THE ORIGINAL LAKE PEDDER AND ITS PINK QUARTZ BEACH ARE HIDDEN BUT NOT LOST, DROWNED IN THE 70S FOR HYDROELECTRIC STORAGE. THEY WAIT TO BE RESTORED, BUT IN THE MEANTIME, THE DAMMED SERPENTINE MAKES A SPECTACULAR LANDSCAPE FOR HIKING AND KAYAKING.
One hundred and fifty kilometres northwest of Hobart lies Lake Pedder. Ringed by mountain ranges and river gorges, rainforests and fields of buttongrass, this teablack lake is central to the Southwest National Park, over 600,000 hectares of the most extraordinary wilderness. It also bears the scar of an old conservation war, lost but not forgotten.
For the next four days, my companions here will be a family of British expats from New Zealand – mum, dad and their three teenage sons – and our two guides. Our base will be the Pedder Wilderness Lodge at Strathgordon. Together we will walk through World Heritage rainforest and alpine mountains and kayak kilometres over the lake, stopping at waterfalls and beaches and drinking from its still, dark waters. Some of us will swim in the lake too, though not for long.
Leading us through this moody, majestic landscape are two fit men in their 30s: local lad Lou Balcombe, a second-generation hydraulics engineer whose father worked on the nearby Gordon Dam; and Andy (András) Szollosi, a wiry Budapest-born wilderness photographer who moved to Melbourne at 14, then down to Tasmania in his early 20s.
Balcombe and Szollosi are part of Tasmania’s “outdoors community” and spend their spare time and cash volunteering at landcare cleanups, protesting against native habitat destruction, and plotting their next big wilderness adventure. They collect us by minivan in Hobart at some ungodly hour, and drive an hour northwest to Bushy Park for breakfast at a historic homestead in a hops-growing district. Over rustic toast with local honey and jams our group gets acquainted before assembling in the shed for the day’s briefing and a gear check: hiking boots, rain jackets, walking poles, water bottles, gloves, beanies, gaiters, head torches.
Having passed inspection, we head for Mount Field National Park to walk the 15km Twisted Lakes/Tarn Shelf Track. En route we learn that a “tarn” is a lake at the highest point of a glacial valley. As we climb, the swamp gums, tree ferns and mop-top pandani give way to myrtle and wildflower thickets, then above the shelf, snow gums. Few Australian national parks have such vegetal diversity. Up on the Tarn Shelf is a bonsai landscape of myrtle, pencil pine, and a mosaic carpet of wildflowers, kept in check by the climate. As Szollosi says: “Once you’re at 1000m, the wind and cold are the gardeners.”
It’s only mid-April, but the wind is already icy and the fagus are starting to turn. Nothofagus gunnii is Australia’s only cold-climate deciduous plant: a small beech tree reaching no higher than 5m, it grows nowhere else in the world, and we are catching it in the act. All around Lake Newdegate, its tiny crinkle-cut leaves are turning amber, gold and red, and they will be gone by mid-May. This seasonal spectacle is marked (like Japan’s cherry blossoms) with an annual “turning of the fagus” festival of local art and guided walks by Parks and Wildlife Tasmania.
Descending from the Tarn at last light, we stop to take in a breathtaking, silent panorama over Broad River Valley, and the distant Derwent Valley. We pass ski huts nestling under snow gums, where Balcombe and a friend sought refuge overnight during a snowstorm last summer – “Not as uncommon as you’d think,” he says.
Back at the lodge, a hot shower, cold beer and rowdy dinner revives flagging city feet. Lou announces a change due to the weather forecast. “Tomorrow should be a nice easy pace – we’re kayaking.”
Following breakfast the next morning our first stop is Gordon Dam, to walk along its spine where abseilers are preparing to plunge into the quartzite gorge below. A short drive takes us to the Sprent Basin and set out in two-person kayaks for a 16km paddle back to base.
Out into Serpentine Reach, we find ourselves in murky waters. Below us is the old Serpentine River bed that once snaked its way across the valley floor, draining the original Lake Pedder into the Gordon River, then Macquarie Harbour, and out to the Southern Ocean. A Lithuanian refugee, Olegas Truchanas, was the first European to make that voyage, alone in his handmade
steel and canvas canoe. He had settled in Tasmania after World War II and made a lifetime of lengthy solo trips into this wilderness, returning to share his photographs and findings at popular public lectures.
Through the Reach, we’re surrounded by Precambrian quartzite peaks of the Frankland and Sentinel ranges, and jurassic dolerite of Mount Wedge and Mount Anne (southwest Tasmania’s tallest at 1423m). Birdcalls and waterfalls drift in and out of the soundscape, before we pull into a sheltered cove and huddle our kayaks to share cups of tea and Balcombe’s mum’s cookies. A few hours later, the white quartz beach of Wilmot Island serves as our lunch spot, where a few of us strip off the thermals and brave the “bracing” water – briefly.
