Intro to the Island – The Southern Mountains

➤ Let your eyes wander around a world map. On the edges of the giant continents, islands are home to unique people, places, and ecosystems. Some are wild, and some are developed. All are unique- Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Iceland, Vancouver Island, Tierra del Fuego, Hawaii, Hispaniola- and all are destinations that any traveller would be wise to investigate. But one island stands out to me as particularly remote, unknown, wild, and magical. Tasmania, on the farthest corner of Australasia, is fortunate in being blessed with both extensive wilderness areas and highly developed cities.

Rock climbers on the dolerite columns of the Lost World, Mount Wellington

Rock climbers on the dolerite columns of the Lost World, Mount Wellington

One of the states of the Australian Commonwealth, Tasmania is a rugged, mountainous island, with the largest area of the glaciated terrain in Australia, Elements of the unique alpine biodiversity have more in common with far-away Chile and New Zealand than they do with mainland Australia. The world’s tallest flowering plants, deep and wild cave systems, untouched rivers, and legendary walking tracks are all hidden in and around these mountains. Tasmania remains one of the most wild and natural islands on Earth.

A climber admires the view on the dolerite summit of Mt. Picton, Southwestern Tasmania

A climber reaches the dolerite summit of Mt. Picton, Southwestern Tasmania

Let’s explore the southern half of the island, and learn about the mountains and rocks of the spectacular landscape.

We’ve arrived into Hobart by air (an easy hop from Melbourne), and as we cross the Derwent Harbour bridge we get our first view of the mountains. Mount Wellington rises up steeply from the harbour, and the city clings, picture perfect, to the forested slopes below. The best way to experience this landscape is by foot, and let’s prepare for our journey by having a good look at some of the high mountains across the map.

Afterwards, we can visit the vineyards of the Derwent Valley, dine on fresh fish at the harbours of the capital of Hobart, and see the sad remains of the British prison colony at the Port Arthur. Once we’ve gotten our feet muddy, we can climb into the forest canopy at the Tahune Airwalk, learn about the tragedies endured by the first peoples of Tasmania, and delight in the friendly mayhem of the Salamanca Farmer’s Market.

Mt Wellington is indeed, Hobart’s local mountain, and no other city in Australia has such an impressive backdrop. Snowcapped in winter, there’s a road to the top that makes access easy in all seasons. But there’s more challenging ways to the top. Countless trails lead through eucalyptus forests and past waterfalls to the summit, sometimes visiting a simple hut in which trekkers can spend a night.

Rock climbing routes lead up the spectacular columnar cliffs of the Organ Pipes, formed by volcanic dolerite. It also makes for effectively unlimited exploration for the vertically inclined, and piled in a heap below dolerite cliffs, an intrepid adventurer can always find some sheltered caves between the shattered columns. Charles Darwin climbed Mt Wellington when the Beagle landed here in 1836, and while the city below has certainly grown, the view on the mountaintop plateau is still just as wild and windswept.

From Mt Wellington we can look into Tassie’s Southwest, one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses and truly one of the most approachable. An army of mountains stand tall and catch the raging storms coming in over the Southern Ocean. Hartz Peak is one of the higher and most easily climbed of these mountains, and is protected in its own National Park. As we travel through the eucalyptus gum forests, there is a controversial and complicated story to be told about the Tasmanian forests. The lower altitude forests, containing both the largest flowering plants (the eucalypts) and the rare Southern Hemisphere rainforest, are the basis for Tasmania’s forestry industry.

The Hartz Mountains reach into the treeless alpine zone. After walking past crystal clear lakes, and seeing the ridges and valleys carved in the dolerite by Ice Age glaciers, we can make it to the summit and look even deeper into the wilds, towards the quartzite peaks of Southwestern Tasmania.

The quartzite bulk of Frenchman's Cap stands prominently in of the western Tasmanian mountain ranges

The quartzite bulk of Frenchman’s Cap stands prominently in of the western Tasmanian mountain ranges

Frenchman’s Cap is one of the most striking of the Southwest mountains, and it’s our first real good look at the shining white quartzite geology. Seemingly razor sharp, these mountains of the southwest strike up from the soggy buttongrass moorlands with arrogance born of glacial carving. Frenchman’s Cap is massive, and it’s huge southern face is exposed to the fury of the storms.

