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 Strahanon 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.
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.
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 and lived with Aboriginal women on the Furneaux Islands in the Bass Straits, 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 (women’s heads were closely shaved) and, to keep warm, they used a paste of animal fat, ochre and charcoal.
Upon white settlement 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, 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 has riled the TAC, whose sympathies lie with the Bass Strait communities who can trace their lineage back to the late 1700s.
Water, wilderness and wildlife – in many ways the landscapes around Hobart are Tasmania in miniature. Once the region that put the apple into the state’s Apple Isle nickname, the bucolic D’Entrecasteaux Channel south of the capital has diversified in produce recently – nowadays this area has more than its fair share of artisan producers making fine cheeses and wines. Even Bruny Island across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel has acquired a foodie focus, but it’s still better known as Hobart’s favourite getaway because of its beautiful beaches, bushwalks and a superb eco-cruise – small wonder it’s shifting rapidly upmarket. North of Hobart are two day-trips that sum up the diversity so close to the capital. Northwest, the forest and subalpine landscapes of the Mount Field National Park hint at the great southwest wilderness beyond, while Richmond northeast is all about the cosy character of a pretty historic village.
A jagged fin rising to an upturned crescent ridge, Cradle Mountain’s outline is so perfect it could have been designer-drawn; indeed it has become visual shorthand for the state itself. It has also turned Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park into the best-known of Tasmania’s wilderness regions, and the park’s 1612 square kilometres have loads to offer, including the country’s best bushwalk, the Overland Track. One of the most glaciated areas in Australia, this wild region of rivers, buttongrass plains and alpine moorland covers some of Tasmania’s highest land and is punctuated by its highest point, Mount Ossa (1617m), one of many jagged dolerite peaks in the park. Lake St Clair, which bookends the park’s south end as Cradle Mountain does the north, is the deepest freshwater lake in Australia at over 200m.
Cradle Mountain is easily accessible from Devonport, Deloraine or Launceston, and the park’s southern Lake St Clair end from Derwent Bridge on the Lyell Highway between Queenstown and Hobart. Most visitors spend a day around Cradle Mountain only – a breathtaking sight despite its popularity; the south is less obviously scenic even though good walks are within reach. The Overland Track threads between the two, attracting walkers from all over the world to lose themselves in pure wilderness and stunning scenery over six or more mud- and often leech-filled days of exhilarating exhaustion.
Some moan it’s in danger of being loved to death, but most hikers agree the Overland Track remains Australia’s greatest extended bushwalk: 65km, unbroken by roads and passing through fields of wild flowers, and forests of deciduous beech, Tasmanian myrtle, pandanus and King Billy pine, with side-walks leading to views of waterfalls and lakes, and starting points for climbs of the various mountain peaks. Most of the track is well-maintained boardwalk but you may still end up ankle-deep in mud. Along the route are six basic coal-stove- or gas-heated huts (not for cooking – bring your own stove), with composting toilets outside. But there’s no guarantee there’ll be space, so you need a good tent – they’re usually warmer than huts, too – and a warm sleeping bag even in summer.
The direct walk generally takes six days – five, if you catch a boat from Narcissus Hut across Lake St Clair, or up to ten if you want to go on some of the side-walks – and demands that walkers carry enough food and fuel for the duration, plus extra supplies in case you have an accident or bad weather sets in. All water en route is potable.
Around eight thousand people walk the track each year, most between November and April. While the track is at its most crowded from Christmas to the end of January, it is at its best during February and March when the weather has stabilized. Such is the route’s popularity, a quota system has been introduced to regulate numbers to 60 departures a day between October and May. Walkers must book their place to walk (overlandtrack.com.au) and pay $200 per person in addition to the park entry fee; if it softens the pain of the outlay, your money goes to the park’s conservation. During this period, the walk is north to south only, a good idea at any rate since it’s more downhill than up.
During other months you can register in the national park offices at Cradle Mountain or Lake St Clair, where you receive an obligatory briefing and have your gear checked over. At either end you can purchase Tasmap’s Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair map – an essential purchase despite the boardwalks – and pick up one of several guidebooks that are useful for novice walkers.
With moderate fitness and experience, appropriate gear and a fair reserve of stamina, most walkers can tackle the track. However, guided tours will share the loads of tents and food, provide a richer appreciation of the wilderness and get someone else to do the cooking. Both of these depart from Launceston.
Tasmanian Expeditionstasmanianexpeditions.com.au. Runs trips from the standard six to nine days, including trips that divert into Pine Valley and winter treks that require the use of snowshoes.
Cradle Mountain Huts cradlehuts.com.au. Provides wilderness without the wild thanks to accommodation in private lodges – you’ll have hot showers and a delicious meal before a proper bed each night.
There’s beautiful scenery west of Launceston. Tiny towns sit in rich farmland and beside green river vales, all rolling up to the wall-like Great Western Tiers, where Tasmania’s Central Plateau drops abruptly to the surrounding plains. The area’s main destination is Deloraine, which leads a double life as a farming and arts centre, and the nearby village of Mole Creek, gateway to the caves of Tassie’s only underground national park. Both serve as a base for day-walks but the best walking hereabouts is in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, fast gaining a reputation as an alternative to Cradle Mountain.
