When I arrive in Tasmania, the state is going through one of its periodic environmental squabbles – and given that one fifth of its land area is World Heritage-listed wilderness, there is a lot to squabble about.
On the television screen in my room, Premier Will Hodgman, wearing a hard hat, is welcoming plans for prestige eco-projects in the World Heritage area. Out in the forest, meanwhile, conservationists are mobilising for battle.
I can see both sides of the argument. In 1997, I spent a week on the spidery Overland Track that runs through Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. I arrived at Lake St Clair sweaty and mud-spattered, and probably smelling feral, too.
There, after six days in the pristine wilderness, I was appalled to find gravelled footpaths and interpretative signs all around the lake. Despite attempts at environmental sensitivity, they jarred.
The Father Of Tasmanian Wilderness Tourism
Wind the clock forward almost two decades and I am back on one of those footpaths. In theory, I am on a seven-mile energetic hike to Shadow Lake, but in practice I am dawdling.
Eucalyptus trunks shine silver in the crystalline light of the world’s purest air (the nearest upwind land masses are Patagonia and Antarctica, half a world away) and a heady, resiny freshness pervades the atmosphere: tea-tree scrub. The scratching of dry leaves reveals an echidna, or spiny anteater, bumbling through the bush.
Would I have noticed any of this back in 1997? I doubt it. I was too fixated with chomping up the miles. It’s only after pottering around Pumphouse Point for a few days that I feel close to discovering this landscape.
In the lead up to its opening in early January, in a quiet bay of Lake St Clair, it was the most anticipated wilderness retreat in Tasmania for years.
Two decades in the planning, Pumphouse Point is the pet project of Simon Currant, the father of Tasmanian wilderness tourism, whose pioneering hotels transformed Cradle Mountain and Strahan from unknown backwaters into premier destinations.
Little More Than A Ranger Centre And A Cafe
Is Lake St Clair about to join them? The residual 1997 part of me rather hopes not.
Fifty miles north, on the other side of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair wilderness, Cradle Mountain receives 178,000 visitors a year – a quarter of the state’s total. Lake St Clair receives only a third of that number.
While Cradle Mountain has hotels, shops, car parks, visitor centres and even a gallery, Lake St Clair offers little more than a ranger centre with a café. Its nearest settlement, Derwent Bridge, has a makeshift, frontier air, as if the real Derwent Bridge has yet to be unpacked.
It is one of the great overlooked parts of Tasmania, says artist Greg Duncan – and he should know. Having travelled around the island, he has spent the past 10 years in a tin-roofed shed in Derwent Bridge sculpting a pictorial history of the area in Huon pine.
The Wall is a phenomenal sight; a 110m narrative depicting colonial explorers, pioneer bushmen and the hydroelectricity engineers who came in the thirties.
Lake St Clair is by far the nicer end of the national park, says Duncan. “Cradle is very alpine, very low growth. I like the bigger trees down here – those tall, mixed forests of myrtle and eucalyptus – and the lakes and the mountain ranges peeling into the background. It’s a very beautiful place.”
Colonial settlers certainly thought so. The first European to see Lake St Clair was surveyor George Frankland in 1835. Declaring that aesthetics had no place in his official report, he then wrote about the “extreme beauty” of the place anyway.
“I feel inspired by the first discovery of such romantic country, impressions which revive even in cold narrative,” he explained, by way of an excuse to his superiors.
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Frankland's Astonishment Survives On The Map
Even if his survey was toned down, his astonishment survives on the map: Mount Eros, Mount Hyperion, Mount Geyron, The Labyrinth and The Minotaur.
Stuck for suitably epic names, Frankland turned to myth. He was spot on about the timelessness of this landscape – but it significantly predates Homer and Co. When they were just a glint in history’s eye, glaciers tore the dolerite mountains into ragged cliffs and scooped out Lake St Clair as the deepest lake in Australia.
Inspired by Frankland’s report, others began to visit. State governor Sir John Franklin (later of Northwest Passage fame) described the lake as the most beautiful he had ever seen, and colonial painters such as William Charles Piguenit saw in its 10-mile waters, ancient forests and mist-wreathed bluffs the quintessence of the romantic sublime.
Even today, Tasmanians talk about the place with a sort of pinch-me wonder
Anglers say it offers the best wild trout fishing in the southern hemisphere. Walkers argue that it is home to five of Tasmania’s best day walks, from 20-minute ambles around Platypus Bay to an eight-hour yomp to Mount Rufus through a landscape unchanged since the last ice age.
