Na­ture Noir

WHALES AND WILD WA­TERS, SUGARED BEACHES AND DRA­MATIC LAND­SCAPES, KAN­GA­ROOS AND CON­VICT CHRON­I­CLES ARE ALL WRAPPED INTO THE STORY OF THIS ISO­LATED COASTAL STRETCH MADE AC­CES­SI­BLE WHEN EX­PLORED BY SMALL SHIP

NZ Life & Leisure - - Destination/Tasmania - WORDS & PHOTOGR APHS DON FUCHS

CRUIS­ING THE EX­POSED south coast of Tas­ma­nia is a pho­tog­ra­pher’s dream – and to­day, a cap­tain’s too. “A gen­tle swell,” says master of the ship Nathan Clark. “Ideal con­di­tions,” en­thuses ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist Mike Sug­den. We all agree. The sur­face is oily, there’s no wind, and ev­ery­one is on deck as a large pod of dol­phins plays in the bow wave.

We are cruis­ing along in re­mote wa­ters, pass­ing the promon­to­ries of the South Cape. Ahead are the Maat­suyker Is­lands, bas­tions of rock in an ocean known for its fury and foul weather. The last im­age I take that day is of De Witt Is­land in the fad­ing light, dwarfed by dra­matic, dark clouds, their fringes glow­ing pale or­ange.

The next morn­ing, I wake up sur­rounded by pris­tine wilder­ness. Dur­ing the night our ship has en­tered shel­tered Port Davey in the World Her­itage-listed South­west Na­tional Park. Af­ter break­fast we set off to shore. Low grey clouds swal­low colours on this cool morn­ing. For­bid­ding waste­land or glo­ri­ous wilder­ness? For Alex Dud­ley, dis­cov­ery ranger on board, there’s no ques­tion: “It’s mag­nif­i­cent and de­servedly on the World Her­itage list for wilder­ness value, its di­ver­sity of plants and land­forms.” Most of the pas­sen­gers make their way up Mt Mil­ner to en­joy tremen­dous views over the shel­tered body of wa­ter and the moun­tains be­hind.

We are on an ex­pe­di­tion-style voy­age to ex­plore some of Tas­ma­nia’s spec­tac­u­lar coast­line: soar­ing sea cliffs, a mul­ti­tude of is­lands, hid­den bays and wa­ter­ways, glo­ri­ous beaches, safe an­chor­ages, and un­touched wilder­ness over­layed with tes­ti­monies of his­tory. The Coral Dis­cov­erer is a 63m sleek white dream of a ves­sel with room for a max­i­mum of 72 pas­sen­gers. It is in­ti­mate and very com­fort­able but with­out the flashy trim­mings of the big cruise ships. The des­ti­na­tion is the fo­cus, not life on board.

The be­gin­ning of the cruise is be­nign: The Der­went River, the D’En­tre­casteaux Chan­nel, Recherche Bay, Cockle Creek and plenty of ex­cur­sions along the way. Cockle Creek, the south­ern-most point on Tas­ma­nia that can be reached by car, sits on the edge of the South­west Wilder­ness. It is the last out­post be­fore what feels like the end of the world. Where cars must stop we can con­tinue – and head straight into the open ocean swell.

A day later, we are in Port Davey. Af­ter shore ex­cur­sions we pen­e­trate deeper into the wilder­ness with Master Nathan Clark guid­ing the ship slowly through the Bathurst Chan­nel and The Nar­rows into Bathurst Har­bour. Although he doesn’t find it par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing to nav­i­gate th­ese re­mote wa­ters, deep con­cen­tra­tion is writ­ten on his face. That af­ter­noon, we are treated to a dis­play of South­west splen­dour. The mo­not­o­nous cloud cover breaks up and colour floods the land­scape: blue sky, in­ter­spersed with pho­to­genic clouds, dis­tant hills awash with warm sun­set hues, a pe­riod of cof­fee-book light for those with cam­eras. It is a brief glimpse into what could be but sel­dom is. This area lies in the path of the Roar­ing For­ties and low pres­sure af­ter low pres­sure slams into the ex­posed land­scape. There is al­most al­ways cli­matic drama here.

Un­ex­pected move­ment wakes me the next morn­ing; short buffs make the ship sway gen­tly. Up on deck, fierce wind gusts are chop­ping up the ink sur­face of the wa­ter. The is­lands and sur­round­ing moun­tains are just start­ing to get tex­ture in this over­cast morn­ing. Af­ter break­fast we fol­low a nar­row river-like wa­ter­way to the out­post of Me­laleuca and take an ex­hil­a­rat­ing walk to a spec­tac­u­lar look­out high above Bathurst Har­bour. As soon as we re­turn, the master or­ders the an­chor lifted and the re­turn jour­ney to Tas­ma­nia’s east coast lasts through the night. The wind has turned to a nor’west­erly and shortly past the Break­sea Is­lands that guard the en­trance to Port Davey, the Coral Dis­cov­erer steams into a heav­ing sea.

I flee into my cabin. Look­ing out through the win­dow I see a world in mo­tion, with sharp rock pin­na­cles rear­ing out of grey wa­ter. I man­age to nod off de­spite the bumpy ride and wake up in the calm wa­ters of Ad­ven­ture Bay on Bruny Is­land.

