On the trail of lost creatures, mythic rivers, and vanishing giants in Tasmania's wildand finalfrontier
I’M CRAWLING ON MY HANDS AND KNEES through a labyrinth of limbs when it occurs to me that, a hundred years ago, this was one of the haunts of the Tasmanian tiger. Also known as a thylacine, the striped, doglike, carnivorous marsupial would slip through this mixed old-growth forest, impenetrable for an upright human. It would crouch motionless beneath the 20-foot fronds of tree ferns, eyes glued to a wallaby. Six feet from nose to tail, two feet at the shoulders, 65 pounds of muscle, the Tasmanian tiger was cunning and shy, with a keen sense of smell and remarkable stamina, pursuing its prey until the quarry was exhausted.
I’m hunting, too. I’ve come to the inconceivably dense northern slope of the Styx River Valley, on the heart-shaped island of Tasmania, to find the tallest hardwood tree in the world, the Eucalyptus regnans, or swamp gum. The tallest such tree towers to 321 feet here in the Styx Valley, just two hours west of the capital, Hobart. (The most massive trees of all, California’s redwoods, top out at about 375 feet.) In Greek mythology, the River Styx is the boundary that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead.
“We’ll have to take off our packs to go any farther,” says Matt Dalziel, my fleet-footed Aussie partner. It’s the first day of our four-day trek through the valley, and already the undergrowth is so thick we can barely squeeze through. Matt disappears into the sylvan maze.
We’re not on a trail. There is no trail. Beyond the thicket we come upon what we’ve taken to calling a “gangplank”—a downed tree so enormous it creates an elevated walkway through the forest. We clamber atop the behemoth and move along its mossy back.
“Check ‘er out, mate,” shouts Matt, pointing toward the sky. “Now that’s a rippah!” Nearby is a tree of magnificent proportions. Spotting this primordial creature that has somehow survived out here on the edge of the earth is like catching sight of a dinosaur. We stride to the end of the gangplank and jump back into the ocean of green. Waves of foliage close over our heads as we half walk, half swim toward the giant.
“Who knows what you’ll find out there!” exclaimed Geoff Law, campaign coordinator for Tasmania’s Wilderness Society, as he spread out the maps in his Hobart office three days ago. Law, 47, a dogged, inexhaustible environmentalist, has been fighting full-time for 20 years to protect Tasmania’s wildlands. In the process, he’s hiked more of the Styx than anyone. “To my knowledge, no human has actually done what you intend to do: cross end to end through one of the last contiguous stands of giant old-growth regnans.” Then his voice caught. “Now’s the time to go: It soon could be gone forever.”
When I find Matt, he’s standing beside a buttress root taller than he is. It would take eight people holding hands to circle the base of the trunk. I crane my head back and stare. The mammoth tree, one of the tallest flowering plants alive, shoots up and up and up, disappearing into the sky like Jack’s beanstalk.
TASMANIA, THE SMALLEST of Australia’s six states, lies 150 miles south of Melbourne across the Bass Strait. Aborigines had lived on the West Virginia–size island for 20,000 years before Dutch seafarer Abel Tasman arrived in 1642. In 1803, a penal colony was established on the southeast coast; within a lifetime all full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigines were dead.
Tasmania’s economy, like the rest of Australia’s, was originally based on sheep ranching, agriculture, and extractive industries like mining and logging. But this frontier mentality was challenged in 1979, when the Labor-led state government announced plans to dam the Franklin River, one of the island’s last large, free-flowing rivers. This galvanized a small cadre of proto-environmentalists who in 1976 had formed the Wilderness Society, Australia’s first high-profile environmental organization. In 1983, a year after the Franklin River and several other wilderness areas in Tasmania were listed as a World Heritage Area by the United Nations, the Wilderness Society’s Franklin River Campaign stopped the dam project, a landmark victory for Australia’s nascent green movement. Over the next two decades, through one battle after another, the group secured protection for almost 25 percent of the island.
