Rob Pennicott has his shorts on and Bill Lark has a bottle of Distiller’s Selection whisky tucked under his arm. Pilot Shannon Wells has decided to wear a uniform and Port Arthur’s Kate McCarthy is dressed with an enormous smile. They’re the kind of Tasmanian quartet you’d like to spend the day with- classically local.
What do they have in common? They are a mix of 2014 Qantas Australian Tourism Award winners and home-grown legends. To celebrate, they are getting cosy in the cabin of a Par Avion plane bound for Tasmania’s wild south west. And I’m gratefully wedged in the back for the ride.
Shortly after take-off Shannon steers us toward familiar territory for Rob- the far stretching beaches and dolerite cliffs of Bruny Island. As if on cue, dolphins leap from their watery playground, home to Rob’s first and ever-popular Bruny Island eco-cruise. With a knowing nod, he smiles down on his patch.
From here, we get a taste of the remoteness to come as we forge out over South East Cape. My mind wanders as the headset delivers news, “this is the final post….to the east is New Zealand, the west Argentina and to the south, Antarctica – you can’t travel further south in the country.”
For the next 15 minutes I’m literally in the lap of the poor passenger beside my right, as temperate rainforest and rugged cliffs plunge into the ocean below. The further south we head though, the more barren and Jurassic-like the landscape becomes. Rainforest is replaced with tea-tree and button grass plains as we thunder through the Iron Bound ranges.
I can’t be sure if it’s because he has national tourism legends aboard (yes, Rob was named Australian Tourism Legend and Bill was just inducted into the Whisky Hall of Fame in London) or because he’s a gold medal winner, but Shannon treats us to a special detour over the Maatsuyker Islands. We fly low past a lighthouse manned by volunteers, on an island so windswept that despite productive intentions, resident chickens were once blown off to sea.
We then hop on what feels like the freeway to Bathurst Harbour, cruising low through Bathurst Narrows toward a harbour triple the size of Sydney Harbour. With Mount Rugby towering to our left as our welcoming party, we land at ‘Melaleuca International.’
Shannon then transforms from pilot to boat captain as we carve our way up the Melaleuca Inlet until we find what appears to be a secret staircase. We are ushered in to Par Avion’s standing camp where Bill generously cracks open the wooden box where his prized 46 per cent whisky is resting.
Lunch is served on Balmoral Beach, where we literally beach ourselves onto white quartz pebbles. A short wander across to the other side reveals an enchanting little cove- the type usually reserved for fairy-tale weddings. Equally magic is the appearance of Tassie smoked salmon, 42 Degree South wines, soft Wicked Cheese Company brie and lunch packs on our return. Few would know that 15 years before, Bill had come to this camp as a surveyor, back before his whisky days. It is unlikely whisky could taste better than in the rugged wilds of south west Tasmania, poured by the grandfather of Australian whisky. Might I add, poured into takeaway coffee cups.
We slip back into the boat and are whisked away to more secret spots. Shannon can’t hide his enthusiasm - the breathtakingly still conditions mean he can take us to further reaches. We just sit silently entranced by the mirror reflections on tannin-stained waters. Pulled from my trance, Rob bellows, “stop the boat, I know those people.” In a Tasmanian moment, in a place that feels on the world’s edge Rob has stumbled across an employee paddling a kayak….we offer them a dram and continue on our way.
Heading back to the ‘international airport’ I’m not sure if the slower pace is everyone’s unconscious knowledge that one day is not enough. But in South West style, there is one more treat in store. Above the clouds, as if a gift from the Qantas Awards Gods, appears Federation Peak glowing like Shannon has never seen before. And trust me, he’s done this run a few times. It’s a fitting finish to a day spent with two of Tassie’s tourism legends and a cabin full of Tasmanian smiles.
Rob was right when he whispered through the silence, “look at this place. It’s as though the world has forgotten it.” Part of me hopes it’ll always stay our little Tasmanian secret - a place where Bill might get busy with the purest water on the planet and whip up a new recipe- his method forever held in the south west silence.
Words and images: Alice Hansen (and Michael Graham Freeman where images credited)
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