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One Day at the End of the World -in the South West National Park

Glimpses of Bruny Island, shortly after take -off

The Adventure Begins...

Things didn’t look all that promising on Mother’s Day. It dawned grey and drizzly and it was 60C as I made my way to Cambridge Airport. Next I was squished into a tiny six -seater Cessna that didn’t stand much taller than I did. There were three other passengers, all Tasmanians - all female and former hockey players, plus Michael the pilot and Mick the guide, who was also the chief cook, ship’s captain and sommelier.

The seat was a bit small and my knees were uncomfortably jammed up against the seat in front, but as we headed South the clouds parted and there were splendid glimpses of South Arm, Bruny Island – who knew it was so big, the Channel and beyond, until at last we turned right at Clayton's Corner, at the very bottom of Tasmania. I’d come this far on foot via the South Cape Track, but beyond that all was a mystery.  There is something very personal about flying like this and while exciting for me, it’s an everyday event in the more remote parts of Australia, where distances are simply too great, people are too few and the roads virtually non -existent. Roll on green hydrogen I say.

A Landscape of Sea and Mountains

There were some exceedingly white beaches below us at first, but then I noticed some very large mountains to my right. Michael the pilot, told us the biggest one is Precipitous Bluff and flies in a bit closer for a better look. Although 400m shorter than Mt. Ossa our highest peak, (1224m or 4016’) and 320m less than Cradle Mountain, it looks taller because it rises straight from sea level rather than a surrounding plateau as the others do. It is also one of the more challenging peaks which seasoned bushwalkers speak of in awe. I was glad there wasn’t any turbulence.

Then, on my left I could see steep -sided Maatsuyker Island but couldn’t see a lighthouse – the last one was automated in 1998. My best friend from George Town Area school who used to live in the Low Head Lighthouse at the entrance to the Tamar, moved there just before we moved to Launceston. In the only correspondence between our parents shortly thereafter, Mrs Harrison had written, “Next time you see us, we’ll have one leg shorter than the other, because the place is so steep." Where are you now Wendy Harrison?

Next came the South Cape Range and then the Ironbound Range, two more sets of peaks designed to intimidate bushwalkers, who might otherwise have considered doing the South Coast Track. In between there are rivers to cross and lagoons to wade. After about three quarters of an hour, we crunched down on the white gravel air strip built in the 1950s by one Deny King at Melaleuca. For 55 years, Deny and his family were the proud and almost sole inhabitants of this area. My ex -husband was vaguely related to him and you could tell by the way his eyes lit up when he talked about Uncle Deny, how much he admired the man, the place, and especially the freedom of his self – sufficient lifestyle, so far from suburbia and its petty concerns. 

Coming in to land at Melaleuca. Deny King's red roofed house is hidden amid the shrubbery near the creek. The larger domed building to the right is most likely the rangers' quarters. Remains of diggings from tin mining can also be seen, though nature is working hard to reclaim them



Touchdown

A Bit of History

Deny and his father before him had mined tin here on and off since the 1930s and built a small shack using a few sheets of tin and local material. Deny had found peace and solace here after being injured in an accident towards the end of WW II. After a protracted courtship, he was eventually able to persuade Margaret Cadell, the occupational therapist who had helped him to recover, to marry him and join him in the wilderness and they had two daughters. Although the daughters have long since married and moved away, they remain connected to the area and they and their families still visit occasionally.

Every now and then when Deny had grubbed enough tin, he would lug the 50 kg bags down to the beach to give to passing ships. Later he got his own ship and sailed it to Hobart where he’d sell the tin and return with supplies. Anyone who’s seen the shipwrecks along this route or heard the stories about the heroic voyages around the Southern tip of Tasmania will know what an incredible feat that was.

Great was the day when he brought home a small bulldozer. Not only did it make the mining much easier, but it allowed for the Airstrip to be built, which meant easier access in emergencies too. That was becoming important, because more and more visitors- bushwalkers and naturalists, artists, photographers, writers and film makers -even Neville Shute and Sir Edmund Hillary were calling in. Deny welcomed them all and treated them to home cooked meals with produce from his garden.

A self -taught naturalist, as many of the era were, especially when little was known about Tasmania’s Natural History, King had begun to observe the Orange Bellied Parrot – that rarest of birds and other species, noting their movements and changes in their numbers and sadly, their decline. Although these parrots breed here in the far South of Tasmania, they migrate to Victoria for the winter and with stopover sites being destroyed due to logging or development, their numbers were at one stage reduced to a mere 24 pairs. 

