The South Coast Track (14/01/21 – 19/02/21)

For over a month now I have held off writing about my experience on the South Coast Track: An 85km, 7 day walk from the isolated old mining settlement of Melaleuca to Cockle Creek, the southernmost drivable point of Tasmania. The track itself is fine, certainly challenging (and muddy) in parts, but an easily followable route that is most often meandering through incredible buttongrass plains and juicy coastal rainforest. But my experience with this walk was one enormous reminder that weather doesn’t care about you, and it can kill you. Easily.

I’ve certainly never felt as threatened by the natural world as I did during the 6 days we spent on the South Coast. While it is terrifying, there is something exhilarating and almost satisfying about being beaten around by weather. I take it as a reminder that we, as individuals, are just a tiny speck in the universe and that our arrogance as a species is unwarranted, as we are no match for the power of nature.

We went into this walk knowing we were going to be excessively rained on. But our flights with Par Avion had already been booked for weeks, so the walking dates were fixed. In any other situation my Dad and I would not choose to walk in these conditions and would have arranged another date, or called the trip off. But when you require a plane ride to the start of your walk, last minute cancellations are a bit more of a hassle.

Day 1

I woke at my parent’s house on the 14th of January to my Dad frantically telling me that our flights had been moved forward from 2:30pm to 10:30am. It was 9am and my parents live an hour from Cambridge Aerodrome. So, after 30 minutes of frantic last minute packing and consuming only a single apricot, we set off down the Midlands Highway and arrived just in time. We said our goodbyes and climbed aboard an upsettingly small 6-seater plane. Thankfully, as the flight had been moved forward, the worst weather of the day was avoided and the ride was relatively smooth, with incredible views down to Hobart, the Channel, the southern forests, and the stretch of the south coast that we would soon be walking back along.

After a smooth landing on the gravel Melaleuca airstrip, single-handedly constructed by Deny King, we collected some canisters of gas for the trip, greeted the Melaleuca caretakers, and went to investigate the bird hide. Stepping into the hide and looking out at the bird feeders through the huge glass pane, we joked that it would be funny if an orange-bellied parrot flew straight in front of us. Not even a minute after this was said, an adorable little orange-bellied parrot flew down to one of the feeders and had a good 5-minute nibble. I was beyond excited to be able to see such a beautiful bird, of which there are approximately 50 wild individuals remaining. Unfortunately, my phone chose this time to crash completely, so there were no photos taken. Though I still am ecstatic to have been able to view the bird for an extended period of time.

From here we set off along the track, through the endless buttongrass plains of Melaleuca. The rain started almost immediately, though it was nothing too heavy yet. The visibility was still good enough for us to have a great view of Melaleuca Range to the west, and the impressive rock-faces of New Harbour Range directly in front of us. The first day of walking was a relatively relaxing time, and I took plenty of time to observe plants and watch and listen for birds. I heard the incredible ascending whistle of an eastern ground parrot, and watched a flock of beautiful firetails (Tasmania’s only native finch) singing while perched in a dead tree. There also was, as there always is, the constant chattering of crescent honeyeaters.

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Pandora Hill
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Looking out towards Cox Bight
 
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Walking towards New Harbour Range through the buttongrass
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New Harbour Range getting closer

It took us just 3 hours to reach the campsite at Cox Bight for the night and by then the rain had fully cleared. This left plenty of time to set up and explore the beach. I spent some time watching an olive whistler whistling and hopping through the melaleuca trees, and some hooded plovers and pied oystercatchers skittering along the sand before I had an early dinner (at this point I still had only eaten an apricot all day).

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The beach at Cox Bight
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Our campsite for the night
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Looking out across Cox Bight from the camp

I spent some more time exploring and meditating on the beach before heading to bed quite early, while it was still light.

Day 2

It had rained again in the night, destroying our hopes of packing up dry tents in the morning. This was soon made up for though, as my Dad, awake before me as always, excitedly told me to get out of my tent. I unzipped the fly to see a very cute eastern quoll just a couple of metres away from us, sniffing out my Dad’s breakfast. It hung around for a short while before going to visit all of the other campers.

