Tongariro Northern Circuit

The Tongariro Northern Circuit (which also includes the very popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing), circles Mount Ngauruhoe through a largely bleak and moon-like landscape. The volcanic landscape is occasionally broken by lush forest and tussock grass.

Despite the (relative) proximity of New Zealand, it has been a long time since I’ve done an overnight hike, or tramp, here. Twenty one years, almost to the day, since I completed a six-day walk at Nelson Lakes with friends during the long University summer break. So I’m excited to be heading over for a weekend to do the Tongariro Northern Circuit.

I’ve managed to book a camping spot a month or so ago (all the huts were totally booked, although I much prefer a tent then a full hut!) and a basic room at the Skotel Alpine Resort in Whakapapa for the night before my hike. Having flown from Sydney on the Friday before the hike, it’s a slightly inauspicious start when the Quarantine Service “loses” my tent on arrival at Auckland airport. Or to be more precise, after I hand it over for inspection they return it to someone else and have no idea when it might be brought back! So I’m happy when I finally get to Whakapapa village around 11pm, ready for an early start the next day. Even though I’ve booked a camping spot and I’m about to set-off without a tent…

Jump to:  Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut  →  Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere HutOturere Hut to Waihohonu HutWaihohonu Hut to WhakapapaTongariro Tips

I’m up at 6am the following day, with the start of the track only a few minutes walk from the hotel. Directly ahead is Mount Ngauruhoe. I’ll be seeing a lot more of this conical, volcanic peak over the next day and a half!

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Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut (Day 1)

The gravelled track rises gently from the trackhead: the signage here is not very clear, and I soon have a suspicion that I’m not on the track I should be! (I’m actually on the Round the Mountain Track and not the Mangatepopo Track that I should be on! I’ve planned on doing the track clockwise so I have a long first day.)

It’s easy walking, through a few patches of beech forest, but mostly grassland.

After about half an hour there’s a sign showing the extent of the lava flow from the Te Maari Crater. I guess it’s helpful to have an idea how far I need to run, if the Mount Ngauruhoe, which is still active, erupts in the next day or so! (One of the most active volcanoes in New Zealand, Ngauruhoe first erupted 2,500 years ago, with the most recent one being in 1977.)

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As the track crosses Wairere Stream, there’s a great view of the snow-covered Mount Ruapehu to the south. Another active volcano – the largest in New Zealand – Ruapehu is also the highest point on the North Island with three major peaks. It too will be a fairly constant sight for much of this trip!

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Just after crossing Wairere Stream is a junction with the track to Taranaki Falls (the track I’m on continues to Waihohonu Hut – which is not where I want to go!) I take the turn-off down a set of steep steps down to the base of the impressive Taranaki Falls. The Wairere Stream falls 20 metres over the edge of a large lava flow, with a large volume of water coming from what seems to be a small crack in the rocks.

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The Taranaki Falls Track follows the Wairere Stream downstream: it’s pleasant walking with the trail following the river fairly closely.

When the track is not close by the river, it goes through patches of semi-rainforest, well shaded from the morning sun.

I’m finally on the Mangatepopo Track, which soon leaves the forest and travels through tussock grass and low heath. It has been a bit of a detour going via the Falls, taking me almost 2.5km and at least haf  and an hour to get to what should have been a 2.5km walk if I’d started on the Mangatepopo Track. But it meant I got some nice photos of Taranaki Falls without any people around.

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Although my guide book says the previously very muddy track has been upgraded and improved and is fairly easy walking, the owner of the Skotel where I stayed last night suggested I skip this section and take a shuttle to Mangatepopo Road. It’s the most boring section, he warns me. I’m tempted, but I like the idea of completing the entire circuit. As I walk along this section, seeing only a handful of other people, I’m glad I chose to do this part of the circuit. The only downside is that it is quite exposed – and I’m walking into the morning sun.

Directly ahead is Pukeonake (1,225m) – the smallest volcanic crater on the plateau, and inactive unlike its bigger brothers (or sisters)!

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This section is generally flat, although it frequently drops into small valleys formed by small streams. Sometimes there’s a sturdy bridge across the bigger creeks, and other times a bit of a steep scramble down and back up the other side. Despite a few muddy sections, most of the streams are completely dry. I can imagine it would be a far less pleasant and more time-consuming journey after a few days of heavy rain.

After about three hours (12.2km) my nice quiet track merges with the main Tongariro Crossing Track, and I’m joined by a few people. Actually, a huge amount of people. If my car wasn’t three hours walk away, I think I would have given up. It really was unpleasant: more of a Ghastly Walk than a Great Walk. I make a brief stop at the Mangatepopo Hut, where I fill up my water bottle, before reluctantly re-joining the queue of hikers.

Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut (Day 1)

Did I mention it was busy… The Tongariro Crossing has been referred to as “one of the best day hikes in the world”, attracting over 100,000 visitors per year. Overcrowding has been recognised as an issue at Tongariro in recent years: “visitor numbers have reached breaking point. Tourists bring about $20 million a year to the region, but crowding has started to devalue the experience.” So on a fairly nice day, on a weekend, in the January school holidays I didn’t expect to have the track to myself – I just wasn’t prepared for the volume of people. I plod on, trying to stay clear of a (fortunately) small number of dickheads who felt the scenery would be enhanced by broadcasting music from their backpacks.

From Mangatepopo Hut, the track starts to climb – very gently at first – over a series of old lava flows. Next to the track is the Mangatepopo Stream, which originates nor far away on the slopes of Mt Tongariro.

It’s only about 45min to the side-track to Soda Springs, which is also a popular spot for having a break after the initial ascent. The springs are on the western slope of Mt Tongariro, and are only a 300m (10 minute) walk from the main track.

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The stream supports a wide swath of grasses and yellow buttercups, in stark contrast to the bare volcanic landscape that’s devoid af any green-ness.

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From Soda Springs the path ascends quite steeply, after some warning signs advising of the general dangers of proceeding past the signs. Since most people would have arrived on a shuttle bus (parking is limited to four hours), I’m not quite sure what you’re supposed to if you suddenly decide you don’t want to go any further. Like many other walks, it follows the general trend of warning everyone that they’ll probably die a horrible death if they proceed past the sign. Looking back down the Mangatepopo Valley, it’s a very barren landscape, with the smaller volcanic peak of Pukeonake at the other end.

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Just before the track reaches South Crater, there’s an obvious but unmarked trail up to the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe. A fictional volcano in the Lord of the Rings movie, Ngauruhoe – or Mt Doom – represented the endpoint of Frodo Baggins’ quest to destroy the Ring. Both Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu were used in the movie, but no filming was permitted on the summit of Ngauruhoe as the Māori believe all mountain peaks be sacred. I learn this later when writing this blog post, and it explains why there is no signage and very few people hiking up the sleep slope. The signs showing the summit route were removed in the summer 2017, and for reasons I can’t understand there were no new signs erected explaining that the mountain peak is sacred. You’ll find most maps and brochures still show the route to the summit. Since I haven’t heard of any other mountain peaks where access has been removed, it’s all a bit confusing!

(You’ll have to make up your own mind: the main track was so busy that even with the knowledge that the Māori prefer you don’t climb, I think I would have taken this detour just to get away from the crowds!)

The climb is hard work and progress is slow – while there’s a rough track at the beginning, as you gain altitude you more or less need to find your own route up the scree slope. Consisting of very loose tephra (“fragmental material produced by a volcanic eruption”), it’s a slippery slope and I seem to be sliding backwards more than I am making forward progress. I really can’t imagine how you could have hundreds of people all trying to make their way up here, and I suspect that the real reason the signage was removed and people discouraged from making the ascent was more for safety reasons. The smaller the tephra the harder it is to climb, so I find the easiest route is a low ridge of larger rocks.

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As I gain altitude, I can see the Tongariro Crossing track crossing the South Crater and climbing up the steep spur to Blue Lake; Mount Tongariro is obscured by a band of thick cloud which is heading towards me!

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I finally reach a ridge just below the summit, which I almost claim as victory. But from here I can’t see into the crater, so I persevere…

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The crater itself is a little underwhelming: I’m not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps a cauldron of boiling lava, or at least some steam hissing from the bottom… it looks quite benign for an active volcano.

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What is interesting is the many different colours of the volcanic rock, from almost black to bright red (the red colour being from oxidised iron in the rock).

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It’s much quicker and easier going down, although I still find it strenuous as the terrain is very inconsistent. Sometimes the tephra is quite deep and you can almost glide down the slope (although I suspect if you saw me, the word “glide” would not be in the first hundred words you’d think of) and other times a thin layer of fine scoria on top of larger rocks makes it quite treacherous. Nevertheless, with thick cloud descending on the mountain I make the descent back to the main track in about an hour.

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As I re-shoulder my overnight pack and continue along the Tongariro Crossing track, I notice it’s much quieter. Where previously I was in the middle of the huge day-tripping queue, almost everyone is now ahead of me. The hike has become a lot more enjoyable, as I complete the last few hundred metres up to the South Crater.

The South Crater is technically not a crater, but a basin that is thought to be have been created by a glacier and later filled with sediment. While my map showed a small lake near the track, the entire “crater” was dry. The track across the South Crater is completely flat, until the climb at the far end up the ridge to Red Crater.

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The track up the ridge to Red Crater is fairly steep and a bit slippery in parts… but a piece of cake after the scree slope on Mount Ngauruhoe!

Looking back from the half-way up the ridge up to Red Crater, the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe is still shrouded in thick cloud, and you can get a sense of the the huge size of the South Crater.

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Looking east over the Kaimanawa Forest Park and Desert Road it’s a bleak landscape, with not a tree in sight. The only vegetation that seems to survive is the white mountain daisy (Celmisia incana) which grows in dense patches of shade between some of the rocks.

The final stretch of the Te Arawhata ridge goes to the highest point of the Tongariro Crossing (and Circuit) – other than the Ngauruhoe peak – at 1886m above sea level.

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From this point there’s sweeping views to the east and Mount Ngauruhoe to the south, as well as into the Red Crater. There’s a path from here to the summit Tongariro, which is obvious but unmarked (as with the Mount Ngauruhoe, signage was removed in 2017).

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Within the Red Crater is a formation known as a “dike” (or “dyke”), formed by molten magma moving to the surface through a vertical channel in the crater wall and then solidifying. As the magma drains out, it leaves the dike partially hollow. The red colour is from high temperature oxidation of iron in the rock.

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From the top of Red Crater the track heads steeply downhill over loose scree, and caution is needed… this is arguably the most spectacular part of the walk. Below are the Emerald Lakes (Ngā Rotopounamu) and in the distance Blue Lake (Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa or “Rangihiroa’s mirror”). The Tongariro Alpine Crossing track is clearly visible crossing the Central Crater and ascending to the Blue Lake.

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I’ll be leaving the Tongariro Crossing near the Emerald Lakes and heading east down the Oturere Valley.

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The Emerald Lakes, the result of previous volcanic explosions, are an incredible colour as  a result of minerals washing down from the Red Crater.

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Once I reach the largest of the Emerald Lakes, I take a slight divergence from the main track and head around the southern side of the second-largest of the lakes. This takes me past some of the fumaroles that are venting steam, with temperatures up to 138°C.

The hot and sulphuric steam has completely covered some of the rocks with a thick white coat.

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Up close to one of the Emerald Lakes you can see that despite (or perhaps because of) the dissolved minerals, they support a dense layer of marsh-like grasses around the perimeter.

The rough track continues to descend into the Oturere valley: in the distance is the Kaimanawa Ranges and Rangipo Desert.

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I’ve seen a waterfull in the distance, which is the Oturere Stream that flows down from the Emerald Lake and cascades into the Oturere Valley. Although the track roughly follows the Oturere Stream and looks tantalizingly close on the topo map, it’s never close enough to fill the water bottle. And if the water originates from the Emerald Lakes, it might not taste too good! This entire section from Soda Springs is completely dry, and while I’ve got enough water I could have used more than the 1.5L I’m carrying.

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The stark, moon-like (and water-less!) desert landscape was caused by two million years of volcanic eruptions, especially the Taupo eruption a mere 2000 years ago, which coated the landscape with a thick layer of pumice. As a reminder of the volcanic forces that sculpted the terrain, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu are visible above the valley.

I’m glad to finally reach the Oturere Hut around 4pm, where I can fill up my water bottle from the tank and have a break. Behind the cozy hut is a small camping ground, and at the end of the camping ground there’s a view of the Oturere Stream tumbling down the valley.

Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut (Day 1)

From the Oturere Hut the track skirts the eastern flank of Ngauruhoe, and heads straight towards Mount Ruapehu. It’s still a fairly “volcanic” landscape, but there’s more tussock grass and signs of life.

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The track is generally flat, but crosses multiple valleys. The first one looks pretty dry from a distance, but there’s a trickle of water in the stream.

The next few valleys are dry, and between them the track crosses some large, open gravel fields.

