Wild West

Ocean Beach, West Coast, Tasmania

Camping trips were a regular feature of my childhood, our family bundling into the Landy to drive all day to a distant site by some deserted Tasmanian beach. My first memories are of camping, and my first photographs feature camping trips to Tasmania’s northeast and far south. But the place I associate most with those endless summers is the West Coast.

Tassie’s West Coast is strung with beaches and sand-dunes, created by the relentless ocean waves and winds of the Roaring Forties. The best were in the area now known as the Tarkine, where the Pieman River reaches the sea. We would drive out along abandoned railway tracks and over the sand-dunes to Granville Harbour, pitching tent on a grassy spot behind the dunes. My brother and I would spend all day playing by the tea-coloured waters of creeks flowing into the sea, or exploring ancient middens. On hot January days we would gather in the middle of the day in Mum and Dad’s big old cloth tent and play canasta, as mosquitos and sandflies buzzed around outside. At night, the distant roar of the waves would lull us to sleep.

On our last camping trip out west, we took our cat, still barely a kitten, and walked her around the dunes on a leash. She spent the drive over attempting to chew her way out of her cardboard carry-case, her wild-eyed face squeezing out of the holes.

The landmarks punctuating the drive out west were familiar friends. From Hobart, it started gently, through upriver New Norfolk and the midlands towns of Hamilton and Ouse (pronounced Ooze). Next we would pass Tarraleah, where Hydro infrastructure ran along and under the road, feeding the twin power stations of Tarraleah and Tungatinah. Next were Derwent Bridge and Lake St Clair, where I once fed wallabies as a kid while staying there in a cabin, and later went on a school camp at the end of high school. After Derwent Bridge, the Lyell Highway runs past mountains and through rainforest for 90km, until it reaches the scarred landscape of Queenstown, where mining in the 19th and 20th centuries reduced the surrounding hills to something like the surface of Mars. (People usually called it a moonscape, but the Moon isn’t orange.) From there, we would head north to Zeehan (pronounced Zeeyun), another mining town, until joining the dirt tracks to the beach.

After our last West Coast camping trip in the early 1980s, I didn’t get out west for a decade, but when J. visited Tasmania with me for the first time in 1993, we travelled over there with my parents. That drive had a new sight, Lake Burbury, one of the two last hydro-electric schemes completed in Tasmania in the early 1990s after the attempt to dam the Gordon and Franklin Rivers in the 1980s was blocked on environmental grounds. On that trip we headed to Strahan (rhymes with dawn), a town I didn’t know as well as Queenstown and Zeehan, and took one of the new cruises on the Gordon River that were taking advantage of the eco-tourism trend emerging in the wake of those 1980s environmental battles. The still waters of the lower Gordon are a black mirror of peat tannins, reflecting pristine rainforest on either bank. The cruise boat moved upriver slowly so that its wake did minimal damage to the riverbanks, and at one point stopped so that we could do a loop walk through the forest. [Edit, April 2023: My memory failed me here. Our trip up the Gordon was on a later visit in 1999.]

On that visit we also saw the Henty Dunes, where as a small child I had once run gleefully all the way to the sea and then collapsed, exhausted, meaning that Dad had to carry me all the way back. The dunes stretch for miles, and extend back from the coast for what looks like miles as well. Near the end of the day, the wind was picking up the sand and spraying us with it, so I don’t think we stayed for long.

We drove back to Huonville the same day. Even though it was summer, it was dark by the time we left Queenstown, and on the drive east we disturbed animal after animal in our car headlights, including the biggest wombat I’d ever seen, strolling casually across the road, until eventually we met a car coming the other way and afterwards saw no more animals.

That was twenty-five years ago. Half my lifetime ago.


In July, on my sixth trip home in the space of four years, I was keen to get back over there, and show the kids some of what I grew up with. It was winter, so we couldn’t go camping—and we couldn’t have anyway, not in the same way—but we were able to spend a couple of nights in Strahan and see some of the sights nearby and on the way there and back.

