It’s about an hour from Hobart but a different world. Mysteriously silent, as if forgotten by humankind. It has stood in its Jurassic-like dress, virtually unchanged for millennia. I’ve touched down in South West Tasmania several times over, but each time it touches me in a new way. Overnighting in Par Avion's wilderness camp is no different. It’s the first time I’ve rested my head at this distant outpost and the young pilot is right when he says, “there’s nothing like waking up here.”
Our trip down to ‘Melaleuca International’ tracks south to Australia’s southern-most tip before following the coastline through to South West National Park – 4500 square kilometres of wild. Peering down at lonely islands, windswept and rugged, is a taster of isolation to come. My commentary of continuous ‘wows’ is fortunately un-heard through our headsets. Thick forest gives way to button grass plains and the imposing Ironbound Range as we near the airstrip.
Without wings, boat or hardy bushwalking boots, there is no access to our destination. No roads lead to Melaleuca. Deny King carved out a life here though. Legendary and quietly romantic, this man lived self-sufficiently here for 50 years. We're here just two days - a condensed version of the three-day experience.
Upon landing, we peek in the windows of his home, where his daughter Janet still frequents and hear stories of this rugged pioneer. We then tuck into King Island cheese in the hope a rare and endangered Orange Bellied Parrot will join us for morning tea at the bird observatory, but no such luck. Little do we know within minutes of departing the region, one will politely swoop past to bid farewell.
From here, we are transported by boat to our private camp, veiled in rainforest on the shores of Bathurst Harbour. It’s glamping at its finest; five tents appointed with crisp linen and an outdoor kitchen where chairs are pulled in around Tasmanian fare and warm conversation.
We are taken by boat across to the Celery Top Islands, stepping ashore onto a white-quartz beach lapped by tannin-stained waters. Nature is kind to us, delivering a mirror-perfect double of Mount Rugby as we sip morning coffee on an island cut off since the end of the last ice age. It’s quite the café view across Bathurst Harbour, some three times the size of Sydney Harbour.
The skill of Celery Top Island’s barista (who doubles as our Par Avion pilot, boat skipper, guide and cook) is only rivalled by our next mission – climbing to the peak of Mount Beattie for uninterrupted views down the Bathurst Narrows with a sprinkling of wild flowers for good measure. Button Grass flowers for about one week annually. It’s our lucky week.
The downhill descent is hastened by the promise of dinner back at camp. As tender lamb cooks, we flick through South West words including Christobel Mattingley’s biography of Deny, King of the Wilderness. She shares a vivid account of the love he felt for the woman he lured to Melaleuca, describing the manner Deny drew her rainwater bath.
Mattingley writes, ‘as she relaxed she had no idea what labour and love it involved. Deny had to carry the water inside and heat it in kerosene tins over the fire- a fire for which every single piece of wood had to be cut and rowed eleven kilometres by dinghy.’
The following morning we rise to baked eggs and a boat journey through the Bathurst Narrows with towering 800 metre mountains rising beside us. The weather, in polite terms, is moody. But as misty rain blankets our intimate group (Par Avion takes no more than 10) it cannot wash the smiles off our faces. We climb to the top of Mount Milner for a hot drink served with a sprinkling of Port Davey raindrops and return to camp for warming chicken soup.
That’s the beauty of spirited South West Tasmania. She’s as untamed and wild as nature gets. One minute sunlight dances poetically across Mount Rugby, delivering tan-worthy conditions. The next, a mountain-top tea party dissolves into sheets of rain and soggy shortbread.
These elemental forces might prove uncomfortable but they also afford respect for place and those who walked this land before us, including the original Needwonnee inhabitants. As we huddle close together on the boat, it’s a fitting pause that we’re shown an ancient aboriginal ochre cave. And as we motor away I look back at Schooner Cove, imagining it glowing warm on a day like today.
For us though, it’s time to return to current-day-life. Not before our skipper-come-pilot has a final treat in store. As we’re swept high above the World Heritage Wilderness he quips that we may feel a bump or two but it’ll be worth it. Next thing, we’re flying over glacially-carved Lake Oberon, eyes wide with wonder. Again, I’m left without words. But I may have said ‘wow.’
Until next time South West Tasmania.
Words and images: Alice Hansen
Par Avion is the only operator to fly into Melaleuca. If you have the chance, do this once in your life. And once you’ve done it once, do it again. Go for the day and stay three if you can. Special day trips start at $350pp.
Visit: Par Avion to book.
Your launch pad for exploring Tasmania like a local.