Kayak­ing Bathurst Har­bour


Adventure - - Extreme Conditions - By Gabi Mo­catta

To­day glacial melt­ing and sea level rises are some of the fear­ful har­bin­gers of global warm­ing, but what glacial melt­ing cre­ated in Tas­ma­nia at the end of the last Ice Age made it quite sim­ply a sea kayaker’s nir­vana. Shrouded in splen­did iso­la­tion, edged with a con­vo­luted trac­ery of land and sea, Tas­ma­nia has wilder­ness wa­ter­ways aplenty. In the far South West, sur­rounded by 600,000 hectares of UNESCO World Her­itage Wilder­ness is a place that’s so iso­lated, it feels like the end of the world. This is Bathurst Har­bour and Port Davey; a vast in­land har­bour and a drowned river sys­tem spread like a gi­ant hand, gloved in white quartzite sand and stretch­ing out to sea. Abo­rig­i­nal Tas­ma­ni­ans lived here for mil­len­nia, shift­ing their hunt­ing grounds up and down this wild coast, col­lect­ing abun­dant shell­fish and leav­ing be­hind de­tailed traces of that life. Fre­quent burn­ing of the coastal bush by th­ese first in­hab­i­tants shaped the land­scape per­ma­nently, form­ing from the orig­i­nal tem­per­ate rain­for­est open but­ton­grass plains. The high tan­nin con­tent of the acidic but­ton­grass fa­mously colours the wa­ters here; the shal­lows of Bathurst Har­bour and Port Davey lap a rich tea brown, and where the wa­ters are deeper they’re an inky ob­sid­ian. Sea kayak­ing at Bathurst Har­bour is a fly-in ad­ven­ture. The jour­ney starts in a Cessna out of Tas­ma­nia’s beau­ti­ful wa­ter­side cap­i­tal, Ho­bart. As the plane tracks over Ho­bart’s wide Der­went River and out of town, there are soon ra­zor­back peaks and tall forests as the South West Wilder­ness un­folds. As for­est gives way to but­ton­grass, the small gravel airstrip at Me­laleuca comes into view; this built al­most sin­gle-hand­edly by leg­endary Tas­ma­nian wilder­ness pi­o­neer Deny King, who spent most of his life in Me­laleuca’s edge-of-the-world iso­la­tion. Be­fore the airstrip, the only way into Me­laleuca was by boat – or on foot; a week of tough, sod­den walk­ing to the near­est hu­man set­tle­ment. Gear is carted from the airstrip, and kayaks are packed and checked. This is to be a week-long ex­plo­ration of th­ese wa­ter­ways, but the mounds of gear fit eas­ily into roomy dou­ble kayaks. Soon, we’re on the wa­ter and pow­ered by two pairs of arms, we glide swiftly along. We’ve pad­dled less than a minute and our brightly coloured kayaks are the only man-made things about. We’re pad­dling a nar­row, reed fringed chan­nel, stip­pled by a slight breeze. Ducks cat­a­pult out of the wa­ter on our approach, and hang sil­hou­et­ted against a sky of deep, sum­mer af­ter­noon blue. Moun­tains are dis­tant and hazy in the warm air. Any­one who’s spent time in the Tas­ma­nian bush knows to ex­pect one thing: weather. For the South West Wilder­ness mul­ti­ply this ten­fold. This re­gion bears the brunt of the in­fa­mous Roar­ing For­ties winds that whip around the planet with no land to speak of be­tween here and South Amer­ica. That means sun burn or snow flur­ries on any given day, and wa­ters that trans­form from mir­ror calm to whipped-up-in-white caps in a blink of an eye, which of course is part of the South West’s ex­cite­ment. To un­der­line the dan­gers, the map of this area bears a prom­i­nent here-be-dragons warn­ing that reads: “Ex­treme cau­tion is needed when cross­ing th­ese wa­ters par­tic­u­larly in windy weather. Do not cross at Bathurst Nar­rows when wind or tidal surges make seas rough.” We’ll get weather fore­casts by satel­lite phone, and if we’re smart, we’ll be close to planned camp­sites when the winds roar in. Then

