South Cape Bay (Southwest National Park)

Where we went: South Cape Bay (Cockle Creek). Originally the land of the lylue-quonny tribe.

When we went: Early spring, 2020

Estimated time to complete walk: 4-5 hours

Time spent on walk: 5.5 hours (long lunch break)

Grade of walk: Grade 3

Sapphire is dressed in dark colours that match the black of the cliffs and deep blue of the ocean and distant peaks of the bay. She is standing near the cliff's edge.
Sapphire near the cliffs.

South Cape Bay, in the far South of Southwest National Park, is the southernmost day walk in Tasmania. It departs from Cockle Creek, the end of the Southern Edge Drive Journey. It is a moderate, overgrown in sections, predominantly forested walk with some short-lived steep areas, and a long plateau in the middle. The track is the final section one of Tasmania’s most dangerous and remote multi-day hikes ‘The South Cape Track’. While this 5 hour stretch is generally considered safe and relatively easy it is worth noting that it is remote, which is, to us, the basis of its appeal.

the Southern Ocean and her waves are visible in the distance, framed by the brilliant colours of the native pink-berry plant.
The Southern Ocean through the native pink-berry branches.

Spring evokes in us a desperate desire to picnic, and we have always had a vested interest in quiet picnic locations. If solitude in the far reaches of the state are of interest to you then this is a great walk. If you don’t mind a lot of company and seek spectacular scenery instead then you may prefer Cape Raoul or Cape Huay; if you seek both scenery and seclusion and don’t mind some steep walking then Ship Stern Bluff and Tunnel Bay are also wonderful. We specifically wanted low impact seclusion which brought us here, to the black cliffs of South Cape Bay and the rocky beach below.

stunted shrubs dotted around just above the beach. There is some wind shelter here thanks to the cliff-face.

While it is a long drive from Hobart (3 hours) there is accommodation on the way and camping very near the start of the walk. Sommelier and I are not offended by long drives and wanted to use our extra travel time to source the best picnic that far south Tasmania has to offer. With this in mind we set our alarm for 5:45am, completely ignored it when it went off, and ended up leaving Hobart at around 8am after an unscheduled sleep in. Not to worry, dear reader, we still had enough time to urban forage as we went, luckily we had a route mapped out for the best possible bounty. Sadly, in our haste to leave the house, we forgot our DSLR and only had our little Nikon w300 on us which limited our wildlife photography options but was otherwise not a serious concern, especially given that there were frequent rain squalls predicted for the day and we wouldn’t have been able to use the DSLR much anyway.

The first honesty box/ picnic supply essential stop is found just outside Franklin on the tragically named Swamp Road – Whispering Spirit Farm. it is essentially an old European style bakery, except that it is an honesty box. It is also a bed and breakfast if you want somewhere cosy to stay. Their bread and the blueberry cheesecake are divine. In the interests of full disclosure it should be noted that we didn’t actually stop at Whispering Spirit on this particular occasion, we just do every other time we are in the area and it was deeply missed; but we agreed, as a couple, that carrying a cheesecake on a hike and then having to consume the entire thing in situ so as not to have to lug back leftovers might not be in keeping with our wedding diet. We stopped on the way home for cheesecake though, because calories don’t count immediately after hiking.

Our biggest haul of baked goods came from an honesty box (remember to bring cash, bring more than you think you will need. there are cookies to be bought!) in Geeveston – Little Black Fridge, where we got a variety of cookies and a parmesan and chilli grissini. Unfortunately we were too late for bread, but the earlier birds at this establishment can find themselves with sourdough bread for their walkies.

So many treats to choose from….

Our final forage destination, Touchwood Farm, was something of a whim that we only thought to visit after driving past and having to turn around again when we realised that we have no accompaniment for our grissini and as such were in urgent need of cheeses. The farm is small, there is a big fluffy dog (named Jon Snow) who is not friendly and there is a sign clearly requesting nobody pet him. On arrival we found ourselves very joyfully greeted by a small gaggle of baby goats. From the farm one can purchase cheese, goats milk cosmetics, and a variety of other sweet treats including a particularly delicious peanut brittle dipped in chocolate. While we were cooing over the kids we were very kindly offered the chance to hold one and, not wanting to startle the tiny babies we said a very poorly contained “OMG YES!” In summary, stop by Touchwood on your way, there is peanut brittle, cheese and a chance of goaty snuggles. It is an especially great stop if you are travelling with children.

Sapphire is wearing bright yellow and holding a baby goat with long, floppy ears.
Goaty snuggles

It was around 11:30am when we finally reached the start of the track and the end of the road. The visitor centre is currently under construction and we were forced to use temporary portapotty facilities for our ablutions, but we can both freely admit that we have used much worse facilities in life and this hardly constitutes an inconvenience.

With our picnic packed we set off along the path that was, at the time, marked mostly with traffic cones, on account of the construction. The start of the path follows along a broad dirt road (where we encountered a significant amount of mud), before turning into a short, boarded forest walk that comes out into a small clearing and a boot scrubbing station. Scrub your boots.

Sapphire crosses a puddle by balancing on a narrow beam in the centre.
Sapphire scrubs her boots off at the boot cleaning station nestled in amongst the forest greenery.
Scrub-adub-dub

We found ourselves being very closely watched by currawongs on this section of track. They are a corvid like bird that is highly intelligent and very rarely aggressive. They just seemed very curious about us and our intentions in the area. I suspect they had plans to move in on the grissini I was packing.

Currawong watching us. It followed us for a short distance to keep an eye on us.

