It was strange and not a little unsettling, to sail off the edge of Australia knowing there was nothing to one side of us for almost 3000 nautical miles, save for the forbidding icy zone of Antarctica.
Early one autumn morning we had motored out of Recherche Bay near the bottom of Tasmania, the last human outpost in Australia’s southernmost state, intent on reaching one of this country’s most isolated locations: Port Davey in Southwest National Park. Located in the farthest reaches of Tasmania, as we rounded Southeast Cape the next major land mass heading south was Antarctica. Between us and it were the daunting weather bands of the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties.
This was not the place to make a mistake, so our skipper ‘Rocket’ Robertson had prepared for any eventuality. He had started with a series of long-range weather forecasts from local expert Ken Batt, followed up with a careful boatyard preparation and then wrapped up with thorough provisioning of his 40 foot Joe Adams designed Polaris II, including plenty of noodles, just in case! Then he finalised his crew. Luckily enough it included me; his wife Margaret, as the first mate, completed the line-up.
The three of us were on the adventure of a lifetime, except in my case it was the adventure of two lifetimes. I had the privilege of visiting Southwest National Park 25 years before when I had flown in to a tiny crushed rock runway at Melaleuca Inlet to take part in a leg of a Tasmanian circumnavigation. The pristine isolation and desolate grandeur of this mountainous, empty landscape had made its mark and I was keen to rediscover it.
But, sailing into the forbidding grey, empty waters of the Southern Ocean along the sawtooth southern shore of Tasmania, an edge of nervous tension surfaced. As we rounded South Cape, pushing directly into a light but building westerly, we knew we would be on our own for the next eight days.
It takes one day to cross the dramatic southern coastline of Tasmania. If your weather forecasting is on the money hopefully it is a long and boring trip, save for viewing the many precipitous peaks on shore. Wild and woolly adventure is not something you look for when cruising along this isolated, rock-strewn coast!
It took us all day to churn into an increasingly choppy sou’westerly swell, both by sail and motor, sometimes in combination.
Our midway point of Mewstone was a nasty-looking, sheer, serrated crag, topped with guano, resembling the icing on the devil’s birthday cake. It jutted out of the ocean a few miles south of the two other most prominent features along this shore: Maatsuyker Island with its white stone lighthouse and De Witt, a forbidding slab-sided monolith. These two islands were surrounded on all sides by several smaller but equally grim rocky outcrops.
As we spotted each one from a good distance we were thankful for the mild weather and good visibility, though this was unusual down here. Late in the afternoon we rounded, with difficulty given the strong currents, the hacksaw ridgeline of Southwest Cape and sailed north towards the protection of Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour.
It had been a big day when we decided to drop anchor just south of the national marine park entrance in the supposedly safe anchorage of Spain Bay. As the sun drew closer to the horizon we motored in and discovered a small fleet of yachts and powerboats, perhaps around six or so. Spain Bay was protected from the south and had two wide sandy beaches. Most beaches around here are shell, not sand. But our cruising guides indicated that underneath there were substantial patches of weed, which probably goes some way towards explaining why we became the entertainment for the early arrivals enjoying their sundowners.
Once, twice, three, four times we tried to drop the pick. Each time it dragged. By then the sun was getting much lower on the horizon and we suddenly had to contemplate a forced move. But that would be in happening the dark: not ideal! Tension was high as the skipper tried once more: no luck! Then he made the final call, “we’ll give it one last go.”
Finally that cursed anchor held! Be warned.
The next morning we undertook our first hike, along a trail from Spain Bay to the ocean at Stephens Bay, around two kilometres. An undulating track, mostly through low buttongrass, presented some panoramic views.
Then we had a three kilometre walk along the beach until we reached some huge aboriginal middens. The local indigenous population had been hunted out of this region during the early years of European settlement, with grand colonial plans to establish farming and grazing in the region.
The ironies involved in these ideas can only be fully appreciated once you have walked through, or attempted to, the undergrowth of Southwest National Park.
Visitors should get a hold of Tony Fenton’s outstanding local history of Port Davey aptly titled ‘Fleeting Hopes’ to get a true understanding of the folly of the many attempts to civilise this utterly untamed wilderness. The most commonly used term by explorers making their way through dense scrub around here was the word “impenetrable”. It was very accurate.
The narrow, muddy path to Stephens Beach was one of just a handful through this whole region. Most of the time people simply had to bush bash. More on the consequences of that unenviable concept later.
We returned to Polaris II in good time to raise anchor and make our way north behind the protective Breaksea Islands, which act like a seawall to the harbour, into Bathurst Channel. Much of the main channel is off limits to anchoring due to the fragile nature of the marine life in these pristine waters but some spots, like Schooner Cove, are open.