we’ll hun­ker down in tents, or climb some blus­tery peaks while we wait for a kayak­able lull. Mus­cles warm­ing to the task, we pad­dle for the first time onto the vast wa­tery sweep of Bathurst Har­bour, and cruise round the Cel­ery Top Is­lands. In con­trast to the sparsely treed, but­ton­grass cov­ered slopes that sur­round most of this area, the is­lands are rafts for rain­for­est rem­nants. Cel­ery top pine, leather­wood, myr­tle, tree ferns are some of the Gond­wana rain­for­est species that sur­vive here. The area re­ceives more than 3 me­tres of rain a year, but th­ese is­lands and a few steep, pro­tected gul­lies are the only re­main­der of the orig­i­nal rain­for­est that cloaked this area be­fore it was changed by eons of fires – nat­u­ral as well as man­made. The open coun­try makes for good wildlife view­ing, and as we pad­dle we see wal­la­bies, and their smaller, Tas­ma­nian cousins, pademel­ons, spring­ing through the but­ton­grass. Echid­nas – spiny anteaters – are there in the but­ton­grass too, as are quolls, bandi­coots, and of course the em­blem­atic Tas­ma­nian devil. At night in our tents, we hear pos­sums in the trees. Tas­ma­nian Tigers were once here also; the open but­ton­grass prime tiger hunt­ing ground. Tigers were spot­ted in this part of Tas­ma­nia well af­ter the an­i­mal was gen­er­ally con­sid­ered ex­tinct. Be­low the wa­ter there’s some un­usual wildlife too. Of­ten when we dis­em­bark from our craft, we see spiny puffer fish skit­ting through the am­ber-hued shal­lows. In the deep, the high tan­nin con­tent has crafted a unique ecol­ogy. Where the dark, tan­nin­laden wa­ter of Bathurst Har­bour meets the clear salty sea wa­ter of Port Davey, they form two dis­tinct lay­ers, the dark wa­ter on top. This en­ables sea life nor­mally at home in deeper, darker depths, to live where it’s much more shal­low. Colour­ful sea fans and primeval look­ing sea whips thrive not far be­low the sur­face. Be­cause of this un­usual spec­trum of sea life, all of Bathurst Har­bour and Port Davey are Marine Re­serve. Ad­ven­ture divers come here for what they call “black­wa­ter div­ing” and, equipped with pow­er­ful torches to light their way, they de­clare it some of the most in­ter­est­ing div­ing in the world. Re­flec­tions are one of the mag­i­cal things about Bathurst Har­bour. On the morn­ings we wake early enough, be­fore a breath of wind, we watch the dawn tint sur­round­ing hills rosy, then orange, then golden. Ex­cept we watch it twice: once the right way up, and again, in mir­ror im­age, in the wa­ter. Per­haps the black­ness of th­ese wa­ters has some­thing to do with it. One morn­ing we pad­dle out early while the wa­ter is still glassy and un­der the im­pos­ing form of Mount Rugby we en­ter Bathurst Nar­rows. At fin­ger-like Joan Point, there’s a row­boat pulled up by the shore. This is for walk­ers on the Port Davey Track, a seven day walk that tra­verses the South West to Me­laleuca. There’s an­other boat on the other side of the nar­rows, barely 100m away, and walk­ers must row them­selves across. This is where the map ad­vises “ex­treme cau­tion”, de­spite the short­ness of the cross­ing. It’s not un­known to have to camp on one side for days and wait out fe­ro­cious weather. We kayak­ers, on the other hand are hav­ing it all fine. We nose into Joe Page Bay, and make a brief stop to walk to the grave of Critchley Parker – a young man who came down here in the 1930s to find a haven for a Jewish home­land. He was lost in the wilder­ness and his body found many months later. This was al­ways a place for tear­aways and dream­ers. At the head of Joe Page Bay we find the