We slowly packed up our wet tents, not yet knowing that these tents would not be dry again until the end of the walk, and got going along the beach towards Point Eric. Then again through endless buttongrass, up towards our first real ascent, the Red Point Hills. Keeping in mind that the next day we had to climb 900+ metres, the climb up these hills felt quite relaxing. Halfway through the climb a small friend greeted us. A tiny freshwater crayfish attempted to ward us off the track it was scuttling along (fair enough) and raised its claws at us, which made for a good photo.

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Walking towards Point Eric
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Looking back at Point Eric after climbing over it
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Much butongrass
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Looking back at Cox Bight
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A southern hemisphere crayfish. Suspected Spinastacoides inermis

We soon reached the first of many river/creek crossings at Louisa Creek. This crossing was quite relaxing compared to the crossings we came across later on, being only ankle deep. Not long after this, the big rain began. As we continued walking through the buttongrass, we were hoping it would just be a short shower, but the drops kept falling, for hours… and hours…

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The Ironbound Range beckoning us closer
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Mt Louisa looking pretty menacing
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A Lesser Tasmanian Darner (Austroaeschna Hardyi)
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The Louisa Creek crossing
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Some stairs to help you out of Louisa Creek

We continued non-stop for the rest of the day, keeping our heads down as we trudged towards each stand of trees hoping we were approaching our campsite at Louisa River. Though every time it was only another creek we had to cross.

We finally reached the Louisa River camp and the rain was still falling hard. To get to the camp though, we had to first cross the river, which had no doubt risen significantly since that morning. Though by stepping slowly and carefully, and by holding tightly onto the rope set in place across the river, we made it across. Once at the campsite, we stood around for a while, wondering if we would get a small dry window where we could pitch our tents. But no, we had to perform every bushwalker’s favourite task of setting up a tent while it rains, and attempting to keep everything dry. As an upside, the rainforest surrounding the Louisa River campsite was particularly beautiful in the wet and the many huge myrtles along the riverbank made for a picturesque setting.

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Drying my dishes in the small amount of sunlight we got
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You can see how powerful this river can get from the height of the bank
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The campsite
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Some of the luscious vegetation by the river
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A huge Eucalyptus tree at the camp
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More forest
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Looking up a huge myrtle

After a few hours of lying around in our tents, the sun eventually came out and the rain began to settle. Which gave us a small opportunity to cook dinner, take photos, and feel nervous about how high the river was rising.

Day 3

The day of climbing the Ironbound Range is the classical ‘hard day’ of the South Coast Track. But, ‘hard day’ was a bit of an understatement for our experience.

Packing up predominantly wet items in the morning, we were at least happy that it wasn’t raining anymore. We set off quite early, knowing that we had a long day ahead. This day of the walk is relentless, beginning with a big creek crossing, and almost immediately ascending straight up. The weather for the day started off quite mild, but overcast, but soon picked up.

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The only picture I took on the way up the Ironbounds, just before the bad weather hit. A white waratah (Agastachys odorata) in flower.

As we ascended the range, the rain started to get heavier, the wind stronger, and the angle of the rain shifting more and more horizontal. By the time we had reached the first big ridge of the range, we were being smacked in the face by rain that appeared to be coming up from the ground below the ridge, and almost knocked over by the sheer force of the wind. Up on the ridge where shelter is non-existent, things began to get a bit scary, and very cold.

An intensely thick mist rolled in over the range, and we were soon unable to see more than a few metres ahead of us, making the end of this seemingly eternal climb appear even further from us. Further up the range in particularly exposed parts, the wind gusts were so strong that it became difficult to even take a step without being knocked over. At times we had no choice but to stand with our legs apart, and try desperately to remain upright while a big gust came past. There were points where we would enter into a small patch of sheltered alpine vegetation, and we would think we had finally escaped the exposed mountainside, only to be sent straight back out into it.

