Chris Sharples

Chris Sharples is descended from a long line of Tasmanians on the maternal side, with at least one of his direct ancestors having made the Hobart news in 1854 by falling drunk out of a dingy in Ralphs Bay and drowning. Chris has spent most of his life enthusiastically exploring Tasmania and feels a strong attachment to Tasmanian landscapes, to the extent that he suspects there might be something in all this talk about “sense of place”. In professional terms, Chris is a geologist who has in recent years focussed primarily on coastal geomorphology and the impacts of sea-level rise on coasts. Philosophically, he enjoys trying to spot elephants in rooms and state the bleeding obvious about them. Some of his attempts to offend certain sensibilities by stating the bleeding obvious can be found at:

icon light bulb Chris at Tasmanian Times.

An Early Tasmanian BASE Jump

 Although I wrote this account in 1989, it has remained unpublished until now. In the intervening years, much has changed in the world of Building, Antenna, Span, Earth (BASE) parachute jumping- not the least of which has been the development of specifically designed parachute equipment.

Nowadays, it’s common for jumpers to use sites that an earlier generation of BASE jumpers might have considered crazy – ironic, given that during the 1980s most mainstream skydivers dismissed us BASE jumpers of that era as crazy.

 My jump described here involved the use of the standard skydiving equipment of the day with just a few changes to the parachute packing method to produce a faster, and supposedly more reliable, opening, together with a somewhat wimpy opening method known as a ‘direct bag’ deployment which was suited to an inexperienced BASE jumper such as I was. Nevertheless, it produced the same endorphin rush that contemporary BASE jumpers still enjoy (and probably greater levels of risk and terror – Ed). So, in the interests of reminiscence and self-aggrandizement, I have resurrected this dusty account of what I subsequently realised was the first BASE jump off Frenchmans Cap by a born and bred Tasmanian.

APRIL 1988 This adventure starts at 6.30am on a cold foggy Sydney morning. I’m standing on the parapet of Northbridge, looking down at the playing fields 55 metres below my feet. I’ve just seen Doug go, and now it’s my turn. My knees are shaking and it’s got nothing to do with the cold.

“Look at it”, I remember being told, “savor the experience, immerse yourself in it”. I take a deep breath, trying to calm my racing pulse and centre my attention. “Ready, set, go!” I spring out from the bridge, trying to thrust my chest out towards the horizon, arms and legs spread-eagled. This has to be the ultimate leap of faith.

Two eternal seconds of freefall, then I feel the familiar jolt as my parachute opens perfectly. Look at it, grab the brake toggles, quickly flare the canopy, and I’m skidding to a fast but safe landing on the wet grass. I’m ecstatic, jabbering with euphoria. I’ve just done my first BASE jump and I feel good, really good! (It was the endorphins, see?)

BASE (an acronym for Building Aerial Span Earth) jumping is a non-regulated, often clandestine activity. Part of its appeal lies in the fact that it is a less competitive, more individualistic activity than skydiving from aircraft. BASE jumpers need to be very self-reliant and capable of taking full responsibility for their own actions.

Since no two BASE sites are the same, just being there can contribute to the adventure as much as the leap itself. That’s why, although BASE jumping has been described as the ultimate urban adventure, one of Australia’s best BASE sites is found in the wilderness of western Tasmania: the 400 metre high overhanging east face of Frenchmans Cap.

JULY 1988 Heavy rain fell all day, grey and monotonous. We started in the pre-dawn darkness, crossing the Franklin River on the ‘flying fox’ with eerie torchlight glimpses of the boiling black floodwaters below. The Loddon Plains were awash. All around, rain-swept hills merged softly with the lowering grey clouds. Buried within our parkas and bent beneath oversize packs, we were three tiny wet figures lost in the expanses of a bleak and wild landscape. The long hours merged as we trudged stolidly through the downpour. The rain continued for several days after we reached the dry comfort of Lake Tahune hut, sheltered below the cloudy mass of Frenchmans Cap. We whiled the hours away. Doug was restless, unused to so much inactivity

. I wondered why I was here. With only one previous BASE jump, was I ready for Frenchmans yet? My 270 skydives were virtually irrelevant here. Simon and Doug waited impatiently for the weather to clear, making optimistic forecasts with a pathetic success rate. Simon, by then a veteran of 900 skydives and 40 BASE jumps, could be called “The Father of Frenchmans Cap BASE jumping”. He was the first person to jump the east face in 1986, and this was now his fourth jumping expedition there. Doug, at the time one of Australia’s most skilled skydivers, had 2500 skydives behind him, and had represented Australia in world competitions. Doug had already done another ten BASE jumps since we did our first one together at Northbridge in Sydney.