After about four kilometres the track swings to the east and follows the top of a long ridge. Directly behind me is Mount Ngauruhoe.

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The track eventually drops from the ridge into the valley, bringing the welcome sight of trees and lush green vegetation. Although I know that each step I take descending to the Waihohonu Stream means a step uphill on the other side of the valley, it’s nice to be walking under a canopy of trees.

At the bottom I take the backpack off and have a short break by the fast flowing river, refilling my water bottle, rinding my feet and enjoying the peaceful surroundings. I haven’t seen a soul since the Emerald Lakes (except for the people staying at Oturere Hut), and it feels like days since the hoards of people along the Tongariro Crossing!

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The track follows the Waihohonu Stream for a short distance, before crossing it over a timber bridge. There would have been an idyllic camping spot by the stream just after crossing, although one is only supposed to camp at designated sites… and in any case, my tent is still at Auckland airport…

Although the track climbs fairly steeply back up to the top of the ridge through ferns and beech forest, it’s easy walking and doesn’t take long to reach the top.

I’m getting close to Waihohonu Hut, my destination for today… as the track descends I can see the hut in the broad valley, at the edge of another patch of forest.

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There’s another nice section of thick forest and a sturdy metal bridge over a branch of the Waihohonu Stream, and I’ve reached the hut!

It’s almost 8pm, and I’m just in time to catch the Hut Warden, Dani Patterson, talking about the history of the hut and local area. Waihohonu Hut is the “Taj Mahal” of the Tongariro Circuit huts; the biggest and best of them with a large communal area and kitchen as well as an outdoor area with picnic benches. The hut is full, but I explain my predicament of being unintentionally tentless (no pun intended) and Dani is extremely helpful. While there is no spare tent I can borrow, she suggests a few areas of the hut where I can bunker down for the night, and even upgrades my ultralight sleeping mat for a deluxe air mattress!

Ohinepango Springs

There’s still a few hours of daylight left, so before cooking dinner I make the short trip to Ohinepango Springs. The well marked track heads south to the natural spring, crossing a tributary of the Ohinepango Stream not far from the hut.

After following the Ohinepango Stream (or one of its upper branches) for a while, the track ends up at the spring. The water emerges from under an old lava flow, although it’s not exactly obvious that it’s a spring. There’s a huge volume of water, which is cold and tastes great.

There’s a bit of colour in the sky and the moon is rising as I get back to Waihohonu Hut, ready for dinner and good night’s sleep.

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Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa village (Day 2)

The wind is howling with gusts of up to 80 km/h and rain is forecast all night, so I’m not in a hurry to leave the hut in the morning… Fortunately and almost exactly as forecast, the rain stops and the sky starts to clear at 8am as I set off for the last leg of the Tongariro Northern Circuit.

Less than a kilometre from Waihohonu Hut, I make the very short detour to the historic Waihohonu Hut. Built in 1904 to accommodate park visitors and tourists travelling by coach from Waiouru or Tokaanu, it was replaced by a new Waihohonu hut in 1968. It was the first hut built in Tongariro National Park and the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. Overnight use has been discouraged since 1979, and it has been preserved as example of the typical early two-room mountain huts.

From the historic Waihohonu Hut the track heads west, following an upper branch of the Waihohonu Stream.

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Mount Ruapehu is to the south…

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…and to the north is Mount Ngauruhoe, wearing a skirt of thick cloud that refuses to leave the mountain.

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The track gradually ascends towards the Tama saddle, undulating a little as it negotiates a few valleys created by streams.

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There are some sections of boardwalk and occasionally a few wet sections where water flows through the tussock grass and over the gravel, but it’s fairly easy walking through the open country.

Tama Lakes side-trip

Just after the climb up to the Tama saddle, there’s a sign-posted side trip to the Tama Lakes, two crater lakes formed by a series of volcanic explosions. I leave my overnight backpack at the junction and head down the boardwalk.

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The Lower Tama Lake is reached very quickly, with mimimal ascent. There’s interpretative signage about how the lakes were created, and even a bench made of tussock grass on which to sit and admire the view of the lake, and Mount Ruepehu behind it to the south. However, the views of Lower Tama Lake get better as you head up the steep and rocky ridge.

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At the top of the steep ridge is a view of Upper Tama Lake, below Mount Ngauruhoe. It’s extremely windy, otherwise it would be tempting to slide down the other side of the ridge for a swim in the lake (although, in the same way that summits are considered sacred to the Māori, I think swimming in the alpine lakes is also discouraged).

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It has taken just over an hour to see the two lakes, and I think it’s well worth doing the detour. I continue west along the main track, which crosses six streams before reaching Taranaki Falls.

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The track undulates gently through endless tussock grass, and is mostly boardwalk or compacted gravel. There’s a few more people around including some families with young children, with Tama Lakes a day-walk destination from Whakapapa village.

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I’m soon back at the top of Taranaki Falls, which compared to the previous morning is a lot busier. It’s another very popular destination and picnic spot.

I complete the circuit via the Taranaki Falls track along the Wairere Stream, which has another nice cascade just below the main falls.

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As the track descends, the Wairere Stream becomes muich tamer and – if it was a few degrees warmer – I would have found a quiet spot for a swim. There are a few older kids carrying towels who seem to know where the best swimming spots are.

The end is now in sight, with Chateau Tongariro (built in 1929) visible in the distance… there’s one last section of beech forest and a stream to cross before I’m back at the car, finishing around 2pm on the second day.

It’s been a spectacular hike despite the somewhat soul-destroying crowds of the Tongariro Crossing. I’m keen to come back and do a few more of the NZ Great Walks – but I’ll plan to tackle these in the off-season months!

Tongariro Tips

  • Beat the crowds. The Tongariro Crossing gets super-busy in December/January – unless you enjoy crowds start very early – there are are some shuttles as early as 6am so you beat the crowds. Or if you’re doing the Tongariro Circuit, considering leaving much later – by early afternoon you’ll have the track almost to yourself.
  • Cook without gas. I brought my lightweight camping stove, which I did use – but discovered that all the huts have gas cooking rings, which helps if you’re trying to travel light.
  • Don’t get burnt! Bring and apply plenty of sunscreen. The track is mostly exposed. I made the mistake of not applying sunscreen until about 10am, but even the early-morning sun will give you a sunburn.
  • Bring lots of water. There are parts of the walk where you’re walking next to a stream for hours… but for about 15km along the Tongariro Crossing and down into the Oturere valley there is no water. I’d recommend carrying at least 2L for this section. (I never treated the tank water at the huts or water from streams, although it’s recommended you purify/boil the tank water).
  • Wear decent shoes. You don’t need serious hiking footwear or gaiters (unless you’re doing the Circuit after heavy rain) – but I wouldn’t wear sandals as some people were wearing. There are steep sections with loose and sharp rocks, and you want something with grip that will also protect your feet.
DAY ONE
 0.0km Whakapapa trackhead (Round the Mountain Track)
 2.9km Junction with Taranaki Falls Track 
 4.6km Taranaki Falls Track meets Mangatepopo Track
12.2km Mangatepopo Hut
15.0km Side-track to Soda Springs
15.3km Soda Springs (optional side trip - 600m return)
17.3km Unmarked track to Mount Ngauruhoe summit (side-trip)
19.0km Mount Ngauruhoe summit (2,287m)
21.0km South Crater (flat section). Toilets located here.
22.8km Red Crater (1,886m)
28.2km Oturere Hut
33.9km Track crosses Waihohonu Stream
36.3km Waihohonu Hut
37.5km Ohinepango Springs
38.7km Waihohonu Hut
DAY TWO
39.4km Historic Waihohonu Hut
47.9km Junction with track to Tama Lakes
48.6km Lower Tama Lake
49.9km Upper Tama Lake
52.0km Back at main track
55.7km Junction with Taranaki Falls Trac
59.2km Whakapapa trackhead (via Taranaki Falls track)
Location There are multiple start/end points for the circuit (around 4-5 hours drive from Auckland):

  • Whakapapa Village – this is the only trailhead with accommodation within walking distance and where you can leave your car. Shuttles from here will take you to the Mangatepopo trailhead or you can start/end here.
  • Mangatepopo car park – starting point for Tongariro Crossing and serviced by shuttles. Max 4 hours parking in summer.
  • Ketetahi Road – end point for Tongariro Crossing with overmight car parking available.
Distance Approx 59km with side-trips. 44.9km is the “official” length.
Grade Moderate (Hard if you include Ngauruhoe summit as the route is mostly on loose scree.)
Season/s October to May. Can be done in winter if experienced in snow trekking, or as a guided tour.
Map/s Tongariro Circuit & Round the Mountain Track 1:40K
For more detailed (1:25,000) maps you need:
BH34 Raurima
BJ34 Mount Ruapeha
BJ35 Waiouru
BH35 Turangi
GPS Route Google Maps GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources
Map-TongariroCircuit
Map showing Tongairo Northern Circuit. Source: DOC Track Guide.

Wombats and Devils on Maria Island

Maria Island offers a unique combination of abundant wildlife, Australian convict and early industrial history and multi-day bushwalking opportunities. A four-day hike takes us to the far southern end of Maria Island as well to the summits of Mt Maria (711m) and Bishop and Clerk (620m), and to the Fossil Cliffs by bike.

This is the only pre-planned walk we have in Tasmania: four nights camping on Maria Island. The whole family heads over from Triabunna on the mid-morning ferry, but only Luke and I are staying on the island. I’ve reserved our spots on the ferry a week in advance (a new and much larger ferry since 2017 means it sometime, but rarely gets booked out). The Maria Island Penitentiary accommodation was totally booked out, although in hindsight I’m happy not to have booked here as it’s way too busy in January for my liking!

A few tips from our four-day adventure:

  • What’s the best time to visit Maria Island? December and January are the busiest months; one of the rangers suggested March/April as being the best time if you want to avoid the crowds. The ferry runs less frequently in winter, but if you want seclusion consider a winter visit!
  • Where to stay? In addition to the campground at Darlington (near the ferry) there’s the Penitentiary – basic bunkhouse-style accommodation, offering 9 rooms with 6 beds and 1 room with 14 beds. You can also camp at Frenchs Farm and Encampment Cove, both about 11-14km from Darlington depending on the route you take. I suspect you could camp anywhere on the mote remote parts of the island – but it’s highly discouraged and other than Robeys Farm there’s very few places with drinkable water.
  • How to get around? Other than walking (or jogging, if you are that way inclined!) you can rent a bike – bookings are highly recommended in Dec/Jan. If you have an overnight pack you’ll probably struggle riding with a heavy pack – and they won’t rent you a bike anyway. (So if you are determined to get to Frenchs Farm or Encampment Cove to camp, hide your backpack when you go and hire your bike!)
  • How available is water? There was plenty of water at Frenchs Farm, Encampment Cove and Robeys Farm in January – but best to check. I was surprised that almost every creek was dry – except Counsel Creek and Four Mile Creek near the top of Mt Maria.

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Getting to Maria Island and walk overview

The ferry trip across from Triabunna to Darlington on Maria Island is fairly quick and uneventful (it takes about 45min), and there’s a pretty good range of snacks and drinks on the boat for a last pre-camping meal. (Judging by a couple of badly cracked windows, some crossings must be a lot rougher than ours!)

The ferry docks at Darlington and the luggage is efficiently lifted via a small crane onto the wharf for collection. Near the jerry are some historic structures, such as the cement silos, and the Commissariat Store (which is also the national park visitor centre).

We set off (without our overnight packs) to climb Bishop and Clerk, the second-highest peak on the island. Amy, my daughter, is going to join Luke and I for this walk before catching the last ferry back to the mainland with Mum.

Our itinerary was designed to see as much of the island as we could – and where possible avoid carrying our heavy overnight bags…

In total, we cover about 80km over three days – which is most the marked tracks on the island. On the fourth day we hire a bike to cover the area around Darlington.

Bishop and Clerk (Day 1)

The summit of Bishop and Clerk (620m asl) is a popular day walk: as well as being one of Tasmania’s “Top 60 Great Short Walks”, it’s regarded as one of Tassie’s best day walks. We set-off from opposite the Parks and Wildlife Office, where we leave our big packs, taking the unsealed road that passes behind the old penitentiary.

We also pass the site of the “Twelve Apostles”, named after a row of workers’ cottages built during the first industrial era (1888–96). Soon after we pass the junction with the Reservoir Circuit, as we continue up the Fossil Cliff  Track.

Once the track reaches the grassy plain at the top of the Fossil Cliffs, the scenery gets more interesting. The rocky summit of Bishop and Clerk is clearly visible in the distance as the track follows Skipping Ridge, along the edge of the cliff-top. The dolerite columns that form the top of Bishop and Clerk were named because of the supposed resemblance to a bishop, wearing a mitre, followed by a clergyman. Although even when I squint or turn my head at funny angles, I can’t really see this resemblance!