Draped over hills beside the Meander River, DELORAINE is a pleasant spot on the route west. The area was settled by Europeans in the 1830s, but Deloraine was a late-starter, developing from 1846, and today it’s National Trust classified, its backstreets stuffed with historic houses. But don’t let that put you off – architecture is only a backdrop to this town’s quietly bohemian vibe. Numerous arts and crafts galleries line the streets – for a taster there’s Deloraine Creative Studios, the outlet for several local producers, and the largest of the many shops in town. For crafts overload, there’s the Tasmanian Craft Fair in late October/early November, when around ten thousand visitors browse and buy from the largest crafts gathering in Australia.
Close to prime bushwalking areas in the Western Tiers, Deloraine doubles as a base for walkers. Pick up the free leaflet issued by Forestry Tasmania, Visiting the Great Western Tiers, from the Deloraine visitor centre; it has a map of the Meander Forest Reserve that includes surrounding day-walks. Popular tracks include the stroll to Alum Cliffs, an impressive and unexpected gorge in the Mersey River (40min return) of Aboriginal significance, that’s signposted on the road between Chudleigh and Mole Creek; a difficult walk to Quamby Bluff, renowned for its myrtle rainforest (6.5km; 6hr; beginning at Brodies Rd, off the Lake Highway); and the track to gorgeous Liffey Falls (8km; 3hr; beginning at the picnic ground 5km west of the tiny community of Liffey). Another excellent day-walk visits Meander Falls in the Meander Forest Reserve, about 25km south of Deloraine, although on our last visit the Meander Falls Bridge had been washed away. Seek updates at the visitor centre.
Part of the World Heritage Area, the Walls of Jerusalem National Park is one of Tassie’s finest wilderness areas. It jigsaws into the Cradle Mountain area and shares many of its characteristics – a series of craggy dolerite peaks that enclose a central basin and miles of glaciated lakes, pencil pines and open moorland. What sets the Walls of Jerusalem apart from Cradle Mountain is the lack of visitors. Snow is possible even in January, so be well prepared. The most settled months are February and April.
As the Walls of Jerusalem is the only national park in Tasmania you can’t drive into, the walk in begins outside the park boundaries. The standard approach is from Mole Creek, then south, following the Mersey River via the unsealed road east of Lake Rowallan to a car park. You ascend through forest into the park, which has no ranger outpost (although rangers do patrol). However, tracks are well kept, with boardwalks laid in places, there’s plenty of clean water to drink from the streams and there are a couple of camping platforms with composting toilets – the old wooden trappers’ huts are really for emergencies only.
For years the Walls was something of a walkers’ secret. Now visitor numbers have so increased that, in 2013, PWS mooted summer quotas to preserve the delicate habitat. Visit the website for up-to-date information.
If anywhere in Tasmania conforms to the Aussie stereotype of white beaches and azure seas beneath a cloudless sky, it is the east coast. Sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds and washed by warm currents (well, warm by local standards), this is the state’s holiday playground; cheerful and unpretentious, not to mention sunnier and drier than elsewhere thanks to prevailing weather patterns. Small wonder it’s popular – prices go up and accommodation is scarce from Christmas to mid-February during school summer holidays.
The Gold Coast this is not, however. The coastline itself remains relatively undeveloped, and the few settlements are small-fry fishing and holiday towns like Swansea and Bicheno. It speaks volumes that St Helens, gateway to the spectacular white beaches of the Bay of Fires, is the largest settlement with a population of just over two thousand. If even that seems too many, there are four national parks for escape, including Maria Island (the whole island), an entire peninsula at Freycinet National Park and staggeringly beautiful empty beaches in Mount William National Park at the northeast tip of the state. Come to kayak, surf, swim or just enjoy the salt-tanged atmosphere. And if that sounds good, the string of bushcamps here lets you stay at the fringes of one beautiful beach after another, often without paying a cent.
Perhaps the best reasons to visit St Helens are the sugary white beaches which arc before an aquamarine sea in the Bay of Fires Coastal Reserve. Explorer Tobias Furneaux coined the name in 1773 when he passed a coastline illuminated by the cooking fires of Aboriginal tribes. The reserve stretches north up the coast for over 30km, all the way to Eddystone Point, but most people are content to dawdle on those that scallop the coast north of Binalong Bay, 17km east of St Helens and still a sleepy village despite its magic setting. Beyond the beach at the village, beaches are accessed off the road to The Gardens, each with a basic bushcamp behind. The Gardens itself, 13km north, is gentrifying fast with holiday shacks being replaced by glass-walled holiday houses. Note that there’s no transport to Binalong Bay but it’s an easy cycle ride from St Helens.
