Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Wild Wet West


[Scenes from Tasmania’s West Coast]


[Roaring Forties waves pound the shore at Granville Harbour, Tasmania]  


It is an effort to get to Tasmania’s west coast – its actual coast. Even when you’ve reached the unofficial capital, Queenstown, the nearest accessible salt water is still 40km away by road. And what a road!

Tasmania’s road builders were reputedly paid by the curve, not by the mile. The joke is very close to the truth for the road between Queenstown and Strahan. In the 1930s, the Commonwealth government appeared keen to evade its obligation to pay for a road between the two towns. They thought that they would succeed by agreeing to only fund the construction of the road surface, but not any bridges or culverts.

I can picture the Australian government advisor poring over the map; looking at the rumpled topography; considering the drainage patterns; raising an eyebrow at the huge rainfall. Surely the impoverished State government, he eventually suggests, would never be able to cover the considerable expense of bridging such a route.

He hadn't reckoned on the engineering skills of a workforce used to constructing mine access roads in the wild and hilly west. Today the road is a testament to the cunning of the locals: a triumph of the "little" people over the big city sophisticates.

But the triumph comes at a cost for any road traveller prone to motion sickness. The notoriously winding road follows the contours and somehow evades all of the many creeks. We arrive at dusk, a little green, and mightily relieved.

The next day we explore the shores of Macquarie Harbour by mountain bike. Showers scud by, mud flies up from the wheels, and muscles unaccustomed to the work are stretched. We rest in the rainforest around Hogarth Falls. A deep still green pervades the place. Vivid lime green ferns, both terrestrial and epiphytic, are the highlights contrasting with the regal green of myrtle beech and blackwood, and the whisky hues of the creek water.  


[Forest scenes from western Tasmania] 


I have been in Fiordland, New Zealand, at the same time of the year. There similar forests are watered by similar clouds heaved onto the land by the same roaring forties. In Patagonia I’m told I could experience the same weather, see sibling forests also dominated by southern beech trees of the Nothofagus genus.

Gondwana may have separated nearly 100 million years back, but some of the genes are remarkably and recognisably persistent in these now geographically scattered forests.

A few nights later we sleep in a cabin in Corinna’s Gondwanan forest. The night is still, and remarkably silent. It’s the kind of quiet you can hear. Or perhaps that’s the sound of your blood pulsing. And then the rain comes, first tapping, then drumming, then thrashing and lashing and deluging on the roof just metres above us.

We’re in a rainforest: it’s what you would expect. But this is not ordinary rain. It’s borne by heavily pregnant clouds, which have sprawled down and broken their waters directly over us. The thundering gush makes conversation impossible, even if I wasn’t determined to try and stay asleep.

Here the water cycle is vivid and concise. Just a few kilometres downstream from Corinna, the Pieman River will swiftly return this newborn water to the ocean, although it will meet resistance from the incoming rush of gale-blown swells at the Pieman Heads. And the same winds will bring more clouds, low, fat and ragged, to dump yet more rain and hail on the already sodden land.

But in the morning the birds sing the silence awake, and the sun returns. In the forest, rising vapour interfingers with the growing sunlight, and all seems right with the world.


[Morning, Tarkine rainforest, western Tasmania] 


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