With its tiny picturesque beach and protection in most wind directions, we decided it was the spot for us. It was a great choice.
My fellow crewmembers were mad swimmers. Each day they dipped into the dark, icy, tea-coloured tannin waters of the harbour. I can tell you from my one short dunking, it was freezing. But that did not stop them, “it’s great!” they would convince themselves as I would glue myself firmly on the deck.
But on this particular morning their swim routine paid off in spades. As Margaret began her regular lap of the Polaris II hull I spotted movement on the surface. Two fins appeared and I shouted a warning. But lo and behold, a pod of dolphins surfaced and they swam towards her, not away! Soon our skipper joined in and even the skipper from a nearby boat.
Swimmers and dolphins intermingled for around 20 minutes, communing with each other, curing their curiosity; the dolphins so wild they had not yet learned to be afraid. Not something you see every day. It made freezing your extremities off at least a 50/50 proposition.
Adventures down channel
We explored Schooner Cove some more, rowing across the small inlet to check out a shallow cave used by aborigines to scrape ochre, then hiking halfway up nearby Mt. Nares, covered in low, rocky scrub and quartz outcrops, to discover the first of many spectacular overviews of this rare landscape.
It is uncommon in these ‘connected’ days to be able to enjoy absolute solitude and quiet, but it was a key element of this national park. Some anchorages here have more to offer than others, but every nook and cranny in this massive waterway is worth exploring.
The cruising season at Port Davey arguably runs from summer into early autumn, though most visiting sailors tend to come at the end of February or March. We were visiting at the ‘busy’ time of year, but we rarely had more than one other boat in our anchorages and, frequently, none at all.
We motored down the channel until we stopped for lunch in a southerly bay just east of Balmoral Beach. The wide bay and shell beach led me to an idea: head onshore to capture images of Polaris II sailing in the channel.
After some persuading, the skipper was convinced. He rowed me ashore and we bush-bashed into a clearing on a rise. The skipper then headed back to the boat to start sailing while I continued on. But soon my progress slowed to a crawl, almost literally! From the water the land appeared open, but on shore it was a hotch-potch of sharp quartz gravel, hard spiky buttongrass and tough, needy melaleuca and tea-tree scrub. It grabbed you every time you tried to leave. Anytime it reached waist high, which was often, it was like pushing through a crowded peak hour crush.
Bizarrely, all over the ground there appeared the holes of land-based burrowing crayfish, up to 60 millimetre in diameter! At one point I even capsized on them, my legs thrust skywards, helpless. Often it was like lurching over a vast collection of miniature volcanoes. Fortunately I never actually saw the creatures inhabiting these holes, stumbling across them was hard enough! I stopped, radioed to the home vessel I was having a few problems and began taking photos.
Back on the boat the crew asked me what my short exploration had been like. Not for the last time, I told them it had been impenetrable.
Clytie Cove lay just to the east of a long, thin spit called Joan Point. This narrow peninsula, two-thirds of the way along Bathurst Channel, is the site of the Port Davey Track, the main walking path in this Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. It is a pathway which connects to the South Coast Track, the aforementioned route upon which hikers take seven days to reach Port Davey.
Out on the end of Joan Point, you arguably reach its most challenging location. On this point the track stops. At least until you row a national park supplied ‘tinnie’ across a 300 metre wide waterway to continue it on the northern shore. This is not easy, but it is even harder than it sounds; ‘tinnies’ are designed to be robust, good for motoring not rowing and the ripping current through this narrow gap can be fierce. Inexperienced boating types could easily disappear up, or down, Bathurst Channel.
On top of that you are required to then tow a spare tinnie back to the other side for future hikers. This whole exercise would be funny if it were not serious. Fortunately for us, we weren’t rowing anywhere. On this day we would have enough troubles of our own.
My fellow sailors were experienced hikers. I liked walking, but I was strictly ‘amateur’ class.
That had already been confirmed when my 20 year old hiking boots gave me a blister on the way to Stephens Bay plus when I stumbled badly in runners while attempting my land-based photo shoot of the Polaris II. On day six, experienced or not, our hike would go badly awry.
It started simply enough, we decided to walk a portion of the Port Davey Track. Ostensibly this seemed straight-forward, we could even see some of the track from our vessel. We rowed ashore and fought our way through a wall of dense scrub to pick up the trail. It was hard, but manageable. Within 45 minutes we had reached a ridge adjacent to the western side of Mount Beattie, with a spectacular view spreading away to both sides of us. Time to head back.
