Old growth, new life

North by north-west ... sunlight filters to the forest floor in the Tarkine.
North by north-west ... sunlight filters to the forest floor in the Tarkine. 

Leisa Tyler walks in the vast Tarkine wilderness in Tasmania's north-west, among some of the oldest forests on earth.

Until recently the great, mysterious wilderness of 4500 square kilometres in Tasmania's north-west didn't have an official name. Largely inaccessible and rarely visited, it was nicknamed the Tarkine by conservationists in the 1980s after a tribe of Aborigines who once roamed this place.

Bordered by a desolate coastline pounded by the Roaring Forties, it has buttongrass plains to the horizon, 100-metre-tall eucalypts, ancient rainforests and wild rivers. It's also known to have the second largest tract of temperate rainforest in the world - a thick swathe of rare red-heart myrtle forest that dates to the Gondwana period.

It's on the edge of this wilderness, off an old mining track near the west-coast town of Waratah, two hours' drive west of Launceston, that I join Rob Fairlie, of Tarkine Trails, a small trekking company based in Hobart. We're heading into this wilderness for a three-day walk, based at the company's newly built Tarkine Rainforest Retreat, a camp in the deepest, darkest depths of the forest.

Fairlie and two school friends established Tarkine Trails in 2002, initially under the name Tiger Trails. Their aim was to take small groups of trekkers across Tasmania's toughest walking trails, including the six-day Overland Track and eight-day South West Track. The company would supply the food and gear needed for a week in the wild and walkers would share the burden of carrying it - 18-22 kilograms each. Then, in 2004, Fairlie established a few trails in the little-explored Tarkine and added them to his walking inventory.

With this newly built longhouse in the Tarkine, the company is hoping to compete with a clutch of luxury walking tour operators already working in the state, including Maria Island Walk and the Bay of Fires Lodge Walk. By offering shorter and more comfortable walks that cater for the more leisurely traveller, Fairlie hopes to attract people who wouldn't normally visit the north-west wilderness.

Joined by three Britons, two Melburnians and a second guide, Fairlie and I take the easy hour-long walk up a steep hill cloaked with rainforest sassafras, myrtle and the occasional eucalypt with 10-metre girth towering above the forest canopy. The forest is damp and cool, with an earthy perfume infused with mountain pepperberry whose tiny round fruit have made their way into the kitchens of fashionable restaurants around the world. One eucalyptus tree we pass unearthed a crater the size of a hotel room when it fell, probably from old age.

Skirting the edge of a ridge, we come to an old mining road, now barely visible, but which has left a clearing. It's here that Tarkine Trails has built its Rainforest Retreat camp. At its heart is the longhouse, a roofed terrace with a timber floor and a four-metre Tasmanian-oak dining table. At one end is a camp kitchen, at the other a hexagonal cast-iron fireplace. Marked trails lead to a composting toilet, a Japanese-style wash house and five canvas tents, each equipped with stretcher beds and views of primaeval forest.

Beside a roaring fire in the longhouse - the evenings are chilly here, even in summer - we meet for a Tassie-grown tipple: Josef Chromy Pinot Noir, James Boag's beer and King Island double brie, as an incessant drizzle falls on the forest. Bottles open well into the night as Fairlie recounts stories of this wilderness, including one about an unfortunate Japanese man who drank too much and got lost trying to find his tent in the middle of the night. He went missing for 20 hours before a search-and-rescue team found him, huddled beside a sassafras tree.

It's still drizzling next morning, a fine veil of rain gently showering trees washed in myriad green and orange hues. We don wet weather gear and strap gaiters to our boots to protect against leeches and follow Fairlie down a trail marked with pink ribbons to the Huskisson River, tinged russet brown from tannins leached from the melaleucas that line the banks. We stop along the way to discuss the yabby colonies that burrow interconnecting chambers up to seven metres under ground, each stocked with food and water. We spy an enormous man fern that has hijacked a myrtle tree. Baby man ferns make a tasty meal for wallabies, pademelons and other vegetarian marsupials; by clinging to an ill-fated myrtle, this cunning fern has not only survived but even outgrown its host. We lunch on curried noodles while the three Brits take a dip in the ice-cold river, promptly ticking one item off their "must do in Tasmania" list.

After lunch, Fairlie leads us to a hidden camera strung between two trees that is being used to track the elusive Tasmanian devil. Tarkine Trails, with the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, the Tasmanian Land Conservancy and the Bookend Trust, has installed a network of infrared cameras in the Tarkine to monitor the spread of the facial tumour that is threatening the survival of the species. Due to its vastness and remoteness, the Tarkine has been a blind spot for scientists researching devil populations.

Standing in front of a 700-year-old myrtle tree with a natural man-size cubby hole in its side, Fairlie starts the story of the politics surrounding the Tarkine, once threatened by logging and now by mining.

In the early 1990s, the Tarkine was at the centre of a bitter battle between conservationists, who believed the region should have been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage listing, and Forestry Tasmania, a government agency keen to exploit the region's timber and mineral resources. Named after the Tarkineers, one of three Aboriginal tribes who once roamed here, the area was then officially called the North-West Forests and was virtually untouched. Bordered by mountains and torrential rivers, many parts were inaccessible. In others, the forest was so thick it was impenetrable anyway.

