Image for Open Season on the Tarkine Coast

I first visited the southern section of the Tarkine coast, from the mouth of the Pieman River north to the Interview River, in November 2010 and was immediately captivated by the wild beauty of the area.

Less captivating, however, was the state of the track, caused by off-road vehicle access over many years; the many places where vehicles had strayed unnecessarily from the track causing damage to marsupial lawns and coastal vegetation; and the incredible number of discarded beer bottles along the whole 10kms of track between the two rivers – piles of them under practically every bush. I wish I had taken photographs of that aspect of the walk (instead I focused on the natural beauty).

Since then the area has had a pull on me, as I’m sure it has for others who have enjoyed the coast over the years. The years in question, of course, go back a lot longer than the mere 200 years that Europeans have been on this island.

There is a lovely campsite quite close to the Pieman end of the track, where there are two large shell middens making it obvious that white folks such as ourselves were not the first to camp there – not by a very long time. Spending time at the camp one definitely feels a connection with the original inhabitants (no doubt they were also mobbed incessantly by the resident pair of pacific gulls!).

It is not so easy, however, to feel a connection with the drivers of the vehicles who have, in recent years, left tyre marks running up and over those middens. The large vehicle chassis dumped in the middle of the site and slowly rusting away is not pretty either.

I have visited the same stretch of coast three more times since that first visit and the previous government’s action to close certain coastal tracks has definitely had an effect. The track is recovering well, damaged sections are slowly healing and someone (I know not who, but they get praise from me) has cleared away nearly all the rubbish.

Things were looking up. (I understand that the section of coast we walked along has in theory been closed to vehicles for many years, but vehicles have certainly been using it - they drove past me on my first two visits! All I can say is that such usage must have reduced considerably in the last two years because the recovery is noticeable.)

My most recent visit was last week – from 8th to 14th December 2014 – when I spent a rather lazy week with a friend, mostly based at the Interview River, exploring the vast dunes to the north and some of the country inland. I was looking forward to seeing what effect another year of recovery had had on the area. I thought the track was still closed to vehicles, but it seems I may have been wrong as there was evidence of at least one recent visit. What we saw disturbed me. This time I did take photographs, which I now present along with some discussion of what we found.

One fireplace is not enough

As we approached the Interview River camp we smelled smoke and expected to find a party there. Not so. What we found was a fire still burning (flames coming from the remaining log) and fresh tyre tracks heading away, north up the coast. Furthermore, where before there had only ever been one hearth, there are now three:

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It is, of course, not possible for me to know who decided to abandon the original hearth (closest to the camera) and build the second one (farthest from the camera), nor is it possible to know who then started the third one between them, but we found freshly-scorched grass around this middle one, so it must be a very recent addition. It also had the burning log in it ...

Why three fireplaces? What was wrong with the original one?

What sort of person walks (drives) away from a fire in the Australian bush without ensuring it is extinguished? (Isn’t there a law against that sort of behaviour?)

Looking for a way down to the beach

A quick wander around the dunes and down towards the beach revealed fresh tyre tracks in all sorts of places where I haven’t seen tyre tracks before. Judging by the places and the way the vehicle had been driven, the driver appeared to be trying to find a way to drive down to the beach. The tracks run over previously undisturbed dune vegetation and over a thinly-vegetated flat area that I know from previous visits to be usually wet and sufficiently fragile to want to avoid even on foot. Now there are tyre marks on it. The coast was fairly dry this year, so the damage is not great, but the track is visible. The next visitor may be tempted to drive over the same ground when it is not so dry.

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Once on the lower flat area the tracks head off in all directions, not all visible in the photo, seemingly looking (unsuccessfully) for a way down. There was a 3-point turn in the sand in front of the rocks and another on the sand to the left of the green flat section. Almost as worryingly, note the pile of firewood down there. It included a bundle of kindling. My bet is that there will be a new campsite and fireplace down there very soon.

Why not search on foot for the way down (there is one, but not this way), then drive down?

Back at the camp, tracks were also found on the grassy lawn around the corner from the camping area. Nobody camps around there because the ground is lumpy, but it is obviously an area likely to be damaged if driven over. The driver has driven to the far edge to look for a way down (definitely no way down that way). These tracks were not easy to capture photographically but I do have them on a short section of video (see below). This panorama shows the lumpy lawn that was driven over:

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Why drive the 30 metres or so around to the far side, over the grass? Why not get off and walk to check what’s around there? (I did find one set of foot prints down on the beach, around some rocks. A man’s boot.)

For the record, the actual vehicle route arrives at the camp from the north along the line of the footprints you can see in the dune in the foreground and then curves away to the left, heading south.

Further South

On the way home we saw something that we missed on the way up: fresh tyre marks over an undisturbed bed of “pigface” (the botanical name eludes me). For the record, the location is about 100 metres north of the turnoff to the ruined hut.

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As you can see, there is simply no need for this. The driver has left the track and driven for a short distance directly over vegetation that I would avoid as much as possible even on foot. The damage is obvious.

Where is the respect for the natural environment?

If the driver had a permit then I believe he should not be issued another one.

(If the driver did not have a permit, then how did he gain access?)

Has the route taken by the vehicle been detected by the GPS tracking device?