One-tenth of the Styx catchment became part of a national park, but much of the rest was left in the hands of Forestry Tasmania, a for-profit state corporation charged with managing all of Tasmania’s public forests outside the parks and World Heritage regions. Many of the tallest hardwood trees on earth, 400-year-old Eucalyptus regnans, endemic to Tasmania and Victoria, lie in the Valley of the Giants, a proposed national park composed largely of an unprotected section of the middle Styx Valley. Roughly one-third of the entire Styx Valley has already been clear-cut.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Richard Flanagan, 43, internationally acclaimed author of the novels Death of a River Guide (1994), The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), and, most recently, Gould’s Book of Fish (2001), “to be here, and from here, and watch your own country being systematically destroyed—the soul of the land clear-felled, poisoned, and sold for nothing.”
Flanagan lowered his close-shaved, bouldery head, studied me with unwavering eyes, then took a swallow from his pint. It was my first night on the island, and I’d gone to Knopwood’s, a notorious harbor pub in old Hobart where Flanagan and his pals—all accomplished kayakers—hang out. He introduced me to his friends: Matt Newton, landscape photographer; Craig “Swarz” Chivers, fireman; and Matt Dalziel, four-time downriver kayaking champ and marketing director of an Australian outdoor-equipment company.
On this island drenched by storms and surrounded by ocean, three of these men had done first descents; when Flanagan was 16, he became the first to kayak the 25-mile Class III–IV Styx River. They know water and weather, tides and trees—and politics. It was here, in 1972, that the world’s first Green party was formed. Bushwalkers and boaters, environmentalists and literati coalesced into a single, vocal force. In the last state election, some 51,000 Tasmanians—18 percent of the island’s population—voted Green. Forestry, fishing, farming, and mining now represent just 7 percent of the state’s economy; tourism employs twice as many people as logging does. Tasmania is poised to become the next New Zealand, luring adventure travelers with its rugged shores and giant trees—that is, if they’re still standing.
“Industrial logging is ugly business,” Flanagan continued. “Tasmania’s natural heritage—our last giants, which exist nowhere else—are being logged and sold to Japan as wood chips. It’s obscene.”
Flanagan is known as an outspoken advocate for Tasmania’s wildlands. In December 2003, the Australian magazine The Bulletin published his exposé “The Rape of Tasmania,” which highlighted the logging industry’s attempted corruption of the Tasmanian government in recent years. Although vilified by state politicians, Flanagan brought the subject to an international audience in 2004 through his articles in the UK Guardian and The New York Times Magazine. With the help of Flanagan’s campaign and thousands of volunteers, the Wilderness Society made saving Tasmania’s old-growth forests a key issue in Australia’s 2004 elections. Prime Minister John Howard declared that, if reelected, he would protect 420,080 acres of Tasmanian forest; Howard’s conservative-coalition administration has yet to make good on this promise.
Flanagan hunched his thick shoulders and looked at me hard. “But the only way you’ll really understand what’s going on is to go have a look for yourself.”
It was my shout. When I brought back a round of pints, Dalziel, 34, the smallest and quietest of the men, with high cheekbones, a strong nose, and penetrating blue eyes, offered to go with me.
“I could use the exercise,” he said, and the table cracked up.
Two days earlier, Dalziel—a classical scholar and father of a baby son—had won the Cradle Run, a 53-mile mountain race that takes hikers at least four days to complete. As Tasmania’s mountain-running champion, he’d done it in eight hours and 20 minutes.
“A wee bit of bush bashing is just what I need,” Dalziel said.
“Tasmanian specialty,” he replied.
I’ve hiked all over the world—from the slide alder of British Columbia and the bamboo jungles of Burma to the rainforests of West Africa—but I had no idea what I was in for.
