It used to be a “mainlander’s” joke that Tasmania was twenty years behind the rest of Australia. And in some ways this island state remains old-fashioned, a trait that is charming and frustrating by turns. Yet increasingly Australians are beginning to wonder whether the joke might have been on them after all. The isolation that once stymied growth in Tasmania is now seen as an asset. More and more Aussies find themselves lured across the Bass Strait by the relaxed pace of life and outstanding wine and cuisine, as much as the state’s famously pristine environment. An increasing number of luxury hotels have appeared, too – chintz and doilies in heritage stays are out, cool contemporary beach-houses are in – and Australia’s most cutting-edge gallery, MONA in Hobart, definitively refutes accusations that Tasmania is backwards. The Tasmanian landscape – vast swathes of rainforest that date back to the last ice age, jagged glaciated mountains and white-powder beaches – still brings many visitors to the island. Even if you’re not particularly outdoorsy, the experience of visiting such a pure environment brings a tingle of exhilaration.
Tasmania has come a long way since it was known as Van Diemen’s Land. The sink of the British Empire, it hosted the worst of the worst convicts, and its name became so tainted with penal brutality that the state decided to rebrand when transportation ended in 1853. Even in the Nineties it still had a reputation as somewhere brooding, almost gothic. It was also renowned for its ties to the Old Country. Not only British in scale at roughly the size of Ireland, Tasmania retains rolling hills, hawthorn hedges and stone villages that recall England’s West Country, largely in the midlands between its two largest cities that were the axes of development, capital Hobart and Launceston in the north.
Yet if anything defines (and divides) Tasmania it is the environment. This is the closest point in Australia to the Antarctic Circle. The next land west is Argentina – air monitoring stations record the air in the state’s northwest as the purest in the world. With forty percent of the island protected in parks and reserves, Tasmania is one of the cleanest places on Earth. Much of the southwest is pure wilderness; a place of wild rivers, temperate rainforests, buttongrass plains and glacially carved mountains and tarns. Protected as a vast World Heritage Area, it offers some of the best wilderness walking and rafting in the world.
Cradle Mountain in the centre and Strahan on the west coast are the gateways from which most people experience the wild, forming two stops on a much-travelled loop that includes capital Hobart, with its must-see gallery and burgeoning food and arts scenes; convict history on the Tasman Peninsula; the string of beautiful beaches along the sunnier, drier east coast, the state’s holiday playground; and Launceston, the state’s second city and gateway to the vineyards of the Tamar Valley. Tick off the lot and you’ll have a taste of the state. Yet those less-visited corners are equally appealing: places like the far south down to Cockle Creek, a blend of wilderness, scenery and food culture; the sparsely populated northeast corner, home to the mesmerizing Bay of Fires beaches and Mount William National Park, a haven for Forrester kangaroo; or in the northwest small resorts like pretty Stanley or the isolated shack villages at Arthur River. All are places to slow down; to discover astonishing scenery and wildlife, perhaps settle into a free bushcamp for the night and revel in the purity of this environment.
The Dutch navigator Abel Tasman sighted 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 did not prove otherwise. It was Matthew Flinders’ discovery of the Bass Strait in 1798 that confirmed Tasmania as an island (and reduced the journey to Sydney by a week). In 1803, after a French expedition had been observed in the island’s southern waters, it was decided to establish a second colony in Australia, and Lieutenant David Bowen settled 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 convicts who had committed secondary offences after transportation. Lurid tales of the harsh conditions and violent regime enshrined Van Diemen’s Land in British folklore as a prison-island hell. In truth, many convicts enjoyed higher standards of living than they had in British and Irish slums, and some free settlers made fortunes.
The environmental debate
If we can revise our attitudes towards the land under our feet; if we can accept a role of steward, and depart from the role of conqueror; if we can accept the view that man and nature are inseparable parts of the unified whole – then Tasmania can be a shining beacon in a dull, uniform, and largely artificial world.
Olegas Truchanas, conservationist, 1971
Tasmania’s recent history has been shaped not by the postwar industrialization and immigration that transformed the mainland, but by battles over natural resources. Forests, fast-flowing rivers and mountainous terrain meant that forestry and hydroelectricity schemes began early here. The flooding of Lake Pedder in 1972 for the HEC (Hydro Electricity Commission) led to the formation of the Wilderness Society, a conservation organization that went on to lead the largest civilian protest in Australian history in 1982 – the so-called Franklin Blockade, which saved one of Tasmania’s last wild rivers and led to World Heritage status for a fifth of the state. Bitter controversy over the balance between conservation and exploitation of natural resources has long polarized the state’s population between “greenies” and loggers.
Yet after thirty years of conflict, sometimes fought tree by tree, the balance of power is shifting. After a moratorium on logging in 2010, the World Heritage area was extended by 170,000 hectares in June 2013 to include high-value old-growth forest in the Styx Valley, the nearby Weld and Upper Florentine valleys and the Great Western Tiers around Lake St Clair. Simultaneously a moratorium on logging remains in forests of the Blue Tier. Yet although state forestry arm Forestry Tasmania seems to accept the need for reform, forced by a collapse in native timber markets, the battleground has shifted. In February 2013, as timber prices slumped and prices for iron ore and bauxite soared through Asian demand, the federal government approved open-cut mining in the Tarkine region in the northwest, also home to the largest Gondwanan rainforest in Australia. At the time of writing, the Save the Tarkine movement (w tarkine.org) had appealed to the Federal Court.