22 April 2022

The Wisdom of No Escape: Port Davey and South Coast Tracks Expedition

2021 Adventure Grant recipient Milly Young set out to run the full length of the Port Davey and South Coast Tracks in remote southwest Tasmania. Milly recalls the gruelling journey of over 180 kilometres. Videographer Alex Caplin captured the highs and lows of her successful mission.

Milly Young

It’s mid-morning on a Saturday in April and I’m lying crumpled on a rocky beach, clutching my left foot in pain. I’m deep in the Tasmanian Wilderness, 40 odd kilometres from the nearest road. I’ve got 120 kilometres in the legs, I haven’t slept in over 24 hours and I’m fairly sure I’ve broken something in my foot.

Rewind a couple of months. 2020 had us all aching for adventure. With lockdowns and travel restrictions preventing us from leaving the country, I was motivated to look for fun a little closer to home. On the lookout for something at around the 100-mile distance, I conjured up the idea to run a link-up of the South Coast and Port Davey tracks in Tassie’s Southwest. The route had a lot going for it - a rich human and environmental history, difficult route finding, unforgiving terrain, plenty of vert and numerous river and creek crossings, a couple of which required crossing passages of open water by rowboat.

I set off into the Southwest Wilderness early one April morning under a blanket of darkness. I knew that once I started the only way out was on my feet or a rescue helicopter. I hoped it would be the former. If all went to plan, I hoped to emerge at the other end in around 30 hours.

Milly Young

The April sun rose behind me, lighting a still and radiant landscape. Mist shrouded the Western Arthurs and the expanse of buttongrass moorland stretched to the horizon. It was a warm day. As the hours passed my legs grew tired and the ruggedness of the landscape swallowed me. Every step drew me further from the frills of humanity.

As can be expected, not much went according to plan. The track was overgrown, wet and muddy as all hell, littered with bog holes that saw me up to my thighs in mud so many times I lost count. The mud was so thick that my gaiters were engulfed in the first 5k and lost to the moorlands. From then on, I needed to stop every hour or so to remove a build-up of sand and gravel from my shoes, or else the blisters would take over. Tom, a mate who I’d cajoled to support me, met me at Melaleuca for a lengthy re-fuel and was able to fashion me some new gaiters out of a spare pair of socks… this ingenious new breakthrough in gaiter design lasted a few hours, until they too succumbed to the pull of the mud!

Hurdles came and went, as did multiple leeches. I struggled to get fuel down after the halfway mark, blisters built between my toes from running through mud and water all day, I dropped my phone and had to backtrack to find it (sitting in a puddle of mud!) and an incoming front brought 70 km/h winds across the Ironbound Ranges that made staying upright a mission in itself. Yet with every curveball, my smile seemed to broaden. This was proving to be more fun than I’d anticipated.

Milly Young

The joy was not without pain. Over 24 hrs into the mission and 40 kilometres from my end point at Cockle Creek, an encounter with a boulder left me sprawled on Little Deadman’s beach with a broken big toe. As I lay crumpled on the rocks, my foot searing with pain, I listened to the roar of the wind and watched the waves mercilessly crashing on the coastline. Despite the pain, the beauty of the surroundings enlivened me, and I breathed in the heavy blanket of solitude. I knew there was no escape, but I didn’t want one.

I suppose I had hoped that the adventure would yield an irreducibility that surrendered me to the present moment and forced me to find some untapped forces within myself. Breaking my big toe offered up that moment. And so, I got up and gingerly continued toward Cockle Creek.

Milly Young

The final 40 kilometres were a slow daze. I hobbled on my broken toe, and we were reduced to a painfully sluggish 3km/hr pace. Heavy winds threw jet streams of sand along the length of Prion Beach, the kind that makes you feel like you’re being attacked by a swarm of bees. A rowboat debacle at New River Lagoon forced us to swim across the turbulent river crossing after wasting a couple of hours walking the length of the beach trying to figure out how we’d make it across. My foot screamed in pain as we waded through mud and hopped the rocky beaches of the final leg along Tassie’s southern coastline. We reached the bottom of South Cape Range in the latter hours of the second day, with just 12 kilometres to go.

We were almost home. But it wasn’t all peachy from here. As luck would have it, it was high tide, and we were forced to swim the rivulet. We stripped naked and made the crossing in the dark under a waning gibbous moon. Frosty! At this moment, the cold water proved too much for our bodies. Covered in our emergency layers - thermals, puffer jackets, beanies, gloves and shells - we could not engage our legs to run, making the last 12 kilometres the slowest of the adventure.

As our bodies succumbed to fatigue, so did our minds. We walked the final stretches of muddy trails and boardwalk in another dimension, unaware of space and time. At one point, perhaps only a couple of kilometres from Cockle Creek, we sat on a rock eating jellybeans in the cool morning air, laughing at our reality, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we were nearly at the end of the mission.

Around 2am we stepped into the shelter that marked the end of our journey. Weeks of preparation and hours of pain came to an end in that one ephemeral moment. I hit stop on my watch, hugged Tom and sat down to take off my shoes and eat some corn chips. The adventure was finished.

I stopped my watch 44 and a half hours and 180 kilometres after starting it. I hadn’t slept a wink since I stepped onto the track. I’d laughed, I’d cried, I’d enjoyed mild hallucinations. I’d hobbled along painfully slowly on a broken foot. I’d moved through buttongrass plains, windswept beaches, cool temperate rainforest and exposed alpine plateaus. I’d encountered a critically endangered orange bellied parrot (one of less than 200 left in the wild) and only two other people. I’d twice watched the sun rise and set over this rugged wilderness at the bottom of the world, all the while with nothing but the Southern Ocean between me and Antarctica.

Milly Young

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