Our three-day adventure begins at Hobart's Cambridge Aerodrome, where we board a 10-seater twin-engine plane for one-hour flight to Melaleuca. "We" are a group of six journos (including two bird-watching experts) and Zac the chef, from Hobart's CSK Diner. Zac is by far the most important passenger, as he will be looking after our every catering need on board Odalisque, the boat that will be our home as we explore the mysteries of Bathurst Harbour.
There is much talk about the weather before we take off, but we enjoy clear views all the way from Hobart and across the Arthurs mountain ranges in the vast Southwest National Park. A rainbow and patch of turbulence adds to the thrill of flight-seeing and the Par Avion pilot makes a perfect landing on the glistening white quartzite airstrip at Melaleuca.
We are greeted by guide Peter Marmion who will accompany the trip, and straightaway he tells us how the landing strip was hand-built by a hardy long-time resident and miner, the late Deny King. As we follow Marmion to King's house, taking in the vista of button grass plains scattered with soft purple melaleuca flowers and blossoming tea trees, we begin to realise that he knows more than you can possibly imagine about this remote corner of Tasmania.
Marmion takes us to a hide to peek at the endangered orange-bellied parrot and when we wander around the rusty remains of the Rallinga Mine and its previous owner's house we spot a few more of the cheeky, colourful birds in the garden.
At the jetty we meet another Pete – Pieter van der Woude – the owner and skipper of Odalisque. A speedy jetboat ride along Melaleuca Inlet takes us to a sheltered mooring in Bathurst Harbour, where we board the gleaming white 20-metre vessel. Odalisque has three double cabins plus single bunks and sleeps up to 10. Chef Zac has been hard at work and welcomes us with lunch in the spacious galley; we quickly make ourselves at home in the light-filled saloon.
However, there's no post-prandial lounging around – we set off for a brisk walk up Mount Beattie. The land and seascape is extraordinary – craggy mountains meet lowering skies and the light and weather patterns change in seconds. Southwesterly winds gusting at 40 knots, the infamous Roaring 40s, whip around us until we descend through canopied rainforest tracks to Claytons Corner.
This peaceful spot was home to professional fisherman Clyde Clayton and his wife Win, a mad-keen gardener, in the 1960s and '70s. A series of photographs and memorabilia in the restored cottage tells the fascinating story of their lives, which is inextricably entwined with that of the King family.
Stories galore of derring-do emerge over the long weekend… from van der Woude's past lives as a police rescue officer and abalone diver and present off-season work on supply ships in Antarctica, to tales of southwest Tasmania's Aboriginal inhabitants and white-settler sealers, (Huon) piners and whalers. We hear about shipwrecks, convicts and cannibalism, and teenage runaway Jane Cooper, who set up home on the isolated Big Witch island at age 18 back in the 1970s.
One of the saddest stories is about Critchley Parker jnr, whose grave we visit from our second anchorage at the mouth of Horseshoe Inlet. Parker died at this desolate cove in the shadow of Mount Mackenzie while attempting to survey the area for a potential Jewish settlement during World War II. His body was found at his campsite some five months after he disappeared in 1942, along with his copious diaries.
As if to illustrate the rugged conditions Parker struggled against, a violent rain shower sweeps across the headland while we contemplate his brave, futuristic visions and early death in subdued silence.
Luckily the sun is shining when most of the group sets off to climb Balmoral Hill. Van der Woude takes Don Knowler and me on a leisurely boat ride around the inlet, where the tannin-rich waters of Bathurst Narrows meet clear, saltwater Bathurst Channel. The birdlife, and my companions' expertise in spotting it, is a revelation.
We see black swans (yes, even I can identify those), green rosellas, beautiful firetails, great cormorants and sea eagles. Knowler recognises the calls of a yellow-throated honey-eater and a thrush shrike and apart from a gentle breeze rustling through the trees on the shoreline it is almost shocking to realise that there is almost no other sound.
Our second anchorage of the day is at Bramble Cove, beneath Mount Milner. From here we look out to the rugged Breaksea Islands in Port Davey, which we will motor past the next day on our journey around the coast back to Hobart. Meanwhile we go ashore at Schooner Cove to look at a cave once used as a shelter by Aborigines and wave at some intrepid passing kayakers, whom we last encountered at Claytons Corner.
That evening we are treated to a spectacular lingering sunset, which goes down well with our pre-dinner drinks and yet another fabulous repast. Tonight it's pan-fried flathead with smoked-mussel sauce accompanied by a radish and butter-lettuce salad, followed by Eton mess and a generous cheese platter. When Odalisque's first four-month season begins in February, there will be a changing roster of top chefs from Hobart and expert guides on board.
After van der Woude checks the weather forecast we have an earlyish start from Bramble Cove and head out through Port Davey into the Southern Ocean. Marmion points out every rock and headland by name – he has done a lot of sailing along this part of the coast – and we drop anchor at Maatsuyker Island, named by Abel Tasman in 1642. The unstoppable bushwalkers among us head up what looks to me like a vertical cliff to meet the island's volunteer caretakers; couples sign up for six-month stints on the island to monitor the weather and maintain the buildings, as the lighthouse is now automatic.
I am more than happy to remain at sea level, and we putter around the coastline to encounter hundreds of barking fur seals and a few much rarer elephant seals. A fishing boat is anchored nearby and van der Woude pays the fishermen a visit, returning with freshly caught crayfish; lunch just became even better.
The cruise back to Hobart is accompanied by sightings of sooty oystercatchers, crested terns, shy and Buller's albatross and giant petrels. It is strange re-emerging into city life, even though it's Hobart on a quiet Sunday evening. It is with great reluctance that I check my mobile phone when we have reception again – three days away from it all feels more like three weeks in another wonder-filled world.
Jetstar flies direct to Hobart from Brisbane (once a day), Sydney (up to four times daily), Melbourne Tullamarine (up to eight times daily) and Melbourne Avalon (four times a week). Phone 131 538, see jetstar.com
Odalisque sails three-, five- and seven-day cruises in Port Davey between February and May. Fares start from $3500 and include return flights with Par Avion between Hobart's Cambridge Aerodrome and the Melaleuca airstrip.
Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of Tasmanian Boat Charters and Jetstar.
BEFORE YOU GO
While you'll need everything from sturdy walking boots and thick socks to swimmers and T-shirts, luggage is restricted to 12 kilograms for the flights between Hobart and Melaleuca (if you bring more than that, Tasmanian Boat Charters can store the excess in Hobart until you return).
BE SURE TO BRING
Binoculars as well as a camera, and a small backpack is useful for hikes and jet-boat trips. Wet weather gear, sunblock and other essentials are supplied.
King of the Wilderness by Christobel Mattingley gives an amazing insight into the life of local hero Deny King. For more background on the region's indigenous history, Peter Marmion recommends Van Diemen's Land: An Aboriginal History by Murray Johnson and Ian McFarlane.
Check that your travel insurance covers emergency evacuation in remote areas. Also check you're covered for flight delays – light aircraft can't fly in extremes of weather or poor visibility. Tasmanian Boat Charters recommends you don't arrange onward travel for at least 24 hours after the scheduled finish time of your cruise.
Wonderful news – there is no regular mobile phone reception in the Port Davey area! But don't panic - if there is an emergency, Odalisque has HF radio access for communication.