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HometravelCruising into a lost world of secret peaks and true wilderness in...

Cruising into a lost world of secret peaks and true wilderness in Tasmanian style

TASMANIA, Australia –  If you visit Tasmania, a glance at the map will reveal that almost one quarter of the Australian state is shaded green. Tasmania’s 1.5 million ha of mapped green, 20 times the size of Singapore, was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List in 1982 for its outstanding nat­ural and cultural values.

To experience this wilderness, I am visiting the remote Southwest National Park. It is an area of muscular, rock-capped mountains, unfathomably fast weather changes, and serpentine tidal waterways. 

With no road access, visitors must choose: Spend a week hiking in, sail through the tempestuous Southern Ocean or, like me, arrive in relative luxury on a tiny plane. 

Starting in Hobart, I join 10 other guests for a five-day tour with On Board Tasmanian Expedition Cruises. In just 50 minutes, my flight transports me from civilisation into a lost world dominated by buttongrass – tussocks of tiny golden-green spherical flower-heads held high, swaying in the wind.

Our wilderness base will be a brand-new luxury catamaran, Odalisque III, but first, we are exploring this area known as Melaleuca.

Our guide Peter Mooney, former head of Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, has spent much of his life protecting this wilderness. It is hard to imagine a more informed guide, and his passion for nature and indigenous culture is obvious.

There is European history here too, and some of the characters were personally known to Mr Mooney. 

Melaleuca was a tin-mining settlement and home to bush legend Deny King and his family. King was a pioneer tin miner and a lover of nature. He lived at Melaleuca for more than 50 years until his death in 1991. His home of curved tin remains here, along with his boathouse, still intermittently used by his daughters.

We visit the Deny King Museum, a hut that doubles as a bird-watching station.

Here, a volunteer records data on the orange-bellied parrot, and Mr Mooney explains that only about 70 individuals remain in the wild. As we watch, three of the brightly coloured birds stop by the feeding station, and I cannot believe my luck.

Boarding our two waiting tender boats, we zip along the creek to the wide expanse of Bathurst Harbour, surrounded by steely grey mountains.

The water is tinted brown, and Mr Mooney says these are natural tannins from the vegetation. The brown freshwater lies on top of these waterways, but salty water lies below, connecting to the sea more than 20km away. 

In the salty layer, soft corals called sea pens grow on the sea bed. He says they normally live in deep, dark oceans. Here, the tannin-stained freshwater “tricks” the sea pens into growing in shallow water. As we approach Odalisque III, we see these sea pens are painted on her hull.

Although this tour is six years old, the new catamaran launched in February 2023, taking luxury to the wilderness. Sleeping up to 12 guests and five staff, Odalisque III was not only built in Tasmania, but also showcases the state’s best artists and interior designers.

The boat has outdoor seating areas, two guest lounges and a communal dining table. Oversized windows feature throughout, and steaming hot water in the showers never runs out.

The custom-designed decor is classy and understated, with coastal photography reflecting the owner’s favourite Tasmanian scenes.

The vessel is built to tread lightly and with efficiency in mind. Lithium batteries help save fuel and emissions, and personal aluminium water bottles are refilled from the desalinated ultra-filtered tap. 

Our chef on board presents an inspired selection of Tasmanian deliciousness. After excursions, we return to freshly baked cookies and cheese platters. Our meals feature freshly shucked oysters, lobster rolls or local lamb, all complemented by Tassie cool-climate wine, whisky and beer.

The schedule on board is flexible, to account for the changeable weather. But this morning, as we step into the tender boats for our first excursion, the weather is postcard-perfect. 

“I must apologise for the weather,” Mr Mooney jokes. “This is not the usual south-west weather.”

We dock at Clayton’s Corner, the former home of fisherman Clyde Clayton and his wife Winsome, sister of Deny King. 

“This is the last real human influence you’ll see on this trip,” Mr Mooney notes.

He explains the couple vacated the property in 1976, and the house is now preserved by visiting volunteers.  

Behind the house, we climb Television Hill, where the Claytons had their antenna.

Pointing to the surrounding hills, Mr Mooney explains the legacy of the indigenous people who managed this landscape for 35,000 years. The buttongrass plains are the product of frequent burning, which helped facilitate their hunting.

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Later, we explore the Needwonnee Walk, an interpretive boardwalk dedicated to these people that understood the wilderness intimately.

Animals have shaped the landscape too, and we are shown marsupial lawns, peat-like grasslands that are munched by wallabies and wombats into an almost-formal lawn.

I ask Mr Mooney about mysterious holes in the ground. He says the holes are the work of freshwater burrowing crayfish and, astonishingly, they even live on mountaintops.

Returning to the Odalisque, we cruise past the Celery-top Islands, clothed in unique Celery-top Pines. Their vivid green canopy, a band of white quartzite and sandy beaches are all mirrored on the glassy surface. 

Later, we stroll through temperate rainforest, spotting another endemic tree, the Huon pine. The target of a valuable timber industry here until the 1880s, its growth rate is only about 1mm a year, Mr Mooney says.

After two nights moored, Odalisque is on the move and we cruise through the awe-inspiring Bathurst Channel, under Mount Rugby.

As we enter Horseshoe Bay in tenders, black swans honk overhead. Those of us feeling energetic disembark for a hike up Balmoral Hill. The view from the top reveals wild, unforgiving mountains, and a maze of waterways. We are the only humans in this otherworldly place.

Suddenly, we get a taste of what Mr Mooney describes as the “real” south-west weather. In intensifying wind, we retreat down the track and don the supplied rain jackets.

When we meet the coastline at Port Davey, conditions are calm again.

We tour the Breaksea Islands in the tenders, inspecting the sheer cliffs and rocky columns that glow golden in the afternoon. Seawater surges through blow holes, sending plumes skywards.

Mr Mooney points out little penguin burrows, and rookeries for thousands of seabirds known as short-tailed shearwaters. There is a mighty wedge-tailed eagle here too, bravely pursued by a much smaller tern. 

The next day, Odalisque motors north-west to Payne Bay, from where the tenders can venture up the Davey River. A bushfire swept through in 2013 and the trees now sprout new growth, like a covering of fur. 

Reaching the Davey River Gorge, we glide through the sheer walls, and everyone falls silent. Personally, I am considering how lucky I am to be here, where so few have been before. 

On our final day, we are flying out ahead of bad weather, through a saddle in the mountains called the Eastern Portal.

Beneath the clouds, and between two peaks, it feels like a portal indeed, like we are exiting this fantasy land through a time-travelling tunnel back to the human-dominated world. 

I should be sad to leave, but instead I am invigorated to know that places like this exist, and that even for a short time, we can be comfortably immersed in wilderness. 

Getting there

Fly from Singapore to Hobart via Melbourne or Sydney with Qantas (qantas.com) or Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com).

The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is the only Unesco-listed property with the word “wilderness’” in its title. 

To experience this true wilderness, trips to the Southwest National Park with On Board Tasmanian Expedition Cruises (onboardexpeditions.com.au) depart Hobart during the months of December and May, from A$11,000 (S$9,800) a person twin-share for five days/four nights. The price includes scenic return flights from Hobart, gourmet meals, alcoholic beverages and daily guided activities.

Expeditions are also available on the Tasmanian East Coast from May to December from A$10,300 a person. In May 2023, the company launched its own seaplane, with departures from Hobart’s Franklin Wharf, landing beside Odalisque in Bathurst Harbour.

Carolyn Beasley is a freelance travel and environment writer who was formerly based in Singapore and is now living in Perth.  

The writer was hosted by On Board Tasmanian Expedition Cruises and Tourism Tasmania.

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