moulding itineraries around it, with Tasmanian Expeditions running its first Three Capes Walk trip last April.

It's a journey that begins at Fortescue Bay, on the 4.7-kilometre-long trail to Cape Hauy. As we begin walking, rain showers across the peninsula are being punctured by bursts of sunlight. Flame robins hop about the scrub and the track cuts through slopes covered in banksias, sheoaks and heath.

Long a popular day walk, the track to Cape Hauy is now the vanguard for the Three Capes Walk, with a $2 million upgrade, completed last year, transforming it into a virtual pavement of flat rock and hard-rolled earth - the most manicured stretch of track in Tasmania.

At the track's end, Cape Hauy is a strip of land almost narrow enough to flap about in the relentless winds. The cliffs and sea are spiked with rock and waves surge through a sea arch that will one day collapse to become a sea stack.

From the tip of Cape Hauy, where the bush is combed flat by the prevailing winds, the world consists only of cliffs and ocean. Islands step away into the Tasman Sea and the famed Totem Pole is so close below that it's hidden from view by the angle of the cliffs.

The next morning we continue our capes crusade, heading for Cape Raoul, another arm in the starfish of land that is the Tasman Peninsula. This day we'll walk for five hours, climbing to a lookout perched above the wild waters of Shipstern Bluff, and then on to the tip of the cape.

Past the lookout, the trail, which will eventually be part of the Three Capes Walk, descends to the cape's low plateau, pushing through scrub and wind, before edging along the cliffs, which fall away into a tangle of bush and an ocean rippled with swell. We have arrived too late - a week ago Kelly Slater was sighted here, surfing the famous reef.

At Cape Raoul's tip - the peninsula's southernmost point - I'm struck by the sense that I've arrived at the end of the world. The land dives into the sea in columns of rock and the barking of fur seals rises on the wind. Across the sea, Tasman Island resembles an animal wallowing in the water.

To reach the third of the capes, Cape Pillar, on foot requires two days of walking from Fortescue Bay. We'll see it by boat instead, a mode not out of keeping with the spirit of the Three Capes Walk, which will incorporate two boat transfers.

From Pirates Bay, the Tasman Island Cruises boat skims south along the cliffs, nosing into sea caves and brushing past sea stacks. At Cape Hauy, we edge in against the cliffs, craning our necks to stare up at the Totem Pole. At times, rock climbers can be seen clinging to this 60-metre-high finger of dolerite, but this morning there's only a little penguin fishing through the water at its base.

Further south, off Tasman Island, a sudden swell rolls under the boat as we pop out from the cover of the peninsula. Australia's second-highest lighthouse peers down from atop the island's cliffs, and shy albatrosses circle, their wings seeming to carve at the sea. In the water, a fur seal plays with its lunch, tossing a fish across the surface of the ocean. Dolphins ripple by in the distance.

Behind us, the dolerite cliffs of Cape Pillar rise like a forest in stone, seeming almost to scrape at the sky. It's here, at the tip of this final cape, that the Tasman Peninsula cliffs reach their highest point, creating a scene worthy of any great highway, but happily with nothing of the sort.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Tasmanian Expeditions.

FAST FACTS

Getting there The Tasman Peninsula is about an hour's drive from Hobart. Hobart is served by Virgin Australia, Qantas, Jetstar and Tiger Airways.

Touring there Tasmanian Expeditions runs a three-day Three Capes Walk and Tasman Peninsula trip, departing from Hobart. It includes hikes to Cape Hauy and Cape Raoul, a boat trip around Cape Pillar, and a visit to Port Arthur. The trip costs $1095; see tasmanianexpeditions.com.au.

More information parks.tas.gov.au

FIVE MORE COASTAL HIKES

The Three Capes Walk has some stiff competition in its claim to become Australia's premier coastal walk. Here are five of the best:

Great Ocean Walk (Victoria) This 96-kilometre walk personalises Australia's most famous scenic road, reaching from Apollo Bay to within sight of the Twelve Apostles.

Thorsborne Trail (Queensland) Tropical perfection on Hinchinbrook Island, flitting for 32 kilometres between beaches, waterfalls and a variety of forest.

Cape to Cape Track (WA) Immerse yourself among wine and whales as you wander 133 kilometres of Margaret River coastline.

South Coast Track (Tasmania) Wild coast and equally wild mountain ranges along Tasmania's south-west shores.

The Coast Track (NSW) Walk 26 kilometres of sandstone cliffs nibbled with beaches in the Royal National Park.

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