Shipstern Bluff

Where we went: Ship Stern Bluff and Tunnel Bay (Tasman Peninsula)

When we went: Summer, 2019

Notes on summer hiking safety: Tasmania hosts 2 species of highly venomous snake (and 1 mildly venomous one) that are a reasonably common sight in summer. I have found the Tasman Peninsula to be particularly snake-infested and would not advise hiking in the area without at least 3 bandages to administer first aid in the event of snakebite. The reassuring news is that the anti-venom for all Tasmanian snakes is the same, so identification of the snake is not essential. Tasmania, like the rest of Australia, is also very prone to bushfires. Check walking track closures closely on the day of your planned hike and carefully log all your intended walks for your own safety.

A few weeks after we went on the Cape Raoul walk, when certain members of the group were too sick to extend the trip to include a few of the other walking tracks along the way (it was me, I was the sick one, Sommelier just pretended to be tired so that we took extra breaks), I was very keen to see Ship Stern Bluff up close and personal. After resting I was ready to get back on the walking track.

The Tasman Peninsula is one of my favourite hiking spots. It is an easy drive from Hobart City and, if you pick the right track, it is exactly the rugged, untouched wilderness scenery that you’ve probably heard about and found a little perplexing if all you know about Tasmania is the very friendly streets of Hobart (and possibly the food and beverage scene). Never fear, much like Hugh Jackman, Tasmania can turn on its rugged charm easily enough, so don’t let the soft, friendly side fool you.

Shipstern Bluff from the Lookout

Ship Stern Bluff is visible from the first Cape Raoul lookout, it can also (given the right weather) be heard from the Raoul track. Adventure sport enthusiasts may have heard of it because Red Bull hosts an extreme surfing competition, Cape Fear, in the very big waves at the Bluff. If surfing isn’t really your thing but emerging from a rainforest out into the beach to see roaring waves and feel the salty sea air against your face is, then you’d love this walk. It is a relatively light affair, moderately steeper than Cape Raoul but only about 3 hours in total. We were very lucky with the weather (depending on your definition of luck) and managed to time our arrival on a day where thunderstorms were predicted. We packed all of our wet weather gear, brought an extra large sandwich bag to ensure the good camera stayed completely water proof, and prayed to the rain-cloud fairies for some dramatic, black rain-clouds over the crashing waves of one of the world’s most dangerous surfing spots. We also put all of our belongings in plastic bags inside our backpacks to keep everything dry and then set out in the hot, humid summer air.

The walk starts from the same location as the Cape Raoul track, parks passes are essential, and so is washing your boots. There is a boot cleaning station at the entry to the track and it is impossible to move on without passing through the scrubbing brushes. Do all of Tasmania a favour and just clean your boots. Adhering to quarantine laws hurts no one (except maybe smugglers and miscreants of the microbiological warfare variety). The track starts in dense gum forest where we saw a friendly little echidna scratching about for ants just off the path, and a few little birds flitted above us. It was incredibly humid under the trees, which is, I suppose, why they call it a rainforest. It is not long before the track forks and you can choose to head left to Cape Raoul or right to Ship Stern bluff. Most people go left, which was a major deciding factor in our going right (to say nothing of the fact that we had already, very recently, gone left). There are mostly native pinkberries and gum trees to see at this point in the walk, but, where as the Cape Raoul walk moves mostly along a costal cliff, this track heads gradually downwards and is significantly more sheltered from the battering wind that Tasmania is very good at producing. As a result the landscape is mostly made up of large gum trees until you reach the more exposed areas, where plants still reach up to at least shoulder height.  

I prefer to walk in front of Sommelier when we hike, this is partly due to the fact that otherwise I spend all my time looking at his butt, and nowhere near enough time looking at the wilderness (the man does have a lovely butt), but mostly it is because my father spent many hours in my childhood teaching me bushlore and how to track animals and so I am better suited to spotting snakes in the wild than Sommelier (whose dad spent many hours teaching him how to taste wines). The secret to snake spotting is that, while they have excellent camouflage, the light glints off their scales. In short, if you see a stick reflecting light there is a good chance that it is not actually a stick at all. We were just under halfway through our walk, debating the safety of eating pinkberries when I am only “pretty sure” they’re edible (Sommelier insists that “pretty sure” is “very definitely” not good enough. I reminded him of the time he ate Bilberries in Scotland and he reminded me that he only did that 30mins after I had, and I reminded him of the time he ate raspberries with me in Scotland, and he pointed out that all the examples I was giving were from Scotland, and I assured him that I have since read several books on edible plants in Tasmania and, while I do not condone eating random plants that you aren’t familiar with the pinkberry is a member of the juniper family and they are in fact, almost definitely, edible). Our debate was cut short when a particularly stripy stick on the path ahead of us caught the sunlight and I brought us to a screeching halt.

A Tiger Snake on the Shipstern Bluff trail

The stick, which turned out to be a tiger snake, was sunning herself on the path and had clearly gone unnoticed by the couple walking a few minutes ahead of us which had disgruntled her terribly as she had her hood out (tiger snakes are a member of the cobra family) but was otherwise not behaving aggressively. We waited just off the path, a few metres from the snake, waiting for either the snake to move or the people behind us to catch up so that we could tell them that there was a snake. The couple behind caught up first. They were not locals and the man was a self-proclaimed ophidiophobe who knew nothing about Tasmanian snakes beyond the fact that they are all highly venomous (you don’t really need to know much else about them TBH). He also was not even remotely reassured by the fact that he struggled to see the snake even when I was pointing it out to him. His partner was in no way likeminded and literally walked right up to one of the world’s most venomous snakes to take a selfie. This is not a safe or sensible way to behave when one encounters a Tasmanian snake, and I do not condone it; however this particular specimen was timid enough to slither away without a fuss after her moment in the spotlight (I assume it was female based on it being shorter than the males that I have seen while still being definitely fully grown).

