The time is rapidly approaching when natural environment, natural unspoiled vistas, are sadly beginning to look like left-overs from a vanishing world. – Olegas Truchanas
THE EXTREMES OF THE PLANET ARE ‘IN right now. People from prosperous but crowded places are flocking to prosperous but uncrowded places at the ends of the Earth: Iceland, Hokkaido, New Zealand – and Tasmania. The fervour is fired in part by epics of the big and small screen: from The Lord Of The Rings to Game Of Thrones. Social media has piled on further fuel. Ultimately, what appeals to everyman and location scouts alike is the tranquility, beauty, unhurried pace and invigorating air. Their left-over wildness, as Truchanas might have had it.
I discovered Truchanas on my most recent visit to Tasmania, between Christmas and New Year. On previous trips, I had hiked at both ends of the landmark Overland Track, bike-toured from Launceston to Mole’s Creek, and climbed Mt Roland and the Walls of Jerusalem. Now I wanted to see something of the east coast and so I joined an enthusiastic group of mostly ‘mainlanders’, tackling five days of hiking, biking and kayaking while learning a little of the animals, people and places that made it special.
In popular imagination, Tasmania’s modern population is all descended from convicts. But Truchanas came to the island after World War II, one of more than 170,000 refugees Australia brought over from a shattered Europe. He soon fell under the spell of the wilderness and his subsequent story reads like a history of Tasmanian environmentalism in microcosm.
He took up photography to document his explorations, including a 1958 first descent of the Gordon Splits, a gorge on the river of the same name. Sadly, he lost many of his photographs – and his house in Hobart – to the huge bushfires of 1967. Undaunted, he took a job with the Hydro-Electric Commission, even while taking photographs that helped provoke opposition to their dam that resulted in today’s Lake Pedder. When he realised that battle was lost, he switched attention to the Gordon and Franklin rivers, spurring a campaign to save them that was ultimately successful in the 1980s – a major turning point in the environmental movement. He didn’t live to see this though, drowning in 1972 on the Gordon River, his body found by his protégé, Peter Drombovskis, who went on to be a celebrated nature photographer in his own right.
Pioneers and rule-breakers like Truchanas are writ large in Tasmanian history, and it’s tempting to see a parallel with its wildlife. Many of the island’s animals are endemics and evolutionary deadends: the fabled Tasmanian devil; the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine; the platypus. Far less celebrated is the little penguin, our first brush with the island’s animal characters at Bicheno. After a day on the bike, we headed out again after dark to watch them scurry out of the bush, having come ashore to regurgitate fish for their young hidden in burrows.
The coast they call home is quite different, geologically, to the rest of the island. Over time its granite outcrops have created a tracery of islands and isthmuses, none more famous than our next stop, Insta-friendly Freycinet Peninsula. There we scrambled up Mt Amos – only 454 metres, but needing close attention with all the slick rock – to fantastic vistas over the scalloped bays. We’d made the right choice. There’s a more common viewpoint on the trail to Wineglass Bay, but it being a holiday, that trail was choked with traffic, as were the car parks. Freycinet’s celebrity status is clearly exacting a cost.
Next morning we were able to lose the crowds by taking to kayaks to tour Honeymoon Bay, before heading south to the ferry to Maria Island. An island, off an island, off an island, it would prove an ideal place to ponder the vagaries of Tassie’s fortunes.
More than 40,000 years ago it was home to an Aboriginal people, the Pukhikwilayti. Today it is a national park and shows far more evidence of European settlement after it was used as a convict probation station in the first half of the 19th century, then saw unsuccessful de ve lopment b y a n ambi t ious I t a l i an businessman in the 1880s.
There we camped on the edge of a wide cropped grassy area that looks man-made but is in fact marsupial lawn – a natural occurrence where soil moisture is higher than in the surroundings. The lush growth that results is trimmed down nightly by grazing marsupials and fertilised by their droppings.
Next morning, tour leader Ash led us on a day-hike down the island. Just beyond the remains of an old oast house, the trail dived into a shaded dell. “It’s a bit snaky down here,” said Ash, the words barely out of his mouth when a sinuous shape detached itself from the shadows and slid into the bush. A tiger snake.
A more strenuous hike followed next day to Bishop and Clerk, a pair of dolerite summits to the island’s northeast. The trail sloped up past the small museum, then turned right at abrupt coastal cliffs to ascend waves of grassland and then dip into the trees. The climb resumed up a scree slope to attain the upper reaches where a jumble of boulders marked the very top, backed by a sheer drop to the sea.
We ended the day – and the year – on a low hill, watching the sun burnish the sea to beaten copper, as wombats and pademelons (smallwallabies) emerged by the dozen. Among the marsupials on their lawn was another animal oddity too: Cape Barren geese, a handsome bird that grazes and rarely swims. Most exciting of all was to see a Tasmanian devil appear in the cooking shelter, scavenging for scraps.
