Tasmania feels like it truly is the edge of the world but that makes for an even more invigorating experience
"The thing about the north-west,” said Shirley Smith – we were standing outside the history room at Trial Harbour, actually her conservatory full of browning news cuttings and domestic bygones – “is that you’re in the real Tasmania out here.”
The few shacks scattered among the scrub didn’t seem an obvious repository for the state’s soul, but then I hadn’t expected to find someone like Shirley at the end of the rough track here, either. Laconic fishermen, possibly, or maybe surfers flailing on the Southern Ocean swells. Not twinkly 60-somethings who had set up home at the end of the habitable world.
The absence of tourism, I ventured? She nodded enthusiastically: “Yes, yes, yes. And I suppose the weather.” ‘Weather’ is one way to describe 230km/h winds and waves that can swamp a supertanker, though understatement is very ‘real Tasmania’, too. “It’s also because we get by on our own out here,” Shirley continued. “The nickel mine is closing next month. Some people will move on, but we’ll survive. Always have.”
She brooded as the breakers surged past her garden. “Not like Strahan,” she said. “Plastic Town, we call it.” That 140,000 visitors a year have transformed Strahan, 40km south, from remote fishing village to premier-league resort was why I had come to Tasmania’s north-west. Elsewhere,Australia’s island state is flourishing.
The erstwhile heritage isle has ditched the chintz and doilies to become an adventure destination – a sort of pocket-sized New Zealand with increasingly sophisticated hotel and food scenes to go with laid-back small-town charm and enough rugged back country to keep outsiders exploring for years. This is the ill-starred runt of the Lucky Country no more.
Only the north-west is yet to catch up. Miles off the tourist trail, it represents the state’s last frontier, as far off the radar for most visitors as it was in the 1820s when colony governor George Arthur dubbed it ‘beyond the ramparts of the unknown’. Everywhere you go you hear the grumbles of the first Europeans to arrive: Savage River, Hazard Bay, Cape Grim. Tasmanians still refer to the place as if it were the Wild West. Watch out for the rednecks, I was told. In Tasmania? A state that specialises in small-town charm? “Bloody oath, mate,” said the manager when I signed off the hire car in state capital Hobart. “They’re feral out there – only got one bloody tooth between ’em."
If the north-west is a bastion of ardent individualism, the landscape is to blame. Where power lines and tarmac are a memory, self-reliance becomes a religion. Trial Harbour may be just over an hour’s drive from Strahan, but in its dogged determination to tough it out against the elements it feels closer to Patagonia, the next landmass west. Go south and you won’t hit land again until Antarctica. Should you have any lingering doubts about the location, head to Arthur River. They’ve erected a sign there that reads simply: ‘Edge of the World’
My goal was to explore the empty space, known as the Tarkine, that lay between Arthur River and Trial Harbour. Few Tasmanians, let alone outsiders, have heard of it, yet its 4,470 sq km area is fast acquiring admirers.
In 2004, an awe-struck WWF report talked of ‘a world beyond human memory [that] is a living link with the ancient super-continent of Gondwana’. Two years ago, as the federal senate voted to consider the Tarkine for World Heritage approval next time Unesco dispatched its application forms, an Aussie TV series nominated it the country’s best-kept wilderness secret. Even state department Forestry Tasmania has hopped aboard the bandwagon, rebranding a rainforest attraction as Tarkine Forest Adventures.
The trouble is that the Tarkine doesn’t exist – or at least not officially, not on the map. You can pore for hours over the blank green space wedged between the Arthur and Pieman rivers, its north and south borders; rove mentally through the largest temperate rainforest in the southern hemisphere; forge wild, tannin-stained rivers in the bush; yomp along a spectacularly raw coastline – and you won’t find the word printed anywhere.
“The Tarkine?” Graham Airey snarled when I asked in the pub. “What a load of f***ing rubbish.”
It was Friday night and the car park of the Marrawah Tavern – the ‘Best in the West’ amid the cattle country north of Arthur River – was hubcap to hubcap with steroid-pumped pick-up trucks. Inside, uniformly sunburnt and clad in scuffed Blundstone boots, stockmen had mustered to toast the week, sinking stubbies of beer, shooting pool and cracking loud jokes. A huge, horned cattle skull grinned above the fireplace.
I felt conspicuous in flipflops, but no one seemed to mind. I’d listened as an itinerant drover lamented the taming of Tasmania’s frontier spirit, and Graham had talked me through the arcane system of crayfish licences that had made him a millionaire. We were getting on swimmingly despite the mismatched footwear. Then I mentioned the Tarkine.
“What’s the Tarkine, for heaven’s sake? It’s just a heap of scrub no different from any other scrub.” At my mention of two proposals for a Tarkine National Park, Graham’s small, fleshy mouth curled into a sneer. “That’s just crap, bollocks, rubbish.”
I had travelled to the north-west for scenery but politics had got in the way. It was no surprise. The Tarkine name was coined by conservationists during environmental protests in the late 1980s, and for local farmers and fishermen it is so rooted in green thinking it might as well sprout leaves.