When we did finally start to descend the range, things were no better. The track leading down the Ironbounds is often referred to as ‘the drainpipe’ with good reason. ‘Walking’ down this track was more akin to clambering through a huge pipe full of debris, with a torrent of water rushing down underfoot. The rain was still coming down heavily (though at least it was vertical) and it was still dangerously cold. The conditions, combined with very slow walking speeds (and me not wearing enough layers…), led to me developing a short bout of hypothermia. I had started to feel a bit nauseous while up on the range, and descending, the feeling only got worse. I eventually had to stop and rest when my thoughts were no longer making sense to me. Thankfully my Dad was only a few metres ahead of me and he stopped to come and help.

Neither of us initially knew I was hypothermic. But my Dad eventually figured it out when I couldn’t respond properly to the things he was asking me and I was desperately reaching for his hands for warmth. He managed to take my raincoat off to fit an extra jumper on me, and put a beanie on my head and sent me back walking again to regain my body temperature. While still delirious for some time, I somehow was able to keep walking and get warm.

The day wasn’t done with us yet though, as we soon came across a creek we had to cross that had fully flooded. The creek, which typically doesn’t even get a mention in walking notes for the South Coast Track, was a full white water torrent. Thankfully, someone from the big group ahead of us had stuck around to help people across. I managed to get across with his help without too much trouble, but the force of the water against my feet in the creek was immense, and getting across without help would have been a real challenge. Multiple others who crossed after me had their feet washed out by the water and were lying horizontal in the creek, being pummelled by water, incredibly held in place by the grip of the man who had waited around to help. Without him there I am sure many people would have been washed a significant distance down the mountain.

From hereon we were able to relax a bit, as the walking got easier and the rain let up slightly. The final part of this walk took us through quite open half coastal forest, half rainforest, with good views out to the rocky cliffs and caves on the shores of Deadman’s Bay. We arrived at the Little Deadman’s Bay campsite completely exhausted, and we were soon in bed.

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Some Melaleucas in the coastal rainforest
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A small stinkwood (Zieria arborescens).
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Some cliffs and caves at Deadman’s Bay
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A cute and powdery unidentified moth
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A small cove in Deadman’s Bay

Day 4

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Many bladderworts (a semi-aquatic carnivorous native plant) growing out of a patch of mud
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A Sprengelia plant doing something strange

Today HAD to be a better day. We decided we were only walking as far as New River Lagoon to have a bit of a rest day. Much of the famous mud in the buttongrass plains at the start of this day was avoided thanks to the boardwalk, and we were soon out on Turua Beach. Turua Beach boasts some very impressive rocks that have been cut by the strong winds

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Well carved rocks on Turua Beach
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Rocks defending the shore on Turua Beach

The track quickly headed inland again, but up a short ascent through coastal forest. I quite enjoyed this section of the walk, meandering around the cliff edges through some picturesque forest and impressive views.

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Menzies Bluff (I think)
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Some type of Persoonia, I think Persoonia gunnii

We eventually were sent back onto a beach. This time to the much more impressive Prion Beach, stretching a full 6km. Thankfully we only had to walk 4 of those kilometres, which was still rather exhausting as our feet kept sinking into the wet sand.

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Looking along the extensive Prion Beach
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A seagull party
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The expanse of Prion Beach

The end of the beach is marked by New River, and hiding behind the beach is the huge New River Lagoon. To get across to the campsite, the lagoon must be crossed by boat (thankfully at a narrow section). The wind was very quickly picking up so, being the one with the superior rowing skills, my Dad took charge of the crossing to get it over with quickly. We arrived at camp around lunchtime and were very ready to stop walking and relax for the rest of the day. The campsite by New River Lagoon is a great, wind-sheltered spot beneath melaleuca trees, and made for a nice place to have an afternoon chill-out.

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Native currant (Coprosma quadrifida)
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The boats used to cross New River Lagoon
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A pademelon visiting our camp

Day 5

This day seemed to go on and on and on… Though it was likely because we had had such a short walk the day before. That said, this day was certainly the most beautiful and varied day of the whole walk. We walked through coastal vegetation, buttongrass, luscious old eucalypt/near-rainforest, along a sandy beach with impressive wind-cut rocks and the across the strange blue and grey sand of Granite Beach.

