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Taste of Tasmania's Tarkine

Adventures

MYRTLE BEECH TREES swathed in lichen, towering above myriad ferns and mosses on the cool, damp rainforest floor; the piercing shriek of black cockatoos in the canopy and, if you listen closely, the faraway cry of the ghost of the Tasmanian tiger.

This is the Tassie wilderness, unyielding proof that, while escape from the city is easy, politics are ubiquitous.

A war of attrition between conservationists and the logging and mining industries has been waging in Australia's island state for decades.

Today, at the frontline of this rivalry, exists roughly 4000sq.km of mostly untouched and uninhabited wilderness blanketing the state's remote north-west - the Tarkine.

Book-ended by the Arthur and Pieman rivers to the north and south, respectively, the Tarkine claims the lonely and unwelcome position of being the only remaining stretch of Tasmanian wilderness yet to be officially protected by World Heritage or national park status - despite its indisputable natural and cultural value.
 
This includes comprising the largest tract of unbroken temperate rainforest in Australia (made up of three of the four rainforest types found in Tasmania; callidendrous, thamnic, and implicate) and even, according to local bushmen (including my taxi driver from the airport), possibly being the last refuge of the otherwise-thought-to-be-extinct Tasmanian tiger.

However, while this lack of official recognition leaves the area vulnerable to logging and mining, it also means that it remains well away from the beaten tourist trail, which is, simultaneously its appeal and its potential downfall.

The Tarkine: Tasmania's unchartered territory

Here's where walking-tour company, Tarkine Trails, comes in. Three hiking mates (Rob Fairlie, Mike Davis and Simon Townsend) with a shared passion for the area, established Tarkine Trails (originally called Tiger Trails) in 2002, with the goal of providing a possible alternative, viable industry for the area.

In short, they wanted to create a reason to protect the Tarkine that politicians and the business-minded alike couldn't ignore, and, in the process, show future customers like me just exactly what was at stake.

Tarkine Trails offers five different guided-walking tours limited to the Tarkine area. Four of these run for six days; but, with just a long weekend to spare from the Sydney rat race, I opted for the fifth option - the Tarkine Getaway tour.

A condensed version of the rest, it would involve a return day trip to the Huskisson River - one of several wild rivers throughout the Tarkine - plus two nights beneath the rainforest canopy, in the vicinity of the new Rainforest Retreat bush camp, all located to the south-east of the greater Tarkine region.

The size of the Tarkine Trails tour groups can range from a minimum of four to a maximum of 10 people.

The group for my Tarkine Getaway trip consisted of shared owner and founder, Rob Fairlie; his daughter, Mia; marketing manager, Shar Molloy; and her husband Ian.

We didn't come across another soul for the duration of the trip.

This was not only because the Tarkine is fairly unknown outside of Tassie - compared with the likes of Cradle Mountain and its surrounding national parkland and reserves - but also because the owners of Tarkine Trails themselves drew the tracks we followed, and so boast exclusivity.

Into the Tarkine wilderness

My weekend jaunt was not going to be something to quicken the pulse of the more hardened adrenalin junkies.

Rather, the itinerary told enticing stories of Tasmanian wine and cheese in the evenings, a Japanese-style washhouse and a longhouse complete with a fireplace to provide shelter from the unpredictable and unruly elements of western Tasmania.

Thus, I was fully prepared to recover from a day hiking through the rainforest and bathing in the fresh waters of the Huskisson River with a glass of lovely Tassie pinot noir complemented by local brie cheese.

Despite this, however, I was still surprised when I met Rob's daughter, Mia, for the first time - and immediately relinquished any lingering concerns about forgetting to pack walking poles.

Three-year-old Mia wore a pink skirt, bare feet and liked nothing better than to chat about dream fairies (they help you get to sleep at night in the forest) and lollies. In a nutshell, the two-night Tarkine Getaway tour can indeed cater for the young and/or faint hearted.

In actual fact, the praised composting toilet, longhouse and washroom were still in the final stages of completion when I took the tour, which meant spending the first night in the original camp set-up, and the second night using the new Rainforest Retreat structures.

I couldn't help but think that experiencing it that way felt somehow symbolic; as if Tarkine Trails' transition from the temporary shelter of tarpaulin to the permanency of the timber longhouse after almost a decade might herald a more certain future for the Tarkine itself. 

Rob confided that he understands that it's overly idealistic to believe that the entire Tarkine region will be gazetted as national park any time soon.

However, he genuinely hopes that a rational dialogue can be established with government and industry to assess areas that should be protected, while, at the same time, declaring the area as World Heritage to acknowledge its value above and beyond the resources it harbours below ground.

He also stressed around the campfire that weekend the risk that he and co-owners Simon and Mike took in establishing a tour company that relies, for its survival, on the conservation of a region in which conservation is far from guaranteed.

And yet the company and its staff continue to invest significant time and money in the area that they remain passionate about.

It may not make the best business sense, but at least, 70 years after the last Tasmanian tiger died in captivity, they're putting up a fight to protect the remaining refuge of the island state's rich natural heritage.

 Source: Australian Geographic Outdoor May/June 2011

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