Past White Spur Point and Trappes Island, we cruise into Strathgordon Bay, reaching the lodge before sunset. Having kayaked lazily under the clouds, today (day three), we climb into them, for the eight-hour return circuit on Mt Eliza – the biggest challenge of this trip. It starts from Condominium Creek, heading east over a narrow boardwalk through buttongrass meadows before the ascent begins abruptly. For three hours, our band of eight climbs 1000m up a steep track that’s mostly defined by steps. Our guides point out the tiny holes in the ground where freshwater crayfish hide. Looking back, a vast panorama unfurls, and it’s easy to imagine the Lake Pedder that beguiled Truchanas.
On a spur just below Eliza Plateau and the treeline, we stop for lunch near High Camp Hut, another refuge for bushwalkers. The alpine winds have stunted Tasmania’s smallest eucalyptus, E. vernicosa, the varnished gum, into little more than a shrub. While we rest in the afternoon sun, bees are at work on the native plum and pepperberry bushes, and wiry bauera – “a trekker’s nightmare”, says Balcombe, with its tiny talons.
From here our guides point to other landmarks and walks they’ve done, or plan to: the Sentinel Range (963m), Mount Wedge (1146ms), Deception Ridge, the Western Arthurs — one of Tasmania’s more spectacular ranges — and Frenchmans Cap, where the rare Huon pine is hanging on. Above us, Balcombe spots another endangered Tasmanian, a wedge-tailed eagle, updrafting on an air current near Eliza’s peak.
Day four takes us out of the clouds and into the Upper Florentine Regional Reserve, where some of the tallest trees on earth live – the swamp gum or E. regnans. We fill our water bottles from Churchill Creek then take an old mining road, the Adamsfield track, into the forest where sassafras, leatherwoods, tree ferns and moss thrive in the cool lower canopy. In a small clearing we reach Churchill Hut, built by trapper and logger Elias Churchill, who caught the last Tasmanian tiger here in 1933. The tiger died three years later at Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo, but its timber impoundment remains, and wishful thylacine “sightings” abound in the area still.
In the forest clearings around fallen giants are saplings of celery-top pine and tea-tree, racing for light, with purple apple berry, forest flax-lily, and a saw-toothed wheat grass around them. On the forest floor, moss, lichen and fungi are composting the old
Our guides point out the tiny holes where freshwater crayfish hide. Looking back, a vast panorama unfurls.
hardwood sleepers of the Adamsfield track, as well as every fallen leaf and limb, back into life-giving humus. Amid the patchwork of deep greens and black earth come flashes of brightly coloured fungi – milky whites, tangerine and the brilliant cyan Mycena interrupta, or pixie’s parasol, no bigger than a thumbnail. “The more types of fungi you find, the healthier the forest,” Balcombe says.
We reach a stand of old regnans, 3m or more in diameter. Bark draped in ferns and moss, knuckles protruding, like awnings, over hollows at their base. One has a crown of spires so far above the canopy they can’t be counted. We are silenced, even the three boys, and just sit awhile with these ancient brothers.
In 2011, environmentalist Miranda Gibson climbed to a tiny wooden platform suspended 60m up a 400-yearold regnans she named the Observer Tree. She lived there for 449 days, supported by volunteers on the ground, in protest against the logging of this old-growth forest. Their campaign was rewarded in 2013 when the Upper Florentine was added to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, although the nearby Styx Valley remains under threat.
Wild Pedder began in 2016. Lou cofounded it with his friend Cody McCracken, an environmental scientist and conservationist he met through the Tasmanian Walking Company. The pair developed the Pedder Experience, first taking small groups on wilderness day-trips with comfortable lodgings for nightly return. They spent a year traversing this terrain in all weather to build an itinerary that, says McCracken, “really shows the diversity of the southwest Wilderness in Tasmania’s largest national park”.
Breathtaking as it is, Pedder is an altered landscape. The original lake was drowned in the early 1970s when the Hydro Electric Commission dammed the Serpentine and Huon rivers to make cheap electricity for an aluminium smelter. Truchanas had campaigned against it for years, along with artist Max Angus, activist Brenda Hean (who mysteriously disappeared in 1972), and countless others locally and internationally who saw its significance. Nearly 50 years later, it’s believed that the lake, with its dazzling 3km beach of pink quartz sand, and the Serpentine River, are lying intact, waiting to be revived.
In his 1986 book Lake Pedder showing the many moods of the original lake, with photographs by Truchanas and others, Bob Brown wrote: “Lake Pedder lies beneath the tide of insensitivity which still curses human affairs ... but beyond these times, a wiser and kinder age beckons us into the future.”
Whether or not the damming is undone, the Tasmanian outdoors community is part of that “wiser, kinder future”. Balcombe’s instruction on our first day of this trip speaks volumes about a love of nature, and the influence of Truchanas: “One rule applies whenever we go into a wild place: we take only photographs, and we leave only footprints.” Wild Pedder operates this vehicle-supported four-day itinerary from November to May, with accommodation at Pedder Wilderness Lodge, Strathgordon. wildpedder.com.au
Breathtaking as it is, Pedder is an altered landscape. The original lake was drowned to make cheap electricity.
Clockwise from above: Wild Pedder founders Lou Balcombe, left, and Cody McCracken; the enlarged Lake Pedder; the pixies’s parasol fungus; and kayaking on Serpentine Reach