Three Capes Track: Tasmania's new big hike

On Hurricane Heath there's barely a hint of breeze. A white-bellied sea eagle cruises overhead, looming as large as a glider, and the sound of the Southern Ocean rises over the cliffs, but otherwise the day is as still as a painting.

As the name suggests, this piece of Tasmania's Tasman Peninsula can be a ferocious place, but today it might easily be a natural metaphor for the Three Capes Track that I'm hiking. In this most wild of places has come this most mild of walks.

Opened two days before last Christmas, the Three Capes Track is a hike like no other in Australia, featuring built-in interpretation and huts that are borderline hiker resorts. The 46-kilometre track is wide and smooth, with long sheets of boardwalk. If there are difficulties here, you have to manufacture them.

If it's a cruisy walk, it's truly a cruisy beginning, with the track starting with a boat trip across Port Arthur. It's no straight ferry shuttle, but a Pennicott Wilderness Journeys tour in itself, journeying along the cliffs of the bay and peninsula for more than an hour.

As we nose into sea caves, with dolerite columns steepling overhead, it's a glance at what we won't see from up high on foot – the base of Australia's highest sea cliffs, ringed with a necklace of kelp.

The trail descends through a heath-covered valley and up the line of Tornado Ridge.

The walking begins at Denmans Cove, a rare sandy beach amid the drama of the cliffs. That this is a hike with a difference is apparent immediately as the track curls away from the beach. More than $25 million has been spent on construction of the walk's first two stages, and it's a virtual bush footpath, with a surface that's almost wrinkle-free and often wide enough to walk two abreast.

Beside the track, just a few minutes from Denmans Cove, is a bench with a convict leg-iron attached, peering through a break in the bush to the Port Arthur penitentiary. It's the first of 36 "encounters" along the track, marked by whimsically shaped benches and artistic installations. An accompanying handbook tells a tale of the Tasman Peninsula's human and natural history at each stop.

The first day of hiking is short – just four kilometres to Surveyors hut, which materialises from the bush like a wooden palace. Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service has taken the New Zealand model of hiking huts and surpassed it. The three huts along the Three Capes Track are by far the plushest and most stylish hiking huts in Australia.

Hikers stay in individual rooms with either four or eight beds, with memory-foam mattresses. There are board games, a library of reference books, USB phone chargers, yoga mats and canvas deck chairs. The kitchens contain gas stoves and saucepans.


See also: The Aussie route that will test your limits

With no need to carry tents, stoves, mats or cooking pots, you can reduce the weight you carry, or simply create room in your pack for the likes of wine and, in the case of Hobart couple Shannon and Emma, frozen steak for a gourmet dinner.

I'm met on the steps of the hut by host ranger William, who shows me around and then to my room. With this welcome, I'm half expecting someone to arrive to turn down my sleeping bag. 

It's on the second day that the track really gets into its stride. From Surveyors, it winds through open woodland to low Arthurs Peak and the first taste of walking life atop the cliffs.

Behind me, a cruise ship sits at anchor off Port Arthur, looking incongruously large in the narrow bay. Rain showers hover offshore, but rarely strike land, and Crescent Beach rises in high dunes across the bay.

But the finest of the views are south along the peninsula, where headlands and cliffs stand queued in formation. It's a glimpse of my next two days – a stretch of coast as wild and spectacular as any in the country.

Beyond here, the views will only get better, even if the place names become more troublesome. Past Arthurs Peak, the trail descends through a heath-covered valley and up the line of Tornado Ridge. Tornado Flat is not far beyond and, early the next morning, as I set out for Cape Pillar, I will pass through Hurricane Heath. 

See also: Islands at the end of the world

These names were bestowed on the land by the Tasmanian climbers who cut the first trails to Cape Pillar in the 1960s, clearly in conditions less benign than these ones.

As I walk through Hurricane Heath, I'm about an hour into the track's longest day of 17 kilometres, but in some regards, it's also one of the easiest days.

From the hut at Munro, with its deck that seems as long as airstrip, the track makes an out-and-back journey to Cape Pillar, the peninsula's southern tip. Hikers can leave their backpacks at Munro, walking almost load-free to Cape Pillar. In the cool of morning I carry just my rain jacket, water, snacks and camera.