The walker’s log is a long way down the path, but it is in a large shelter and it is hard to miss. The routes and their corresponding numbers are marked on the map on the wall, rather than in the book as they usually are. This is to ensure that you have at least glanced at a map of the area before departure. I have generally glanced at a map and a few blog posts before I depart anywhere, but I do always like to double check the parks maps as well.

The track is best described in 3 distinct biomes after the walkers log/shelter. The first biome, the gum forest, is home to a lot of bird chitter, uneven ground, mud, and a host of trees. As forested sections go there is a lot of light and space, which is very helpful given the need to see the roots, rocks, and puddles on the ground. Mud never fully covered our feet though, so with adequate footwear anyone could comfortably pass through this area. There are boards and steps added in areas of particular concern. it took us almost exactly an hour to get through this section (we were not rushing at all and kept stopping to watch the pardalotes and other small birds in the canopy).

The path weaves over low-lying rocks and through puddles, but is clearly visible and easy to follow with steps and boards added to areas of particular concern.

The wind in the second biome, the plateau, was driving, cold, and occasionally carrying small droplets of rain so we added a few extra layers and I pulled my backpack’s raincoat over it, even though I keep all its contents in a series of drysacks. This proved expedient as the rain grew gradually heavier, much to the exalted delight of the frogs who call the area home who could be heard singing merrily in the grasses. The presence of frogs can indicate the presence of things that feed on frogs, specifically snakes, so keep an eye out. We did not see any, but we do always carry bandages in case we do. Sections of the plateau are under small pools of water but are easily passed through. The greatest struggle I came across was keeping balance on the narrow beams while trying to look around me. The cacophony of frogs in the surrounding ponds and the birds still audible in the forests is intoxicating. So often the presence of humans drowns these nature sounds out and you must stay very still for a long time to hear them. The seclusion of South Cape is obviously of benefit to the exaltations of kingdom animalia in the springtime.

The long-flat. Filled with frog and birdsong alike.
Sections of the boards are underwater, but the water is shallow and easily passed through

The long-flat and the frog song is, sadly, the shortest lived biome, only taking about 40 minutes to traverse before climbing slightly through a scrubby thicket into a heavily wooded area where we caught our first glimpse of soft beach sand.

The trees in this wooded forest overhang the path and are distinctly different from the gum forest at the start of the track with grevilleas, banksias and native laurel making up the most of the floral scenery and filling the close air with honey and pepper smells.

This biome was filled with the complex calls of lyre birds. I have only very recently had the pleasure of seeing lyre birds in the wild, and I know that the far south is one of the best places to see them. We did not catch sight of any but were very happy walking through the honeyed spring air listening to their warble. It is difficult to tell how many lyre birds are singing at a time because they are so skilled at vocal projection, but I like to think that many of them will find mates this year.

This is also the most challenging part of the track. There are steep sections that are mostly made passable with stairs, there are heavily overgrown sections, there are a few fallen trees that we had to scramble over, and there are noticeably less boarded sections. The whole ordeal was over in a leisurely 50 minutes though when the forest sort of spat us out onto the black cliffs of the Bay to watch as the Southern Ocean roared below us. We had not realised how much the trees muted the sound until we suddenly weren’t under their shelter anymore.

Sapphire, dressed in dark colours with a brightly coloured waterproof cover over her backpack admires the black cliffs of South Cape Bay.
The sudden shift from forest walk to rugged cliff-face is a jarring reminder that nature is a capricious mistress.
A general warnings sign which reads "cliff edge can collapse without warning -- severe hazard area. Do not go near cliff edge"
When the sign tells you not to go near the cliff edge, rather than to “do so at your own peril” they mean it. Don’t.

There is a severe hazard warning in place for the cliffs. I understand the impulse to see the world below from the top of a cliff more than most, but even I would never disrespect a direct order from a warning sign. All images were taken with extreme camera trickery and lots of very careful use of zoom and angles. We never went closer than 2m away from the cliff’s edge and would strongly recommend that you do the same. The rocks are astonishingly soft, which is why they are so densely pitted and worn in places.

the foam of the waves make white veins through the dark blue and turquoise of the ocean. A jutting, cracked rock is in the way as the photographer was unwilling to walk to the true edge of the cliff.
The waves below from the closest I dared to go to the edge of the cliff. Was not willing to step anywhere near those cracks in the rock.

The beach is accessed via a small path to the right. It is marked with cairns and a reflective arrow. There is no railing or other infrastructure, so the cliff lovers do still get a suitable cliff walking fix here, especially when you reach the steep rock staircase that carries you down to the shore.

Sapphire walks to the barely visible beacon that marks the descent down to the beach.
Sapphire, making her way to the beach, keeping a safe distance from the cliffs.
A stairway made of rocks leads down to a rocky beach. The tide is coming in and there is very little soft sand to see.
The stairway down is narrow, slippery, and steep.
The best picnic sites are the hardest to access.

We were starving by the time we reached our far-south picnic destination. The tide was slowly coming in so we did not venture too far from the stairs lest we need to get to higher ground. A pair of sooty oystercatchers and a pair of pied oystercatchers were locked in a quiet but intense gang war. We were entirely alone on the beach in the bay of the southernmost point in Tasmania. The waves crashed themselves into a fine mist across the back of the distant Lion Rock and we watched the Southern Ocean creep slowly closer to us as we snacked on the foraged wares of the Southern Edge Drive Journey. There is stillness in the constant momentum of nature that cannot be replicated, it can only be savoured.

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