Tasmania's wild wild west
The lush rainforest of the Styx Valley in south-western Tasmania. (Rob Blakers/LPI)
There are no two ways about it: Tasmania's west truly is its wilder side. We're talking endless ocean beaches where the surf pounds in from South America, ancient mossy rainforests dripping emerald green, whisky-tinted rivers, glacier-sculpted mountain peaks and boundless untamed horizons that make you feel you are the only soul in the world. This is among the last great wildernesses on Earth: a place for absorption in nature, adventure and isolation.
There is a rugged human side to this part of Tasmania too. The first inhabitants braved the west's ferocious weather indomitably; but convicts transported into aching isolation on Sarah Island suffered extreme privations, leaving behind desperate legends of mutiny and cannibalism. Later piners and miners ventured into rivers and forests here. Outdoor adventurers were the next to feel the lure of the wild west. Their depictions of this region's beauty helped win Australia's most intense environmental protest, the battle to save the Gordon and Franklin Rivers from a hydroelectric dam. Even today, west-coasters are different: they have a certain rough-at-the-edges, no-nonsense charm.
The abundance of wildlife here is overshadowed by the tale of the elusive Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus, or thylacine), a striped, nocturnal, doglike predator once widespread in Tasmania, who is said to live a furtive existence here, deep in the Tasmanian wilderness. Scientists ridicule such suggestions, but the tantalising version says thylacines were hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the last captive tiger dying in Hobart Zoo in 1936.
No specimen, living or dead, has been conclusively discovered since then, despite hundreds of alleged sightings. Version two maintains that thylacines continue a furtive existence deep in the Tasmanian wilderness. Scientists ridicule such suggestions, but the tantalising possibility of remnant tigers makes them prime corporate fodder - Tasmanian companies plaster tiger imagery on everything from beer bottles to licence plates.
Speaking of the ancients and the mysterious underworlds, perhaps crossing the Styx is not what you imagined doing on holiday. If you come to the Tasmanian Styx, you will be absorbed in a domain of ancient tall trees and forests so mysteriously beautiful you would be forgiven for thinking you have indeed crossed to another world.
In the rich and heavily watered soils of the Styx River Valley, trees grow exceptionally tall. The Eucalyptus regnans (swamp gum) here are the loftiest trees in the southern hemisphere, and the highest hardwood trees on Earth. Trees of up to 95m tall have been recorded in the valley, and many of the trees in what is known as the Valley of the Giants reach more than 80m above the ground.
The Wilderness Society publishes a map with tour notes that will guide you to more soaring eucalypts, giant myrtles, treacle-coloured rivers and elegant man ferns. There are several walks varying from 15 minutes to two hours return. The Tiger Valley Lookout is one hour from the car park and has awe-inspiring views over the peaks and forests of the southwest.
No trip to the West would be complete without a visit to the stunning 168,000-hectare World Heritage area of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair. Mountain peaks, dank gorges, pristine lakes, tarns and wild moorlands extend triumphantly from the Great Western Tiers in the north to Derwent Bridge on the Lyell Hwy in the south. It was one of Australia most heavily glaciated areas, and includes Mt Ossa (1,617m) - Tasmania's highest peak - and Lake St Clair, Australia's deepest natural freshwater lake (167m). There are fabulous day walks at both Cradle Valley in the north and Cynthia Bay (Lake St Clair) in the south, but it is the outstanding 80.5km Overland Track between the two that has turned this park into a bushwalkers' Mecca.
The visitor to Tasmania's wild west will find a vast outdoor playground: multiday hikes, such as the Overland Track, to tackle and river rafting on the incredible Franklin River. There is sailing, jet-boating, sandboarding and helicopter flights, or more gentle outdoor pleasures like chasing the reflections on a mirror-calm Gordon River cruise, riding through the rainforests on a restored heritage railway or being driven to the heart of it all in a comfortable 4x4.