Awe-inspiring Natural Beauty in Huon Valley
Tasmania’s Huon Valley offers a feast for the senses. In spite of its superlative wine, food and cultural offerings, the ever-changing landscape proves that man can never upstage nature.
It is not the day to go bushwalking. There have been no gale warnings or sheep grazier’s alerts, but the cliffs on this wave-carved island are gauzed in sea mist. Rain sweeps across the boulder-strewn ridges and pelts into the dense glacial valleys that have remained almost untouched since the last ice age.
The Southern Ocean is a ferment along Tasmania’s South Cape Bay. Words spoken are raked away in the Antarctic wind. Water streams down rain-jackets and fills shoes. These are characteristic conditions on the tempestuous South Coast Track.
Intrepid walkers are savouring a few squares of chocolate in a sheltering brace of trees when one hiker steps forward and straight into the low-hanging branch of a twisted tree. She collapses onto knees, clasps skull, silent in agony. It will soon be dark on the pathway that’s fast disappearing under a stream of muddied water and there’s a way to go before reaching the duckboard that winds for kilometres through golden button grass moorlands back to Cockle Creek at the end of Recherche Bay.
Time stops still. Wet. Cold. Alone. Then Tasmania conjures one of its magical moments. A woman materialises from the undergrowth sheathed in a raincoat that looks like a condom pulled over her head. “Can I help?” she offers. “I’m a doctor.”
At the end of the road, where the ancient land of forests slides with one last gasp into the sea, a few words of comfort from a physician brings about rapid revival. It’s a good thing. Nothing between here and the bottom of the world.
“The mountains are the most stupendous works of nature I have ever beheld, and at the same time, the most dismal that can be imagined,” wrote Matthew Flinders, who circumnavigated the island in 1798. “The eye ranges over these peaks and variously formed lumps of adamantine rock with astonishment and horror.”
Horror? No. Awe? Certainly. The remote southern edge of Tasmania is a rugged marvel. And the resilience of nature – in spite of immolation by bushfire last year – is quite literally within finger’s reach along the celebrated Tahune AirWalk (about 30 minutes’ drive from Geeveston).
A 600-metre suspended steel walkway snakes through the giant eucalypt forest and onto a cantilevered platform. It’s a slightly vibrating 50-metre high diving board projecting into the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. And right there, dead centre, the confluence of the mighty Huon and Picton Rivers is a sight so extraordinary, so breathtaking, it’s guaranteed to send a primeval shiver down the spine.
The best adventures on water usually require a boat of some kind. Matt Wardell, from Esperance Adventures, is waiting on the river bank to guide visitors by kayak through the interconnected lagoons, bays, rivers and estuaries that fan outwards from the picturesque fishing port of Dover. There’s a steady breeze from behind and the current is flowing in the right direction on the Lune River. It takes only a few paddle dips for the kayak to take control, gliding between bulrushes and past rustic shacks, into a tannin-stained estuary where black swans take flight in a cacophony of flapping wings. Every so often, there’s a noisy plop, fish back-flipping with silver bellies, mouths open to the pearly beads of rain cast out from clouds above.
Traditional owners of this land – the Lyluequonny people – lived on swans, abalone, mussels and crayfish but Matt has other ideas. He slides into a slip of beach, unearths oven-warmed brownies and pours fresh-brewed coffee, then shoves off again into a sort-of rollicking rapids amusement ride. White peaks lift the kayak up and away, disgorging finally into a briny sea cove, where eagles pinwheel in the sky above the remote town of Southport.
Matt hauls the kayaks into the sandy dunes, then strides down a pathway, straight up into The Jetty House (circa 1876). The owner, Rose Wright, is in the kitchen where the atmosphere is damply pungent with garlic (laid to dry on the timber floor), freshly-baked bread and curried vegetable soup, scooped from a huge pot into bowls. Conversation turns towards the sea and plans to bring a patch of struggling kelp forest back to life by helping to create a kelp nursery at the edge of the Southern Ocean. It’s part of a global effort to cushion coastlines against the effect of sea-level rise; to cleanse water by absorbing excess nutrients and slurp up carbon dioxide; engineering a healthy environment for marine life.
Tasmania’s diverse ecosystem is the star performer on a journey that begins in the Huon Valley where base camp is a gracious homestead perched high on a ridge above the hamlet of Cygnet. Villa Talia is a luxurious domain of finer details (Hermes blankets, Aesop unguents, top Tasmania produce in the fridge) but the outdoor stone bath with a dizzying view that vanishes over range after range of the Hartz Mountains is the real eye-catcher. The outline of a reclining woman – the Sleeping Beauty mountain range – is clearly visible. Far below, the Huon River winds through yachty heaven, shadowy bays flecked by clinking boat masts and gusty breezes in the open channel.
At twilight, when the bath is filled, a wallaby shuffles forwards from the shrubbery, red eyes glinting. There’s a poignant reminder of this wild encounter next morning back down in the valley at the excellent Cygnet Woodfired Bakehouse. Wallaby pie is warming in the oven.
