There’s an otherworldly quality to TASMANIA, with its landscapes of ancient rainforest and brooding mountains. In its past as prison island Van Diemen’s Land, it became so tainted in the public mind with convict brutality that its name was changed in a rebranding exercise. These days, the island is a far friendlier place. With distances comprehensible to a European traveller – it’s roughly the size of Ireland – and echoes of England, Tasmania has a homespun, small-town charm. The gentle and cultivated midlands, with their rolling hills, dry-stone walls and old stone villages, are reminiscent of England’s West Country – a deliberate attempt to re-create home by colonial settlers. Town names, too, invariably invoke the British Isles – Perth, Swansea, Brighton and Dover among them.
It’s a “mainlander’s” joke that Tasmania is twenty years behind the rest of Australia, and in some ways the state remains old-fashioned, a trait that is charming and frustrating by turns. However, things are changing fast. In the last decade, thanks in part to cheaper and more frequent flights, the isolation that once stymied growth has become an asset. The purity of the environment has seen Tasmania win accolades for its wine industry and the superb cuisine rustled up in a newly sophisticated café and restaurant scene. More than anything, Tasmania has re-evaluated its pristine wilderness regions to rebrand itself from heritage island to eco-adventure destination; a sort of New Zealand in the mainland’s backyard.
Tasmania is the closest point in Australia to the Antarctic Circle, and the west coast is windswept, wet and savage, bearing the full brunt of the Roaring Forties. Much of the southwest is pure wilderness; a place of wild rivers, impassable temperate rainforests, buttongrass plains and glacially carved mountains and tarns that form a vast World Heritage Area, crossed only by the Lyell Highway, and offer some of the world’s best wilderness walking and rafting. With forty percent of the island protected in parks and reserves, it’s still one of the cleanest places on Earth: a wilderness walk, breathing the fresh air and drinking freely from tannin-stained streams, is a genuinely exhilarating experience.
A north–south axis divides the settled areas, with the two major cities, Hobart, the capital, in the south, and Launceston in the north. The northwest coast, facing the mainland across the Bass Strait, is the most densely populated region by local standards and home to Tasmania’s two smaller cities, Devonport (where Bass Strait ferries dock) and Burnie. Tasmania’s central plateau, with its thousands of lakes, is sparsely populated, mainly by weekenders in fishing shacks. The sheltered, drier east coast is the state’s holiday playground, with a string of beautiful beaches set against a backdrop of bush-clad hills.
The Dutch navigator Abel Tasman sighted the west coast of the island in 1642. Landing a party on its east coast, he named it Van Diemen’s Land in honour of the governor of the Dutch East Indies. Early maps showed it connected to the mainland, and several eighteenth-century French and British navigators, including Bruny d’Entrecasteaux, William Bligh and James Cook – who claimed it for the British – did not prove otherwise. Matthew Flinders’ discovery of the Bass Strait in 1798 reduced the journey to Sydney by a week. In 1803, after Nicholas Baudin’s French expedition had been observed around the island’s southern waters, it was decided to establish a second colony in Australia and Lieutenant David Bowen was dispatched to Van Diemen’s Land, settling with a group of convicts on the banks of the Derwent River at Risdon Cove. In the same year, Lieutenant-Colonel John Collins set out from England with another group to settle the Port Phillip district of what would become Victoria; after a few months they gave up and crossed the Bass Strait to join Bowen’s group. Hobart Town was founded in 1804 and the first penal settlement opened at Macquarie Harbour (Strahan) in 1821, followed by Maria Island and Port Arthur; they were mainly for those who had committed further offences while still prisoners on the mainland. Lurid tales of the harsh conditions and repressive, violent regime enshrined Van Diemen’s Land in British folklore as a prison-island hell; not entirely accurately since many convicts enjoyed higher standards of living than they had in British slums and some free settlers made fortunes. Collins was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land until his death in 1810, but it is Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur (1824–36) who has the more prominent position in the island’s history. He instigated the prison settlement at Port Arthur and was in charge at the time of the Black Line, an organized white militia against the Aboriginal population.Read More
When to go
When to go
It rarely gets above 28 °C during the day in Tasmania, even in high summer, and the weather is notoriously changeable, particularly in the uplands, where it can sleet and snow at any time of year; the most stable month is February. Winter (June–Aug) is a cold time to visit unless you choose the more temperate east coast; wilderness walks are best left to the most experienced and well equipped at this time of year.
The environmental debate
The environmental debate
Tasmania’s recent history has been shaped not by the postwar industrialization and immigration that transformed the mainland but by a battle over natural resources. Forests and water, and the mountainous terrain and fast-flowing rivers meant that forestry and hydroelectricity schemes began early here, under the auspices of the Hydro Electricity Commission (HEC). The flooding of Lake Pedder in 1972 led to the formation of the Wilderness Society, a conservation organization whose successful Franklin Blockade in 1982 saved one of Tasmania’s last wild rivers. Bitter controversy over the best balance between conservation and exploitation of natural resources has long polarized the state’s population between “greenies” and “traditionalists”, the former infuriated that major political parties allow the clear-felling of old-growth forests (followed by incineration of the remnants with napalm). Most wood ends up as woodchips for export to Asian paper manufacturers; Tasmania is the only state in Australia that woodchips its rainforests. After thirty years of fighting, a breakthrough came in December 2010 when an interim moratorium on logging of high-conservation areas such as the Styx Valley, the nearby Weld and Upper Florentine valleys and the Blue Tier was announced, while a deal to phase out logging of native old-growth forest was negotiated. Possible compensation for the forestry industry remains an issue, but the move is widely seen as the first step towards ending logging of native forest throughout Australia.
The Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania
The Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania
The demise of the Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania is one of the most tragic episodes of recent history. Ironically, were it not for American and British sealers and whalers, who had operated on Van Diemen’s Land since 1793, abducting Aboriginal women and taking them to the Furneaux Islands in the Bass Strait as mistresses, the Tasmanian Aborigines could have disappeared entirely. Until recently, schoolbooks stated that the last Aboriginal Tasmanian was Truganini, who died at Oyster Cove, south of Hobart, in 1876. Not true – in fact, a strong Aboriginal movement has grown up in Tasmania.
Raised ocean levels after the last Ice Age separated the Aboriginal people of Tasmania from the mainland and caused isolation that was both genetic and cultural: for example, they couldn’t make fire but kept alight smouldering fire-sticks, and their weapons were simple clubs and spears not boomerangs. In appearance, the men wore their hair in long ringlets smeared with grease and red ochre, while women’s heads were closely shaved, and, to keep warm, they coated their bodies with a paste of animal fat, ochre and charcoal; women often wore a kangaroo-skin cloak.
When the first white settlement was established in the early 1800s there were reckoned to be about five thousand Aboriginal people in Tasmania, divided into bands who shared a language and culture, socialized, intermarried and – crucially – fought against other bands. They also traded and moved peacefully across neighbouring territory to share resources. Once the nomadic tribes realized the white settlers were not going to “share” resources in this traditional exchange, confrontation was inevitable. Tit-for-tat skirmishes in the 1820s led state governor George Arthur to declare martial law in 1828, expelling all Aboriginal people from settled districts and giving settlers licence to shoot on sight. To end the bloodshed, the government planned to confine the remaining Aborigines on Bruny Island, south of Hobart Town, and in 1830, a militia of three thousand settlers swept the island in a dragnet known as the Black Line.
The ploy failed, but betrayal between rival bands did the job instead and in 1834, the last 135 Aborigines were moved to a makeshift settlement on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait. Within four years most had died through disease or the harsh conditions. The 47 survivors were transferred to their final settlement at Oyster Cove, near Hobart, in 1837. The skeleton of that group’s last survivor, Truganini, originally from Bruny Island, was displayed in the Tasmanian Museum until 1976, when her remains were finally cremated and scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.
The mixed-race descendants of the Aboriginal Tasmanians, known as the Palawa, were given a voice by the establishment of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) in the 1970s. A push for land rights handed it control of historic areas of Flinders Island in 1999 and, in 2005, Cape Barren Island to its south. Pride in Aboriginal roots grew, too: in a 1981 census, 2700 Tasmanians ticked the Aboriginal box; by 2001 that number was 16,000. Ironically, this huge increase has riled the TAC, whose sympathies lie with the distinct Bass Strait communities that can trace their lineage back to the late 1700s.
The Van Diemen’s Land Company
The Van Diemen’s Land Company
The Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL) was the brainchild of a group of prominent and well-connected individuals, who in 1824 managed to obtain by Royal Charter 250,000 acres of the mainly thickly forested, unexplored northwest corner of Tasmania. Their plan was to create their own source of fine wool in the colonies, which could be relied upon even if Europe was subject to political upheaval; the Tranmere arrived at Circular Head in 1826, with the personnel, livestock, supplies and equipment to create the township of Stanley.
The first flocks were grazed at Woolnorth on Cape Grim, a plateau of tussock grass and trees that might have been made for the purpose but, in fact, was prime Aboriginal hunting land. When hunting parties began to take the precious sheep, whites killed Aborigines in retaliation, and a vindictive cycle of killings began. The most tragic incident (a version of events denied by Woolnorth) was supposed to have occurred around 1826 or 1827: a group of Aboriginal men, seeking revenge for the rape of their women, speared a shepherd and herded one hundred sheep over the cliff edge. These deaths were ruthlessly avenged when a group of thirty unarmed Aborigines, hunting for muttonbirds near the same spot, were killed by shepherds and their bodies thrown over the cliff (now euphemistically called “Suicide Bay”). Ultimately, the Aboriginal people of the northwest were systematically hunted down: the last group, middle-aged parents and their five sons, were captured by sealers near the Arthur River in 1842 after the VDL’s chief agent offered a £50 reward.
In the 1840s the company changed its emphasis from wool production to the sale and lease of its land, and it now holds just a fifth of its original land. Still registered on the London Stock Exchange, it is the only remaining company in the world operating under a Royal Charter; its major shareholder, who bought 87.5 percent of the shares in 1993, is a New Zealand-based agribusiness in Dunedin.