Cockle Creek to the West Coast of Tasmania

Cockle Creek in Recherché Bay is remote. It’s the most southerly point you can drive to in Australia. It’s below the 43rd parallel of latitude in the direct path of the roaring forties. It is closer to Antarctica than Cairns. The next land mass to the west is South America, and to the east New Zealand.  It sounded to me like a good spot for a swim.

Our overnight accommodation on our way south from the Bay of Fires to Cockle Creek was at the very comfortable Wave Station near Middleton. It faces Bruny Island, over the interesting waters of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. The few shacks at Cockle Creek are in a quite different architectural style.

Wave Station

Cockle Creek and Recherche Bay

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Because gales continued to lash the state as we headed south, once we got off the bitumen we came across a lot of fallen trees on the road.  Someone with a chain saw had already cut access through most by the time we arrived, but we had to pull a few off the road ourselves.

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On a point in Recherche Bay is this (life-size) statue of a 3 month old southern right whale, by sculptor Steven Walker. It’s a sad reminder that this species was hunted to the brink of extinction from the earliest days of settlement in Australia. Recherche Bay featured prominently in the whale industry in Tasmania in the 1800s.  Yet the sculpture is also a powerful reminder of the living and breeding southern right whale, said to be increasing in numbers in some areas.  It remains an endangered species, but there is reason for some optimism that in the right place at the right time these remarkable creatures will be visible in good numbers from our shores, perhaps for generations to come. It must not be forgotten that such was the decimation of this species in the height of the whale hunting industry, that the number of southern right whales said to be in the southern hemisphere now is only around 12,000. A soberingly small figure compared with the estimated 100,000 that swam free prior to the years of slaughter.
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I settled for a 500m out and back swim at Cockle Creek. I measured the water temp at 11°C. The air temp was around 8°C, with wind chill taking it well below that. There was a reasonably solid left to right current in the water shown in this picture. A welcoming committee of sea birds (silver gulls or cormorants) was waiting for me just offshore. They were placid and remained so. Agitated birds diving and squabbling over a small area offshore is a sign to consider the whole situation carefully before proceeding.  11°C water is not much different to the 12/13C temps at my home beach at Apollo Bay in winter. But the remote and historic features of this location were  different, as was the fact that I really knew nothing about the behaviour of this water or the creatures in it. It felt like a very wild and remote part of the ocean for a solo swim. That’s why I swam there.
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Completing the 500m into a head current.
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Imposing and compelling from any angle.
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The entire coast in this area consists of deep and wide sounds like this one. It is little wonder that those on the first sailing ships to find this area were so pleased to find refuge in these protected and roomy anchorages.

Across the western mountains to the west coast

We drove from Cockle Creek to Strahan on the west coast via Queenstown and Derwent Bridge, with an overnight in Huonville en route. There is a 90km stretch of the Lyell Highway from Derwent Bridge to Queenstown which crosses some high country. It is regularly snowed-in during winter, and icy roads are common. But we crossed the pass with no problem, finding only roadside remains of snow clearing activities last weekend. There was snow on the highest of the surrounding peaks.

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Queenstown’s gravel football oval

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Queenstown is a tough mining town. The wood-fired machinery used here in the early days resulted in all visible nearby hills having been scoured of forest, including cool temperate rainforest trees, as the mine grew and the demand for wood grew with it. It is an ugly landscape. I met an old local in a cafe in the main street while passing through, and he suggested I visit the town’s footy oval. It was worth a visit – it’s gravel, and always has been. The explanation given is that the high rainfall has always made it impossible to grow grass here. Apparently visiting teams feared the games on this oval against the tough mining stock that pulled a jumper on for the weekend game for one of the 9 teams the town boasted in its heyday. Apparently taking a fall in a manner which minimised skin loss was and remains to this day a taught skill for players who put in four quarters on this ground. The gravel rash carnage doesn’t bear thinking about. Has Aussie Rules on the mainland got a bit soft?

Arthur River

The Arthur River flows into the Southern Ocean at the small settlement of that name. This settlement is on the lonely north-west coast of Tasmania. It faces due west and gets the full brunt of the roaring forties sweeping in from the Southern Ocean. There was a near gale blowing when we arrived.

The Arthur River flows to the sea from deep in the heart of the Tarkine temperate rainforest which is the largest temperate rainforest in Australia (over 400,000 hectares of virgin wilderness) and the second largest in the world. Fallen trees from this forest which find their way into the river, make the distance to the estuary. The result is logs on the beaches, the river shores, the rocky reefs and most alarmingly for boats and swimmers, in the sea. It would be a whole new level of risk to see a 60 foot log dropping in on you on a wave. I imagine that in heavy seas, timber of this size could sink or capsize a small boat in an instant. It could certainly ruin a good body surf.

