Wilderness from top to bottom
Kayaking on the Pieman river. Photo: Getty Images
Lee Atkinson shuns the tourist crowds and gets back to nature on Tasmania's wild west coast.
Deep in the Tarkine, one of the largest untouched temperate rainforests in the world, I'm floating along a river into my own perfect version of the wilderness – beautiful, ethereal and deafeningly silent – that matches the iconic images of ancient moss-covered trees mirrored in ink-black water that you see on the cover of every coffee-table travel book, brochure and website about Tasmania. The type of images that used to be plastered on "save the wilderness" posters. The picture you have in your head when you board a boat to cruise up the Gordon River in Strahan, before you realise any wilderness experience you have is going to be shared with 100 or so chattering strangers stomping along the boardwalk behind you.
Corinna is not like that, even though it's not that far from Strahan. There are no sealed roads into Corinna, and even though the gravel roads are fine for normal cars, it's enough, it seems, to put most people off.
There are also no shops in Corinna. In fact, there's not much at all, except a pub and some very comfortable cabins, but before they were built in 2007 it was just a ghost town, pretty much smothered in rainforest.
It wasn't always that sleepy. When a gold nugget weighing almost seven kilograms (the biggest found in Tasmania) was discovered nearby in 1883 it sparked a huge gold rush, and Corinna boomed. The town boasted more than 30 buildings including two pubs, one on either side of the Pieman River, much to the dismay of postmistress Jessie Devlyn, who in between sorting the mail, writing poetry and looking after her five children, had to row her husband across the river to the hotel and back every night.
Apparently, the most common way to die in the goldfields then was not disease, but drowning on the way home after indulging in a bit too much tanglefoot – a beer made from the bark of the sassafras tree containing a natural amphetamine – at the pub.
Dining in Corinna.
The gold rush was short-lived, and by the early 1900s the town was pretty much abandoned. It is the only surviving remote-area historic mining settlement in Tasmania.
Today only three of the original buildings remain: the old pub, the butcher's shop and a cottage, and all three are available as accommodation. The 14 new cottages, called "wilderness retreats", have been built to blend in with the originals, complete with rusty tin roofs and rough-hewn timber exteriors. Inside, they are much more comfortable than they look from the outside, with a small kitchen, gas fireplaces, en suite, queen-size beds and verandahs that open out into the rainforest.
There is a network of walking trails that start just metres from your cabin door. One of the best is the hour-long Whyte River walk, which loops around from the cabins through a magical forest of myrtle, sassafras, huon pine and fairy-tale fungi. It's a beautiful way to start the day – the river is like glass, the trees are sheathed in tendrils of mist, and fat pademelons are still too sleepy to get out of your way.
We spend a day on the Pieman River aboard the Arcadia II, a handsome boat built entirely from huon pine in 1939. There's just six of us, and we slowly cruise the 18 kilometres to the wave-racked mouth of the river, where we grab a packed picnic lunch and explore the wild and empty beach covered in hundreds of massive driftwood logs.
Unlike the area around the Gordon and Franklin rivers near Strahan, the Tarkine is not World Heritage-listed. But it could be. It meets several of the cultural and environmental criteria for World Heritage status – you only need to meet one to qualify. Given that the federal government has approved exploratory mining leases in the area and several large open-cut mines have been proposed, maybe it should be.
The next day we kayak down the Savage River, the mirror-like reflections so perfect it's almost impossible to tell where the water ends and the rainforest begins. The tannin-stained water is dark, but we can clearly make out the remains of the SS Croydon, sunk in 1919. Rumour has it that it was sunk on purpose as the skipper and crew were too scared to face the river mouth again on the way back, preferring instead to walk back to Launceston. Having seen the roiling waves from the beach the day before, I can't say I blame them.
We tie up our kayaks at a landing platform (staff at Corinna will pick them up later) and walk back, another delightful amble through rainforest, although the first half-hour is a rather challenging uphill haul. We encounter only one other couple on the two-hour hike, and most of the time it's easy to believe we are the only ones who have discovered this forgotten, enchanted place.
Call me antisocial if you like, but I really do like having the wilderness to myself.
Lee Atkinson was a guest of the Corinna Wilderness Experience.
Corinna is 267 kilometres west of Launceston, about a four-hour drive. The last hour or so is via unsealed road, but fine for conventional two-wheel-drive cars. You can also drive from Stanley to Corinna, a scenic drive from one end of the Tarkine to the other, via the unsealed Western Explorer Road (rather poetically known as the Road to Nowhere; allow two to three hours). Jetstar (www.jetstar.com) and Virgin Australia (www.virginaustralia.com) have daily flights to Launceston from Sydney and Melbourne starting at about $150 return.
One-bedroom wilderness retreats are $200 a night, two-bedroom $250. A night in Pete's Place, one of the three original houses, costs $150. See http://corinna.com.au.
Cabins all feature small kitchens, but you'll need to bring your own supplies — the Tarkine Hotel only sells the basics, although you can buy barbecue packs. The hotel serves lunch and dinner daily.
Pieman River cruises on the Arcadia II cost $90 an adult, $51 a child, and includes a picnic lunch. Savage River cruises on the Sweetwater $50 an adult, $25 for children. Kayak hire is $40 for a half-day (same price for single or double kayaks), $70 for a full day.