The Bay of Fires loomed large in my imagination for years. I obsessed over images of its orange lichen-covered boulders, white-sand beaches and aquamarine water. I clicked through travel website slide shows as I booked, cancelled, rebooked and recancelled a planned trip with nine friends. The members of the group changed, but the hike still didn’t happen. It was as if that pristine coastline and forest existed in an exquisite alternate reality I couldn’t quite reach.
So when it finally seemed as if the trip would happen, my concern switched from FOMO to FODO – from fear of missing out, to fear of disappointment due to overhype.
Our group of 10 comprises eight women and two men in our 40s and 50s, with varying degrees of fitness, plus three guides. Even the least fit among us exercises semi-regularly, and one of our more athletic members runs marathons. But we’re assured that the pace and challenges of this medium-grade undertaking are suitable for everyone’s level.
The Bay of Fires walking region covers some 70 kilometres along Tasmania’s more sheltered east coast, stretching from the north of Mount William National Park to Binalong Bay in the south.
From the town of Hadspen, our bus drives via Bridport to Stumpys Bay. That’s the starting point of an initial 10-kilometre southward trek along Cod Bay to Boulder Point, where we hop across rocks, then walk along more beach.
The landscape is stunning but any attempt to photograph it or ourselves enjoying the flat, white sand, the crystalline water and smooth, sculptural rock formations is met with a blasting wind. Those in shorts are having their legs exfoliated free of charge, others are in hooded raincoats to protect against the whipping sand.
This section of coastline is punctuated by rocky points and water crossings, and while we don’t see any other people, we do encounter pied and sooty oystercatchers, as well as small hooded plovers, which are listed as vulnerable in Tasmania. These birds make their nests above the high-tide mark of ocean beaches, so we avoid this area, keeping close to the waterline. November is the start of the hooded plovers’ peak nesting season, and they resemble wind-up toys running busily through the dunes.
The beach track crosses several tea-tree channels running into the sea in dark, whisky-brown plumes that contrast with the piercing, crystal blue of the water.
Our first day ends at Forester Beach Camp, with semi-permanent tents almost hidden in the coastal shrubs behind the dunes. The Tasmanian Walking Company has special permission to operate this camp in the national park and it’s here we can take a short, chilly dip to clear the sand from our ears, eyes and hair. Those who venture out of their tents later in the night witness an astonishing array of stars in the velvet night sky.
The morning of the second day, we have blue skies and – mercifully – no wind. Our guides say there has been only a handful of sunny, clear days in the past few months, so our group is extremely grateful to have one of them for this, our longest leg of 17 kilometres.
Before we’ve gone far along the beach, we face a large, dark channel cutting across it – appropriately named Deep Creek. We need to strip down to our swimmers or undies to cross, carrying our packs above our heads. For the taller members of the group, the water comes up to the ribs, but it is far more confronting for those who are shorter. Everyone manages, and on the riverbank on the other side we regroup, enjoy a patch of glorious sun to dry off and have morning tea. Here we’re greeted with a chorus from pobblebonk (eastern banjo) frogs – one of the numerous endemic frog species of Tasmania.
We didn’t realise how fortunate we were in our creek crossing. We later find out that the group the following day had to swim across as it was too deep to walk; they borrowed kayaks from paddlers – who just happened to be passing – to transport their packs.
After our crossing and for most of day two we head along this eastern coastline, now properly inside the Bay of Fires Conservation Area.
Larapuna, or the Bay of Fires, was given its European name when the English explorer Tobias Furneaux sailed past in 1773 and saw fires burning along the coast, where the First Nations people of Tasmania’s north-east, the palawa, were living. These fires may have been for warmth or cooking but were also used for communication.
Furneaux also named Eddystone Rock, which reminded him of a lighthouse in England. The lighthouse that was later built became Eddystone Point Lighthouse, and this is where we have our lunch on the second day, at the easternmost point of Tasmania.
During the walk, we pass middens or “living areas” where the palawa once thrived.
It is not difficult to imagine them settling along the coast for food, and retreating inland for shade, shelter and fresh water as the seasons changed. But with this vision comes a reminder of its ugly end – the violent dispossession and destruction of the palawa by British colonisers. This shameful history confronts every visitor to Tasmania.
When we arrive at the main lodge, we overlap with a group of 10 that arrived the day before. There’s a deck overlooking the coast about 40 metres above the sea and, at a long distance to our left, we spot the lighthouse where we had lunch, a marker of the kilometres we’ve traversed today. This lodge is the only building on 20 kilometres of coastal wilderness, and was built causing minimum impact, with all materials either helicoptered in or carried by hand.
The euphoria of two full days of hiking and of finally experiencing a trip that was so long anticipated plays out, with some of us crashing out and others finding a second wind.
The solar-powered lodge has comfortable twin-share rooms that can be set up for couples, as well as shared bathroom and shower facilities – where one of our group came face to face with a wallaby during the night. There are large, open decks, either sheltered by bush or with views of the coast. The communal table in the main lodge can seat 20 hikers, plus guides and the permanent lodge staff. In short, there are enough spaces for the rowdy as well as the introverts among us.
From the main lodge, we are lucky enough to see Bennett’s wallabies, also known as red-necked wallabies, in small family groups grazing among the scrub. We can also spot pademelons – a species extinct on the mainland – at dusk when they come out to feed at the forest fringes.
Day three involves a short, hour-long walk along a bush track to Ansons River, where we climb into kayaks. Cruising under the boughs of a tree, we gaze up at an eagles’ nest. It’s about the size of a double bed and is shared by wedge-tailed and sea eagles – they have different breeding times through the year, so operate a kind of time-share nest.
While the hike has been wonderfully peaceful and off the grid, the kayak trip takes us to a new level of quiet. It’s an opportunity to experience what one of our group, who works in horticultural therapy for people living with disabilities, has told us about attention restoration theory. ART posits that our brains are required to do much less processing when we’re in nature, since we innately recognise a tree or a rock or a body of water, and so are not madly crunching data to identify what we see, as we do when we’re in front of a screen translating words and pictures into meaning. The theory does help explain why, after a couple of days in a natural environment, we feel less exhausted than we do in our “normal” lives, despite our exertions.
We leave our kayaks behind and head to Shark Bay, walking through more tea-tree until we reach massive white dunes and pass more of that diamond-clear water on the way back to our lodge. I divert to the beach for a swim, and my switched-off, attention-restored brain suffers a jolt at the sight of a tiger snake. The snakes are “up and about” in a break from the heavy rain and cooler-than-usual weather to warm themselves and to forage.
After a blast of adrenalin, I regain a measure of homeostasis and swim, but am relieved when one of the guides turns up for a dip also, and we can return to the lodge together. We see two more tiger snakes on our way up the path – or perhaps the same one as before, and its best friend.
It’s hard to leave this place, back to the road and waiting vehicles on day four, but it’s somehow reassuring to know another group is coming through after us, and another, and another … and that the wind and boulders, the pademelons, plovers and snakes will remain, regardless of our trespassing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "Bay of miracles".
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