To start the day, we had to finish off the full length of Prion Beach, except by following it from up in the bush behind. Knowing that this was only 2 kilometres of walking, we felt that it was going on for far too long. Both of us being rather tall, the many fallen or overhanging branches along this section of the track were slowing us down (I whacked my head at least three times).

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Prion Beach extending past the lagoon
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A flowering celery top pine (Phyllocladus aspleniifolius)

We happily said goodbye to Prion Beach as we ascended up into buttongross plains. Though, we were immediately smacked in the face by some serious wind (the water at Osmiridium Beach in the photo below shows how windy it was pretty well).  After the turnoff to Osmiridium beach, the track also intensely ramps up the mud level. If you’ve never attempted to navigate through waist deep mud in gale force winds with zero wind cover, I can tell you it’s not particularly easy. At one point I went all the way in up above my waist (sinking into the Earth is never a nice feeling) and I just managed to scramble out grasping onto blades of buttongrass.

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A choppy Osmiridium Beach

I pushed on through the wind, encouraged by the sheltered forest I could see coming up. The next section was possibly my favourite part of the walk. Unfortunately my photos can’t really do it justice, but the next section of the walk weaved through some incredible rainforest with some enormous eucalypts (like really massive). Moss covered almost every surface and blechnum ferns brushed against our legs. The track was a real mudbath, but it was made up for by the beauty of the setting.

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Some of the beautiful forest after Surprise Bay
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A huuuuge eucalyptus in the forest before Surprise Bay (I could easily pitch my tent inside that hollow for reference)

We stopped to have lunch before the track began to descend down to Surprise Bay. Heading down, I looked up towards the sky and noticed many brown balls of foam flying overhead. For a moment I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing, but I eventually realised that this foam was being blown up over us from the beach below. We knew we had some more wind to contend with at the bottom of the bill.

The bay certainly offered up some surprises. The first was a cliff that seems to have had a perfectly sliced chunk removed, the second was that the wind had picked up even more. That horrible feeling of sand grains blowing like bullets against your skin accompanied our whole walk across the beach. Then, another surprise, the Surprise Rivulet was flowing strongly and was rather deep. Leaving us wondering how we would wade across, especially with gale force gusts.

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Coming out onto Surprise Bay
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A hole in the rocks at Surprise Bay
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Some well cut rocks on Surpise Bay
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A closeup of the rocks
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A dark and gloomy Shoemaker Point, with South Cape behind.

Bracing for the wind each step, trying not to fall over and get swept away, we eventually found the most shallow path across the rivulet and put our feet back on dry sand. Almost immediately we were hit by the strongest gust I think I have ever experienced. My Dad and I were both knocked over, and Dad’s sunglasses zoomed off of his head, disappearing in an instant.

Now feeling quite vulnerable, we scrambled up the bank into the shelter of the bush. From here it was just a short and sharp climb over a hill to Granite Beach. I guess from the adrenaline of being beaten up by the wind, I was able to power over the hill, only sliding down the slippery roots on the other side a couple of times.

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The steps leading down to Granite Beach
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The cool colours in the sand of Granite Beach

Climbing down the rope and plank ladder to the sand, Granite Beach was quite an odd sight. This beach is a real standout with its grey and blue sand contrasting against the classical white sandy beaches scattered around the south coast. For a while the beauty of the beach distracted from the assault of the wind, but I was soon struggling again when there was no choice but to scramble on the rocks further up the beach due to the aggressive waves. Much to my delight, Granite Beach offered up another crossing at Sandstone Creek, also flowing pretty hard.

I just managed not to fall over crossing the creek and continued scrambling on. After the crossing, the only way to walk is over slippery rocks with a steep cliff face to the left, and roaring waves to the right. With worse luck, I could have easily have been slammed against these cliffs by a wave, but I was spared with only a mild drenching.  The track eventually left the beach, straight up the cliff beside Granite Beach Falls; an impressive waterfall that pours over the cliff edge onto the beach.

