We see almost no sign of humans after leaving Melaleuca, a former mining outpost where our plane landed from Hobart on a blindingly white quartzite airstrip. To get here, you have to arrive by air, by boat, or by hiking for days.
Our guide, wildlife biologist Nick Mooney, showed us around Melaleuca. It’s famous as the nesting site of the very endangered, very cute orange-bellied parrots (affectionately called OBPs). We heard their whistling sound before we spotted them. A recovery plan has increased their numbers to almost 100 wild parrots from a painfully low 17 in 2016.
After joining Tasmanian Boat Charters’ Odalisque, a 20-metre vessel neatly fitted out with creature comforts, we head west from Bathurst Harbour towards the expanses of Port Davey. Twists and turns create evolving vistas of sunlit waterways with white sand beaches, surrounded by khaki-coloured button grass plains. These are framed by overlapping mountain ranges of varying shades in the afternoon sun: from royal blue to indigo to charcoal, with the occasional solo peak rearing up like a surprise guest. Our phones now only take photos. There’s no signal here at all, nor WiFi, so our senses start to return to focus our attention on this new world. The keen photographer in our group thinks she is in paradise. We all are.
Approaching steep, rock-clad Balmoral Mountain, laconic skipper-owner Pieter van der Woude asks, “Anyone up for a walk? It takes about half an hour”. I think he’s joking, but a gentler slope comes into view, and four of us climb to the top. The view westward is especially stunning as twilight turns the water into quicksilver. Back on board, we toast our day with fine Tasmanian wines before demolishing roast lamb and gnocchi, handiwork of chef Marco Gobbo, on loan from Hobart’s hottest restaurant, Fico. Our days settle into this pattern of expertly guided excursions interspersed with dining and conviviality.
Former abalone diver van der Woude has 30 years’ experience of seafaring, and plans are based on the weather, local knowledge and guests’ inclinations. On one evening, a full moon ruins otherwise perfect conditions for viewing the southern lights (aurora australis), but we have fun trying to glimpse them. Mooney opens our eyes to the wildlife all around us, and while sea eagles and black swans are the most visible, evidence includes the busy marsupial highway to be seen on the beaches. Here he identifies the tracks of wallabies, wombats, possums, spotted and tiger quolls, and most distinctive, the diamond-patterned tracks of Tasmanian devils.
Big swells discourage hope of a thrill-ride taking the tinnie through the sea-drilled tunnels in the eerie Breaksea Islands. However, Mooney skilfully dodges a sandbar in a rising swell to get us to lonely Settlement Point, once busy with timber-getting and boatbuilding. We continue upriver to Davey Gorge, where sedimentary rocks, once horizontal, are almost vertical, creating zigzag cliff-faces. Twisted, woolly-leaved Huon Pine saplings cling to crevices, mere ciphers of the timber goldrush their older ancestors triggered. In the shallows, we clamber over river stones in water glowing rose-pink, tinted by tannins seeping from the vegetation, to reach a pool for a swim.
On a mildly drizzling day we hike along an ocean beach with huge shellfish middens, the result of about 8,000 years of feasting by the Ninine people. At Bond Bay, we see a cave with ancient circular petroglyphs. van der Woude tells us that present-day Tasmanian Aboriginal people have said they are happy for him to show it if pictures are kept off social media. He also takes us to visit the grave of Critchley Parker, an ill-equipped fantasist who died alone in 1942, exploring Port Davey with the idea it could become a homeland for European Jews. We detour to see a waterfall which has carved an exquisite natural spa rock pool at the water’s edge.
Our skipper has been keeping an eye out for his adventurous cousins. They turn up on our last day, wearing wetsuits with triangular panels to clip onto their sea kayaks. These two middle-aged sisters are deeply grateful for the espresso coffee and lunch Gobbo prepares, while we marvel at their stories of weeks spent kayaking, camping, hiking and rescuing less experienced walkers and kayakers. I admire their abilities and hardiness, while very much appreciating the level of comfort I’m enjoying, and the skill and knowledge of the talented crew who keep my experience safe and full of wonderment.
Keren Lavelle travelled as a guest of Tasmanian Boat Charters, which in mid 2023 will launch a new, catamaran version of Odalisque, doubling capacity to 12 guests.