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.