The Tarkine, the planet’s second-largest temperate rainforest, is a magical world of ancient pine trees, spectacular waterfalls and historic gold-rush settlements.

At dawn, the surface of Tasmania's Whyte River was still as a painting. An azure kingfisher skimmed low over the water, and the creaking calls of yellow-tailed black cockatoos echoed from the canopy. By the riverbank, the water stirred as a platypus prospected for food. So began another day in the Tarkine rainforest.

Spread across Tasmania's northwestern corner, the 4,470sqkm Tarkine, which is bordered by the Pieman River in the south and the Arthur River in the north, is touted as the world's second-largest temperate rainforest, behind only the vast Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. With few roads and located far from the main population centres of Hobart and Launceston, the Tarkine receives only small numbers of visitors – but that may be about to change when construction of a 90km tourist route into the region begins in May, looping through the scenic Tarkine from the town of Arthur River to Tayatea Bridge.

Golden Corinna
Currently, the only significant road through the Tarkine is the unsealed Western Explorer, dubbed the “Road to Nowhere” by critics when it was built in the mid-1990s. Today, though, it is very much the road to somewhere, as the Tarkine grows in significance in Australia's natural consciousness. Leading Australian scientist and environmentalist Tim Flannery has described it as "perhaps the least disturbed forest in all of Australia, the closest thing our continent offers to a true wilderness".

At the southern end of the Western Explorer, on the banks of the Pieman River, the former gold-rush settlement of Corinna offers the only accommodation inside the Tarkine. Its 17 period-style cottages are edged against the rainforest, providing treehouse-like views into the canopy of myrtle beech, sassafras, laurel and celery top pine trees.

The Tarkine's gold rush was a fleeting thing. Gold was found in Middleton Creek around 5km north of Corinna in January 1879, and by July of that year there were 400 people in the area, hunting for gold. In 1881, the first store was built on the banks of the Pieman River and Corinna was born.

Mining reached its apex in the 1890s when around 700 people lived at Corinna, but by 1919 the town was all but abandoned, leaving what Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service describes as " the only remote area historic mining settlement" in the state.

In Corinna's heyday, pubs anchored both banks of the Pieman River, though today the Tarkine Hotel stands alone, wrapped in a wide veranda that would not look out of place in the deserts of central Australia.

From Corinna, a range of activities is in easy reach. Kayaks are available for hire to explore the Pieman River and its tributaries, and several walking trails radiate out through the rainforest. A five-minute walk west from Corinna leads to a colony of freshwater crayfish, their characteristic mud burrows rising like a mini-Manhattan from the forest floor.

A one hour hike on the Whyte River Walk meanders to the platypus-busy Whyte River, passing through rainforest and a choir of birdsong along the way. In the other direction, a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk heads 300m along the banks of the Pieman River to an ancient Huon pine tree.

Mild and wild
Endemic to Tasmania, Huon pines are one of the world's longest-living tree species, growing for up to 2,000 years, and the Pieman River is one of their most evident strongholds. Its riverbanks also hide one of Tasmania's most beautiful but least-known waterfalls, Lover's Falls (named for a pair of 19th-century honeymooners who visited here), plunging about 20m over a cliff into a grove of giant ferns.

The Pieman River is best seen from aboard the Arcadia II, the world's last-surviving Huon pine-built pleasure boat, which cruises downstream each day from Corinna to the river mouth at Pieman Heads. Built in 1939, the 17m cruiser – once a World War II navy supply ship – has been operating as a tourist boat on the Pieman River since 1970.

Shielded from wind by the forest, the Pieman River is often a mirror reflection of the world around it – trees, sky, an occasional white-bellied sea eagle – providing a meditative setting in contrast to the wild scenes ahead at Pieman Heads.

Tasmania's west coast is one of the fiercest stretches of shoreline in Australia; the highest waves ever recorded in the country (19m) were here, and supply ships trying to enter the Pieman River in the 19th Century were regularly torn apart.

The Southern Ocean roars ashore at Pieman Heads, smashing into the well-named Misery Rock and piling up sea foam and hundreds of logs on the beach. Wind scours the shore, pelting sand through the graveyard of ocean-polished wood.

Back in Corinna, the drive north on the Western Explorer threads through the rainforest for 10km, providing glimpses into fairy-tale scenes of ferny glades and mosses as lush as lawn. As the road leaves the forest, it enters another of Tasmania's signature scenes – buttongrass moorland – where traces of the Tarkine's human history remain in the remnants of a water race built to power hydraulic gold sluices in the late 19th Century. Look behind, at the forest that covers almost 7% of Tasmania, and there is now only green where once there was gold.