I've flown into Hobart, 150 miles across the Bass Strait and then across the main island of Tasmania from Melbourne. There are over 1,000 islands altogether in this most southerly of Australian states. Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who made the first reported European sighting of the island in1642 Tasman named the island Anthony van Diemen's Land after his sponsor Anthony van Diemen, the Governor of the Dutch East Indies. Under British rule the island was initially part of the Colony of New South Wales but became a separate colony under the name Van Diemen's Land. Approximately 80,000 convicts were sent to Van Diemen's Land before transportation, ceased in 1853 and the region was renamed after its original 'discoverer'. In 1901 it became a state of the federation of Australia.
And now a small plane to the South Western Wilderness of Tasmania. I’m not learning my lessons, when it comes to making good choices. It’s a really bumpy flight. Pilot Gavin says there’s a lot of wind round here. I’ve been very lucky, as he’s allocated me the co-pilot’s seat, but I’m too terrified to take full advantage. I am congratulating myself that at least we have bright skies, but as we reach the southern capes of the main island, the sun disappears behind dark clouds. Anomalously, Hobart in the south-east of Tasmania, is one of the driest places in Australia, and south-western Tassie (as the Australians always call it) is the wettest part. So, I’m settling for brooding and atmospheric again, as we bounce over islands, rivers, gorgeous curved white beaches and soaring cliffs.
Plane is the only way to get to this rugged and inaccessible wilderness. This Southwest National Park, is part of a continuous chain of five National Parks, along with the Hartz Mountains National Park, the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, and the Walls of Jerusalem National Park. Together these five parks cover almost a quarter of Tasmania's land mass and, along with a few other smaller parks and areas, form the World Heritage Area.
We land on a tiny mud airstrip and pick up a chilly flat bottomed boat. Gavin is a boat captain now, as well as pilot and tour guide. I hope they’re paying him well. We’re bobbing across the dark tannin waters of Bathurst Harbour; Gavin says this is the darkest water in the world and deep water fauna (milky pale fish) are fooled into inhabiting its twelve metre depths. Melaleuca is a tiny settlement on Bathurst Harbour, consisting of one currently inhabited house, an historic house formerly inhabited by Tasmanian naturalist Deny King, a crushed quartz rock airstrip, and some basic National Park facilities including a bird hide, information centre and signage, and toilets. Its current permanent population is just two rangers.
We eat a packed ‘gourmet’ lunch in Deny King's old cottage (the TV is still there and the fireplace works – thank God) and trek up rocky outcrops for views of the Celery Islands – aptly named clumps of frilly vegetation sitting atop quartz outcrops. We’re the only people in this inaccessible area of the country, except for the resident rangers. It’s bitingly cold, so my daggy boots are a comfort, though they haven’t stayed pristine very long. The paths are boggy and slimy.
It’s a mixed sort of day, but the upside is that it’s a really good group onboard. Jenny and husband Geoff, from Perth, are overwhelmingly positive about everything, food, plane and views, and Lee, from the Sunshine Coast confesses to being terrified also. She teaches me grounding techniques, and lends me valium for the return journey. One of them works. Now it's really atmospheric, as the remnants of the sun retreat through the clouds.
A drink in my hotel bar with Jenny and Geoff. My accommodation is the epitome of urban chic; the rooms are huge and equipped with lit display cases (pottery), hooded flannel dressing gowns and bottles of cocktails in the fridge. The restaurant and bar (and my room) face onto the harbour, flaming bowls lining the walkway. The bar has hundreds of gleaming stacked bottles arranged on white shelves, like a bottle library and more display cases, this time real fossils.
Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, is a very pleasant little city. It’s a melange of chic little hotels and cute wrought iron decorated cottages (up at Battery Point). Its skyline is dominated by the 1,271-metre /Mount Wellington. This is another city that was founded as a penal colony and there's some matching architecture tot ake in. I have a quick whizz round and shop for food at the bustling Saturday Salamanca Street Market. I’m really impressed with the food scene in Australia this visit. There’s a huge variety here in Hobart too: a diverse range of cakes and pastries in the bakeries again. And the range of tempting goodies on offer at breakfast in the hotel was extraordinary.
A quick coffee with Lee at a Hobart institution – The Machine is a café attached to a thriving laundrette. You can watch your washing revolve through glass panels, while you munch your cake.
Another hire car and I’m on my way to Cradle Mountain National Park. It’s a long ( five and half hours) and increasingly scenic drive. I follow the Lakes Highway through rolling hills (up to 1,000 metres) and stark wintry red and white forests. Past several lakes, of course. There’s a dusting of snow on the tops of the mountains and on the edges of the road. It’s the Lake District with eucalyptus trees and wallabies. I don’t see any live marsupials, (probably because I’m concentrating too hard on the narrow winding road), but there’s been wallaby carnage on the tarmac. There’s a tiny furry carcass every mile or so.
Beyond the small town of Deloraine (café stop) it’s the Western Tiers Road. Then, I’m hugging a very long and jagged snow spattered ridge, before descending into thicker spruce forests and climbing up again, finally to my park lodge amid flurries of snow.
I have a pencil pine cabin, with stacks of firewood outside. I’m not sure why, as there’s a gas ‘log fire’, though no-one has thought to turn it on and my room is a distinctly uncomfortable seven degrees when I arrive. The only thing to do is switch it on and go to the bar. This involves wandering on several unlit boardwalks. There’s a huge wombat lumbering in front of me. I decide to give him some space. I don’t think they’re as cuddly as they look.
