Discovering Tasmania’s Southwest Wilderness.
Tasmania’s Southwest exudes an almost mythical quality – it’s a place that inspires adventurers and explorers, environmentalists and artists. It’s a land of misty mountains, crystal-clear alpine tarns and vast tracts of untamed wilderness, with centuries-old King Billy and pencil pines, twisted and gnarled by the years, and stands of mountain ash that rival the tallest trees in the world.
Some of Tasmania’s fiercest environmental battles have been won and lost in the Southwest, and the area is synonymous with the rise of the green movement in Australia. It’s home to Australia’s largest freshwater impoundment, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Area that ticks seven out of the 10 criteria for World Heritage status – meeting more criteria than any other World Heritage Area at the time it was inscribed in 1982.
Any opportunity to explore this isolated region is not to be missed. Throw in a pair of knowledgeable and passionate guides, and you’re guaranteed to come back with a different outlook and a deeper understanding of what has shaped this area – from the complex geological history to more recent political impacts.
And so it was that we jumped in the back of a bus early one autumn morning, leaving Hobart for what promised to be an epic four-day wilderness adventure, guided by Cody McCracken and Lou Balcombe, owner-operators of Tasmanian adventure tour business, Wild Pedder.
Our itinerary would take us up mountains, through rainforests, and across the tannin-stained waters of Lake Pedder – each day a new adventure in its own right and each evening finishing up in front of the open fire at Pedder Wilderness Lodge for a debrief and a pinot. While there’s nothing like sleeping out under the stars, this luxury was not to be shunned after a long day at the mercy of Tassie’s changeable alpine weather.
The Southwest is renowned for its extremes and regardless of the time of year, anyone adventuring here should carry warm and waterproof gear, including good hiking boots – muddy tracks are almost guaranteed.
ATOP THE TARNS
The sleet stung our faces as we rock-hopped across small streams on the Tarn Shelf at Mount Field National Park – our first day’s destination. Despite the driving rain and moody clouds nestled in the valleys, the views across the tarns and over Seal Lake below were mesmerising.
At this point in the 15km Tarn Shelf circuit walk, we were almost on the home stretch. The rain had been intermittent since we started out that morning and we’d donned our rain jackets and overpants before heading off.
As we walked, our guides pointed out the paleoendemic species and Gondwanan remnants that make this place unique – all easily missed by the uninitiated. Mount Field is one of Tasmania’s oldest national parks and its diversity and significance earned it a place in Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area in 2013.
Around the edges of the tarns, the flame-like fagus, or deciduous beech, lit up the hillside. Our trip coincided perfectly with this annual display of autumn colour from Australia’s only cold-climate winter deciduous species – endemic to Tasmania’s high country.
The muddy circuit track is interspersed with boardwalk and undulates as it rises up onto the tarn shelf. The path becomes rockier as it winds between a series of glacial lakes, or tarns, before passing the ageing ski lifts that crank into action during the winter months. It’s a solid, moderate-grade day walk with only a few really steep sections, made slightly more challenging by water on the track and the gusty winds that whipped at the surface of the tarns, causing us to falter as we balanced between the rocks high up on the shelf.
From the grim weather to the expansive views of the wilderness below, it was the perfect introduction to the Southwest.
Sitting in kayaks, floating on the massive expanse of water that makes up Lake Pedder today, it’s hard to imagine the lake as it once was – a shallow, nine square kilometres in an untouched wilderness. The original Lake Pedder was remote and inaccessible, living on in the imaginations of those lucky enough to visit before it was flooded.
Yet, as Cody and Lou filled us in on the controversial history, they acknowledged they take a fairly pragmatic approach on the issue – while it may not be what it once was, the Lake Pedder of today is certainly impressive in its own right.
Surrounded by mountain ranges that jut sharply out of the water, the pre-Cambrian quartzite of the Frankland Range glistening in the sun and waterfalls cascading off steep cliffs, you can’t help be in awe of this place. All the better for the fact our little group of six had it to ourselves.