We carried on to the Ship Stern Bluff lookout where we were accosted by an echidna, which is, arguably, the least threatening of Australia’s native animals – despite the fact that it is literally covered in spikes. Once we were no longer standing between the echidna and the ant’s nest that it was aiming for we were able to comfortably watch it forage without offending it. The ophidiophobe caught up to us shortly thereafter and was momentarily afraid that we had encountered a second snake; his relief that it was an echidna was palpable.   

An Echidna on the Shipstern Bluff trail

 The sound of the sea below us had been audible but muffled by the rainforest. Once we were out in the open the sound carried and reverberated off the cliffs with gusto, even though it was a still, calm summer’s day and the predicted thunderstorms were nowhere to be seen. It was a very hot, muggy walk from the lookout down to the bluff. The path turned to white sand as we went, making us both very grateful that we had thick socks on (beach sand and hiking boots can be a terrible combination if the proper sock livery is not met).

When we looked behind us we were met with a view of the mountain we had barely noticed ourselves descending and all around us were manuka trees, their flowers buzzing with bees. Manuka has a savory scent that lends itself perfectly to the salty sea breeze and the smoky bushfired air.  Every smell was amplified by the humidity of the brewing storm We were blanketed in a pure, rich, seaside aroma, unadulterated by the human influences of suntan oil, fish and chips, and seagulls.

Manuka groves near the Bluff

Nestled within the manuka grove is a fork in the road, the left leads to Ship Stern Bluff, the right to Tunnel Bay. We hoped to see both that day but were weary of the rain (and a certain member of the group’s tendency to be suddenly and violently ill). Butterflies were flitting all about and we could hear birds chirping in the trees, so we were in very good spirits. There was an overwhelming sense of serenity within the manuka grove, compounded by the realisation that we could hear no other hikers. The Ship Stern walk truly is the path less travelled.

The manuka grove gives way, suddenly, to an ankle height fern gully with towering, jagged cliffs on one side and a wide view of the thunderous waves below on the other. It was not long before we reached our destination, marked with a few benches a safe distance from the recently collapsed sandstone cliff. There was a sign advising of the recent cliff collapse and the risk of falling stones which very politely asked that no one attempt to climb the cliff. The path stops abruptly a safe distance from the rocks. Being very careful to avoid areas of sand where plants may be growing we did some rock scrambling for a better view of the waves (note: I do not at all condone this behaviour if you have not logged your walk, you are not wearing very good boots, and you are foolish enough to approach the wet rocks). We spent a very tranquil 30 minutes watching the sea churn itself into a frenzy before crashing furiously against utterly impassive rocks, sea kelp, caught in the cross-fire, forming dark webs within the waves. After a very long time of watching the waves and the rocks interact I established the perfect rock for us to take our ring-photo from, again though, don’t try this at home.

With the promised rain finally rolling in (very lightly), we quickly scarpered off the rocks, lest they get too slippery for us to escape, and, feeling refreshed after an extended period of wave watching (somehow a very soothing activity), we agreed that Tunnel Bay, only an hour of extra walking, was definitely well within our energy levels.

If Ship Stern Bluff is a road less travelled then Tunnel Bay is the road least travelled of all. The path was in the process of maintenance (I hope), and clearly so rarely travelled that lizards scurried frantically away from their previously peaceful sunning spots at an alarming rate. There was more than one lizard-mistaken-for-a-baby-snake incident, but mostly we walked through profusely apologising for the intrusion on their otherwise unadulterated day. The path, mostly through manuka, coastal heath, and sea-oaks emerged out to a very peaceful bay. There was a small collection of whale bones (from a very long time ago), and I suspect that seals might occasionally rest at the bay as well. While the sound of the Bluff could be heard in the distance the bay itself was still, the waves crashing on a distant reef instead, with only a few making the journey all the way into the high-cliffed enclave to crash within the titular tunnel. My favourite thing about the tunnel at Tunnel Bay (besides the fact that it looks a little like a very buxom woman) is that, given the right footwear, one can walk a good distance into the tunnel. Once we had ventured as far as we were willing to we sat and listened to the waves wash through, the sound distorted by the tunnel.

We ate lunch at the beach of Tunnel Bay, the promised storm very slowly rolling in. The cliffs on either side added to the sense of isolation, the rocks were perfectly sun warmed and the water moving through the tunnel induced nostalgic memories of holding sea shells to your ear as a child. We were completely alone on the beach and saw nobody else on the walk back. If you long for some quiet contemplation time with the sea , and you don’t mind a bit of a walk, then the detour to Tunnel Bay is the perfect way to unwind in Tasmania’s rugged wilderness.

Cape Raoul offers sweeping views of the coast from the cliffs. Ship Stern Bluff, on the other hand,  allows for a more intimate sea side encounter. Raoul is incredibly popular among tourists and locals alike and solitude is hard to come by but the shorter, slightly steeper Bluff and Bay walk provided us with huge swaths of silent recharge time and a higher than average number of diurnal wildlife encounters. We walked back in the warm summer rain, the petrichor swaddling us and briefly washing away the anxiety that accompanies bushfire season, and the rising smell of woodsmoke.

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