Around the Apple Isle: A Tasmanian Road Trip
Flying over Tasmania’s southern peninsula in a light plane reveals a landscape of green hills rolling into a deep blue sea. Forests fall away as rows of bare stone cliffs dive into the ocean, creating innumerable coves and rock formations that jut out of the water like submerged sea monsters.
The pilot of our four-seater seaplane points toward a group of yellow stone buildings clustered around an inlet. ‘Port Arthur’, he shouts over the engine noise. The previous evening I had visited the eerie historic site. From the modern perspective of the freedom of the air, you can see how difficult it would have been to escape this rugged beauty. The island was once known not as a pristine natural environment, but as a feared penal colony named Van Deimen’s Land.
Tasmania, as it was renamed in 1856, is an island state separated from the rest of Australia by two hundred and forty kilometres of ocean called Bass Strait. These days it has a relaxed and unhurried island atmosphere that sets it apart from the mainland. It has preserved a third of its diverse landscape as national park, and retains vivid traces of history that you won’t find anywhere else in the country.
Tasmania looks like a small dot below the east coast of the huge mass that is continental Australia, but in fact it’s the same size as Ireland or Sri Lanka. The climate is closer to the green and pleasant lands of England than Australia’s popular image of red outback desert. The mountains are far from Himalayan in size, but there are a number of peaks that rise up dramatically to over fifteen hundred meters, and spend months of the year with a top coating of snow. Mount Wellington is one of these, and makes a magnificent backdrop for Hobart, the capital city which is home forty percent of the state’s half a million people.
Most visitors fly into Hobart, in the far south of the island, though there are car and passenger ferries between Sydney, Melbourne and the northern city of Launceston. Hobart comes into the national spotlight once a year as the Sydney to Hobart yacht race comes into town. Its deepwater harbour is the focal point of the city. The wharf area backs onto the low-rise CBD, and the historic warehouses and sandstone buildings have now been converted into fashionable apartments, surrounded by galleries, cafes and restaurants. The rest of the city is made up of colourful wooden houses sprawling over rolling hills, peppered with historic buildings from the days Hobart was a whaling village, home to boat builders, colonial administrators, and a stopping of point for sailors, merchants and convicts.
The easiest way to get around is to hire a car for around $A35-50 a day, and head out on the road. A round trip taking you up the historic inland highway, along the picturesque towns on the north coast, then down to Cradle Mountain and the east coast road back to the peninsula and Hobart will cover around 1,500 kilometres and can take around a week with stops. All along the journey there are heritage buildings that have been converted into cosy guesthouses with open fires for the winter and expansive balconies overlooking forest and farmland where you can enjoy locally produced oysters and red wine on a warm summer evening.
The inland towns were set up as staging posts for the journey between Hobart and Launceston. Conflict with the local Aboriginals in the early to mid-nineteenth century meant travellers needed a safe place to stay the night before continuing their slow horse-drawn journey. Now the distance of 200 kilometres can be made in a few hours. The towns of Ross or Oatlands are sparsely inhabited and little changed from the last century, and make for an interesting stop to break up the journey. But most people are still passing through, with travellers heading to the spectacular inland national parks, dotted with highland lakes and overseen by the iconic Cradle Mountain. You can stay on the mountain in chalets above the snowline, or set off into the wilderness. Hundreds of square kilometres of surrounding land, from alpine meadows to thick forest and bushland, create a hiker’s paradise offering short loop walks to week long treks with huts scattered for overnight stays.
At dusk and dawn the wildlife is most active. Australia’s usual favourites are on display, as well as a unique native that has evolved in Tasmania’s isolation. The rough grunting bark you hear echoing in the gum trees as the last light adds a pink tinge to the clouds belongs to a cute but vocal koala. Native opossums with bright eyes and thick dark fur scamper along roadsides. Kangaroos or wallabies may be found grazing or lounging at the edge of a clearing. Wombats, about the height of a dog, but big and round with about four times their mass, can be seen pushing their way through bush on the way back to their burrow. To guarantee animal sights, and to see the most famous inhabitant, the Tasmanian Devil, you can visit a nature park. The Devil is a strange looking animal that looks a little like a particularly aggressive bear has been squeezed the body of a thickset, small dog. It has coarse black fur, a fierce set of jaws and a temperament to match.
Back on the road, the garden city of Launceston and the northern towns of Devonport and Bernie make pleasant places to stay after a day winding around coast roads scattered with sweeping views of inlets and green farmland set against bright blue skies and ocean. The north-east corner of the island houses Ben Lomond, its name and appearance reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands home to some of the original settlers who left the UK to fish, farm and establish the colony. In winter it’s popular with cross-country skiers, in summer it’s another favourite of hikers, with great views from the 1,573 metre summit down to the nearby ocean.
The next stage of the journey takes you down Tasmania’s most scenic east coast, where the road is often in sight of the ocean and dotted with a series of fishing villages, complete with bright coloured boats reflecting in calm water harbours. The jewel of the east coast is the Freycinet National Park, which contains the stunning Wine Glass Bay. While kayaking and hiking is popular in the coastal park, most visitors come to make their way up a gentle hour long climb away from the road, to crest the peak and look down upon the bay that curves in a vast elegant arch, laced with a pristine white sand beach.
The east coast ends in the Tasman Peninsula, a dramatic piece of land jutting out into the southern ocean, connected to the rest of the island by a thin strip of land less than one hundred metres wide. The peninsula was used to imprison the most dangerous convicts, and the narrow bottleneck was guarded by soldiers and fierce dogs. At the far end of the peninsula, eighty kilometres from Hobart, sits Port Arthur, Tasmania’s most visited site. It’s a collection of thirty buildings and ruins that were established in 1830 and active for the following fifty years, becoming the most notorious penal settlement in Australia. The conditions for the convicts were harsh. Twilight tours of the old asylum, jail and derelict buildings give a spooky sense of the suffering that took place. It’s billed as a ‘ghost tour’ and stories are told by lantern light of men who died here and have haunted the dank stone rooms and passageways ever since.
But in the bright light of day, Port Arthur, with its bright blue water, layers of hills and sparkling sunny blue skies gives little hint of it’s dark past. The collection of buildings are now exclusively a tourist site, with a well organised visitors centre where people speak in many languages as they trail along with the guides that are included with the $A25 entrance fee. The site feels like an anomaly amongst the pleasant surrounding farms and inlets.
My last act before driving back to Hobart airport was the taking the short sight-seeing flight over the Peninsula. The ocean takes on deeper green from the air, and cove after cove comes into view, lapped by gentle waves that catch the sun and sparkle like jewels. Today’s visitors to Tasmania will find traces of the history that made life for some a hell on earth, but the island has become something closer to a preserved paradise.
Check out Will’s book “The Highway“, which was published in India in June 2004.
Zac Goodman disappears while paragliding in the Himalaya. The only clue his companion finds to aid his search is a manuscript describing their motorcycle journey from the Himalaya, to mystical encounters in the sacred cities, and on a violent reunion in Goa.
Set entirely in India, The Highway takes a lucid, otherworldly trip to the end of the road. For more info please see www.willmarks.com.