Tasmania's Southwest National Park is an untouched wilderness of pristine bushland crisscrossed by incredible hikes. Discover the best way to explore it.
As the 10-seat Britten-Norman Islander banks over Hobart and beyond Mount Wellington, the landscape transitions from cityscape to pastureland. A few blinks and it’s forest plantations. Before long we’re given a glimpse of what we came for: a wilderness so rugged it’s hard to believe that less than an hour ago we left the buzz of the state’s East Coast behind. The wineries, cheesemakers, restaurants and bars – that Tasmania has been discovered. The one we’re about to see is only just coming into focus.
There are no roads to where we’re going and all the ways in require commitment. You can go on foot, a six-to-eight-day walk along the South Coast Track from Cockle Creek near Recherche Bay at the southernmost tip of Tassie. You could sail from Hobart, a two-day, highly weather-dependent journey. Or there’s this, a 50-minute light-plane transfer from Hobart. It’s how Tasmanian Boat Charters takes guests to the launch point of their four-day cruising and walking expeditions deep in the state’s Southwest National Park, some 600,000 hectares of pristine bush in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. It is, according to the company’s owner, Pieter van der Woude, “one of the last places on earth that’s untouched.”
Our group is small, just four guests—a well-travelled septuagenarian couple, a photographer and me. We soar between the Arthur Ranges and descend over a few snaking rivers that converge on a smooth, dark bay: Bathurst Harbour. Touching down at Melaleuca, on a shimmering quartzite airstrip about 100 kilometres south-west of Hobart, we’re surrounded by rugged peaks, rolling hills and dense green bush. Then we clamber into a jet tender docked at the nearby inlet, which ferries us to the Odalisque – our floating home for the next three nights.
Boarding the boat
The 20-metre vessel can host up to six guests in its three berths (or 10 on a private charter). There’s a large kitchen upstairs, an open-plan lounge/dining area with 360-degree windows, plus outdoor decks for when the weather plays ball. Skipper Pieter, a former fisherman and abalone diver, is much like his purpose-built boat: practical and no-nonsense. From January to May the Odalisque moves through the Port Davey Marine Reserve – a waterway that includes Bathurst Harbour, Bathurst Channel and Port Davey. Pieter has been coming here for more than 25 years. “It’s a solitude paradise,” he says.
Rugged up in wet-weather gear and life jackets, we jump in the tinnie for our first adventure and bump across the swell to explore the base of the Breaksea Islands that shelter the Bathurst Channel from the robust Southern Ocean. We navigate along rocky coves thick with bull kelp walled by vertiginous white cliffs then motor back through the entrance of Bathurst Channel, past an old whaling station on Turnbull Island used in the 1800s. This excursion isn’t “planned” per se; instead our guide Peter Mooney is led by Mother Nature – it’s too damp to hike, too bright to stay indoors. As he says in our first morning briefing, “There’s no set or standard run. Everything is shaped around the weather.”
The rhythm of our trip is based on clouds, rain, wind and sun. Some days are blustery and chilled; others bright and summer-like, with green ridges and white outcrops crisp against a periwinkle-blue sky. When the weather allows, we traverse ridges and button-grass plains. We comb deserted beaches, the pale sand littered with shells and driftwood and pocked with wombat tracks. We view Aboriginal middens at Stephens Bay and manoeuvre around the cliff to rock pools, where Mooney ditches his shirt and climbs – boots and all – into the tidal pools for a sea-life show-and-tell. It’s a wonderful, Bear Grylls moment, south-west Tassie-style.
We explore Melaleuca, too. There’s an Aboriginal walk and a tin-mining history and it’s one of the breeding zones for the rare and endangered orange-bellied parrot. We happen upon the bird hide at feeding time and see around 15 of the juvenile green fliers gorging on seed. We cruise Bathurst Channel and Harbour, where the ink-stained water (from the tannins in button grass) reflects clouds, sky and overhanging trees.
Black swans, oystercatchers, cormorants and sea eagles come into view. We walk where it’s unlikely more than 20 others have set foot in a hundred years. I catch myself in these moments, stunned at the isolation: it’s thrilling, but, to be honest, a little confronting – and I’m glad I’m in the safe hands of a crew.
Although it’s an isolated area, we do cross paths with hardy hikers and kayakers on long camping trips. Sometimes we moor next to a crayfishing boat and a yacht skippered by a sun-ravaged mariner. We come across a couple in a Zodiac – turns out he’s Scott Laughlin, former skipper of Antarctic supply ship Aurora Australis. He and partner Kylie have their inflatable piled high for a 30-day sojourn on the water.
Still, the Odalisque does a fine job of marrying the rugged with the refined. Onboard chef Adrian Matthews serves top-notch breakfasts, lunches and dinners. He bakes every morning so we’ll have treats for afternoon tea; he plies us with nightly canapés, cheeses and desserts. The food is outstanding, although it’s hard to compete with that scenery.
The vast remoteness hits me on our final morning as we take a sunrise hike up Mount Milner, taking in the expansive ocean, the serene and empty channel and seemingly endless mossy green mountains with imposing quartzite breaking through. In every direction, it’s raw and wild. It might take a little effort to get here, but a little effort is worth it.
Other ways to explore Southwest National Park
Soar above the mountains
On an eight-hour tour with Par Avion, you'll glide high above this vast wilderness in a light plane. Depart from Cambridge and land at Melaleuca for a short walk, cruise along Bathurst Harbour and long lunch of delicious Tasmanian produce and local wine before flying back to Hobart as dusk settle in beyond the mountains.
Camp overnight in the wilderness
If, to you, experiencing nature is all about foregoing creature comforts so it's you, the stars and a few snuffling native animals come nighttime, then an overnight stay in this pristine park is just the ticket. There are three campgrounds (Huon, Teds Beach and Edgar) with varying facilities including firepits and toilets, as well as caravan access.
Explore on foot
The park is crisscrossed with hiking trails; get a sense of what a multi-day expedition might be like with a one-day taste of their gradients on the Maydena and the Southwest Wilderness tour with Tasmanian Wilderness Experiences. You'll walk to the Styx River, drive to Mount Tim Shea and, weather dependent, stroll to Junee Cave, Russell Falls or the Growling Swallet.