AS I BALANCED ON MY BELLY atop a trapeze of ropy branches ten feet above the boggy ground, my pack suddenly slips over my head and I plunge forward. Midfall, my ankles miraculously hook in the slingshot-shaped crook of a leatherwood limb. I swing upside down for a few seconds, snared, before the bough breaks and I drop onto my head.
Success! I have circumvented a nasty patch of stinging nettles. I get up and continue pushing through the fray.
This ancient woodland is nothing like a typical rainforest, which has a lush canopy, a luxuriant understory, and a permanently shaded, relatively open forest floor. Here the dominant trees, mature regnans, stand 50 yards apart and rise as smooth and straight and pale as the Washington Monument. The floor receives abundant sunshine and rain and thus supports a healthy plant community, including 25-foot-deep briar patches.
“Over here!” Matt shouts. I follow his voice, zigzagging inside a matrix of biodiversity so dense I can’t take more than three steps in one direction.
He’s standing near the base of another enormous eucalyptus. Beside it, he looks like a Lilliputian leaning on the foot of a one-legged giant: Its buttress roots grip the soil like prehensile toes; its leg, blistered with burls the size of bathtubs, rises six stories into the sky before molding into a slim torso. Another 10 to 15 stories up, limbs with twisted elbows sprout out.
“A noble creature, eh?” yells Matt joyously. “How tall you reckon she is?”
“Taller than Gandalf’s Staff.”
Matt and I drove into the Styx Valley two days ago and spent our first night at the Global Rescue Station, a volunteer eco-commune. In late 2003, determined to stop the destruction of ancient trees, the Wilderness Society and Greenpeace erected a base camp beside a fresh old-growth clear-cut. Choosing Gandalf’s Staff, a 270-foot regnans, as their mascot, they suspended three platforms from the tree, 200 feet above the ground. For five months, volunteers living in these precarious nests beamed out SOS messages via satellite, and Gandalf’s Staff was spared from chainsaws.
There were a dozen volunteers at the base camp the night we arrived: bell-bottomed Japanese college students, dreadlocked Aussies, granola girls with nose rings. Penniless but passionate, they were clearing foliage and building trails to the colossal trees.
“The forest is so dodgy and dense and slick, we’re putting in tracks to give ordinary people a chance to get close to the big trees,” said camp coordinator Peter “Peck” Firth, a 20-year-old grape grower from Western Australia who’s been working in the Styx for 14 months, without pay, to save what’s left. “We want people to come here and feel their beauty and presence and sacredness. When you’ve been in this forest and stood beside these trees, they change you.”
What changed me more was the macabre graveyards of the clear-cuts. Peck drove us to the start of our bushwalk, through an apocalyptic scene: Charred logs lay like corpses across a battlefield; blackened stumps sat among funeral pyres of unmarketable trees.
Clear-cut logging in the Styx Valley is a four-step process. After all trees in a selected area are felled, the straightest and most easily transported are removed. Everything else—an astonishing stockpile of lumber—is left as waste. Eucalyptus seedlings require fire for regeneration, so logging contractors spray jellied petroleum (also known as napalm), igniting the debris and creating hazy plumes of smoke. Next, the area is sown with regnans and other native hardwood seeds, and any animals—wallabies, wombats, and possums—that might eat seedlings are fenced out, trapped, or shot. (Until recently, the controversial practice of scattering poisoned carrots was used to kill the animals.) The trees are harvested after 80 years—two centuries before Eucalyptus regnans reaches maturity.
MATT AND I started our bushwalk at the edge of another clear-cut, this one beside Diogenes Creek, a small tributary of the Styx. Diogenes was a fourth-century-b.c. Greek cynic who eschewed material wealth and rejected government, reputation, and convention, focusing instead on moral self-mastery. He was nicknamed “the Dog” by Aristotle and is said to have walked in vain across Greece searching for an honest man.