Was the driving sufficiently “off the track” to raise an alarm with anyone?

Are the devices actually monitored at all in the absence of specific complaints?

Videos

I recorded three videos while I was at the Interview River camp, showing more detail of the tyre marks:

http://youtu.be/QIlmiDozvvY

http://youtu.be/EJBwe_wN034

http://youtu.be/E3VffX5_b4w

So What?

Some people reading this and seeing the above pictures and videos might be thinking, “So what? What’s the problem with a few tyre marks on the grass?”.

Perhaps I need to provide an answer.

Bushwalkers are used to this problem. Footprints eventually kill vegetation, walking tracks widen, soil (or sand) washes away (dune vegetation is especially sensitive to this). Tracks can become a scar on the landscape and spoil the natural values that other walkers are hoping to find. So we stay on formed tracks where they exist, and avoid walking on fragile vegetation when walking in untracked country.

All this is a normal part of the bushwalking mindset. It ensures that popular walking areas remain in reasonably good shape despite many thousands of visitors and that wild, untracked places stay wild and untracked.

Off-road vehicles have considerably more impact on the ground they drive over than a pair of feet, so it is even more important for them to try to “tread lightly”, and yet they don’t! Tyre marks across vegetation remain visible for a long time, perhaps permanently. The next visitor may choose to follow. Very soon the vegetation dies, a new track has formed and the natural beauty of the area is further diminished. That is not what visitors to the Tarkine coast should be doing to the area.

An even stronger reason why vehicles should not be free-ranging on the Tarkine coast is the presence of all the aboriginal sites. Some are obvious, like the middens. Some are obvious if you stop and think, such as areas of scattered stone tools. Others may not be obvious at all. All are important and precious. Vehicles should, of course, avoid driving over these sites.

And yet they don’t!

Some final thoughts

Ever since hearing that the track was to be reopened to vehicles I have felt strongly that this is a bad idea.

Then, as I was walking north from the Pieman on a track that was totally dry (what luxury!) and very easy going, I began to think that perhaps opening the track to vehicles could work. The conditions I have read about would have to be enforced – access by permit only, dry-season only, with some guidelines for appropriate behaviour, and with GPS tracking devices attached – but maybe, just maybe, it could work.

It would certainly be a terrific adventure for anyone not into bushwalking to drive down from Sandy Cape and enjoy the wonderful setting around the Interview River and the dramatic rocky coastline south of there.

Now I’ve changed my mind. I’m back to opposing it. What we saw was damage caused by one vehicle, right at the start of the season, in ideal driving conditions when it would have been easy to leave nothing but tyre marks in the wet sand. It is obvious to me now that vehicles will free-range to suit themselves, damaging vegetation and aboriginal relics without a care.

The track will inevitably degrade once again, until it is back to the dreadful state it was in four years ago. The decision needs reversing.

At least no litter was left. That is something positive that can be noted.

Speaking of litter, perhaps some kind group with vehicles could remove the ugly pile of rubbish that has accumulated under the bushes at the Interview River camp? I uprooted all the thistles I could find while I was there (a drop in the ocean, I know, but it’s good to be rid of them around the camp), but there was no room in my pack for beer bottles and other rubbish.

*All about Doug Nichols: I migrated to Tasmania from the UK in 1982 at the age of 23. It was an all-of-family move. The rest of my family are farmers on the NW coast; I’m the odd-one-out, working in Hobart as a software developer. My main passion in life is bellringing (if you are wondering what could possibly be so interesting about pulling on bell ropes that could keep someone engaged from age 15 until he can’t climb the stairs any more, then you need to Google “change ringing”). But bushwalking comes a close second. I went on my first bushwalk within three weeks of arriving in the state and have never lost the bug. I seek out places that are wild, remote and essentially unmanaged. That’s what I love about the Tarkine coast.

Christine Milne on Tasmanian issues, Tarkine 4WD tracks and forest furnaces I totally support the actions of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community who are taking to court the government for the fact that they are going to re-open four-wheel-drive tracks in the Tarkine which will jeopardise aboriginal heritage. It is just shocking that this government is determined to behave in such a manner, as vandals, that is all you can call it. It was bad enough that Minister Burke under the last government failed to protect the Tarkine in its entirety as the Heritage Council had recommended. But he could not avoid protecting those Aboriginal sites.  It is an incredibly rich area of Aboriginal heritage and to now see the government open up all of these tracks, many of which have been closed for a very long time, it is just appalling. It will be environmentally shocking, but culturally it will damage, no doubt at all, damage Aboriginal heritage. And the Aboriginal community deserve all of our support in taking this matter to court.

• Vivienne, in Comments: Thanks Doug. What you write confirms my fears. The minister, Peter Gutwein (I think it was) commented that he would not be dictated to by fringe groups - i.e.. conservationists and aboriginals. However, apparently four wheel drive fringe groups are fine. You have done a public service by your article and by the photos and videos. Thank you.

Matthew Groom: Arthur-Pieman Tracks We are very disappointed that we have been prevented from implementing our commitment to reopen access to the Arthur-Pieman area by Christmas. This policy has the support and backing of not just the local community but also the local aboriginal community. It was an election commitment and we remain determined to see it implemented in a manner that is respectful of cultural and environmental values.