Into the wild blue yon­der

The joys of kayak­ing in Tas­ma­nia’s rugged south­west

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - MATTHEW DENHOLM

COOL­ING my feet in the shal­lows of one of the na­tion’s most pris­tine and re­mote beaches, my at­ten­tion is torn be­tween com­pet­ing won­ders — some gi­gan­tic, oth­ers mi­nus­cule. Look­ing up­wards, the field of vi­sion is filled with end­less tow­er­ing peaks, flanks of soft or­ange-brown and olive-green ris­ing to hard knuck­les of white, gnarly quartzite.

To my left and right stretches a body of tea-coloured wa­ter three times the size of Syd­ney Har­bour, stud­ded with wide, white sandy coves, and fed by an­cient, wild rivers. It’s enough to hold the gaze of even the most jaded trav­eller. But some­thing is tick­ling my barely sub­merged toes, forc­ing my eyes down­wards to dis­cover a troupe of tiny semi-trans­par­ent crus­taceans frol­ick­ing on my feet. Th­ese cheeky shrimp are as minute as I feel, im­mersed in this vast wilder­ness at the bot­tom of the world, deep in­side the re­mote Tas­ma­nian Wilder­ness World Her­itage Area.

Al­most as Lil­liputian are the pe­tite red “bis­cuit” seas­t­ars and lu­mi­nes­cent “sea jewel” seaweed washed ashore — in­tri­cate, colour­ful trin­kets of­fered up by the mys­te­ri­ous inky wa­ters. This cor­ner of Tas­ma­nia’s rugged south­west — the 178sq km Port Davey Marine Re­serve, one of Australia’s most pris­tine es­tu­ar­ine sys­tems — is as en­chant­ing as it is re­mote, a walk of up to seven days from the near­est road.

Our Wilder­ness on Wa­ter ex­pe­di­tion of 10 kayak­ers flies in from Ho­bart on a light air­craft, a jour­ney across mighty moun­tain ranges, alpine lakes and the state’s south­ern forests. We land smoothly on a daz­zling white gravel airstrip at Me­laleuca, a for­mer tin-min­ing out­post and com­mon start­ing point for the famed South Coast Track walk. Here we load our gear on to wheel­bar­rows and push them to a land­ing by the side of a creek where, wait­ing for us, are the brightly coloured sea kayaks that will be our main mode of trans­port for the week, as­sisted by two guides from award-win­ning Ho­bart-based tour com­pany Roar­ing 40s Kayak­ing.

The kayaks will al­low us to ex­plore as far and wide as our fit­ness and fickle weather al­low, from the wide calm ex­panse of Bathurst Har­bour, through Bathurst Chan­nel and over the white-capped waves of Port Davey. I am among a few of the group — mostly main­land Aus­tralians aged from their 30s to 60s — need­ing to re­ac­ti­vate ne­glected pad­dling skills.

So it is a re­lief that our first pad­dle is a gen­tle 90 min­utes, ini­tially along the nar­row Me­laleuca Creek, past the broad ex­panse of Me­laleuca La­goon, into the me­an­der- ing Me­laleuca In­let. Just at the point where the in­let feeds into Bathurst Har­bour, be­hind a peb­bly beach known as For­est La­goon, we find our base camp. Here among eu­ca­lypts and me­laleuca (tea tree) are yurt-like tents, con­nected to each other and a com­mon eat­ing area by mesh-cov­ered board­walks.

We have hardly earned it on the first day, but Roar­ing 40s owner Reg Grundy and fel­low guide Jake Ter­hell pro­duce sushi and wine for us, fol­lowed by pan-fried salmon with dill and chive mashed potato. Ser­e­naded by twi­light bird­song, we watch the set­ting sun play on the ra­zor­back peaks of nearby Mount Rugby and the more dis­tant hig­gledy-pig­gledy West­ern Arthur Range.

It is the per­fect start to our ex­pe­di­tion of seven days, but each is to bring its own mar­vels. Only the first and last nights are spent at base camp; be­tween we pitch our tents on shore­lines ad­ja­cent to im­pos­si­bly beau­ti­ful, iso­lated sandy beaches. Quickly a rou­tine de­vel­ops. Af­ter a fairly leisurely break­fast and, when nec­es­sary, a pack­ing-up of camp, we set off for a morn­ing’s kayak­ing. A suit­able shore is se­lected for lunch, which is con­jured by guides Grundy and Ter­hell from the holds of our kayaks. An af­ter­noon’s pad­dle ends in yet an­other idyl­lic lo­ca­tion and an­other mirac­u­lously pro­duced hearty meal.

Time, the el­e­ments and the skill and stamina of the least phys­i­cally ca­pa­ble among us dic­tate our progress, and Grundy tweaks the itin­er­ary to bal­ance th­ese fac­tors.

Wildlife ranges from the sub­lime to the bizarre. Ma­jes­tic white-bel­lied sea ea­gles ef­fort­lessly pluck a meal from the wa­ter’s sur­face, as nest­ing black swans labour by, their necks out­stretched, as if strain­ing to cross an in­vis­i­ble fin­ish­ing line.

When our cramped kayak­ers’ legs need a stretch, we hike spec­tac­u­lar moor­land and moun­tain tracks, dodg­ing the strange mud chim­neys that mark the sub­ter­ranean world of the elu­sive fresh­wa­ter bur­row­ing cray­fish.

An­other of the joys of this trip is the va­ri­ety of pad­dling con­di­tions, from the serene, mir­ror-like sur­face of the shel­tered in­land wa­ters to the churn­ing ex­cite­ment of waves re­bound­ing on our kayaks from Port Davey’s Break­sea Is­lands, where meta­mor­phosed cliffs stand like

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