Looking back down the coast, you can see the mainland in the distance above the towering cliffs. Even better is the fact we’re already gained about 150m in altitude without really trying…

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It gets a bit tougher from here, as we leave the open grassy plain, and the track enters the (mostly) eucalypt forest and starts to steadily climb. At the start of the forested section there’s a stand of sheoaks or casuarinas, which were prized as firewood by the early settlers. These are gradually replaced by stringybarks, blue gums and manna or white gum eucalypts.

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This part of the walk is pretty boring… we don’t see any wildlife, there are no wildflowers and no view. Just the narrow track heading relentlessly up the ridge…

It gets more interesting when we reach the scree field, formed by dolerite rock debris. There is a rough track that zig-zags up the slope and make it fairly easy to negotiate the sometimes loose stones (the kids decide to ignore the track and walk directly up the hill). Without the tree cover, there are now views over Mercury Passage to mainland Tasmania.

As the trail ascends, the boulders get gradually bigger – and the view keeps improving!

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Near the summit, the rocks become boulders, and in a few places we need to use our hands and feet as we scramble up. There’s a false summit where we think we’ve made it, followed by a steep right-hand turn and another 50m before we’re really on top of Bishop and Clerk.

The panoramic view from the top is incredible – and we have the summit to ourselves. Having started the walk relatively late in the day, everyone’s been and gone by the time we get there (we met a few people on their way down).

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To the west is Cape Boullanger and the Fossil Cliffs, and the east coast of the mainland on the other side of Mercury Passage.

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To the north, beyond the jagged dolerite columns, I can just make out Isle des Phoques, and in the far distance Schouten Island and the Freycinet Peninsula.

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After I take a few photos and kids have finished leaping across the rocks at the top, we start our descent, clambering carefully down the large boulders at the top.

We make good progress on the way back, taking exactly 3.5 hours for the return trip – and I see my first wombat on the outskirt of Darlington. Which was quite exciting… by the same time tomorrow, I’m far less excited having seen more wombats in 24 hours than in the previous 24 years!

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Darlington to Frenchs Farm (Day 1)

While we’ve finished the Bishop and Clerk walk, Luke and I still need to reach Frenchs Farm, our destination for today. After a short break and refilling of water bottles, we strap on the overnight packs and head down the Coast Road. On the outskirts of the Darlington settlement we pass Mrs Hunt’s Cottage; Mrs Hunt was the one of the last island inhabitants prior to the island being proclaimed a National Park. Grazing in the foreground are two Cape Barren Geese, introduced to Maria Island in 1968.

Our progress is hampered by another wombat sighting, grazing on the inland side of the Coast Road. Not just any wombat, but an adult and child munching together on grass, oblivious to us taking photos. Maria Island is home to about 4,000 wombats and the population has been steadily increasing, to the point where there is a concern it may be unsustainable (“The current status of wombat populations on Maria Island National Park” by Janeane Ingram). The wombats on Maria Island are a subspecies of the common wombat (Vombatus ursinus ursinus) which were once found throughout the Bass Strait islands but are now restricted to Flinders Island, and Maria Island where they were introduced in the 1970s.

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It doesn’t take us long to reach Hopground Beach, a beautiful bay that’s better known for the Painted Cliffs at the far end.

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We continue down the Coast Road, which crosses Counsel Creek – you can also turn off here and continue along the beach.

We spot some more birdlife here: another Cape Barren Goose, and after we take the short path down to the Painted Cliffs, there’s a pair of pied oystercatchers feeding on the rocky shoreline.

The Painted Cliffs is one of the attractions on Maria Island (and the walk from Darlington to the Painted Cliffs is another Tasmanian “Great Short Walk”). Easily accessed at low tide, the long sandstone outcrop has been weathered over millions of years by groundwater percolating down through the sandstone and leaving traces of iron oxides, which gives the rock formation its unusual pattern.

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More recently, sea spray hitting the rock face has dried and in the process formed salt crystals of salt, which have caused the rock to weather in a honeycomb pattern.

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We continue down the Coast Road, which follows the coast fairly closely. It’s relatively easy walking and there are nice views of the coastline and remote bays and beaches.

There’s also increasing sightings of wildlife as we get into the late afternoon: wombats, Forester (Eastern grey) kangaroos and wallabies (the Tasmanian pademelon and Bennetts wallaby).

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With our legs starting to tire, we have a brief stop at the beautiful Four Mile Beach. There’s a small group who are leaving as we arrive; they’ve come from a boat moored a small distance offshore and have brought a dog with them. I’m happy when they rather hastily put their furry friend in their dinghy and motor back to their yacht, leaving just us to admire the beach and turquoise-coloured water.

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After Four Mile Beach the Coast Road heads inland, crossing Four Mile Creek. (While the creek looks nice from a distance, it had a lot of algae and didn’t look too tempting as a water source. Had it been clear, flowing water we might have camped here, close to the beach! I discover later that the “Maria Island Walk” has a camp near here, so I wonder if they use water from Four Mile Creek – or water tanks?)

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We trudge on, looking forward to reaching our campground. Fortunately the Coast Road is fairly flat, although it’s now a few hundred metres inland from the coast and there’s not much to see. We’re very happy when reach Frenchs Farm just after 7pm. At the top of the campground is a a simple weatherboard house, built during the 1950s when farming was introduced to the island, and later restored. The house is is no longer used – other than collecting rainwater which fills a large water tank (which is fairly full).

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Nearby is an old shearing shed and stockyard, which doesn’t hasn’t been restored, but seems in reasonable condition. I don’t notice any smell… but one of the Maria Island ranger suggested you could still detect a faint odour of sheep from the 1940s and 50s.

We find a campsite near the bottom of the main campground, which has the luxury of a picnic table nearby. Wombats are grazing everywhere, and later in the evening one ambles right past our tent. There’s one other tent already set-up, and a couple of hikers that arrive just after us. It’s a huge campground, and behind the (dry) creek there’s another area you could camp if you want total privacy and seclusion.

After eating dinner, we’re treated to a blood-red sky as the sun sets behind the farmhouse and shed – a nice end to a long but rewarding day!

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Haunted Bay (Day 2)

We’re up early the next day, as we leave our tent and overnight backpacks at Frenchs Farm, and continue south to the far end of Maria Island on the Isthmus Track.

Not far from Frenchs Farm we cross a wide creek, which isn’t named on any of my maps. It’s the same creek that would flow through the campground just behind my tent, but is totally dry – so I suspect it may be brackish rather than fresh water.

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The very sandy track follows the edge of Shoal Bay as it curves towards the narrow McRaes Isthmus, a narrow neck of sand with beaches on either side.

The isthmus is very narrow, and when you see photos of it from above it appears to be only a few metres wide. But the track goes right down the middle, and while we can hear the ocean there no sight of any water. Near the middle there’s an unmarked track that takes us to Riedle Bay to the east (bottom left) and Shoal Bay to the west (bottom right).

Riedle Bay is stunning – a long, crescent-shaped beach with turquoise water and gentle waves – and not a single other person in sight.

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Just after this track to the two beaches, the Isthmus Track splits into two: Haunted Bay to the left, and Robeys Farm to the right. We go left towards Haunted Bay, with the track gradually climbing from the end of Riedle Bay up to its highest point of 197m.

There’s a short (1.5km) but steep descent at the end on a narrow bush track, with occcasional glimpses of the bay through the trees.

Located at southern extremity of Maria Island, Haunted Bay is a fascinating spot. It was a whaling site in the 1800s and is home to fairy penguins that live in between the granite rocks (although I don’t see any). The remote bay is surrounded by tall granite cliffs, many of which are covered in bright orange and yellow lichen.

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If feels remote and secluded, as we find a spot in the shade for our lunch. Although we’re not quite alone – a tiny fishing boat is bobbing around, at the foot of the cliffs.

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We head back the way we came, back to the junction with the Robeys Farm track…

Robeys Farm (Day 2)

We hadn’t really planned on visiting Robeys Farm, but it’s only 11:30am and Luke is keen to try and complete all the walks on Maria Island. So we take turn left towards the old farm. Less than a kilometre from the junction is Stinking Creek. I’m thinking when I see this on the map that it may not be a great spot to refill water bottles. And it doesn’t disappoint. While the surrounding grass looks soft and a lovely deep green colour, the creek is also an almost flourescent green colour, and smells putrid.

It’s about 5km (one-way) from the junction with the Isthmus Track, on what seems to be an old vehicular track. It’s sandy in places, but generally shaded and fairly level.

After we cross Robeys Creek (which is completely dry) and what seems to be now over-grown farmland, we reach the Robeys Farm farmhouse. It looks in pretty good condition from the outside, and considerable restoration work has been done by the Hobart Walking Club and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

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The inside is like stepping back in time. John Vivian (Viv) and Hilda Robey emigrated from South Africa in the 1920s, moving originally to Hobart and then to Maria Island. By 1953 they had secured a total leasehold of 5,570 acres on Maria Island that they called “South End”, which supported 600-700 sheep and up to 40 head of cattle. After Hilda died in Hobart at age 82, Viv also became ill a few years later in August 1965 and was brought off the island in pain (he was found to be suffering from malnutition). He returned to his native South Africa in November after being discharged from hospital, never returning to Maria Island. The hasty and unplanned departure was evident from the table still being set for dinner, and a rice pudding still in the oven.

As I sit on the verandah of Robeys Farm and look out over the harsh landscape, I have to admire the tenacity and spirit of our early settlers. On a practical note, there’s a water tank here which is full, so I refill our water bottles and have a drink before we return.

We get back to the Frenchs Farm around 2:30pm, and have a quiet afternoon resting – and watching some of the wildlife around the campground. With another couple arriving, I’m finding the “main campground” far too busy (there are now four tents). So we move our tent across the dry creekbed to another huge area, which we have to ourselves. Much better.

Encampment Cove (Day 2)

After an early dinner, we wander across to Encampment Cove, the alternate campground that we could have stayed at. It’s a nice evening to be walking, and with sunset not until 8:45pm, it’s still light until almost 10pm.

After a short section through forest, the vehicular trail follows a wide creek  to Chinamans Bay and then goes along the coastline to Encampment Cove. On the other side of the tranquil cove is Shoal Bay with its long sandy beach, and behind it stands Mt Maria.

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There’s a number of camping areas along the track, and a large camping area near the water as well as further inland toward the shed (which has a water tank). The disadvantage of this camping areas is that it’s accessible by boat, and one group seemed to have brought a replica of the Taj Mahal. It’s nice be near the water, but Frenchs Farm feels more secluded and I’m happy with out choice to camp here for two nights.

We share the road with a few more wombats and wallabies as we head back to our tent!

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It’s been a long day – 35km in total – but we’re glad we managed to visit Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm. If I had to pick one destination, Haunted Bay would be my choice – and having some time here at in the late afternoon or evening would be amazing,

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Mt Maria (Day 3)

We’re up early again today – it’s another fairly long day as we head back via the Inland Track and climb Mt Maria (711m), before a last night at Darlington. A last quick check of the map on my phone and we’re off!

It’s only about 1.5km from Frenchs Farm via the Coast Road, before we turn right onto the Inland Track. Although this route is more “undulating” than the Coast Road and gradually ascends by about 150m, it’s still fairly easy walking. It would be (compared to the Coast Road) a lot harder on a bike, due both to it’s hillier nature and the sometimes soft sand.

It only takes us a couple of hours to reach the start of the well sign-posted track up to Mt Maria, where we stash our overnight packs behind a tree. The track up can be loosely divided into three sections… Initially the track ascends through open eucalypt forest, which was burnt regularly in the early farming days resulting in minimal undergrowth (and low plant diversity).

After a few kilometres there is a change from dolerite to siltstone in the underlying rock, caused by a major fault millions of years ago that lifted the eastern side of the island. There are now white peppermint (which grows only on dolerite soils) and more shrubby undergrowth plants, including pink mountain berry, silver banksia and pink heath. A small creek flows down the mountain, which is the start of Four Mile Creek. It’s not always flowing, despite every other creek being bone dry, but this one had a trickle of water and we could refill our water bottles.

Finally there are the scree and boulder fields… It was a result of water freezing, expanding and shattering one of the upright dolemite columns 20,000 years ago, leaving a trail of rock debris down the mountain. Marked by yellow arrows and orange poles, it’s fairly easy walking up the scree – at least on a dry day!

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After the first scree slope, there’s an unexpected oasis of green – a short section of forest
consisting of Oyster Bay pine, richea, and banksia,

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Then it’s back to more boulders, which are now larger and at times require hands and feet to climb.

We’re not far from the summit (711m asl), marked by a large trig point and offering sweeping views in most directions… it’s also surprisingly windy at the top, which we’ve been protected from on the way up (and perhaps because of the wind, the often cloud-covered peak is clear).

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You can clearly see the narrow isthmus separating the north and south parts of Maria Island to the south, where we walked the previous day. Beyond Maria Island is the Tasman Peninsula, with some of its high cliffs just visible.

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To the west is Darlingon (you can just see the jetty) and the Wielangta Forest Reserve on the mainland.