More than a dozen endangered species and several Aboriginal cultural remnants were found here, including rock carvings and ceremonial stone arrangements. The Australian Heritage Council declared it to be one of the world's great archaeological regions.

With some of the oldest forests on the planet, the Tarkine was as valuable as some of Australia's other World Heritage-listed forests, including the Daintree rainforest and Tasmania's magnificent South-West Wilderness.

In the late 1980s, Forestry Tasmania proposed a road through the heart of the Tarkine, saying it was to attract tourists. At the time, Forestry Tasmania and the logging company Gunns were clear-felling old-growth forests on the island and selling it as woodchips to Japan and South Korea.

Forestry Tasmania assured the public that the Tarkine would not be logged but logging coupes had already appeared on the periphery. The proposed road was neatly dubbed "The Road to Nowhere".

A lobby group calling itself the Tarkine Tigers was quickly formed. I was studying in Hobart at the time and joined a few of the initial meetings but lost heart after factions formed and professional protesters from the mainland arrived to take up the cause. The 70-kilometre "Road to Nowhere" was completed.

In 2004, Fairlie and his newly formed Tarkine Trails entered the debate. He had studied economics and tourism at Queensland universities and hoped to demonstrate that using the Tarkine for tourism could be more lucrative and economically sustainable than felling the trees. "We wanted to try and push a different future for the island," he says.

Young and idealistic, Fairlie and his friends brimmed with noble ideas and determination. I joined one of their first walks in the Tarkine, a six-day trek through forests of giant myrtle, many 500 years old or more. We scrambled to the top of boulders for spellbinding views over a lush plateau. We crossed raging rivers with a rope tied around our bellies, in case we got swept away. We pitched tents in natural clearings shadowed by the fuzzy arms of man ferns. We also ran out of food, were hopelessly ill-equipped and, because Tiger Trails didn't believe in cutting paths, we had to struggle over metre-high logs while carrying 20-kilogram packs. (The company stopped using the track I walked after the government granted a mining exploration permit in the same area.)

The Tarkine made national headlines in 2005 when, as part of an election bid, the Tasmanian government announced plans to protect 80 per cent of the remaining forest from logging and to develop ecotourism projects in the area. Only 5 per cent of the Tarkine was protected from mining. Even so, Fairlie regarded it as a mini-coup for Tarkine Trails. "It's a great result, but we won't give up until the whole of the Tarkine is completely out of reach from both mining and forestry," Fairlie told me at the time.

In August last year, an agreement was reached between the Tasmanian and federal governments to incorporate thousands more hectares of Tasmania's forests into reserve and help Tasmania phase out old-growth logging. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said at the time she believed the agreement would help to protect the Tarkine, describing the wilderness as "very important". However, the agreement does not apply to mining in the area. Some 56 mining exploration licences are reportedly available at present in the Tarkine region and 10 mines set to begin operation by 2017, nine of them to be open cut.

"My two dreams are that the Tarkine is given World Heritage listing and Tasmania will start supporting nature and eco-based tourism rather struggling with a manufacturing sector," Fairlie tells me while we're walking.

An independent assessment commissioned in 2007 by Circular Head Council, under whose jurisdiction the wilderness falls, found that tourism in the Tarkine had the potential to generate $58 million a year and support more than 1100 jobs. Even under what was termed the "base case" minimalist scenario (unsealed roads targeting mainly nature enthusiasts), the area would be capable of producing tourism revenue close to $10 million a year, supporting more than 200 jobs.

Circular Head Council and the Cradle Coast Authority, a government agency overseeing local councils in west and north-west Tasmania, are developing sustainable tourism projects and marketing for the Tarkine.

With four guided walks, Tarkine Trails is the biggest tourism operator in the Tarkine. The longhouse makes a perfect base for their Rainforest Retreat, but Tarkine Trails has work to do. Solar panels are a great idea, but the sun rarely reaches them and the batteries don't generate enough charge to power the lights. The walls of my tent are thick with mildew. A rug on the tent floor would be useful; the broom and dustpan pan in my tent are both broken. The taps in the toilet and wash room operate at a trickle. The use of soap and shampoo are strictly prohibited for environmental reasons but no alternatives are offered.

Complaints aside, walking in the Tarkine is unforgettable and the Tarkine Trails experience is worthwhile. It is humbling to be immersed in a natural world of such awesome scale and antiquity; sleeping with trees that were saplings when William Shakespeare was penning The Taming of the Shrew, trees that reached middle age when the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay. And still they stand.

See them while you can.

Leisa Tyler travelled courtesy of Tarkine Trails.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Jetstar and Virgin Australia fly direct to Launceston from Sydney and Melbourne; Qantas flies non-stop only from Melbourne. One-way fares cost from $105 from Sydney and $88 from Melbourne.

Walking there

Tarkine Trails runs four guided walks in the Tarkine, including a six-day Rainforest Track walk for $1799 a person, in which you are required to carry your own gear, and a three-day camp-based Tarkine Getaway for $1299 a person. Prices include all food (on the Tarkine Getaway walk, alcohol is included) and transfers from Hobart, Launceston or Devonport. See tarkinetrails.com.au.

When to go

The best walking conditions are from December to May.

More information

See discoverthetarkine.com.au.

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