It's a day of contrasts: predominantly boardwalk for the first hour, then hard against the cliff edge to Cape Pillar. The forest along the first section out of the hut feels alive in the early morning, with wallabies and lizards pushing through the undergrowth, and a choir of birdsong greeting the day.

Past the forest, the most conspicuous feature on Hurricane Heath is the track itself. The boardwalk, complete with safety railing for much of its length, curls across its slopes like a yellow brick road of sorts. It looks so prominent and incongruous that, among a few walkers this day, it's quickly christened the Great Wall of China.

The greatest wall here, however, is the cliffs, and the last section of walking to Cape Pillar is the most spectacular and exposed of all – an exhilarating, humbling section high above ocean, rock and the white dots of occasional yachts.

At Cape Pillar, Tasmania makes a dramatic exit into the Southern Ocean. A ramp of rock rises so sharply from the cape it's been named the Blade. Balanced near the Blade's tip is a single rock, like a cube of wombat scat, that is the track's literal full stop.

"It is worthwhile to travel 16,000  miles to see such a scene as this," Irish convict William Smith O'Brien wrote on sighting Cape Pillar in the 1840s. It's also worthwhile just hiking the 20 kilometres it's taken me to stand here, because it's a scene that's already become the Three Capes' signature moment.

Tasman Island sits anchored below, and Antarctica is another 2500 kilometres away, feeling distant and impossible on a warm day like this one. The barking of fur seals rises up from rock platforms around Tasman Island.

See also: Visit Antarctica without leaving Australia

Hikers creep to the Blade's edge, peering down at the ocean 330 metres below, and return ashen-faced.

To the west lies the spiny tip of Cape Raoul, the third of the track's "three capes". Under the original planning, the third stage of the track – to be built now that the second stage has opened – would extend to Cape Raoul and beyond, turning the Three Capes Track into a six-day, 65-kilometre walk. 

Funding issues have placed that extension in doubt. It may only ever be a track of two capes.

If that shortfall has drawn some criticism, so has the price tag. At $495 a person, hiking the Three Capes Track costs almost $300 more than the Overland Track, leading to claims of elitism – silvertail hikers only – and the exclusion of traditional bushwalkers.

Parks and Wildlife Service figures, however, show that around 600 people a year hiked on the old tracks south of Cape Hauy before the creation of the Three Capes Track, while more than 1300 hiked the Three Capes Track in the first month of its opening. Build it and they have come.

There's also surprising diversity in the people with whom I share the track, ranging from a honeymooning couple, to a family of five, 20-something friends, 60-something friends, and a mother and adult daughter taking time out together.

On Cape Pillar we gather as a crowd for the first time, reluctant to leave this most spectacular of views. But finally I return to Munro, gather up my backpack and continue on to the hut at Retakunna. From here, the final day begins with the track's meanest climb, onto the slopes of Mt Fortescue. 

On Mt Fortescue's northern side, past its summit, the track descends through a fairytale section of rainforest. Ferns tower overhead like natural umbrellas, and the moss on the logs and forest floor is sponge-thick. I'm reminded of forests along the mountain ranges of the Queensland-NSW border, give or take 10 degrees.

As quickly as the rainforest appears, it is gone again, and I'm transported back from fantasy to the Tasman Peninsula. Cliffs tumble away beside my feet, large boulders balancing at their edge in defiance of gravity. Cape Hauy rises ahead, and the sea is frighteningly far below. But still there's barely a breeze, let alone a hurricane.




Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly between Sydney and Melbourne and Hobart.  


The Three Capes Track begins at Port Arthur and can be hiked year-round. Walker numbers are limited to 48 a day. Track bookings can be made at

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.



Tasmania's signature trail, threading between the most spectacular of its high mountains between Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair.


Less hyped, but no less spectacular, than the nearby Cradle Mountain area. Walk in past Trapper's Hut and spend a couple of days exploring the Walls from the camp at Wild Dog Creek.


The great white sharp of Tasmania's southwest, once infamous for its mud, but now rerouted so the only challenge is the final, heady climb.


Hike across the top of Mt Field National Park to this "shelf" of mountain lakes. Autumn brings one of the finest natural colour displays in Australia.


Wild and remote hike along Tasmania's southernmost coast. Fly into Melaleuca and hike back out. 

For all hikes, see

See also: Six of the best Tasmanian day walks
See also: Twenty reasons to visit Hobart