Tasmania's Wild West

Posted on: 20/03/2020

The long strip of sand stretched away in a gentle arc into a haze of sea mist, which hung thin and vapourish, over both the land and water. The sea was nearly as calm as the proverbial mill pond but a weak sliver of white water oozed its way along the shore where a wave, if you could call it that, washed over white sands.  

The beach itself was backed for much of the way by thick verdant scrub but at its mid-point a series of tall sinuous dunes, a few hundred metres inland from the sea, broke the strip of green into two. At the beaches farthest end a smudge of darkness indicated where sand ran into stone while a speck of white marked the whereabouts of the lighthouse that perches on distant rocks. 

Above us the sky was a rich cobalt blue, even though the weather forecast had predicted rain all morning; we felt lucky the weather forecasters had got it completely wrong.

I was standing on a low sandy, sometimes limestone ridge, called Lookout Point, that gave a splendid view south towards our destination: Sandy Cape. The beach looked benign enough but from past experience I knew that the beach run south was touched with danger, soft sand and what some even call ‘quicksand’. 

Soon after our expansive view south we dropped onto the beach, crossed Greens Creek and ran south, the waves just washing up a short distance away from our vehicle tracks. The tide had dropped to its low point an hour or so earlier and would start running in strongly in the next hour or so; it’s not the best time for a run along a dicey beach but one we had to live with and hope we didn’t have too much trouble.

The Thornton River was next, its tannin-stained water backed up into a large lagoon just behind a steeply shelving beach. A thin strip of running water was the lagoon’s outlet as it raced its way towards the open water. The first vehicle skipped through the creek, bounced over the lip of sand on the far side and ploughed its way across the soft intervening beach between ocean and lagoon. The second vehicle in our convoy went the same way, carving deep tracks in the soft sand. I followed next, staying away from the furrows, but still bogging down in one soft section before reaching safety on the far side. Our fourth and last vehicle wasn’t so lucky sinking in the soft section, even though it was the lightest of our group. 

In such situations it pays to know what to do and within seconds, our recovery plan kicked into action; sand was removed from around tyres without digging too deep as the water table was shallow. Maxtrax were laid in front of each wheel and our second lightest vehicle connected up with a snatch strap to haul the recalcitrant vehicle out of the mire. It popped out, but the tow vehicle itself sunk in the process. Still it wasn’t bad and with the use of the Maxtrax, it simply drove out. 

Back on firmer sand, away from the reach of the tide, we sorted gear and prepared ourselves for the next two streams we had to cross before reaching our rocky headland far to the south.

Back to the beginning

Our trip in Tassie had started a couple of weeks earlier. We had left Hobart and wandered through the Central Plateau of our island state, camping at one of the many lagoons that dot the high-country interior of Tasmania. 

From there we had wandered along the blacktop (there’s little choice really) through Derwent Bridge, stopping to admire ‘The Wall’, a modern masterpiece depicting the history of Tasmania in carved and sculpted Huon pine. No photos are allowed of ‘The Wall’, the artist adamant that cameras be left outside and phones in pockets while publicity is purely word of mouth; it seems to work.

We stopped next in Queenstown, an historic mining town a little more picturesque since the smelter closed and stopped belching poisonous fumes that had denuded all the hill for miles around. Nature has now reclaimed much of the man-made devastation and, whenever I've visited, always enjoyed this hard-working town, perched as it is on the edge of Tassie’s famous south-west wilderness. When you are there, take the time to enjoy the West Coast Wilderness Railway which runs between Queenstown and Strahan, the famous and unique steam-powered Abt train chugging through delightful rainforest and across numerous streams. Kids, steam buffs, everyone will love the experience. 

Down the hill and perched on the edge of Macquarie Harbour, one of the largest natural harbours in Australia, is the small but important village of Strahan. Originally established in the 1870s as an access point for the nascent mining industry, it soon became an outlet for the Huon pine and fishing enterprises. Today it thrives on tourism and is well worth a stop-off for a few days, or more.   

