Where to go kayaking in Tasmania’s wilderness

Andrew Bain drinks in the rugged beauty of Tasmania’s Bathurst Harbour and beyond.

Tasmania's Breaksea Islands are well named. Strung across the entrance of the Bathurst Narrows in the World Heritage-listed Southwest Wilderness, they're a rampart holding back the swells and wild seas of the Southern Ocean.

On a map, parts of the surrounding sea remain uncharted and shipwrecks dot the area. And yet I'm here in a kayak, lurching about in a two-metre swell, wanting to be in no other place.

I've come to Bathurst Harbour and connecting Port Davey to paddle for a week. Though just 100 kilometres from Hobart, it's difficult to find a more remote and isolated place to kayak in Australia. Bushwalkers fly into Melaleuca, near the shores of Bathurst Harbour, and set out in the opposite direction on the South Coast Track, but few venture on to these waters. In the week we're here, we'll see a yacht and a fishing boat. By local standards, it's almost crowded.

Like the bushwalkers, our journey begins with a flight into Melaleuca, where our kayaks are waiting. There are solid paddling days ahead, but this first day will be an easy introduction, kayaking down the Melaleuca River as it gently meanders into Bathurst Harbour.

The river meets the harbour at Forest Lagoon, where our short day ends in a permanent camp looking across to the stepped figure of Mt Rugby, the most dominant of the peaks in this section of the Southwest. 

It's a place almost devoid of humanity, yet it's filled with legend.

In the camp, tent pods are dotted among the trees, and the open-air kitchen sets the scene for a week of feasts that will seem to defy the space available for food inside our kayaks. It's a night of bush comfort to savour, for beyond here there's only wild camping.

In the morning, wind and cloud whip through Bathurst Harbour and the water's as dark as the sky. Mt Rugby blows in and out of view as we paddle at its foot, entering the Bathurst Narrows, the thin channel that connects Bathurst Harbour to wild Port Davey.

Along the edge of the narrows, the land is like an X-ray, with the hard white quartzite rock breaking through the thin soil cover like compound fractures of the earth. Few plants grow here other than the buttongrass and melaleucas, but there's an undeniable and wild beauty to the land - the sort of harsh splendour more often found in a desert.

It's a place almost devoid of humanity, yet it's filled with legend. Deny King, the so-called "King of the Wilderness", lived at Melaleuca for more than 50 years, mining tin and building the airstrip, while the grave of Critchley Parker sits behind one of the small bays along the narrows.

In 1942, this son of a wealthy Melbourne businessmen came to Port Davey with the dream of establishing a Jewish state in this furthest-flung corner of the world. He died of exposure.

At the end of the narrows the next morning, we linger behind the Breaksea Islands, gently rolling with the first hint of an ocean swell. A few hundred metres away, on the ocean side of the islands, a two-metre swell roars into Port Davey. And that's where we're now heading.

From behind the northern tip of the islands, we paddle out into the open sea, where the kayaks are turned this way by waves and that way by sea rebounding from the islands. For a moment it's almost overwhelming, but the kayaks are like barges and it's going to take far more than a two-metre swell to overturn them. We paddle on.

The next hour is probably the most exciting hour of paddling you can get on a commercial kayak trip in Australia. The Southern Ocean rolls into Port Davey across thousands of kilometres and we're pushed and pulled by waves and swell as we edge along the islands. It's like a wash cycle at sea, though the only danger is in failing to take in our surroundings.

"Don't forget to look at the islands," our guide, Mark, calls from across the sea and the approaching waves. Heads that were staring at the waves now lift to take in the view. And there's plenty to see.

The Breakseas are a small string of islands separated by narrow channels. Waves explode over the cliffs, and a sea arch rises like a rainbow in a gap between islands. Near the southern end, a cave burrows a hole right through an island. Were this not such a fierce piece of ocean, it would warrant exploration. Instead, we leave the islands and glide ashore at nearby Spain Bay.

The bay is beautiful - empty sands split by sharp outcrops of rock - but we're here for another reason. We hike for an hour across a narrow ridge of land to Stephens Bay, a long ocean-facing beach where the Southern Ocean thunders ashore.

We walk on to its end, passing the rib of a whale sticking out from the sand, to the site of Tasmania's largest Aboriginal midden. The small sand dunes here are composed almost entirely of discarded shells and the occasional stone tool. Abalone shells glisten in the sunlight, giving the midden the look of an artwork.

Port Davey is a large gash in the western flank of Tasmania, and it's our plan to paddle its length - about   20 kilometres from southern Spain Bay to its northern tip at Settlement Point. It means returning past the Breaksea Islands, though this time we take the inside channel, where it's calm and protected - yin to the open ocean's yang. We briefly back our kayaks into a small cave, rising and falling gently on the small swell that sneaks inside.

A few hours later we're weaving through reefs and nosing ashore at Settlement Point, where low tide has turned the beach into a contour map of sand ripples.

Though we've reached Port Davey's northern end, we will continue north, paddling up the Davey River into the Davey Gorge, once known as 'Hell's Gates' to the loggers who worked here felling Huon pine trees. The campsite at Settlement Point was once a logging camp, though this day we share it only with a seal that's hauled itself on to the beach to rest.

There is indeed a hellish quality to the lower reaches of the Davey River, with both banks charred by bushfire in 2013, creating an apocalyptic scene. But there are also the black swans - lines and lines of black swans that escort us upstream, their wing tips hitting the water with a sound like applause as they take to the air.

Paddling against the flow of the river, the going is slow but not difficult and soon we're engulfed by cliffs that rise up to 100 metres above the river. Inside the gorge the world stills and, for a time, we simply sit and float atop the mirror images of our own kayaks.

On the tannin-black water, with the cliffs plunging straight into the river and the luminous reflection of the trees, it's a scene that reminds me of the Franklin River, about 80 kilometres north of where we now sit. In the Tasmanian wilderness, that's the greatest compliment I know. 

The writer travelled courtesy of Roaring 40s Kayaking.




Virgin, Qantas and Jetstar fly direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Hobart. Kayaking trips begin with a flight into Melaleuca with Par Avion Wilderness Tours. See paravion.com.au.


Roaring 40s Kayaking runs a seven-day Sea Kayaking Expedition, taking in Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey. Trips cost $2990. A three-day Sea Kayaking Exploration, paddling in Bathurst Harbour and staying in the Forest Lagoon permanent camp, costs $2150. The season runs from November to April.