By Yoav Daniel-Bar-Ness
On the far side of the mountains, the wild land meets the wild sea in a fury of stone and wave. From the gum forests and dolerite of Hobart or Launceston, you would have no indication of the strange geology and ecology of Tasmania’s deepest Southwest wilderness. Here, ancient rocks of baked ocean sands have been raised and gouged into jagged peaks, and curious buttongrass plains blanket the sodden valley floors. In the farthest corner of this wilderness, the waves of the Southern Ocean crash with Antarctic force against the rocks, and, surprisingly, a deep and peaceful harbour is there to be explored.
You can trudge to Bathurst Harbour with your boots and pack, or you can fly over in an airplane, but optimally, you could acquaint yourself with this wilderness from the water and by human power. Bushwalkers, of course, know the joys of planning for muddy tracks and stormy mountains, but it takes a fair bit more logistical effort to explore the Harbour by kayak.
The buttongrass moorlands and the ancient quartzite rocks of Southwestern Tasmania are hard to visit – only two roads punch into the interior of the island to this globally unique ecosystem. You could sail or motor your way in, but this coastline is notoriously treacherous to navigate. In recent years, scenic flights run by Par Avion flow in from Hobart to the gravel airstrip built by the homesteader Deny King, and from there begin their explorations by foot. But there is another alternative: the Roaring 40s Kayak Company conducts excursions into Bathurst Harbour as a flagship offering.
When this year began, Bathurst Harbour was a mysterious place on the map to me – researched well but never visited. After Wild was invited to join one of their first trips of the season, the days were filled with great anticipation until the moment I finally boarded the tiny airplane with two guides and my fellow kayakers.
Peering out of the tiny window, elbow-to-elbow with the pilot, the landscape slipped past: the suburbs of Hobart, the alpine plateau of Mount Wellington, the farmlands of the Huon and then the wild lands. The giant forest trees and the columnar peaks of dolerite gave way to the sheer cliffs of white quartz and buttongrass, and we flew low over jagged ranges until we gained our first view of the calm waters of Bathurst Harbour.
At Melaleuca, we landed to chill sunshine and were soon practicing the fine art of kayak-packing under the expert eyes of guides Tory and Damian. Somehow, everything was encouraged into the hatches or lashed to the decks, and we began our journey down a calm freshwater channel.
My first efforts as steersman were comical. In slow motion, we slalomed from bank to bank. Both of my companions Mo and Ali owned their own kayaks at home, and I had much to learn from them. We rotated through different configurations of single and double-kayaks, and in the days to come we would have great opportunities to learn from each other.
The channel shortly brought us to the well-appointed yurts that serve as a staging area for expeditions. Our guides delighted in the opportunity to use a well-equipped kitchen, and we scrutisined the maps of the territory ahead.
Despite resemblances to the glaciated Fiordlands of New Zealand, Bathurst Harbour is, like the harbours of both Sydney and Hobart, a ria, or flooded river system. It is the only water body on Earth, which drains over such extensive peatlands of organic soil collected over this distinctive white quartz rock. The dark tannins from the buttongrass opaquely stain the waters, and aquatic life of the deeper oceans finds a home in shallow waters. The mountains rise sheer from the complex of waterways, only occasionally broken by a flat shelf or cobblestone beach.
When we entered into the saltwater Bathurst Harbour, we passed the tiny Celery-top Islands, named for a distinctive rainforest pine. These islets, protected from the fires that lightning and humans have brought to the buttongrass, are home to giant trees and thick shrubs. They provided a remarkable contrast to the open vistas so abundant within the Harbour, and served as a landmark to guide us into the Narrows.
From the domineering summit of Mount Rugby, a ridge dives down to meet its counterpart to restrict the outlet of the Harbour and provide a passage to the open ocean. At times, the Narrows reach only two hundred metres across, and correspondingly, the currents and winds can be funnelled into fierce intensity.
The Narrows and Beyond
We entered the Narrows in perfect conditions, and were able to appreciate these remote regions as we paddled quietly westwards. To the right, we passed the gravesite of Critchley Parker, a Victorian bushwalker who died in his tent while scouting for a refuge colony proposed for the Jews of 1930s Europe. To the left, we tucked in to drink at pools rippling in small cascades over to the shore, and in to sheltered beaches for elaborate lunches and hot drinks.