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And to the north is Mount Pedder, with its radio tower on the summit, and in the far distance is Schouten Island and Freycinet Peninsula (which are not really recognisable).

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We admire the view for a while – it would have been a great lunch spot just below the summit (where it’s protected from the wind), but we left all our food in the overnight backpacks!

Once we re-join the Inland Track it’s only another four kilometres or so back to Darlington, and it’s pretty much all downhill… The track meets Counsel Creek on the way to the coast, which is also flowing and looks pretty clear. I was tempted to camp somewhere along the creek to avoid the inevitable crowds at Darlington, but both sides of the valley along the creek are too steep and scrubby.

Oast House Track

Just as we reach sight of the coast there’s a junction with the Oast House Track, so we take this alternate and slightly hillier route back to Darlington (this route is a lot less busy, which is nice – we only see two other people on the trail).

“An oast or oast house is a building designed for kilning (drying) hops as part of the brewing process” – I learnt something new writing this blog post 🙂 The Maria Island Oast House is one of the oldest in Tasmania, and by 1847 was producing three tonnes of hops per year in its two large brick drying towers.

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The Oast House is also near the top of a small hill, so from here it’s all downhill again to Darlington.

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As we complete the very last part of our walk along the Coast Track, we encounter an adult wombat with its baby grazing by the grassy bank of Darlington Bay. It’s a nice end to our 3-day walk!

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We’re back in Darlington by 4pm, in time to pick up the bicycles we booked a few days ago. I’m ready for a wee nap, but Luke seems to have unlimited energy and insists we ride down to the jetty. And then back to Painted Cliffs. I finally managed to convince him to stop, so we can put up our tent at the Darlington campground! It’s fairly large camping ground with a lot of trees around the river that runs through the middle of it. We find a sheltered spot fairly close to the road, but away from most of the other tents. There are a LOT of tents her in mid-January, and I regret that we couldn’t find a secluded spot by Counsel Creek, just outside Darlington. On the plus side there are basic cooking facilities and running water here. Outside of December/January, it would most likely be a great campground!

Probably attracted by food scraps (although we don’t see anyone feeding the animals), there’s a lot of wildlife in and around the campsites. Two wombats chase each other past our tent, there’s loads of wallabies and a friendly kookaburra keeps an eye on our tent.

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A little later, a Tasmanian Devil lopes along the river through the camping ground. We’re warned by the rangers not to leave food (especially meat) or even clothes in areas that the devils can reach. Special bins are available, athough I figure I should be OK hanging our backpacks on a high branch. The only thing I leave out is a pair of my hiking socks, which I remove as I climb into the tent and tucked under the canvas at the front. In the morning, they’re gone. I’m still unsure what concerns me most… that a devil took my socks from a few centimetres away from my face as I slept – or that my pungent socks are lining the den of a poor Tasmanian Devil!

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Having erected our tent and eaten dinner, we make one last final excursion by bike down to the jetty, in the hope of catching a nice sunset. Not surprisingly, there’s lots of wildlife out and about.

The sunset doesn’t disappoint, with a long blaze of red along the top of the hills on the mainland. It’s been another fantastic day on Maria Island!

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Fossil Cliffs and Reservoir Circuit (Day 4)

We’re up early (again!) to catch the morning light, with a bike ride to Fossil Cliffs, which are not far from Darlington. We ride down past the jetty and cement silos, and the Convict Barn, built in 1846 on a wide gravel road.

The Fossil Cliffs Circuit road ascends very gently, as it crosses Cape Boullanger and passes the Maria Island airstrip. Once we reach the low cliffs on the opposite side of the cape, the summit of Bishop and Clerk comes into view, partly shrouded by clouds.

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We dismount and walk down a short track that leads to the top of the cliffs, where there is some interpretative signage. This large rock shelf is where the limestone was quarried, and the remains of the tramline that connected the quarry to the cement works. From here there’s a rough and steep path down to the base of the cliffs.

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As it’s low tide (we’ve been fortunate with tides here and at the Painted Cliffs… or maybe it’s good planning…) we can safely explore the thousands of shellfish fossils embedded in limestone. The Fossil Cliffs are considered one of the best examples of life 250 million years ago, with the sheer volume attributed to the cold conditions associated with the polar sea at the time.

The Fossil Cliffs Circuit continues along the top of the cliff-line…

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…which is not a lot of fun. It’s uphill – and steep – up to the top of the Fossil Cliffs. I push my bike most of the way. I’m not feeling very fit!

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Then it’s downhill again, to the junction of the track to Reservoir Dam. Just after the start of the Reservoir Circuit road are the ruins of the cement works, which were built around 1889.

The relatively flat road ends at Reservoir Dam, which was constructed by convicts during the first convict period (1825-1832) to supply the settlement of Darlington, and has been enlarged a few times since. It’s a tranquil spot, and would be an ideal destination for a picnic lunch or bird-watching at dusk or dawn.

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The other half of the Reservoir Circuit is a narrow track (but suitable for bikes), which heads gently downhill back to Darlington.

Historic Darlington (Day 4)

We pack up our tent, hand back our bikes and spend the last few hours on the island looking around Darlington. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much evidence or signage of Aboriginal history on Maria Island, which was frequented by the people of the Tyreddeme band of the Oyster Bay tribe.

In comparison, there’s been considerable work done to preserve and present the fascinating history of European colonisation, which occurred in four periods:

The first convict era (1825–1832)

Lt Peter Murdoch arrived as Commandant in March 1825 with 50 convicts and military escorts. Darlington was a depot for prisoners returned to authorities after having worked for settlers, or convicts guilty of light offences. The settlement ceased on 1 October 1832, due to the success of Port Arthur and ease of escape from Maria Island.

The Commisseriat Store (1825) is the oldest building on the island: it had an office,  provision store and the spirit room downstairs and stores belonging to the Ordinance
Department upstairs.

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The second convict era (1842–1850)

While some sheep grazing  and whaling continued on Maria Island over the previous decade, in August 1842 it was Convict Probation Station. Convict tradesmen were sent to the island to prepare the settlement for 400 men. It was proposed in 1850 it was proposed to break up the station and convict numbers declined to virtually zero by the end of the year.

The Visiting Magistrate’s Office was constructed in 1842 as the administrative centre for the Probation Station. Convicts were tried here for minor offences.

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The first industrial era (1884–1896)

Italian entrepreneur Diego Bernacchi leased Maria Island for 10 cents per year, with a vision of setting up a wine-making and silk industry. The Maria Island Company commenced in 1887 adding agriculture, cement, timber and fishery to the island’s activities. While the population peaked at around 250 people in the late 1880s, the company went into liquidation in February 1892. A second company formed by Bernacchi also failed, and most of the assets were seized in November 1896.

The Coffee Palace – a name commonly used to describe a type of restaurant – was built by the Maria Island Company in 1888. It had two dining rooms and a lounge at the front of the building, and living quarters at the rear of the house. It’s been restored with period furniture, and in the dining room you can sit at one of the tables and hear recordings that recount life on Maria Island during the industrial eras.

The second industrial era (1920–1930)

Bernacchi had another attempt to develop Maria Island based on a plan to produce cement. Darlington’s population increased to over 150 men, with the National Portland Cement Ltd being formed in 1924. However, the cement was fairly poor quality and the production volumes were too low. In 1930, with the Great Depression underway, the Australian Cement Company took over and operations ceased.

Built in 1920, the massive concrete silos used to store cement are among the first things you see when arriving at Maria Island.

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Since the 1930s, properties were acquired and the island was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary on 1 June 1971, and proclaimed a National Park on 14 June 1972.

Somewhat reluctantly, we board the 11:15am ferry back to the mainland. It’s been an incredible four days. Despite the crowds around Darlington, for the majority of our walk we’ve seen very few people and experienced a sense of isolation that’s not easy to find in the January school holidays! And we’ve seen more wildlife than just about any other walk I’ve done.

DAY ONE
 0.0km Maria Island ferry wharf (Darlington)
 0.6km Ranger Station / PWS office at Darlington
 1.7km Junction with Reservoir Circuit Track
 2.6km Track reaches Fossil Cliffs (Skipping Ridge)
 6.9km Bishop and Clerk summit
12.6km Return to Ranger Station at Darlington
15.2km Painted Cliffs
19.2km Four Mile Beach
24.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
DAY TWO
24.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
29.3km Junction of Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm tracks
35.6km Haunted Bay
41.6km Back at Junction of Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm tracks
46.3km Robeys Farm
55.4km Frenchs Farm (campground)
57.6km Encampment Cove (campground)
59.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
DAY THREE
59.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
67.8km Junction with Inland Track
72.6km Mt Maria summit
77.4km Junction with Inland Track 
80.7km Junction with Oast House Track
82.7km Darlington (Ranger Station / PWS office)
DAY FOUR (by bike)
0.0km Darlington campground
2.6km Fossil Cliffs
4.1km Start of Reservoir Circuit
5.4km Reservoir Dam
7.8km Darlington campground
Distance as measured by GPS, and not the official track lengths.
Location Access via Encounter Maria ferry from Triabunna
Distance 83km circuit (including Bishop & Clerke and Mt Maria)
8km cycle to Fossil Cliffs and Reservoir Dam
Grade Moderate.
All tracks well sign-posted and well-maintained.
Season/s All year. Gets pretty busy in January. Mar/Apr a good time.
Map TASMAP Maria Island National Park 1:50K
5828 Darlingon 1:25,000 (covers top of Maria Island)
5827 Riedle 1:25,000 (covers bottom of Maria Island)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.

Resources

Tabletop Track, Litchfield National Park

 

A 39km circuit in Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory, through an arid and often burnt landscape punctuated by beautiful waterholes and creeks.

I’m glad I managed to do this walk. But I wouldn’t do it again… The Tabletop Track is a “classic” Northern Territory walk that’s been on my to Do List for a while, promising idyllic creeks and waterfalls surrounded by rainforest. The reality is that those moments where I stop for a break or a refreshing swim, or walk along a crystal clear creek, are hard-earned by walking through a very arid and often bleak landscape which is often burnt out by recent fires.

Just getting started proved trickier than I expected: I’d spent hours trying to purchase a detailed topographical map on-line. In the end the best I could do was the 1:250K “Pine Creek” topographical map on my phone, which was virtually useless. Even in Darwin not a single store I tried had stock of the recommended map. Since I was arriving into Darwin very late in the evening and couldn’t take a gas cylinder on the plane, I’d managed after several phone calls to find “Shorty” from Camping World Darwin, who offered to drop one off at the Hertz car hire booth at the airport – he went out of his way to help. By chance I checked whether the park was open a few days before leaving Sydney (why wouldn’t it be?!?), and discovered that in fact the entire Tabletop Track was closed due to bushfires. With a sense of dread I made a few phone calls… it might be possible to get a permit (not normally required in the dry season) to do at least a part of the walk. Tracy from the Permits Office (see contact numbers at the bottom) was super-helpful, and less than 24 hours before my flight departed she’d responded with approval to complete the southern section of the walk.

Getting there

Being short of time as always, I landed at Darwin at 12:15am, driving to the small town of Batchelor (about 90min away) so I could make an early start the next day. Or, rather, the same day. From Batchelor it’s only about half an hour to Litchfield National Park where four “link tracks” provide access to the Tabletop Track. I had originally planned to start at Wangi Falls and do the track in a clockwise direction. But due to the recent fires and the track being closed, the best option as stipulated by my permit was to start at Florence Falls, walking towards Wangi Falls. I was allowed to walk as far as the campground at Tjenya Falls (5km past Wangi Creek) – but the track was due to re-open on the second day of my walk, meaning I should be able to complete the circuit.

Day 1: Florence Falls to Tjenya Falls

A brief detour before heading down into the valley to the lookout platform over Florence Falls, which has a decent flow of water.

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I’m then off down the paved path towards Florence Falls. It’s a bright and clear day (I suspect like every day in the dry season) and there’s not a soul around. It’s only about 10min before the path crosses Florence Creek, and I reach the sign marketing the start of the Link Track.

Florence Falls Link Track to The Steps [14.7km]

Permit in-hand (or rather, in my backpack), I veer off the paved highway. The Link Track is easy to follow as it heads down into a small valley, follows Wangi Creek for a short distance, and then ascends to a plateau. Regularly-spaced markers provide reassurance that you’re on track: orange triangles for Link Tracks and blue for the Tabletop Track. This is one of the shorter Link Tracks – it’s only 1.8km to reach the junction with the Tabletop Track.

Initially the landscape is somewhat varied and not too unpleasant to walk through, especially being still cooler in the morning hours. There’s tall grassland, short grassland and some light forest.

There’s also a few creek crossings that break the otherwise arid landscape with a swath of dense green foliage and some shade. The track ascends constantly over the next 7km, but only 100m in total, so it’s barely noticeable.

