Heather Rossiter

Granny was here

by Heather Rossiter, 4/6/2011, The Australian

Cousin Graeme says Schooner Cove is the only possible place, and he should know. He was master of a cruise boat on Port Davey for four seasons.

That pleasure palace now laid up, how to get to a place that has no roads? By air is the answer: take the South West World Heritage tour.

Why do I want to go there? Well, when my Granny was little she lived at Forest in northwest Tasmania. The view was Bass Strait. East-west roads barely existed, the centre of the island was impassable. Produce and people came and went from the little ports strung along the coast. Enrolled at Collegiate School, Hobart, in the early 1890s, twice a year she boarded a coastal trader at Stanley and sailed down the wild west coast; twice a year she made the return.

As yachtsmen who take part in the annual Melbourne to Hobart Boxing Day race would tell you, the seas on Tasmania's west coast are not to be trusted.

On one occasion, days after Granny sailed, the Roaring Forties whipped up a turbulent fury and raged against the island. When her ship did not make port, the family waited. And waited. The ship and all aboard were given up for lost. Imagine the joy when the little ship breezed into harbour.

The master had run it into Port Davey to ride out the southwesterly gale. Repairs had to be made before it could resume its voyage. No one of my generation has thought to ask where it sheltered. So I am going in search.

The small terminal at Cambridge Airport, near Hobart, is crowded. We swing into a twin-engine Britten-Norman Islander. I am the co-pilot. Well, I do have the front seat beside pilot Warwick. Down D'Entrecasteaux Channel we sweep, bits of land lying like untidy rags in the sparkling blue water, Bruny Island on our portside. Soon, the Southern Ocean is visible, surging into Recherche Bay, then battering the south coast. Flying low, we see stretches of the South Coast Track where the bushwalkers we saw at the airport will soon be hiking if the weather doesn't hole them up.

We sweep inland from Cox Bight and soon the Melaleuca airstrip is down below. What? That rectangle of coarse, white quartzite is where we will land?

The plane bumps a bit on the strip, created by Deny King, who once mined tin here. The Southwest National Park is full of legends and King is one of the biggest; the nearby bird hide is named for him. The tour brochure promises glimpses of the endangered orange-bellied parrot "over refreshments" and the greedy things are bolting down everything, seed flying everywhere. More daintily, we partake of biscuits and Tasmanian cheese.

The lawyer from Lucerne isn't very taken with the parrots. She is here for ragged mountain peaks and unique vegetation. This is her third visit to Australia. She says she doesn't go anywhere else down under. Only southern Tasmania.

A raised boardwalk takes us over dwarf plants and across a bog where a crayfish passes the time in holes bored into the mud. Down near the jetty a tiger snake slithers. Very noisily, I embark on the runabout lying alongside. Snakes don't like noise. I don't like snakes.

Black water wafts us down the creek, into Melaleuca Inlet and out into Bathurst Harbour. The Celery Top Islands, each standing on a dazzling quartzite plinth, flourish their primeval botanical caps, isolated remnants that for thousands of years escaped the Aboriginal firestick. Mt Rugby is up in the sky and down in the reflective water. It seems impregnable, sides so steep no one could ever climb it, or so I imagine.

Warwick is now our boat captain. Except for the lawyer from Lucerne, our fellow passengers have gone on a separate trek. Warwick seems interested in my Granny. "Why don't we fly down and take a look?" he suggests. The lawyer from Lucerne is agreeable. She just wants to be in the southwest wilderness; what she does there isn't important.

Returning up the creek we bump a few times as the water is shallow and the bottom shifts with heavy rain. At the airstrip two bedraggled people beg a return to Hobart. They have been camping and walking for a week.

Being so few, we take a Cessna, a much more challenging plane to get into. "Sit behind me; you'll get a better view on that side," Warwick advises.

Bathurst Harbour is like a large bladder flushing out through the Bathurst Channel, its entrance guarded by Mt Rugby and Mt Beattie, and flooding into Port Davey, a waterway running north-south with a gaping entrance that faces directly into the teeth of the Roaring Forties, those awful winds that sweep across from Africa, the ones that knocked my Granny off course.

We skirt Mt Rugby, an 800m wedge, its quartzite ribs flashing in the sunlight. The new passengers squirm about, trying to get shots of its perilous crest. They say it was raining when they were up there on Thursday. They'd climbed that mountain? I look at them with great respect.

Too soon we are through the Narrows and down the Bathurst Channel, extraordinarily beautiful waterways whose unique marine environments are the heart of the Port Davey Marine Reserve. Fragile, they are protected by their relative inaccessibility and the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area that surrounds them. Two small craft are pulled up on Balmoral Beach and we see people walking along the shore. The code for boats and people is justifiably strict.

We are almost at the end of the channel. "It'll be on the port side, get your camera ready," Warwick says. And there, down below, is Schooner Cove, a classic configuration: blue water, white beach holding back the wilderness, two mountainous headlands embracing it. It's the perfect place for a ship to lie up while a storm blows itself out. Twice we circle the cove, then fly along the last stretch of channel to where it discharges into Port Davey.

There are no more coves, no more sheltering waters. Schooner Cove is the first satisfactory anchorage inside the channel.

"See those islands?" Warwick asks. Like a chain of enormous barnacles strung outside the entrance to the channel, they are taking a hammering on their seaward side. Not for nothing are they named the Breaksea Islands. A ship driven into Port Davey and safely rounding them would find calmer waters, though still not be out of trouble. But once into the channel, the first cove on the port side would give full protection from the southwesterly gale.

Schooner Cove was definitely Granny's hideaway from the Roaring Forties.

Mission accomplished. Yet the frightened little girl of that old story stays in my head.


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