Our group’s final port of call was Mt Wellington. We defied high winds on the summit to survey the panorama of Hobart before I was dropped off on the lower slopes, in the leafy suburb of Fern Tree. There I was staying for one night at a B&B run by teacher Mark Prichard. Wanting to show me the neighbourhood, he led us out onto the fire trails. He was clearly proud of the area and was full of stories about his trips over the years. His interests ranged far wider than Tasmania though, and he told me about a programme he had set up called Cattle For Wildlife that buys young cows in Kenya and later sells them to support Ol Pejeta Conservancy in their efforts to protect rhinos.
Over 500 native species are found on the slopes of Mt Wellington and Prichard knew many of them, pointing them out and citing common and Latin names as we walked. I wasn’t surprised when he told me he believes Tasmanian tigers – widely believed extinct – might still be lurking in the forest somewhere.
He went on to describe an arboreal arms race going on around us and across Tasmania, between the myrtles, found mostly in the temperate west, and the gums that mainly grow close to the coast, especially in the east. I’d admired a large snow gum earlier and so he took us down into a gully to see a specific tree.
Deep in the folds of the forest, it was as though light itself was green. Sunlight dripped like chartreuse through canopy. It even smelt green. We stopped and drank in the heady sight in front of us.
“The Octopus Tree,” he said. “I wanted to bring you here as you liked that last tree.” A huge snow gum, metres across at its base, crown dozens of metres above, stood erect somehow atop a boulder. Prichard said it has been supersized by being lower down on the mountain than is usual for the species. Limb-like roots as thick as my waist anchored it to its unlikely foundation, looking indeed like powerful tentacles.
I smiled and looked back up the immense trunk. Hostage to the majesty, we fell quiet. Both willing prisoners of the wild.
PEAKS – Much of A u s t r a l i a ’ s most mountainous state is dolerite, an igneous rock formed in the breakup of Gondwana that produces striking vertical features. This ensures that though the tallest of the peak is barely over 1,600 metres, their rugged forms make for challenging hiking and climbing. The classic multi-day walk is the Overland Track connecting Cradle Mountain in the north, with Lake St Clair in the south. Prior booking is required from October-May but off-peak it retains a remote air, especially the middle days of the six that it usually takes. Die-hard trekkers intent on solitude have plenty of other options. Sir Edmund Hillary called Federation Peak in Southwest National Park, “Australia’s only real mountain”. Though it’s only 1,224 metres, the usual route ends with an exposed scramble, 600 metres above Lake Geeves. Also in the southwest is Mt Anne, with its Gondwana-era vegetation, some of the oldest surviving plant species anywhere. It is usually climbed as part of a four-day circuit. The slopes of kunanyi/Mt Wellington – a dual title acknowledging the Aborigine name – are crisscrossed with trails, while bikers have on- and off-road downhilling options. The peak’s most dramatic feature is the Organ Pipes, a cliff of dolerite columns that offers spectacular climbs.
FORESTS – Tasmania has some of the last surviving temperature rainforests in the Southern Hemisphere, mostly in the northwest (the Tarkine), and southwest. The rivers that drain those southwest forests include the Franklin which offers one of the world’s most epic rafting adventures in true wilderness conditions. Most trips run for at least seven days through areas well beyond any road access. Bikers will want to focus on the former tin mining town of Derby in the northeast that hosts the Enduro World Series for the second time in 2019. Its Blue Derby network, a web of trails through old growth forest, has redefined the area and is still being expanded.
COASTS – With 5,000 kilometres of coast, there’s something for everyone on the shores of Tasmania, from dolerite cliffs to beaches so clean they literally squeak. Surfers will find breaks around the island, especially on the east coast in places like Bicheno and Scamander. Shipstern Bluff in the southeast’s Tasman National Park is a globally renowned big wave spot with intimidating, stepped waves. For trekkers, the Tasman Peninsula has wonderfully rugged coastal scenery. The multi-day Three Capes Track hugs the cliffs for 48 kilometres, and climbers will find heaps of routes on the dolerite, including the Totem Pole, an iconic stack on Cape Hauy. Ta sma ni a ha s some of t h e b e s t temperate-water diving on the planet. Bicheno and Maria Island are favourite reef spots while the Tasman Peninsula has the last of the once- extensive kelp forests, now sadly decimated by climate change. Their long fronds nurture everything from leafy sea dragons to inquisitive fur seals.
When to go: The climate is relatively cool with average summer highs in the low 20s. Autumn runs from March to May and brings the most settled weather. Generally though, the weather is characterised by rapid changes, with snow even possible in summer in places. Watch the sun as a combination of clean air and the Earth’s elliptical orbit mean an appreciably higher level of UV rays.
How to get there: Fly on from any of mainland Australia’s major cities to Hobart or Launceston, the biggest city in the island’s north. Alternatively, take an overnight ferry from Melbourne to Devonport.
What to take: Tasmania’s bigger towns and cities are well served by gear shops. Look for Australia’s own Kathmandu and Paddy Pallin chains, and New Zealand’s Macpac, as well as stores that offer rentals or resale of secondhand gear. Bike rentals are available in a number of bigger places. Note that some Tassielink bus services include a trailer for luggage, and bikes may be shipped this way by prior arrangement.
The author travelled with Tasmanian Expeditions.