Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Wilsons Promontory Southern Circuit (VIC) - Tidal River to Sealers Cove

Day one of a the Wilsons Promontory Southern Circuit, this day takes hikers from the visitors centre at Tidal River to the first campsite at Sealers Cove. Following the road to Telegraph Saddle, the walk trail heads through areas recovering from past bushfires and landslips before passing through spectacular rainforest and boardwalked swamps. Ending in the beautiful forests of Sealers Cove Campsite, this is a great first day

Distance: 12.5 km (one way)
Gradient: Mostly moderate descents and ascents with gentle terrain through the swamp and along the beach
Quality of Path: Largely clear and well maintained, with well constructed track and boardwalk, however wading is required to cross the creek to Sealers Cove Campsite
Quality of Signage: Largely well signed, with clear signage at trail junctions and major landmarks
Experience Required: Previous Bushwalking Experience Recommended
Time: 3-4 Hours
Steps: Several steps along the track, particularly near the major gully crossing after the waterfall
Best Time to Visit: All year
Entry Fee: No, however a camping permit is required for all campsites in the park and must be booked in advance
Getting There: The circuit starts at Tidal River. Follow Wilsons Promontory Road (C444) into the park and to the visitors centre. Sign in at the centre and park car at the signed Overnight Hikers car park. The walk starts from here. 

With a two month stint of unemployment while being between jobs, Alissa and I discussed what I should do with the rest of my time after we came back from our two weeks in Tasmania. After much deliberation, I decided that I really wanted to tick another one of Australia's great multi-day hikes off my bucket list. Having run out of multi-day walks to do close to Perth and the South West after completing both the Bibbulmun and Cape to Cape Tracks in 2017, it became clear that I would have to look a little further afield. Having acquired enough Frequent Flyer points to get me to Melbourne and back virtually for free and having already purchased a book with the track notes, I decided to tackle the four day Wilsons Promontory Southern Circuit in Victoria.

In spite of the fact that Wilsons Promontory National Park (or the Prom, as Victorians tend to call it) had been on my list of places to see for over 20 years, there was also the possibility of tackling The Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail instead. Being unemployed, the cost of transfers and the $150 fee to do the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail were definite minuses, and with Alissa not being able to join me meant it would be my first time hiking solo which is not my preference. The decision to do the Southern Circuit was sealed when Zach - my housemate during my stint in South East Queensland - expressed interest in joining me for the hike. Having enjoyed our walks in Queensland and wanting to gain some experience on a multi-day walk, this was a perfect opportunity for Zach to learn a bit more about hiking from someone more experienced, and also to fill the role of comic relief often provided by Alissa on our walking adventures. As you may notice, he's holding a can of V - hardly the kind of thing you really want to be carrying on a walk, and one of the many amusing choices he made as an inexperienced hiker.

The Southern Circuit starts at Tidal River, which features the park's visitor's centre, a post office and shop, as well as a major car camping area that is extremely popular in the Summer months. While we would discover that most hikers seem to complete the circuit in a counter-clockwise direction, Zach and I headed out from Tidal River towards Sealers Cove as we were following the itinerary set out by John and Monica Chapman in Bushwalking in Australia. Since we were not walking in the busy Summer months during which a free shuttle operates, the first leg of our walk was a less than ideal 3.5 kilometres along road to Telegraph Saddle, and we had been advised we could park at Telegraph Saddle instead. Zach agreed with me that it would be better to get the road walking over and done with on this first day so we could get straight back to the car when we reached Tidal River at the end of Day Four rather than having a demoralising and boring final stretch uphill towards Telegraph Saddle.

While largely uphill, the road walking was not as boring as I had feared it might be, as it featured some excellent views down into the valleys below. While the fact most of the low mountains were covered cloud meant our views were a bit limited, the moody skies did provide a certain amount of drama and meant we were not searing hot from the Sun in this exposed stretch of the walk.

This would be hellish in Summer, and I can see why they operate a shuttle between Tidal River and Telegraph Saddle - it would be terrible to get sunburnt on the first few kilometres of the first day!

After about 40 minutes of walking, Zach and I found ourselves at the Telegraph Saddle car park. Telegraph Saddle is a popular starting location for adventures in the park, with a mountain summit walk running off to the right. This is also the last public toilet with toilet paper before the more limited bush toilet facilities on the track, and with Zach having forgotten to bring toilet paper I advised him to take some for the trip as I wasn't sure if mine would be enough for the two of us.

From Telegraph Saddle the true walking track began. The vegetation in the area is an interesting mix of forest types, with much of the forest near Telegraph Saddle have a dry appearance similar to what I would expect on Western Australia's south coast.

The large granite boulders on either side of the track added to the very Western Australian appearance, with the only obvious tell being the large Shield Ferns that are totally alien to Western Australia.

Like Western Australia, the Prom has been a victim of some very serious bushfires over the years, and while slightly charred trees are a common sight along the walk, most of the forests have recovered well after previous fires. This forest of dead tree skeletons along the early part of the walk is probably the most significant stand of fire damaged trees along the track that did not recover from the flames.

