Exploring Tasmania's wild southwest
I’ve been lucky enough to photograph many interesting natural locations around the world - the Swiss Alps, Nevada, Japan, Poland, and the Australian desert. I’ve also captured a ton of urban cityscapes in my time. But what struck me the most about photographing Southwest Tasmania with the team from On Board is that it felt completely unique. So unique that you almost feel like you are on another planet.
I experienced a place with a sense of untouched solitude – peppered by grand landscapes that leave you feeling dwarfed in wild wilderness. Rocky coastlines, rolling button grass hills, and crystalline quartzite ridges are a reminder that this is a place that few get to experience, let alone photograph.
It’s a giant unforgiving landscape that genuinely reminds you that you are in the middle of nowhere – and this is all part of its unique charm.
In preparation for this photography-optimised trip, I had been watching the SBS TV series Alone, where survivalists are dropped into the wilds of Tasmania and then tasked with seeing who can last the longest living off the land.
It was probably no surprise then that on the one-hour plane ride from Hobart to Port Davey my imagination soon spun out the scenario where the plane crashed, and I had to somehow eke my way back to civilisation.
Luckily, there was plenty to distract. Our transport was a old De Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, a slow-moving plane that makes you feel like you’re in a vintage car sailing through the air.
Beneath us, the remote and wild Eastern Arthur Range, made famous by celebrated Tasmanian landscape photographer Peter Dombrovskis, peaked in and out of the clouds, revealing a rare view of Hanging Lake near Federation Peak.
Before I knew it, we’d dipped down, performed a silky-smooth landing, and were picked up in a small tinny by the owner and captain of our vessel, the beautiful and palatial Odalisque III.
The Captain, Pieter van der Woude, is a fascinating, sturdy character whose previous careers included policeman, search and rescue, and an abalone diver, before his love of nature and the area inspired him to offer these magical trips.
Our trip over the next four days would take us around the remote Port Davey region, exploring this stunning environment that’s all but inaccessible.
Tasmania's Southwest is beautiful, pristine, rugged, and remote. And, as it is only accessible by a long boat ride, small plane, or four-to-five-day hike – it’s also rare to see another soul outside your immediate party. In fact, if you are completely silent you could just about hear a pin drop – you really are on your own.
The craggy cliffs, wild ocean, waves, and untouched wilderness provide a stunning backdrop for photography.
This remarkable trip is only offered once-a-season in April and we were blessed with largely clear weather and 15–20-degree days – perfect for short hikes, and yet cold enough at night at around 10 degrees to feel cosy and snug when you got back on board in the evening.
I’m no camping fan, and so was relieved that staying on board the Odalisque III was more akin to wilderness glamping than anything involving a tent, sleeping bags and uncomfortable camp stretchers.
With your own bedroom which includes a very civilised bathroom and a hot shower, it’s fair to say you won’t be roughing it, and the experience is all very boutique - apart from just six double rooms onboard, there is also a dining area and lounge room for socialising.
The days onboard followed a similar pattern. We’d start each day with a morning shoot to capture the early light or daybreak; followed by a hot delicious breakfast at 7:30am.
Then, we’d set off on a mid-morning to lunch adventure – which may or may not include lunch, either on location or back on the boat.
This would lead into a mid to late afternoon adventure which might see you doing a small hike up a hill, walking along a beach, exploring a rainforest, or taking a tinny to discover little coves and islets or abandoned settlements.
At the end of each day, we’d go through images on an iMac before or after a sumptuous dinner, and on the final evening we did a group slideshow of images on a large TV monitor.
Sights for sore eyes
The Southwest is famous for its unique flora of both national and international significance. Six broad ecosystem groups can be found here, and you’ll likely explore them all: rainforest; sclerophyll communities (think forests, woodlands, and scrub); alpine and subalpine areas; button grass moorland; and finally coastal areas and wetlands.
Interestingly, much of the water is stained a deep red-brown colour due to tannin leached from button grass and heathland. This adds another interesting element to any photos with water in them.
On land, the scrubby ankle to shin high bushland found almost everywhere is passable, but in most cases it’s easier to follow the established tracks that wind up mountains, hills, and small gullies rather than make your own tracks.
I can imagine Macro photographers would find much to explore in the textures, colours, and shapes of this diverse environment, so if you have a macro lens, pack it.
Surprisingly, wildlife is scarce, but present. Rare birds in the area include orange-bellied parrots and Tasmanian Azure kingfishers, while sightings of short-tailed shearwaters, little penguins, pacific gulls, black-faced cormorants, sooty oystercatchers, black swans, and the majestic white-bellied sea eagle are all possible.
Other land-based animals you can expect to see include wallabies, wombats, rabbits (abandoned on a small islet by French sailors) and dolphins, although sightings depend on the season and weather.
If you’re a birder, I recommend taking a 100-400mm or 100-500mm lens. Just remember that photographing birds can be challenging as you might want to use a slower shutter speed (1/125s) at a lower ISO to capture perched birds, but you will need a shutter speed of over 1/2000s to capture them as they take-off or are in flight.
The Port Davey area was the homeland of the Ninene people for around 35,000 years. Today, little can be seen of their existence, although visiting Melaleuca and Stephens Beach reveals what would have been settlement areas.
On the far end of Stephens Beach, you’ll find remnants of multiple large shell middens close to a clear water brook. You can only begin to imagine the beautiful paradise that was.
The area was prospected for tin, logging, and fur trapping during the early 19th Century, and it also was used as a refuge for whaling ships who needed to replenish their stores.
Today, the area of Port Davey is not populated, but the family of a deceased tin miner called Deny King still reside at Melaleuca and you can visit their residences near the disused mining facility and explore their abandoned (but maintained) garden home by the water. Deny has a well-documented life in the area and is worth a further look if interested.
Each team member brought their individual skills for a memorable trip. Peter Marmion, also known as ‘Wiki Pete’ due to his profound encyclopaedic knowledge of the area, is a great guide and champion storyteller. I suggest you request to hear his mushroom story if you’re lucky enough to travel with him.
Another team member of note is Jimmy Emms, a very talented land and seascape photographer. He is well versed with the lay of the land and the times and places to go to get brilliant shots.
Jimmy not only assisted the more novice photographers with shooting tips during the day, but at night helped them download, edit, and grade images to get the most out of their RAW files.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, greeting you on board is five-star chef Courtney Drew, who sources all the best local Tasmanian produce including wines, whiskeys, and beers.
Until now, Tasmania’s wild southwest has been a location few ever got to experience, and even fewer photographers for that matter.
Instead of heading overseas, don’t forget that we have many incredibly photogenic world-beating locations only a short plane ride away.
If you’re keen to explore a place that’s off the beaten track while also having many creature comforts to enjoy as well, you’ll love visiting this remarkable place.
Tim Levy travelled to Tasmania courtesy of On Board. ❂