Precipitous Bluff

I had decided Precipitous Bluff (PB to its bushwalking friends) was beyond my capabilities. I had already been blown off the Southern Ranges by gales and blizzards seemingly countless times before. I had tried a solo venture last year, only to break my wrist and have to retreat after the first day. Then, my Bush Buddy friend Andrew and I had tried together just a few weeks ago, and were turned back on summit day by rain. Meanwhile, we had found the endless kilometres of thigh-deep mud, of resisting, prickly scoparia and the time-wasting, demoralising false leads to all be less than enjoyable to the extent that we declared in agreement we never wanted to return. I thought that meant I would never get PB, and would never get all the Abels. Oh well, such is life. There is a lot more to life than completing lists. When your soul mate dies, it helps you see things in broader perspective, and to realise the importance of staying alive and being with the people you love. Lists are just a game.

South Cape Rivulet far below. The journey has begun

Leisel Jones said about her swimming gold medals: “If you are not enough without a gold medal, you will never be enough with one.” I like those words, and I feel that way about Abels. If I am not enough of a person or a bushwalker without a complete set, I will not be a better one of either (person or bushwoman) with one. I have amassed many athletic prizes and achievements. If they don’t give me respect as a sportswoman, a complete set of Abels never will.

Typical forest through which we walked. Can you spot the Aurantiporus pulcherrimus?

But meanwhile, my friend Andrew is more persistent than I am, for which I am grateful. He phoned just before Christmas, telling me there was a weather window of opportunity to climb PB from below if I began my way south on Boxing day. We met up early on 27th for an assault on our old nemesis.  I was unexpectedly free, having only very recently cancelled arrangements to go to NSW to celebrate the season with my Fairfax relatives, which I had reluctantly done  because of the alarming rate at which Covid was spreading up there. The freedoms of less educated and more selfish members of that state brought about my captivity.  However, the end result in this case is positive. I missed out on having family with me at Christmas, but gained a fabulous experience of a different kind.

Fomes hemitephrus specimens were in abundance in the lush forest.

But, returning to my theme that I considered PB to be beyond me: between the start line and the goal lay a lagoon: New River Lagoon, with waters deep and cold. I am short and skinny (ie, no protective adipose layer to warm me up, and the waters would come up much higher on my body than is the case for someone taller). I don’t like gelid water. I really could not envisage myself getting up this lagoon to climb the peak, let alone getting back.
Let the tale begin.
Day 1. (Hobart to) Cockle Creek to Granite Beach. 7 hrs 31 mins’ walking.
The first split, Cockle Creek to the ocean at Lion Rock went well. We were fresh, and although our packs were heavy, and although I tried to curb my excitement and slow down so as to pace myself for the long haul, we arrived at the coast in the tidy time of 1 hr 30. (On the rebound, trying to be fast and with lighter packs, it took 2 hours!)

Granite Beach waterfall. Boy was I glad to see that!

We tried to save time by going the low way around Lion Rock, but the rocks were very slippery and there were no readily available foot or hand holds, so we decided to go the long way over the headland for safety. Grr. I had done the short route with babies in yesteryear, running with a baby etc in my pack to avoid being smashed by waves. How did I do that?? Maybe storms or climate change have altered conditions since then.
It was still morning, but we had lunch at South Cape Rivulet anyway, just to give ourselves a break before the big grind up Flat Rock Hill. We had the campsite to ourselves. The water was a bit brackish, so I was glad we were moving on. Anyway, it was far too early to stop. On our return, this campsite would be so full it seemed like a tent ghetto: people and rubbish everywhere.
The South Cape Rivulet to Granite Beach section, in both directions, seemed like a big mud slog. I looked at the map, not at the time realising the quantity of mud, and still thought it would take many hours just to execute the climb, let alone the descent. I was pretty right. The mud was deep and diabolical (there had been quite a lot of rain in the recent past), and it seemed to go on for a long time. The highlight was seeing a ginger-coloured spotted quoll with shining pelt, right up close on one of our rests.

Blandfordia punicea – only one fresh one left on the route. Lots of old ones.

