The green miles of north-west Tasmania’s Tarkine wilderness
The engine of Arcadia II coughs into life and a nearby flock of cormorants scatter. “I’ve been told to drive it like it has been stolen,” declares Norm, the skipper of the world’s only operating Huon pine river cruiser, which is the pride and joy of the former mining settlement turned tourist honey pot of Corinna.
It’s 6am and my fellow bushwalkers and I are still woozy from the previous night’s liberal intake of Tasmanian wine, but we are hoping a trip through a hushed landscape on a historic boat will be just the salve for our sorry souls.
The cruiser last saw any real action as a supply ship in New Guinea during World War II, but now enjoys a sedate life moving experience-hungry tourists back and forth on the Pieman River at the southern edge of Tasmania’s Tarkine forest – the largest tract of cool-temperate rainforest in Australia.
Our tour guide, Andrew, is keen to get moving; he knows just how beautiful the river is at this time of the morning, how the mist will hang low and the birds will arc above us, the way the river thins out in sections and the trees seem to push forward like a gathering crowd.
“The forest on the river bank is like a cathedral; it is the most magnificent thing,” Andrew says, rocking back and forth on his heels.
Some of us are experienced bushwalkers, some of us are trekking dilettantes, one walker is reeling from a break-up and wants to “get away from it all”.
Nearly all of us have complicated relationships with social media – a dysfunctional bind that makes us want to scour our newsfeeds and disable our accounts in equal measure – and there is a degree of relief among the group that most parts of the Tarkine we will be visiting have no internet or phone reception.
We are going off-grid, but with that sacrifice comes the hope of some kind of compensating beauty: a deep, transformative moment offered up by an awe-inspiring landscape or a setting sun that will pull all the uncertain complications and quandaries of our lives into sharp relief.
It is the arrogance of much nature-based tourism: we think the loveliness is in some way there to save or inform us, that it has a didactic function.
The cruiser sails between banks of heaped stringybarks and blackwoods, interspersed with what remains of the Huon pines that grow largely at the water’s edge. Only a handful of Huon pine trees are harvested in Tasmania each year, but there was a time when the trees, which display a legendary resistance to rot, were felled with impunity to build boats.
As the sun fully emerges, the low clouds covering the trees in ghostly cloaks begin to lift and I hang over the side of the rails like a listless child, letting the wind whip me. Most of the bushwalkers are too tired to exert much energy and too grateful for the unfolding ceremony of light and wind on the landscape to talk, but Brian is a different story.
It is only the second day of the tour, but Brian has already distinguished himself as a paragon of self-determination and enterprise.
He is in his 60s, has a resting heart rate of about 60 beats per minute (“It used to be about 40”) and an enthusiastic chuckle that accompanies everything he says, no matter how unfunny or grim the declaration.
As we scramble over the mossy logs on our many walks through tall myrtle beech and attempt to distribute our weight evenly so we won’t fall into the muddy peat beneath us, Brian is moving through the paths at astonishing speed. Such is his physical dexterity that, at certain points, he appears to be skipping where we are merely lurching.
Brian even wanders when there is nothing outwardly apparent to wander to. One afternoon, he accidentally climbed a small mountain because he followed a track for too long. People began wondering at dinner where Brian had wandered off to when his seat was still empty at 8pm.
“I am just one of those people who cannot sit still,” he tells me as he empties a sachet of sugar into his tea and stirs furiously, while everyone else is on the deck of the cruiser drinking in the landscape. “I have always been like this.”
The next day we set off on the four-hour, 8.6-kilometre return walk up Mount Donaldson, which starts deep in Tarkine rainforest and moves through stringybarks and swamp gums, wattles, tree ferns, tea-trees and towering, ancient myrtle beech, some hundreds of years old.
“The first sound you will hear is your bones crack,” Brian declares, referring to the possibility that one of the giant old trees will come down upon us at any given moment. Indeed, far from being a still tableau of natural beauty, the forest is constantly changing and the deepest part surprises me with its upended beauty; it looks in sections as if someone has thrown a tantrum and promptly left.
In many patches it even resembles a mossy car crash – there are tree limbs everywhere and giant, rotting logs at sharp angles, covered in a lurid orange or green growth. Where a tree has died or been struck by lightning or felled in fires, fungi or lichen have moved in quickly to subsume what has fallen. Branches stick out and curve back on themselves like elbows, and some trees – called horizontals – have clearly given up trying to compete for valuable canopy real estate.
“They just bend over and start growing sideways,” Andrew notes, as I assess whether to limbo my way under one or scramble indecorously over the top.
As we climb the mountain, the tree canopy thins and the gum trees give way to open fields of button grass.
The walk is not difficult, the slopes are testing without being punishing, and we are afforded lovely views of the Pieman River as an incentive to keep ascending.
It’s a long walk, but the sight of the others’ backpacks and walking sticks in front of me, the crunching sound their hiking boots make, is comforting and after an hour or so we fall into a kind of groggy rhythm.
Our tour group swears they have not missed their internet connection, but when we get high up enough to receive a signal on our phones, a chorus of beeps and incoming message notifications interrupts the call of the green rosellas.
We stop at a plateau to take in the vastness, the breadth of trees, and at least three of us dip our heads ashamedly to our devices to check messages when we think no one is watching.
The drizzling rain starts coming down in great sheets and we pull our rain hoods tighter around us. We stop halfway up the final track to flick leeches off our legs, and to snack on walking provisions of hard-boiled eggs and nuts.
And then suddenly we are there.
The view from the top of Mount Donaldson is one of uninterrupted Tarkine forest, immense and untouchable, with only the white scar of the open-cut Savage River iron ore mine blighting the vista.
It is utterly sublime and the group falls into a monastic silence that even Brian bows to. We eat our lunch deliberately and reverentially, and I steal a glance at Brian’s nuggety form.
For the first time in days he is still.
Johanna Leggatt travelled through the Tarkine with the assistance of Park Trek Walking Tours.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "The green miles". Subscribe here.