In the heart of Tasmania’s Tarkine

A wilderness of
ancient forests, contemplative silences – and a devil’s kitchen.

Published: The Australian: Travel: 24 April, 2010

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I AM standing with 11 strangers on the banks of a creek. We brush the soles of our boots, then we hang the brushes on branches.
This eccentric behaviour is to stop predatory fungi, Phytophthora cinnamomi, hitching a ride with us into the rainforest, where it could infect trees.
Ten of us have joined a walking tour with Tarkine Trails, an eco-business focusing on the Tarkine wilderness in northwest Tasmania. It’s all uphill with our backpacks for 30 minutes as we slowly make Tiger Ridge, our standing camp for the first night. It’s the most demanding exercise in our exploration of the Tarkine. During the next six days we will experience wild coasts, ancient rainforests, riverine life and dinner with a Tasmanian devil, all sustained by regional food and wine.

Deep forest: Heading to Tiger Ridge for the first night is a clever idea. Dwarfed by 80m Eucalyptus obliqua, disarmed by the cathedral silence of an enveloping rainforest (punctured every now and then by a squawking yellow-tailed black cockatoo), we are sealed off from the outside world and open to this one.
Our tents are strung along the ridge down various tracks. The forest floor is open, spongy to walk on and flush with green mosses, lichens and fan-like tree ferns. The shelter around the camp’s kitchen is our lounge room. Our guides, Vickie and Emma, are steeped in the ecological world, great cooks and remarkably fit; they are enthusiastic about introducing us to the Tarkine’s diversity.
In the evening, wine bottles are opened, a pit fire is blazing and we pull up wooden stools and chew the fat while scoffing Tasmanian cheeses. We are bonding at a furious rate as we sit at a gigantic wooden table under the trees and the stars eating our first home-cooked meal (pasta with creamy smoked trout).
I smell plunger coffee at 50m next morning and over a fruit-laden breakfast our guides map out the second day: a walk to the Huskisson River. Like expectant children we follow a pink ribbon-marked trail over a forest floor that is in glorious decay and luxuriant growth. You can smell it: fallen trees disintegrate slowly, new trees emerge. Our group becomes fascinated with the smaller worlds within this large temperate rainforest. Miniature mud turrets on the track announce the underground habitat of a minuscule crayfish that finds threads of water to live in. We must keep a sharp eye on the track to avoid tramping on the turrets.
Too soon we are severed from the magic rainforest. We climb into our cosy bus and head to a once-famous mining town.

Tin town: Waratah is now far removed from its late 19th-century heyday as the largest tin deposit in the world. It has a sense of remoteness and is neatly dotted with mining artefacts, including a waterwheel. The local museum sports a stamp mill (a machine that pounded the tin ore) and includes some graphic sepia photos of mining life embossed on corrugated panels.
Today almost all of the Tarkine is covered by mining leases, except areas such as national parks. The effects on eco-tourism can be direct: an impending mine on one of Tarkine Trails’ licensed walking routes has left the business with no long-term trail for its rainforest walking tour.

The Pieman River and the wild west coast: Reflecting the ironic humour that grows in hard places, the Pieman River was named after Thomas Kent, a pastry cook and escaped convict recaptured here. The hamlet of Corinna on its banks has morphed from a wild mining and timber town to a wilderness resort that thrives during the tourist season. Buildings reflect its goldmining heritage. We even discover a couple of Huon pines near our cabins.
A morning river cruise on Arcadia II means I can now say I’ve travelled on a boat listed on the Australian Register of Historic Vessels. Made of Huon pine in the 1930s, it was once a RAN supply ship in New Guinea, but now offers one of the most remote rainforest cruises on earth. Stunning riverbank reflections appear like a series of impressionist paintings. We leave the Arcadia and take a motorised rubber dinghy to the Pieman’s northern bank and walk through the country of the Peternidic people and along the coast. In a sheltered bay, three game women dip into the chilled southern ocean and, in a magic moment, we spot seals leaping among the waves.

In the devil’s kitchen:
At Arthur River in the northern Tarkine, we have been promised a seat in the so-called devil’s kitchen at Kings Run, the coastal property of Geoff King. He has already sent us a welcome via a big tureen of fish soup. King left the family farming partnership years ago, uneasy at the impact of cattle grazing on a fragile, sandy landscape. Now he is restoring his share of the land, which is rich with wildlife and Aboriginal heritage.
“I’m here to set an agenda for you, tell you my views on things,” he says. “Then I’ll leave you to walk through the property to spend your own time and space in the landscape and form your own view.” This seems to be Tarkine Trails’ view, too: not just passing through this place but hanging out, immersing, allowing all senses to switch on, questions to form.
Sunset projects an orange caste over the coast and we see a shearwater killing a fish it has caught, hovering over a rock and dropping it several times. King has rejoined us;a gifted storyteller, he transmits his joy that disappeared plants have re-emerged, birds and marsupials have returned. His land is again a hunting ground for predators, the natural order is restored. Now it’s the off-road wheeled predators that worry him.
Near an extraordinary cathedral-like rock formation on the seashore we crowd into King’s shack; it’s a viewing platform where we can watch the nocturnal devil in action while eating Tasmanian specialties from the table. It is great news that northwestern Tasmanian devils are not suffering the facial tumour disease of their eastern cousins, whose immune system accepts the cancerous foreign cells exchanged when devils bite each other.
A devil enters the area just metres from us where a road-kill possum has been staked out. A mature male, he’s a regular visitor. His face is scarred but it’s certainly not the tumour disease. “The sex life of these devils is robust,” King tells us. “He takes his mate to the lair, keeps her there, he mates, then they fight, then they mate.”

Outside our lair, the predator is tearing at the possum in full spotlight. He is not bothered by light but is nervous, maybe sensing our presence. He scampers behind the bushes, emerges minutes later, disappears, then reappears, all while we politely eat our food inside. After this unique gastronomic experience, King drives us back to Arthur River. The wallabies are out in numbers, barely moving as we pass. Right outside our cabins we spot a devil scampering off behind a fence.
On our final day we walk in a gem of a rainforest fringing the Julius River, then to Lake Chisholm, an ancient sinkhole.
Beside the quiet waters, we contemplate our journey and the company we have enjoyed, while looking for frogs the size of thumbnails.


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