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Tasmania's Three Capes trail is spectacular, but it's not cheap

By: A. Odysseus Patrick The Washington Post
January 28, 2018 Updated: January 28, 2018 at 4:25 am
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The view of the first accommodation hut hikers see when they emerge from a eucalyptus forest on the Three Capes walk in Tasmania. MUST CREDIT: Photo by A. Odysseus Patrick for The Washington Post.

Many Australians regard hilly, forested and wet Tasmania as their most picturesque state, a kind of Vermont of the Southern Hemisphere. It is also the most economically depressed, which is one reason the Tasmanian government has upended a great walking tradition - that natural beauty owned by the state should be open to all, at minimal cost.

The state Parks and Wildlife Service about two years ago finished building the Three Capes, a 29-mile track that starts at one of Australia's most important historical sites and takes in some stunning coastline. It has custom accommodations, a spectacular boat ride and miles of boardwalks smooth enough to skateboard on. Visitors can borrow books, binoculars and even yoga mats.

But such luxuries aren't cheap. An entrance fee of nearly $400 gives access to a track that used to cost only blisters, sunburn and time. The venture has been a huge success. Almost 10,000 people paid to take the walk in its first year, generating money the state badly needs.

The track is already developing a reputation among Australians for fostering a kind of exclusive camaraderie. Authorities haven't started marketing it overseas, and only 2 percent of walkers are foreigners, a park ranger told us.

Because of the hefty charge, the walk is full of professionals and young families in fashionable hiking apparel, toting the latest in sleeping-bag technology. Few, if any, hardcore hikers are seen.

The trail begins at Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula, which juts into the Southern Ocean. A tragic site in history and modernity for Australians, Port Arthur was a brutal penal colony from 1833 to 1877.

The open-air prison, now an immaculately maintained national heritage site, is one of Tasmania's top tourist destinations. In 1996, a young, mentally disturbed man from the city of Hobart committed Australia's worst modern mass shooting at the site, triggering a period of national introspection.

The tragic backdrop provides a moody start to the Three Capes Track, which begins on water. Only 48 people are allowed in each day, and all start with a one-hour speedboat trip around the inlet that used to be the penal settlement's main route to civilization.

The ride was interesting and exhilarating. The crew provided facts about the geology, geography and sealife of the spectacular cliffs that dominate the area, then spun the boat so hard that sea water sprayed over us. We were deposited on a small, sheltered beach, where we began our walk through rain forests, woods, grassland, heaths and along sea cliffs - some of the highest south of the equator - plunging 1,000 feet into the ocean.

Despite 1,500-foot changes in elevation over several days, the Three Capes walk is easy enough for preteens and reasonably fit people in their 60s. The path is mostly composed of packed dirt and gravel or boardwalks. Wooden benches overlook interesting views, including a rock ledge popular with seals at Cape Pillar.

Other animals seen include eagles, seals, dolphins, whales - and deadly snakes, though no one has died of a Tasmanian snakebite in decades.

Tim Farrell, a 25-year-old Australian public servant on the trail, reasoned that the entrance fee has made the area more accessible by generating the funds needed to turn a sometimes-strenuous rocky trek into an easy-to-moderate walk. With no roads into the area, materials had to be delivered by helicopter and assembled by workers in temporary camps.

"It's a necessary evil to allow so many people to explore the area," Farrell said one night in a heated, pristine dining hut while families sat playing Scrabble. "I like not being totally spent by the end of the day."

Farrell and seven friends had even ordered T-shirts for the walk with their own slogan: "Chafing the Dream."

Each night, we stayed in bunkbeds in a different cabin, all made from Tasmanian ash, in immaculate condition.

Separate kitchen and dining areas all have tap water, sinks, pots and pans, kitchen utensils and cleaning supplies. One site boasts a hot shower. There are mobile-phone chargers, too.

Yoga mats and lounge chairs can be used on the decks surrounding the cabins. Each site has a small library of Australian fiction and reference books, including two by Man Booker Prize-winning Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan. The collection is identical at each hut, so walkers can leave a book behind and pick it up at the next location.

Every walker is assigned a hut from the start, leaving no need to rush to get the best room.

Each night, a resident ranger briefed us on the next day's weather, local history and wildlife, and answered questions.

The walk includes two capes with spectacular views: Cape Pillar and Cape Hauy. At Cape Pillar, one can walk up a steep stone staircase and stand on a rock platform about the size of a child's bed. Cliffs plunge on three sides to the sea.

Even though it was spring, the mountains in the distance were covered with snow.

But where is the third cape? It's part of the national park, a ranger said.

Cape Raoul is on the other side of Port Arthur, too far to be incorporated into the walk. Presumably, the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service felt that Two Capes didn't sound impressive enough.

A private company is building its own cabins and plans to start operating a rival walk in September. For about $2,400, it will provide two guides, beds with linens and three-course dinners. The cheaper state-run walk doesn't include food - though it does provide toilet paper.

The Tasmanian government encourages the competition, which it hopes eventually will attract many of the foreign tourists who flock to the mainland's sunnier beaches. The consequence could be a more glamorous crowd exploring the area.

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