The northern end of the Bay of Fires falls within the lower half of Mount William National Park; to get there take the rough road running inland north for 54km from St Helens to the pink-granite tower of the Eddystone Lighthouse. The northern end of the park is reached via Gladstone (east of Launceston) on an unsealed track to Great Musselroe Bay, where there’s a free basic campsite. There are no real tracks within the park itself, but plenty of astonishingly beautiful beach and headland walking, and lots of Forrester kangaroos.
The fame of Wineglass Bay, the most celebrated beach in Tasmania, ensures a steady stream of visitors to Freycinet National Park (pronounced “fray-zin-ay”) even in winter. It is one of the east coast’s poster destinations, something that grants its gateway village, Coles Bay, a popularity out of all proportion to its size. Fortunately the beach and national park beyond live up to the hype – there are beautiful beaches, thick bush, granite mountains that glow orange at sunset and some excellent walking, including what is arguably Tasmania’s best introduction to multiday bushwalking (certainly its sunniest).
The park begins just beyond Coles Bay at the national park office, which sells maps and booklets on day-walks. Here, too, is Richardsons Beach, the first of many idyllic little beaches further around the bay; Honeymoon Bay is gorgeous. Walking tracks into the park proper start at the Walking Track Car Park, a further 4km from the office. Water is scarce, so carry all you’ll need or ask the rangers about safe streams. Shorter walks are well-marked: most walkers head off on the easy ascent to the lookout over exquisite Wineglass Bay, with its perfect curve of white beach. To make a half-day of it, continue down to the beach itself (2.6km return to the lookout, 1–2hr; 5km return to the beach, 2hr 30min–3hr 30min), then return by cutting across the isthmus and following the shore back. For longer hikes, the 27km peninsula circuit is excellent. You could blast it in 10hr, but it’s best done over two days with a night at a campsite on Cooks Beach – a good dry run (literally) for longer Tassie hikes.
Uninhabited save for its park ranger, Maria Island (pronounced “Ma-rye-a”) is 15km off the east coast and accessed by ferry from Triabunna. The beaches are excellent, and the walks and mountain-bike rides are easy, with broad tracks and few hills to climb. Maria Island also appeals for its wildlife, especially the prolific birdlife, with over 130 species; it’s the only national park containing all eleven of the state’s endemic bird species, including the rare forty-spotted pardalote and Cape Barren geese. A decision to transfer a small population of threatened Tasmanian devils to the island in 2013 only confirmed Maria’s status as a Noah’s Ark for native species. You can just about sample the island on a hurried day-trip, but if you crave playing the castaway, treat yourself to an overnight stay.
The Huonville Highway (A6) is the fast route to a great escape south of Hobart. Initially, it rolls through the pretty bucolic landscapes around Huonville. Yet the further you go, the more the landscape takes over. Forestry remains important around Geeveston and while some magnificent old-growth rainforests in surrounding valleys were included in the expansion of the World Heritage Area in 2013, the conservation battles in the area are unlikely to end soon. The Tahune Forest AirWalk is the leading tourism sight, though if you prefer your scenery without railings the alpine Hartz Mountains National Park may appeal. Arguably more inspiring still is Cockle Creek, the most southerly point accessible by road in Australia and the gateway into the Southwest National Park.
Once the Ida Bay Railway was just a hauler of timber for export. Today the claim to fame of this tiny 1940s bush-train is that it is Australia’s southernmost railway. Journeys embark south of Southport at Ida Bay and pootle through the bush to reach a lonely bit of coast. In theory it’s a two-hour return journey, but this makes an ideal day-trip if you bring a picnic then catch a later train home.
For many visitors, Cockle Creek provides an accessible taste of Tasmania’s south coast; an utterly remote region otherwise experienced only by hikers who tackle the South Coast Track, an isolated nine-day haul that’s for very experienced and well-prepared bushwalkers only. From the statue of the southern right whale, an easy walk to Fishers Point takes you around a headland (4km return; up to 2hr). But since you’ve come this far, it’s better to make a day-trip of it and walk to South Cape Bay (4hr return; moderate difficulty). After a boardwalked though occasionally muddy hike through rainforest, you emerge at a sweep of wild surf beach where civilization feels long distant and the next land south is Antarctica. Magic.
Australia’s most southerly city, state capital HOBART is small but beautifully sited. On one side is the broad Derwent River and behind rises Mount Wellington, often dusted with snow in winter and a hint of the southwest wilderness beyond. Both conspire to make the city feel that bit more remote than other Australian capitals. For decades Hobart was derided as the backwater of Australia and the tourist experience was low-key; visitors came to eat and drink at the pubs near the old docks, or to browse the craft shops at the historic stone warehouses of Salamanca Place. But the opening of MONA gallery in 2010 has been a game-changer. Hobart has always had an alternative, creative streak, and nowadays it positively hums with optimism. Every weekend, interstate visitors fly in to see the gallery, sample the profusion of restaurants, cafés and shops and sample the city’s relaxed lifestyle. And in 2013 Australian luxury travel magazine Gourmet Traveller named Hobart the most happening city in Australia.
