We are an international team of five, including myself, British whitewater kayaker and videographer Alex Nicks, American photographer Keith Fialcowitz, and a pair of NOLS instructors, Canadian Travis Holmes and French/Tasmanian Lelia Meffre. Together we made our way north by kayak, small plane, lobster boat, rusty VW van, and Zodiac.
RECHERCHE BAY TO SOUTH BRUNY ISLAND
Atop a towering 20-foot wave, I look down two stories and see my teammate Alex Nicks in the trough far below. We’ve been paddling in heavy seas for more than four hours and our day’s destination, Cloudy Bay, near the southern tip of Bruny Island off Tasmania’s remote southwest coast, is still a blur on the horizon. Lelia, who grew up on a sailboat, has already succumbed to seasickness, vomiting deftly over the side of her sea kayak, and then pressing on.
This is our most exposed paddle yet. The Roaring Forties, after blowing unimpeded from Cape Horn, smack at full tilt into Tasmania’s west coast. Wind-lashed and wave-carved, 150 miles off the southeast coast of Australia, Tassie, as the locals call it, is the very definition of remoteness.
Our plan is to round the tip of tiny Devil’s Rock Island and then head straight for the big lighthouse, built between 1836 and 1838, that anchors the southern tip of South Bruny. We pass Devil’s Rock at noon, watching six-foot waves slamming into its far side and breaking toward us. Beyond them, the following swells grow with every paddle stroke, pushing us toward the big island. The sea is a churning mish-mash of waves colliding from all directions.
The only good news is that the wind is still at our backs and so far we’re not being pushed out to sea. So far.
When we finally turn the corner into Cloudy Bay, the big, rolling swells are at their most towering. Surfing 17-foot long kayaks down the backsides we paddle first into a small windy bay, hoping to find a place to land. But the surf is too big, the beach too rocky. Which means reversing and paddling another three miles to the far side of the bay where we are finally greeted by a welcoming crescent of sand, protected only by a small reef, which we surf without problem.
Six and a half hours and 20 miles after leaving Recherche Bay we stand creakily out of our boats, having just paddled the biggest seas of our lives.
When the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman became the first European to lay eyes on Tasmania, in 1642, he sent his carpenter swimming through the surf to plant the flag, and then sailed away. No outsider would visit the island again for more than 100 years. European explorers returned in the 1770s, with short visits by Captain Marion du Fresne, Commander Tobias Furneaux, and Captain James Cook.
For the first 50 years of its colonization, Tasmania was Britain’s most distant penal colony, home to 76,000 convicts, the majority of them thieves. Their average sentence was seven years’ banishment to a place judges deemed “beyond the seas.” It took them eight months just to get there.
Between 1804 and 1853, when transportation ceased, those convicts were sent in gangs to build public bridges, roads, houses, and boats. They felled timber and make bricks, or were assigned to settlers to work as farm laborers and domestic servants. After a year or so of good conduct they might be given a ticket-of-leave and freedom to live and work within the island, as long as they reported to the police once a month and attended church every Sunday. That was the fate of the majority of convicts.
We’ve come without sentence to discover the place from sea level. Tasmania is the seventh of my Oceans 8 expeditions, a project begun in 1998 to explore, from the seat of a kayak, the world’s coastlines and the people who live and depend on them.
Tasmania fit the bill perfectly: One of the last great temperate wildernesses, the entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage Area. Forty percent of the state is either national park or protected reserve, and the entire island is identified as an Endemic Bird Area—an honor shared only by Amazonian Brazil, the Galapagos, and Mauritius.
Tasmania also is home to weird and wild terrestrials, including the Tasmanian devil (currently threatened by a mysterious disease causing disfiguring facial tumors), the legendary (and now vanished) thycaline or Tasmanian tiger, and various quolls, paddymelons, and bettongs, along with the more abundant wombat, wallaby, kangaroo, platypus and possums.
Our route is straightforward. Tasmania is only 177 miles from north to south. In four weeks we’ll see half the island’s coastline, from Melaluca, at the island’s southwest corner, to the northeastern-most Furneaux Islands. Our route will take us from the windswept heaths, wetlands, and softwood pine forests of the rainy south to the northern coast’s sheltered lagoons, dry eucalyptus forests, and clear waters.
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARK
On our first full day in the bush, the real Tasmania showed itself. The morning’s radio report announced that a “vigorous front” was moving through.
Vigorous? That’s a first.
The result was not the typical four-seasons-in-one-day, which we had come to expect from Tasmania. This was more like four seasons in 15 minutes, including, in interchangeable order, rain, sun, rainbows, 40 mile-per-hour winds, hail, more rain, and more wind.
Hoods up and cinched tight, we climb to the top of 700-foot high Charlie’s Hill to scout. We can make out waves crashing onto the beach at Cox Bight, 10 miles distant. That means seas of 30 to 40 feet rolling in from Antarctica. We opt for a bit more exploration by foot.
We are joined by Janet King Fenton, a naturalist who probably knows more about southwest Tasmania’s flora and fauna than anyone, in part because she spent her childhood right here, smack in the middle of what is now a 4,000-square-mile national park.
We climb Charlie’s Hill, named for her grandfather, and hike to King’s Knob, named for her family. Every few minutes we assume the naturalist’s position—on our knees and elbows, examining some tiny, colorful flower or another—whether a fairy apron, a trigger planet, or carnivorous sundews. We spy a 200-year-old eel in a shallow pond and sneak up on an echidna, a close relative to the platypus that has quills like a porcupine, is born in an egg, but weaned on mothers milk. The peat bog we walk on is springy—like a big, black sponge—but soft enough to capture the footprints of a wallaby, a relative of the kangaroo whose long tail leaves a distinctive brush mark in the mud. Also darting about are a few of the last orange-bellied parrots on the planet.
Janet lives about six months of the year here. Her family holds a lease in the park land for another 10 years. She remembers her childhood in this remote, often harsh, country as idyllic, even though it meant getting her early schooling via a correspondence class on the radio.
“Some people call this part of Tasmania the end of the world,” she says, as we walk in a light rain. “But for me, this is the center of the world.”
Along the shores at 42 degrees south latitude, the mist-laden eucalyptus forests are reminiscent of southern Chile and northern Oregon, though more dramatic. The deep, cold black water that surrounds gives it a unique feel.
This morning we scramble through thick scrub and open fields of button grass to a two-mile crescent sand beach behind our camp. Breakers crash onto the wide sand beach; the big blue sky is littered with fast-moving offshore rain squalls.
Our goal is the aboriginal middens—giant garbage dumps left behind by the early inhabitants of Tasmania—at the eastern end of the beach. We clamber up what appears to be just a sand dune, 30 feet high and spread inland over a square quarter-of-a-mile. As we kick up the sand our toes uncover tens, hundreds, thousands of empty shells, a wide variety of bones, remnants of charcoal fires and rough-hewn cutting tools. Atop the heap are abalone shells, bird leg bones, fish vertebrae, kangaroo legs and whale bones. This pile goes back 1,000 years; others in Tasmania have been traced back 8,000 years.
Lelia picks out a black rock, not native to the area. Sharpened into a cutting tool for preparing fish or skinning a wallaby, it was carried here, or traded for. Other rocks have been chipped away too, to make cutting and scraping tools.
It is difficult to picture aboriginal life out here, in part because there is so little record. Here, as in so many parts of the planet, the local inhabitants suffered after the Europeans arrived. The race of people who lived in Tasmania for tens of thousands of years survived less than 100 years of European contact. The last full-blooded aboriginal died in 1867. Today, the closest relative is just one-sixty-fourth aboriginal.