Is this Tasmania's most epic hiking adventure?

Explore Southwest National Park, climb to the top of Mount Eliza, kayak on Lake Pedder – Tasmania’s rugged Wilderness World Heritage Area is perfect for adventure travellers who want to challenge themselves and experience nature at its most glorious.

  • Elspeth Callender
  • December 2018

The wind and approaching storm whip everyone into a competitive frenzy and we race each other towards the beach, four yellow kayaks cutting through the lake-top chop. The clear sky we’d launched under that morning is obscured now by low fast-moving clouds. An expanding grey film right behind the cloud is the torrential rain catching up. Dead ahead, on an island of green scrub with a long strip of pale sand, is an erected blue tarp we’re all aiming for.

Tasmania’s south-west is a wild and moody corner of the state. It’s a place of button grass plains, rocky peaks, scree slopes, vast stands of tea-tree and eucalypt, cool temperate rainforest and tannin-dark waterways with a coastline of lichened boulders and bull kelp. A landscape formed by an extreme climate supporting life adapted to forceful weather. Aboriginal people lived and thrived here for tens of thousands of years before Europeans arrived and deemed the environment too unhospitable.

Rest your legs while kayaking in Lake Pedder
Rest your legs while kayaking in Lake Pedder.

Our kayaks slide up the sand and everyone wiggles out and ducks under the tarp as it starts to pour. There are three guides, plus two solo travellers, a couple in their 60s and me. One guide had gone on ahead earlier to prepare this shelter, boil the billy and spread out lunch. Before I’ve finished my second smoked salmon wrap the tarp is a sunshade. Those of us who reside in Tasmania, where sunshine equals ideal swimming conditions, semi-strip and take a dip in Lake Pedder.

This is the second day of a four-day guided hiking and kayaking experience with one of Tasmania’s newest high-end wilderness adventure companies: award-winning Wild Pedder opens in new window. The itinerary entails kayaking, hiking and walking within two national parks. Mount Field, established in 1916, is one of Tasmania’s oldest. Southwest National Park, at 6183 square-kilometres is the state’s largest and makes up part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

The number of Australians who bushwalk occasionally and regularly has significantly increased during this decade – from 15.6 percent in 2010 to 27.3 percent in 2015 – and consequently more Australians are seeking eco-tourism holiday experiences. Tasmania’s magnificent natural environment has been gaining greater domestic and international attention: from July 2009 to June 2010 a total of 409,000 holidaymakers visited the island, while the year ending June 2018 saw 645,400. That, in turn, has encouraged more locally owned and operated outdoor adventure company start-ups like the one I’m currently working up a sweat on.

Wild Pedder is the creation of Cody McCracken and Lou Balcombe. Lou was born and raised in Tasmania, while Cody, like me, moved here by choice as an adult. They became friends while guiding in Tasmania and, for now at least, guide all Wild Pedder trips.

Both are tall, capable, knowledgeable thirty-somethings with the overdeveloped anterior thigh muscles of 1980s Action Man figurines. They wear matching black short-shorts Cody insists sit at regulation guiding-standard distance from the top of their gaiters. He has a broad grin and strategic mind and uses words like refugia, floristic, foliated and Gondwana. Lou is a quieter, more contemplative type. Together they created Wild Pedder because they “honestly love sharing the beauty of Tasmania’s wild places with anyone who will let us,” explains Cody.

Growling Swallet-Junee Cave's spooky entrance
Growling Swallet-Junee Cave's spooky entrance.

The previous day, after a dawn pick-up from Hobart, the eight of us hiked Mount Field’s 15-kilometre Twisted Lakes and Tarn Shelf circuit carrying daypacks. Up in the alpine heathland, the blue sky, cloud puffs and bleached trunks of 300-year-old pencil pines were mirrored in every lake. The group picnicked among orange-coloured boulders and rested inside the cool core of historic Twilight Tarn Hut. That evening we ate well and then slept comfortably overnight at our lodge opens in new window accommodation in Strathgordon.

Today’s sudden shift in weather means we don’t cover all 16 kilometres of paddling planned. This unharnessed energy of the south-west is a large part of the reason why Cody and Lou chose it as their professional playground. They love the ruggedness, its diverse environments, the layers of history. Lou says it “truly is the path less trodden”. For Cody, the area – being such a significant global wilderness – speaks for itself. And, although seemingly remote, the parts of the south-west we’re exploring with Wild Pedder aren’t all that far from Hobart.

When I moved to Tasmania a decade ago I drove the roads that skirt and vaguely penetrate Southwest National Park in an attempt to get to know the place I’d been magnetically drawn to. But this approach never seemed to bring us closer. Adventure touring in Tassie, I’ve since discovered, can lead to climbing a scree slope in falling snow, hiking a narrow trail in the dark, trekking a rainforest in a downpour – now some of my favourite memories of a place I call home.

Conquer Mount Eliza above Lake Pedder
Conquer Mount Eliza above Lake Pedder.

We’re back on our feet again the following day for an 11-kilometre return hike to the top of Mount Eliza in Southwest National Park. On the ascent a trackside echidna foraging for insects either doesn’t notice or care that we’re passing. Pedder is visible all day and despite its youthfulness – the original Lake Pedder was flooded in 1972 as part of the Gordon River hydroelectric scheme – it appears positively prehistoric when overlooked. On a trail graded as hard by Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, this is our most physically demanding day. But there are no complaints and all but one guest and a guide carry on above the tree line to scramble the last section up to an intermittently misty summit of scattered boulders and colourful cushion plants. Day four is a walk in the park; we’ve come full circle back to Mount Field and enter the Florentine Valley via a logging road. It’s a sombre start on a flat peaty path winding between car-sized stumps and mossy horizontal trunks. Then, like magic, we’re beneath a canopy of orange-scented sassafras, huge burly myrtles, centuries-old tree ferns and gigantic Eucalyptus regnans – the world’s tallest flowering plant.

Taking a breather along the trail.
Taking a breather along the trail.

“Being adventurous really is the way to get connected to an area,” says Lou, over our rainforest picnic. He talks about how much he loves being immersed in cloud “as it dances off a mountain crag” and kayaking through a flash hailstorm when “the water appears to be boiling all around”. He calls them extraordinary moments. But soon I’m only half listening to the group’s conversation – my mind has returned to our paddling race towards the beach, the bracing swim afterwards and the afternoon paddle to the lodge with a mildly threatening yet glorious breeze at our backs.

Where to eat and stay