This newly acquired gloss is laid over a fine architectural heritage, accounting for much of Hobart’s appeal. Australia’s second-oldest city after Sydney, Hobart escaped the worst excesses of developers, and its early buildings are better preserved than those in any other antipodean city. There’s a wealth of Georgian architecture – over ninety buildings are classified by the National Trust, most on Macquarie and Davey streets – while urban village Battery Point can hardly have changed in appearance in 150 years.
Yet architecture is not really the point. A couple of outstanding museums aside – not least MONA – Hobart has little that demands your attention, but much to enjoy. With its blossoming arts and food cultures, and its backdrops of water and historic buildings, Hobart has matured into a nicely quirky, quietly self-assured capital. It’s not nearly as contemporary as Sydney, Melbourne or even Perth, of course, nor would Hobartians want it to be. As they never tire of telling you, its small size and relaxed pace make it one of Australia’s most liveable capitals, and for visitors that makes it a great place in which to simply hang out. There are some great walks in its backyard, too.
Accommodation in Hobart is not especially cheap, especially during peak season when bookings are essential. City centre and dockside hotels command premium prices. Motels are generally cheaper but situated outside in Sandy Bay, about 3km south of the centre. Backpackers’ hostels can be fairly shabby – don’t be afraid to ask to see a room but be aware that your options are limited in January.
Hobart’s eating scene has never been more exciting, with critics celebrating its concept restaurants that showcase seasonal, local ingredients. All very impressive, yet fish and chips eaten from fishermen’s punts in Constitution Dock can provide as enjoyable a meal and old favourites retain the easy charm of Tassie dining. Salamanca Place offers the widest choice in the centre – a couple of superb options aside, the CBD is better for cafés – while the short bar-and-restaurant strip in North Hobart (aka “NoHo”) is the choice of many Hobart locals.
In the centre, Hobart’s small nightlife scene centres on the water: Salamanca Place and Franklin’s Wharf are boisterous good fun at weekends. To tap into the locals’ scene try North Hobart – most pub gig venues appeal for a drink, too. Free gigs are staged in the open-air courtyard behind the Salamanca Arts Centre on Friday evenings during “Rektango” sessions – a local institution.
Hobart’s premier event is the last part of the Sydney–Hobart yacht race. The two hundred or so yachts, which leave Sydney on December 26, start to arrive in Hobart on December 28, making for a lively New Year’s Eve waterfront party. The race coincides with the state’s largest festival, The Taste (tastefestival.com.au), an erstwhile food jamboree to promote Tasmanian produce that has morphed into a week-long party with music and theatre. The Australian Wooden Boat Festival runs over three days in early February in odd-numbered years, and fills the docks with beautiful historic craft (australianwoodenboatfestival.com.au). In late October the Royal Hobart Show agricultural festival provides four fun days of country fare.
MONA has recently added a couple of events to the Hobart calendar. MONA FOMA (mona.net.au), aka MOFO, brings free gigs from artists on the avant-garde side of rock, such as Nick Cave, DJs and performance artists to Princes Wharf, Salamanca, for a week in mid-January. And in June, MONA’s winter solstice arts festival, DARK MOFO, sees the iconoclastic gallery run riot around the city, with cutting-edge arts installations at several sites.
As the second-largest city after Hobart, with around 104,000 inhabitants, LAUNCESTON is the natural rival to the capital. Like Hobart, it is sited on a waterway, the Tamar River, and has plenty of historic architecture along with a matching colonial history; it has even acquired similar art and food cultures, and locals argue that their city stands up to comparison with Hobart. In truth though, Tasmania’s “northern capital” remains an oversized provincial town. Not that that is such a terrible thing. A small scale means that nothing in the town – from the excellent gallery-museum and increasingly sophisticated restaurant and café scene to the rugged beauty of Cataract Gorge – is more than twenty minutes’ walk away. And the surrounding vineyards of the Tamar Valley or the ice-shattered summit of Ben Lomond National Park are well within an hour’s drive.
Fine soil, sun-soaked slopes and a warm(ish) climate have elevated the Tamar Valley into Tasmania’s premier wine country. Growing areas cluster around Rosevears on the west bank and the Pipers River area east of George Town but are spread throughout the area. Armed with a Tamar Valley Wine Route brochure from the visitor centre in Launceston (tamarvalleywineroute.com.au), you could explore the countryside dropping into vineyards to sample crisp and fresh cool-climate wines – pinot noir and sparkling wines are specialities. Most are open daily 10am–5pm, though many close in July and August.
Delamere Vineyard delamerevineyards.com.au. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay crafted by traditional methods are the mainstay of this small-scale vineyard, one of Tasmania’s longest running family-owned wine estates – and a lovely rustic place it is too. Also produces a more experimental range under the Naissante brand.
Jansz jansztas.com. The first vineyard in Tasmania to pioneer the traditional méthode champenoise to produce sparkling wine, and their Premium Cuvée recently took top honours for international sparkling wine at awards of wine magazine Decanter. Also produces a rosé and a few whites.
