THE DEVIL DIDN'T SHOW!
The words ‘Tasmania’ and ‘bush walking’ sit beautifully together in the same sentence. And now that I’ve done a 5-day trek in the North West of Tasmania, in the wild and wooly Tarkine region famous for its rainfall, ancient forests and wilderness walks, I can see why.
I’m not the kind of bushwalker who carries a backpack and despite my English lineage, I don’t set up tents willingly in the rain. So I found I was extremely well suited to holidaying with Park Trek, who organize all your transport, food and accommodation, and provide you with a knowledgeable guide, and basically take the Bear Grylls-ness out of the trip, leaving you to just thoroughly enjoy the scenery.
We sailed over on the Spirit of Tasmania, which I much prefer to flying. I can pack as much and as haphazardly as I like (Jeff, who goes everywhere with his one bag, was incredulous as I brought my seventh out to the car). I packed with the joy of one knowing she wouldn’t have to carry bags anywhere, so yes it possibly looked as though I was moving house. Also, a flight is perfunctory, it is a means to an end, whereas a 10.5-hour sailing is part of the holiday; your holiday in fact starts a day before your holiday starts. All you’re charged with is to arrive in Port Melbourne on time. Once that’s accomplished, and you’re in the queuing ramp to board, it’s certainly more relaxing and comfortable than an airport or plane.
The car in front had their dog, baby and grandmother with them, plus all that that entails. We looked at one another and immediately started missing our hounds and vouched next time to bring them with us. Once parked, we made our way upstairs and found our cabin, dropping our overnight things (I had at least managed to pack one sensible sized bag for that part of the journey). As the sun was now well below the yardarm, we took two glasses of bubbles out on deck and watched the sun set over Melbourne’s skyline. And then we were away, and the palm trees lining Beaconsfield Parade began to recede. An announcement was made, predicting 1 to 1.5 meter swells; Jeff and I were clueless if this was good or bad as forecasts go. So, happy in our ignorance, we headed in to dinner in the Leatherwood Restaurant.
The swells could have been treacherous; I was oblivious once my head was in the menu, happily working my way through the great list of Tasmanian produce on offer. I opted for smoked salmon followed by seafood linguine – coming from the Yarra Valley we rarely see fresh seafood on menus so my decision was easy. Jeff had the Tasmanian tasting plate followed by pancetta wrapped chicken. The bottle of Louis Chardonnay from Frecyinet (cleverly kept in its ice bucket by a table clip, pre-empting those swells) washed it down beautifully and was reasonably priced. Restaurants often (naughtily) add a hefty whack to their wine prices when their customer is without alternative, but we were pleasantly surprised that the ship hadn’t. We’re both food lovers (Jeff’s a chef, I simply love eating) and both agreed the food would stand up well against any good mainland restaurant.
The staff were delightful, really friendly and it turns out many have been working on board for twenty or so years which speaks volumes about their employer.
After dinner we made a quick visit to Tourism On Board (the onboard Visitor Information Centre – what a truly great and useful idea) and having stocked up on maps and brochures, just to add to those bags of luggage, we headed to bed. I’m really not a great sleeper away from home and wondered how I’d go staying in my single bed as I rolled at speed from side to side. (I’m yet to master sleeping on a plane, so the annual trip home to England is a riot!)
I surprised myself and slept soundly, lulled by the gentle roll of the ship, but was awake way ahead of schedule, fearing we’d oversleep and block everyone in with our car! I had us up, showered, dressed, packed and downstairs half an hour earlier than the ‘Time to wake up’ announcement, and had to buy Jeff a conciliatory coffee to appease the situation. Thank god it was a decent coffee!
Two days later and I’m sailing again, this time aboard Tasmania’s last huon pine built pleasure cruiser (built 1939) and it’s just gone 6 o‘ clock in the morning. We’re drifting on a saltwater estuary, in the Tarkine wilderness, gliding silently towards the Pieman Heads (though thankfully not passing through them; the heads are passable only a couple of times each year).
Given the startling hour of the day, our group’s chatter is more an occasional murmur and everyone is ‘coming to’ gently, staring mesmerized at the mirrored reflections in the glassy water. As we leave our mooring at Corinna, the historic mining settlement that is our base for three nights, we’re surrounded by low rainforest swamp of huon pine. The trees at the water’s edge are every shade of green, but in this low light, everything is crystal clear and tinged with a filter of blue. As we move up river, the landscape begins to change and the low swamp trees give way to dense, taller trees either side of us. Before we know it we’re surrounded by a forest of ancient dark green myrtle giants, towering next to the occasional paler blackwood. They all jostle for position, growing tall towards the light and we have pointy sassafras and the leathery dark foliage of a celery top pine pointed out to us by our guide.
A pair of sea eagles flies apace with us above the tree line. Binoculars come out and Jason, an artist in our group, begins to sketch. A light rain starts up and our faces grow damp. We’ve had rain every day as predicted in the tour literature. The prevailing weather pattern is from west to east, so we’re in the line of fire!!
It’s a restful start to our day, being on the river. I’m still thinking about the pademelon who visited our group last night as we had our supper BBQd for us by Park Trek staff. She sat, joey in pouch staring inquisitively at us, as we compared her delicate features and shorter front paws to those of mainland wallabies.