Talk about conservation down here and your time frame has to stretch 15,000 years.
The Place Needs Us To Stay Still For A While
Only visitors bound by schedules seem oblivious. Located midway between two must-sees of Tasmanian tourism – the buzzy little capital Hobart and Strahan, a village-resort at the edge of the world – Lake St Clair has been relegated by car culture from a destination to a waypoint. Most people pause for lunch, then hurry on.
Yet if wilderness requires anything from us, it is that we stay still for a while. And there are now few stays in Tasmania like Pumphouse Point.
Created from the Art Deco buildings of a hydroelectricity scheme, it sits on stilts above the lake, 300m from the shore. Access is by a slender pier.
Inside, raw Tasmanian oak cladding and wood fires lend a cosy, cabin-like atmosphere. Large windows offer astonishing perspectives on the wilderness outside at every turn. The rooms are lovely, too: simple, yet effortlessly stylish, with a pared-down palette of soft greys, cream, off-black tiles and polished wood that blends with the ever-changing scenery beyond.
But the pier was my favourite. Walk along it and you feel your tether to the world gradually slip until you seem adrift among water and forest and mountains. Pumphouse Point often feels less like a hotel than a boat.
“I want separation,” developer Simon Currant says. “I want people to walk along that pier, not take the electric buggies. I want them to leave their cars behind and never get back into them until they leave.”
I can’t see why they would.
Glimpse Into A World Before Mankind
Delicious, unfussy meals are available. Staff spring forward with hiking maps and mountain bikes, or will rustle up a champion fly fisherman to help you catch supper, or a seaplane to scoop you up from an adjacent bay to land in a remote rainforest that dates from the dawn of time.
My plans are more modest. I intend to catch a hikers’ ferry to the end of the lake, then walk 15km back along the shore.
It’s a chance to revisit a trail from 1997, I reckon.
Instead, victualled daily with a loaf baked in the kitchen and pâtés and cheeses from the larder, I potter: sometimes on trails around the hotel, crossing sandy beaches and wombat-trimmed lawns; sometimes in a dinghy, sculling slowly through reedy bays beside the wild forest.
Occasionally I tell myself I am scanning the shallows for a resident platypus. But I’m not. I’m enjoying genuine peace for what feels like the first time in months.
So, it feels like a minor expedition when, at the end of my trip, I embark on a four-hour, seven-mile hike to Shadow Lake above St Clair’s west shore.
For two hours the trail ascends through eucalyptus forest. Then it crests a lip and sketches a route across a mustard- coloured moorland to the lake.
Like a highlands cirque in bright tropical colours, it is achingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful. Ridges stack up beyond the heather and snow gums. Scarlet waratah flowers pop beneath a flawless blue sky and the lake shores are fringed with pencil pine, a scruffy first-draft proto-pine that barely survives outside the national park.
It seems a glimpse of a world before mankind.
It isn’t the trail-chomping me of 1997 who has discovered this, but the one who spent slow days in one place. If that’s what prestige wilderness retreats mean to Premier Hodgman, then count me in.
Tasmania's other great wilderness retreats
Mountain Valley Retreats
Log cabins in a conservation reserve hidden in a lost valley an hour from Cradle Mountain (but without the tourists or price tags). The owner introduces the neighbours – wild Tasmanian devils, quolls, possums and platypus – on free evening safaris.
For spectacular coast, a carnival of wildlife (including Australia’s only white wallabies) and a burgeoning food scene, stay on Bruny Island in the four-star cottages of Tasmania’s leading birder, biologist Dr Tonia Cochran. Hobart is an hour away.
Huon Bush Retreats
Comfortable solar-powered cabins with outside baths deep in the forest of the Huon Valley, yet only 45 minutes from Hobart, plus tepees for the adventurous, all on the family-friendly reserve of a campaigning conservationist.
Southwest Wilderness Camp
The ultimate wilderness escape, deep in the Southwest National Park. Transfers to this exclusive five-cabin camp by seaplane and boat are trips in themselves. But you’re here for Tasmania’s remotest World Heritage area: next stop Patagonia.
It won the “best in the world” category in the Boutique Hotel Awards last year, so this multi-award-winning luxury property stretches the concept of the wilderness retreat. Yet for all its glossy style, the focus remains the sensational Freycinet National Park.
This article was written by James Stewart from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.