The second day of our Southwest experience was a 17km paddle on the lake and we were blessed with millpond-like conditions, a light dusting of rain sprinkling the lake’s surface and the sun peeking through the clouds. Wedge-tailed eagles perched high in the treetops, observing our progress as we paddled in and out of numerous coves, exploring small crevices that revealed a tangle of rainforest species.
In rougher conditions this paddle would have been tough, but with barely a hint of wind we were able to relax, stopping to take it all in as we wove around the lake’s edge. Bobbing on the surface, drinking tannin-stained water scooped straight from the lake, we all happily agreed it was the freshest we’d tasted.
Our third day was set to be the most challenging – climbing 1000m to the summit of Mount Eliza in Southwest National Park. As we walked across the flats the mountain loomed above us, 1289m above sea level and for the most part tantalisingly clear of clouds, bar the summit, hidden behind a grey veil.
We set off up the steep stairs that steadily ascend the mountainside and my walking poles immediately came into their own, providing extra leverage for short legs up the tall steps. From early on we were rewarded with impressive views over Lake Pedder and Mount Solitary, perfectly framed by the water below.
We chased the clouds up the hill and finally stepped among them when we reached the dolerite cap that makes up the summit. Here, the track changes as dramatically as the landscape, and the walking poles were stashed away for the steep boulder scramble.
Visibility decreased as we climbed and by the time we reached the summit the rain had kicked in and cold winds were sweeping across the mountaintop. We sheltered behind some rocks for a lunch break, nestled among the cushion plants – each a unique patchwork of tiny alpine species, huddled together for protection, much like we were.
From here, you can continue on the longer and more arduous Mount Anne Track. For us, it was time to turn around. We gave up on seeing the view from the top and began our slow descent over the wet boulders, retracing our steps down the mountainside and through the buttongrass, completing the 9km return walk right on dusk.
On our last morning, we awoke to blue skies and sunshine. Spiderwebs glistened among the trees and mist rose off the mirror-like surface of Lake Pedder as we followed the winding road toward the Florentine Valley.
The fight to save the temperate rainforests of the Upper Florentine from logging was one of Tasmania’s fiercest environmental conflicts, encompassing a blockade that ran for several years, numerous tree-sits – including Miranda Gibson’s 449 day stint, 60m high in the forest canopy – dozens of arrests and plenty of bad blood. After years of protest, the area was included in the 2013 extension of the Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Our destination was the Florentine Valley proper, which has also fallen victim to the saws of loggers over the years. We began our walk in an area that was excised from Mount Field National Park in the 1930s and wandered among the huge stumps of felled giants before entering the national park, where the change is significant. The untouched rainforest is a stark contrast to what remains from the logging days, even decades later.
Huge mountain ash tower overhead dotted between myrtle and sassafras. Tall ferns line the edges of the track and brightly-coloured fungi, tangled roots and spongy moss call for closer inspection, making the short walk through the verdant rainforest a lot slower than it might otherwise be. At the end of the muddy track, the sound of running water lured us to where a creek flows over the rocks and disappears abruptly into the mouth of a cave – part of a massive and largely unexplored karst cave system that runs beneath the area.
This feeling that there’s something unexplored and untamed about the Southwest follows you wherever you go here. For me, this trip was as much about the stories shared and the environmental knowledge imparted by our guides, as it was the joy of actually getting to walk and kayak through this immense wilderness. And we were only scratching the surface. There are literally endless opportunities for keen adventurers to go deeper and explore further in this vast mountainous region at the southern ends of the Earth.
MORE OUTDOOR ADVENTURES...
- SOUTHCOAST TREK TASMANIA
- TASMANIA'S CENTRAL PLATEAU
- BIKE PACKING THE BALKANS
- AUSTRALIA'S ALPINE BACKCOUNTRY
- ETHICS ON EVEREST
The full feature appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Outdoor Magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest outdoor adventure, travel news and inspiration.