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The locals call this headland the edge of the world.
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There must be a lot of timber in the area for driftwood of this quantity and quality to remain on the beaches and not end up in fireplaces.
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Near gale force winds were producing seas like this out from the Arthur River mouth. The brown water in the foreground is discolouration from the river water rich in vegetative matter flowing into the sea to the right of frame. I had the wetsuit and swimming goggles on board, but decided this was sufficiently different from the Bay of Fires and Cockle Creek to refuse to add Arthur River to my list of interesting places at which to have an ocean swim.  Swimming in this water would’ve been too interesting, but not for very long. To look at the 6-7 lines of breaking or broken waves and contemplate the prospects of success of swimming from the shore to ‘out the back’ is a frightening prospect. Equally, to contemplate having survived your boat sinking beyond the breaking waves, and to be treading water out the back contemplating the best way to get to shore, could surely only yield one answer, helicopter winch rescue.
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This impressive nautical hazard stands squarely and defiantly right in the middle of the ‘entrance’ to the river. I use the word ‘entrance’ with care, because to be named such it would need to have had at least one boat successfully enter the river from the sea, on purpose (not as a floating wreck).  Otherwise, it simply remains an estuary. I guess this rock has been pounded by the sea in this manner for millennia, and that one day, it will eventually yield. But not any time soon.

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Marrawah on the north west coast of Tasmania

Marrawah is a small farming centre 17kms north of Arthur River, located near the long curve of Anne Bay. The land is impossibly rich and green, and the green foreground in the photos below is a paddock on a working farm on which our rented cottage was located.

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Ann Bay in stormy onshore conditions.
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Ann Bay. This was the view from our cottage as sunset approached.
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The orange cottage mid-frame is where we spent the night. A perfect little cottage with uninterrupted views to the Southern Ocean and Ann Bay, and to the headlands and points beyond to the north. The wind blew, the sea raged, we stayed cosy and dry. This is a top spot.
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This is the view of Ann Bay which greeted us with the new day.

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The strong winds and big seas had abated and the wind had swung around to the south west. The seas looked a little more manageable from a swimming point of view. But I passed. This is a seriously wild west coast beach, with some swell running and about which I knew nothing.
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There is a lot of effort put into saving the Tasmanian devil from becoming roadkill, not all of it entirely successful it would seem. Further down this road there was a dusk to dawn speed limit of 45kph, which existed for the sole purpose of avoiding hitting a little devil. Sadly, all we saw of this small carnivorous marsupial in 2500kms of driving around Tassie was roadkill after the nightly toll. (See postscript below)

Next stop Cradle Mountain.

 

Postcript: At Cradle Mountain we visited the premises of a breeding program aimed at increasing the numbers of healthy Tasmanian devils in the wild. They also have a breeding program for the spotted quoll, another carnivorous mammal and a direct competitor with the Tasmanian devil in the wild. (These are only iPhone photos, but better than nothing).

7 thoughts on “Cockle Creek to the West Coast of Tasmania

  1. Discretion is of course the better part of valour John, when confronted by those “swimming” conditions. Taunts of soft from the younger generation are water off the veteran’s Blue Seventy. I doubt even Biggles in his old biplane would have enjoyed flying in that weather. Your dramatic photographs of Arthur River and Ann Bay have brought to light a part of Tasmania I’ve never visited. Nobody living down there would answer to the word soft. Same goes for the hardy Queenstown footballers. You could be taught to roll softly, but the fierce contact sport is not always predictable. I reckon the Clubs’ mercurochrome bills would be enormous.
    Ashley calls Tasmania the Road Kill capital of the world. Nowhere I’ve been comes close.

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    1. Not too far south of Arthur River, we drove down a very rough track to a spot signposted as Couta Rocks. There were only half a dozen or so shacks there. We saw a few bearded locals pottering about. Most didn’t even lift their heads as we drove past, and the few that did failed to communicate any sense of welcome. But remarkably, there were two slipways for boats. One had a serviceable looking boat on it. There were also quite a few tinnies on trailers near the shacks. What was remarkable was that at least when we saw it, this little bay with rocks and reefs all over it had big white water breaking across everything. It seemed impossible that there could be any safe passage out to sea through the teeth of these rocks and seas. I suppose the answer was that on this day there was no such passage, but that at times more favourable conditions made it possible. Certainly not a fishing base for the faint hearted.

      I didn’t get the feeling there would be an ocean swimming group convening on the rocks at 9am on weekdays at Couta Rocks, or at any other time.

      The suggestion that I was a bit soft in not swimming with the tree trunks at Arthur River in a gale came from a young man who very early in his ocean swimming career demonstrated that 1.2kms in a straight line race with life saving support everywhere was a bit soft for him. I refer of course to Andrew’s first Lorne Pier to Pub 1.2km ocean swimming race in which he had to be dissuaded by life savers in a rubber duck from going to Aireys Inlet instead of Lorne foreshore and the finishing line. He had turned hard right mid-race and was well established on direct track at the time he was ordered back to head for landfall in the same postcode area as the starting line. His best possible ETA would’ve been well after dark. If I have any of these details wrong, Andrew will correct me.

      I can understand Ashley’s comment about road kill. As my recent postscript to this post tells, we eventually found some living Tasmanian devils in captivity at Cradle Mountain.

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    1. Tassie is indeed a wild place Andrew, especially off the beaten track. I know it was a bit soft not sampling the Arthur River shore-break, especially as there was so much of it, extending 3kms out to sea as it did. But it was the thought of coming across a 50 foot log free surfing in the same location as me in the white water that really put me off.

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    1. Yes, it is a wild place Georgie. I bet that gravel footy oval doesn’t see too many of those knee sliding goal celebrations which appeal to the softer mainland AFL players on wet grass. The ocean along the west coast in bad weather is an intimidating sight – certainly not a sight that turns my mind to swimming.

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