To visit Tasmania and not to visit the West Coast would be like going to Queensland and missing the Great Barrier Reef.
While the impact of this region evades many Australians, its raw, brutal beauty and massive significance on the world’s delicate eco-balance is certainly not lost on Europeans. It was also the setting for by far the most brutal of all Australia’s convict settlements – Sarah Island. While Port Arthur may have a reputation for being the most feared, there is little doubt that the conditions and brutality endured by the convicts – and the near impossible chance of a successful escape from such a hell on earth – mean that on a horror scale of one to ten, Sarah Island scores full house. The Franklin River Dam Protest and the misery of Sarah Island are stories that are both played out beautifully in the Visitor Centre in Strahan, the West Coast’s only major town and the gateway to the West Coast Wilderness and World Heritage Area.
Whether you approach Strahan from Hobart or from Launceston, you are guaranteed one of the most stunning drives of your life. Both are lengthy and should not be undertaken casually and without a good deal of planning. While roads are mostly good, weather conditions can be highly changeable as you pass through more eco zones per landmass than anywhere else on earth - and quite possibly encounter four seasons in one day. To go from brilliant warm sunshine to snow is possible at any time of year as you leave one of the driest state capitals in Australia and head for the wettest place on earth in the rainforest (although you are as likely to bask in glorious sunshine as you are to get wet so don’t be put off by its reputation for rainfall!). Roads become increasingly twisty, vistas of mountains, rivers and lakes ever more jaw-dropping and animals on roads more abundant, making progress far, far slower than the map suggests. Allow a good six hours from Hobart, more in winter when days are shorter and weather potentially more changeable, giving yourself plenty of time for several tops on route to walk, picnic, explore, and enjoy highlights such as beautiful Lake St Clair, Australia’s deepest freshwater lake, and the brilliant Wall in the Wilderness sculpture by Greg Duncan at Derwent Bridge. There are not a huge number of places of stay between Hobart and Strahan for those wishing to break the trip unless you take a diversion off the main road, and plan your itinerary to go via Cradle Mountain and the Central Highlands.
Travelling from Launceston you will almost certainly have taken diversions and stops along the way, for the options are greater and quite frankly you would be missing some fantastic experiences if you didn’t. This should include breaking your journey for a few days in the North West to breathe the cleanest air in the world. Stanley is a brilliant place to stop with some excellent and quirky accommodation with views over the magnificent Nut, a volcanic plug that rises out of the Bass Strait, stunning beaches and great seal and penguin trips.
The Tarkine Rainforest, now one of the most bitterly fought corners of Australia – some might say the modern day Franklin – offers fairly little in the way of infrastructure, although there are a few accommodation providers within fairly easy reach for day trips. But for those keen to experience the mighty and spiritual Tarkine – the last major stretch of temperate rainforest left in the world – there are a couple of ways to do it.
Just an hour from Stanley, you will come to the Arthur River, where one of Tasmania's best kept secrets awaits. Arthur River Cruises will take you on a magical voyage on the restored MV George Robinson down the rainforest where wildlife and birdlife abound. The majesic white bellied eagles coming down to enjoy titbits from the boat is a highlight - unless you are lucky enough to spot the quolls and devils on the river bank!
Australia’s only rainforest walk is the only way to explore The Tarkine by foot. Tarkine Trails – which has been established by Tasmania’s 21st century eco-warriers, to the good fortune of us, the visitor, by and large to stop the many attempts to mine the forest - offers a number of options from its remote Tiger Ridge Camp. This experience is not for the faint hearted – no shampoo or detergent is used, there are no proper tracks, tents are dotted around in the rainforest and here luxury is all about the remoteness and pristine nature of the environment rather than the thread count and quality of your bedding. But the experience is so overwhelming that the walk’s owners claim to give you a life-changing experience or your money back – not a lightly made promise, but one that those of us who have done it can testify to. Recent developments to monitor devil activity in the rainforest – arguably this is their last truly safe domain (hence the massive attempt to prevent mining and development) mean that walkers can also get involved in the research by changing the batteries in motion sensory cameras on the trees, and study footage of wild devils back at camp over a few glasses of Tasmanian pinot and some exceptionally fine camp grub served by a roaring fire.
