Australia

The Pieman’s Promise

Words Andrew Bain

Photos Andrew Bain

September 2016 from issue 40

Tags: australia, kayaking, tasmania, waterfall

The Pieman’s Promise

In search of solitude in Tasmania, Andrew Bain ventures north of the Pieman River to Corinna then further into the arms of the Tarkine, where evidence of a fleeting period of human habitation comes to an abrupt end and the rainforest reigns supreme.

In the northwest corner of Tasmania, the Tarkine rainforest is primed for battle. In one trench, the Tasmanian government has recently approved leases for several new mines. In the other, environmentalists are threatening to turn the world’s second-largest intact temperate rainforest – a place scientist and environmentalist Tim Flannery has described as “perhaps the least disturbed forest in all of Australia, the closest thing our continent offers to a true wilderness” – into a Franklin River–style blockade.

At the forest’s edge, however, in the former gold-mining settlement of Corinna, politics is another world. In fact, the rest of the world is another world. Cottages at the only accommodation inside the Tarkine have no TVs, no radios, no internet access and no phone reception. 
In the ever-connected modern world, it’s a place almost as primeval as the rainforest itself.

By Tasmanian standards, Corinna and the Tarkine are about as remote as it gets – this is the island state’s damp outback. To get here from Hobart, I drive for five hours, crossing the Pieman River on a vehicle punt – affectionately known as the Fatman Barge – to officially enter the forest that spreads across about seven per cent of Tasmania’s land mass.

On the northern bank of the Pieman sits Corinna, a smattering of gold-rush-era buildings and updated cottages nestled in the rainforest. The bedroom and deck of my cottage peer straight out into the forest canopy – into celery top pine, myrtle beech and laurel – and it feels as though I could be sleeping in a tree house. It is restful and tranquil, but I’m not here to simply hang out in a room.

Outdoor attractions are plentiful, with a web of trails and activities ranging out into the forest and along the Pieman River, which forms the southern border of the rainforest. Even in a place so dense with plant and animal species, there are standout stars. Centuries-old Huon pines – among the oldest trees in the world – hang over the river. The Tasmanian devil population is healthy and free of facial tumour disease. Freshwater crayfish have created a mini-metropolis of chimney-like mud burrows behind one line of cottages. And on my first morning at Corinna I set out early on foot through the forest to the Whyte River in hope of sighting a platypus.

The walking trail begins about six steps from the door of my cottage, diving immediately into the rainforest, which is an orchestra of birdsong. The forest drips with overnight rain and on the bank of the river I stop and watch as a white-faced heron swings downstream, and an azure kingfisher skims low over the water. For a time the only other movement is the splashing of rain on the taut river surface, but then a small brown body glides along the opposite bank, the platypus’s bill searching the water as fervently as did the gold miners who worked these rivers more than a century ago.

In the early morning, the Pieman river is mirror-still, its tannin-stained water as dark as the rainforest floor. Ancient Huon pines, bearded with lichen, jostle for prominence along the banks.

Gold was discovered in the Tarkine – in what is now Middleton Creek, just a few kilometres from Corinna – in 1879. By gold-rush standards, what eventuated was more a gold stroll, although by July of that year there were 400 people seeking golden dreams along the Tarkine’s southern waterways.

In January 1881, a store was built on the banks of the Pieman, and Corinna was founded. Two pubs – one on each bank of the river – arose, along with a blacksmith, baker, slaughterhouse, butcher and bootmaker. Within 40 years the town would be all but abandoned, leaving behind what’s now billed as the only surviving remote-area historic mining settlement in Tasmania.

In Corinna’s heyday, steamships brought supplies and miners up the Pieman, carrying out holds full of Huon pine. Today, Huon pine still floats daily down the river, though now it is in the shape of the Arcadia II, the only Huon pine-built river cruiser still operating in the world.

Since 1970, the one-time WWII-armed supply ship has been running visitors from Corinna to Pieman Heads – the mouth of the Pieman River – near the point where Australia’s highest wave (19 metres) was once recorded. It’s a place so wild that three ships were wrecked here in 1867 alone.

The contrasts are extraordinary. In the early morning, the Pieman is mirror-still, its tannin-stained water as dark as the rainforest floor. Ancient Huon pines, bearded with lichen, jostle for prominence along the banks.

“This would be the most intact Huon pine forest in the world,” skipper John McGhee tells me. “There are still 1000-year-old trees along the Gordon River, but you have to look hard to find them. Here, you see them every 10 to 15 feet.”

Even on this benign day, however, it’s the literal Wild West out on the coast, where six-metre swells thunder ashore at Pieman Heads. Wind scours the beach, driving sand through a graveyard of logs and driftwood. I continue to hear the roar of the ocean from kilometres away.

The next morning I return to the Pieman River, this time in a kayak. Once again the river is motionless, and I paddle across the reflected glory of the rainforest. My destination is the natural feature that’s arguably the brightest of Corinna’s many stars: Lovers Falls. Accessible only by water, it’s a hidden wonderland, just a few steps from the Pieman River.

“I’ve always thought that if Tinkerbell and Peter Pan were real, they would be living up there,” McGhee had suggested the previous day. “It’s quite magical.”

Inside its gully, green light filters through a forest of man ferns standing up to 10 metres high and thought to be among the oldest in the world. At the head of the gully, water pours over a 30-metre drop into a virtual sinkhole – it’s one of the most idyllic scenes in Tasmania, well deserving of its quixotic name.

As I paddle back to Corinna, I detour briefly into the Savage River. A short distance upstream is the sunken steamship SS Croydon, its metal bow peeping out of the water. Australia’s furthest inland shipwreck, it sank in 1919 while winching Huon pine logs.

As I paddle over the ship, its winches visible through the stout-coloured water, there’s an eerie, almost ghostly feeling to the scene. The tangled riverbanks squeeze the river tight, and there’s not another person for kilometres. As I sit over the wreck, hanging onto its bow, rain begins to fall. I paddle across to the riverbank, sheltering beneath a myrtle beech tree as the forest drinks up the rain that has made this a place worth fighting for.

Get there

Corinna is about four hours’ drive from Launceston, and five hours from Hobart, 
on Tasmania’s remote Western Explorer Road.

Stay there

Corinna has 14 one- or two-bedroom cottages, as well as accommodation in the gold-era pub, butcher shop and roadman’s cottage. Prices start at US$170. The attached Tarkine Hotel has good-quality meals.
corinna.com.au

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