At long last, after a very steep descent that made me ponder what it would be like later in the reverse direction, we reached Granite Beach. Here we were met by the wonderful Rima, who offered to get water while I pitched my tent. That night we sat around a circle that also included Tabitha, Cat and Alex, and Emma and Chris. We talked books, the environment and more, and Cat who, with Alex, had climbed PB as part of this trip, gave me some really useful tips about negotiating the lagoon.  She had harboured the same kinds of fears that I still held, but she had overcome them and succeeded. That gave me courage to at least give it my best effort. Thanks Cat if you are reading this.
I gps’d most of this route, but had to estimate a section that looked about 8 km equivs long with altitude. It seems the day was about 27 kms long, which is about right for the time taken.
Day 2. Granite Beach to Surprise Bay to Prion Beach to near the end of the New River Lagoon.  7 hours 30 mins’ walking and wading.
I actually felt really sad to leave our new-found friends behind, but our directions of travel were opposite, so on we pressed, firstly to the beautiful Surprise Bay. This only took an hour and a half, so that was good.

New River Lagoon campsite Day 2 at the end of the day

We had a lot to achieve this day, so didn’t linger, and pressed on. In this section, you climb a nameless knob that is quite taxing despite its lack of a name, go through a hot open marshy section, collect more nameless knobs and eventually walk along looking down on the outlet of New River Lagoon and out across the pure white sands of Prion Beach to the Ironbounds and islands to the west for what seems an eternity, before at last arriving at your goal (or temporary goal), hot and thirsty. Oh no. There is no fresh water – just tepid brackish lagoon water. Yuk! We had planned on a nice rest here, but I hated it. Not only was there no tempting water, but the place was full of plastic and foam rubbish washed ashore from ships. I found it totally repugnant and couldn’t get away fast enough. Luckily Andrew agreed. Well, if there was one impetus needed to get me into that lagoon, this was it. The other was that the tide was well past low by now, and the longer we delayed, the deeper the water would become. Like a deep sea diver, I kind of held my breath and plunged.  Wade, wade. Hey. The water didn’t feel too bad at all. South Cape Rivulet had been so cold I had barely made it across, but this was much warmer. I could do this.

New River Lagoon from our tentspot 2.6K short of PB campsite

As Cat had warned, there were heaps of obstacles under foot, hidden by the depths and darkness. It wasn’t just a matter of wading. Four minutes after setting out, I tripped on something, and sat in the water up past my waist. I thought I had thereby wet everything precious to me (electronics and sleeping stuff, as well as the clothes I was wearing). Luckily, adrenalin had me standing up in a flash, and, in the end, nothing got irretrievably wet. Fortune was on my side: my coat and gear dried out as I walked, and I didn’t fall in again, despite being gusted and buffeted about by the wind that was building up and creating waves on the water that plashed against me.

Andrew with his tent at our New River lagoon campsite

What nobody had warned me about – maybe they didn’t experience it – was the absolute exhaustion involved in shifting boots that now weighed an absolute ton through kilometre after kilometre of thigh-deep water. My hip flexors and glutes began to absolutely ache with the exercise for which I was insufficiently trained, despite doing leg presses and other weights to the maximum of my ability in the gym. I thought my daily running up steep slopes would have prepared those muscles for almost anything, but it seems I was wrong. My gps told me later that the total distance was 7.55 kms of lagoon. Unfortunately, I was totally exhausted with about 2.6 kms to go. I could have pressed on until I dropped – I am that type – but reason suggested that even if I did that, I would absolutely not be in any shape to climb PB the next day, and if we were not doing that, we might as well stop for the night at this lovely little beach where we were having a rest with water nearby from an unmapped small creek. Luckily Andrew agreed, so we pitched our tents just a bit short of our goal, but far enough away that it dictated we would not be summiting the next day. PB would require a whole day of devotion.
About 21 km equivalents
Day 3. Almost a rest day: wading along New River Lagoon. 2.2 kms as the crow flies; 2.6 kms in reality, as measured by my gps. 1 hr 15 mins’ wading.

Precipitous Bluff PB seen from our approach at lagoon level

Whilst chatting about the previous day, it became clear that I had wasted an awful lot of time and energy trying to stabilise myself and prevent another fall due to general buffeting, lack of visibility of the bottom and the slimy, algae-coated stones somewhere down there in the murky depths. Andrew suggested he help stabilise me by holding an arm to see if that helped. The final part of the lagoon flew by, as now I just had to push water with sodden, lead-weighted boots, but didn’t have to bother about the rest. “Buddying” was definitely the go.
What luxury. A whole day in this magnificent rainforest. How utterly beautiful!!!!
We carefully chose our real estate for the night. Louise photographed. Andrew used washed-up timber and ship-dumped rope to construct an arm-chair that a later arrival, Matt, suggested could be a raft to get us all back up the lagoon. We visited and explored the cave, and rearranged seemingly random tapes to form a coherent route that would save time in the morning and evening on the morrow, thereby cutting 40 minutes for that section each way down to 10 the next day!