Pipers Brook Vineyard kreglingerwineestates.com. Established in 1974 though now part of the Kreglinger group, Pipers Brook is among the area’s most well-known wine estates, renowned for its Pinot Noir, though also producing a refined Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Gris. Its winery in a modern complex also has a café and lovely vine-covered courtyard.
Anyone heading north via the Midland Highway rather than the east coast is generally in a hurry. The fast three-hour route between Hobart and Launceston more or less follows the coaching road between the colony’s first towns. Those origins and the early colonial villages en route have led the tourist board to christen this The Heritage Highway. Former garrison and sheep towns, they are places to break up a journey rather than destinations in their own right.
All national parks in Tasmania charge daily entry fees, often on an honour system. A 24-hour pass costs $12 per pedestrian or cyclist, or $24 per vehicle (including up to 8 passengers); or an eight-week Holiday Pass costs $30 per person or $60 per vehicle. This doesn’t include camping fees, though many sites are free.
Tasmania’s wilderness has always attracted thousands of bushwalkers, and many tracks are boardwalked to avoid erosion to the fragile park environments. The Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service’s website (parks.tas.gov.au) offers walking guidelines, which are also available in the leaflet Minimal Impact Walking from the PWS desk at the Service Tasmania shop in Hobart. Detailed Tasmaps of walking tracks are available in most visitor centres, outdoors shops and Service Tasmania outlets.
Never underestimate the Tasmanian wilderness. It can be dangerous – even lethal – if you’re ill-prepared; the weather changes rapidly, and even on a warm day, hail, sleet or snow can suddenly descend in the highlands where hypothermia is a possibility even in summer. Never go alone, always inform others of your plans, and sign in and out of walks in the books provided at the start of a track. As a minimum, you’ll need wet-weather gear, thermal clothing, walking boots, a sturdy tent, a warm sleeping bag, a fuel cooking stove, maps and a compass. Gear can be rented from shops in Hobart and Launceston.
There’s a sense of heading into the wilds as you progress along the northwest coast. After the cities of Devonport and Burnie (both missable), the towns grow smaller and more spaced out as you skip beside the Bass Strait to Stanley, a historic village-resort with a spectacular setting. It serves as the best base for a visit to the area; a hub for day-trips to Wynyard, Boat Harbour Beach or the ragged coast of the Rocky Cape National Park.
Keep going beyond Stanley and civilization (and any form of public transport) starts to peter out, then the roads get narrower, and finally you roll into dairy village Marrawah. Pushing on to Arthur River, you’ll find just a few holiday shacks and houses around the river. Here, there’s a sense of life at the edge; of settlements buffeted by what is officially the cleanest air in the world and a raw coastline pounded by waves that have rolled all the way from South America. Magic.
The Tarkine refers to the raw coast south of Arthur River and the plains of the Arthur Pieman Reserve as much as the fabled forests that spread east to the A10. The name was coined by conservationists after the local Tarkiner Aboriginal people in an effort to highlight Tasmania’s largest unprotected wilderness; “greenies” had been pushing for a Tarkine National Park since the 1960s. Of its 593,000 acres of forest, seventy percent constitutes Australia’s largest tract of temperate rainforest, second only in global significance to tracts in British Columbia: a “forgotten wilderness” of giant myrtle forests, wild rivers and bare granite mountains.
So environmentalists were horrified when a road was proposed through its heart from Arthur River to Corinna then Zeehan. Dubbed “the Road to Nowhere”, the Western Explorer was constructed hastily and finished in 1996. During the run up to the Australian federal election in 2004, 180,000 acres received protection from forestry, and awareness of the area grew as a moratorium on logging of ancient native forest was declared in 2011. The conservationists’ push for a national park seemed unstoppable.
As it turns out, logging was the least of their worries. In February 2013, as Australia rode an Asian minerals boom, the government gave a green light to open-cut mining in the Tarkine – the area had been fabled for rich iron, tin and bauxite deposits since the early 1900s. The Save the Tarkine coalition brought about a legal challenge, which cited apocalyptic predictions for the Tasmanian devil in this, one of its last redoubts. But by August 2013, work on two of at least six mines had begun. Mass protests on a scale not seen since the Gordon River dam campaign have been proposed. For updates about campaigns and ways to help, visit the website of pressure group Save the Tarkine (w tarkine.org).
When first settled in 1826, STANLEY was described by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur as being “beyond the ramparts of the unknown”. A century on, it somehow retains a suggestion of being at the edge of the world. Amazing, really, considering the thousands of holiday-makers who visit each year to de-stress here, delighting in the historic looks, cosy atmosphere and couple of good beaches on either side of the pretty fishing village and holiday resort. The town remains utterly in awe of The Nut. The eighteenth-century colonial explorer Matthew Flinders called Stanley’s landmark a “cliffy round lump in form resembling a Christmas cake”, not a bad description of the solidified core of a prehistoric volcano rising sheer from the ocean to nearly 150m. Circular Head as it’s officially called (also the name for the surrounding municipality) provided shelter for the fledgling town, founded as the original headquarters of the Van Diemen’s Land Company and the first settlement in northwest Tasmania. It has spread out from the original wharf area but remains a postcard-pretty core chock-full of small historic houses.