We spent that first day picking our way through an unspoiled swath of forest on the north side of the Styx. At natural openings, we could see cadaverous clear-cuts across the river. We made five miles in seven hours before deciding to camp. The forest floor was impossible for a tent, so we waded out to a rocky island in the middle of the Styx and pitched up there.
In the morning, we continued our tour of the wildest forest I’ve ever explored. We were climbing as often as walking. It was a literal jungle gym.
At one point, while pulling himself up onto a ten-foot-thick gangplank, Matt looked over his shoulder at me and proudly said, “Now, this is true bush! It’s not made for man.”
Often the going was so slow that we covered less than 500 yards an hour. But we were among the titans, and that was all that mattered. We had no way of measuring the trees, but we guessed that some of them were larger than anything yet discovered in Tasmania.
By the morning of the third day, we’d passed back into the land of clear-cuts.
“LET ME FIRST SAY that there are no plans to clear-fell any more of the north side of the Styx that you visited,” Steve Whiteley, a district manager for Forestry Tasmania, tells me in their offices a week after our hike.
“We’re also not going to clear-fell where the Wilderness Society set up its Global Rescue Station,” Whiteley adds.
(This, apparently, is news to the Wilderness Society. When I relay it to Geoff Law later that day, he leaps up and gives me a hug. “They’ve never said that before!” It’s a small victory for the activists—but no guarantee for the rest of the Styx.)
“But we will keep harvesting approximately 300 hectares [740 acres] of forest from the Styx per year,” Whiteley continues. “The Tasmanian parliament has set a quota of 300,000 cubic meters of quality eucalypt sawlogs and veneer for Tasmania. Our approach is to have a small level of activity over a larger area. The last thing we want to do is to put undue pressure on any particular area.”
According to Whiteley, Forestry Tasmania is trying to balance industry needs with conservation. It has decided that any tree over 279 feet tall will be spared from cutting and provided a buffer from the napalm. Yet a survey published in the December 2000 issue of Forestry Tasmania’s Tasforests found that the majority of the island’s giants have a height just below this figure—suggesting that it’s merely a bone thrown to the environmentalists.
So what percentage of harvested old-growth forest in the Styx River Valley is turned into sawlogs?
“Twenty percent,” says Whiteley. “The rest is just residue, and most of it is wood-chipped.”
Weeks after the interview, I learn three profound facts. First, in 2003–04, Forestry Tasmania harvested 357,088 cubic meters of quality eucalypt sawlogs and veneer, nearly 20 percent above the mandated quota. Second, the Styx provided only 27,862 cubic meters of this wood; so if the quota was exceeded, why log the Styx at all? Finally, the quota itself was set in 1920, and the logging industry has managed to keep it unchanged for 85 years.
Back in 1920, the Tasmanian tiger was still alive.
ON THE LAST DAY of our bushwalk, Matt and I decided to climb 4,085-foot Mount Mueller, at the head of the Styx Valley. After walking one depressing logging road after another, we needed an overview of the landscape. But when we rose above the clear-cuts, the section of unmolested old-growth that we first passed through looked small and imperiled.
We thrashed up to the crest of Mueller and were rewarded with an expansive view northwest into the Florentine Valley. The upper Florentine is still blanketed with old-growth forest; much of what remains has been clear-cut over the past 50 years. But there aren’t enough volunteers to erect another rescue station—and Forestry Tasmania knows this. Plans to log the upper Florentine are in the works for next summer.
After an hour on the summit, sitting, watching, wondering, we headed back down. Just below the rocks, hidden in a pocket of heath, we discovered a small, silvery pool—the source of the Styx. Matt and I cupped our hands and drank. In Greek myth, the Styx was poisonous.
I imagined the Tasmanian tiger stopping here en route from one primeval forest valley to another. Lowering its head to lap up the cool water, it would have seen its own doomed reflection. In 1888, the Tasmanian parliament placed a bounty on the thylacine. In 1936 the last known Tasmanian tiger died in captivity.