Fortunately, thanks to Deny’s observations, captive breeding is underway along with the establishment of nest boxes. These have given these endangered birds a bit of a reprieve – at last count in May 2024, there were 70 pairs in the wild, though they aren’t out of the woods yet and their intermediate resting places are still under threat. Although Deny died in 1991, an observatory remains at his former home and researchers come there at regular intervals to continue his work. His knowledge of the area and its creatures also led to it becoming a National Park and part of the World Heritage Area. It seems like a fitting monument.

This Photo by Ron Knight is licensed under CC BY 2.00

The beautiful but critically endangered Orange Bellied Parrot Neophema chrysogaster. Unfortunately we can't see any today because they will already be on their way North for the winter

Melaleuca
Melaleuca is the name of several types of shrub found in the area, though not in flower today. This one is M. squamea

Deny's house is the first thing we see on arrival. It's discreetly tucked away in a thicket of tee tree and well -designed to observe the birds. It’s still very personal. I liked the handmade sign that said,” Once you have drunk of the button grass waters, you will always return.” Not sure if I have the wording quite right, but I do know it’s true. Then I struggle to reach the tiny figures assembling on the wharf about a kilometre away and board a small aluminium boat- it has about 8-10 seats, open sides and a canopy, for the journey down Melaleuca Creek. 

The inland water is so still and clear that you can hardly tell where it ends except by what appear to be belts along the trees. Devoid of industry and traffic and refreshed by winds from Antarctica and the Roaring Forties, the air too is utterly clean and clear, at least as clear as the North Western tip of Tasmania which holds the record for the world’s cleanest air. 

We enjoy morning tea along the way at a discreet picnic table among the tee trees where some of the hideaway cottages are. The freshly made coffee is surprisingly good, though I am a bit shocked to be drinking it out of paper cups. Morning tea ends in disaster. One visitor has just lost her phone in the composite toilet. No one is volunteering to get it. There’s no reception here of course, but like me, she’d brought it along to get some extra photos. I’m very relieved it wasn’t mine. Apple and Google have been nagging me forever to back up my work. My fellow guests are a cheerful bunch – not a sound knee among us I suspect, and take it in their stride.

View from the picnic area

Then it’s back on board to continue our leisurely punt down Melaleuca Creek while Mick points out the home of Deny’s sister and her husband and tells us stories about the whalers and the piners and why there are no other settlements here. No more whales. No more Huon Pine and strangely not much sign of other marine life either, though the early explorers recounted tales of mountains of lobster and shellfish being brought to an Aboriginal feast. 

The weather is an absolute delight. Most of us came prepared with padded jackets, beanies and gloves – as you should on almost any excursion in Tasmania and especially here, yet the sun shone benignly and all were discarded by the time we reached Bathurst Harbour. 

Bathurst Harbour

Bonsai Island as we approach Bathurst Harbour
 
Stunning caves and rock formations near the left bank. The distant breakers beyond roll in from the Southern Ocean

Then we move to the other side of the harbour for a closer look at the Breakseas - Apologies that these pics are a bit juddery. I'll blame the swell and the movement of the boat

The vastness of the landscape alone takes your breath away – from the forbidding mountains, etched by countless seasons of wind and ice, the button grass plains and the network of the rivers that pour into Bathurst Harbour – bigger than three Sydney Harbours, past scattered islands until we come to the Breaksea Islands. Beyond them lies Port Davey and the relentless churn of the Southern Ocean. The waves  often reach 6 metres high here and reach up and over the Breakseas, but today the waters are calm, so we venture almost as far as Big Caroline Rock at the entrance to Port Davey - a bit further than the little boat normally does and then turn around to explore the Breakseas more closely. 

The Breakseas don't look all that big or dangerous until we sidle up close to them

 You have never seen such savage rock formations, jagged like sharp teeth where columns have fallen into the sea and with caves and great fissures where the ocean is trying to split them apart. High above you can hear a thin twitter – possibly some shearwaters – muttonbirds, which haven’t yet left for their long flight to Alaska. When the boat stops, you become aware of the vast silence when the sea is quiet. 