Forty years ago doing this trip in mid-winter would have risked being cut off by snow, but climate change has made that less likely today, although we saw some patchy snow on the mountains. Lake St Clair was foggy and drizzly, but by the time we reached the mountains around Frenchmans Cap in the late afternoon the skies were clearing. On the drive through the forest en route, we spotted a Tiger quoll beside the road, the first I’d ever seen in the wild; its size and its spotted tail confirmed that it wasn’t the more common Eastern quoll. I was driving at the time, so had no chance of taking a photo before it had run into the bush.

We reached Queenstown at dusk, and Strahan after dark, staying at a place near one of its tourist attractions, the West Coast Railway. Although we watched the train prepare to take some people out on our last morning there, we didn’t take the trip ourselves, as trains are less exotic for my kids than they were to me as a Tasmanian kid. I’d vaguely thought about taking the kids on one of the cruises that J. and I did in the 1990s, but they’re priced at a premium nowadays, with a fancy lunch served on-board to help justify it, and I didn’t know if they’d get as much out of being on a boat for half a day as an adult would.

Instead, in the morning we went on a short rainforest walk within Strahan itself, along a creek to Hogarth Falls, before heading north, along the Henty Road to Zeehan. Zeehan in mid-winter was near-deserted: if it weren’t for the imposing Victorian-era buildings in the town centre, which look well-kept, you could have thought it a ghost town. The entry fee to its main attraction, the West Coast Heritage Centre, was a bit steep for a quick visit, so we headed back towards Strahan to visit Henty Dunes, stopping by Henty River along the way to take some black-mirror photos in lieu of the Gordon cruise.

The dunes were more vegetated than I remembered, and my parents thought so too, but they still stretch a long way—so far that we didn’t bother going all the way to the water. Instead, after the kids had spent an hour jumping off small dunes, we drove on to Ocean Beach near Strahan. Here the waves are relentless, with nothing stopping them between the beach and South America. We spent another hour watching the waves, the seagulls, the foam on the sand and the sun on the horizon.

Ocean and Sand

Remembering my Dad’s story of finding a log of Huon Pine on Ocean Beach years ago, which he took back home and worked for years, I rescued a driftwood stump from the sand that looked vaguely golden, in the hope that I could repeat the trick; most Huon Pine comes out of nearby Macquarie Harbour. But after it had dried out a little overnight, it was clearly Tassie Oak, a eucalypt hardwood. Cutting off a sliver gave none of Huon’s characteristic smell.

With the sun going fast, we drove back towards Strahan and then out to Macquarie Heads, where the road ends on the wide flat beach on the north side of the narrow inlet where the sea flows into the vast Macquarie Harbour. There are a few houses on the other side of the inlet, with no road access that I know of; presumably they service the two lighthouses at the Heads.

West Coast

After packing up the next morning we drove back to Queenstown, for a proper look around it. It was a little busier than Zeehan, at least, though still pretty quiet. It also has its own museum, the Galley Museum, full of ramshackle displays of local history and what look like the town residents’ cast-off collections and relics: a room full of lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners; someone’s collection of hotel and restaurant matchbooks, like one I used to have in the early 1980s; shop mannekins wearing miners’ gear and school uniforms; photos of champion racing pigeons of the 1970s.

On the road out of town, we stopped and looked back at the scarred landscape, now less scarred than in my childhood. The vegetation is gradually returning, and the locals, who at one point tried clearing it away to maintain the town’s distinctive appearance, now seem to be letting it.

Back along the Lyell Highway, we stopped briefly by Lake Burbury for some photos, spotted another Tiger quoll by the road, and did two more rainforest walks: one to Nelson Falls, Tasmania’s most picturesque waterfall, and another along a section of the Franklin River, the state’s most famous wild river. Both were opportunities for countless photos of moss, tree-ferns and macro closeups of Nothofagus leaves.

Wild Rivers

I don’t know when I’ll next be back out west; I hope it doesn’t take me another 25 years to get there. But in the meantime, these photo galleries will take me back.

9 October 2019 · Travel