PB Basecamp. My trusty tent

We missed the fun company of the first night, thinking by the time we had finished dinner that we were to have another night with just two of us. Then Rod and Matt appeared out of the water. Like Andrew and me, they had tried to summit PB from the other direction, been blown off the range, and were now trying from below. Soon thereafter, appeared an exhausted Raika and Andrew from New Zealand, who had come over PB from the Southern Ranges. I take my hat off to anyone who has managed to overcome all the obstacles of that route. We all joked about Bog Saddle, the scoparia and more. Now we were six, and we had a fun and sociable evening together.
Day 4. Precipitous Bluff: the beast itself. 7.22 horizontal kms + 11.67 vertical yields 18.9 km equivalents, each way. 38 km equivalents for the day.
4 hrs 08 up; 3 hrs 12 mins descent.

Cliffs of PB. Getting higher now (Day 4)

Just to be certain the four of us summitting that day got up nice and early to ensure the job got done. Andrew and I packed head torches just in case. I think the other two did too. We were absolutely determined to get it this time. Rod said the winds would pick up after lunch. I feared we would not be there by then and begged to be anchored down should I be in danger of being blasted off the top. I imagined myself snaking or crawling the whole way from emerging at the top to the summit, as I have had to do sometimes in the UK – in Scotland and the Lakes.

Precipitous Bluff – nearly at the top

Ready to roll, off we set, so happy with the mere 10 minutes to the start of the whopping climb up the steep slope that we knew would take a long time. One hour from the tents, we had a break, and I was very disappointed at the amount we had climbed (a mere 250 ms). However, that split also involved quite a bit of horizontal distance as well.  Once the slope became more vertical, our metre climbed per hour rate rapidly improved. In 2 hrs 23 mins steep climbing up the slope that I assume is made of limestone-based rock, we had reached the cliffs.

Summit view to Federation Peak

The undulating traverse along the base seemed interminable (43 mins, actually). Then came the longed-for actual climb up the chute between the dolerite columns from the base up over the top and down a bit to the sheltered saddle which forms High Camp. This took a mere 36 minutes. I climbed like an excited pussy cat, singing with joy as I went. I was so, so very happy to be there. Even whilst climbing, if you looked back over your shoulder, you got absolutely fantastic views both of mountains to the north, and beaches to the south. Oh boy what a feeling!!

Excited Louise on Precipitous Bluff

I just could not contain my excitement in the final 16 minutes to the actual summit. I wanted to touch together, but just couldn’t hold myself back from scampering. I did make sure not to touch without Andrew.
We saw someone coming, and thought it was Rod. However, it was a lovely guy called Mark, who had come from Wylly Plateau. While Andrew chatted to his wife on the phone in a sheltered spot, Mark and I braved the now mounting winds, staring at all our visible mountain friends and at both our routes below, comparing notes. He, like me, had had his watch ripped off his wrist by the scoparia, and like us and everyone else we spoke to, had got disoriented in Bog Saddle. This is my name for a nameless dump of mud, but when I use it, absolutely nobody asks me what I am referring to, and all know exactly which spot I mean. The name needs the stamp of officialdom.

Precipitous Bluff view descending

Andrew kindly sent my daughters a text to say I was safe while he still had the phone in service, and we then went down to the calmer high camp for lunch. Even there, my food was mildly swept away as I assembled it, and Andrew’s anorak briefly took flight.
As a result of the fact that the winds would only get worse, and we knew exactly how ferocious they could be up there, we made a hasty retreat, having enjoyed the spectator sport of watching the other two finishing off the climb while we ate, colourful ants moving across a green landscape.
The trip down was uneventful, and was speedier than the way up. The really steep part was exactly the same split as the trip up; the traverse was actually a bit slower; but the less severely steep lower slopes were a lot faster on the rebound. High fives were shared. How utterly amazing. I had done PB. What a happy day!!!
Day 5. PB base (New River Lagoon) to Prion Beach to Surprise Bay. 22.2 km equivalents. 7 hrs 02 mins’ walking and wading

Hen Island and Rocky Boat Inlet once back on the coast after Prion Beach

Sigh. Here we go again with the lagoon effort. My boots had almost dried out but I was about to turn them to lead again. Andrew kindly steadied me the whole way, so my muscles didn’t ache until right at the end (and not nearly as badly as on the way out), and we were heaps faster, but not as fast as Rod and Matt who disappeared out of sight after they had been able to go deep around the last creek, but I, being shorter, had required us to go inland and had then had trouble crossing one of the three grouped creeks. I thought we would never see them again. Sad.