The highest point of the southern section – at the grand elevation of 215m asl – is reached about 7.3km along the circuit. A 4WD track is crossed – this would provide an emergency exit point as it eventually reaches the main highway. From here it’s very gradually downhill – and much less enjoyable walking! It’s getting warmer and there’s a long section where I’m walking through bush that’s been recently burnt. Prescribed burns (as well as natural fires) are part of the management of the, undertaken for thousands of years by Aborigines. However, there’s now debate that large-scale, deliberate burning has become excessive and is permanently changing the landscape. Part of the problem is the increase in gamba grass, a perennial grass from Africa that was introduced to Australia as a pasture grass and grows up to four metres tall: it fuels wildfires and burns more intensely than native grasses.

The track has been a bit harder to follow, both through the burnt section and then an area of re-growth. For much of the circuit, the track doesn’t follow a natural feature, such as creek or valley, so you’re always looking for the next arrow. Mostly it’s directly in front of the previous one; sometimes it makes an abrupt turn up a ridge or down into a valley! I’m very glad to reach the next creek, where I’m ready for a swim and to fill-up my water bottle.

The track crosses another couple of creeks, both clear and flowing. It’s often remarkable how a thin green band of semi-tropical plants thrives while metres away the bush is brown and devoid of any life.

I’m glad when I reach “The Steps” cascades on upper Wangi Creek (I’m not 100% sure this is the correct geographic name, but it’s fitting!) – time for another very refreshing swim. There’s also a campsite here, which is arguably the nicest one on the circuit.

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The Steps to Tjenya Camp site [9km]

The next part of the walk is one of the nicest, with the track following the creek fairly closely. The trail markers are always a fair distance from the creek – you can see from the debris wrapped around one of the posts how high the water must get in the wet season!

There’s plenty of rock pools that almost compel you to stop and have a quick dip – and the day is getting gradually warmer (temperatures reach around 32 degrees Celsius by mid afternoon).

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After two kilometres the trail leaves the creek and goes up over a very small ridge (I lose the track here for a short time) before following another bigger creek downstream. After another 2km the track crosses the flowing creek: this is the only river crossing so far where I need to remove shoes. Just downstream is Wangi Falls, accessible by car and a popular tourist spot.

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The next bit is not much fun. I’ve walked exactly 20km since leaving Florence Falls, it’s getting pretty warm… and the track now heads straight up a rocky ridge. And back down. It’s only about 80m (vertical ascent/descent) but feels like more with a heavy pack. For the first time there are views out to the west. Not that there is much to see.

Then it’s back down into another valley – this time crossing a nice creek and small waterfall – before heading back another steep ridge…

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On this last ridge I manage to get a weak phone signal (I only noticed as my phone starting pinging as it received a few emails). By standing on a rock and pointing my iPhone skywards I managed to get onto the Litchfield National Park Web site – the status is still that the anticipated opening of the Tabletop Track is the following day.

I’m now almost at my camp site – another descent before I reach Tenja Falls. It’s got some deep pools that make perfect swimming holes at the end of a long day.

A hundred metres or so past the falls is the campsite. Near the edge of the Tabletop escarpment, there’s a large cleared area for tents, a metal container to light a fire in (although this is discouraged) and a metal platform that keeps packs and supplies off the dusty ground. It’s not the most picturesque camping spot, but it’s near the creek. And it’s a nice spot to watch the sun set.

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Tjenya Camp site to Walker Creek – Day 2 [10.5km]

I wake up early the next day: I’ve decided to continue the circuit. I’m more than half-way, the track is supposed to re-open today and there’s no sign of smoke or fire in the direction I’m heading…

I’m carrying a bit less water than the previous day (about 1.5L) – a mistake in hindsight, as this next section is pretty dry. The landscape is pretty dry, and the first creek is not really flowing. Compared to the previous day, the track is more distinct here, although I’m still keeping a close eye on those markers…

There’s some sections that have recently been burnt: the blackened ferns look like they’ve seen better days!

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The track passes another creek – it’s got plenty of water, but it’s not really flowing.

After 6.3km I cross the firetrail/4WD track that crosses the park – it would be another escape route if the trail was “burnt out” or there was a fire (my fear being not much being caught in a fire, but the markers being destroyed.)

Despite this area having more signs of recent fires than the southern section, there are still a few wildflowers. In general, I’ve seen few flowers and no animals (except for some spiders) so far.

The landscape is still pretty stark and dry – it’s been almost 10km and still no flowing streams. Some sections of the track go through re-growth, probably from fires the last dry season. There’s one smouldering log next to the trail, the only sign of the more recent fires that closed the Tabletop Track.

As the trail approaches the Link Track to Walker Creek, it traverses an even more desolate landscape. Walker Creek is only 1.9km away down the Link Track and is supposed to be a nice camp ground – but no sign of any creek here!

Walker Creek – to Florence Falls [9.5km]

Another 2km past the Link Track, and the trail crosses another creek – this one is shown on my 1:250K map and seems to be of a decent size. But it’s not flowing and the water is pretty stagnant. I could filter it, but I’ve still got some water left and I’m hopeful of a more picturesque babbling brook eventually!

Along this creek is the third campsite – it’s the only one that’s not directly on the track (there’s a short 400m walk to get to it). It seems the least appealing of the three Tabletop Track camping sites from the state of the creek a bit further down. I’d seen a less than flattering description on another blog: “The campsite up on the plateau and 1.8 km from the Walker Creek link track is horrible. There is water from a stagnant creek surrounded by scrub typhus and mosquito infested bush and there is very little shade.” [The Conspiracy Times]

UPDATE: A comment (see bottom of post) by Brad suggests I am mistaken: “Camp site 6 at walker creek (there are 8) is alongside an amazing spring fed flowing creek”. So, if you’re doing the Tabletop Track check it out and let me know how you find it!

Finally I reach a more promising creek about 16.3km from the Tjenya Falls camp site. After following the creek for a few hundred metres, there’s a perfect spot for a quick dip and to re-fill water bottles. While not an approved camping spot, I’d pick this over the Walker Creek camp site if I was doing the walk over three days.

The track follows the creek for about 500, before it crosses near some nice cascades and heads up a small ridge.

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Less then a kilometre there’s a another nice creek that the trail crosses.

I’m on the home stretch now – it’s easy walking through some more sections of long grass, before reaching the Florence Falls Link Track to complete the circuit.

There’s one last swim as the Link Track crosses a small creek, before it rejoins the main Florence Falls loop track.

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It’s been a tough walk in terms of terrain and route-finding (or rather, making sure you’re following the track markers) – I think I’ll be dreaming about blue triangles for the next few weeks. There’s many long, dry and exposed sections. Conversely, finding a pristine water hole for a dip after hours of walking is its own reward. And it’s been a long time since I’ve walked two days without seeing a soul.

Shady Creek Loop [500m]

I take the long way back to the Florence Falls car park, following the Shady Creek Walk track. It crosses Florence Creek a few times and passes through a rainforest-filled gorge.

Near the end is the pool at the bottom of Florence Falls. It would be a nice spot for a swim – but after having two days of private waterholes and creeks, swimming with 50 people is not really appealing. (I’ve become a Swimming Hole Snob in two days!)

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A steep climb up the stairs to the car park – and my walk is completed! I’m glad to take the backpack off, and head back to civilisation.

Rather than taking the sealed road back to Darwin, I’ve got plenty of time (it’s about 2:30pm when I reach the car) to complete a circuit of Litchfield National Park.

Tolmer Falls

First stop is Tolmer Falls, regarded as one of the most spectacular falls in Litchfield National Park. There’s a short walking track to a viewing platform over the falls (and a longer 1.6km return walk that follows Tolmer Creek).

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Wangi Falls

The second stop is Wangi Falls, the best-known and most popular attraction in Litchfield National Park… it’s pretty busy here on a Saturday afternoon. A short walk leads to a lookout over the pool and falls. A longer track goes up over the falls and back to the car park. There’s also a cafe here, and free wifi (so I can book my accommodation back in Darwin for this evening).

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There is a Link Track from the Tabletop Track (1.2km) to Wangi Falls and I had considered making this short detour on Day 1. I’m glad I didn’t – after the solitude of the Tabletop Track it would have been disconcerting to suddenly be surrounded by hundreds of people (although I wouldn’t have minded a hamburger from the cafe).  Despite the Tabletop Track being so close to Wangi Falls, when you’re on the circuit you can’t see or hear the Falls.

Location Litchfield National Park is about 120km (2 hours) south-east from Darwin via Batchelor on a fully-sealed road or through Berry Springs via the partly unsealed Cox Peninsula Road (dry season only; 2WD accessible).
Distance Official distance is 39km plus the Link Track/s (variable lengths) to access the Tabletop Track. Actual distance as measured by my GPS units (Apple iPhone and Garmin watch was 50km:

  • Day 1: Florence Falls – Greenant Creek – Tjenya Falls (campground after Wangi Falls): 22.2km on the map and 26km distance walked
  • Day 2: Tjenya Falls – Walker Creek – Florence Falls: 18.4km on the map and 21km distance walked
Grade Hard. Track is very rough and navigation can be tricky. Temperatures reach 30-32 degrees C in the dry season (winter). Approx 1,080m elevation gain & loss over the entire track – the walk is between about 200m elevation with some drops into valleys and up ridges.
Season/s Dry season – typically May to end of September.
Maps
  • Australia’s Northern Territory Litchfield National Park –
    Edition 7 (topographical map). Bloody hard to find but try the Darwin Museum (they had sold out when I asked), Camping World Darwin (sold out), NT General Store (open weekdays).
  • Tabletop Track information sheet and overview map – PDF download
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – Day 1 and Day 2.
View route and export to KML format.
Resources
  • Litchfield National Park phone number – 08 8976 0282
  • Check if a park is open web site – worth checking, as I discovered!
  • Information on applying for a permit – required in the wet season or if park / track is closed. If unsure you need one, they were very helpful when I phoned – 08 8999 4486
Tips
  • I didn’t treat water from most of the creeks – but between Tjenya Falls and Walker Creek camp site the only water sources (in mid-July) were pretty stagnant. You’d want some form of purification, especially if hiking after July
  • Don’t think about wearing shorts – the sections through forest re-growth (after a fire) or long grass will not be fun
  • The camp sites near Greenant Creek and Tjenya Falls were great. The one near Walker Creek I would avoid (continue about 2km further towards Florence Falls)
  • Walk from May-July if you can – reports from later in the Dry season suggest many of the creeks/waterholes have started drying up.

Mount Trusmadi (Mannan Trail from Sinua)

A tough overnight walk through the jungle to the peak of Mount Trusmadi in Borneo, the second-highest mountain in Malaysia, via the Mannan trail from Sinua.

I’d booked the Trusmadi (or Trus Madi) hike during our two-week family holiday in Borneo. As the second-highest mountain in Malaysia, it seemed a good alternative to Mt Kinabalu (which I’d climbed twice on previous trips). Although considerably less high at 2,642m (in comparison to Kinabalu at 4,052m), it’s considered a tougher climb (I’ve added my comparison of Kinabalu and Trusmadi at the end.) The plan was to do the shorter 2 day / 1 night Wayaan Kaingaran route which is accessed from Tambunan… but a few days before the hike, our tour guide said “I’ve got good news and bad news about your Trusmadi hike”…

…turns out the access road from Tambunan to the start of the Trusmadi hike was closed due to a recent landslide (I think that was the bad news!). The good news was that I could still go, but would have to take a longer and harder Wayaan Mannan route that starts from the small village of Sinua, and it would now be a 3 day / 2 night trek.

It also meant a much longer journey to the start of the trail near Sinua. Getting to the start point took just under seven hours by road from Kota Kinabalu, including a lunch stop and coffee break, as I was transferred between three different cars for the trip.

 

The final stretch of road, which was only constructed about 30 years ago, provides the first view of Trusmadi in the distance.

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Camp 1 at Sinua is our destination for today: there’s a small bunkhouse and a larger dormitory with rows of hammocks. Soon there will also be one more up-market “cabin” to cater for the increasing tourism market and interest on the Trusmadi trek. I’ve got the bunkhouse to myself – two other groups had booked the shorter trail, but decided not to do the longer option. Compared to Kinabalu where 100+ people are on the mountain every day, having an entire mountain to myself is a new and decidedly more pleasant experience 🙂

 

Sinua (Camp 1) to Camp 2 – 7.4km

The Trusmadi trek starts the next day at 7:30am, up to Camp 2. We’re dropped off 1km down the road where the trail starts – “we” being my guide Sam, Melda the cook, Deo the assistant and myself. It’s a slightly larger entourage than I expected: I would have been happy with two-minute noodles for dinner, but I’m not complaining about having three cooked meals a day. It explains why the Trusmadi hike is more expensive than Kinabalu, where there is a permanent “camp” on the mountain.

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The path crosses a river on a well-constructed bridge as we head towards the Trusmadi forest reserve.

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The next crossing of the same river is not quite so civilised, as we take our shoes off, wade across… and put on our leech socks for the first section of the path.