While the Tarkine has become a rallying cry for conservationists who want to end all logging and most development in an area they see as untainted by humanity, farmers and fishermen see it as a brand to threaten their generations-old livelihoods. Back in Hobart they sigh and tell you this is just another front in the battle over Tasmania’s frontiers – that it’s about exploitation versus preservation of natural resources, or rednecks against greenies. But it’s not. It’s a scrap for the state’s soul.
I was heading south to join trekking outfit Tarkine Trails for a walk up one of the wildest coastlines in Australia. To reach the rendezvous I left the stockmen to their herds and rolled over the swells of buttongrass that rippled behind the Tarkine coast.
Officially, the spidery dirt-road was the ‘Western Explorer’, but everyone knew it by the name coined by the greenies who railed against the road being pushed through the wilderness in 1988: the ‘Road to Nowhere’. I might have enjoyed the dust-choked drive more if my conscience had stopped nagging about the environmental impact.
In fact, you soon notice that green politics in Tasmania seems to be stuck on endless repeat. Two decades on from the Western Explorer furore, the fuss is over the Tarkine Loop Road, a proposal for a tarmacked tourist route that will circuit through the same northern rainforests that had the WWF reaching back to the dawn of time.
It was Forestry Tasmania’s idea, and the state government is all for it: it would be an iconic Aussie drive to rival the Great Ocean Road, the premier said at the $23m project’s launch this February. Local councils are thrilled. Conservationists, meanwhile, are still reeling. Even the federal government has raised diplomatic questions.
Graham reckoned the route would probably be an improvement on the existing wilderness agreed with the state government: “Look, they’re trying to push that bloody Tasmania green-state thing. People like to see forest and bushes but can’t go on dirt-roads – most of the bloody tourists would fall off ’em anyway. Put this loop thing through and they can drive on a sealed road. What’s the problem?”
The environmentalists just want to stop everything, he moaned: logging, pulp mills, progress. Considering that a driver stranded on the Western Explorer charcoaled 180 sq km of the Tarkine with a signal fire last March, I thought that they might have a point. Botanists suggest 400 years is an optimistic estimate for the rejuvenation time of the old-growth rainforests. Some areas may never recover.
The fear of such casual destruction was what led Tasmanians Rob Fairlie and Mark ‘Darvis’ Davis to set up Tarkine Trails in 2000. Having witnessed the bulldozers rumble into virgin wilderness for the Western Explorer, the former protestors changed tack. “We figured rather than rant and rave, if we could connect people with the landscape so they came away with the Tarkine in their hearts, it was the most powerful thing we could do,” Darvis explained. “And we had to show there was something that could benefit a place economically, too.”
It seemed to me that Corinna – the somewhere at the end of the Road to Nowhere where I joined my guides, Matt and Will – proved the Tarkine was a money-spinner if you let an environmental heart rule your business head. Five years ago it was just a few shabby huts by the Pieman River, left over from an 1880s gold-rush; $4m later, it is one of Tasmania’s iconic eco-destinations.
Sure, accommodation is in the sort of solar-powered bush-huts the gold-panners could only have dreamed of, and you can now sit on the veranda of an artfully shabby pub with a steak the size of the state. But it’s the jungly,primeval forest on all sides that thrills, in places as virginal as when Tasmania sailed away on its tectonic plate.
Tony, captain of the riverboat that ferried us to the coast, was probably closer to the nub than he knew when he said time lost its meaning out here. As we journeyed through this Antipodean Amazon, I checked the map of our four-day trek. Between holiday shacks at the river mouth and Sandy Cape 35km north, there were no settlements, no houses – just an empty coastline riddled by wild rivers like a nest of snakes.
Pick any winter weather forecast and you’d learn why. The Roaring Forties cartwheel around the world to spank this coastline with the cleanest air on the planet – but also waves that heave unhindered from South America. One 22m swell was recorded off Cape Sorell near Strahan –it was also the last before the wave buoy was ripped from the seabed. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Tarkine coast was uninhabitable. Actually, you’re not alone here. Not quite.
We spent a day in technicolour Star Trek scenery before I discovered this secret. Matt had led us north between rust-orange rock swirled like crazy impasto into gullies and a fleshy carpet of pigface: bushtucker, Will suggested of the succulent plant. I nibbled a finger and was instantly parched by salt. “I said you could eat it, not that you should,” he protested.
At our campsite behind a headland, I left my tent-mate fiddling with guy ropes to gaze over a haunting panorama of sky, sand and sea that stretched empty to infinity. A drift of compacted shells – mussels and abalones the size of dinner plates – shaded the dunes down to the waves. It was an Aboriginal midden; on the Tarkine coast you walk with ghosts.
For roughly 30,000 years before Dutch navigator Abel Tasman spied land in 1642, indigenous tribes in the north-west – among them the Tarkiner that inspired the environmentalists’ Tarkine name in the 1980s – used the coast like a supersized migratory highway. Headlands were the motels where the detritus from dinner piled up over millennia.