Andrew leaves Snack Ck en route to Surprise Bay

Prion was just as horrifically rubbishy and unproviding in acceptable water as on the way in, so we gave it short shift and immediately set out (after wringing out socks and emptying boots of a few litres of water [me; Andrew wore crocs, but I can’t]) for the next camp site. This was theoretically Osmiridion Beach, but neither of us felt the slightest bit inclined to spend the afternoon swatting mosquitoes there, and we were both still full of walking, so pressed happily on to Surprise Bay, which I greatly fancied spending more time at. It had definitely been my favourite beach on the way in.

Descent to Surprise Bay

That was a good decision. After a delicious dinner, with Apricot Crumble for dessert kindly supplied as a treat by Andrew, he chatted to the next new acquaintance who had more than probably thought he would get the place to himself, Darren, while I went on to the beach and spent a happy hour or two photographing shapes and scenes as the golden sun sank its gradual way to the horizon and the shadows lengthened. I was so very sad not to have one of my good full-frame cameras with me, but this trip had been really tough, and I could not have coped with a heavy camera.

Louise walking along Surprise Bay Beach

I couldn’t even cope with my “compromise Fuji XT-30”, which I am growing to know and enjoy on occasions when a middle ground is required. (See the photos in my blog on Sharlands Peak,
http://www.natureloverswalks.com/sharlands-peak-frenchmans-cap-2021/).

Andrew crossing Surprise Rivulet

This trip, alas, was one for my Sony RX100, which is the lightest, shoots RAW and has full manual control, but the advantages end there. So much is lacking to my eyes used to the detail and light management that a full sensor allows. I am so upset that I couldn’t do with that tool all that I desired with the fabulous scenes unfolding before me. Such is life.

Surprise Bay evening
Surprise Bay evening
Surprise Bay
Surprise Bay

Day 6. Surprise Bay to Granite Beach to South Cape Rivulet, to Lion Rock to Cockle Creek. 35.43 km equivalents. 9 hours 03 mins’ walking (stumbling).
The day was fresh, the light appealing, the air warm but not hot as we embarked on the final day of our journey. Darren had set out ahead of us, but I was pretty sure we would see him further on. What I didn’t expect was to come across Matt and Rod at Granite Beach, quietly packing up their tent  after our first hour. They had muttered about perhaps going down to Osmiridion. They must have flown after lunch. I must ask about what food they pack! Ha.

Surprise Bay

They wished us Happy New Year. I didn’t even know it was NY Day. Did the world out there still exist? Was covid still a problem? Had politicians made any sensible or humane decisions? Had every other Tasmanian now caught it? We were locked in a safe and beautiful bubble in the wilderness. There were indeed heaps of mainlanders, but nobody with covid could be dealing with the demands of this track, muddy, long obstacle course that it was, without sinking in a hole. We all felt perfectly safe with each other.

Andrew traverses Granite Beach

Rod set out with Andrew. I fiddled around a bit before getting my act together. Matt packed the last of his things. On the steep slope out of Granite, Matt flew past. I could see Andrew and Rod ahead, but was tired and could not catch them. I slowed myself down more by photographing some “white waratah” (Agastachys odorata: stupid common name, as it looks absolutely nothing like a red, normal waratah, Telopea truncata). Eventually I caught up to Andrew who had kindly stopped to make sure I was OK.

Top of Granite Beach waterfall

We left Daren, having spent a bit of the trail with him, and just caught the others as they were leaving South Cape Rivulet, presumably having had a break there. I went off to find the toilet, which I found but it was permanently locked from the inside. People who had needed it had deposited their bundle unburied, and the area absolutely stank with the smell of uncovered human faeces. I wanted to vomit. Meanwhile, I have never seen so many people in my life at a supposed wilderness campsite, and the plastic rubbish all over the place was as repugnant as ever. Ach. It felt like civilisation. We were supposed to be in the wilderness. Once more, we dashed out of this place, foregoing the promised 1 hour’s rest and swim that we had agreed upon.