Tired of the hut, we wandered in the rain towards the scenic rock shelter of Davern’s Cavern. We sidled around steep bluffs and scrambled up precarious wet slopes. Rambling along ridge tops in the mist, we looked out over the deep forested valley between Sharland’s and Philips Peaks. Cliffs rose 200 metres or more above the forest, their tops disappearing in cloud and their bases strewn with titanic fallen blocks. Simon was tantalized, but sadly concluded that they were not jumpable due to the lack of safe landing areas. The weather slowly changed. In the secret depths of the night, a calm settled over the hut. I stepped outside – the massive bulk of the cliff gleamed in the starlight, its great jutting prow framed by a brilliant cluster of stars. It was too real.I shivered and crept back inside, to the warmth of my sleeping bag.

Dawn was clear and still. Soft tendrils of mist hung in the valleys. Gently curved ridges stretched away, silhouetted in the golden light. Great white quartzite ramparts towered over the still dark lake. The cliff waited. We climbed, up to the bleak North Col, and then along terraces of alpine herbs and ice-scoured rock. The wilderness spread out beneath our feet, its vista of mountains and dark forested valleys stretching vast and mysterious in all directions.

Beyond that distant horizon there was a world of crowds, regulations, conformity and mind-numbing mediocrity. But here and now, amongst these ancient echoing cliffs, our lives had a clear purpose. We were free – to be outrageous, to test our mortality on this uncaring rock. No rules or licenses governed us here, just our own judgment and boldness. We were totally responsible for ourselves.

BASE jumping is a blend of minutely detailed planning and preparation, and of an exhilarating leap into freedom. Each BASE jump must be individually planned according to the nature of the site. Sometimes a five hundred metre high jump site can be safer than a eighty metre site. Each jumper has the ultimate responsibility of assessing their planned jump – no rule book can give the answers. And a BASE jumper needs to be able to back off if the place, the weather, the equipment or the mental attitude are not 100% right. We stood on the launch point, contemplating the abyss.

Once you have rationally calculated you can do it, fear must end – its distraction can cause terminal errors. Once you are committed and off, a BASE jump is total flowing attention.

Doug, eager as ever, went first. A quick thrust forward and he was airborne, launching into a quiet, vacant nothingness so different from the noisy wind rush of an aircraft exit. The cliff exploded into view as his peripheral vision expanded, absorbing everything in a visual rush of heightened awareness. Four seconds of freefall, and as he began to feel the wind rush he came level with the rock we called “The Flake”.

He pitched his hand-held pilot chute and his parachute opened, a perfect on-heading opening, flying quickly away from the cliff.   Simon mentally prepared. When the moment was right he launched, quietly and precisely, arcing out from the cliff in perfect control. Four seconds of intense freedom, four seconds of eternity, and then he was under canopy, flying serenely across the jumbled rocky landscape. His jubilant cries slowly faded as he disappeared far below, to land out of sight on a grassy patch beside the lake.

I was left alone on the cliff top, a little numbed. I had seen something “impossible” done, another example of the human capacity for transcending our limitations. I picked up the empty packs. The air felt cold; my boots crunched on the sparse patches of snow.

Loose rocks rattled down the steep path as I scrambled back down to the hut where Doug and Simon were already brewing up a cup of tea. More bad weather followed. We sat in the hut reading, writing, playing cards and cooking huge meals. Bloated, we reclined on the floor listening to Doug’s tales of the world skydiving championships. Long hours passed away. We gazed out at the cliff, appearing now and then out of the mist and rain. Doug felt cranky, frustrated with the wind and cloud. He wanted another jump.

Packing a parachute in the narrow confines of the hut was not easy, but with some trouble it was done. We climbed again to the launch point, to stand in the mist with the cliff base only just visible and a 20 knot wind blowing. Simon decided not to jump. Doug chose to jump. Conditions were not ridiculous, only marginal.

