For a real adventure, head to Tasmania's rugged and remote south-west, where paddling is an ideal way to explore the stunning coastline.
The southern coastline of Tasmania is beautiful, wild and isolated, and the success of an adventure to this World Heritage-listed wilderness is often determined by its unpredictable weather. It can be a harsh and unforgiving place, so good planning, preparation and experience are essential.
With that in mind, I join a small group of paddlers on Roaring 40s Kayaking’s seven-day sea kayak expedition to explore the vast wilderness waterways of the remote Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey. Reg Grundy and his wife Jenny have been running the company for just over three years and they love to share their kayak skills and knowledge of the Tasmanian coast.
“South West Tasmania got under our skin with its vast wilderness landscapes, the tannin-stained water, the remoteness, the feeling that you are on the edge of the world, along with its rich indigenous and European history” says Reg.
Our exact itinerary is not known — the weather conditions will determine where and what we can explore — so there is a great sense of anticipation. We are on the first expedition of the season.
The only firm details of the trip are that we will fly to Melaleuca, where we will pack our sea kayaks before paddling down the Melaleuca Inlet to our first camp site at Forest Lagoon near the entrance to Bathurst Harbour.
We meet our guides Tory Stewart and Damien Cruise at Cambridge Airport near Hobart, where our first task is to pack our clothes and equipment into two dry-bags. Space is at a premium but we had been warned and given a detailed list of what to bring along, so with a little gentle persuasion all my gear fits into the supplied bags.
Personal gear and all other supplies are loaded onto the light aircraft and we are under way. The flight takes us over the spectacular and rugged Arthur Ranges and deep into the Southwest National Park towards Melaleuca. The flight gives us an insight into the remoteness of the area we are going to be exploring.
At Melaleuca we are assigned a double kayak and paddling partner. We load the kayaks and, after a safety briefing by Tory, we hit the water.
The paddle to Forest Lagoon along the calm waters of the Melaleuca Inlet is nice and easy — the perfect way to familiarise ourselves with our kayaks and paddling partners. We glide quietly along the inlet. Dense flowering melaleuca trees line the banks and mountains surround us in the distance.
Our first camp at Forest Lagoon is more like glamping than camping. We are each assigned a spacious yurt-type tent with a proper double bed. The kitchen and mess area is also more than comfortable, so it’s a gentle transition to wilderness camping.
After dinner, Tory briefs us on the weather forecast for the next few days. The first day is not so good — 15-20 knot SW winds and rain — but the following days are looking great with light winds and 1-2m swells. We all agree on a plan that will take us to a camp site at Schooner Cove, which is within easy striking distance of the entrance to Port Davey and the Southern Ocean.
We leave the calm waters of the Melaleuca Inlet and head out into Bathurst Harbour for the first time.
We paddle close to the shore out of the wind and it is not until we enter the Bathurst Narrows flanked by Mt Beattie on our left and the imposing Mt Rugby to our right that we are faced with our biggest challenge for the day. The wind whips along the narrow channel and it’s raining on and off, but thanks to Tory’s coaching we make slow but steady progress by hugging the shore and taking advantage of the respite the small bays and outcrops offer. Regular breaks for water and scroggin (a lolly and nut mixture) keep our energy levels up until we pull into a bay by Balmoral Hill for some lunch.
After lunch, we continue into the wider and windier Bathurst Channel before arriving at our camp site at Schooner Cove.
From now on it is proper camping, but this is a beautiful, sheltered camp site. We set up our tents while Damien and Tory set up the rest of the camp with tarps, cooking equipment and chairs. It’s amazing how much gear you can fit into the kayaks.
We finish the day with a walk up to Schooner Hill, where we have great views towards Port Davey and down along the Bathurst Channel, where we battled the winds earlier.
The forecast is still looking good so the plan is to head out into Port Davey towards Spain Bay tomorrow.
What a contrast. Glassy conditions and a gentle 1-2m swell greet us as we look out from our camp. We slam down some breakfast, pack up camp, do our morning stretching exercises and hit the water.
We round Turnbull Head (also know as PM Head) and head out into the south passage towards the Shanks Islands. It is totally different out here in the exposed waters of Port Davey. Quartzite cliffs weathered by constant pounding from the swells of the Southern Ocean tower above us as we paddle alongside them. Across at Shanks Islands, we explore some beautiful “rock gardens” among the cliffs while Tory and Damien keep a watchful eye on the swell.
We take turns in backing our kayaks into a small rocky outcrop for a photo opportunity in front of a blow-hole before heading for a spot of lunch at Norman Cove.
After lunch, as we continue our journey towards Spain Bay, we come across our first big sea cave. We take turns backing into the cave (so we can see what the swell is doing). It’s a massive cave and my first time inside a cave in a kayak, so it’s quite an experience. Damien declares this one of the best sea kayaking days ever and none of us could argue with that.
