Southwest National Park
This vast remote corner of Tasmania is a landscape of jagged ranges, buttongrass plains and dense rainforests bounded by windswept shores in the south and two huge hydro lakes to the north. It was rarely visited by Europeans until the 1970s, when it was brought to worldwide attention by conservationists intent on preserving for all time one of the planet's last great temperate wildernesses.
Tasmania’s west coast lies in the path of the Roaring Forties, the term given by sailors to the gale-force winds that cross the Southern Ocean, unimpeded, from Antarctica. The wild and unpredictable weather that lashes the west coast helped the region to resist the advance of Europeans. Even today few roads lead into Southwest National Park: the Gordon River and Scotts Peak roads in the north of the park run along the north and east shores of Lake Pedder; in the south-east of the park, the most southerly road in Australia ends at Cockle Creek. Whichever way you choose to visit – on a scenic drive, a wilderness bushwalk, ﬁshing trip or a quick picnic – you will be inspired by the region’s extraordinary beauty.
From Hobart via Lyell Hwy then Gordon River Rd (B61); or via Huon Hwy to Dover then C636 to Cockle Creek; charter ﬂights operate to Melaleuca with Par Avion (03) 6248 5390
120 km west and 140 km south of Hobart
- PWS 1300 135 513
- PWS Huonville (03) 6264 8460
- PWS Southwest National Park (03) 6288 1283
Park entry fee payable
618 270 ha
Huon Valley (03) 6264 0326
Geeveston Forest and Heritage Centre (03) 6297 1836
Tasmania Travel and Information Centre (03) 6238 4222, 1800 990 440
Featured Activities in the National Park
Look over the edge of the breathtaking Gordon Dam lookout, if you dare
Walk the ﬁrst part of the South Coast Track to South Cape Bay
Take a scenic ﬂight to see the huge south-west wilderness from the air
Catch a trout in Lake Gordon
A look at the past
The ﬁrst European to visit the area was the French explorer Bruni D’Entrecasteaux, who landed at Recherche Bay in 1792, and again in 1793, staying for several weeks. From the 1830s whalers set up camps around Recherche Bay, and whaling became a major industry, so much so that by the 1850s the whale populations had been severely depleted and the industry declined. Coal was mined in the area from the 1840s but this activity was also short-lived. Timber cutters worked around the Cockle Creek area in the 1850s, making it one of the ﬁrst places in Tasmania to be affected by logging.
The tiny, pristine Lake Pedder was declared a national park in 1955. In 1972, when it was drowned behind the Scotts Peak hydro-electric dam, the controversy triggered the formation of the world’s ﬁrst ‘green’ party and sparked a vigorous campaign to prevent further destruction of the environment. The historical and ecological signiﬁcance of the south-west wilderness was recognised in its World Heritage listing in 1982 and in 1983 the government legislated to prevent further devastation. Ten years later the Cockle Creek area and South East Cape were added to Southwest National Park, but this section remains outside the World Heritage area.
Aboriginal clans established territories in this part of Tasmania before the last ice age and there are many sheltered occupation sites deep in the valleys of the park. The evidence suggests that Aboriginal people were camping in caves in the south-west as long ago as 35 000 years. Art sites here are among the earliest known in the world. Indigenous groups from two major tribes lived in the area: the Needwonne and Ninene clans occupied coastal country around Port Davey, the Kumtemairrejner clan lived in the Huon River valley and the Lumnermareeme people roamed further north around Mount Anne. Coastal settlements were substantial, with permanent dwellings comprising branch-and-leaf huts, and the people lived well, harvesting seals, waterbirds and shellﬁsh.
European settlement brought the customary diseases and dispossession. As relations deteriorated between settlers and Aboriginal people, an anxious government sent George Robinson into the south-west in 1830 to persuade the Indigenous people to move to government settlements, generally to the islands off the north coast, where many died in exile.
In the 1980s two rock-art sites were discovered, which predated the last ice age. In Ballawinne (meaning ‘ochre’) Cave, 23 hand stencils depicted in red ochre were found on the dolomite rock of the cave walls. At Wagarta Mina (meaning ‘my blood’) another array of hand stencils in red ochre has been dated at more than 12 000 years old. The ochre in this case had been mixed with blood. Both these caves are now owned and cared for by the Aboriginal community, and a permit is required to visit.
Southwest National Park encompasses landscape unlike any other in Australia. The coastline – only accessible on foot – faces the wild Southern Ocean, the bearer of gale-force winds and rain that slam into the coast with the ferocity of a freight train. Drowned river valleys at Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey provide a habitat for some unusual marine species such as sea pens. The species found here (Sarcoptilus grandis) has kidney-shaped leaves in a row on each side of the primary polyp that forms the stalk. Sea pens are usually found in very deep waters, but the dark tannin-stained water of these channels allows it to live in the shallows.
