Walking around Tasmania (part 5) : The Port Davey Track

The Wild West of Tasmania had been the first true taste of walking through a remote and vastly deserted area, but crossing the Southwest National Park came to be the true challenge.

After arriving in Queenstown, it took eight days to arrive at Ouse, the last point of resupply until the town of Dover, which was on the other side of the Southwest National Park, and at least two and a half weeks away. In Ouse, I packed food for twelve days. After that, it took four days in bad weather to reach the national park and I took several zero (rest) days along the way to recuperate, prepare and hide from the incessant rain.

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I planned to follow the lesser trodden and unmaintained 4-5 day Port Davey Track from one of the park’s entry points at Huon River and follow the trail to Maleleuca, an airstrip mostly used to transport hikers, as the airstrip served as the start point to the continuing trail that led all the way to Cockle Creek, the more popular 6-7 day South Coast Track, which I anticipated to follow back to civilisation.

Before I began the hike through Tasmania and left Hobart, I had arranged a food drop package to be delivered by one of the planes to the Maleleuca airstrip. My food should be there when I arrived, hiding in a shelter next to the runway. I had heard that sometimes animals ramsacked the shelter, but all I could do was hope for the best, as there was no way of checking whether it had arrived and was indeed still there, waiting for me. That resupply box was to last me until Dover.

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But I felt energised and uplifted. I wanted to get on the trail. Every day I got closer, and every day the suspense grew. After all the road walking, the gravel and tarmac and everything in between, I was ready to get back to the one thing that made me love hiking in the first place: the wilderness trail. Despite the anticipation of a lonesome trail and unpredictable circumstances and unreliable weather, I felt comfortable. It was the one thing I felt I could do.

Nevertheless, the Port Davey Track was not to be taken lightly. It was muddy, very muddy, the track had not been looked after in years and there were numerous river crossings that were deemed dangerous during high tide. There were boats for several larger river crossings, and they were not easily manned by one person. There was no signal along the entirely of the trail. I was warned to bring several days’ worth of extra food, in case of haphazardous weather conditions that would strand me along the way. I teamed up with another hiker, JH, who was essentially, doing the same thing. Hiking the trails together was somewhat of a safety precaution and served that purpose mainly. Our philosophies of hiking were different and it changed the experience of walking the trail, but the level of safety added was a welcome one, as I did not carry a satellite phone or personal beacon locator in case of emergency.

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The Route

Day 1 : Huon Campsite – Junction Creek
It rained. Everything was grey and damp, and I was thrilled to finally start. The first part of the trail went through a forest, until suddenly the Southwest National Park opened up before us, exposing the scene of our hike for the coming weeks. We passed a small group of youngsters on a day trip, hiking through the mud in their rain boots, and those were the last people we would see until we arrived at Maleleuca.

The mud was far and wide and overwhelming. I had no idea it would be this difficult to get through. It was thick and slippery and ankle or knee-deep. Most sections of the trail were mud in their entirety. It was impossible to walk through, or I would slip or loose my shoes. Trying to avoid it was a painful struggle, jumping from side to side over the mud, the banks just wide enough to allow for one foot, my ankles weak on the uneven surface and struggling to keep straight. Sometimes I found a route through the thick shrubs surrounding us, a time consuming battle with unrelenting bush.

That first day, my hiking buddy waded through a river of mud and got stuck knee-deep and all I could do was laugh, much to his dismay. But it wasn’t at him. At was at the situation, at the horrible first day on the trail. At my own excitement to start this adventure and how quickly I was merely thinking of survival, when would this end? At the fact that, if he got stuck knee-deep in mud, it was bound to happen to me, too.

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Day 2 : Junction Creek – Crossing River
I had wanted to reach the Crossing River campsite on the first day, but I had no idea how much mud there would be, and how much it would slow us down. The second day we tried to keep up pace, but it was a struggle. The sun had come out, and everything looked better, but the landscape remained the same.

By the end of the morning, I had already slipped and fallen in the mud four times. The Port Davey Track was a bleak slog through mud, a wholesome dreary and hopeless experience. I worried about the time it would take to Maleleuca. I already knew I didn’t have enough food left for emergencies. I had been hungry for days and we had hardly started.

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The food I usually carried was varied and nuticious, but this time my diet had to suffer. I had wanted to bring vegetables, with sausage and cheese hiding in the bottom of my pack, with wraps and couscous and tins of tuna to make luscious little sandwiches. But the amount of food I needed for this trek was different, I needed so much more, and with everything packed tight, space and weight was at a premium. I brought couscous, carefully seperated for each dinner in ziplock bags, tins of tuna to mix with it and oatmeal with protein mix and seeds for breakfast. During the day I snacked on biscuits, until I ran out, only two days into the trail. I quickly realised the couscous and oatmeal portions were far from enough, and I was famished throughout, murmuring and dreaming of all the food I wished I could eat, and everything I would eat once I got back to civilisation.