I’ve left the fire burning all night and the temperature has crept up to twenty degrees indoors. I’m not risking the switch being turned off when I go out, so I’ve hung a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the door. The Australian version is somewhat weirdly: ‘ I’m experiencing privacy’. I have to chisel the frost off the car and am one of the first hardy souls into the park, taking in lungfuls of freezing air and exhaling clouds as I go.
It’s a beautiful, if treacherous trek, on the boardwalks and gravel paths that circle Dove Lake and along the Dove River. Some uphill stretches are caked in ice. The vegetation is varied: scrub, ancient moss covered ‘ballroom forest’, cinnamon sassafras, myrtle, leatherwood and, surprisingly, pandanus. Towering above it all and demanding to be photographed from every angle, are the crags of Cradle Mountain itself. I’m assuming that its named after the crib like shaped formed by the two peaks.
For a while I take on the role of tracker, following rows of tiny pawprints in the snow. I’m proud of myself for working out that they’re very recent, but whatever I’m pursuing could be a Woozle for all I know. It isn’t going to permit an encounter. There are one or two false leads, when I think I’ve seen something in the gnarled branches. Later, there actually is a pademelon wallaby, balled up and feeding by the water. He is happy for me to stay close by and watch until two very loud Brazilians rush up with their cameras - I have words. The odd wombat is ambling in the foliage on the way back to the lodge, they’re still my favourite. They have cuboid shaped poo.
Back at the lodge I’m turned hunter again pursuing a baby wombat for a photograph. The bushes are alive with the wombats and wallabies (the minuscule rotund pademelons and the larger, more kangaroo like, Bennetts) at dusk. But I fall off the boardwalk and the wombat shoots under a nearby cabin in alarm. I’ve scraped my hand and twisted my ankle, but I decide to see if I can glimpse him on the other side and limp round the building, to find a naked couple in a hot tub, drinking champagne. I beat a quiet and hurried retreat.
It seems that Australian marsupials are the current focus. Next, it’s the ferocious Tasmanian devils. There’s a breeding and rehabilitation centre here, with some eastern spotted quolls and some spotted tail quolls thrown in for good measure. The devils' numbers are dwindling alarmingly in the wild, as there has been an outbreak of highly infectious facial cancer. It’s passed on by biting and they nip each other a lot, scrapping continuously and making the most appallingly raucous screeching noise. They have huge fangs (they are carnivorous of course), and definitely couldn’t be described as pretty. It’s easy to see how they got their name. I’m wondering why they want to save them anyway - but all God’s creatures I suppose.
The quolls are much smaller and initially appear more endearing, tiny quivering Bambis. Nevertheless, they run round their enclosures at full pelt and tear ferociously at the wallaby legs they are offered. Both species are quite capable of bringing down a padymelon.
I’m awake very early. I’m anticipating a long day and my body is still on Niue time. The car is packed and I’m ready to leave at 5.30 a.m. but then I realise that reception doesn’t open until 7 and I have to pay my bill. It’s probably prudent to delay. It’s still pitch-dark and possibly icy.
I’ve read that Freycinet Bay lookout (over Wineglass Bay) and the Bay of Fires, both on the east coast, are viewing highlights of Tasmania. And they’re not on my itinerary. Or they weren’t. I’m supposed to be ambling to Launceston today – a leisurely two hours or so. Instead, I’m beetling down to Freycinet (four hours), back north up to The Gardens to get the best view of the Bay of Fires (two hours) and back to Launceston (two and a half hours).
The Wineglass Bay jaunt also involves a stiff 40 minute climb to the top of the hill, for the iconic view. Is it worth it? Ho-hum - what I saw from the plane trip into the wilderness was probably equally beautiful.
The Great Eastern Drive, hugging the coast of Tasmania up to Bay of Fires is more rewarding - I’m passing some stunning wild beaches. Bay of Fires itself isn’t totally amazing either, but its orange lichen covered rocks are unique. And I’m lucky enough to have the sun shine, so they contrast spectacularly with the shimmering blue of the sea. I’m glad I came. It’s not called Bay of Fires because of the colour of the boulders, as one would think. This was aboriginal land and when Cook first spotted it, the beaches were lit up with the glow of their hearths.
Needless to say, I’m exhausted by the time I get back to Launceston and my hotel. It’s in a converted grain silo by the edge of the Tamar Gorge. Most towns in this region here are named after somewhere in Great Britain. Going by place names I’ve done a huge tour of the United Kingdom today, everywhere from Glenorchy to Epping Forest. Sheffield isn’t at all like its namesake - it’s a little country town that boasts of its murals - decorating the stores in the high street. Cornwall is, oddly, just up the road from Launceston, which is actually on the banks of the Tamar River here. Not too far off geographically I suppose. I can forgive that, but not the Australian pronunciation - Laun-ceston.
Launceston is Tasmania's second city. It's famed for the Cataract Gorge, with panoramic views, vineyards, walking trails, sculpted gardens and a chairlift. But it’s raining and blustery today, so there won’t be any wandering round those. Launceston is extraordinarily quiet and quaint, with colonial architecture (some of the oldest in Australia) and wrought iron curlicues. It’s a good place to get my hair done before I set off for the airport and Adelaide. That's where I pick up The Ghan for my next adventure.
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