 

We’re following an old logging road for most of the way to Camp 2, so it’s not too steep. But there are a LOT of leeches as we climb up through the jungle. My cheap leech socks seem to be working, but every time I stop I need to remove another set of hopeful leeches from my shoes.

 

The old road – it’s more of a track in places – gets progressively steeper. There’s a few creek crossings, as well as ferns, orchids and a few flowering plants. The guide tells me that one orchid that we spot (bottom right) is worth USD$5,000 in Europe.

 

After about 6.5km we reach an overgrown clearing, which marks the end of the old logging road. The last 800m to Camp 2 is a preview of the rest of the way to to the peak – a very narrow and rough track carved through the jungle. It’s much slower going, and feels more like an obstacle course than a track.

 

We reach Camp 2 at around 11am – it’s taken us about 3.5 hours to cover the 7.4km. From our starting point at Camp 1, we’ve also ascended from about 680m elevation to 1750m – which means we’ve done more than half of the vertical distance. It’s a nice camp which we have to ourselves, although capacity is about 30 people plus guides and cooks. It’s a but overcast and there’s some rain, but for a few short periods when the clouds part, there’s a view to the east over the surrounding mountains and forest.

 

To the north-east there are occasional glimpses of Trusmadi – although most of the time, it’s hidden in the swirling clouds and mist.

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It’s an early dinner (three different dishes cooked over the camp fire – I feel very spoilt!) and a few cups of tea by the fire before an early night. It’s pretty chilly at this altitude (I’m given a spare sleeping bag, or it would be very cold) and it starts raining heavily. I go to bed with a degree of trepidation about whether the rain will clear…

 

Camp 2 to the Summit – 4.2km

There’s no photos for this section, because it was dark. We leave camp at 1am for the summit – it’s rained all night, but stops just before we set out. I hope it clears in time for sunrise, so the effort of the climb will be rewarded by a great view!

It’s a tough climb, both because the track is steep, and because it’s very rough and muddy. There are some sections where you try and avoid stepping into foot-deep mud, many sections where you’re negotiating huge roots and occasionally a rope to help where the track is nearly vertical! The other “highlight” of this approach versus the other routes, is that there are in fact three peaks. To reach the Trusmadi summit, you must first traverse two smaller peaks along the ridge.

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We reach the summit at 4am, a bit too early. Actually, way too early. Rather than wait at the true summit (2,624m), we continue a bit further down the mountain (along the Tambunan trail) to Jiran Point. Here there is a five metre observation tower – and also a very small shelter that gives us a bit of protection from the cold as we wait for the sun to rise. I’m glad we wait – I’m getting pretty cold and almost suggest that we head back down the mountain to get out of the wind. But eventually the sun emerges, above a thick layer of cloud. In the distance, rising above the clouds, is Mount Kinabalu about 40km to the north.

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It’s a relatively short walk back to the true summit. The view isn’t as good as it is from the observation tower, but there’s still an unobstructed view of Kinabalu in the distance.

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Trusmadi Summit back to Camp 1 – 11.6km

From the summit, it’s back the same way down… Near the summit I can now see a wide range of unique flora and fauna, including the nepenthes macrophylla pitcher plant. Found only at a specific elevation on Mount Trusmadi (between 2200m and the summit at 2642m), its name is derived from the Latin words macro (large) and phylla (leaves).

 

There’s a few more glimpses of Trusmadi through breaks in the canopy.

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It’s less tiring but not a lot easier going down, as the slippery and muddy track requires constant attention.

 

The steepest section is between the “third” (main) Trusmadi peak and the second peak: after the initial descent from the summit there’s a steep climb, with a few sections aided by rope.

 

Other parts are less steep, but still require careful navigation using exposed tree roots for support.

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It takes us about 2.5 hours to reach Camp 2, and we have short break for our second breakfast (our first breakfast having been around midnight, before we set off for the summit).

 

From Camp 2, another two hours takes us back to Camp 1. This is easy walking after the previous section of the walk down to Camp 2 – but after heavy rain on the previous day, the leeches are out in force. I decide not to bother with my leech socks (which I’d bought for $1.50 a few days ago) and continue with my normal hiking socks and long pants. I think I must have removed at least 50 of the little bastards from my shoes and socks. After we reach the base of the mountain just before midday, I remove my socks and change into clean pant. I discover that 14 leeches have successfully latched onto various parts of my ankles and feet!

Leeches aside, it’s been one of my best hikes in Malaysia. Varied and challenging terrain, a great view at the top and a feeling of adventure that you don’t get on many of the more popular walks and summits.

Kinabalu versus Trusmadi

It’s not really a fair comparison, as apart from geographic proximity they are very different mountains. If you can, do both – but if you’ve limited time and have to pick? I’d go for Trusmadi, by a slim margin!

Elevation: Kinabalu is the clear winner for bragging rights at 4,095m altitude, compared to Trusmadi at 2,642m. Although if you compare the vertical distance hiked, they are fairly similar with 2,200m elevation gain for Kinabalu (you start much higher) compared to about 2000m for Trusmadi (if you do the route from Sinua). The shorter trails from Api Api and Tambunan have a lesser elevation gain.

Difficulty: Trusmadi has been described as harder than Kinabalu, and the trail is definitely a lot tougher. The altitude of Kinabalu does make a difference, and descending the mountain’s thousands of steps means you’ll feel your legs for a few days. But Trusmadi (at least if you take the longer of the trails) is more challenging, both in the length of the trail, steepness and the fact it’s largely an undeveloped jungle track.

Flora & Fauna: you’re unlikely to see much wildlife (unless you count leeches) on either walk, although if you’re patient there is a lot of birdlife at Trusmadi. Both mountains offer orchids, ferns and pitcher plants – Trusmadi has the advantage of being home to the huge nepenthes macrophylla pitcher plant, which is found in abundance near the peak.

Solitude: Trusmadi wins by a mile… pick the right weekend or go during the week, and there’s a good chance you’ll have the mountain to yourself. Especially if you go for one of the longer routes. By comparison, you’ll need to book well ahead for Kinabalu, and you’ll be walking up the mountain in a long line of people.

Views: The landscape as you climb Kinabalu is more varied, as you go from jungle to the exposed and rocky summit. There’s the same risk with both peaks that the only thing you see is cloud, if you’re unlucky with the weather. They both offer outstanding views from the top – you don’t really notice the significant difference in height from the top, and both peaks will rise above any low cloud cover.

 

 

Cost: I was surprised by how much more expensive it was to do Trusmadi when researching the walk: I paid around RM2150 / USD$540 x2 (as there’s a minimum of two people) for the 2D/1N version, including transport from Kota Kinabalu. By comparison Mt Kinabalu is around RM1500 / USD$380 for a foreigner, and promotional rates are sometimes available. One of the reasons for the difference is that Kinabalu has a permanent camp at Laban Rata with staff who stay there in shifts, while on Trusmadi there’s no permanent camp. A cook and assistant walked with us up to Camp 2, carrying all the supplies we needed. It may be possible to do Trusmadi without a guide (you still need to book a permit), and you could also negotiate a rate for just a guide if you organise and carry your own food.

In summary, Trusmadi feels more remote and challenging but be prepared for leeches and mud. If you’re not used to hiking or don’t want to rough it too much, Kinabalu would be the best pick.

Location The Mannan trail starts near Kampung Sinua, in the Keningau District.
Distance 7.4km on Day 1 and 15.8km on Day 2.
Grade Hard (very steep/slippery in sections with some ropes). Total elevation gain ~2000m
Season/s All year, but best to avoid wet season (Nov – March).
Map N/A
GPS route View route and export to KML format:
Day 1 – Camp 1 (Sinua) to Camp 2
Day 2 – Camp 2 to Trusmadi summit and back to Camp 1
Resources

Kanangra Walls to Kowmung River

A tough overnight walk from Kanangra Walls in the Blue Mountains, down to the wild Kowmung River.

The plan was to tackle the Katoomba to Kanangra walk, a “classic” route I’ve been wanting to do for many years. A group of intrepid Venturer Scouts are doing this walk starting at Kanangra, so by starting at the opposite end we could avoid a lengthy car shuffle by swapping vehicles. We would drive the car they left at Kanangra back to Katoomba, once we’d done the walk in the opposite direction. (The “we” on this hike being Andy, father of one of the Venturers, and myself). A most excellent plan, we thought. Until the weather forecast indicated that most of our hike would be in 35+ degree temperatures.

The Venturers, being more fit and/or foolhardy than us, proceeded with their planned walk. Our Plan B, since we needed to collect their car from Kanangra Walls, was a slightly more “leisurely” hike down to the Kowmung River. Armed with a bottle of wine and gourmet sausages from Blackheath purchased on the way, we started our hike at 2:15pm with the temperature around 34 degrees.

The first part of the walk is along the well-marked Plateau Track: it’s pretty warm (actually, it’s bloody hot and we are questioning why we’re not at the nearest pub). There’s no-one else** stupid enough to be out walking (** except of course the Venturers, but they are nowhere near us).

There’s some nice views of Kanangra Walls extending out into the distance, as the path drops down between Mount Kanangra and the Kanangra Wall plateau.

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In this gap lies Dance Floor Cave, a short detour off the Plateau Track. Located on the old cattle route from the Burragorang Valley to Oberon, the cave became such a popular meeting place in the 18th century that a wooden dance floor was erected. Now it’s just used as occasional shelter for hikers.

The Plateau Track, not surprisingly, follows the heath-covered Kanangra Tops plateau in an easterly direction. It’s easy to follow and fairly flat, occasionally crossing some rock platforms where some care is needed not to lose the track.

There’s also some fantastic views from the edge of the cliffs, and into Kanangra Gorge.

Across the other side of Kanagra Gorge are the Thurat Walls and Thurat Spires, rising 600m above the valley floor.

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After about 1.9km along the Plateau Track we veer right onto an unnamed track that heads towards Maxwell Top (Kanangra 8930-3S GR342358 or -33.98511, 150.12235). According to Google Maps, it’s called the Coal Seam Walking Track, but it’s not named on the topographical map. (The original Kanangra to Katoomba plan would have had us continuing straight ahead, along the plateau.)

This track is also well-defined and fairly flat, as it follows the very wide Murrarang plateau in a southerly direction. We follow this track for just over a kilometre before nearing Murrarang Top at the end of the plateau, where the track forks (Yerranderie 8929-4N GR344340 or  -34.00172, 150.12445). Here it’s a bit confusing, as one of our maps shows a single trail and the other shows two ways of getting down the small cliffs. We take the left trail; in hindsight I suspect either track would have worked. There’s a short and easy scramble down a cleft in the rocks, and we’re at the base of Murrarang Head where we follow the base of the small cliff.

At the end of the cliffs is the impressive Coal Seam Cave, although it’s not named on any of our maps. While not a particularly deep cave, it’s very long and the sandstone above the coal seam has been eroded in a way that makes it seem (no pun intended!) as if it’s been very precisely cut. There’s a barrel here collecting water that drips from the sandstone, and even on a hot day when most creeks were dry, it was 3/4 full. There would be plenty of space for a few tents, too.

So far, so good… At the end of the long cave, the track drops quick steeply down to a saddle. We’re now on the Gingra Trail, which follows the Gingra Range and eventually reaches the Kowmung River. From this trail, there are multiple trails that go down to the Kowmung. The track is easy to follow and it’s fairly easy walk along the shaded ridge-top, although the temperature is still in the 30s.

We pass Cottage Rock, just visible from the main track (there’s no obvious trail up to here, and it’s too hot to entertain sightseeing detours!). As we ascend about 50m (although it feels like a lot more) up to First Top Mountain, we see what looks like a side-track down Brumby Ridge. This was our intended route, being the shortest track to the Kowmung. But the faint trail quickly peters out and we decide to try Roots Ridge, which is marked on our topographical map. Another kilometre along the Gingra Trail and we reach the Roots Ridge Track. This will, hopefully, take us from the Gingra Range at around 800m down to the Kowmung River at 220m. We set off down Roots Ridge: the track is very faint but the route is easy to follow, as it descends the top of the ridge.

As we near the bottom of Roots Ridge, we get our first and very welcome sight of the Kowmung River below us.

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Just a (steep) kilometre to go until we reach the bottom… the 800m descent from the Gingra Trail is about 4km in length, but starts of gradually and gets steeper towards the end. The track is not very distinct, but the route is fairly obvious.

We enjoy a well-earned swim before setting up camp. According to my watch, the average temperature since we started around 2pm has been 33.6 degrees, and it’s still about this temperature at 7:30pm (it’s taken us about 5:30min to cover about 13km). We’ve got the river to ourselves, and there’s a nice, flat and grassy area close to the river. It is a beautiful and tranquil spot, with a deep enough pool for a swim and clean, flowing water (we filtered the water just to be safe, but the Kowmung is generally considered safe to drink).

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Tomorrow is forecast to be even hotter, so we try and get some sleep despite the heat, with alarms set for 5am the next morning.