Our afternoon walk takes us across the small peninsula from Spain Bay to Stephens Beach for a lovely long beach walk to visit an Aboriginal midden site at the southern end of the beach.
Today’s paddle takes us back up past the Shanks Islands towards the imposing Breaksea Islands, which form a natural barrier that keeps the worst of the Southern Ocean swells and winds from blasting up the Bathurst Channel. It is a rare day when you can kayak along the outside of these islands. The swell and wind usually don’t permit it, but thanks to a gentle swell and virtually no wind we are able to cruise along and explore several caves and paddle through some giant arches. It feels like a huge privilege to be here and we keep a constant eye on any rogue swells that may surprise us. The morning has flown by and Damien proclaims this the greatest day sea kayaking ever — again, no arguments from any of us. It is simply breathtaking.
Our camp for the next two nights is at Bramble Cove, just inside the northern side of the Bathurst Channel and right below Mt Stokes. We unpack and make ourselves comfortable before a short beach walk to Aylen Point, which was the site of an old whaling camp.
I spot what resembles a miniature grass fairway among the rocks on the beach. Tory calls it a marsupial lawn because the marsupials keep the grass trimmed. Damien tries his hand at golf from the finely manicured fairway. For the record — he sliced a tree wood into the rock pool.
We can barely believe our luck: the good conditions continue this morning, but there is a change due this afternoon so we head off early.
Today’s paddle will take us north towards Kathleen Island and Wallaby Bay. Kathleen Island is every bit as impressive as the Breaksea Islands. Our guides are keen to see if it is possible to get into a particular cave they have never been able to enter safely. Its entrance is guarded by a sloping rock face on one side and shallow rocks and kelp on the other. Tory decides it’s safe to have a go after watching several sets of swell rolling in, so we proceed carefully, one kayak at a time.
Damien and Yoav Bar-Ness are first to enter in their double and shout to us that there’s plenty of room inside, so Tory and Alison Bradshaw enter next, followed by me, in the single kayak today.
The cave is huge and there is an opening further back that leads to a hidden rock garden with 30-40m quartzite cliffs reaching for the blue sky above. Simply stunning. We feel so privileged to be able to share this with our two guides, who are also experiencing it for the first time. We name it Kathleen Cathedral and paddle on towards our lunch stop at Wallaby Bay.
“It doesn’t get any better than this; it’s a first for all of us — best day sea kayaking ever,” says Damien. He is sounding like a broken record — maybe it should be the best three days sea kayaking ever — but we have been so lucky.
We are all pumped when we return to camp and decide to hike up Mt Stokes to take in the view of the areas we have explored so far. Yoav decides it will be fun to take a paddle with us for a photo at the top — and since it was his idea, he gets to carry it up there. It is quite a scramble up the steep slopes until we get about halfway, where the gradient eases and the button grass give way to quartzite rock. As we ascend the weather is closing in and from time to time clouds roll in and block the view of the surrounding land and seascape.
At the top we have 360-degree views of the panorama below us. It is like standing on a map of the area and picking out the places we have been: to the north, Wallaby Bay; to the east, the Bathurst Channel and Mt Rugby; to the south, Spain Bay; and to the west, the Breaksea Islands.
The weather has changed and the wind and rain are back. A 25-knot westerly blows us back towards Bathurst Harbour. We feel like we’re flying along as we surf the waves down through the Bathurst Channel.
We take a break at Parker Bay, where we visit the grave of Critchley Parker Jr, a Jewish man who had envisaged Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey as a place of great abundance for Jewish refugees after World War II.
“There seems no reason why Port Davey should not become the Paris of Australasia,” he wrote in his journal, before dying a lonely death in his tent while exploring the area. We continue our rapid surf through the Bathurst Narrows and arrive back at the glamping camp at Forest Lagoon for our last night in this amazing place.
We reminisce about our adventure as we paddle back to Melaleuca. It seems ages since we were heading in the opposite direction anticipating the trip ahead.
- For more about kayaking in the area, see roaring40skayaking.com.au, tourismtasmania.com.au and discovertasmania.com.
- Choosing the right photographic gear to take on a trip like this can be a bit of a challenge. Salt water, sand and rain are natural enemies of photo gear. While on the water I used a compact Olympus Tough TG-4 and an Olympus Tough TG tracker action camera. Both are water and shockproof and stood up well to the challenging conditions. I also carried an Olympus OM-D EM 5 Mark II and a couple of lenses for use during my time off the water and kept them safe and dry in a Pelican case. olympus.com.au
DisclaimerMogens Johansen was a guest of Roaring 40s Kayaking and Tourism Tasmania.
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