As Doug took his stance on the launch point, Simon said to me “OK, if anything happens one of us will have to get down to him while the other gets the radio and medical kit!” “Thanks guys!” Doug thought as he launched into the thin mist. His parachute opened, but one of his brake toggles had released accidentally and the canopy was swinging around towards the cliff. His hands were on the risers while the canopy was still opening, and as soon as he saw the problem a quick pull on one riser brought it out of its turn. Doug now had to contend with the strong wind, and was battling to keep the parachute from backing up into the cliff. We watched; there was nothing else to do.

Then suddenly, vaguely through the mist, we saw the canopy collapse. “I’m OK!” Doug shouted. Between a rock and a hard place, but he’d landed safely in the scree below the cliff. Climbing back down, we met Doug on the terraces below the North Col. “I feel good!” he shouted across to us, “I feel real good!”

The expedition began to feel over. Simon and Doug had done what they came for. I had come to observe, maybe to jump, but conditions were far from ideal and it didn’t feel right yet. We decided to leave the next day. But Doug and Simon still had something special to try: a dual launch.

Conditions were mild the next morning as they left early for the mountain. I headed up to the col below the cliff, to see the jumps from another perspective. A 15 knot wind was blowing from the north, but up on the launch point conditions seemed quiet. They were tiny silhouettes upon the launch point, side by side above the oceanic wall of rock. With a rhythmic shout they launched simultaneously, momentarily suspended against the sky before beginning their downwards plunge. A brief sideways geek at each other, and they pitched their pilot chutes, one slightly above the other to stagger their opening heights and avoid a collision.

Doug’s canopy was open first, with a slight turn but a clean deployment. Simon was in a slightly head down position, but there was no time to correct it. His canopy deployed unevenly. His end cells were slow to inflate, and he found his canopy beginning to swing and turn uncontrollably. He still had plenty of height, but there was also the vast wall of rock only metres away. This was no place to fiddle with a malfunction; Simon acted. To our knowledge no reserve parachute had ever been deployed on a BASE jump in Australia up to that time.

So it was another first for Simon as he flung his small “tertiary reserve” sideways to allow it to inflate free of the main canopy. The reserve was a non-steerable parachute, drifting at the mercy of the wind. There was nothing to do now but wait. Simon yelled “I think I’m in trouble!” About seventy metres from the ground the relentless wind finally pushed him into the cliff. Several hundred metres away on the col I heard the sickening thump of Simon’s first cliff-strike.

Miraculously, he survived it – curled into a fetal position he presented his right side to the rock and bounced off again with nothing broken. Swinging under the reserve, he bounced off the cliff another two or three times before finally coming to rest on the scree only metres from the foot of the huge wall. Battered, bruised and alive, he sat beached with his two canopies spread around him. Doug was still airborne.

While Simon’s drama had been unfolding behind him, Doug had been riding the ridge-lift blowing up from the north side of the col. He was now trying to fly over the col to land beside Lake Tahune, but the headwind was too strong. He headed towards a sixty degree slope of scrub and rock with even steeper gullies beside and below. Landing fast and rough he thumped in and rolled backwards down the slope, finally coming to rest in a precarious head-down position. Delicately, he extricated himself.

The sore and bleeding pair crept back to the hut. Simon’s whole right side was bruised and swelling from his cliff-strikes, while Doug was suffering from an old knee injury which the heavy loads and rough landings of the last few days had inflamed. We packed and left the hut by midday. It was over … or was it?

Simon had a wicked gleam in his eyes … “It’s not over until the fat lady sings!” he said. Simon and Doug hobbled in slow aching pain to Barron Pass. We huddled on the pass talking about radioing for a helicopter. But as much as we enjoy flying, to need a rescue would have been to give up our responsibility for ourselves. We walked on, each at his own pace. There was pain – but there was a deep satisfaction too. Simon and Doug had tested their mortality on the mountain, and come away more alive than ever. Their cups runneth over; life was good.

This was why so much time, effort and even suffering was worth expending for those few seconds of rushing freedom: to know those brief seconds is to know an extra-ordinary freedom and exhilaration, to experience life to the limit. The most intense experiences always seem to be the briefest, the orgasms of existence. The ignorant view that BASE jumpers must have a death wish of some sort is only held by those who haven’t bothered to find out that BASE jumping is in fact a celebration of life’s richness and potential. We descended slowly through the dimming forest under our huge loads, each stoically silent and alone. Afternoon passed into night.