It’s the same way back tomorrow, and while it’s cool when we set-off around 5:30am the temperature has reached about 30 degrees by the time we reach the Gingra Trail.

On the way back, I make the short off-track detour up the steep slope to Cottage Rock from the Gingra Trail. Someone’s helpfully made a rock step to help get onto the outcrop.

The view from the top isn’t spectacular, but you can see the Gingra Range that we’ve been following and the surrounding peaks of the Kanangra-Boyd National Park.

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One more steep section from Cottage Rock up to Coal Seam Cave, and then it’s fairly easy walking back to the car. It has taken us 5:30min to get back; about the same time as the descent. It feels very hot up on the plateau, and we discover later that today is the hottest temperature on record for Sydney’s west.

Location Start at Kanangra Walls car park (end of Kanangra Walls Road).
210km (3:30hr) from Sydney / 110km (2hr) from Katoomba
Distance 26km return (approx)
Grade Moderate/Hard. Total 1,100m ascent. Some off-track walking.
Season/s All year.
Maps
  • Kanangra 8930-3S 1:25K
  • Yerranderie 8929-4N 1:25K
GPS Route Google Maps GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources
  • Part of the walk covered by Buswalking NSW Web site
  • National Parks – Kanangra-Boyd Web site
Notes
  • If travelling to Kanangra Walls via Jenolan, please note that the road is closed to traffic leaving Jenolan in the direction of Katoomba every day from 11.45am to 1.15pm (ie. for 90 minutes the road becomes ‘one way’).
  • There are toilets at the Kanangra Walls car park, but don’t rely on water being available here.

Thornleigh to Berowra (Great North Walk)

One of the more popular and varied sections of the Great North Walk, which traverses the Berowra Valley Regional Park. It can be done in sections from around 7km to 30km, over 1-2 days. 

I start the walk at the Baden Powell Scout Centre in Pennant Hills (which seems a fitting starting point for a bushwalk!) as the kids have an overnight school band camp here. The actual  starting point for the walk is about 2km away in Thornleigh near the end of Morgan St. From here the narrow trail follows the Zig Zig Creek behind some houses, before it enters the Berowra Valley Regional Park and joins the Bellamy Trail. A “Great North Walk” sign confirms I’m going the right way!

About 500m further, and there’s a junction, with the Bellamy Trail continuing to the right and the main trail – the Benowie Walking Track – continuing straight ahead. Crossing the bridge to the right and following the Bellamy Trail would take me to the old Thornleigh quarry, behind the Oakleigh Oval. The Zig Zag Creek that the track has been following is named after  the Thornleigh Zig-Zag Railway, which hauled crushed sandstone from the quarry up a steep gradient to Thornleigh station.

I continue straight ahead on the Benowie Walking Track, which is a wide (and not particularly interesting) 4WD track; after about 1.5km there’s another junction and I take the narrow track to the right (going straight ahead would take me to Cherrybrook Lakes via the Stringybark Ridge management trail. From here the track’s a bit more interesting as it crosses Nyrippin Creek and then follows Berowra Creek along the valley.

From here it’s a pleasant walk for the next four kilometres along the Benowie Track until it reaches the Fishponds; there are a few junctions with side-tracks, but the main track is always well-marked.

The Fishponds is a waterhole on Berowra Creek: the water gushes through very deep, weathered grooves in the sandstone. Just before reaching Fishponds there’s a lookout over the creek and waterhole; the path then descends and crosses Berowra Creek at the Fishponds. There’s a large rock platform and it would be a nice spot for a break or lunch – but today’s there a large group of hikers here, so I continue after taking a few quick photos. (My official Great North Walk track notes describes the pools as being popular for swimming; however, there’s a sign warning that penalties of up $3,300 apply for swimming. Some deaths from jumping in the creek have meant swimming is discouraged.)

From Fishponds, the official Great North Walk ascends to Manor Rd where it leaves the Berowra Valley Regional Park and skirts around the park along the road. Another management trail a little further north takes you back to the original Great North Walk route. This diversion is to avoid entering an exclusion zone for the Hornsby District Rifle Range – while the Great North Walk had previously traversed this “danger zone”, it was determined in the late 1990s that the risk was too great. It’s a shame – and in my opinion, disgraceful – that a section of one of the most popular walks in Sydney has been closed.

It’s also one of the nicer sections of the walk, with the now-closed section Benowie Track following Berowra Creek north. The track is still there, with just the route markings removed, so perhaps one day this section can be official re-opened. Unlikely, but I hope so!

At the other end of the closed Benowie Track section is the historic military “Steele” bridge; constructed in 1945-1946 to give fire fighting vehicle access from Hornsby to Dural, the bridge is known as a Steele bridge after Major General Sir Clive Steele. It’s one of only four remaining in service (although I can’t find any references to the other three…).

The track crosses Berowra Creek using the Steele bridge, and continues up to the ridge on a wide management trail. The flora gradually changes as the track ascends. About 14km from the start of the walk is Tunks Ridge Rest Area, one of the recommend Great North Walk camp sites. It’s a large, open camping area but there’s no water, and there was a bit of rubbish strewn around.

It’s another 1.5km along a wide management trail to the top of Galston Gorge, where the trail drops very quickly – with the aid of a few steel spikes in the rock – down to Galston Road. This is about the half-way point of my walk today, and the first time in 15km that the track intersects a road… although I don’t need to actually cross the road, as the trail goes under the vehicular bridge and crosses Berowra Creek via some concrete stepping stones.

The next section of the trail from Galston Gorge to Crosslands is pleasant, but feels much longer than the sign-posted distance (6.8km)… it’s a narrow bush track again, which traverses through a shaded section of ferns and grass trees, before rising gently up to the ridge where it follows a rock platform. The trail is mostly in the shade, with a couple of small streams and waterfalls just off the trail. After a couple of kilometres the track descends to Berowra Creek, which is now much wider, and follows the creek fairly closely to Crosslands. (There’s a couple of camping areas along this section, which are more attractive if doing a multi-day walk then the previous Tunks Ridge campground.)

Crosslands is a bit of anti-climax after the 22km I’ve walked so far: accessible via car, it’s a very popular camp ground and day-trip destination for picnickers and kayakers (there are toilets, picnic tables, barbecues, a playground and a lot of open space for camping). It also offers town water, so I can fill-up my water bottles before I quickly traverse the expansive area and re-join the Great North Walk at the far end.

The first 1.4km of this sectop track is an interpretative walk with a combination of boardwalk and very smooth dirt – so it’s easy walking! The track follows Berowra Creek, which is now wide & deep, and a popular area for kayaking; it’s a very pleasant walk in the afternoon winter sun! There’s a few signs along the track that explain the different aspects of the local areas and Aboriginal history.

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At the end of the “interpretative walk” is the Calna Creek bridge. The current (steel) bridge was opened in 2015, over two years after the original timber bridge (which was built in 1980 by the Army) collapsed. This meant – other than swimming across fairly deep, tidal water – a large diversion to the Great North Walk until the bridge was repaired. The signage suggests the previous bridge was destroyed by hikers jumping up and down on it; the previous, timber bridge was in a fairly poor state so you could equally point to lack of maintenance and no contingency plan as the reason there was no bridge for two year! Regardless, it’s great to see an investment being made in a new bridge that should last for a while.

I’m getting tired now, but it’s the last stretch: a toss of the coin determines that I’ll finish the walk at Berowra. It’s about the same distance to Mt Ku-ring-gai station from here. I continue along the Great North Walk, crossing a wide area of grassland before following Berowra Creek again.

It’s not far – about 1.5km – before the track starts climbing steeply up the ridge, with a number of stone and timber stairs. Just the work-out I need at the end of long day!

At the top of this short, but steep, section there’s a wide management trail. Left continues toward Berowra Water and Newcastle. Right is to Berowra station. I head right. After about 1.5km along the fire trail, a narrow foot-track to the right ascends to the ridge, with a few more steps and steep sections before I reach Crowley Road, Berowra.

From here it’s less than a kilometre to the railway station at Berowra, and the train home. It’s been about 29km and six hours of walking. I’m ready for a beer.

Location Start (or finish) at Thornleigh (Bellamy St trackhead) to Mt-Ku-ring-gai or Berowra station, to the north of Sydney.
Distance 29km one-way (26km from Thornleigh trackhead to Berowra station)
Grade Moderate-hard. 550m total ascent.
Season/s All year round
Maps
  • Hornsby 9130-4S topographical map (1:25k)
  • Great North Walk (Benowie Track) official route map (1:32k)
  • Ku-ring-gai Chase Tourist Map (1:40k)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Wildwalks has track notes for Thornleigh to Mt Ku-ring-gai
Notes
  • This route can also be done as an overnight walk, with a few different camping options, or broken into two shorter day-walks
  • Only drinkable water is at Crosslands.
  • Official route bypasses the Hornsby rifle range “danger zone”.

Freycinet Circuit

The Freycinet Circuit is a rewarding circular hike that combines picturesque bays, turquoise water and majestic views of the Tasmanian coast.

This circuit of Freycinet Peninsula, one of Tasmania’s “Great Bushwalks” has been on my “to do” list for a long time. It was originally intended as a long one-day hike, but with my 8-year son (Luke) showing increasing enthusiasm for hiking and camping it became a 2-night/3-day adventure. It’s been many years since I’ve walked with a 20kg pack and the first time Luke’s been on an overnight walk. So this could be a great experience… or the chance to see how effective my emergency beacon is!

We arrive in Launceston the evening before our walk and stay with a Taswegian friend overnight, so we can make a relatively early start the following day for the 2.5-hour drive to Coles Bay. There’s time for an egg and bacon roll before we hit the track – the last palatable food for the next 48 hours.

Day 1

At 11am we’re on the track from Wineglass Bay car park to Hazzards Beach. It’s a slow start, with a friendly wallaby posing for photos at the trackhead. Despite signs saying “don’t feed the wildlife”, this wallaby was very tame and was obviously used to receiving food from tourists. At least it had been fed fruit, and not bread which is bad for them. I was happy it was a friendly one; the signs along the road to Freycinet were rather ominous and warned of kangaroos that would flip your vehicle with a single paw. It’s not surprising that international visitors are scared of our wildlife!

The first 5km is relatively flat, following the coast from the car park to Hazards Beach (said to be named after local whaler, African-American Captain Richard Hazard). It’s pleasant walking, despite being a warm day and carrying having a heavy pack, which I’m not used to. There are views out to the west over Promise Bay towards Swansea and the Eastern Tiers.

After about 1.5 hours we’ve almost reached Hazards Beach; just before we get there we spot an idyllic bay. Across the (almost warm) turquoise water is Mt Freycinet and Mt Graham, which we climb tomorrow. Unlike the exposed beach, it has plenty of shade. And another friendly wallaby. We stop here for lunch and a swim.

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Reluctantly, we leave the bay around 2:30pm, continuing our walk along Hazards Beach. This doesn’t disappoint either, and we could easily spend a few hours lingering here. Except that we have a campsite to get to.

There’s a campsite at the end of the beach, which is shaded and fairly empty. From here the track follows the coast through low scrub and casuarina trees, but while there is some shade this section of track feels much longer than the 4km that it is. We’re glad to reach Cooks Beach.

A short walk along Cooks Beach brings us to our camp site, and the end of Day 1. We’ve covered about 17km, but it’s been easy walking. We set up camp a stone’s throw from the ocean, on a small hill just before the entrance to the official campground. There’s water here from a tank at Cooks Hut a stroll away, where we chat to the friendly Park volunteers before enjoying a hot chocolate and tea as the sun sets. Apart from my lamentable attempt at cooking sausages on my camp stove, it’s been a fantastic day.

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Day 2

We awaken early the next day. To be specific, Luke wakes up early and tells me I need to get up. I’d be happy to snooze another couple of hours. We’re underway around 7am, heading back along Cooks Beach to the turn-off up to Mt Freycinet and Mt Graham. Today will be a big day.

From the northern end of Cooks beach, the track ascends steadily up to and then along the East Freycinet saddle, gaining about 375m over 5km. It’s tough going after a very “flat” first day and carrying a heavy pack, but we’re walking through dry sclerophyll forest and in shade. It takes us just over two hours to reach the side-track to Mt Freycinet. I feel slightly bad telling Luke that climbing the highest peak in Freycinet is not optional, and we leave our packs at the bottom.

The climb is steep: only 750m in distance, but climbing from 375m up to the top at 620m. There are cairns and orange markers designating the rough track that goes directly up the side of the mountain, with some boulder-scrambling at the top. The views towards Wineglass Bay as  you reach the summit suggest it’s worth the effort. Luke doesn’t share my opinion. I am currently the Worst Dad in the World.

The view from the top is incredible (although I am not yet forgiven). You can see the main track continuing up over Mt Graham to the north-east. Directly north is a magnificent vista that takes in Hazards Beach and Wineglass Bay, with Hazards Lagoon in the middle and “The Hazards” in the background. If you’re doing the Freycinet Peninsula circuit, it’s worth making the effort.