Sometimes the sea breaks right over this protective wall of islands and there are holes and fissures all around as the sea tries to break them down

The ocean's work

 How grateful the early sailors – even present -day ones, must have been to come upon this great calm water inside the Breakseas, sheltered from wild weather or violent seas beyond. If Tasmania has a lot of shipwrecks, it must be remembered that roads are a fairly recent phenomenon. The one to the West Coast was only competed in the 1970s. Previously almost everything – and everyone, could only reach it first by by sea and then by train. Explorers, convicts, piners and then miners all came and went by sea, along with their supplies and what they produced.

Ships were built by convicts at Strahan and then sailed around to Hobart. Not all of them made it. Mike tells us that ships were also built at a small place called Settlement Point right here at the Western end of Bathurst Harbour and then sent to Hobart with their cargo of timber. It was only the quest for resources which brought people into these areas at all. Alas, with the end of the Huon Pine, came the end of the village.

Bramble Cove, a bit further around Bathurst Harbour suffered the same fate. It was a whaling community which had around 100 settlers. Mike tells us the headland opposite is called Tonguer’s Point, referring to Whale’s Tongues. This was where they grew their vegetables. Now all that remains is a small cemetery. 

In 1955 the area around Lake Pedder with it's beautiful pink quartzite beach, became the Lake Pedder National Park. In 1968 it was renamed the South West National Park and expanded to include the whole of the Southern Region. In 1977 after the public outcry over the flooding of the original Lake Pedder for Hydro -electric development in 1972, the area was also declared a UN Biosphere Reserve. According to Wiki it contains 20% of Tasmania’s fauna and 118 endemic species found only here.

Mount Rugby looms large on the leeward side as we re -enter the Bathurst Narrows for the return journey.  Opposite is Mt Beattie, which according to Mike, was named after John Beattie -Tasmania’s official photographer of the early 1900s, and who was  the first to show the world what lay in this part of Tasmania. 

Lunch

The way back was faster and yet more leisurely. The friendly banter had subsided. At a beautiful white quartz beach – Balmoral Beach, as it’s known, Mike nudged the boat right up onto shore, took out a folding table and set it with wine, fruit juice, bread rolls and our meals. 

Mine was plentiful, tasty and as ordered – i.e. no fish, but once again served in cardboard. This was most likely compostable and it may have been out of necessity to keep the plane’s weight down as much as possible, but that, along with the fact that we were obliged to sit on the gravel without a rug, were perhaps the only things I could complain about.  I know. One minute I’m talking about it all being too easy. Now, confronted by the slightest bit of discomfort, I’m still complaining. That’s humans for you. 

Of course everything was packed up and brought back with us. There was no trace of our presence once we had moved back onto the boat. The curtain of tee tree and the gravel closed seamlessly behind us.

View from Balmoral Beach

Dinner is served. What was I expecting? Silver Service?

Slices of chicken, an interesting quinoa salad, a big helping of quiche, nibbles. I finally remembered to take a photo of the food before I ate it

Mt. Balmoral behind us

The Great Stillness

Then we were off again in silence, each one of us no doubt digesting what we’d seen and heard. A glass of wine and good meal will do that too. Once again there was that deep all -pervading stillness, punctuated only occasionally by the sound of a lone bird or the low rumble of the motor. It was almost too silent. I’d hardly seen an animal on this trip – three little ducks on the water, even a sea eagle on its nest and the scats of what was most likely a wombat since they were square, but there weren’t the startled rustlings you hear almost everywhere else in the bush or the thump, thump of a kangaroo taking off. I expect things get a lot busier at dusk when marsupials come out to feed and froglets start their evening serenade in the wetlands.

I can imagine that in the summer this place would be ablaze with wildflowers among the button grasses, but this time I only saw one -a timid purple fairy apron peeking out from the board walk. When I looked these up to find out their Latin name, I was shocked to discover that these sweetly named flowers, are in fact carnivorous, but don’t be afraid, the flower is only a bit bigger than a pea and their stem perhaps six cm. They like moist places and only devour tiny insects and soil creatures which live around their roots.

