Walking around Tasmania (part 4) : Down the (Wild) West Coast

“You’re a legend!”
The guy yelled out from the back of the van.
I had to laugh. I had just told the young group in the van that I was walking around Tasmania, but they had already heard of me. Despite the lack of people on this side of the island, somehow, my reputation preceded me, and I kept meeting perfect strangers who already knew my story. I almost felt famous.

The West side of Tasmania was like the Wild West, small towns and little people, unsealed roads with no phone signal for days. The nature unspoilt with hardly any roadkill, and views for days. Some gorgeous national parks were there, like my favourite, the Gordon-Franklin National Park, which I walked through way too quickly because the weather turned grey and overcast, and everything hurt, and wouldn’t stop hurting.

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The Franklin-Gordon national park

The route I had set out would slowly head away from the coast that I had been following and went more and more inland. There were no roads close to the ocean, and I had to walk around the top of the large Southwest national park in order to reach the trails that would slowly lead me back to the South coast.

Despite the pull of unrivalled nature and the sense of adventure, I dreaded reaching this point in my journey. For the first time, there would be a number of stretches where I couldn’t buy any food for more than a week at a time. In the end, I would make it through all the sections unscathed, but I also made my mistakes. I remember some days where my pack was so heavy that I had to rest every five kilometers, feeling my feet quite literally being pushed into the solid tarmac beneath my thin, minimalist, trail runners. One time I even had to take a zero day to eat some of the food so I could continue walking with less weight on my back.

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A highlight: The Western Explorers Road

Of the western section, the Western Explorers Road was the most memorable. 160 km of gravel stretched between Arthur’s River and Zeehan, with a barge to cross the river at Corinna along the way, a small ‘town’, consisting of just a few historical houses, an overpriced campsite and one building acting as reception, pub and access point to the barge.

I was worried. Not only did I have to carry a week and a half worth of food, I would have to camp in the wild along the road. It was the prospect of the real wild, raw nature at its best. At that point, I had no idea what the landscape would look like. I didn’t even know whether it would be possible to wild camp alongside the road, period. I simply had no idea what to expect. I thought there would be farm land and a few houses, at the least, until I got there and I realised it was a national park and that’s what it was: nature. No farms, no grassland, no people. And hardly any cars due to the restrictions of the barge crossing to get to the other side of the river.

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Anticipating walking just over 30 km a day, it would take five days to pass. But when I got to Arthur’s River, the last town before entering the forlorn and desolate reality of the West, I decided to do it faster. There were a few roadside restpoints where I hoped I could camp. If I did, and if I managed to keep going and take advantage of the increasing hours of sunlight every day, I thought I could pass the road in three days.

That first day I left Arthur’s River early. It was a long and boring stretch. A gravel road, an empty, barren landscape and not much else. I saw only a few cars that day, and after a couple of hours on the road, I lost my phone signal. The day was grey, the scenery much the same. Walking was constant, with few short stops to rest.

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It took all day to reach the Ashley River roadside stop, about 54 km into the journey. A van with darkened windows had hesitated as it drove along me, and it was parked at the roadside stop. Another old truck was parked beside the river and looked like more of a permanent residence. The parking spot was exposed, the ground rocky and there were no other tents. I quickly decided I didn’t like the look of it.

I passed the roadside stop and hastily disappeared into the charred woods, just beyond the river, next to the road. A cheerless field of scalded trees, such that I couldn’t find anywhere suitable to set up my tent. I thought of the sections I passed earlier in the day, where sheltered spots on buttongrass plains next to the road would have been perfect for camping, but it was too far to walk back and there I was. The landscape had changed, small hills flowing into the distance and even though there were no cars driving by anymore, I was desperate to find a space sheltered from the road.

I kept on walking while the sun began to set, continuously going off road and wandering around to check for better conditions. But every time I found the ground unsuitable: soft and cracked, a landscape much like the moon, peat soil covered in burnt down shrubs, leaving tiny sharp ends in the soft, dry ground, threatening to pierce through the floor of my tent.

It took until nightfall to find somewhat of a secluded spot behind a sloping hill. I was desperate and I knew I had no choice. I had walked almost 59 km, so with care I flattened the charred shrubs protruding from the ground and set up my tent on the dry soil, a little sideways. I kept my pack inside and rolled up against it. It was dark when I crawled inside, and I was so rattled by everything that I didn’t eat. I closed my eyes and went straight to sleep.