Treading carefully around shells and half-buried wallaby bones, I spotted a jet-black stone chipped into a sharp blade.Another wedgey stone moulded perfectly to my grip – a chisel, its tip pitted from use. I felt like an explorer who had stumbled upon a pharaoh’s tomb in the desert.
For a while the utter remoteness of the Tarkine offered the Aborigines a refuge from European settlers. But even the Tarkine was too close: 30 years after the British arrived in Tasmania in 1803, Lieutenant-Governor Arthur dispatched someone to cajole the last tribes on the island into relinquishing their traditional lifestyle.
Vainglorious and as Victorian as a starched cravat, George Augustus Robinson made a tiresome companion when I leafed through his diary that night near the Interview River (surely one of his names).
Here he was, a 41-year-old Lincolnshire builder among hostile tribes on as inhospitable a coast as Australia could offer, and it was all weather reports and kangaroo hunting parties. The only hint of raw adventure came from a tiresomely measured entry about how he escaped a spearing at Arthur River on a raft bound by garters. If nothing else, it cast a new light on Victorian walking gear.
What struck me later was his gripe about the coast as ‘a wild and dangerous place’. That night a summer gale from Antarctica sling-shotted around the headland to shake us out of our tents early. We spent the day misted in spindrift beside a churning jade-green sea, strafed by hail squalls and blasted by sand that snaked away in trails up the dunes.
Will began to enjoy himself. “I love it when it’s a bit wild,” he said. “You know – when there’s a bit of weather on the beach like this. It gives the place character.”
We were poring over a large rusty cylinder half-buried in the sand at the time – probably a ship’s boiler, possibly from one of the many colonial barques that had floundered in the sort of dangerous surf that raged behind us. Indeed, the Tarkine specialises in mysterious flotsam. Earlier we had come across whale vertebrae the size of stools stranded far above the tidemark, and every so often a large storm will exhume a long lost wreck.
Yet life abounds if you know where to look. Bennett’s wallabies and wombats trim lawns in stream-fed green oases among the dunes and, where the bleached sands segue into silvery marram grass, Tasmanian devil tracks skitter across the beach – the north-west is free from a cancer that wracks the population elsewhere.
The cold, clean Southern Ocean is also bountiful. A couple of days after the gale we arrived at a fissured headland stained by orange lichen – evidence of the air’s exceptional purity. Will plopped into a gulley and emerged, shivering, with two half-moon abalone the size of large fists. Flipped over they were obscene, their gorged black lips like a grotesque vulva. You could only guess at the aborigines’ Dreaming story for a food as bawdy as it was rich. One twitched salaciously in my hand.
Battling against wind and peering into rockpools, we felt almost alone in the Tarkine. Almost. Licensed vehicles can access tracks in the north; trouble is, many drivers continue south into the wilderness beyond. We’d seen tyre ruts carved into the peat, and tracks that blundered over middens like a motorway through Machu Picchu. You’re never too old to hoon around the beach, someone had said in a pub near Trial Harbour. Middens? They’re only Aboriginal rubbish dumps.
In Arthur River, Wendy in the village store sighed. “Permits make no difference,” she said. “People’ll always do it, especially if you say they can’t.” She talked wistfully about how she’d enjoyed a 3,000-year-old Aboriginal art site that was now off-limits to her grandchildren. She shrugged: “All this talk of the Tarkine. For us growing up here it’s just the bush.”
You could call it a head-on, logging-truck-sized culture-clash. You could just call it the real Tasmania.
Summer: High summer is from December to February, with the mercury in January peaking in the low 30°Cs. However, the weather is changeable and snow not unknown even in late December, especially in highland areas; be prepared if you intend to trek. The best weather is usually mid-January-February. Winter: Few visitors; many wilderness areas inaccessible due to snow. Shoulder seasons: Fickle weather makes for challenging bushwalking
The major health issues are climatic. The summer sun is fierce so requires a high-SPF cream. Perversely, hypothermia is simultaneously an issue if bushwalking in the highlands. All snakes in Tasmania are poisonous but shy; that said, don’t poke into rock or log hollows and watch out for basking snakes on paths in the morning.
In Tasmania (Vintage, 2005) by Nicholas Shakespeare. Part historical narrative, part travelogue, and as entertaining as it is informative. Alternatively, check out Tourism Tasmania (www.discovertasmania.com) or Tasmanian conservation group the Wilderness Society (www.wilderness.org.au)
Travel around the state by public transport is feasible on a short visit. Coach companies Tassielink and Redline operate a decent spread of routes from Hobart and Launceston to most tourist destinations. However, things get patchy on the east and west coasts, and weekend services operate on a reduced schedule (if at all).
Consequently, unless you’re blessed with time and patience, you’ll need to hire a car to get the most from a visit. All the usual international hire car operators have bureaux at the airports, or try online listings magazine Tasmanian Travelways. Note: driving times are longer than they appear, especially off motorways, and your insurance is often invalid on dirt roads – no problem if you take care.