Inland, wave after wave of mountain ranges rise without foothills from boggy buttongrass plains. The rugged peaks were formed during phases of vigorous mountain building that pressed and folded ancient Pre-Cambrian sediments into hardened layers of quartzite and schist, resistant to erosion by water and ice. Dozens of glaciers have eroded rock shelves and widened valleys, where deposits of outwash gravels have created a landscape of hanging lakes and tarns hidden among sheer mountain ridges. At lower altitudes there are cool temperate rainforest valleys carved by wild rivers.
The climate of the south-west favours dense plant growth, but in much of the park the soils are so poor that there is only buttongrass and heath, maintained by thousands of years of Aboriginal burning. There is myrtle beech, leatherwood and celery-top pine among impenetrable thickets of tea-tree, bauera and horizontal scrub. Stands of endemic conifers thrive where ﬁre is excluded. In valleys there are Huon and king billy pines, while on alpine moors there are chestnut and Tasman dwarf pines. Huon pines over 2200 years old have been recorded in the park.
Growing only in Tasmania, and found at the higher altitudes of the south-west, are alpine cushion plant communities. Up to six miniature species huddle together to form a single cushion. They grow best next to runnels of water, which they eventually dam to create pretty alpine pools fringed with delicate bright green mounds.
One of the best places to see animals is in the clearings near Cockle Creek, where common wombats, Bennett's wallabies, Tasmanian pademelons and short-beaked echidnas are frequent visitors. At night there are brushtail and ringtail possums, and long-nosed potoroos. Other animals, less easily seen, are swamp and dusky antechinuses and swamp rats.
Despite the wet, cold climate there are 41 bird species, including black currawongs, forest ravens, honeyeaters, robins, scrubwrens, parrots, peregrine falcons and wedge-tailed eagles. The south coast is a refuge for the endangered orange-bellied parrot. The bird hide at Melaleuca is your best chance to see this delightful bird, except in winter when it migrates to coastal areas in Victoria and South Australia.
In the oceans around the south of the park, and recently in Recherche Bay, southern right and humpback whales are regularly seen in summer.
This area is remote and subject to extremes of weather so anglers and walkers must be prepared and equipped for all conditions. A scenic ﬂight is a particularly exciting way to see the park's unspoiled grandeur.
River rafting tours take visitors through the forested valleys in the south of the park near Tahune and for those who enjoy dizzying heights there are abseiling tours to the precipitous Gordon River dam.
The Lake Pedder area is the starting point for some of the south-west’s most renowned wilderness treks. The Port Davey Track (70 km one way, 5 days) to Melaleuca heads out from here, as do walks to the Western Arthur Range and Mount Anne. For a more leisurely stroll, Creepy Crawly Nature Trail (20 minutes return) from Scotts Peak Road is a walk through rainforest, while Wedge Nature Walk (15-minute loop) leads through myrtle and leatherwood forest from Gordon River Road. Day walks to Mount Eliza (6 hours return), Lake Judd (8 hours) and Mount Wedge (5 hours) are for the reasonably ﬁt.
At Cockle Creek, South Cape Bay Track (4 hours return) is a lovely day walk to South Cape Bay along the ﬁrst part of the South Coast Track (85 km one way, 8 days), which leads to Melaleuca. A shorter walk heads to Fishers Point (3 hours) around the southern promontory of Recherche Bay.
Bushwalkers on the Port Davey and South Coast tracks can arrange food drops and return ﬂights from Melaleuca (see Access, page XXX).
Fishing and boating
Lakes Pedder and Gordon are renowned trout ﬁshing and boating locations and are open all year. Launching ramps for Lake Pedder are at Tea Tree Cove, Scotts Peak Dam, McPartlans Pass canal and, popular with anglers, Edgar Dam and Teds Beach. To access Lake Gordon there is a ramp just past the Serpentine Dam turn-off. A ﬁshing licence is required to ﬁsh inland waters and bag and size limits apply; visit www.ifs.tas.gov.au for information. Sea ﬁshing is popular at Cockle Creek but if you are after abalone or crayﬁsh a licence is necessary.
Around lakes Pedder and Gordon there are numerous picnic areas. Wedge River, at the southern extremity of Lake Gordon, has facilities in a dramatic mountain location beside the river. Huon campground, at the end of Scotts Peak Road, offers secluded picnic spots in the forest. At Cockle Creek there are no specially developed areas with facilities but plenty of lovely places to have a picnic lunch.
In the north, Gordon River and Scotts Peak roads lead through dense rainforests of myrtle and sassafras, with wildﬂowers such as wattle and waratahs in spring. Stop at some of the lookouts, where great views reveal the area’s scenic grandeur. Gordon River Road is sealed all the way but is steep, winding and subject to snow and ice. It culminates in a heart-stopping view from the top of the Gordon Dam. Scotts Peak Road is unsealed and also subject to snow and ice. In the south-east, the ﬁnal half-hour of the drive into Cockle Creek has lovely views of Recherche Bay.
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