The harbour’s shallow expanse is fed by a number of significant mountain-fed waterways, including the Gordon, King, Queen and Bird rivers to name a few. The narrow outlet at Macquarie Heads gives the raging, rock-strewn opening the name of ‘Hell’s Gate’ and the harbour’s sinister reputation was added to when the area’s first settlement was a convict prison on Sarah Island, established in 1822. During its 11 years of existence the prison gained fame as one of the harshest in the country – and that's really saying something. Today the ruins can be visited on a cruise of the harbour (and Heads) and it’s an informative, enjoyable way to spend a day. 

That evening we camped out at Macquarie Heads, the camping area a bit more crowded than normal, as when we were there it was a long weekend in the state. Then next day we dropped onto the beach at the Heads and drove the Ocean Beach 10km north and took the exit which led back into Strahan. 

We had an uncomplicated drive on this last trip, the sand being firm and easy to drive on, but it’s not always so, with winter storms stripping the beach of sand and leaving very little, if any, to drive on. If in need of more adventure, this beach drive can be extended as far north as the mouth of the Henty River, 8km further on, the river being generally too deep and wide to cross. 

Montezuma's revenge

We headed off to Zeehan and checked out its great little museum before heading out on the Montezuma Falls track. This route follows the easement of the North East Dundas Railway which was opened in 1898 to service the rich mines in the area. Today it’s a challenging and often wet 4WD trail, the route being much more eroded and rougher than the times I had driven it in the past. Still, the view of the falls, the tallest in Tasmania, at the end of the 4WD track, is impressive and worth the drive. For those who don’t want to accept the 4WD challenge, the falls are accessible via a walking track (again following the railway easement) from the other side of the chasm that guard the falls, this route beginning at Williamsford which is accessible via a good road from near Rosebery.

Back at Zeehan, after our drive to the Falls, we headed to the Zeehan Bush Camp for the night before taking the drive north to Corinna and the ferry across the mighty Pieman River. Established in 1881 when gold was discovered in the tributaries of the Pieman, Corinna once had a population of around 2500 people and was serviced by two hotels, a number of stores and shops along with a post office. In 1883 the largest gold nugget found in Tassie was unearthed near here and weighed in at a goodly 7.5kg, worth over $567,000 today. Legend has it though that the nugget was smuggled into Tassie from Victoria to boost the area’s gold potential and attract more people.

The town, sitting on the edge of the river and the Tarkine/ takayna Wilderness, the largest temperate rainforest in Australia, is a lot quieter today, while the Tarkine Hotel caters for the passing throng and those wanting to stay awhile. Apart from enjoyable cruises on the river on-board the ‘MV Acadia 11’, there are a number of walks in the surrounding forest while canoeing, boating, and birdwatching are extremely popular ways to pass the time.

Just passing through

This last time we didn’t stay all that long, just long enough to have a beer and a meal before heading north on what is officially known as the Western Explorer Highway. It’s a pretty good gravel road for most of the way, crossing the major streams of the Savage, Donaldson and the Lindsay rivers on bridges and passing through some magical rainforest before climbing onto high button grass plains.

 

Before reaching the bitumen east of Couta Rocks the road passes the junction of the Balfour track. Eastward leads a short distance to the old mining town of Balfour and the scattered ruins of this once important settlement. Westward, the Balfour Track leads to the Sandy Cape Track and is very much a challenge even for the best set-up and experienced four wheel drivers. This time around we chickened-out as the area had been receiving some heavy rain and the bog holes along the way would have, we imagined, been very deep. 

Instead we headed for the tiny fishing outpost of Couta Rocks and then north to the bigger settlement of Arthur River where we set up camp in the national park run campground. 

Next day we ran south to Temma and our viewpoint at Lookout Point, lowered our tyre pressures and took to the beaches and headlands for the drive south to Sandy Cape. Once at the Cape we checked out the view from near the lighthouse – more a cement box with a light on top – and was surprised to find we had good Telstra mobile phone reception here – aaah, the wonders of modern technology! We then wandered back to the protected beach on the inside of the cape and enjoyed an invigorating swim in the cool waters of the Southern Ocean.  It was a fitting end to our travels on the wild west coast of Tassie and one we’ll never forget. We’ll definitely be back!