Close your eyes and imagine the experiences of the first people who traversed Tasmania’s wild landscape. Who were they? Were they a handful of desperado convicts smashing their shackles and making a break for freedom? Were they the first colonists who headed into the island’s unchartered territory in the hope of striking it rich through mineral exploitation? Or how about Matthew Flinders who, at the tender age of 24, circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) in 1798 and thus proved it to be an island. Even earlier, Abel Tasman sighted the Western coast of Tasmania in 1642.
But who was here before this? Humans first arrived around 37,000 years ago. When the land bridge between Tasmania and the mainland washed away around 12,000 years ago, Tasmania became an island, lashed by the Roaring Forties and subject to punishing weather patterns swirling out of Antarctica.
Certainly modern Tasmania has changed much, but much has remained the same. While mainland Australia has lost nearly 40 per cent of its forests and much of the remaining native vegetation is highly fragmented, Tasmania's diversity of unspoiled habitats and ecosystems includes 42 per cent of the State protected in national parks and reserves, with some plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.
One of the best places to experience Tasmania’s wild credentials is along the West Coast, in an area known as the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area.
The Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area consists of more than 100,000 hectares of coastal hinterland comprising wild pristine beaches, heathlands and the world’s cleanest air. The coastline is particularly notable for its profusion of Indigenous sites of significance. Indeed, this is one of the world’s greatest archaeological areas on account of the presence of shell middens, stone and bone tools, hut sites and rock engravings. The area is so significant that a 2km-wide coastal strip from West Point to Granville Harbour in the south (a distance of more than 120km) has been placed on the National Heritage List.
The Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area is accessible from several points along Tasmania’s north to south transit route. We chose to join the coast at the western-most point of Tasmania — a place aptly known as ‘West Point’. From here, the next landfall west is 40,000km away in Argentina, which reputedly makes this the longest uninterrupted expanse of ocean on earth! It’s also a great place to commence a foray into the north-west region of Tasmania, a sanctuary for many of Tasmania’s most unique, and endangered, species of flora and fauna.
These include the orange bellied parrot, red bellied robin and better-known species such as the Tasmanian Devil, for which this area is a real natural sanctuary. This is because the facial tumour we hear so much about hasn’t affected the devils in this part of the country.
Devils, brushtail possums and spotted-tailed quolls are regularly seen, particularly at dusk. And, if you believe that the Tasmanian tiger still exists anywhere in the wild, it probably exists somewhere in the 100,000 hectares of reserve that make up the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area or its neighbouring wild country further south.
NELSON BAY CULTURAL HERITAGE
Nelson Bay is a readily accessible site 14km south of Arthur River that provides visitors with an exceptional opportunity to get up close and personal with two significant Aboriginal sites. These are a midden feature that rises around ten metres from the ground with a width of 40m and length of 60m. Not only is the scale of the midden impressive, it also has a notable circular hut depression within the feature.
From the midden, it’s a short walk — or drive (4WD recommended) — to Sundown Point where a group of unique Indigenous rock markings can be found along a stretch of rocks adjoining the estuary at the head of Sundown Creek.
These are some of over 60 recorded rock markings throughout Tasmania and represent some of the oldest rock markings in the world. While you may be familiar with rock art involving hand prints, this site is even rarer as it involves rock engravings. Truly a must see.
To ensure you don’t miss the sites, drop into the Parks Office at Arthur River to pick up the relevant leaflets.
While the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area has gained a well-earned reputation for its cultural significance, it offers highlights for the amateur anthropologist through to the surfing fraternity alike. Indeed, the region is known for some of the best bodyboarding in Australia. Fishing and diving are also popular, and the area is well known for its lobsters. So get friendly with a local boat owner or try your luck skin diving — there are many ways to get among the region’s offshore treasures. Just be aware that, when the waters are murky, the locals will tell you that Great White Sharks are likely to be about.
Back on dryland, set off from camp at night with a spotlight or decent torch. You could get lucky and spot Bennett's wallabies, Tasmanian pademelons, wombats, Tasmanian devils, brushtail possums or spotted-tailed quolls.
