If you have a yen to go to Tasmania, here’s three key pieces of advice. Go in spring or autumn, take clothing and footwear for all seasons and, most importantly, allow more time than we had (18 days).
I’m taking up the travelogue as we arrived for three days in Hobart (having arranged to drop our car into the dealers to troubleshoot a faulty sensor). We checked in to the Hobart showgrounds, a spacious complex close to the city.
After luckily finding a good ‘local’ breakfast cafe in the city, we set off on a day tour of Hobart. The double-decker bus found its way into some tight spots (a lookout at Battery Point). Our driver informed us that Battery Point has the country’s most expensive real estate (per square metre). We spent an hour at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, a compact but very beautiful oasis with a Japanese garden (and an ice cream van we didn’t manage to find). We went to the Cascades and heard all about an early settler, Peter Degraves, who had a plan to use the crystal clear water from the Cascade springs to build a brewery.
He formed this plan while doing time in Hobart gaol for fraud. On his release in the early 1830s he set about building the Cascade Brewery, which is still operating, producing beers and non-alcoholic beverages. It is not only a working brewery but a tourist attraction.
In the afternoon we headed off on a catamaran which took us to one of Hobart’s modern curiosities, MONA (Museum of new and old art). The catamaran ride was splendid, sailing at speed under the Tasman Bridge, catching sight of Australia’s $529 million icebreaker, Nuyina, which is based in Hobart. (Ed: The boat ride was nice – MONA was pretentious, IMHO)
Saturday was a day of highlights. First a day trip through the beautiful Huon Valley to Geeveston where friends introduced us to a gourmet café, The Old Bank, which serves local game dishes. Go there! In the late afternoon we set off to Rosny, which is a nearby suburb of Hobart where songwriter Fred Smith was performing that night. Fred recruited a local band to present his latest concert about Afghanistan, which includes the evacuation of 4000+ people with Australian visas from Kabul Airport. It’s a harrowing audio-visual presentation with images, videos and Fred’s narration, coupled with his insightful songs about Afghanistan and Afghans.
On Sunday we set off for Port Arthur. Like all road journeys in Tasmania, the distances are short but the roads require more careful, slower driving than we are used to on the mainland. I’d not been to Port Arthur before, but the ruins of the convict colony are evocative and the guides are knowledgeable. This is one place where you could spend an extra day, as the ticket to the historic site is also good for the following day. There’s such a lot to take in.
On balance, our colonial forebears treated convicts as brutally as they slaughtered the indigenous people of Tasmania. The cat of nine tails, which was traditionally steeped in sea water so crusts would form on the knots, was a particularly barbarous instrument of punishment. It was not uncommon for convicts to receive 100 lashes. Some of them died as a result. It’s not hard to conjure up the atmosphere when this place was home to 2,000 people, including 1,200 criminals we’d call recidivists (re-offenders) today.
From Port Arthur we drove up the fabled East Coast with its scenic wonders and wildlife. On advice from a friend we stopped at Eaglehawk Neck, a narrow isthmus containing another convict relic. An officer’s garrison was built at Eaglehawk Neck to capture convicts trying to escape Port Arthur. The Dogline at the narrowest part of the neck is where a line of ferocious dogs patrolled to prevent convicts escaping. We also took in a couple of spectacular blow-holes which are common on the Tasman coast.
We were aiming for Swansea but accidentaily ended up at a lovely free camp at Mayfield Beach. The Mayfield Beach Conservation Area was quite popular but we managed to manoeuvre our van into a site under some trees. It was right next to the road but after 7pm there was so little traffic it was not an issue. The park is maintained by park rangers but is in fact a scenic reserve. There are loads of places like this around Tassie and the best part is that, unlike a lot of Queensland free camps, you can stay for 2, 3 or even 4 weeks. (The Mayfield Beach camp sign says in small letters that merely moving to a different site after 30 days is not permitted).
Next day we did tourist stops at Kate’s Berry Farm, a popular place for people who appreciate good coffee and blackberry jam. Then we went to a strange place called Spiky Bridge. It is part of the infrastructure built by convicts with the aim of thwarting overland escape from Port Arthur.
Later we took the steep walk to the lookout at Wineglass Bay, admiring the young couple who took a two-year-old girl and a baby in a backpack to the top and back again. Those kids will grow up loving the wilderness and never know why. The mother took our photo up there, while we were trying hard to look as if we had got our breath back, given the so-so cardio fitness of a pair of 73-year-olds. Friends who have done this walk in the past tell us it used to be a rock scramble to the top. No fancy lookout and safety barriers then.
We stopped the night at Bicheno at a caravan park because the Coles Bay national park camp site was full. The bonus was we could spend a good few hours at Natureworld, with its well-stocked aviaries, local fauna and a disease-free colony of Tasmanian Devils. We got there in time to watch these ugly critters fighting over a kangaroo tail. Been there, got the T-shirt. (Ed: they were a bit cute – like a Staffie!).
