At 600,000 hectares the UNESCO-listed Southwest National Park is Tasmania’s largest, famed for its wild rivers, impressive water bodies, jagged mountain ranges, button grass moorlands, ancient rainforest and myriad plant and animal species. It is a spectacular and truly elemental place, with wild and changeable weather the norm. The region encompassed by the Park has an extraordinary history of human habitation by Aboriginal Nations, reaching back tens of thousands of years. More recently intrepid individuals such as the Kings and the Claytons, who lived permanently in the region, have sparked people’s imagination. Part of the larger Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, there are many stories to tell about the southwest. On Earth Day 2021, my reflections focus on a day trip from Hobart to the region by plane and boat in mid-April 2021.
We were extremely fortunate with the weather which was remarkably calm – flights are postponed if the wind speed is too high. The flight path took us over Bruny Island and along the coast to Cox Bight. Here the plane turned inland to land at the Melaleuca Airstrip. Deny King built the original version in the 1950s, providing easier access for his family and opening up the southwest to tourism.
The favourable conditions continued as we travelled by boat up Melaleuca Inlet and into the magnificent Bathurst Harbour. The water was mirror-calm surrounding us with amazing reflections. Sitting quietly in the boat, soaking in the serene energy of our setting, was a rare and wonderful experience. The following images provide a sense of these beautifully majestic land and waterscapes.
Our next stop was a secluded beach offering magical views of this wild place. The beautifully shaped small white rocks and fine sand of the shoreline are derived from the ancient, quartzite-rich Precambrian geology of the region. Here we took a short walk to a small inland lake, watched a White-breasted sea eagle glide overhead and listened to the quiet sounds of the tannin-stained waves lapping on the shore. The short video that follows captures the peacefulness. Please turn up the sound for the best experience.
Perfect weather meant that we could travel to the South Passage, a stretch of water that connects the relatively sheltered Bathurst Channel to the open waters of Port Davey. Again we sat for some time immersed in the incredible surroundings. As we looked out to the open ocean at the entrance to Port Davey, small waves rocked the boat. This part of Tasmania is subjected to the ‘roaring 40s’ – fortunately the wind’s roar was subdued on the day of our visit. These winds are part of a global system that also affects Patagonia in South America. There the wind is truly the dominant element, as described in my blog ‘The Wondrous Winds of Patagonia and Antarctica‘.
Win and Clyde Clayton lived on the northern arm of Port Davey for many years but eventually relocated their home to Bathurst Harbour to escape the wild southerly swells and unsafe anchorage. Lunch on our tour was enjoyed at the bush house that the Claytons rebuilt and lived in for around 12 years before departing in 1976. ‘Clayton’s Corner’ was subsequently restored and is maintained by volunteer groups, alongside the Parks and Wildlife Service. The presence and impact of people was evident throughout the day, whether it be the historic houses and huts, the site where Clyde Clayton collected his fresh water, yachts moored in the Harbour, hiking tracks, and of course our tour group and the boat and plane we travelled in. More subtly the vegetation we travelled through has been shaped over millennia by Aboriginal fire regimes.
In addition to visiting the Clayton’s house, we explored the Deny King Museum located close to the airstrip at Melaleuca. Deny was a tin miner, artist and field naturalist and is considered a legend by many Tasmanians. His concerns for the natural and cultural environment and actions to protect them played a significant role in the proclamation of the Southwest National Park – and later the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. He raised the alarm about the conservation status of the Orange-bellied Parrot that is reliant on habitat in the region for breeding, and guided anthropologists to sites used by the Needwonnee people, the original stewards of the land and seas. Today their ancestors are involved in the management of the Wilderness area and contribute to interpretive experiences such as the distinctive ‘Needwonnee Walk’, also at Melaleuca.
After spending over six marvellous hours in the southwest we flew back to Hobart, this time taking an inland flight path. Flying over the wild rivers and jagged peaks of the World Heritage Tasmanian Wilderness, and being able to see outlying islands and mountain ranges in the distance, was an incredible experience.
A highlight was flying over Federation Peak (1274 m asl); said to be declared by Sir Edmond Hillary as the only real mountain in Australia.
Federation Peak, named after the Federation of Australia, marks the southern end of the Eastern Arthur Range in the Southwest National Park. As we continued towards Hobart, approximately 90 kilometres northeast of the peak, we soon found ourselves overlooking landscapes significantly modified by industrial-scale forestry and rapid urban expansion. Salmon farms were a dominate feature of D’entrecasteaux Channel and associated coastal waters. The Park is described as large, remote and pristine. However, seeing the region from the air and water provided a different perspective. While undeniably precious, the Park is relatively small in area given the management imperative to sustain the large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes that have shaped its past and underpin its future – especially in the context of climate change.
Staying close to home during the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to further explore elemental Tasmania, including the Three Capes Track, the Overland Track and Maria Island. The flight to the southwest of Tasmania and tour of Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey was an experience I’d also had in mind for many years. The Southwest National Park and Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area are global treasures worth celebrating and honouring on Earth Day and every other day. The dynamic landscapes and waterbodies generate awe and wonder as does the antiquity of human presence in the region. Accessible only by aircraft, boat and on foot, visitation rates are relatively low. Wind and water, including snow that can fall at any time of year, place additional constraints on access. The elements rule! Southwest Tasmania is a spectacular wild place and it is imperative that we protect it for future generations.