At the western outlet of the Narrows, we camped at a beach enclosed by folded stones and clambered up a steep hillside to view the more treacherous open waters of Port Davey. The exit from the Narrows is protected by a long set of islands known as the Breakseas; they hid the wonderful Harbour from early navigators in the much more dangerous Port Davey, and take the brunt of the wave energy. On their exposed western faces, there were rumours of rarely-visited sea caves and arches.
Our guides were cautiously optimistic about the weather to come, and early in the morning our kayaks pierced the first of the ocean waves like tiny needles. I had never experienced the wildness of cold-water waves, and my sense of excitement was tempered by the stories my companions shared of truly stormy seas. Damien was a surfer from an early age, and taught me the basics of reading waves and wind together. Despite the sharp points of the kayak, our bodies caught the wind like sails. We struggled our way upwind.
We slid past the tumbled gorges and cliffs of schist rock – quartzite transformed by unimaginable geologic pressures – and headed to the last protected beaches within Port Davey. We rafted together and Tory explained the obstacles ahead. It turns out that landing a kayak in strong waves is not that easy – it requires careful timing and precision. One by one, we rode in between the waves and landed on a fine-sand beach with relative grace.
On the Land
Separated from the true west coastline only by a narrow peninsula, we dug out our hiking boots and tramped through the sunny buttongrass fields to a long beach. It was a welcome relief from the physical challenges of the kayak, and a treat to see the flowers and trees of the dry land. A flat walk below magnificent sand dunes brought us to one of the rarest and most precious places on our adventure: the ancient middens of the Ninene people.
The Ninene are now little known to our Western culture, but we can continue to be inspired from their existence in what seems to us an impossibly harsh environment. They were never met by historians, but their spirit is remembered well. When the missionary George Augustus Robinson visited the region in 1830. he observed their cooking fires, but did not encounter them directly. We visited the most visible signs of their long occupation of this land – the collected seashells of their gathering efforts. Appearing as large conical mounds of charcoal and shell fragments, the middens seemed to form a microcosm of the giant sand dunes towering overhead.
Returning to the calm waters of the Narrows again, we paddled to another cove to set up a base camp in the forest. From here, if only the weather would hold, we could venture out to explore the Breaksea Islands. It held, and Tory and Damien did their best to frame their delight with descriptions of just how daunting the weather normally was.
We took full advantage of these perfect conditions, and in calm waters we entered some of the most surreal geological cathedrals of rock in Australia. Curious colours of rock appeared in bands within these caves of varied shapes. Some were high crevices, narrowing to a close in a dark and terrifying space we could only detect by roaring splashes. Some were wider, and we looked out through the entrances past huge blades of bull kelp. Jagged rocks penetrated out of the water as various points of danger, and I could not even venture a guess at how deep the dark water was. The kayaks were remarkably stable, and in such an unusual environment we relied on Tory’s years of experience guiding in this region. Sharing a boat with Damian, he maintained such excellent control that I could bring out my camera for my white-knuckle attempts at photographing these hidden spaces.
A short paddle to the north brought us to the curiously dissected Kathleen Island. Its deep crevices were visible from kilometres away – the rainwaters had carved steep-sided gorges over a very short space. We were able to take a close look at the rocky shores of a secret inlet within the island itself, and to explore the caves and arches of this bizarre isle. In its own way, it was just as jagged and unique as the mountain ranges of Tasmania, and to my eyes, far more alien.
On land, we took a final excursion as a capstone to our journey. The crags and meadows of Mount Stokes serves as a different sort of guardian to the Narrows: rising over them from the north and providing a vantage over the entire region. Beginning from a tiny beach with a tannin-stained creek, we made an attempt on the summit as clouds rolled across the sky. The steep trail passed over blades and sheets of quartzite, and crossed a pass where the chill mist gathered.
When we finally made it to the pinnacle, we were treated to glimpses of the hidden waters that we now knew from direct experience: the wildest corner of a very wild island. We could make out the shapes of Port Davey, the Breakseas the Narrows, and the Bathurst Harbour. We had been intimately immersed within the most spectacular scenery of Australia. If we were lucky, we’d be treated the next day to sunshine and a tailwind to speed our return to the airstrip at Melaleuca. We were, in so many ways, lucky.