By AUDREY MCDONALD and MICHAEL STEINFELD
No time to sit around with good weather forecast! Mike and I arrived in Strahan at noon on December 25 and packed up the kayaks as quickly as we could. We left the car on the grass strip adjacent to the nearby police station and launched from a small beach to the west of the Strahan ferry. Our plan was to paddle anti-clockwise around Macquarie Harbour to explore the shores and then make our way up the Franklin River. We had enough food and fuel for about seven days. Mike had planned the trip with reference to Trevor Costa’s invaluable articles previously published in the magazine. (June 2007)
We headed off at 1pm and crossed Macquarie Harbour directly south. It seemed a slow paddle of 11km into a south-west wind to get to the opposite shore. We were aware of a number of camping sites along the beaches on the south side of the harbour but we decided that if we pushed on to Mousley Camp we could spend a number of days camping in one spot, always a pleasure for us.
After paddling and sailing for about six hours we passed Sarah Island and then headed into the bay just near the entrance to Birchs Inlet. The sun had set and light was fading. We had a good idea of where the hut was but we used the GPS to get the exact location for landing [S42 26.298 E145 26.821].
The site was gorgeous, with two little beaches and creek access for small boat landing. The water was warm enough to swim in! The area around the cabin under the trees reminded me (Audrey) so much of camping in my early days in Ontario, Canada where the ground is covered in pine and cedar needles of the mature forests. So clean. The rustic cabin is maintained by the West Coast Wilderness Association and is well set up for relaxing there or for getting good shelter from rain and wind. There is a wood burning heater, with a supply of wood, and a pit toilet. It looks like a great emergency hangout. Diary entries showed it had not been used for about a month. There was a lovely Christmas card for visitors from the voluntary caretakers.
The next day we paddled 8km up Birchs Inlet to the mouth of the Sorrell River. Further upstream we discovered a boat landing and wooden walkway. This led to a conservation hut which is used by volunteers undertaking the conservation research project on the orange-bellied parrot. You probably could stay there for shelter from bad weather. There is a boardwalk out on the heathlands with a viewing booth. From what we read, the OBPs can sometimes be seen in mature to older button grass ecosystems. There were no recent sightings of the birds listed in the hut diary. It was amazing to see an extensive heathland area in this south-western Tasmanian heritage area. Perhaps a little taste of the variety of landscapes you would see if you walked the south west. In fact, there were at least two trails marked on the map which went from this hut out to the coast although it didn’t look like they joined up to the South Coast Track.
As we returned to our camp we were able to sail at times; but hadn’t we sailed up parts of Birchs Inlet in the morning? Tassie winds and kayaking!
The following day, Mike paddled to Sarah Island to re-visit the ruins of the convict prison. Lucky for kayakers, you can try to time your visit to avoid the tourist ferries.
The next morning we set off towards the Gordon River with prevailing south-west winds. There were surfing opportunities up to the entrance of the Gordon River so we took advantage of them. The river is wide at this point and it is only when you get past the ferry dock at Heritage Landing, about 11km, that you really feel you have started to arrive in the tranquillity of the wilderness. Eagle Creek campground is another absolutely beautiful spot [S42 26.554 E145 40.423]. Again, we had three nights of camping by ourselves, and superb weather. The last camper wrote in the diary a month before. In the next three days we saw a sailboat and a fishing boat go past, but no one stopped.
We wanted to explore the land as well as the waterways, so the following day we tried to follow a track that was marked on our map, along the creek, then up over a ridge and down to the Franklin River. It was slow walking as lots of trees and branches were down and it was not easy to see the track or the red tape which did appear in places if you looked hard enough. We got to a steep section and climbed for half an hour, but ended up very confused as blue and yellow markers joined the red. We took turns trying to find a better path. When I came across something like red-brown quicksand oozing from the ground on this hillside, I thought it was time to turn around. It was still slow getting back to camp. If we had a topographical map, a compass and the GPS, and took our tent and supplies for a few days, I think we might have made it. So it looked like paddling to the Franklin might be the next day’s event.
The paddle up the Gordon River to the Franklin was the real highlight of the trip for Mike. We didn’t start off too early, about 10 am. The mountains were dense and lush. There was little wind and it was sunny. We paddled past the site where the hydroelectric company had their base for building the dam and just past that, where sea planes land for other types of people experiencing that wilderness. After that the banks changed a little, there was a section of cliffs on one side and an island. The junction of the Franklin appeared. Within a few hundred metres, the Franklin narrowed, rocks were exposed everywhere and a big log was perched three metres above us on a little rock island. We soon met our first rapid. The river level was low and we had fibreglass kayaks so we did not want to risk damage. We decided to go no further and head back to Eagle Creek.
We had dinner at the abandoned works site, accompanied by two black snakes. There are six snakes living here, so the diary says. For me (Audrey) the highlight of the day was the paddle back to Eagle Creek at dusk with the trees and mountains forming mirror images. Some of the bushes on the bank were in full flower. There was a certain fifteen minute time when the reflections almost had a light of their own. I paddled by the edge looking only at the reflection and it was as if I was looking at a coral reef bursting up from below. We got back to camp at 10pm, on dark and in the silence. I never expected to find absolute silence in the south west of Tasmania, absolutely no wind, no noise of water moving, absolutely no insects. Bliss. I felt so privileged to paddle and experience this part of the south-west wilderness and I thank all those who stopped the Franklin Dam from being built.
We had beautiful clear days and total isolation except for the sea plane and ferry, the sailboat and the fishing boat. We took the easy way out and put our kayaks on the ferry at Heritage Landing and travelled back to Strahan for $50 each.
On to a sea adventure on Maria Island
We headed to Rheban, and parked by the beach to paddle about 9km to Encampment Cove on Maria Island. Paddling south-east into a 15 knot north-east wind took about three hours. There was no swell but there were wind waves. Encampment Cove has a variety of sites, so you can be alone if you want to, or be near other hikers and people arriving by boat. There are tour operators who use this national park for their camping trips. The next day a gale was blowing, so we walked the length of the island to Darlington, saw the fossil cliffs and returned. A walker told us you could see the mainland from the top of Mount Maria, but would get 360 degree views from the top of Bishop and Clerk Mountain in the north.
The next day we carried our kayaks across the 400m sand spit and circumnavigated the southern part of the island. The scenery was stunning and there was a gauntlet or two that we played in with helmets on. In the afternoon the south-westerly wind picked up to 25 knots which made paddling into the wind a little slow but gave us a great ride back to camp with a following sea. We were on our last stretch back with waves following us. A pod of five dolphins played under and between our boats for about fifteen minutes, so beautiful! Sailing proved too much for Mike’s sail as it tore. Audrey’s sail was also her undoing as she capsized and required Mike’s rescue skills. Back to camp, warm clothes and a hot drink.
We finished off this part of the trip with an easy paddle back to the mainland on still water. Great paddling weather except for one day. We were lucky.