It’s market day at the Cannery – a distinctive building that lolls along the river edge – and Cygnet’s locals are cheerfully dispensing advice on all manner of things. They’re lining up for brews and beans, spiced donuts and crème brulée pie, rhubarb and artichoke, chicken and pork, gin and cider. This is a community living close to the sea and the soil, growers and harvesters, crafters and artists. Everyone wants to lend a hand and share their knowledge, experience, mistakes and triumphs.
Julie Sade is one of these people. She’s an accidental farmer who fell in love with the few acres of land at Ranelagh and now breeds Highland Cattle there. Her farm tours at Highland Getaway share a menagerie of animals with those yearning for the agrarian lifestyle.
“I’ve learnt weird things, like alpacas will bite off each other’s testicles to be dominant,” Julie says. She is holding a plate of oats under Bailey’s snout but the alpaca is disruptive, spitting large globules of saliva at Chanel, a prettier beast, a warning to keep away. This unlikely paddock-to-plate experience continues with the chance to hand-comb a few highland cows. “This one is named Boris after Boris Johnson,” Julie declares. “He’s on Boris Johnson’s Facebook page now.”
Bovine infamy is one of many delights to be shared in the Huon Valley. There’s a new art and wine trail enticing visitors into the studios of ceramicists and painters (including Glover Prize finalist Henrietta Manning), cellar doors (Kate Hill Wines and Home Hill Winery) and wood-turning workshops (Phoenix Creations).
Tasmanian-born David Rauenbusch is a furniture-maker who started using offcuts to make wooden spoons because his wife had none. Now his delicately functional creations are sent to all corners of the globe from a studio in Cygnet that comes out of the pages of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. “Everyone cooks, everyone eats,” David says, whittling away at a piece of pear wood that looks ‘just right’. “A well-used wooden spoon is a lovely thing.”
The passion for timber is shared by Ross Patston-Gill, a master wood turner working the lathe for 30 years, found in a workshop at the back of Geeveston Town Hall Visitor Centre. The man is built like a tree. Tall. His creative expression goes all the way down to his roots and he’s about to divulge one of his secrets.
“It’s like this,” he whispers. “You’ve just walked into a ballroom and there’s a bloke in the corner that catches your eye. Something draws you closer. You can see the cut of his clothes and the contours of his face. Get closer, see the colour of his eyes, and maybe his smile lines. Eventually you’re so close you can touch and smell – all the senses are working – but you have to have the visual lust first. And that good lookin’ fella in the middle of the room? He’s right there!” Ross is pointing at sleeping beauty in a glass case – an exquisitely carved piece of black-hearted sassafras – priced at $1650.
“If you don’t lust after that, really ache for it, I don’t want you to have it,” he resolves. “I’m hoping some of my pieces will last for as long as the tree stood so that’s hundreds, even thousands, of years. I want them to be something your grandchildren will fight over when your children die.”
Devotion isn’t always expressed in this way but it’s scattered like fallen fruit throughout the Huon. The region was once so prolific in apples that it gave Tasmania the name of The Apple Isle. The tradition endures in Willie Smith’s old packing shed at Grove, with the fourth generation of apple growers making cider and apple brandy. The empire that started with Charles Oates being sent to the colony in 1844 to serve a sentence for sheep theft now showcases the best of southern Tasmanian produce at The Shed cafe and, of particular note in this pilgrimage, a sharply sweet apple pie with Van Diemen’s vanilla bean ice-cream.
Tasmanian cuisine has come a long way from being born of convict stock and raised on a diet heavily influenced by Britain. The Huon makes extraordinarily good use of the cool climate and fertile soil and the rewards of being widely regarded as a gourmet paradise are there for all to enjoy.
Tasmanians are still mostly simple eaters and that’s been an unexpected drawcard for the Farmhouse Kitchen cooking classes at Willow Bend Farm in Wattle Grove, where food lovers are taken on an authentic culinary journey through Puglia in southern Italy.
The style of cooking for Giuliana White and her daughter, Genevieve, is characterised by the use of whatever is available in the kitchen, or on the farm, turning simple ingredients into culinary magic using age old recipes handed down through generations. Of course, the best part of a masterclass in pasta making comes with the eating, and there’s little to beat the buzz of apprentice chefs sharing a platter of just-made gnocchi con sugo di pomodoro with a glass of Tasmanian Pinot Noir. Saluti!
At the last sip, the weather suddenly turns inclement, and it’s time to go further down the road. Fair Winds is a house blessed by magnificent Huon River frontage at Brooks Bay. Glass doors open to every forest and river aspect. There’s a leap of firebox flames to get cosy or combat chilled bones, all mod cons in a designer kitchen, a private beach and a hot tub under the stars. It’s a luxurious viewing platform enfolded by nature. And it proves irrefutably, no matter what the weather, there is always a rainbow in the next bay.
Story and photography by Anabel Dean