To make matters worse for the Prom, it has also been the victim of flooding and landslips. This is like combining the most unfortunate aspects of the weather in the South West of Western Australia and combining it with the worst side effect of the heavy rain experienced in Queensland and putting it together to create a nightmare of natural disasters. Parks Victoria have done a commendable job with the track, with a series of informative signs showing just how difficult the rebuilding of the track along this section was in the aftermath of a major landslip in 2011.

After rising up the switchback in the previous photo, the track left behind the burnt out valleys as we entered an area of lush rainforest.

Zach and I were amazed at the size of the Shield Ferns in the area, with many towering overhead. While less wet than Tasmania, the forests here reminded me a lot of the rainforests of the Apple Isle, particularly the lower levels of Mt Field on the Lady Barron Falls Circuit and some of the fern-heavy pockets of rainforest along the Overland Track.

Continuing on through the rainforest, the Mt Field comparisons continued as the area looked very similar to what Alissa and I had encountered on our visit to the park. Having seen rainforests in all four of the eastern states of Australia, I find it endlessly fascinating to see how these remnants of Gondwana have survived the drying of the continent. While the cloud cover had hindered views early on along the walk, the mist filling the forest gave the place a magical quality. Zach and I were really enjoying the walk so far, and there would be even better rainforest further along the track.

The rainforest predictably gave way to scrub and heath as we reached the aptly named Windy Saddle. Zach and I had run into a small group of school students along the track as we passed the dead forest near the switchback, and we ran into another group at the saddle. Having experienced noisy school groups at campsites before, I was glad to see them heading in the other direction, however I had my fingers crossed that we wouldn't be sharing the campsite with any large groups at Sealers Cove.

Descending from Windy Saddle, Zach and I entered one of the most beautiful stretches of rainforest along the entire walk as the track sidles along Mt Ramsay.

Zach and I were constantly stopped in our tracks by the beauty of the moss-covered forest in this section. This really reminded me a lot of Tasmania, and it certainly made Zach want to visit the island state when I told him that there are large sections of Tassie that look similar but even more lush than this.

The track descends steeply to cross a series of gullies, with the most significant featuring a small waterfall just off track.

I've been forever spoiled by the spectacular waterfalls of South East Queensland on the Coomera and Warrie Circuits, so this small waterfall was not quite as impressive as others I've seen in the last six months. Nevertheless, I'll never turn down a chance to see a waterfall along a walk track and I was glad that the route of the circuit passes by this waterfall in spite of its diminutive size.

After the falls, the track climbs steeply up a series of well constructed steps as it rises up a switchback. This is only a temporary increase in elevation, as the track once again begins its descent towards Sealers Cove.

From this high vantage point, the views across the forest canopy was spectacular. Being a Western Australian, I am less familiar with the Eucalypt species of Victoria, however the great height of the trees led me to believe that some of these were Mountain Ash - the tallest flowering tree in the world.

Given the tree's similarity to the Karri of Western Australia, it was interesting to see that the surrounding forest actually looked quite similar to WA's Southern Forests, with the kind of dense understorey that is usually found in areas dominated by Karri. It is obvious that the Karri forests were once a rainforest, with this forest along the Southern Circuit showing what the Karri forest was probably like many millennia ago before the drying climate eliminated some of the more water-dependent rainforest species.

Having reached the end of our descent, Zach and I reached the famous extended section of boardwalk as the track led us through a long section of swamp. I explained to Zach how boardwalks are a major feature of trails in Tasmania, and that it usually helps prevent erosion through muddy areas and makes for a more enjoyable walk experience for hikers. 

The area that the boardwalk passes through is beyond muddy, with deep puddles of water on either side of the track as it makes its way through the swamp. We had been on the boardwalk for five minutes at this stage and we were wondering how much longer it would be before we were back on actual ground.

Fifteen minutes later, we were still on the boardwalk as we passed the roots of a massive tree that had fallen near the track. The fact that the boardwalk had recently been repaired in this spot suggested that tree's roots had ripped up a section as it collapsed. It is very fortunate that it fell the other way as I can imagine the track work being much more difficult it if fell over the boardwalk and a diversion around or over it had to be made.

Five minutes later we reached the bridge over Sealers Creek. Featuring a simple but aesthetically pleasing design, the bridge provides good views of the creek.

While the views were good, we were more excited by the fact that the other side of the bridge marked the end of the boardwalk! We had been on the boardwalk for 25 minutes by that stage. In spite of extensive boardwalks on the Overland Track and Walls of Jerusalem Circuit, I can't recall ever encountering a sustained, continuous boardwalk section on a Tasmania track as long as this was! Well done Victoria - you out Tasmania'd Tasmania!

Sealers Cove was only a short distance away from the bridge, and Zach and I were pretty excited to know that we were close to the end of our first day. With a toilet just around the corner and a handful of cleared campsites nearby, we initially thought this might be the Sealers Cove Walkers Camp. Having had to pay for the campsite (and having forgotten some details about where the campsite is located according to the track notes), I was a bit disappointed; while the toilet facilities were Overland Track quality, this was not a great campsite and would be free in Western Australia. As we walked to the beach, we were relieved to see a sign indicating that the real Sealers Cove Campsite was a further 700 metres down the beach.