Lion Rock beach – last view of the coast. Farewell fantastic walk

The next part was a blur. I had not had enough water at lunchtime, as the creeks that the map said we crossed were not actually crossed at all by the route on the ground (which I gpx’d). I needed water which was not available, sugar which needed water to go with it, and rest. I got an insufficient amount of all three until we arrived – me in pretty bad shape – at the beach near Lion Rock. Here we found fresh water, no ugly rubbish, and a place to dump the packs and rest. I slowly munched an apricot nut chocolate bar with several cups of water and began to pick up.
At the end of the beach we met four lovely people who took a look at us, correctly read the loads and the body language, and congratulated us on finishing. Later, one of them imitated my body language at that point, stumbling to and fro in a simian kind of pose. I laughed.
“Did you see me trying to get up those huge steps?” I asked. I knew I had looked like a dead sloth crawling out of thick mud. “Yes”, he said and imitated that, too, amidst more laughter.
Luckily by then the sweetness of the bar, the rest and the water were starting to kick in, so my posture began to resemble my own species a bit more, and off we set for the final stint of our epic. What a happy, happy trip. Not just – or even because – I had climbed my mountain (although that helped), but in terms of beauty and sociability with the fun people we met along the way, I felt completely  happy with every aspect of the trip.

16 Replies to “Precipitous Bluff”

  1. Wow. What an epic trip. I can imagine that you would have taken even more awesome photos with your preferred camera gear, but the shots are still beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Another awesome read Louise! I think that settles the ‘clockwise or anticlockwise’ argument for PB and the Southern Ranges 😉 I also think a packraft just got added to my “things to buy 2022” list!

    1. Ha ha Ben. Fun comment. The trouble is, you have to carry a pack raft until you get to Prion. That is onerous. I wanted to semi-cheat and catch a fishing boat around, but my daughter reminded me about how sea sick I get, and I’m sure the cost would be prohibitive (if you ever did find someone willing to take you around the cape in a big boat and then zodiac you up the lagoon). Believe it or not, I thought seriously about this as an option, so great is my hatred of hours in cold water. You’d never believe I did well at half-ironman triathlon, would you. Ha ha. Maybe you could repair Andrew’s beautiful couch and remodel it as a raft and use that for the return journey. You’d still need to pole your way, however. I tried my hand at that when we lived in Oxford and went college punting. It’s quite tiring too. I fear there’s no way around it Ben. The choice is prickles and mud or lagoon and mud that’s not as deep or as irksome (and no big wind).

  3. You write a great story Louise and photos are superb. We once tried to climb PB from the Southern Ranges but got blown off so with a new tent the following week went via the coast. You probably don’t want to know that we didn’t even get wet feet going up New River Lagoon !! It was a very dry period.

  4. You write a great story Louise and photos are superb. We once tried to climb PB from the Southern Ranges but got blown off. So the following week, with a new tent, went via the coast. You probably don’t want to know that we didn’t even get wet feet going up New River Lagoon!! It had been a very dry period.

    1. Thanks for your kind words Wendy! It is fun to hear different perspectives on this climb! You must have had to carry a lot of water if the lagoon was that low. The waterfall on PB was already all but dry when we c.imbed.

      1. There was still water in the lagoon and also in the creek that you cross just after leaving Prion Beach campsite. I call it Platypus creek because we saw a platypus in it.

  5. What a trip and probably not the easiest way to get there. Congratulations
    The reading was so interesting that I got my “old hand drawn walking maps” out ouf their box. The route to PB was dated Feb 63 with a lot of interesting notes. Reading this notes and your report shows that it as not changed all that much in all theses years.
    And, as usual, you leave us with some really amazing shots, even if the camera model is not your favorite
    I love the shots in the forest and Surprise Bay Evening
    All the best for 2022

  6. Hi Louise, I have been contemplating this same trip (except solo) for some time now. I love your descriptions and photos, as always. How well defined is the route from New River lagoon to the top of PB?

    1. Hi Scott. We didn’t have any big trouble finding it, or , when we couldn’t, following its logic until we picked it up later. The hard bit was the flat section down the bottom, but Andrew and I spent most of the afternoon fixing the ambiguities and missing sections of that, so we felt it was pretty clear when we’d finished.

  7. What an inspiring read!
    I just did the South Coast east to west. I agree how hard the slog over the South Cape Range is. Maps don’t really convey how tough the ground is. Osmiridium to the boats crossing is deceptively hard as well.
    I love the views from the top of the bluff. It’s something I’ll never try but your pics are awesome.

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