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The next morning I woke with the sun, something that had become my favourite. I slept less hours but always woke early, alert and light. It felt natural. That morning I woke up and I felt relief and pride: I can do it, I thought. I can do this wild camping. The weighty worry was lifted off my shoulders and I got ready for the next day.

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The second day proved to be sunnier than the first, but the scenery stayed much the same. I walked and I was hungry. Perhaps it was because there wasn’t much else on the road to distract me, or because I had failed to eat the night before, despite the miles I had walked. I was happy I had managed to bring enough food.

I had prepared some pitta bread with cheese and sausage that morning, and wraps with couscous, cheese and vegetables. I even had a tub of guacamole that I added to everything as a luxury treat. I ate throughout the day and it tasted marvelous. Normally, I wouldn’t eat much more than trail mix or energy bars while I walked, but during these long days I was happy with the additional fuel.

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Another new experience was the absence of water. Until then, I had always been able to find something, tap water from a campsite or a rainwater tank. At the most, I had carried water for a day and a half, but there was always something reliable, in the end. That wasn’t the case here.

As the day went by I scoured the wayside for small streams with clean water. They never took too long to find, but they were never clear: the water was yellow, more often a dark red. I was happy I had met more than one person along the way, who had encouraged me it was fine to drink. The colouring was natural, it wasn’t dangerous. Still, it felt strange to drink it, despite using the filter and chloride tablets that I had brought.

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That afternoon, I was swigging down a particularly yellow bottle when an idea ocurred: I had read a number of blogs about stoveless cooking, and the food options available, and I remembered reading about coffee. Someone had mentioned that coffee granules would dissolve, even in cold water. As long as you weren’t too set on your coffee being hot, it was a viable option. I sat my pack down immediately and took out the stuff sack with the powder drinks in small zip lock bags. I took my titanium spoon and started scooping coffee into my yellow water bottle, dispersing most of it on the ground, missing the narrow opening of my bottle. It was a revelation. The cold coffee masked the colouring of the water and it tasted fresh and clean. My new drink revived me, and I never stopped drinking it.

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Halfway through the day, a car slowed down beside me. A guy sat in the driver’s seat. Long hair and young. Someone like me. He smiled and offered me a whisky. I laughed and hesitated. I didn’t want whisky, but I could use the distraction. I hadn’t spoken to a normal, young person in a long time and despite the apprehension of the 20 km I still had to hike that day, I was keen to chat.

We ended up on the side of the road. He was on his own hiking trip, stopping off in his car to explore the West. He had already heard of me. Somehow, I was mentioned in an off-comment at the pub in Corinna, where I was headed to that day. We squatted beside the road and he took out his stove and fixed me a tea. I was delighted for the hot drink and to talk to someone who understood what I was going through. When we parted, he left me with an extra portion of fresh rain water and milk powder for the remaining journey.

When I returned to walking, I found that the distraction had lifted the pain of walking somewhat, and I hiked much better in the changing landscape, walking faster than expected until reaching one of the roadside stops above Corinna for the night.

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The final day began with the barge journey across the river at Corinna. It was a major milestone, only two days but 107 km into the journey, and I knew that at my pace, I would be able to reach the town of Zeehan that night. I checked out the pub at Corinna, which had a small store that consisted of merely a few shelves with cookies. I bought a pack, along with a coffee, an unexpected luxury.

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The rest of the day was painful. Yet I got closer and closer to finalising the 160 km. That third day was grey. I struggled, my feet like two heavy logs, thick with fire. I almost didn’t make it to the campsite, the final kilometers taking it all out of me. When I reached the site I pitched my tent on thick, lush grass. I fell into a deep sleep. In the morning, the grass was heavy with dew. My feet were more sore than they had ever been before, and they were so stiff I couldn’t stand on them.

That day I reached Queenstown. I stayed for a few nights, booking into a simple single room in a cheap hotel. I still felt the aftermath of those long days. I would walk down the old, traditional wooden staicase, and I had to descend one step at a time. The left foot joining the right for a rest, with every tread. I felt like an old lady. It took three days to walk normally down the stairs again, like the ordinary person I no longer was.

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