Our tiny lights illuminated a few metres of mud and tree roots; the wet, dark forest closed in all around. Hours into the night we finally staggered into the welcome Lake Vera hut. The final day was easier, the long flat plains passing at a slow steady plod. And so we reached the road. Then Hobart and party-time. The search for a singing fat lady. Simon and Doug stirring up the natives like the interfering mainlanders they were. And a fat lady was found to sing for us. It was over.


At last I’m standing on the launch point, with 400 metres of space yawning below my feet. A few hours ago I was pumping with nervous energy as I watched the others jump; now it’s me and I feel calm and ready. It’s really happening. I force the moment to its crisis and I’m off, plunging into the abyss. Time expands – I feel like I’m falling for four or five seconds, but really it’s less than two seconds before I feel my parachute snap open. Looking up, cliff and canopy fill the sky.

The parachute has opened ninety degrees off heading and is flying parallel to the cliff heading for a buttress only metres away. There’s no panic, just a calm instant awareness of the problem and I’m pulling the risers, turning the canopy away from the cliff. Exultant, I fly the canopy down to a soft landing on a grassy patch beside Lake Tahune. I walk slowly back to the deserted hut, deeply content as the endorphins kick in. Everything is beautiful. I lie back on the grass and dream as I wait for the others to follow me down through space.

The Far Southwest – A Subversive Land

I wander alone on the broad sands of a windswept beach. Seagulls cry overhead and the tang of salt air is in my nostrils as the endless ocean swells roll in to heave and crash on the sand. I am lost within an expanse of sand and sea, mountains and hills, stretching out in all directions beneath an endless sky. Infinity seems close at hand.

This place is the huge sand spit of Prion Beach, on the wild stretches of Tasmania’s south coast. A rugged sweep of cliffs and beaches, fringed by a minor archipelago of rocky islands, the coast is washed by cold seas which stretch unbroken from the shores of Antarctica.

Prion Beach, south coast of Tasmania--by Chris Sharples

A popular walking track runs the length of the south coast, drawing hundreds of bushwalkers to enjoy its spectacular environment. The walk is not for the unfit, and it is something of a ritual to groan at difficulties such as the arduous climb over the Ironbound Range or the fantastically muddy bog holes of the South Cape Range. Yet few can be unmoved as they walk that long coastline.

In stormy weather the coast is a howling, inhospitable place where flooded creeks can halt progress and huge waves have washed people off the rocks at such places as Granite Beach and Lion Rock. Yet the coast has its quiet moods too. I particularly remember a morning at Granite Beach, when a slowly drifting sea-mist wrapped itself around the fluted cliffs at the end of the beach, moving up and down the vertical bluffs, clinging and silent.

This moody coast is the fringe of a wild and primeval hinterland, the folded mountains and hazy vistas of Tasmania’s far southwestern wilderness. Although parts of this land are now well-known bushwalking destinations, the far Southwest remains for me a land of mystery. I do not mean primarily the mysteries of geography – although many rarely-visited places remain – for the area has long since been mapped and explored. Rather, the Southwest holds mysteries of the self, for in wild lands such as this there are opportunities for adventure and learning which can lead one to a deepening self-discovery and understanding. In the wide spaces of the Southwest, the mysteries of life can become a little clearer.

The far Southwest is shaped by its mountains. While not on the grand scale of the actively growing alpine ranges of the world, these quietly eroding stumps of ancient mountains left from long ago upheavals have their own unique charm and splendour.

A few of the peaks, such as Precipitous Bluff, are built of soaring towers and walls of columnar dolerite rock. However most of the mountains are composed of quartzite, a rock formed of sediments laid down in the quiet seas of an unthinkably ancient epoch, to be later uplifted and contorted by aeons of the slow, inexorable shiftings of our restless planet. Subsequently eroded by the patient attrition of the elements, culminating in the dramatic glacial scouring of the ice ages, the mountains today raise ragged broken ridges and twisted spires above steep cirques in which nestle the still, dark lakes about whose shores the modern visitor may find shelter.

Of all the mountains, the Arthur Range dominates the far Southwest. From the stark, towering fang of Federation Peak to the intricate ridges and hidden lakes of the Western Arthurs, the range is an incomparable sight. The skylines are a maze of bare rock faces, tough low scrubs such as the prickly  Richea scoparia , and open moors of low alpine herbs and grasses. Downslope, plants such as the palm-like pandani ( Richea pandanifolia )  grow in dense patches of sub-alpine rainforest, while elsewhere open slopes pass down to the plains. Small native fish and crustaceans abound in the lakes and streams, while even on the high ridges one may find the burrows of the small freshwater crayfish known as yabbies.

