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