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Steaming into the darkness, a dense cloud cover shrouds any moon and starlight as we glide out of Recherche Bay in the early hours bound for Port Davey on Tasmania’s far southwest coast. Located in Tasmania’s extreme southeast corner, Recherche will be the last sheltered harbour for roughly 70 nautical miles before we reach our destination. A short time later as we pass the South East Cape, there is nothing but open water between us and Antarctica.
Leathery bull kelp and Neptune’s necklace rise and fall with the swell of the Southern Ocean, as Albatross’ flies wingtip to wave top, and a morning glow lifts the gloom. Passing the Maatsuyker Island group, pods of dolphins surf our bow waves and curious seals skip through our wake.
The elusive Port Davey lies fully exposed to the Roaring Forties, with all that implies. While easterly weather can be very pleasant, southerly changes can be sudden and harsh. The region’s average of 250 days of rain per year is often coupled with strong winds and limited visibility.
Guided by the prevailing conditions in true expeditionary style, our captain determines whether we reach Breaksea Islands, a ragged set of rocks guarding the entrance to Bathurst Channel. Aptly named, these islands protect the harbour from the wild swells of the South West Coast and provide shelter from the westerly weather. Cruising through the rushing channels of these wave and wind-battered islands, one can only marvel at their impossibly rocky coastline, blow holes and hidden sea caves – and how early explorers before us passed.
Reaching the inlet feels like you have stepped into the lost world. Rolling buttongrass moorland blankets bony quartzite ridges and the few rising peaks are crowned white, nestled with tall paperbark and Melealuca groves in their shielding folds. Four major rivers and numerous creeks cut through gorges and snake across open plains, draining their rust-coloured waters into the marine reserve. Tiny islands dot the surface of the dark waters and white quartzite sands fringe the shoreline. On a fine, calm day the marine reserve’s waters reflect this almost prehistoric-looking landscape to endless perfection when everything remains still except the lofty trees rustling in the gentle wind and the occasional twittering dusky robin. A large majority of Tasmania’s native bird species live here, as well as the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot which migrates between the Australian mainland and Tasmania.
The extraordinary underwater world below harbours an unusual marine environment in which rich peat and tea tree run-off creates a brown, tannin-stained layer of freshwater which overlies tidal saltwater from the Southern Ocean. From the surface, the water is black. Dive beneath, however, and a marine environment that could only survive in much deeper, darker oceans appears within reach. Colonies of colourful sea pens, sea fans, soft corals and other invertebrates of the deep live in the shallows.
Forests of sassafras and some of the oldest Huon pines on earth grow by the water’s edge in a landscape so wild the thylacine was thought to roam here long after it was declared extinct in 1936. We explore hidden inlets and coves by Xplorer tender and learn about the intrepid European explorers and Indigenous Australians who once walked this land and endured its severe climate conditions. Hiking through buttongrass moorland, we pass wombats and Bennett’s wallabies on our way to one of the largest Aboriginal middens in Australia. This was summer camp in a village of thatched tea-tree bark huts for the Needwonnee people, who survived here for 30,000 years.
Facing the open ocean, only the narrow Bathurst Channel leads to safety, and is concealed until nearly abreast Breaksea Islands where rock cliffs surround. There had been no escape for some. French navigator, Marion du Fresne is said to be the first European to record the inlet, yet it wasn’t until 1798 that Port Davey was passed by British explorer, Matthew Flinders who had seen Marion’s chart of the area. 17 years after Flinders passed, James Kelly sailed into the inlet and named it Port Davey after the Tasmanian Lieutenant, Governor Thomas Davey. It’s remarkable to think that Port Davey could have been named Port Flinders or Port Fresne!
Even today, with satellite navigation, vessels built of the strongest materials, and rescue helicopters that can find stricken vessels in hours; this part of the world is still very much respected. It is still wilderness. There are no roads within hundreds of kilometres and remains a sanctuary for Earth’s wildlife. No one lives here and come wintertime, even the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service rangers head home.
There’s few more genuine wilderness areas left on earth than Port Davey, lauded for its untouched solitude and one of only two places in existence that meet seven of 10 criteria for World Heritage Listing. It’s escapism is its greatest asset and part of its captivating appeal.