By Road & Track
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By Road & Track

Stories of the trail…

By foot along the cliffs

Microadventures in the Hobart region

Along the Alum cliffs track. The trail through the ferny gully.

TAROONA BEACH is one of those sandy enclaves along the Derwent foreshore. It was from here that I would look at the nearby Alum Cliffs rising vertically from the waters, and would think that I would have to follow the track along their tops one day. I knew it was not a long nor a tough walk, but sometimes I feel that I have to go take a look at what’s there in some place just to satisfy my curiousity. It’s a feeling that has led to many bush, mountain and urban walks into local histories and geographies.

No power. The energy utility has shut off power for the good part of the day. They’re replacing the power poles further along the road. Instead of staying home and bemoaning the loss of power, it was time to apply the Stoic dictum of ‘amor fati’, which we can translate as ‘love of one’s fate’. It’s an attitude in which sees happenings in life as potentially good or useful. So, unable to do any computer work or use any electrical appliances, including the water pump that brings water from our rainwater tanks to the house (there is no reticulated water supply in this town), we decided to take advantage of the situation and the sunny, mild, mid-autumn weather to drive down to Kingston and do the eight kilometre return walk along the Alum Cliffs. Last time they shut off the power we did the Sandy Bay to Mt Nelson Signal Station walk in Hobart, another of the day walks in the urban area that are worth doing if you find yourself with a few hours to spare.

The track starts at Kingston Beach and climbs above Tyndall Beach, part of which is seen here. The view is southwards into Storm Bay. The tiny settlement of South Arm is at left. The land beyond, at right, is Blackmans Bay.

The cliffs

The Alum Cliffs are high, mudstone cliffs along the western side of the Derwent River estuary linking the southern Hobart suburb of Taroona to the town of Kingston Beach. A Kingsborough Council interpretive sign tells us that before the road to the city was built, the walk which the track follows was used as a coastal path. It provides no further details and I’m left wanting to know more. Where did people go, and why? Business in the city, obviously, but what was the journey like?

Geologically, the origin of the Alum cliffs lies in the Permian period of 250 million years ago. An article by Patricia Roberts-Thompson tells their story. She writes that the first recorded reference to the Alum Cliffs was in an admiralty chart of 1847, and that Aboriginal midens can be seen at Bonnett Hill. She writes that the first upgrading of the track was along the section north from Kingston Beach in the 1970s.

Looking from Alum Cliffs to Hobart’s Eastern Shore.

The mudstone contains iron pyrites which weathers to produce sulphuric acid. This reacts with the lime clay to produce alum. Patricia Roberts-Thompson article reports no evidence of commercial extraction of the alum. The mineral is used in dyeing, tanning and medicinal products.

It might not be for all walkers, however, for me, a knowledge of the trails I follow adds value to walking them. That includes geological as well and human history of them, however that knowledge appears scanty when it comes to early Aboriginal and European peoples’ use of the Alum Cliffs trail.

The walk

In the broken shade of the eucalyptus forest, the trail ascends towards the clifftops.

The walk’s rating is moderate, the track well-made and maintained. If you go on to the Shot Tower the track connects with the road into Hobart. The road and Kingston Beach both have bus services, enabling a one-way walk either way using public transport.

Coming from the Kingston end where there are cafes, public toilets and a popular swimming beach, the track climbs through coastal blue gum forest and into a drier, open, silver peppermint eucalypt forest. Bird life among the blue gums was more prolific than along the rest of the track. We stopped to listen to the different calls and saw a flock of small, red-breasted birds but knowing little of birdlife could not identify them, however on later consulting the Tasmanian Field Guide app I think they might have been scarlet robins.

The change in ecosystem was noticeable as we descended the track into the gully formed by a minor stream. The openess and dryness of the eucalypt forest gave way to a shady, closed and sheltered environment where ferns cloak the ground. Climbing out of the gully, the track rises to the clifftops with wide views over the Derwent estuary.

From here we could see how the suburbs of the Eastern Shore sprawl along the banks of the Derwent, showing that Hobart is a narrow city that follows the river. There, across the wide estuary, are the small settlements of South Arm and Opossum Bay. Reaching them involves a lengthy drive along the Eastern Shore, through the suburbs and countryside and across a narrow ismuth which connects to South Arm. Friends living in Taroona have taken the shortcut, straight across the Derwent in their sea kayaks.

Looking to where the Derwent spills into Storm Bay, Iron Pot light on its rocky little island glowed white against the blue of the sea to mark the passage for mariners. Beyond, Storm Bay and the open sea.

The finals stage to the Shot Tower took us down and then up a steep and long set of stairs, seen continuing up the opposite slope.

We walked on the the Shot Tower, a tall, circular tower where shotgun pellets were made by dropping molten lead from the top, which cooled as it fell, forming spheres. Don’t be put off by the long, steep staircase that descends and climbs out of the gully to reach the Shot Tower. It’s not as formidable as it looks.

The walk is rated as three hours return, however we made the return walk in an hour and ten minutes. Walkers should bring water as there is none available along the track.

The Alum Cliffs track is popular with locals for walking their dogs and with trail runners. It is one of the many short walks of the Hobart area. For those intent on exploring the city’s margins The Alum cliffs track is one of a number of day walks which display the geographic and historic story of the city and its margins.

Epacris, a small shrub of the open forest was in bloom along the Alum Cliffs track.

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Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.