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND
Fairy Aprons Utricularia dichotoma are about 2 -3 cms high and usually grow in clumps in damp places throughout Australia
 

Tranquility

Once again we glide past acres and acres of button grass and tee tree. The water, though tinted brown by tannins from the button grass and tee tree, is almost invisible. You only know where it ends because of the continuous beltlike seams along the tee trees and gargoyle like reflections of roots and branches

After we landed everyone else took the longer walk back along the Neewonnee Track which honours the Aboriginal people of the region and tells a little about their lifestyle in this idyllic place, but having kept everyone waiting on the wharf on the way in, I took the shorter walk directly to the airport. For excellent coverage of the other walk and much better photos than mine including examples of Aboriginal shelters, tools and the paperpark canoes used to travel these waterways, see the great post by Tasmanian Traveller here.  When I finally got back to base, Michael the pilot, was already there leaning against the sign in a short -sleeved shirt and grinning, primed and ready to leave at 3.30 sharp.

Sorry, this will be a bit hard to read unless you enlarge it. See Tasmanian Traveller's blog for more information about this

Oh No! There was traffic at the airstrip. A helicopter -presumably manned by Parks and Wildlife, was only a short distance away, lighting controlled fires to prevent worse fires in summer. Soon the smoke would make it difficult to fly. As we took off, the early darkness started chasing us over the mountains and you could feel a distinct chill in the air. 

Last glimpses - none of these photos convey the vastness of the landscape which reduces humans to very small players in the grand scheme of things, though that doesn't mean they are harmless

We took the inland route this time, past another mountain, Federation Peak (1274m), which I will also probably never climb and a good part of the Western and Eastern Arthurs. Below were occasional glimpses of mountain tarns and rivers, and the beginnings of Huonville and civilisation if you count the various assaults on the bushland as civilisation. It always looks so plentiful from the ground and yet from here you can see how much of the old growth native forest has gone – the big tall dark Eucalypts - the Blue Gums and the Swamp Gums, to be replaced by a mosaic of plantations at various stages of growth. 

I was still a bit shocked at how open and bare much of the South West National Park had been. I always thought of this as our Empty Quarter – a blank spot on the map with almost no humans  -a wild untracked jungle where our rare animals and plants -perhaps even the odd Tiger, would find lasting refuge and humans would have great difficulty moving about, yet much of what I’d seen was open button grass country and tee tree scrub, not the dense rainforest I had imagined, though this may in fact support a wider range of species. 

Many of the hilltops were barren or only covered with a thin layer of vegetation and some of these hilltops were burned to prevent a larger bushfire from gaining a foothold. I worry though that removing the very sparse vegetation from the tops of the mountains by burning will lead to the loss of what little topsoil there is and subsequent denudation. No risk of fires then, but at what price.

 Also disturbing was how dry and brown the hilltops were, even in places such as the Hartz Mountains which were covered with vegetation. Higher sea temperatures and fewer tall trees to break the salt laden winds will do that. A lightning strike or other accidental fire could easily wipe them out as well.

I had a better seat this time, thanks to Mike graciously giving up his. I would loved to have jumped in right next to the pilot, but you don't take on female hockey players lightly - not even retired ones!😂 Just kidding!

In what seemed like no time at all, we were alongside a cloud -covered Mt. Wellington and passing over the tiny matchbox houses of Hobart. Soon the houses began to look bigger – you could make out features and gardens, then the main airport and suddenly we were back at Cambridge, unfolding our bodies and unloading our luggage. We’d definitely been very lucky with the weather. It had been bad the whole week before and it hailed the day after.

Afterthoughts

On the one hand, I’m glad on behalf of the plants and animals and that untamed landscape, that only a few people can make it this far.  On the other hand, I don’t see why it should only be for the extremely fit or those wealthy enough to take a flight or a cruise. 

Perhaps access should be on a lottery basis as it is with some popular parks in the US, or every now and then, when there’s a vacant seat on the plane or one of the boats, someone on a low income – a pensioner, a veteran perhaps, or a person with a disability, could be invited to come along. Many more ordinary working people ought to be able to see this too, because it would make them more appreciative of what those 'inner city latte -sippers' are trying to do when they protest or disrupt traffic.

I also like to think that there will always be a few little -known gems in Tasmania for those who are self -sufficient, adventurous and superbly fit. Spoiler Alert! Don't watch if you fall into this category. This glimpse of the Federation Peak track is for those who may never get to walk it. For an idea of the kind of weather we could have had, even on the same day, click here for a closer look at the Western Arthurs.

PS: May 31st just happens to be World Parrot Day, so I will write a bit more about those next time.

 

 


 

 

 

 






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