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The view north over Hazards Beach and Wineglass Bay

The descent is much quicker. We re-shoulder our packs at the bottom, and start our second ascent up Mt Graham (579m). The track is now in full sun as it climbs steadily up through low heath to our second summit of the day.

Mt Graham is not really a peak – there’s a 100m pad up to the “summit” from the main track, with views of Mt Freycinet to the south and Wineglass Bay to the north. The views are not as dramatic as Mt Freycinet, but being a “flat” peak (Mt Freycinet is more a collection of large boulders) you get uninterrupted 360-degree views. Strong winds and some cool mist suggests how quickly the Tasmanian weather can change.

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From here the track descends to Wineglass Bay, but remains exposed and it’s another section that feels much longer than it it really is. Wineglass Bay still looks far away…

I’m unsure whether there is water at Wineglass Bay, so I’m hoping that we can replenish our water supplies on the way down. We find a few unappealing, brackish streams before eventually striking a clear stream that crosses the track (Graham Creek) and we refill our three 1.5L water bottles. I explained to Luke that, worst case, we could suck the nectar out of banksia flowers (although most were pretty dry).

Finally, we reach our camp for the second night, after 16km and over 1000m of climbing. Wineglass Bay is rated one of the best beaches in the world (by Traveller.com, UK Telegraph and Lonely Planet to mention just a few publications) and it is just spectacular. Clear, blue water and white sand with the peaks of The Hazards forming the background.

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The only downside is the number of mosquitoes. The large campground, which is right on the water, is not full despite it being a summer weekend. But as all the premium water-front plots are taken, we find a nice secluded camp site toward the back of the campground. Big mistake. I feel as we are the guests of honour at the Tasmanian National Mosquito Conference. I’ve never seen so many mozzies. We quickly cook our dinner (another culinary miss, with Luke declaring my expensive Back Country Honey Soy Chicken packet a bunch of inedible vegetables), watch the sun set and climb into our tents. Despite this, we sleep well and are ready for the final hike out the next morning.

Day 3

Another early-ish (7:30am) start – we are both ready for an egg and bacon roll and a cold drink at Coles Bay, after our last few meals… It should be pretty easy as as we’re walking around Wineglass Bay along the beach, although the sand is soft and we can feel our muscles! Wineglass Bay looks pretty impressive from this angle too, this time with Mt Freycinet and Mt Graham in the background.

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The track ascends from the the north end of Wineglass Bay. Being a popular day-walk, the track is now of a considerably higher standard, but we’ve got a 200m climb up to the Wineglass Bay lookout. We start seeing a lot more people, for the first time in three days.

It’s not a bad view over Wineglass Bay… but we’ve been spoilt by the last two days and the weather is a bit overcast for the first time (although it soon clears). There’s many people here, with the lookout rated as one of the “most photogenic destinations” in the world, according to Traveller.

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It’s now all down-hill for the last two or so kilometres, on a well-graded track that feels more like a highway than a trail after the rest of our hike. We’re welcomed by another friendly wallaby, as we make our way back to the car-park (and our well-earned egg and bacon roll). It’s been exactly 40km in 48 hours. We’ve both had a great time on our first overnight hike, and thinking about where we might go next…

Lessons and Suggestions

It’s been many years since I’ve done an overnight walk… and we’ve done pretty well with our preparation and gear. Next time, I’ll definitely be packing insect repellent. Some light-weight thongs or “slippers” would have been helpful around camp. And you can never bring too much wine…

If you’re not up for overnight-camping, there are are a few companies that offer Freycinet trips, often using boats to avoid sections of hiking and including accommodation in a lodge near Coles Bay:

Hike details and map

Location Starts at the Wineglass Bay carpark, near Coles Bay. About 2.5-hours from Hobart or Launceston airports.
Distance 40km circuit. 1180m total ascent. 1-3 days.
Grade Moderate
Season/s All year round
Map TasMap Frecyinet National Park 1:50,000
GPS route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources  Parks and Wildlife “Freycinet Peninsula Circuit” overview
Photos Google photos albums – Day 1 / Day 2 / Day 3
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Map showing Freycinet Peninsula Circuit route and elevation gain.

Three Capes in A Day

A one day “express” version of the new Three Capes Track in Tasmania, on the Tasman Peninsula. Whether you do it in one day or over four days, expect spectacular coastal scenery and a very high quality walking track.

There’s been a bit of controversy over the new Three Capes Track, which is on the Tasman Peninsula about 90min south of Hobart. Billed as “the premier coastal walk in Australia” and one Tasmania’s Great Bushwalks, it has been designed as a 4 day/3 night walk covering 46km, staying in newly constructed huts. There’s a maximum of 48 people that can start each day. You can’t vary the itinerary. And there’s a cost of (around) $500 per person. Why the controversy: because multiple bush-camping sites have been removed, with just one remaining camping site that has space for six tents for those wanting to do an “unassisted” walk.

I think it’s a great idea: the cost is reasonable, it will hopefully generate a new income stream for Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service and it enables people to undertake this walk who aren’t willing or able to carry a tent, stove and other supplies… All the huts were full, so the concept seems to be working. The downside is you’re often walking on a highly-engineered “track” that’s more akin to a metropolitan boardwalk than a bushwalk. There were a few sections where I expected to see a travelator… Or for a butler to pop out from behind a casuarina and offer to carry my bag.

I will clarify at this juncture: my one-day hiking of the track was not a protest at the track fees: I just didn’t have four days to spare and I was too lazy to carry all my camping gear!

After a late-evening arrival into Hobart International Airport (which doesn’t actually have a single, scheduled international flight) and an early morning start the following day, I reached Fortescue Bay at 8:30am. While the “official” walk starts at Port Arthur with a boat trip to the trailhead at Denman’s Cove and finishes at Fortescue Bay, this first section of track can only be done as part of the paid Three Capes walk. I start (and finish) at Fortescue Bay. Armed with my two Snickers bars, two litres of water and sunscreen, I head off at a fairly fast pace, as I need to get back to the airport by 8pm.

The Old Cape Pillar Track starts a few hundred metres up the road from the car park at Fortescue Bay, climbing gently up to 275m altitude where it meets the new / upgraded Cape Pillar Track (map below). It’s mostly in light forest, and in the hour and a bit it takes me to cover the first 7km I meet a couple of hikers, two wallabies and a large black snake.  I continue on the (new) Cape Pillar Track for another two kilometres – I am now following the official Three Capes Experience route – before I reach the Munro hut. It’s an impressive construction, and sitting on a deck chair watching the sun set would not be an unpleasant way to spend an evening (although it’s not really possible since the deck is facing east, but you get the idea.)

I push on toward Cape Pillar. I’m making good time on the well-graded track, which becomes a boardwalk super-highway for a number of kilometres along the Cape. I’m now encountering most of the 48 people who are on Day 3 of their 4-day Cape trip. They’re friendly and seem to be enjoying the walk, with a number of families on the trail.

After a few more kilometres, the track starts hugging the southern edge of Cape Pillar. The track undulates between about 250m to 350m above the Tasman Sea, which crashes into the cliffs below us. The views are impressive in all directions and frequent photo stops are required.

I reach the tip of Cape Pillar and ascend The Blade at 11:30am; I’ve walked just under 17km and have reached the furthest point from the start (and end) of my hike. The view is incredible: Tasman Island lies directly head, and the cliffs of Cape Pillar can be seen on both sides of the rocky promontory.

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I continue after a short break and my first chocolate bar, re-tracing my steps back along Cape Pillar and past Munro Hut. Not long after Munro Hut I reach Retakunna hut, where most of the hikers I met will spend their last night on the trail. It too looks as luxurious as bush huts get, and I take the opportunity to fill my water bottle and consume my second nutritional Snickers bar. There’s no-one here yet, as I start the steepest section of the walk, climbing through rain forest from 235m up to the highest point of the Three Capes track at 489m.

It’s not a particularly tough climb, but I’m happy to have completed this section and descended 300m back down to the cliff line again, with the views getting more impressive as I get closer to Cape Hauy.

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The Cape Hauy track snakes up and down along the second cape of the walk, with views back up the coast to Fortescue Bay where I’ll finish the walk. The track is exposed and I’m glad I’ve brought sunscreen!

Not quite as spectacular as Cape Pillar, but worth the 2km detour, the second cape** of the trip towers vertically above the ocean. I can hear climbers somewhere on the Totem Pole that’s directly in front of us and a series of jet boats circle underneath us getting a view of the sheer cliffs from below. Cape Hauy is one of the 60 Tasmania “Great Short Walks”, based on the track from Fortescue Bay to the cape and back (8.8km return).

(** While it’s called the Three Capes walk, it is currently a Two Capes walk… the third cape is Cape Raoul, which is stage 3 of this project and will add another 32km of track and two more huts.)

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Another 5km or so and I’m back at Fortescue Bay, for a refreshing swim before the drive back to Hobart. It’s taken 8.5 hours to walk the 41km: faster than I had anticipated, but a $28m investment in building and upgrading the track means very easy walking.

Would I recommend it? For families with small children or people that really can’t manage more than 10-15km per day of fairly easy walking, yes. The scenery is great and the huts world-class. But there are long sections of monotonous track, so it’s hard to recommend this walk over Cradle Mountain or many other tracks that are serviced by tourism operators that offer hut accommodation.

Location From Fortescue Bay on the Tasman Peninsula (90min from Hobart)
Distance 41km “lollipop” walk. 1120m total ascent.
Grade Hard due to length. Moderate for Cape Hauy / Cape Pillar only.
Season/s All year round
Map TasMap “Peninsula Walks” or Tasman Peninsula 1:50,000
Resources Three Capes Track web site for details of 4 day/3 night walk
Photos Google Photos gallery
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Map of Three Capes track, showing route and Three Capes Experience walk.

Havasu Falls, Arizona

A hidden gem: Havasu Falls is a two-day walk through a dramatic landscape of deep red canyons and an almost impossibly turquoise river with multiple waterfalls.

I stumbled across this hike somewhere in the depths of the Web… it looked amazing, and yet I hadn’t seen it in any of my US hiking  books. After a bit more research, it was added to my mental “wish list” of hikes! “The Havasupai Waterfalls are the most dramatic waterfalls in the Grand Canyon and possibly even the entire Southwestern United States” and “Havasupai (Havasu Falls) might just be one the the most beautiful places on Earth” are a few of the descriptions of this hike.

Getting there was the first challenge. I needed to be in San Diego on Monday for a conference, so the best approach was to fly to Las Vegas from LAX and pick up a car, overnight in Peach Springs and drive the last 100km to the start of the hike at Hualapai Hilltop early the following morning. Getting there at sunrise, the hike started with impressive views down the Hualapai Canyon, a side canyon of the Grand Canyon. A few mules are tethered near the start of the trail – this is the only place in the US where mail is delivered by mule (UK Daily Mail).

The trail drops quickly  from 1575m down into the canyon via a series of switchbacks and follows the dry floor canyon. After about 10km the Havasu Canyon is reached, and some trees and greenery start to appear… another 2km and I reach the village of Supai at 975m).

Supai is an interesting place. Home to the Havasupai Tribe, which has a population of about 600 people, it’s the smallest Indian nation in America. Reached by foot, mule and helicopter, Havasupai tribe has been living in the area for centuries. The land on which the Supai village is now situated was claimed from the National Park in 1975, after many court battles, granting the tribe a trust title to approximately 185,000 acres (source: Wikipedia). The village now has a shop, cafe, church, post office, health clinic and a lodge, which is where I stayed overnight (day-hikes are not permitted, and it would be a very long day hiking back up to the top of the canyon). The village looks pretty run-down and while many locals are reliant on tourism, no-one appears particularly friendly…

I check-in to Supai Lodge around midday and continue hiking down Havasu Canyon. The best is yet to come: Havasupai is roughly translated as “the people of the blue-green waters”, in reference to the amazing turquoise colour of Havasu Creek, formed by leaching from minerals. Navajo Falls is reached first, a short detour off the main track about 3km beyond the village.

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It is spectacular. One of those spots where I know the photos won’t do justice to what I am seeing.

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I take many photos, and continue… Another 3km and I reach (arguably) the star attraction: Havasu Falls. Being outside peak season there are a few other people on the track and swimming, but there is also a sense of isolation and serenity. It’s somewhere I could happily camp and stay for a few days.

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A little further again (another 2km) after walking through the fairly-empty Havasu camping ground, and I reach the 70m-high Mooney Falls (these are the highest). The base of the falls is accessed through a rough track carved through the cliff and then down some less than confidence-inspiring wooden ladders. But worth the effort. Each waterfall seems to outdo the last in beauty and amazing-ness!

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I climb back up the narrow trail to the top, with one last waterfall to reach. There’s now a 4km stretch to Beaver Falls. The track is well-defined it gets rough in sections, with a number of ladders and steep sections to scramble down as it alternates between the two banks of Havasu Creek.