Travel

Tasmania: Adventure in Australia's island state

Tasmania’s natural richness comes in many forms: pristine landscapes, tranquil waterways and curious wildlife that thrives in this unique environment. However you approach its unspoilt beauty, adventure awaits in Australia’s island state.Tuesday, 24 September 2019

By Lee Cobaj
Mrs Hunt's Cottage, Maria Island. Located in the Tasman Sea, Maria Island is a 30-minute ferry ride from Triabunna on the east coast of Tasmania.

It feels like I’ve fallen headfirst into the realms of a children’s storybook. 

A wisdom of wombats is mowing the grass around us, mobs of Tasmanian pademelon (small, kangaroo-like creatures) leap past and a kookaburra sings from an old gum tree. Blue skies arch above us as we rest on the grassy edge of sea cliffs, on the lookout for humpback whales. “It is surely hell on earth,” says my guide Di Hollister, paraphrasing an 19th-century description of Tasmania. “The swans are black when they should be white, and devils cry out in the woods at night.”

“Just awful,” I reply with a smile. 

We’re on Maria Island, which lies in the bright blue Tasman Sea, a 30-minute ferry ride from Triabunna on the east coast of Tasmania. European explorers first set eyes on the island in 1642; settlers arrived in the late 18th century, eking out a living as whalers and sealers, while establishing smallholdings, prisons and penal colonies. Various industries came and went over the following century: wheat and sheep farmers; Chinese abalone fishermen; an Italian silk merchant with aspirations as a hotelier; and a cement works, its old silos still sitting at the end of the pier like giant exclamation marks. Every venture was unsuccessful and short-lived, and nature now reigns supreme in this southern wilderness. Today, Maria Island is a national park without a permanent population, and visitor numbers are restricted to just a few ferry-loads of sightseers a day in the summer, and a handful of outdoorsy types who come year-round to explore its beaches and bush trails with award-winning, family-run, Maria Island Walks.  

I’ve arrived just after the summer crowds have cleared and a few weeks before the chill of winter sets in. It feels like we have the island to ourselves — just me, Di and our walking guide, Georgie Currant. I’m bowled over by the natural beauty that surrounds us: glorious beaches, fragrant forests of eucalyptus, ruffled cliffs, tranquil reservoirs and bountiful wildlife. On the crossing from Triabunna, I eyed fat, shiny seals bobbing in the bay and enormous sea eagles circling overhead. Within five minutes of stepping off the ferry, I cooed over a mother and baby wombat, both entirely unperturbed by my presence. I’ve since seen dozens of the furry cannonballs, as well as kangaroos, wallabies, possums and a colourful cast of pink robins, yellow-throated honeyeaters and Cape Barren geese with pearl-grey bodies and sherbet-green beaks. 

As the daylight begins to fade, I’m blessed with a crisp, bright evening for my first night on Maria Island. The moon appears — seemingly upside-down, having come from the Northern Hemisphere — and is so luminous we don’t need our torches to wander across the fields. Di points out constellations as we go: the Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri and Orion’s Sword, which points upwards rather than downwards at this end of the earth.

The next morning we head to Riedle Beach, a streak of diamond-white sands and azure seas, and the first beach I’ve seen in years without even the tiniest scrap of plastic on it. What we spot instead are the clear pawprints of Tasmanian devils — an endangered species, released onto the island in the 1970s and now thriving, free from predators, car accidents and disease. If I see nothing else of Tasmania, my time on this Edenic isle alone will have been enough.

Complete immersion
I’m told that Maria Island is Tasmania in microcosm — and if that’s the case, then Di is Tasmania personified. A veritable frontierswoman at 72 years old, her eyes are the colour of the water at Riedle Beach and, just six months on from a double knee replacement, she’s outpaced me every step of the way on our hikes around Maria. She grows her own vegetables, brews her own ginger beer, promotes environmental causes and has an in-depth knowledge of every bud, bloom, bird and beast we pass. She drives like a pro, too, dodging a masked white owl in the middle of the road on the long drive through the night to our next stop in Derby, a former tin-mining town in the northeast of Tasmania.    

It’s home to the Blue Derby Pods Ride, where I fuel up on a feast of local sourdough and butter, pumpkin, hummus and salad ahead of a beginner’s lesson in mountain biking. Set up in 2017 by 20-something Tassies Steve and Tara Howell, Blue Derby Pods Ride combines three-day mountain biking tours with spectacular food and wine, plus accommodation in one of four wooden pods, which rise out of the mossy forest like newly germinated seeds.

Come bedtime, I feel like an elf living deep in the heart of the forest. Four years ago, this clever endeavour never would have worked as there was virtually no reason for travellers to visit this corner of the island. But in 2015, the Blue Derby — a network of nearly 50 miles of world-class mountain bike trails — opened and was immediately lauded as the pinnacle of mountain biking in Australia. Soon after, the Enduro World Series headed here, and Derby was firmly on the map. 

The biking tours are flexible and can accommodate anyone from seasoned riders to novices like me. “We want you to ride the way you’d go out and ride with friends,” Steve tells me as we whirl downhill through mounds of fishbone ferns, past tangles of myrtle and under the thick branches of macrocarpa trees. Botanically speaking, it’s a dream. Exercise-wise, however, my backside hurts and the combination of fresh air, adrenalin and a new challenge means I retire to my pod exhausted, yet contented in a way that only a complete immersion in nature can achieve.  