…how is it that an absentee owner across the world got this magnificent and empty country without having paid one glass bead?
The Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL) was the brainchild of a group of well-connected individuals. Through a Royal Charter in 1825, they acquired 250,000 acres of the then-unexplored tip of Tasmania to produce fine wool on sheep farms. The Tranmere duly arrived at Circular Head 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 tussocky grass that was ideal – and also prime hunting land for the local Aborigines. When hunting parties began to take sheep, whites killed Aborigines in retaliation, and a vindictive cycle of killings began that culminated in 1827, with thirty unarmed Aborigines being killed by shepherds and their bodies thrown over the cliff (now euphemistically called “Suicide Bay”).
In the 1840s the company changed its emphasis from wool to the sale and lease of its land, a fifth of which it still owns. Although now controlled by New Zealand company Tasman Farms, which owns 98.4 percent of the shares, VDL remains registered on the London Stock Exchange and is the only company to operate under a Royal Charter. It also retains Woolnorth on Cape Grim, where the Baseline Air Pollution Station records the air, carried thousands of kilometres across the Great Southern Ocean, as the cleanest in the world. Woolnorth tours take in the colonial farm estate, Cape Grim and its 62-turbine windfarm and depart from Smithton (woolnorthtours.com.au).
Even in a state as wild as Tasmania, the Southwest National Park is spoken of with something approaching reverence. A blank space on the map of arrow-sharp mountain ranges and broad grassy plains, nowhere else in the state so epitomizes the grandeur and spirit of wilderness nor such edge-of-the-world isolation. For experienced bushwalkers, that escapism and rough terrain is a draw. If you’re thinking of joining them, being able to use a compass and read a map is as vital as a cheerful attitude to unpredictable weather even in summer – the southwest has more than two hundred days of rain a year. The surprise, then, is that you can get a taste of the Southwest National Park by driving in on the road beyond Maydena – the ranger for this end of the Southwest National Park is at Mount Field, so drop in to ask about conditions. Admittedly the scenery is not as spectacular as that on hikes deeper into the park. But the route includes vast panoramas and child-friendly walks like the Creepy Crawly Nature Trail 2km after the Scotts Peak turn: a taste of the forest elsewhere.
Few animals in Australia arouse such fascination as the Tasmanian tiger (thylacine). The irony is that it’s extinct. Probably. The peculiar, dog-like marsupial, which had a rigid tail, stripes and a backwards-opening pouch, was hunted out of existence by sheep farmers fearful for their stock and encouraged by a bounty put on the creature’s head from 1888 to 1909. The last animal is supposed to have died in Hobart zoo in 1936. Yet thylacine sightings are still reported; ask around in remote areas of the northwest and southwest and someone will tell you they’ve seen one. And although Sydney’s Australian Museum shelved plans to resurrect the species using DNA from pickled specimens in May 2005, a research team at Pennsylvania University successfully sequenced the genetic data in 2008.
The Tasman Peninsula is one of the most visited parts of the state. Everyone comes on a day-trip for the penal settlement of Port Arthur – the most popular attraction in Tasmania before Hobart’s MONA gallery – yet this peninsula is worth a visit in its own right: there are superb bushwalks around its spectacular south and eastern coastline, incredible nature cruises and a good wildlife park. That your Port Arthur ticket is valid for two days is just one more reason to stay overnight. The fastest route from Hobart to the Tasman Peninsula is northeast along the Tasman Highway then across the Sorell Causeway to the small town of Sorell, your last chance for shopping and banking.
Made world-famous by the angry cartoon character “Taz”, the Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus harrisii, is actually a stocky nocturnal black-haired animal about the size of a squat bulldog. That makes it the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, with an appetite for carrion, reptiles and insects to match. The name was coined by European settlers who found the marsupial’s call, ranging from a low groan to a banshee screech, positively demonic.
Yet devils need all the friends they can get right now. Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFDT), a contagious cancer that is transmitted by saliva and causes fatal bulbous lesions, has spread across the state at around 15km a year since it was detected in northeast Tasmania in 1996. In the ensuing decade, there was a 95 percent decline in devil sightings. While geneticists race to map the twelve strains of the disease, the state’s Save the Tasmanian Devil Programme (w tassiedevil.com.au) is pinning hopes on breeding colonies such as Trowunna Wildlife Park and Devils@Cradle, as well as large disease-free enclosures in Tasmania and on the mainland. These programmes are the last line of defence for a top predator whose demise threatens to destabilize the entire Tasmanian ecosystem. The species went onto the “Endangered” list in 2010; not quite on the brink of extinction, perhaps, but close to the edge.
