A ride through the rugged wilderness of Tasmania’s south west

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Words and photos by Scott Mattern

Tasmania’s south west is a land of imposing mountains, raging rivers, button-grass plains and ancient forests. It contains the state’s largest national park — the aptly named Southwest National Park — and it is as remote as it is wild. It is the region’s wild nature that makes it such an enticing destination for a bikepacking adventure.

Access to the northern region of this wilderness expanse is available via the Gordon River Road and Scotts Peak Road. To fully appreciate these roads you need to know a little of the region’s history — you need to look back at one of the boldest feats of engineering Australia has ever seen.

The Tasmanian hydroelectric power scheme has been a source of both inspiration and controversy since the early 20th century. It was carved out of Tasmania’s harsh interior by ordinary people working in extraordinary conditions. The early construction of these dams, roads and power stations was difficult and dangerous, requiring resilience and commitment from the people who built them.

In these harsh conditions, workers often camped rough, frequently in the bitter cold. Along the way lifelong friendships were formed and communities were built; communities of migrants from a range of backgrounds, all coming together with a common purpose.

Two of the most notable and notorious constructions in the Tasmanian hydro scheme were Lake Pedder and Lake Gordon. The former was once a natural lake but was expanded following the construction of three dams: the Serpentine Dam, Scotts Peak Dam and Edgar Dam. Lake Gordon was formed by the construction of the Gordon Dam, a double curveted concrete arch dam that, at full capacity, holds back 12,359,040 megalitres of water. It is the largest body of water in Tasmania.

These two dams are filled with almost as much controversy as they are water. There was a fierce campaign to preserve the original Lake Pedder in the 1960s and ’70s, with protests occurring against this flooding before, during, and after the dams were built. While the protests were ultimately unsuccessful, they marked the beginning of the end for hydro-industrialisation in Tasmania and ultimately saw the emergence of the Greens Party as a political force.

The completed Gordon Dam was one of two dams planned for the Franklin-Gordon basin. Plans to build the Franklin Dam were eventually scrapped in 1983 after one of the most significant environmental campaigns in Australian history.

In setting out on our ride, we sought to trace the history of this region, exploring the dams and roads that were developed along the way.

The Gordon River Road is lined by towering myrtles, sassafras, and celery top pines. It’s a sealed ribbon of tarmac that winds its way deep into the wilderness of Tassie’s south west, linking Maydena to the Gordon River and the small town of Strathgordon. Built in 1969 to house construction workers, Strathgordon was home to 2,000 during the building of the Pedder and Gordon dams. Nowadays, Strathgordon is a smaller and more peaceful version of itself. Nowadays the township still has a link to its hydro heritage but it’s best known as a tourist destination.

Riding the Gordon River Road on our first day we couldn’t help but marvel at the feat of engineering required to create this road. You find yourself in a dense envelope of temperate rainforest that engulfs the road, giving you the feeling that, at any moment, nature is ready to reclaim what was cut into it.

Our plotted path took us briefly off Gordon River Road to explore one of the many forestry roads winding into the hill — another juxtaposition of the magnificent natural landscape with the political and environmental controversy of the area.

These roads are as wild and remote as they get. With a bit of luck you might find a few unlocked gates to get through but don’t be fooled: this doesn’t necessarily mean a clear path. There are no guarantees of a way out at the other end.

Adventure cycling has carved its way through both harsh environments and the cycling industry recently. However, like the history of the early pioneers of the Tassie hydro scheme, this way of cycling is not new. Rather it’s a story that starts with an idea as old as cycling itself.

Cycling as a means of exploration has always been a quiet cornerstone of the sport’s progression. Those passionate about this facet have nurtured its development, building it into a bridge to wilderness exploration. Like the hydro scheme, adventure cycling has its own kind of power, constructing a different way to experience cycling and see these remote corners of the world.

Scotts Peak Road is as far south as you can get into this wild region without setting off by foot. This is truly wild country — as you ride, you see vast expanses of water on one side, towering peaks on the other. The road was built to access the construction of the Edgar and Scotts Peak Dams on the Serpentine and Huon Rivers. Those dams extend Lake Pedder to what it is today, Tasmania’s second largest lake.

Our exploration of this region was brief but the stories and friendships we developed during that time are enduring. For the statisticians: Three days, two nights. Two days of sunshine, one day of rain. Two unlocked gates; one locked in front of us, one locked behind us. Three dams, two lakes, one mountain and too many trees to count.

In all, 250km of riding, 5km of walking, 5,700m of climbing, one night in accommodation, and one night under the stars. Most important of all: One ride of exploration, creating memories that will last a lifetime.

Follow the link to see the route Scott and co took.

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