re­mark­able Spring River, and the shal­low Man­woneer In­let, pep­pered with hun­dreds of black swans. As we glide by, they take flight, cir­cling and honk­ing loudly, un­til we pass through their ter­ri­tory. Up the Spring River feels like real ex­plor­ing coun­try. If ever any­thing was pris­tine, this cer­tainly looks it. It’s hard to imag­ine men once came here to har­vest sought-af­ter Huon pine – an an­cient, slow grow­ing species that has wood the colour of honey, laden with a nat­u­ral oil so po­tent, it takes hun­dreds of years to rot. The sat-phone weather fore­casts have been promis­ing wind, and sure enough, as we head for our camp spot, we’re rac­ing to surf waves. The wind’s be­hind us, which makes our pad­dling eas­ier, though we hold tightly to our pad­dles, as the breeze catches them and threat­ens to tear them away. Pad­dling in wind and waves is when sea kayak­ing be­comes its most ele­men­tal, and when we ar­rive at camp, we’re di­sheveled and ex­hil­a­rated, with grins wide enough to swal­low the har­bour. That night as the storm blows through, we talk about the peo­ple who once lived here. We marvel at the tough­ness of the Tas­ma­nian abo­rig­ines who for thou­sands of years made this do­main their home, barely clothed in wal­laby skin while we’re swathed in lay­ers of polypropy­lene and Gore­tex. Then came the pi­o­neers like Deny King, when this place was still sev­eral days’ sail­ing or a week’s walk from any­where. The small mounds of white quartzite gravel and work­ings of the earth that we’d no­ticed on our approach to the airstrip had been Deny’s: the re­mains of the tin min­ing that had sus­tained his fam­ily’s life down here. Well into his eight­ies, Deny mined here, and reg­u­larly made the treach­er­ous voy­age out of Port Davey to Ho­bart with weighty sacks of tin. The Wil­sons are the only res­i­dents in the South West now. An el­derly cou­ple, they, like Deny, make their liv­ing from tin. One af­ter­noon, we see their beamy wooden ketch steam­ing into Port Davey, home­ward bound on the fin­ish­ing leg of a rough voy­age from Ho­bart. When the weather al­lows, we make a break for the outer realms of th­ese wa­ter­ways and we pad­dle through the long, nar­row chan­nel be­tween in­land Bathurst Har­bour and Port Davey, open to the sea. Though the winds have calmed, and the sea is no longer wave-whipped, kayak­ing here can be treach­er­ous for those with less than iron stom­achs. Long, slow swells roll in here from half way around the planet, and it’s not long be­fore sev­eral of our group are feel­ing the first ef­fects of sea sick­ness. We dis­tract our­selves with ex­plo­ration of cliffs and sea caves, and watch al­ba­tross and gan­nets on the cliffs. Whales and dol­phins are of­ten seen here; to­day we spot seals, one com­ing close to the boats to get a good look at us. In the mid­dle of Port Davey are the rocky Break­sea Is­lands, which, ap­pro­pri­ately named, pro­tect us from the worst of the open ocean swell. With more wind threat­en­ing, and rain squalls ap­proach­ing, we turn our backs to the swell and head in­land. The air smells of sea, and rain be­gins to scud fiercely around us. The Tas­ma­nian South West is beau­ti­ful – and pow­er­ful – even like this. Be­fore our days in this wilder­ness run out, there’s time for a walk, and we head for nearby Mount Beat­tie, where the wind fills our wa­ter­proofs and blows us up like Miche­lin men. The view is ex­pan­sive – we can see right out to sea, all of the vast curve of Bathurst Har­bour and back to Me­laleuca and the white smudge of the airstrip. From here, there’s a sense of the enor­mity of this wilder­ness - it’s hard not to be over­awed by its great vol­ume and re­mote­ness. The pad­dle back to Me­laleuca is a wild one once again. We’re given a fi­nal wind-andrain pol­ish as we travel up the in­let, and then, just be­fore we pull up to the jetty, the scene’s sun-drenched once again, and we steam off in the warmth of it, un­der the bold­est rain­bow we’ve ever seen. This has been true wilder­ness im­mer­sion in one of the wildest places on earth. When the Cessna bounces onto the gravel, and we’ll soon be in the man-made world, the peace we’ve all found from sea kayak­ing this place feels like a re­mark­able gift. A place re­moter, wilder and more won­der­ful than this Tas­ma­nian wilder­ness on wa­ter, we can hardly imag­ine.

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