In 1830, PORT ARTHUR was selected to host a prison settlement on the “natural penitentiary” of the Tasman Peninsula, its “gate” at Eaglehawk Neck guarded by dogs. It was intended for convicts who committed serious crimes in New South Wales or Van Diemen’s Land after transportation. The regime was never a subtle one: Van Diemen’s Land Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur believed that a convict’s “whole fate should be … the very last degree of misery consistent with humanity”. However, his aim was to create “a machine to grind rogues honest”. This was rehabilitation rather than punitive punishment; work with the system and your years would slip past, fight it and you would be crushed.
The first 150 convicts established a timber industry, then Port Arthur became a self-supporting centre of industry, with shipbuilding, brickmaking, shoemaking, even agriculture. In a separate prison for boys at Point Puer, inmates were taught trades. Meanwhile, prison officers and their families enjoyed gardens, a drama club, a library and regular cricket. After transportation ended, psychological punishment replaced physical. The Separate Prison, based on Pentonville Prison in London, opened in 1852, where prisoners were held in tiny cells in isolation and silence, always referred to by numbers and hooded whenever they left their cells. The idea represented progressive penal ideas that let convicts contemplate their misdeeds, but by the time Port Arthur closed in 1877 it had its own mental asylum full of ex-convicts, as well as a geriatric home for ex-convict paupers.
An eco-cruise along the spectacular coastline of the Tasman Peninsula is reason enough to visit. Tours in high-speed boats hug the 200m cliffs and nose into sea-caves – expect to see sea eagles, albatross, seals on Tasman Island, possibly dolphins, and if you’re lucky, whales from September to December and April to May. All in all, highly recommended.
Eaglehawk Dive Centre eaglehawkdive.com.au. Provides dive-boat charters (equipment included) into the spectacular dive sites of the Tasman coast: caves, shipwrecks, kelp forests and nearby seal colonies, with an underwater visibility of 15–30m.
Tasman Island Adventure Cruises www.tasmancruises.com.au. Based in Eaglehawk Neck, this operator makes a return trip from Pirates Bay, so no cruise past Port Arthur but two runs up the superb coastline.
Tasman Island Cruises tasmancruises.com.au. An award-winning outfit that sails out from Port Arthur to jet down to Tasman Island, then zip up the coast to Pirates Bay (Eaglehawk Neck), with a return by minibus.
Tasmania deserves at least a fortnight but if time and money are tight, tour operators will whisk you around the major sights. In addition, activity providers offer expeditions that are a holiday in their own right. All of those here include park entry fees and accommodation.
Green Island Tours cycling-tasmania.com. Supported and self-guide cycle tours around the state, from four to eleven days.
Jump Tours jumptours.com. Young, lively backpacker tours that are among the cheapest available (though don’t include meals) from a new Hobart-based company. Hostel accommodation with an opportunity to upgrade from dorms.
Pepper Bush Adventures www.tasmanianwildlifetours.com.au. High-end bespoke tours with unique experiences and good tucker from one of the best wildlife guides in the state, Craig “Bushy” Williams. Based in Launceston.
Rafting Tasmania raftingtasmania.com. One of the most experienced providers of tours along the magic Franklin River – one of the world’s greatest raft adventures over five to ten days – but also runs day-trips on the Derwent and Picton rivers.
Tarkine Trails tarkinetrails.com.au. Speciality operator for the northwest Tarkine region; coast and forest walks, plus speciality photography trips.
Tasmanian Expeditions tasmanianexpeditions.com.au. This Launceston-based company is the leading adventure provider in the state. Trips cover all wilderness walks (including some serious expeditions) and acts as a retailer for upmarket cabin-based walks, plus cycle and multi-activity trips.
Under Down Under Tours underdownunder.com.au. Small-group hostel-based backpacker tours plus Discovery Tours with hotel accommodation. Two- to nine-day trips take in the major sights, with short walks in national parks, plus breakfasts. Also operates day-trips to major sights from Hobart and Launceston.
It’s the lure of wilderness that attracts a certain type of traveller to Tasmania: the thrill of walks in a pure environment and boat expeditions through primeval rainforest. For those who’d like a taste of this adventure, the west’s holiday hub of Strahan is the place to head. Once a lonely fishing village at the edge of the world, Strahan was transformed into one of Tasmania’s leading wilderness resorts almost overnight by a campaign to preserve the wild Franklin River.
The fast road to Strahan is the A10 which spears southwest of Burnie through tiny mining towns in various stages of atrophy to Queenstown, the rough ’n’ ready heartland of west-coast mining. The road was built in the 1960s to improve access to the northwest forests and logging remains a major industry hereabouts. Along the route the extent of plantation forest may come as a shock (due to its monoculture, it’s the eco equivalent of desert), especially if you’re used to the lushness and biodiversity of the protected wilderness elsewhere. On the stretch from Strahan to Hobart, the A10 passes through the pristine wilderness of the UNESCO-listed Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park and the bottom edge of Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park; a section of road that’s worth lingering over.