That day I hoped to reach Watershed but we got stuck in the early afternoon at Crossing River. I was exhausted and happy to believe that the river seemed too high to cross when JH figured it was at least waist deep. I had never crossed a river like that before and I didn’t want to risk it. We set up camp and stayed the night even though he was wrong. The next day, the water was merely centimeters lower, and it was barely knee-deep.

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Day 3 : Crossing River – Spring River
Day three was long and cumbersome. We walked two days in one, and I thought of the food I had left in my pack and how relieved, at last, I was at our progress. The day itself was wearisome. Grey with wind and rain. Everything attached to me was wet and cold and muddy. The waterproof socks I was wearing were seeping through. I was cold. The landscape stretched out before us and it was vast and endless and ruthless. It was beautiful and frightfully exposed.

My ankles hurt from jumping back and forth to avoid the mud, being twisted and turned all day long on slanted and unstable surfaces. When we finally reached the campsite, I felt a jolt of happiness when I found out that the river, deep and wide, was newly adorned with a bright, white bridge. No river crossing required, this one time.

That night, in the drizzling rain, I wore my clean camp clothes to the river to wash my hiking socks and boots, covered in mud and wet. The river was low, the banks exposing a black, sticky mud that I got stuck in with every step, rendering my mission to clean my feet and shoes almost useless. But then I slipped, and I almost fell sideways into the slimy mud with my last clean, dry clothes. In that instant, I had enough. Everything was wet and muddy and cold. I was hungry in a way I had never been before and it was all too much. I broke down and cried.

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Day 4 : Spring River – Bathurst Narrows
A varied day through steep inclines in forested mountains and an elevation that slowly crept up to Bathurst Narrows water. With my waterproof socks failing me, I wrapped garbage bags around my feet in an attempt to keep them dry and warm. I kept falling in the mud, and fighting with the solid bushes around it to try and find a dry spot to walk on. A neverending struggle, painful and slow. A mental crush in so many different ways.

We arrived at the boat crossing and set up camp in anticipation of crossing the water the following morning. The boat was big and heavy. There was only one, which meant that there were at least two boats on the other side, and we would have to make the boat crossing three times: first to pick up a boat from the other side, then to return to leave one behind, before making the final crossing to get ourselves across. The water was enormous. I couldn’t even see where we were supposed to paddle to on the other side.

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Day 5 : Bathurst Narrows – Maleleuca
We broke up camp during the cold morning and I began to get the boat ready for the first crossing. The water was still enough, luckily, but the boat crossings would take hours, and it filled me with solemn dread. When I loaded the boat, suddenly a noise appeared from the water and a motorboat emerged with a group of tourists. It was a marvellous and strange sight. After days of hiking in the wilderness and not seeing a soul, watching bright-eyed tourists in a boat was the strangest thing. The guys manning the boat pulled up and offered to take us across the river. I could hardly believe our luck. We were saved.

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The day turned sunny, and more relaxed, because the end was in sight. When we actually saw the white Maleleuca airstrip from a distance, we sat down and celebrated with a long break. I was overjoyed I had made it. Five days of unforgiving slog through the wild. But what I didn’t know then, was that the Port Davey Track ended up being one of the most memorable experiences in Tasmania. Even though the trek itself was brutal, both physically and mentally. At that point, it was the hardest thing I had gone through. But I made it.

The closer we got to Maleleuca, the better the trail got. The mud was covered by planks of wood, making for easier walking, a relief after so many days of trudging right through it.

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When we got to Maleleuca it was still early. I checked the shelter beside the airstrip and my food drop was there, happily waiting for me, untouched. The hiker huts were marvellous. Spacious with benches and matresses. Rain water tanks sat outside and I washed everything underneath the cold tap for the first time, including myself. I hadn’t felt so happy and relaxed in a long time.

Maleleuca was sunny and bright. It was strangely busy, with tourists flying in and walking around in small groups, and several volunteers were stationed in a seperate hut to assist the hikers coming through. When I told the girl how hungry I was, she offered us more food. Incidentally, the volunteers’ time at Maleleuca was up and they were flying out the next day, to be replaced by someone new. They were happy to share their leftover food with us, since they had no use for it any longer. That day I feasted and ate and washed and loved the trail again, despite all the hardships, almost wanting to spend an eternity there. But I couldn’t. The next day, we would start the South Coast Track.

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Hikers huts at Maleleuca
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The Maleleuca airstrip