The glaciated peaks of the Western Arthur Range, southwest Tasmania--by Chris Sharples

The Southwest is a land of light and atmosphere, giving its mountains an infinitely varying panoply of colours and moods. On a clear summer day, one can awaken in the sharp, still air of dawn to find the cliffs and bluffs rising out of dark pools of shadow to be set aflame in a bright golden light. A smooth sea of mist may lie in the valleys below while wisps of cloud waft about the gleaming heights.

While the mid-morning light can seem harsh and bland, in the haze of afternoon the distant peaks and ridges begin to lose their details and become silhouettes of green and blue, fading one behind another towards the horizon. Pockets and slopes of rainforest reflect a supernaturally silver sheen in the warm backlighting, settling a peaceful glow on the land.

The Beggary Bumps, Western Arthur Range, shine in the afternoon sun--by Chris Sharples

In the clarity of evening the ridges sharpen and take on deep violet hues while the moors shine with a golden light. The crisp shadows lengthen as the day peacefully ends, bringing a clear starry sky and a cool atmosphere which will give rise to dew and a clinging mist in the valleys.

Evening view over the folded ridge­s of the far southwest, from the Wilmot Range--by Chris Sharples
Winter is a different world, with days of howling winds and showers of rain, sleet and snow. In lulls the lowering grey masses of cloud just touch the snow-covered ridges, bringing a cold and daunting aspect to the peaks.

When the sun finally appears after interminable periods of wet and cold, it can seem like one of life’s finest moments. I recall once camping below the Arthur Range during a week of rain and wind. I had become resigned to the conditions when, without warning, one day the clouds simply blew off the peaks and the sky cleared. The wan sunlight was almost balmy as I jumped out of my tent to gasp at a vista of snowy peaks rising stupendously above the wet glistening plain. Slabs and cliffs were etched out in sharp detail by the snow, which in the sunlight now had a warm inviting aspect. It was suddenly exhilarating to be there, and I was content as the evening descended crisp and cold, with the promise of a hard frost and blue skies in the morning.

Snow on the Western Arthur Range--by Chris Sharples

Mist, rain and snow can come at any time of year in the Southwest, and often take summer walkers by surprise. With adequate equipment and experience, however, so-called “bad” weather, with its vast range of varying light and mist conditions, provides some of the most impressive sights imaginable. Pillars and cliffs wreathed in swirling mists take on a grandeur that makes clear views seem bland by comparison. Few sights are more awesome than the black wall of an advancing storm as it blots out ridges one by one before finally bursting around your own frail shelter. After the storm front has passed there may follow hours of relentless rain and drizzle in which the mountains loom as soft grey shapes giving a quiet, contemplative aspect to the land. In quiet spells between rain showers one hears only the distant rushing of swollen creeks and the hesitant twittering of one or two birds taking advantage of the lull.

Although my appreciation of the subtle nuances of the Southwest’s beauty has deepened over the years, I have always found pleasure in wild landscapes. As the eye travels over the rich lines of nature, it recognises a deep belonging there, which translates into aesthetic pleasure.

The evolution of the human species took place in wilderness, so that the perceptions and responses of our distant ancestors must have been totally adapted to their wild environment. The life of forest and grassland, the flow of sunlight and rain, the lines of stream and hill, and the cycle of the seasons made the verdant world which they knew was the very source of their survival. After millions of years of evolution in wilderness, a mere few thousand years of living in artificial environments has barely scratched the surface of our underlying attachment to the world’s natural face.

Of course much of our evolution took place in the forests and savannahs of Africa, but all wild lands have an underlying affinity and in the panoramas of the Southwest there is a glimpse of the far-away lands of our prehistory. If we open ourselves to it, we can see past our superficial veneer of learned responses and feel joy and awe in wilderness for the same deep reasons our ancestors did – because it is the very essence of life, upon which we still depend utterly for an ecologically healthy planet.

Although some of the most extensive wild forests in Tasmania occur on the fringes of the Southwest, in the Picton and Weld River valleys, the heart of the far Southwest is dominated by broad grasslands and scrubs thought to be at least partly the result of firing by the early inhabitants of Tasmania. Unlike most human influences, the grasslands do not have an overtly artificial appearance, and have become an ecologically balanced part of the land.

