Wandering the west coast of Tasmania

Bigger than most people expect and wetter and wilder than most can comprehend, the savage and untameable west coast of Tasmania offers challenges aplenty for adventurous visitors

Words: Ron & Viv Moon

Two images jump to mind that one wouldn’t usually think of when considering the west coast of Tassie. The first is of a couple paddling a canoe on a river so dark with natural tannin and so calm it was like a gigantic pool of blackened quicksilver. The second is of a young diver wading out of a large natural rock pool with a couple of crays tucked into his catch bag, the open sea behind him and the intervening fringing reef flecked with white caps.

Both memories tempted me out of the warm confines of my four-wheel drive and while I slunk deeper into the jacket I was wearing, the bracing fresh air an the incredible untamed scenes that were before me on both occasions will remain with me forever. They’ll also keep us coming back. This is a truly wild and spectacular coast.

A couple of days later we were in Strahan, the ‘tourist capital’ of the west coast, sipping hot cappuccinos while waiting for our luxury cruise boat to take us deeper into the wilderness of Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon River. The west coast of Tassie is truly as you’d like it.

When to go

With an annual rainfall up to 2.8m, the cleanest, freshest air on earth and with a highest recorded wind gust of 176km/h, the west coast of Tassie sure can throw up some bracing weather. Summer is the go for when to visit, unless you’re some form of macho weather maniac who revels in a stiff breeze and the scudding foam of a tempestuous sea. We prefer February through to April when the weather is frequently sunny and warm. Spring and Autumn are okay, but expect changeable and cool weather; well, you can expect that any time really. Winters are for hard nuts, masochists and purists alike: cold, wet and blustery!

What to expect

It might be just 140km as the eagle glides between Arthur River in the north and Strahan in the south but the verdant mountains and winding roads in the region will make it feel much, much bigger. Take your time!

The main highway from Hobart, 260km east, climbs across the intervening mountains and through the protected wilderness of the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park before depositing you in Queenstown. If there is only time to do one thing along the way, make it a visit to the country’s most ambitious art project, The Wall in the Wilderness. Situated at Derwent Bridge on the edge of Lake St Clair, and still in progress, it’s being carved as a 100m-long sculpted tribute to the long human history of the Highlands region.

Winters are for hard nuts, masochists and purists alike: cold, wet and blustery!

From Queenstown the main highway heads north through Rosebery to Burnie on the north coast but lesser roads (still blacktop) take you to Strahan and Zeehan. From Burnie you can head along the coast to Stanley and then south-west to Arthur River, all on bitumen.

North of Zeehan you can head along the well-maintained gravel of the Western Explorer, a road that takes you through the heart of the Tarkine and along the edge of the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area.

South of Arthur River and especially south of the small coastal enclave of Couta Rocks you start to get into some challenging 4WD country.

Fact File: The last thylacine, called ‘Benjamin’, died in the Beaumaris Zoo, Tasmania, just 59 days after the species was officially protected. It was accidentally locked out of its shelter overnight, and froze to death.

What you’ll need

You’ll be able to reach a lot of the highlights of the region in a 2WD vehicle but a 4WD will enable you to get off the beaten track into some truly pristine—and utterly unforgettable—areas of the state.

Be prepared all the while with good wind and rainproof gear, whether it’s clothing or camping gear, and you’ll have a ball.

There is a wide range of accommodation and camping options in the towns and hamlets through the region.

If you are getting off the main dirt roads onto some of the incredible 4WD tracks the region has to offer be prepared and carry recovery gear. While a set of Maxtrax recovery tracks should be the bare minimum you carry with you, another friend in a 4WD is the best piece of recovery gear you’ll ever need. Take a snatch strap and a few D-shackles, at least.

Must-see places

There is a host of things you can do on the west coast, from easy day walks and paddles to overnight trekking and canoeing trips through the pristine wilderness. You’ll find some great fishing in some of the best trout streams and lakes anywhere, while surf fishing can result in some big hauls of Australian salmon. With a good wetsuit you’ll be able to snorkel for a feed of crayfish or abalone, or try and crack some of the big, heavy waves that thunder ashore along here.

Four-wheel-drivers can take an easy run out to Granville Harbour or a really enjoyable drive along the old railway route to Montezuma Falls. The drive along the beaches and across the headlands to Sandy Cape is not to be undertaken lightly and is best tackled with at least a couple of other vehicles. Likewise, the trip inland to the old mining community of Balfour is only for the well set-up and experienced explorer.

Strahan and Queenstown are linked by the West Coast Wilderness Railway, one of the great attractions of the area. And while you’re in Strahan take a cruise that will not only take in the lower reaches of the Gordon River but also the historic convict outpost of Sarah Island and the turbulent narrow entrance to Macquarie Harbour, Hells Gate—which can also be reached by 4WD for a different point of view.

You’ll find one of the best regional museums in Australia in Zeehan while further north the tour of Woolnorth, Australia’s biggest dairy farm and the oldest company established by Royal Charter, is a beauty. Here on the far north-west tip of Tasmania you’ll also find a huge wind farm and the Cape Grim weather station, where you can breathe in some of the cleanest air in the world.

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