Where the Wild Things Are
Where the Wild Things Are
27 May 2017
Tatyana Leonov heads to Tasmania’s south-west wilderness for fresh air, peace and quiet.
The mountains reflect perfectly on the dark, still water. So flawlessly, in fact, that one could be forgiven for mistaking the reflection for reality.
My husband tosses a pebble into the stillness, sending ripples across the tea-coloured water, stained by the tannin from the melaleuca trees (commonly known as paper bark or tea trees). Around us everything remains still bar the lofty trees rustling in the gentle wind and the occasional twittering dusky robin.
Tasmania’s south-west wilderness region is like nowhere else in Australia. In fact, it’s like nowhere else in the world.
Firstly, it’s huge. The Port Davey/Bathurst Harbour Marine Reserve is three times the size of Sydney Harbour, yet it’s the only waterway in southern Australia that has never seen any significant European settlement.
It’s part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Region – one of only two places in the world – in the world! – that meet seven out of 10 criteria for World Heritage Listing. Then there’s the air (it’s so fresh it hurts); the plant life (ancient Huon pines); and the wild weather . . . Tasmania is known for its somewhat harsh climate, but here it’s amped up a notch or two – 300 days of rain and hurricane force winds now and then is what a normal year looks like. That gentle breeze my husband and I experienced on our first morning. . . it’s not an everyday occurrence. To be fair, we arrived into Hobart a day earlier just as a huge storm ferociously swathed Tasmania’s south coast. Purple clouds sprinted across the murky- grey sky and rain hammered down acting as if it were hail. Sensibly, our flight from Hobart to this wild expanse was delayed by a few hours.
A visit to this region is no walk in the park ... but if you were into walks in the park you wouldn’t be reading this story. Tasmania’s south-west wilderness stretches over 4500 square kilometres and feels distant from the rest of the earth. No one lives here and come wintertime even the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service rangers head home.
When explorer Matthew Flinders circled Van Diemen’s Land in 1798-1799 he described the landscape as: ‘‘The most dismal that can be imagined; the eye ranges over these peaks with astonishment and horror.’’
There are basically three ways to get to Port Davey: the South Coast Track is the most ruthless; a challenging 85-kilometre hike, often through waist-deep mud in torrential rain, which usually takes adventure types seven days to complete (that’s one way, most book to fly back with Par Avion Wilderness Tours). You can cut that down to two days and travel by boat, but sore rear ends are part of the parcel. The third and most attractive way to get here is in on a plane with Par Avion. It offers half-day and full-day tours, but I’m in for the long haul – a three-day, two- night expedition to the Southwest Wilderness Camp, fly-in, fly-out style.
Flying in (and out) is definitely one of the highlights of the adventure. We set off in our twin- engine Britten Norman Islander aircraft a little later than envisioned because of the storm, hugging the coastline and soaring over mist-shrouded mountains and vicious-looking waves.
We even see upside-down waterfalls – water literally flying up vertically because of the blustery winds – before landing in Melaleuca, a remote hamlet that acts as the ‘‘commercial hub’’ of the area.
We hang around in Melaleuca for a while, watching a couple of critically endangered orange- bellied parrots go about their afternoon, before jumping in a boat for the short journey to the camp where we’ll stay for two nights. The camp comprises five tented cabins and a common area, all linked by a wooden walkway. It’s marketed as a luxury camp – and it is(think fluffy doonas and woollen blankets) – but the real luxury here is the destination. There are no hot towels or welcome drinks, no pillow menus or room service, but the toilets are clean, the showers are (relatively) hot, and the food – in true Tasmania style – is delightful.
Greg Wells of Par Avion runs the show and Michael McGoldrick (who we all call Mick) works alongside. We quickly work out that it’s all very casual. There are six guests and we collectively decide our wake-up time, when we want dinner, even how we want to go about our days. Greg suggests places to visit and we simply say yes or no (we always say yes).
One morning we cruise around Bathurst Narrows, all of us gawking left, right and centre trying to inhale the raw magnificence. We stare down into the water, which could pass for coffee if we had no sense of smell; we stare up at mountains, so big and hostile looking I’m sure trolls could reside here; black swans with white wings take off when we get too close. ‘‘I wonder if it’s the memory of people shooting them?’’ Greg asks no one in particular. ‘‘Hardwired into them I reckon,’’ Mick replies. ‘‘I remember kids used to bring black swan sandwiches for lunch to school in the ’60s.’’
We linger at an ancient ochre cave that was once used by Indigenous Australians at Schooner Cove, where Greg enlightens us with some historical background. It’s humbling to simply be present in the same spot that the Needwonnee people inhabited an estimated 40,000 years ago. Remnants of their fires still remain on the cave ceiling; lumps of red and yellow ochre can be found on the floor; and a midden is piled up close by – full of fragmented bird bones and broken shells.
Celery Top Island is one of a few islands in the area that visitors are allowed to land on, so Greg takes us there for a morning stroll. There’s never been a fire on the island (or in most parts of the wilderness here), so the thick celery top pine branches we sometimes need to push aside could be linked back to a tree that is hundreds of years old. This particular walk is short, but we complete two decent-length treks over two days – ascents up mountains because we just can’t get enough of the splendid views.
From the top of House Hill we see our first sign of humanity – a cruise ship entering the harbour. Mount Beattie is another epic climb – and offers us an additional opportunity to enjoy the views of the wilderness from up high.
We start and end this hike at Claytons Corner, where an abandoned cottage hides among the dense foliage. Locals Win and Clyde Clayton lived here in the ’60s and ’70s, moving away in 1976. When they left, Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service purchased the cottage so visitors could get a sense of what living in the wild was like. ‘‘The house is part of the story here now,’’ Greg says. ‘‘To Win and Clyde this was paradise.’’
Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly direct to Hobart from Australia’s east coast capital cities. A Par Avion staff member will pick you up at Hobart Airport and take you to Cambridge Aerodrome, from where your plane will leave for the experience.
See paravion .com.au
The Southwest Wilderness Camp is a slice of luxury in an otherwise barren environment. Comfortable beds, plenty of tasty Tasmanian fare (alcohol included), and expert guiding make this the best way to experience the wild . . . without going wild.
See southwest wilderness camp.com.au
Traveller.com .au/tasmania, parks.tas.gov.au
Tatyana Leonov travelled as a guest of Par Avion Wilderness Tours.