Blue Derby, where a network of nearly 50 miles of world-class mountain bike trails snakes through the landscape.

All aboard the Ark
Nature — both wild and tame — comes thick and fast in Tasmania. Flocks of green rosellas, a parrot native to the state, swoop overhead on the drive out of Derby through Scottsdale, with its rolling green hills and fields of apricots, cherries and poppies. An overnight stay at Currawong Lakes, a luxury lodge and fly-fishing retreat tucked away in Tasmania’s remote eastern highlands, brings a bevy of black swans, hundreds of fallow deer and Tasmanian devils, their screams like something from a Wes Craven film. 

From Currawong, we head west via the beautifully preserved towns of Launceston, Bothwell and Hamilton into Mount Field National Park, one of 19 protected parklands in Tasmania. It’s another vision of pastoral beauty, all fern walks, waterfalls and glassy salmon ponds; there are paint charts of greens made by the willows and swamp gums, the latter the tallest flowering plant in the world. It’s here that Liam and Fiona Weaver run Tassie Bound Adventure Tours, leading small groups of kayakers on ‘Paddle with the Platypus’ trips through the park’s sylvan waterways. 

“I reckon there are more platypus on these three miles of river than anywhere else in Australia,” says Liam, as Di and I pull on our lifejackets. And sure enough, as we glide down the River Derwent, we spot more platypus than humans, rising and falling in the water like tiny Loch Ness monsters. 

But my closest encounter with Tasmania’s wildlife comes at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, where I suspect the staff are inventing curiously-named animals to make fun of me. Bettong, quokka, echidna — surely all fictional? 

“We’re the Noah’s Ark of Australian wildlife,” founder Greg Irons tells me as I stroke Millie the baby wombat. I learn that most of the animals taken in here have been orphaned or injured. “We’re the last stand for prehistoric species; species you won’t find anywhere else in the world; species we still know little about.” 

There are creatures such as eastern quolls, a marsupial extinct on the mainland; the Tasmanian tree frog and, of course, the Tasmanian devil, whose population has fallen by 90% since the late 1990s due to facial tumour disease. Greg’s aim is to rehabilitate and restore populations and get rewild as many animals as he can. In the meantime, visitors are allowed to interact with many of the animals in ways that won’t stress them. I hand-feed kangaroos, watch Randall the echidna slurp up ant mush with his long tongue and offer eucalyptus leaves to a rather bored-looking koala. 

If Tasmania is hell, like Di says, then I plan on being very, very bad indeed.    

Bennett's wallaby, one of the many curious creatures that call the island home.

Four more natural escapes

All afloat
Founded by Robert Pennicott, the first person to circumnavigate Australia in a rubber dinghy, Pennicott Wilderness Journeys offers a full-throttle adventure around the Tasmanian coast. Wrap up warm and take in sea caves, cliffside waterfalls, walls of Jurassic dolerite and freestanding sea stacks, all while passing Australian fur seals and flocks of giant albatross. Be sure to look south; the next landmass is Antarctica. 

Wine and wombats
At the conservation-led Bangor Vineyard Shed, a short drive from the state capital of Hobart, visitors can drop by for a twilight bus and walking tour to spot wombats, one of Tasmania’s most charismatic critters. After learning about the area’s unique ecosystem, guests will return to the restaurant for dinner — washed down, of course, with glasses of refreshing Tasmanian Chardonnay and mid-bodied Pinot Noir.     

Penguin parades
This far south, it’s no surprise that penguins can be seen on Tasmanian shores. The flightless birds make landfall on the northwest coast, where Bicheno Penguin Tours runs evening excursions to a private rookery. Watch as the creatures emerge from the sea and make their way uphill to their nests. Penguin numbers vary according to the season, with September to March being the best time to see them. 

Gone fishing
Tasmania’s first trout were introduced in 1864, having been delivered from Britain on the Norfolk ship. Today’s bronze beauties are descended from that original batch and are considered to be the purest of the species in the world. Stay at Currawong Lakes and don your waders with instructor Roger for a meditative session casting, catching and releasing fish while white-bellied sea eagles soar above. 

How to do it

From the UK: Authentic Vacations offers a seven-night Wildlife and Wilderness Journey with activities including a Little Penguin Encounter, Wineglass Bay Cruise in Freycinet National Park and a guided loop walk of Dove Lake in Cradle Mountain National Park. Transfers to/from Hobart to your downtown Hotel and a self-drive car for five days. From £1,898 per person based on two people sharing, travel year-round (some elements may vary depending on the month of travel), excluding flights. Airfares available upon request. 

From the US: Qantas Vacations offers the eight-day Wild Tasmania Immersion tour, including: three nights in Hobart; two nights on the east coast including Freycinet National Park, and two nights in Launceston for a guided tour of the Platypus House and a Tamar River Cataract Gorge cruise. Also included are activities such as kayaking, hiking, and a trip to Maria Island. From $1,849 per person, excluding flights. Airfares available upon request. 

To find out more and plan your own Tasmanian adventure, click here

Win a six-night trip to Tasmania! For more information, click here for UK visitors and here for US visitors. 

 

Published in the Adventure 2019 guide, distributed with the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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