Our first moment of drama came when we encountered a large black tiger snake sunning itself on the gravel we’d walked over barely 15 minutes previously. Arrghh! It would not move and neither would the First Mate. Despite Margaret’s bravado, Rocket and I took a very wide berth around its rearing head.
We then continued along Joan Point to track’s end and the tinnies, before turning back. At an appropriately marked location we cut sideways towards the highly visible Polaris II. It was 400 metres away ‘as the crow flies’. But we were not crows.
As we stumbled into the impenetrable chest-high, then head-high scrub, nerves frayed with thoughts of killer snakes. It soon became obvious we could not make it. Change of plan: head south.
We went along a ridge for what seemed like ages, then finally forced our way across to another rocky ridgeline. We then headed north back towards our bay but, by that time, we had lost our sense of direction. Then those crayfish friends intervened.
Having earlier swapped my 20 year old hiking boots for runners, I now paid the price as I stumbled over some mini-volcanoes at ground level. Argghhh! Rolled ankle! I could barely stand up. Rocket stepped in and strapped me up with a T-shirt, while Margaret pressed on into dense scrub. Then, with a yelp, she disappeared. The malignant scrub had eaten her. Turns out she had been approaching the wrong beach separated from ours by a steep rocky point and had floundered down a near-vertical face. She could not get out.
“Stay there!” cried the skipper rather superfluously as he valiantly tried to get his injured crewmate back to the original beach next door. We stumbled onwards, thoughts of early expired pioneers coming prominently to the fore. Somehow, eventually the skipper broke through to our beach, only to be greeted with a friendly “hello”!
The intrepid First Mate had stripped off, swum 300 metres around the rocky point with clothes held above her head and scrambled up the slimy rocks to meet us. A chastened team boarded the dinghy and staggered back to Polaris II with a renewed appreciation for how quickly things can go wrong in a wilderness. At least the icy water was good for my remedial ankle recovery.
A crew meeting determined that a little rest and recreation was required, so we spent the afternoon resting in my case and setting up the beautiful wooden pram tender Polly for the skipper to sail. It made for some excellent pictures and, who knows, it may well have been the first time in 100 years a small dinghy had actually sailed on Bathurst Channel.
As with the sunrise that morning, when the sun set over Clytie Cove a perfect stillness settled upon this spectacular location, thoughts of the monstrous, people-eating, impenetrable scrub dissipated. This truly was a pristine and stunning landscape.
Change of fortune
The last forecasts delivered by Ken Batt indicated we could expect a change and, sure enough, through the night the breeze piped in, tugging relentlessly at every bit of rigging. We stepped out overnight to see dark clouds ripping across the skyline.
By morning, though, the scudding clouds had slowed to a crawl. The atmosphere was arguably much closer to Port Davey’s usual persona. After breakfast we motored down the channel, but soon we looked back and spied a couple of huge masts, well beyond the size of any standard cruising craft, hidden behind Joan Point.
We decided to turn about and check who it was. As we rounded the point we discovered the Young Endeavour, a beautiful 44m brigantine, square-rigged sail training vessel run by an Australian Navy crew of nine. One of them motored out on an RIB to meet us. He told us this was the first time the Young Endeavour had ventured into Bathurst Harbour and they had just left Hobart with a crew of 16 young trainees. We left them at anchor, but we would see them again.
We passed another good anchorage, Frogs Hollow, on the southern shore and pushed past tiny Iola Bay, also to the south. Then we steered clear of Gull Reef, a treacherous outcrop just above the surface at low tide, as we motored into the vast open waters of Bathurst Harbour.
It was extraordinary to see such a large and protected body of water so far inland. Over the next hour or so we moved around
the perimeter of this massive, square-shaped bay, past the entrance to Moulters Inlet, which is another interesting anchorage
only open to relatively shallow draft vessels. Then north around three nautical miles towards North Inlet, a breeding ground for black swans. Then back down the western shoreline adjacent to the main geological feature, the imposing Mt. Rugby.
The bay has a fairly uniform depth of five to seven metres, though much of its shoreline remains uncharted.
The weather was bleak, with intermittent showers and grey skies. We thought about stopping at Kings Point, a moderately sized protected anchorage in the southeast corner, but as we went by we could see it was crowded. That was not unexpected; it was arguably the best anchorage inside Bathurst Harbour.
So we motored back to Iola Bay. It had a narrow entrance and swing room for one boat. We anchored, hiked up the shoulder of Mt. Beattie to catch another striking view of the channel, then went back to the boat for dinner. We were in for an interesting night.
