The last Tasmanian tigers lived in these forests around Corinna. Though the last ever tiger died in captivity in Hobart Zoo in 1936 (Benjamin was his name), there’s been multiple unconfirmed sightings around these parts in the 85 years since. They were once so plentiful here, a bounty was established to reduce their numbers.
I’m paddling a kayak on the Pieman River that cuts through Corinna as the sun rises, burning its way through layers of mist coating the water. I can barely see the Tarkine rainforest on the riverbank – some of it huge, millennia-old Huon pines which are among the oldest living organisms on Earth (one specimen found near here was dated at 10,500 years old). It’s not hard to imagine every noise in the bush could be a tiger. Logic tells me it’s a Bennett’s wallaby, or a pademelon or a Tasmanian devil – but why are they making all that noise?
The river is the colour of Coca-Cola (from tannin), and I drift slowly with the tide listening for tiger calls as sea eagles and wedge-tailed eagles fly the thermals above.
There are few wilder wildernesses left in Australia than Corinna. Back in its heyday – the 1870s and ’80s – nearly 2000 people lived in the region, miners here to claim their fortune in the region’s gold rush. These days, the only permanent population of Corinna is the few hardy souls who service the travellers who come to kayak, hike and take boat trips up the river. Nearly 150 years ago pioneers tried to carve a civilisation out of this wilderness; even today, they’ve barely made a dent.
There are few places on Earth that provide wildlife wilderness experiences quite like Tasmania. But what Tasmania does so differently to other vast wildernesses is provide easy access, being such a small island. Corinna’s only three-and-a-half hours’ drive west of Launceston, and the road in is mostly paved, yet it provides easy passage through the Tarkine.
Guests stay in rustic forest cabins in a tiny village that has no wi-fi or phone reception and only one place for dinner (don’t book for past 7:30pm or you’ll go hungry).
There are hikes here that take me where no-one else goes. One morning I trek beyond the rainforest, through button-grass plains to a glacial mountain range which looks down on the whole region.
But I’ve come for the river. It flows to the west coast 25 kilometres north-west of Corinna, where it empties into the mighty Southern Ocean. The river kayaking is world-class – I paddle to a small platform where I walk 100 metres to a raging waterfall, other days I paddle down tributaries where platypus swim near my kayak.
You can ride the river further on board the Arcadia II, a 1939 cruiser captained by a bloke who looks like Ernest Hemingway, with an earring. “There’s only a handful of people alive who’ve survived the crossing into the ocean from the Pieman,” Captain Norm Bracken told me.
We steam up the river towards the deadly crossing. In the 1800s, early boatmen had little choice but to attempt the crossing to bring in necessary supplies, and many drowned doing so.
We tie up to an old timber wharf when we get in sight of the sea, then walk past a tiny community of hermits who live in leased shacks beside a wild beach littered with driftwood. A guest points out devil tracks on the beach. In my mind – here in this place where the forest meets the wildest coastline on the planet – these aren’t devil marks; they’re tiger tracks, and I’m minutes away from coming face-to-face with Australia’s most infamous extinct animal.
I spend three days here in the forest, then drive south-east, past Hobart to the Tasman Peninsula for a meeting with more of Tasmania’s rare creatures – though these are of the marine variety.
The Tasman Peninsula begins barely an hour’s drive from Tasmania’s largest city, and yet, apart from its most iconic attraction – the Port Arthur convict settlement – it remains a barely touched wilderness area. The only incursions are the hiking tracks that cut through the forest to form one of Australia’s best coastal trails, the Three Capes Walk.
I’ll be leaving hikers behind where I’m going: on a four-day sea kayaking expedition. I’m on Southern Sea Ventures’ first-ever Whale Watch escape, though they run similar four-day itineraries throughout the year, outside of whale migration season.
But I’m here to see the southern right and humpback whales which travel through between May and November each year. On board too is one of the planet’s leading cold-water biologists, Gary Miller, who spent over 20 years as a guide in Antarctica.
We depart just around the corner from Port Arthur where tourists gather. Within minutes, we’re on our own, bar the fur seal swimming circles around me. The coastline of the Tasman Peninsula is some of the most striking in the country – here the Southern Hemisphere’s tallest sea cliffs are pounded by the swells of the Southern Ocean.
Today, though, there’s almost no swell at all, so guide/owner Toby Story takes us into caves along the southern coast he’s never accessed before. “I’ve paddled this part of the coastline so many times but I find new caves every time,” he said.
We paddle into an enormous sea cave as swells cause the sea around us to rise and fall; each time they do, there’s a loud echo in the chamber of the cave. As we pass along the cliffs, recent rains turn practically the entire coastline into a series of cascades.
There’s all kinds of creatures out here. In the distance, I spot a spout of breath as a pod of humpback whales swim past. Story saw an orca close to where we’re paddling. “I saw a massive fin and thought it was a great white,” he said. “Then it came under me and I saw a massive eye looking at me. They’re just curious though.”
After days on the water, we retreat to our luxury lodge (The Bolthole) on two-and-a-half hectares of private land beside the ocean in Pirate Bay. From the deck, we spot passing whales breaching.
We paddle for days, followed at times by dolphins, closer to the coast than boats usually can. Occasionally I see a hiker high on the cliffs, but mostly we’re alone, except for the albatrosses and the gannets too full of fish to take off when we startle them.
On our last day, as we round a coastline where a 300-metre-high waterfall thunders straight into the sea – a humpback and its calf come in close. We watch as the pair roll on their backs to get a better look at us. I’ve seen plenty of whales from the coast and from a boat, but nothing compares to the immediacy of contact by kayak.
For many travellers, far-off destinations like Alaska represent the ultimate playground for wildlife wilderness experiences, but Tasmania’s full of isolated, wild places where rare creatures roam.
It’s just a whole lot easier to get to.
Take me there
Drive: Corinna is a 3.5-hour drive from Launceston Airport where hire cars are available; the Tasman Peninsula is an hour’s drive from Hobart but you’ll be picked up from Hobart by Southern Sea Ventures.
Stay: Corinna offers cabins, kayaking, boat tours, hiking and meals (and a bar). For details see corinna.com.au.
Tour: Southern Sea Ventures runs three whale watching sea kayak tours per year (the next is 19 May 2022) and multiple sea kayak escapes along the Tasman Peninsula from November to April, both staying at the Bolthole.
Explore more: southernseaventures.com