An hour or so further on brings you to Marrawah, a surprisingly serene and beautiful region that on a sunny day belies the force of the Roaring Forties winds that bring huge waves crashing into the stretch of coastline, one of the richest in Aboriginal significance, all the way from South America.
Few visitors attempt to make the journey south from Marrawah to Strahan, along the aptly named Western Explorer, or the even more aptly nick-named ‘Road to Nowhere’. This is a shame, for it is without doubt one of the greatest drives in the world, through the Arthur Pieman Conservation Area. Sure, it is at times dauntingly remote and largely unsealed for the extent of its 110 km, and without any mobile phone reception or supplies so you should make sure you fuel up before you leave. In the right vehicle and with sufficient supplies lest your car encounters a poblem there is no reason at all not to do it – and every reason you can imagine TO do it! In the very unlikely event that you should you break down or encounter difficulties, just stay put and wait for help to pass you by. It might take a while but above all, do remember you are still in Tasmania, one of the safest, most friendly and civilised islands in the world.
Some five years before the term ‘eco-tourism’ had even been coined (which would be by remarkably poignant coincidence as it would transpire, in 1983, by Mexican Hector Ceballos-Lascurian) and long before either the words ‘eco’ or ‘tourism’ would come close to having any sort of daily significance in the Tasmanian vocabulary, something extraordinary was happening in Australia’s only island state.
The Tasmanian Wilderness Society, which was to become the world’s first Green Movement, was founded by Dr Bob Brown in 1978, in outrage at the way in which he and his like-minded peers perceived that some of the island’s wilderness was being sacrificed for industry and most notably Tasmania’s hydro-electric scheme. Lake Pedder, deep n the South West, had already been dammed and flooded in 1972, much to the fury of the small but rapidly growing band of environmentally-sensitive Tasmanians. By the time the plan to dam Australia’s last wild river, The Franklin, and flood the surrounding rainforest valley (which would include a 24,000 year old Aboriginal cave) came to light in 1978, the group was far better prepared to fight for their cause.
Little did they realise that much of the rest of the western world would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, both figuratively and in some cases literally, in their emerging battle for nature’s survival over man’s increasingly relentless destruction of the planet.
A plan was drawn up by Dr Brown and the Wilderness Society to persuade the Federal Government to support the campaign under the auspices of a pitch to secure UNESCO World Heritage Status for the area. Voters discovered that they could scrawl ‘no dams’ on their voting slips without defacing them which would make them invalid. A political scrap was to follow in the state, and Liberal leader Robin Gray, a major supporter of the dam, declared the Franklin “nothing but a muddy ditch…..” and in December 1982, he ordered the bulldozers in. This was the same month that UNESCO was to award Tasmania’s west coast wilderness area World Heritage status. The region had achieved a staggering seven out of ten criteria – the only site in the world to do so (only four out of ten being needed to fulfil UNESCO’s requirement). To this day any one other place in the world has matched that achievement.
One of Tasmania’s most renowned landscape photographers, Peter Dombrowskis, rafted down The Franklin and took the photograph at Rock Island Bend that was to appear on newspaper front pages across Australia and around the world.
Suddenly mainland Australia – and elsewhere as far afield as the UK – woke up to the pending environmental crisis. The Franklin River Blockade began, and rapidly gathered pace and momentum thanks in no small part to the vociferous support by British naturalist and television celebrity Professor David Bellamy. It struck a chord worldwide among increasingly environmentally aware and anxious nations, and people globally dropped everything to rush to this little known island state to join the battle to save The Franklin.
The movement swelled in size to become the largest mass civil disobedience protest that Australia had ever witnessed, broadcast – 25 years before any sort of social medium were to see light of day - across the globe, and lasted until March 1983, during which time Bellamy along with hundreds of protestors including state and worldwide celebrities including Dr Bob Brown – were arrested and imprisoned.
On the mainland the Federal Government was toppled by the leader of the opposition, Bob Hawke, who had promised to halt the dam’s construction. State leader Gray challenged the decision in the Federal courts, and lost. The Franklin was safe, and the world’s first Green movement began.