Within the far Southwest, pristine rainforests remain in the New River basin and along the south coast. Elsewhere, scattered pockets of forest cling to leeward slopes or fill gullies where they have escaped the ravages of fire.

The overall character of the far Southwest is however that of a broad, windswept expanse of plains and hills nestling in the broad spaces between the great linear folds of the mountain ranges. Much of the country is covered by sedges and grasses such as the distinctive clumps of “Buttongrass” ( Gymnoschoenus sphaerocephalus ) , but there also exist many areas of dense low scrub, especially along the courses of rivers and streams. Characteristic of such scrubs is the creeping vine-like plant  Bauera ruboides , which grows into dense matted tangles providing arduous bushwalking. As if by way of compensation, the flowering of the bauera yields a spangle of small, delicate blooms with a delightful aroma.

Large animals are not often seen, but abundant wallaby and wombat droppings give their presence away. Leeches are common, and do their best to make their presence felt.

On clear evenings the low western sun lights up the crests and sides of the open grassy hills, illuminating a pattern of sensuously rounded outlines merging into soothing, mellow forms. The gullies and low stream terraces of the plains are thrown into sharp relief, etching out intricate patterns one scarcely notices under the midday sun.

Buttongrass moorland blankets The Thumbs, southwest Tasmania--by Chris Sharples

The plains and hills respond magically to changing light and weather conditions. I remember sitting huddled against the rain on a slope of the Western Arthurs, surveying a bleak scene of grey clouds and drizzle. Suddenly a stray shaft of sunlight burst through the clouds, spotlighting a small copse of trees on the plains below. The trees lit up, brightly gleaming silhouettes standing out from a shining background of mists and drizzle. I was privy to a secret burst of beauty in what had seemed just a miserable wet day.

And there is more than physical beauty in the Southwest; sometimes there are fragile, inexpressible moments when one feels intimations of infinity brooding over that mellow brown landscape.

In a remote part of the Southwest beyond Greystone Bluff, geological structures have produced a long, broad valley through which flow the Davey, Hardwood and Olga Rivers. Sweaty and exhausted from a long climb, I once gazed upon the mystery of that valley. Under a placid warm sun, it seemed to stretch northwards into a hazy infinity. My senses reeled at the magnitude of the scene. With no sight or sound of human works to hold me on a mundane level, there was no immediate sense of time or place, only a vast stillness, an overwhelming oceanic mystery. I seemed swallowed up, an insignificant mote within the vastness and well-nigh infinity of nature.

This small corner of Tasmania is hardly infinite, of course, but in becoming immersed in this particular wild place I could feel an affinity with the whole of nature, which is to say the Universe, the fabric of existence itself.

The Hardwood – Olga Valley, far southwest Tasmania--by Chris Sharples

As human intellect has tried to understand our existence, we have beguiled ourselves into thinking we are somehow separate from nature, somehow above it. We are not of course; for all our technology, the natural ecosystem is still the ultimate source of the air, water, food and safely filtered sunlight we require for life. Our actions are totally interlinked with nature, so that every change we make to the world has an influence – often destructive – on that ecosystem upon which we depend. Until we can feel that inter-relationship and oneness we share with nature, we will continue to act in conflict with nature rather than in harmony.

Our cities are built upon an implicit perception of people and other things as being ultimately separate and competing entities held together only for mutual gain. In wilderness, however, there is an awesome and complex harmony which expresses the unified wholeness of the world in its original, balanced form. Wilderness does not lend itself to a self-centred perception of the world, and by immersing ourselves in it an awareness of the inter-related wholeness of the world may begin to emerge.

In wild places, moreover, there is an opportunity to look at society itself in a new perspective. Much of the change that has occurred in my own life has resulted from the fact that, being able in wilderness to distance myself temporarily from the seductive voices of conformity, I have repeatedly sensed an absurd futility in many of the beliefs and patterns of behaviour which society has tried to instil in me.

Wilderness such as the far Southwest has become for me the epitome of freedom, a deeply subversive place with the power to change lives. Perhaps this is one reason why so many of those who profit from greed, ignorance and the insecurities of others are often the same people who oppose the preservation of places such as the far Southwest in their wild, untrammelled state? Perhaps, subconsciously or otherwise, they dimly sense the subversive power of wilderness?

