To the edge of Australia

ROB MCFARLAND
Last updated 11:03 22/01/2014

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There are only three ways to reach Melaleuca, a tiny speck in the heart of Tasmania's South West Wilderness.

The first is to take a boat from Hobart and spend a day battling the notoriously rough seas around South East Cape, Australia's southernmost point.

The second is to be dropped at Cockle Creek (the furthest south you can drive in Australia) and spend six to eight days walking the South Coast Track, an 85-kilometre trek through one of the most exposed parts of Tasmania.

The third is to fly down with Par Avion in a warm, comfortable 10-seater plane and enjoy a tour of the region with gourmet food. No prizes for guessing which option I took.

Par Avion's Day in the Wilderness Tour normally starts and ends at Cambridge Airport, Hobart, but it's also possible to be collected on the way (as we are today) from Bruny Island.

Pilot Thomas Oswin invites me to join him in the cockpit of his sturdy Britten-Norman Islander prop plane and I squeeze in among a sea of switches, dials and levers.

Once airborne we head towards South East Cape, passing over a snaking coastline of sand-fringed bays and deep blue inlets.

We've been blessed with fine weather, which is a rarity in this region. The South-West receives two to three metres of rain a year and is regularly battered by gale-force westerly winds.

Oswin advises people to book the tour for early in their trip in case it has to be rescheduled because of bad weather. Occasionally, an alternative itinerary to Port Arthur and Maria Island is offered instead.

We're cruising at 450 metres so we can clearly see the South Coast Track as it squirms its way towards the ominously named Ironbound mountain range.

Eventually we leave the coast and head inland over plains of swampy button grass to land on Melaleuca's startlingly white quartzite runway.

The runway was a three-year labour of love for a man whose name is inextricably linked to this region.

Deny King lived here for 52 years, first with his father Charlie, then with his wife and daughters and finally for 24 years on his own.

He eked a living mining tin, separating the ore by hand into 50kg bags before carrying them across the boggy button grass marshes to his boat. Then came the treacherous 115-nautical-mile journey to deliver them to Hobart.

While his strength and stamina were legendary (he once walked the entire South Coast Track in 30 hours), his most enduring legacy stems from his love of the region's flora and fauna.

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He discovered several new species of plants, made meticulous studies of the local birdlife and was instrumental in getting the South-West designated a national park.

Our first stop is the bird hide built in his honour. The visitor book is full of twitchers from all over the world who hoped to see the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot. It winters on mainland Australia but breeds here in the summer; it's estimated there are fewer than 50 in the wild.

King's two daughters still spend several months in Melaleuca each year and a peek through the windows of their hand-built family home reveals a surprisingly well-equipped and comfortable abode.

After passing by sheds crammed with chopped wood, gumboots and engine parts, we stop for morning tea on a small wooden dock overlooking the tannin-stained waters of Moth Creek.

I'm expecting a cuppa and a Tim Tam if we're lucky but Oswin produces a sumptuous platter of Tasmanian produce including a delicious Wicked Cheese triple cream brie and fine selection of pates.

From here we explore the Needwonnee Walk, an interpretative boardwalk dedicated to one of the four Aboriginal tribes that used to live in the region.

Dotted along the walkway are recreations of the Needwonnee's dome-shaped thatched huts and intricately woven paperbark canoes.

The walk delivers us to the banks of Melaleuca Inlet, where we board a small boat for a cruise into Bathurst Harbour.

We potter slowly up the creek, its inky waters creating striking reflections of the melaleuca and manuka trees that line its banks.

Eventually, we spill into Bathurst Harbour, a pristine lagoon bigger than Sydney Harbour. Even in good weather, its dark brooding waters and the surrounding iron grey mountains give it a foreboding, Middle-earth feel. Occasionally a boat takes refuge here during bad weather, but today we're on our own. The feeling of isolation is palpable.

We stop at a point for lunch, where Oswin conjures up another feast of local treats - smoked salmon salads accompanied by a 2009 pinot from Forty-Two Degrees South.

Back at the airstrip, a blanket of ominous purple clouds indicates it's time to depart. We scuttle down King's handmade runway, loop back over Bathurst Harbour and aim for Hobart.

The return flight is equally spectacular. Fingers of light burst through low clouds as we skim over a constantly shifting landscape of mountains, valleys and plains.

Rivers and lakes offer flawless reflections while Mt Wellington's snow-flecked peak beckons in the distance.

All too soon we hit Hobart's urban sprawl and the spell is broken. In 40 minutes we've gone from what felt like the edge of the earth to a busy, thriving metropolis.

It's a journey King made more than 150 times during his lifetime and the contrast must have been striking.

Mostly he was at the helm of his 13-metre yacht, often battling his way around the South East Cape single-handedly. Given the choice, I suspect he'd have taken the plane, too.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Tasmania.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE: Qantas, Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Tigerair all operate regular flights to Hobart. See qantas.com, jetstar.com, virginaustralia.com; tigerair.com.

TOURING THERE: Par Avion's Day in the Wilderness Tour departs from Cambridge Airport, Hobart, lasts eight hours and includes morning tea and lunch. Adults A$400 (NZ$423 approx), children A$340 (NZ$360 approx), paravion.com.au.

MORE INFORMATION: discovertasmania.com.au.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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