The 4WD opportunities are ripe for drivers of all abilities from the easy South Arthur Forest Drive at Nelson Bay to the ‘hard’ Balfour Track, with its rating attributable to a 70m canal-like stretch of water along one section. As the sign says, ensure you’re snorkel and winch equipped, and remember to check the Parks Office at Arthur River to confirm local conditions.
A recreational driver pass, issued online, is needed for many of the tracks that access the coastline. Outside of the designated rough tracks, keep your wits about you. Apart from the possibility of breakdown or bog, beach driving can be a particular hazard with quick sand adding to the risk posed by tides and washouts.
READ THE SIGNS
Don’t let the distances deceive you. When we travel on the mainland we can sometimes traverse vast distances in a day with ease. But here in the land of rocky crags, take heed of signs that say caravan towing vehicles need to select low gear and maintain 15km/h. Slopes of 45 degrees and hairpin turns at their base are not unheard of — I can still smell our brakes!
Meanwhile signs stating estimated timings to reach your destination may seem exaggerated, but they are more accurate than you may give them credit for. Yes, it may take you two hours to traverse 100km, even without breaking your journey to enjoy the scenery. Adopt a small island mentality and you’ll go a long way.
Remember, too, that remote area touring happens outside of the Simpson desert. You can easily find yourself isolated even though the coast is within around 150km of any given point in Tassie. On two consecutive days, we didn’t see another car on the roads. When we were actually trying to get away from it all, we didn’t see another person for four days, and we were camped in a gazetted campsite!
Be aware that there are areas within Tassie where mobile communications simply don’t work. In fact, there are signs telling you so. Satellite comms are key in areas like this. So if you don’t have a Sat phone, get a Personal Locating Beacon. Other than that, Channel 10 on the CB is commonly used by local 4WDrivers and don’t forget the emergency channel 5.
If you plan to travel to Tassie’s west coast, don’t expect to be stripping to your budgie smugglers and basking in the sun on the beach. The temperatures are routinely cold, even in summer. If you’re keen for a surf or a dive, you’d better bring a hooded wetsuit.
TAKE A REST
After a week of touring you’ll need to take a break, refuel, stock up and take a hot shower. The obvious stop when traveling south is Strahan. Here the adventure continues with a must-see wilderness cruise of the Gordon River through the UNESCO Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area with ancient rainforests, mysterious history and colourful characters. And if you think Port Arthur is a Tassie Gem, wait unit you visit Sarah Island. It makes convict imprisonment in Port Arthur look like a 4-star resort.
We took to the water with Gordon River Cruises Sprit of the Wild. Well worth the extra coin was the premium ticket which took us upstairs in comfort enjoying excellent quality food and beverages for the duration.
Back at Strahan, the local theatre’s production of The Ship that Never Was. It is a great escape story from colonial history. We won’t spoil the fun, but it’s based on historic fact and will have you bursting at the seams with laughter.
You can also find wood artisans making exquisite carved goods from Huon Pine and Tassie Blackwood reclaimed from the bottom of flooded valleys and dams. Purchase a slab while you’re here and take it home to make your own masterpiece, or maybe a cutting board for the camper to help remind you of your trip to this truly special part of the world.
While on the west coast of Tassie you will want to make the most of your time there as for most this may be a once in a lifetime trip. So here are a few must see locations:
- The ‘Fatman’ Barge at Corinna: (03) 6446 1170
- The Ship That Never Was: (03) 6471 7700
- Gordon River Cruises: (03) 6471 4300
- Montezuma Falls near Zeehan
- Sarah Island in the Macquarie Harbour
- The Arcadia II at Corinna
- Tasmanian Special Timbers Company: (03) 6471 7190
WHERE TO STAY
There are three camping options at Arthur River that include basic facilities including toilets and showers. If you’re self-sufficient, there are also a range of informal camping sites within the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area like the one we used at Nelson Bay.
To get the good-oil on where these sites are located and which are empty, ask the ranger at the Arthur River Parks Office as few of them are sign-posted along the roadway. In Strahan there are three basic caravan parks with camping available.
- Rianna Pioneer Park: first in best dressed (for when you first get off the ferry)
- Arthur River Parks and Wildlife Service: (03) 6457 1225
- Big4 Strahan Holiday Retreat: (03) 6471 7442