Back on the river I notice we’re passing a narrow tributary, which leads to Little Lovers Falls – named for a prospecting couple, who found enough gold panning by the side of the river over a hundred years ago, to move to Hobart and buy a hotel – and I’m struck by how harsh existence must have been for those pioneers. Black and white photos at Corinna show families living under a small tarpaulin, with little other protection from the weather; how did they ever get dry, this region’s average annual rainfall figures are anywhere up to 2,400mm!
After an hour and a half at this gentle pace, we moor up and as he deposits us on a boardwalk that leads into the scrub, the captain calls out cheerily ‘See you at 2 o’clock’. We pass ten or so shacks, a tree bearing colourful gum boots (the Tarkine’s very own MOMA) and endless piles of blackened logs, driftwood that has found its way to the mouth of the sea. Jumping (or attempting to) a dark channel of orange water (stained by tea tree tannin) that’s worryingly emptying into the Southern Ocean, and suddenly we’re in bright daylight, looking around us at an empty, blustery beach.
The constant westerly aptly named the Roaring Forties make this a rugged coastline. There’s no let up year round apparently, which would explain the sparse but hardy plant-life – brilliant green glasswort succulents line the edge of the beach. Further along we see plenty of native pigface, (an ugly name for such a pretty succulent) and wind ravaged tea tree – not a whole lot else could stay upright.
We walk half an hour or so and through the sea spray, looming in the distance appear huge rust coloured granite boulders, with their light covering of distinct orange lichen. A jumble of shapes and sizes, some sit out into the ocean, long ago part of the headland, others are nestled together, worn smooth and eroded by the years, separated only by cracks worn into rock by seawater. They remind me of the Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island, (you can just hear the colonial explorer naming them!) with its similar granite coastline, defined by the same orange lichen.
We clamber for an hour or so, stopping to snap away with our cameras and ask our long suffering guide Andrew question after question; we’re like inquisitive children on a primary school outing. If we stop for long, Jason begins staring and sketching. Our legs are weary so we each find a boulder to rest on for morning tea while Andrew goes ahead to see if we can get through the scrub. One of us eats our entire lunch while others explore, meanwhile Jason reaches for his watercolour paints, washing blues and greys across his canvas.
A set of paw prints in the sand are spotted and we all gather round. Andrew confirms they are those of a wild Tasmanian Devil – their gait is unique – one paw, two paws. The previous Park Trek group last month saw a wild (disease free) devil during the day; we suddenly fall silent and look around us intently.
The devil doesn’t make an appearance but shorebirds are a common sight; running along the beach doggedly studying the sand, orange beaks open, heads bent down. It’s a comical sight. We see a pair of plovers, and ply Andrew with yet more questions, how do they nest, are they migratory? His reply and knowledge astounds me – the Tarkine is home to more than 130 species of birds, including eleven of Tasmania’s twelve endemic birds.
The two migratory species that breed only in Tasmania are the swift parrot and the orange-bellied parrot, and they forage in the Tarkine. The orange-bellied Parrot breeds in south-west Tasmania and migrates along the west coast of The Tarkine and forages on coastal plants. Consequently the Tarkine’s coastal vegetation is extremely important habitat.
The keen birdwatchers in our group hope to spot an orange-bellied parrot, but know their chances are slim – they are critically endangered – said to be down to just 20 in number.
The region’s vast number of bird species is thanks to the Tarkine’s rich and diverse habitat; the sea, coastal shores, freshwater wetlands, streams and estuaries, rivers, heathland, mountains, woodland, open forests, wet eucalypt forests and extensive rainforest.
I’ve no particular enthusiasm for birds, trees and moss are far more my thing, but I’m alarmed that an entire species of bird is on the brink of extinction, here in Tasmania. After all, with nearly 5,000 km of coastline and more than 300 islands, Tasmania is famous for being an ideal breeding and feeding habitat for birds.
Our conversation naturally leads to politics, conservation, mining, logging, mega tourism, Tasmania’s economy and future jobs for its children. I ponder the situation on the last day as we drive the five-hours back to Launceston.
Driving is great thinking time, especially when you’re not behind the wheel. Tasmania has a population of half a million people who need jobs and don’t necessarily want to move to the mainland for work. Their children need a future industry to work in. Mining, logging and tourism all require a workforce, but all leave their mark (see photo of Savage River Mine courtesy of tarkine.org). Conservation itself becomes controversial – put an overlay on an area to preserve it but does that support the economy or generate an income? Remove that overlay and you’re failing to protect one of the last remaining wilderness areas on earth.
Attempts have been made to list The Tarkine not only as a National Park, but also as a World Heritage Listed Area. Its wilderness, vast rainforests, wildlife, landscapes and unique Aboriginal values are outstanding on a world scale. Yet less than 5% of The Tarkine region is fully protected as a National Park.
It’s a hard one to reconcile, and the accusations and arguments for and against will swing back and forth. And all the while the Spirit of Tasmania goes on sailing dependably, regular as clockwork back and forth across the Bass Strait, carrying tourists and locals to and fro and the giant trees of the Tarkine stand proud surveying their wilderness, come rain, hail or shine. Worth a visit sooner rather than later I’d say.