The future of the Tasmanian wilderness could have been very different had it not been for a bitter battle waged by environmentalists in the 1980s. In 1972 the flooding of Lake Pedder led to the formation of the Wilderness Society, which began a relentless campaign against the next target on the Hydro Electricity Commission’s (HEC) agenda – a huge dam on the Lower Gordon River. It had state government backing despite the catastrophic effect on Tasmania’s last wild river, the Franklin. In a blocking manoeuvre the whole southwest area was proposed for the World Heritage List. It was officially accredited on the same day that the Wilderness Society’s Franklin Blockade began – December 14, 1982. The Tasmanian government had chosen to ignore the UNESCO accreditation.
For two months, protestors from all over Australia took to inflatable dinghies, paddling upriver from Strahan to stand in front of bulldozers in nonviolent protest. The blockade became a cause célèbre in Sydney and Melbourne and attracted international attention – British botanist David Bellamy was among the twelve hundred or so arrested for trespassing. During the course of the campaign, a new federal government was voted in, and in March 1983, following a trailblazing High Court ruling, it over ruled the state’s backing for the HEC plans. Although the blockade itself had failed to stop preparatory work on the dam, it had changed the opinion of many Australians forever and enshrined the value of Tasmanian wilderness at state and national levels.
You can cruise up the Gordon or fly over it from Strahan, but to really experience the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park’s utterly pristine scenery and awesome sense of remoteness, you need to raft the Franklin River. One of the great rivers of Australia, saved from destruction by protests in the early 1980s and the only major wild river in Tasmania, it races through canyons in grade 3 to 4 rapids – even grade 6 in places – and through thick inaccessible rainforest. No wonder this is known by rafters as one of the greatest paddle adventures in the world.
Rafting trips generally run between December and early April on five- to ten-day trips, depending on where you start. From Collingwood River, off the Lyell Highway, it takes about three days to raft the Upper Franklin, riding rapids through subalpine scenery. The Middle Franklin is a mixture of pools, deep ravines and wild rapids as the river makes a 50km detour around Frenchmans Cap. Limestone cliffs overhang the Lower Franklin, which involves a tranquil paddle through dense myrtle beech forests with flowering leatherwoods overhead, and Kutikina Caves and Deena-reena –Aboriginal sights that are only accessible to rafters.
Due to the dangers of the trip, visitors should go with a specialist tour operator. You don’t have to be experienced to sign up – just fit, with lots of stamina and courage. It’s not cheap, but this is an experience of a lifetime.
Rafting Tasmania raftingtasmania.com. Five-, seven- and ten-day rafting expeditions, from the company of Grant Mitchell, one of the first kayakers to explore the river and instrumental in saving it. The ten-day trip includes an optional day-walk to Frenchmans Cap.
Water by Nature franklinrivertasmania.com. Water by Nature offers a five-day trip on the Lower Franklin, a seven-day trip on the Upper Franklin, or ten days rafting the full navigable length of the river. The ten-day trip also includes the Frenchmans Cap.
STRAHAN is not just the only town and port on Tassie’s wild west coast; it is also one of the premier tourist destinations in Tasmania. “The best little town in the world”, said the Chicago Tribune newspaper in 2011 of what is just an over-sized village. The reason is twofold: its setting on Macquarie Harbour, a body of water over six times the size of Sydney’s harbour; and the surrounding southwestern wilderness.
Such is its fame that, in summer at least, Strahan has ceased to be “real” in the normal sense. For all the hype about a typical west-coast village, fishing is a sideshow to tourism. Strahan is on a different level from other towns in west Tasmania, with more agencies offering sightseeing trips and activities than in the rest of the area combined. What saves it from tackiness is that it remains an attractive place – the tourism infrastructure on the harbour is far from the eyesore it could have been – and the surrounding wilderness is as compelling as ever.
In 2002 a $30-million investment saw trains once again rattle along the old Abt Railway between Queenstown and Strahan. The original railway was completed in 1896 to transport copper ore from Queenstown to Regatta Point in Strahan, but closed in 1963, when road transport became more economical. Reconstruction took three years, only six months less than it took the original workers to hack through the rainforest by hand, two of the line’s four surviving steam locomotives were restored and replica carriages were built using native woods. Known as the West Coast Wilderness Railway (5hr; previously from $111), the line was a popular trip from Strahan – on our last visit its former operator had been sold and the line had been taken into government hands as new bidders were sought. It was due to reopen in December 2013. Contact the West Coast Visitor Centre in Strahan for the latest.
Previously, it ran twice daily, with most visitors embarking at Strahan, then swinging through the King River Valley and climbing up to Dubbil Barril on a 1:16 rack-and-pinion track system before they arrived in Queenstown in a reconstructed station opposite the Empire Hotel. From here, most returned by bus, while new passengers embarked at Queenstown for the return. Either way, each trip divided between steam and diesel trains, with the changeover at a reconstructed mine settlement in the rainforest. If the trains are running again, try to secure a riverside seat; when facing forward, sit on the right-hand side from Strahan, or left from Queensland.