We had been thinking we should see the Dismal Swamp – for the name alone – but weren't sure where it was. A slight detour off the Highway to Smithton's tourist information office put us straight: happily, it was on the way to the Edge of the World.
Dismal Swamp is described as a natural blackwood forest sinkhole, and is claimed to be the only one of its kind in the world. A sinkhole is a natural depression in the earth's surface formed by the chemical dissolving of carbonate bedrock, in this case dolomite. Forty metres deep, it has formed over thousands of years and supports 600 hectares of unique forest habitat. Blackwood is the tallest of the Wattles, and there are also Myrtle, Tea Tree, Tasmanian Tree Ferns and other ferns. From the rim of the sinkhole you can clearly see the sunken forest top below the surrounding vegetation.
You can get down to the forest floor by hurling yourself down 110 metres of enclosed slide. Not surprisingly, this creates a certain amount of noise as sliders scream and giggle their way down. I chose to walk sedately down a winding path, but then I'm just an old stick-in-the-swamp.
Once down, it is anything but dismal. Labyrinthine paths wend their way through beautifully backlit ferns and Tasmanian artists' installations inspired by swamp world. Inhabitants include pademelons, burrowing crayfish*, quolls, parrots, wrens and robins.
Blackwood was logged from the 1930s until the 1970s. A decade later there were calls to clear the forest for agricultural land which were opposed by environmentalists and sawmillers alike. The Dismal Swamp was declared a State forest in 1976, and two years later 100 hectares of it were made a Nature Reserve.
In northwest Tasmania you will hear a lot about the Tarkine, an area of wilderness bounded by the Arthur River to the north, the Pieman River to the south, the Murchison Highway to the east and the Indian Ocean to the west. Not only does the area include Australia's largest remaining area of Gondwanan temperate rainforest, it is the largest wilderness area dominated by rainforest. In addition, the Tarkine includes many other vegetation types, including eucalypt and dry sclerophyll forest, buttongrass moorland, wetland, grassland and sandy shorelines. It has wild rivers, caves, sand dunes, exposed mountains, significant Aboriginal archaeological sites and a huge variety of plants and animals, some of them rare, threatened or endangered.
You probably won't be surprised to learn that, despite such impressive variety and remoteness, the Tarkine has been under threat from logging and mining. There have been attempts to have it listed as a National Heritage Area, but Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke has been dithering in the face of mining proposals. There are also moves to award it National Park status. While many politicians acknowledge the area's importance and the necessity for conservation, the prospect of massive wealth from resource exploitation is difficult to resist, as is the case in Queensland.
At the end of the Bass Highway, turn left. The township of Arthur River, 14 kilometres south, feels remote and deserted. You can sail up the river aboard the George Robinson (below), into another world by all accounts.
But we were bound for the Edge of this one. The beaches face the full onslaught of the Roaring Forties and are littered with timber debris, so much so that I began to wonder whether there had been a wreck recently. The breakers backed up a long way and white horses were visible to the horizon. Any shells had long been smashed to smithereens, and the seaweed resembled barbed wire. Some rocks looked like freshly wet rippled sand, and the surreal effect of this desolate, battered landscape was completed by a family of Black Swans trying to hunker down in the strong swell.We had to drag ourselves away from the wild west of Tassie to head back to Stanley. On the way, we detoured to yet another Tasmanian lighthouse, on Bluff Hill Point. Built relatively recently, in 1982, to replace West Point Light further north, it has an elevation of 52 metres and a range of 30 kilometres. It is surrounded by the same wind-blown coastal scrub.
And then to Stanley, Tasmania's Tidiest Town, dominated by The Nut, a square-topped, steep-sided landform jutting out on a narrow isthmus. We could see it from kilometres back. This was once the lake of lava of a long-extinct volcano: today it provides a dramatic backdrop for Stanley's smart historic houses. You can walk up The Nut or take the chairlift, but it was late in the day when we arrived and we had barely enough time to have tea and admire the town's lovely buildings.
Settlement of the area dates from 1826: Stanley was named after the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Lord (Edward-Smith) Stanley, in the 1830s and 40s. Always a port, Stanley's mainstays today are fishing and tourism. I wish we'd had longer.
This northwest tip of Tasmania has the cleanest air in the world, as monitored by the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station. The Roaring Forties rush in, untainted by passage over land, and when they produce rain, the purest water falls over the wilderness. This corner of a very different Australian island is perhaps most dissimilar of all.
Next, for the first time, we were headed for an inland destination and possibly Tasmania's most famous – Cradle Mountain in the Central Highlands.
* a specialised crayfish living in tunnels in mudbanks rather than flowing fresh water