It took some careful manoeuvring to find just the right spot in Iola Bay. The entrance was around 60 metres across and, though it opened up once inside, the back half of this small bay shoaled quickly with lots of mud.
To top it off, there was a nasty rock near the northern shore. But the breeze had dropped and we had it to ourselves. We settled for the night. Not all night though.
Around midnight the wind picked up dramatically and the anchor alarm went off. We were on deck quickly. The rain was driving hard, nearly horizontal. We grabbed torches and saw the boat was sheering and twisting all over the place. More importantly, we were now going backwards towards the mud. Time to move.
Rocket went to the bow and Marg to the helm and started the engine. I was intermediary. The anchor came up, but it was hard to hear and the boat was difficult to turn, especially in the cramped confines.
Up! Up! That way! Hell! What? The other way! Hand signals needed light. Torches were on the looming shoreline. Drop the pick!
Finally, after a tense 20 minutes, we thought we had steady transit lines. But we stayed up and watched them for quite a while. Rained on, miserable and straining for visibility. It was a long dark night.
Heading up river
It did not take much persuasion to get out of Iola Bay. We left quickly in the morning and moved into Bathurst Harbour to run the batteries for a while.
Up past the relocated Young Endeavour and then into the harbour again until we decided on an early stop at Kings Point; anything to avoid Iola Bay. By 1pm there were eleven boats tucked inside Kings Point, everybody had the same idea.
We had one final goal in our tour of the Southwest National Park, an exploration of the Melaleuca Inlet, which is actually a river, where the old tin-mining camp of southwest legend Deny King had apparently been repurposed into a site for park volunteers.
But, before that trip, we visited the shack of two other famous residents of the region: Clyde and Winnie Clayton. Winsome was the sister of Deny King, and one story goes that Clyde, a professional fisherman, did not necessarily get on that well with Deny. Difficult when they were pretty much the only neighbours within 200 kilometres.
They were separated by four nautical miles of the Melaleuca Inlet. The Clayton shack built by Clyde out at Port Davey and later transported via his boat to this protected corner, had been taken over by the park service after the couple departed in 1976. With its small jetty in protected Clayton’s Corner it was relatively easy to get into and, from a nearby hill, we had panoramic views. It would have been a tough life there, but when Clyde later moved to a little northern Tasmanian town the story went that he found it far too crowded!
The next day, as the damp weather persisted, we were on the edge of cabin fever. We decided to make a final thrust upriver to the site of Deny King’s old mine and the Melaleuca airfield.
Drizzle fell periodically upon the dinghy as we motored up the increasingly narrow channel, with spookily twisted and ghostly white tree roots lining the ancient, dank shoreline. The dense riverside brush was, of course, impenetrable. The gloomy sky pushed down, isolation leaned in upon us and it began to feel like we were heading upriver to look for the mad Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s dystopian jungle novel Heart of Darkness.
Finally we reached Deny King’s former camp. The old man had passed away in 1991 and I had first visited this isolated outpost in 1993. But 25 years, as well as the Tasmanian park service, had changed it. A band of volunteers were clearing the scrub. There was a museum that was small but informative, a new walking path with bush sites recognising the lives of the long-gone local indigenous people and the runway was bigger than I remembered. Now it also had a ‘terminal’, admittedly not much bigger than a two-car garage which acted as a focal point for hikers and visiting yachties.
The reason they had crowded in there? Not so much for the irregular light plane service, which had been cancelled for that day due to the weather, nor to exchange tales of derring-do and survival either. No it was because, for just a few metres around this tiny timber shed, this was the only spot in all of the southwest at which visitors could finally achieve a much-desired internet hook-up!
All around me heads quickly bowed in supplication over their digital devices. Facebook had finally made its way to this most remote corner of the wilderness. We checked out the weather forecast, my fellow crew-members via the internet and I by reading it off the wall where the park service had recorded it, then we headed back down stream. Our work here had finally been completed.
It took three days by boat to get back to true civilisation. Ken Batt had delivered us one of the last best weather windows for the season and we experienced a rollicking ride with a Southern Ocean run in a 15kn to 25kn sou’wester, the rig on Polaris II strapped hard down.
Our first populated stop was the tiny township of Dover, with its less than 500 citizens. But, like Clyde Clayton, I was now irritated by a persistent sense of ‘compression’. Seeing Port Davey again had created an itch I could not scratch. Dover’s main street felt like Sydney’s CBD.
On our final day we motored up the protected waters of D’Entrecasteaux Channel inside Bruny Island. Soon we were back in Hobart with only memories, injuries and digital photos from a land that civilisation, it seemed, had not quite forgotten after all. ≈