Picton Lakes, from the summit of Mt. Picton, SW Tasmania, Southwestern Tasmania

Picton Lakes, from the summit of Mt. Picton, SW Tasmania, Southwestern Tasmania

Our walk in will be a test of our endurance, as we wade through the deep muddy pools in the sodden buttongrass plains. Once we climb out of it, things will get steeper and steeper until we are walking the sharp ridges to the slightly gentler side of the mountain. We’ll keep our head for heights, though, and make it up safely enough. And if we get spooked by rock scrambling, we can sit snug and cozy from the rains in one of the lakeside huts along the trail, drinking hot chocolate and cooking dinner as we desperately wish for our socks to dry out.

A walker descends the buttongrass-covered ridgeline of Sentinels Ridge, in the Southwestern Tasmanian Wilderness

A walker descends the buttongrass-covered ridgeline of Sentinels Ridge, in the Southwestern Tasmanian Wilderness

The Southwest Wilderness is a region of World Heritage significance and National Park status. It occupies almost a third of the island. Within the park are range upon range of mountains, some rarely seen and even more rarely visited. Beneath the ground are Australia’s most challenging and vertical limestone caves, and running in the mountains are the wildest and strongest rivers. Here, it was far too rugged, stormy, and infertile to ever be settled in modern times, and remains an isolated, wistful place.

But within the park are some signs of prehistoric occupation by the first Tasmanian inhabitants, stretching at least 40,000 years into the past. In the Southwest, rock paintings offer an artistic insight into their lives. These paintings are of world significance as evidence of the southernmost extent of pre-Ice Age humanity. A more modern and severe evidence can be seen in the 1970’s and 80’s hydro-electric use of the Southwest’s water. The political firestorm and protests surrounding the inundation of now-submerged Lake Pedder, and later the never-built Franklin River dam, showed a strong divide in the people of Tasmania and Australia in how they viewed wilderness preservation and utilization. From these protests and environmental campaigns came the world’s first Green political party. The only road that goes deep into the Southwest was used to build the hydroelectric dam, and as we travel by road over to the West Coast, we can use it to look deeper into the windswept buttongrass plains and white quartzite mountains.

Quartzite ridgeline of Sentinels Ridge, in the Southwestern Tasmanian Wilderness

Quartzite ridgeline of Sentinels Ridge, in the Southwestern Tasmanian Wilderness

But since we love the rain so much, we can return to the highway and continue down to the west coast of Tasmania, to the mining town of Queenstown. After driving through such lush rainforests, the route descending from the mountains is eerily bereft of vegetation. Queenstown has a unique history: a once phenomenally wealthy town exploiting the metal deposits from nearby Mt. Owen, it is now a subdued place beneath an altered landscape. Forest cutting combined with toxic mining fumes has changed the biology of the valley- it is now marked as “Queenstown desert” in the official vegetation maps. Further down the road, the fishing harbour of Strahan is a more subtle destination, seemingly on the edge of the world. From here, it’s easy to visit the smashing waves on the coast, or to arrange a boat into the natural harbours penetrating far inland into the Southwest Wilderness.

Looking deeper and deeper, the quartzite, dolerite, and other rocks dance on in an array of strange and challenging mountains. There are likely peaks in the Southwest that have never been climbed, and it’s this sense of wilderness, of truly untouched natural land, that makes Tasmania such a rare treasure.

Looking into the steep quartzite mountains of SW Tasmania, from Mt. Picton

Looking into the steep quartzite mountains of SW Tasmania, from Mt. Picton

No matter how much we are soaked by the rain- no matter how much we would like to avoid the mud on the trails- we are fortunate to be able to see such a place. It’s an island that beckons the mountain enthusiast like no other place in Australia. We are all welcome visitors.

 

This article appeared previously in Jetwings International (India)