A huge break­fast beck­ons – last night’s missed din­ner must be com­pen­sated for. Be­sides, the skills of the gifted ship’s chef, Travis Scarr, must be hon­oured. Then it is terra firma again: a de­light­ful am­ble to the lofty top of Fluted Cape and a visit to the small Bligh Mu­seum fol­lowed by an af­ter­noon cruise in calm con­di­tions across Storm Bay to­wards Tas­man Is­land.

For Alex Dud­ley this is a high­light of the cruise. “Tas­man Is­land at sun­set is ex­tra­or­di­nary,” he says. The cliffs are lit up in warm or­ange then the colours slowly fade, turn­ing it into a stark, black sil­hou­ette. As the Coral Dis­cov­erer passes the for­bid­ding cliffs, a hump­back whale with its playful calf joins the views; the ex­cite­ment and dis­trac­tions are so pow­er­ful din­ner is post­poned. Only the fad­ing light drives us back in­side.

Overnight our ship passes the east­ern side of Maria Is­land and en­ters Great Oys­ter Bay. We are dropped off on the shores of Fr­eycinet Na­tional Park for a walk through the gran­ite peaks of The Haz­ards to glo­ri­ous Wine­glass Bay. We tramp across the blind­ing white sand as the wa­ter sparkles. There is a faint smell of sea weed and salt. We have the beach to our­selves. While we are walk­ing, Nathan steams the ship around the tip of the Fr­eycinet Penin­sula and drops an­chor off what is one of the most beau­ti­ful beaches in Aus­tralia.

From Wine­glass Bay the ship heads south again. In his log­book, Nathan notes: “Ap­prox­i­mately half­way to Maria Is­land is Ile des Pho­ques (Seal Is­land) where I was able to bring the ship to within half a boat length off the rocks for a fan­tas­tic view of a colony of seals bask­ing on the rock ledges.” In the dis­tance, moun­tain­ous Maria Is­land is al­ready vis­i­ble. It is a pleas­ant tra­verse, with blue skies and sun­shine. But when we ar­rive, ex­po­sure to 20knot winds make the planned an­chor­age in front of the his­toric set­tle­ment of Dar­ling­ton im­pos­si­ble, so the an­chor drops in Fos­sil Bay on the other side of the is­land. As shel­tered as the an­chor­age is, it throws a chal­lenge at the crew. In­stead of an easy land­ing at the jetty in Dar­ling­ton, we go ashore at Fos­sil Bay. Wind and a steep climb from the rock shelf add a lit­tle ad­ven­ture. The is­land lives up to its rep­u­ta­tion: wildlife abounds with kan­ga­roos, Cape Bar­ren geese and tame wom­bats roam­ing the grassy ar­eas.

Port Arthur is one of Aus­tralia’s premier his­toric sites, but be­fore ex­plor­ing, it is once again na­ture that grabs the spot­light. Af­ter break­fast, we head through the Mer­cury Pas­sage to­wards the Forestier Penin­sula be­fore pass­ing the mag­nif­i­cent sea stacks of the Tas­man Penin­sula, this time in full sun­light. Then the master steers the ship through the nar­row pas­sage be­tween soar­ing Cape Pil­lar and Tas­man Is­land – right into a heav­ing caul­dron.

Fully ex­posed to the wind and the swell (W/SW 20-25 knots, swell 3-4m is noted in the cap­tain’s log), I’m on the top deck, rid­ing out the bumps, watch­ing waves crash into the rocks, as large swells roll to­wards the ship. It is ex­hil­a­rat­ing. Then we reach the shel­tered fjord that leads to a most beau­ti­ful and idyl­lic lo­ca­tion with a most bru­tal past: Port Arthur. We ar­rive, as the con­victs once did, by ship. Our wel­come, how­ever, is a dif­fer­ent one: no shack­les but a knowl­edge­able guide and a be­hind-the-scenes tour. And we can leave. The next morn­ing, we are back in Ho­bart.

ABOVE: The do­lerite cliffs of Tas­man Is­land soar al­most 300 me­tres out of the Tas­man Sea. An au­to­mated lighthouse and a weather sta­tion are lo­cated on top of the is­land. RIGHT, FROM TOP: Dol­phins came right along­side the boat and this shot was taken with a 70-200mm lens on a fast shut­ter speed to cap­ture them. While you had to guess where the dol­phins would sur­face, the wa­ter was so clear you could see them ap­proach­ing; am­bling along the empty beach at Wine­glass Bay in Fr­eycinet Na­tional Park on a rare blue- sky day.

THIS PHOTO: Coral Dis­cov­erer drops an­chor in Port Davey on the wild south- west coast of Tas­ma­nia while its ten­der is on the way to Mt Mil­ner, a prom­i­nent peak on the shores of the nat­u­ral har­bour. BE­LOW: Ever- smil­ing Shana Kes­sell is on the wheel of the ten­der, bring­ing cruis­ers close to the rugged Break­sea Is­lands; charts of the re­mote Port Davey and Bathurst Har­bour within the South­west Na­tional Park are essen­tial tools for Cap­tain Nathan Clark.

LEFT: It’s quite a climb to reach the ex­posed look­out at Fluted Cape on Bruny Is­land and not for the faint- hearted. BE­LOW: Flow­er­ing swamp honey- myr­tle adds a splash of colour to the vast moor­lands of South­west Na­tional Park.

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