When I visit the Southwest alone, I am as free of society’s sphere as I can be, and it is at such times that I most deeply feel my relationship with nature. Free of the distraction of having to interact socially with others, I can walk at my own pace, contemplate and follow my thoughts, or simply become an open, passive observer. With no need to justify myself to anyone, I experience a level of awareness and clarity which is much harder to find in the day-to-day stresses of city life.

Dawn mist on the Arthur Plains, far southwest Tasmania--by Chris Sharples

Of course, there are risks and dangers in the Southwest, and the solo bushwalker must exercise care – as indeed must any bushwalker. Storms, steep rock faces and flooded rivers can all be part of a wilderness journey. But the Southwest is not inimically life-threatening. With an awareness of the dangers, and an intelligent response to them, a trip into the Southwest can be safe, and yet still provide a tingling edge of high adventure. Wilderness adventure teaches me humility in the face of nature’s power, and yet at the same time has given me a steadily increasing sense of self-reliance, coupled with a sense of the worth of my own life, which carries over into my dealings with all aspects of life.

I value highly many of the benefits of the human civilisation in which I live, which gives me the technological, cultural and social resources I need to explore my own potential and create worthwhile purposes for my life. At the same time, however, the very speed and complexity of civilisation is a source of stress and imbalance. I see insecurity, greed, depression, bitterness and neurosis around me daily, and in lucid moments I can sense these things gnawing at my own mind.

While I would hardly claim to be free of such stresses, I find in the Southwest wilderness a source of mental balance which prevents me from being overwhelmed and pushed down the grey paths of frantic security addiction, plodding resignation, neurosis and even suicide, those alarmingly prevalent diseases of society.

When I enter the Southwest, all my civilised concerns of money, relationships and politics drop away, easily shelved as I become immersed in the grand vistas and quiet flow of life about me. My immediate concerns are the weather, the terrain I wish to cross, the nightly shelter I seek. Such concerns are not new to humanity; they filled the everyday lives of our earliest ancestors. Cocooned by technology, few people today experience these things directly; yet to do so is to open a link with our primordial origins, to tune the mind in to that fundamental evolutionary affinity we have with wilderness.

As my initial fears about wild places have subsided, I have come to feel a rightness, born of that deep affinity, about my being in wilderness. The Southwest has become a source of peace, a balm which refreshes and balances my mind for the inevitable return to the city. The first morning back in the city I tend to bounce out of bed at a stunningly early hour. My sense of purpose is clarified, I am eager to do things. With an occasional retreat to the wild, I am by and large able to ride over the stresses of city life, and maintain the clarity of the vision I have of my life’s purposes. Although superficially the distinction between city and wilderness is sharp, on another level I am aware of a mutually supportive interaction between the peace and clarity I find in the Southwest, and the life I lead in the city.

Wilderness does not stand in threat or opposition to a sane, balanced human civilisation. On the contrary, the potential wilderness has to give balance to our lives and show us the futility of so much of our irrational behaviour, makes it one of the keys we can use to unlock a brighter and wiser future for humanity. This, linked to the ecological importance of wilderness, convinces me of the immense value of such wild places as the far Southwest of Tasmania.
Morning valley fog on the Arthur Plains, far southwest Tasmania--by Chris Sharples

I once made a solo journey on the Crossing River, one of the small rivers which flow like living pathways through the south-west’s wild canvas of plains, forests, hills and gorges.

I entered the river just above its gorges, fearful and cautious, yet irresistibly enticed by its brooding mystery. Before long the river abruptly entered the first gorge, turning ninety degrees under a looming rock face to enter a cleft in the mountain. Smooth scalloped walls reared about me as I floated along, trying to anticipate the obstacles before me.

The gorge turned out to be a fairly easy passage, with deep pools broken by boulder-strewn rapids I was able to clamber carefully around. In flood the gorge would be a different story, but it seemed I was in luck as the valley eventually widened out until I was able to float calmly along broad, shallow reaches. A breeze blew leatherwood blossoms slowly down to the water from the riverbank trees as I floated into the afternoon sun across a surface speckled with white petals. A platypus briefly disturbed the water ahead of me. With no more fears, I was alone and free and at peace.

That evening, I sat beside the river, watching its dark waters flow past me in the starry glow of the universe above. The flow of a river is a symbol of life, and we need to feel that life flowing through us today more than ever. In the preservation of wild places such as the far Southwest of Tasmania is the preservation of a world capable of being lived in, and of a human society worth living in.

Mt Anne from the Jubilee Range, southwest Tasmania--by Chris Sharples