COOLING my feet in the shallows of one of the nation’s most pristine and remote beaches, my attention is torn between competing wonders — some gigantic, others minuscule. Looking upwards, the field of vision is filled with endless towering peaks, flanks of soft orange-brown and olive-green rising to hard knuckles of white, gnarly quartzite.
To my left and right stretches a body of tea-coloured water three times the size of Sydney Harbour, studded with wide, white sandy coves, and fed by ancient, wild rivers. It’s enough to hold the gaze of even the most jaded traveller. But something is tickling my barely submerged toes, forcing my eyes downwards to discover a troupe of tiny semi-transparent crustaceans frolicking on my feet. These cheeky shrimp are as minute as I feel, immersed in this vast wilderness at the bottom of the world, deep inside the remote Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Almost as Lilliputian are the petite red “biscuit” sea-stars and luminescent “sea jewel” seaweed washed ashore — intricate, colourful trinkets offered up by the mysterious inky waters. This corner of Tasmania’s rugged southwest — the 178sq km Port Davey Marine Reserve, one of Australia’s most pristine estuarine systems — is as enchanting as it is remote, a walk of up to seven days from the nearest road.
Our Wilderness on Water expedition of 10 kayakers flies in from Hobart on a light aircraft, a journey across mighty mountain ranges, alpine lakes and the state’s southern forests. We land smoothly on a dazzling white gravel airstrip at Melaleuca, a former tin-mining outpost and common starting point for the famed South Coast Track walk. Here we load our gear on to wheelbarrows and push them to a landing by the side of a creek where, waiting for us, are the brightly coloured sea kayaks that will be our main mode of transport for the week, assisted by two guides from award-winning Hobart-based tour company Roaring 40s Kayaking.
The kayaks will allow us to explore as far and wide as our fitness and fickle weather allow, from the wide calm expanse of Bathurst Harbour, through Bathurst Channel and over the white-capped waves of Port Davey. I am among a few of the group — mostly mainland Australians aged from their 30s to 60s — needing to reactivate neglected paddling skills.
So it is a relief that our first paddle is a gentle 90 minutes, initially along the narrow Melaleuca Creek, past the broad expanse of Melaleuca Lagoon, into the meandering Melaleuca Inlet. Just at the point where the inlet feeds into Bathurst Harbour, behind a pebbly beach known as Forest Lagoon, we find our base camp. Here among eucalypts and melaleuca (tea tree) are yurt-like tents, connected to each other and a common eating area by mesh-covered boardwalks.
We have hardly earned it on the first day, but Roaring 40s owner Reg Grundy and fellow guide Jake Terhell produce sushi and wine for us, followed by pan-fried salmon with dill and chive mashed potato. Serenaded by twilight birdsong, we watch the setting sun play on the razorback peaks of nearby Mount Rugby and the more distant higgledy-piggledy Western Arthur Range.
It is the perfect start to our expedition of seven days, but each is to bring its own marvels. Only the first and last nights are spent at base camp; between we pitch our tents on shorelines adjacent to impossibly beautiful, isolated sandy beaches. Quickly a routine develops. After a fairly leisurely breakfast and, when necessary, a packing-up of camp, we set off for a morning’s kayaking. A suitable shore is selected for lunch, which is conjured by guides Grundy and Terhell from the holds of our kayaks. An afternoon’s paddle ends in yet another idyllic location and another miraculously produced hearty meal.
Time, the elements and the skill and stamina of the least physically capable among us dictate our progress, and Grundy tweaks the itinerary to balance these factors.
Wildlife ranges from the sublime to the bizarre. Majestic white-bellied sea eagles effortlessly pluck a meal from the water’s surface, as nesting black swans labour by, their necks outstretched, as if straining to cross an invisible finishing line.
When our cramped kayakers’ legs need a stretch, we hike spectacular moorland and mountain tracks, dodging the strange mud chimneys that mark the subterranean world of the elusive freshwater burrowing crayfish.
Another of the joys of this trip is the variety of paddling conditions, from the serene, mirror-like surface of the sheltered inland waters to the churning excitement of waves rebounding on our kayaks from Port Davey’s Breaksea Islands, where metamorphosed cliffs stand like sentinels, protecting Bathurst Channel from the ravages of the Southern Ocean. Even in the relatively calm conditions we experience, cruising the exposed western shores of the Breaksea Islands is awe-inspiring. Thick borders of kelp, clinging to the rocky shoreline, surge back and forth, gesturing to us with each ebb and flow. Swells lift our kayaks, strike the rocks and are immediately directed back towards us. In this glorious confusion of wave and wash, a luxuriant, white and briny foam forms in abundance on the water’s surface, blowing across our kayaks like snow drifts. Grundy and Terhell, watchful as mother geese, take us as close to the tumult as they feel safe.
Not all the thrills are experienced afloat. Unexpected highlights are the rich and fascinating human histories discovered on land, often only short walks from our camping sites.
Near Parker Bay, in the channel, a short stroll through buttongrass reveals the grave of Critchley Parker, who came to these wilds from Melbourne in 1942 in search of a site for a Jewish homeland. Instead, the 31-year-old met a sad, slow end. Hampered by wild weather and with only 10 days of food supply, his emergency plan — the lighting of a signal fire — failed after he ran out of dry matches.
Less noble but more successful were the hundreds of hardy bay whalers who plied their bloody trade from several coves here in the 1800s. At a rocky shoreline near Bramble Cove, a fossick yields fragments of roughly made glass bottles. These once held the liquor that provided solace to these whalers, isolated from civilisation and engaged in the dangerous task of hunting leviathans from open, wooden boats.
Aboriginal heritage has survived even longer ravages of time and tide, with large shell and bone middens still to be found among the dunes of Stephens Bay, a short walk from the wide horseshoe of Spain Bay in Port Davey.
That so few people visit this far-flung paradise only makes discovery of its wonders, great and small, all the more rewarding.
Matthew Denholm was a guest of Roaring 40s Kayaking
Pictured 1 Kayaking outside Breaksea Islands 2 Kayaks arriving into Bramble Cove, below Mount Stokes 3 Paddling through the gorge in Blackwater Creek 4 Bathurst Harbour 5 Mount Beattie 6 Fog in Port Davey
Photos 1, 3, 6, photography by Andrew Bain
Photo 5 photography by Graham Freeman
This article originally appeared as Into the wild blue yonder of Tasmania's rugged southwest on www.theaustralian.com.au and is re-published here under license. Matthew Denholm is a writer at The Australian and is not affiliated with Qantas.