Sealers Cove is a beautiful beach that is protected by large granite headlands. At the time of our visit, Sealers Cove was close to high tide with the yellow, sandy beach being fairly narrow compared to some photos I've seen online. Being used to the bleach white sands of beaches in Western Australia, I'm always surprised when I see beaches with yellow sands as is fairly common in parts of Victoria. I noted smugly that West Aussies are a bit spoiled by having some of the best and most beautiful beaches anywhere in the world - see Fitzgerald Beach on the Mamang Trail or the stunning Little Beach of the Baie Des Deux Peuples Heritage Trail for a comparison.

Everything has its own beauty however, and what I did appreciate about the yellow sand is that it obviously can support much bigger trees than the white silica sands of Western Australia, and it was incredible seeing substantial trees growing right to the beach edge. I'm so used to beach dunes filled with heathland and Peppermint trees being the only trees of any substantial height close to the coast, so this was a very different experience. Not being able to see beyond the wall of trees gave the area a wild character that I really enjoyed.

Our last challenge for the day was the crossing of Sealers Creek. Being high tide, the creek was deeper than the ankle deep crossing we were hoping for. Zach had a look at the creek at its narrowest point and elicited concern that it looked quite deep. Having crossed many river mouths on coastal tracks before (including the Margaret River on the Cape to Cape Track and the Fitzgerald Inlet on the Mamang Trail), I knew that the best way to cross was to head to the wide section nearer to the ocean side. By doing so, we found that the crossing was no more than knee deep and was fairly straightforward.

On the other side of the creek, Zach and I could see that the Cove was well protected by two headlands. This was quite a different scene to the sandy image of Sealers Cove pictured in the Chapmans' guidebook for the track, and if the bay had been filled with more granite boulders it would have looked quite similar to Waychinicup Inlet in WA.

With the forest so close to the water's edge, Zach and only walked a short distance from the beach before we were within the beautiful tall forests of Sealers Cove Campsite. The facilities on offer were excellent; low, square tables to use for cooking and eating, clear and relatively flat areas to set up a tent and excellent raised toilets that were very similar to the ones on the Overland Track. While lacking the shelters of the Bibbulmun Track or the Great Ocean Walk, I felt that we were at least getting our money's worth compared to the very spartan campsite on the other side of Sealers Cove.

An interesting feature of Tidal River and Little Waterloo Bay campsites is the fact that water from the nearby creek is piped into the campsite and comes flowing out of a hose. This makes getting water fairly convenient and was quite a novel approach compared to the usual rainwater tanks common to multi-day trails in WA and on the Overland Track in Tassie.

Near the water tank, we ran into a solo hiker who we would discover had just finished up doing some research on Macquarie Island and was now doing a few multi-day hikes will between jobs. She had expressed interest in doing the Great South West Walk in western Victoria, and with the track notes for that walk also being in Bushwalks in Australia, I was able to lend her the book to have a bit of an idea of what to expect on the two week long circuit. In exchange, it was good to hear about her experience doing the Stage 1 circuit of the Grampians Peak Trail as she informed us that the current circuit is very easy and that she could easily have doubled up some of the days but couldn't because of having to book campsites in advance. This is a weakness of the campsite booking system in Victoria; if you find a trail easier or more difficult than expected, you have no choice but to stick to your predetermined itinerary due to having booked specific campsites on specific days. Having changed plans on the fly when doing the Bibbulmun Track and the Overland Track, this lack of flexibility seems to be a one size fits all approach that is in line with car camping rather than the needs of multi-day hikers.

As I am a bit of a snorer, I thought it best if Zach and I each took a tent for the walk and I lent him my trusty old Big Agnes Seedhouse while I stayed in the newer Copper Spur that Alissa and I bought for our Walls of Jerusalem trip. Alissa and I have toyed with the idea of bringing a tent each when doing an overnight hike now that we have two tents, but this was the first time both of our Big Agnes tents had been in action at the same time. Unfortunately, Zach broke a zipper on my Copper Spur as he helped set it up, which was a bit annoying considering that this was only the second trip it had been used on. Zach was extremely apologetic and gave me some space to cool off while I tried to fix the zip only to find it completely snap in half when I tried to get it to run back on the zip. Luckily the tent has two entrances and I was by myself, so I simply used the other entrance for the rest of the trip. 

Being so far south, sunset came fairly early and with little light and not much to do Zach and I went to sleep not long after. With moody clouds, sunset photos were never going to be particularly spectacular, but it was nice being so close to the beach and being able to go down for another look due to the easy access. 

Overall, this was an excellent first day of walk. While it was less of a coastal walk due to it mostly being inland, the beautifully lush rainforests and the long boardwalk through the swamp made for very interesting and enjoyable walking that I knew Alissa would have loved. The campsite at Sealers Cove is one of the most stunning I've had the pleasure at staying at, and I would recommend this first day and back as a great overnight hike for first time walkers. 

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