The road twists and turns through a stark landscape. The drive between Gormanston, a mining town built for the Mount Lyall Mining and Railway Company, and Queenstown Tasmania is narrow and winding. Yet, the spiral through barren landscape is the most memorable part of our driving journey through Tasmania’s Western Wilderness.
Compared to the east coast, Tasmania’s west coast is wild.
There are long stretches between towns and in some places, such as between Southwest National Park and the Western Wilderness, there are no roads at all.
From Hobart, it takes about five hours driving to Strahan.
As we drive away from the city and towards the bush, it feels like we’re embarking on a journey of discovery. Fortunately, the road trip offers plenty to see and do along the way.
The pub at Derwent Bridge (population 15) serves decent meals in a cosy atmosphere and a cruise on Lake St Clair, Australia’s deepest freshwater lake, offers stunning views of glacier-carved peaks and forests.
Also at Derwent Bridge is the Wall in the Wilderness, a project of talented self-taught sculptor Greg Duncan, who is carving the history of the Tasmanian Highlands in wood panels of breathtaking scale.
When finished, the sculpted wall will stretch the length of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Queenstown Tasmania is a colourful mining town with 19th-century pubs and a brightly painted post office.
From Queenstown, board the Western Wilderness Railway, which is a 35km journey on the restored Mount Lyell Mine railway, to Strahan through thick rainforest.
Vistas of river gorges and across high trestle bridges and dense rainforest make the journey worth considering.
On the west coast, Strahan’s waterfront village has a Disney-like appeal. Waterfront cottages echo the history of the miners, pine workers and fisherman of the past.
Tours of the Western Wilderness include a cruise on the Gordon River and a ride on the West Coast Wilderness Railway, where the rack and pinion railway steams through dense rainforests and gorges, around tight curves and across spectacular bridge crossings.
You can fly above the wilderness in a seaplane over rivers and forests, and land on the Gordon River.
For those who love wildlife, the Bonnet Island penguin experience should be at the top of the list.
A boat ride from Strahan to the mouth of Macquarie Harbour brings us to the island just before dusk.
The narrow, 120-metre entrance to the enormous Macquarie Harbour, which is about six times the size of Sydney Harbour, was discovered in 1815.
Timber cutters moved in and in 1822, a signal station was erected near Cape Sorell. It was manned by convicts from the nearby Sarah Island penal settlement.
In other places, little penguins like to come ashore in the safety of large numbers. But on Bonnet Island, they sneak home under the cover of night, rocks and dense low-lying shrubs.
Little penguins are also known as fairy penguins or blue penguins and are the world’s smallest penguin species. They grow up to 40 cm tall and weigh around 1 kg.
The only penguin to breed in Australia, the little penguin’s breeding ground extends from Fremantle in Western Australia – across the Great Australian Bight and southern coastline – to the east coast, as far north as Sydney.
The penguins wail like ghosts as they clamber out of the water and waddle onto the island’s rocky shoreline, taking cover beneath the undergrowth as they make their trek uphill.
For human visitors, the experience is a penguin treasure hunt in darkness. With head torches strapped to our heads, we sneak along the paths peering under bushes and behind rocks. Camera flashes and strong lights are not allowed so our guide shines a red-filtered spotlight on the little penguins.
The penguins appear suddenly and scuttle behind bushes as quickly as they appear. A few curious penguins linger for a longer look at the strange human creatures with lights on their heads.
Tasmania Western Wilderness
We hike through the lush sun-drenched landscape of eucalypts, stringy barks, lichens and ferns. Possums, wallabies and Tasmanian devils rustle in the bushes while Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagles and Tasmanian masked owls soar in the sky above.
In Tasmania, masked owls are an endangered species. There are as few as 615 pairs left. They are larger than a barn own and can weigh up to 1.26 kilograms and have a wingspan of up to 129 centimetres.
From Corinna, on the Pieman River, there are several walks including the White River path, which winds towards Whyte River disappearing into a tangle of trees, ferns and bushes.
The Whyte River flows into the Pieman River, a fertile ground for huon pine, which is a highly sought-after long-lasting timber.
A romantic way of experiencing the wilderness is on the Pieman River on board Arcadia II. The historic boat was built in 1939 from huon pine.
Along the Whyte River path is the former site of the Whyte River gold mine, where interpretive story boards tell the story of Corinna’s colourful past.
The discovery of Tasmania’s largest gold nugget, which weighed 7.5kg, in 1883, brought gold miners to the region.
The nugget was found a few kilometres upstream from Corinna. By 1893 sailing ships and steamers were packed with eager prospectors. The town had two hotels, a post office, shops, slaughter yards, homes and a population of around 2500.
Today, the gold-mining centre has vanished and in its place is an isolated wilderness getaway. Corinna Wilderness Retreat has rustic cabins furnished with modern comforts such as queen-sized beds, toilets with hot showers, gas fridges, kitchens and gas heating.
A historic pub from the gold-mining days has been converted into a guest house, where occupants of single and double rooms share kitchen and bathroom facilities. There are a few camp sites as well as room for caravans and motor homes.
Tassie devils are often spotted hanging around the former mining town’s produce store, which is now a communal barbecue area.
The central meeting place is the Tarkine Hotel, which was designed to resemble a traditional Australian homestead. The hotel has a bar, a small store and the Tannin restaurant, which serves modern pub grub prepared with produce sourced from Tasmania.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Tourism Tasmania.
From Hobart, it’s a 2.5-hour drive to Derwent Bridge and four hours to Strahan. Corinna is accessible from both north and south. Tasmania’s Aurora Australis is an amazing sight and worth chasing.
A 4WD is not required. From the south, the Fatman barge crosses the Pieman River. Hours are 9am to 7pm (summer), 9am to 5pm (outside daylight saving).