We ended up staying in a caravan park again at St Helen’s when, if we’d thought about it, we could have travelled into the Bay of Fires and stayed at one of the many free camps on the beach. Ah well. We had a jolly fine day trip including a walk along the beach from Walsh’s Lagoon. You can walk the whole 11km from Binalong Point to Eddistone Point along the the Bay of Fires. The walk is mainly along the beach but the trek implies a bit of organisation in a group with a car at either end. Bay of Fires is distinguished from other beaches by its orange granite rocks (the colour is caused by lichen. There are also ancient middens along this trail, evidence of indigenous settlement. We reached the northerly terminating road (The Gardens) near sunset which is the right time to be there although there was a bite to the wind.
We got chatting to a guy with a vintage Chev truck built on a Holden chassis with a V8 engine. He was on his way to a hot rod rally at Ulverstone near Devonport. The things people spend money on, eh!
Next day we set off on a hilly winding road to Scottsdale, stopping along the way at the Pyengana Cheese factory (recommended) where we had freshly made scones with home-made butter and cream. We bought our rellies some cheese to go with their Huon pine cheese board.
From there we drove on to one of Tasmania’s famous short walks – St Columba Falls. It is a short, east walk apart from a bit of downhill to the lookout. Because Tassie’s been in a drought the tallest falls in the State were not roaring like they usually do. but spectacular none the less.
The 15 minute walk goes through myrtle and sassafras groves with an under story of ferns, moss and fungi. Later on the drive we stopped at Weldsborough to check out an ancient myrtle grove with the ubiquitous understory of moss, fungi and ferns, Very dark and prehistoric.
Not everything in Tasmania looks like that. Earlier in the day I tried (and failed) to take a ‘Tasmanian Mullet’ photo – where the lower slopes of a steep hill had been clear felled for pasture, leaving forest remnants clinging to the top, like a monk’s tonsure.
The hilly drive to Scottsdale, east of Launceston, goes through the town of Derby which has become famous among mountain bike enthusiasts. There are several bike shops there which hire bikes and take riders in tour buses to the many organised trails through the hills.
We stayed at a free camp in Scottsdale, Northeast Park, which is named after George Northeast who first established a community pool and reserve there in the 1930s. The project was taken up again in the 1980s by the local Lions group who did a lot of work establishing picnic facilities and tracks for walkers and cyclists.
On our way to Devonport we stopped in at Sheffield, known as the town of murals, to catch up with friends. Saturday morning we queued to board the Spirit of Tasmania for a day voyage. The thoughtful people at Devonport provide a toilet for people sitting in their cars waiting to board. Four stars! And five stars to Bass Strait which turned on one of its swell-less days for a smooth voyage. We arrived in Melbourne at 8.30pm and then navigated our way through the suburbs to a caravan park in Coburg. (Ed: night driving on a Melbourne freeway not recommended when towing a van). t was the weekend of the Grand Prix so the van park was full and it took a while to sort out where we were supposed to park. But by 9.30 were set up – exhausted and ready for bed.
The journey home was Melbourne to Albury, then to Cowra which has a Japanese prisoner of war cemetery and a Japanese garden. On to Dunedoo where we ran into friends who were on their way to the National Folk Festival. Somewhere along the road I got a call from well-known folk singer Bob Fagan to say that my song, ‘When Whitlam took his turn at the wheel’, was this year’s recipient of the Alistair Hulett Songs for Social Justice award. It was presented at the National Folk Festival’s closing concert (in my absence). My songwriter friend Ross Clark who accepted the award on my behalf, has since been sending me photos of the award (like a garden gnome) posed in various locations as he travelled back to Brisbane.
I’ll leave you with this image, from Cowra Showgrounds, with a flotilla of road rigs (ours on the left) lined up ready for a 5am getaway. These are just a few of the 800,000 registered recreational vehicles on Australian roads. As the ABC reported this week, those on the road include families seeking lifestyle changes and ditching the school system after lengthy pandemic lockdowns and restrictions. Many are on the road permanently, both for reasons of lifestyle and necessity (more on that next week).
So that’s our land and sea return journey to Tasmania, some 6,500 kilometres in 30 days. Now you know why we needed to shout ourselves a night at Armidale’s Moore Park Inn and dinner at Archie’s restaurant on the last night. Hang the expense.
(all photos by Bob & Laurel Wilson)
PS: Last Saturday I got a call from an 03 number. I ignored it, as you do, but the number left a voice mail. It was a friendly young woman from TT-Line Company, better known as the Spirit of Tasmania. Had I lost anything on my recent holiday, Sally asked? ‘Ah, yeh, I still haven’t found my teblet’, I said, realising that when I’m anxious I revert to Kiwi. After a few key questions (make, size, colour), Sally asked for my pass code. It must be a different one to the one I use at home because it wouldn’t open. Not to be thwarted, Sally asked me if I had another email address (I do). I deduced she’d spotted my Gmail address when she tried to turn it on. I’m expecting it back any day now.