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Wild wild waves at Granite Beach
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Looking out over where we walked along Granite Beach

I waited for a while up the top of the cliff in the bush for my Dad, but the wind and spray eventually got too much (I think the above photos show why). Confident he would be okay as he was walking with a few others, I headed 100 metres up the track to tonight’s campsite.

Even though the camp was very sheltered under a thick melaleuca overstory, we were still ‘rained’ on all night by the sea-spray being blown up and over the cliff.

Day 6

We never expected on this morning to be sleeping in a real, warm bed by night, but somehow we walked from Granite Beach to Cockle Creek in 9 hours. I really don’t remember a lot of this day, which isn’t helped by the fact that I hardly took any pictures.

The first half of the day was occupied by the South Cape Range, a pretty tough 460m climb. The forest was again quite beautiful and sheltered, before ascending into some more open vegetation at Flat Rock Plain, where the track became a mudbath. We had the most clear weather we had had for the whole walk today, and we had some nice views out to the Southern Ranges.

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Looking out at the Southern Ranges
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An example of the sort of mud we were walking through

We slowly descended down the other side of the range, through much mud and nice mossy forest. An unexpected buttongrass plain met us halfway down the range, from which we saw our first sign of being close to civilisation again: A clearfelled logging coupe off in the distance.

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The last photo I took for the trip. From here on we just wanted to get out.

Beyond the plains was a long, undulating, muddy, and slippery track that I don’t have great memory of. The next moment I remember clearly was stepping out onto the sand at South Cape Rivulet. The rivulet flows from a lagoon behind the beach, over the sand and into the ocean, and the water level fluctuates with the incoming waves.

From the rapidly changing water level of the rivulet I knew that crossing it would be trouble. I waited around for my Dad to catch up, and a few others from another group showed up too. We all discussed for a while how we would get across, and waited for a low water level. Two guys from the other group went ahead first, then me, and then my Dad. The first three of us succesfully got across. But, as soon as I had gotten both of my feet out of the rivulet, I remember looking down at my feet as I heard somebody yell “watch out!”

Before I could even react, water rapidly shot across under me, submerging my ankles and tipping me over. I hadn’t even registered what had happened by the time I was being very quickly washed, face down, up the rivulet. The water must have only been about half a metre deep, as I was scraping my hands and feet on the sand beneath me as I was being washed away. Attempting to keep my head out of the water, I tried desperately to get a hold of something, or dig my feet into the ground, but the force of the water was far too great to gain any stability.

I have no idea how long I was in the water for before I felt something pulling me up. I managed to ground my feet and was dragged up onto the sand, by the same guy who had helped me across the roaring creek 3 days earlier!

I managed to stand and looked over to see my Dad being dragged up onto the sand as well, he had cleverly flipped over and was floating on his back, with his pack fully submerged in the water.

I didn’t see it at all, but supposedly a massive wave came in just as I had finished crossing the rivulet, and had washed us up the rivulet all the way up the beach. The force of the wave was so strong that it had pushed sand all the way up the sleeves of my thermal top, extending to my shoulders. The inside of every layer of clothing I had on was coated with sand. My Dad, floating on his pack, had large amounts of sand force through the zipped closed pockets of his pack.

After thanking the people who had saved us. My Dad and I, dripping wet, cold and exhausted, agreed almost instantly that we wouldn’t be camping tonight, we just wanted to be out.

So we walked, without stopping, all the way back to Cockle Creek, slowly drying out and warming up. Thankfully my good friend Ben who we had asked to pick us up was coming down to Cockle Creek a day early to camp the night, so we had a ride waiting for us.

What happened during this walk has left quite an impact on me, and I think I am still resolving my thoughts about some of the experiences I had in these 6 days. My hypothermic episode and being washed up South Cape Rivulet has made me wonder about what could have happened were I on my own. I think I now have a greater understanding of the risks of bushwalking, particularly walking solo.

I can only hope that writing this blog post will help my process the experience. I hope you have gotten some enjoyment from reading it, and that I haven’t put you off walking this magnificent track for yourself.

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