Kate said we would love Tasmania and she was right! After this month in Tassie we are both in love with this special island state that looks up towards the big island with self-confidence. The two could not be more different.
Bye bye Melbourne!
Tasmania is small. The distances are short and there is a feeling of togetherness, of pride in its own distinct identity. Some people we have met have never been to the mainland and are naturally keen to go to see for themselves but are proud of their island, the beauty and wilderness of it, and the quality of life. People are not necessarily rich here but you do get a sense of togetherness, of supporting each other.
An ongoing feature of our stay here has been the raging bushfires. They started months ago in the central region and are now out of control. Many smaller fires started due to lightning strikes and a lack of rain. Tassie is the coolest state due to its position much further south than the mainland but it is also the second driest. This was a surprise to both of us as there is such greenery here and the cooler weather is misleading. We have been lucky in that we seem to have been one week ahead of the flames wherever we have travelled to. Places we have visited are now no-go areas. We have seen smoky skies in the distance and have smelled the bushfires but have not really been affected other than one missed trip to the extreme southwest. We had planned to go to Strathgordon but had to change tack, as spot-fires had started. Walkers were being evacuated by helicopter and the campsite was shut. There is a huge chunk in the west of the country where there are simply no roads. There are some dirt tracks and walking tracks but no bitumen roads whatsoever, total wilderness. So when the fires hit, emergency services can’t get there either and helicopters can only achieve so much, dumping water onto flames. Instead they send in specialists who chop down trees encircling the big fires to create a firebreak, letting the fire do its worst within the circle.
We are listening to the fire warnings on ABC Radio and hear about places we visited only recently. Here is one example from the long list of fires warnings on the ABC website. These are read out on ABC radio pretty much continuously:
|“A BUSHFIRE EMERGENCY WARNING FOR CASTLE FORBES BAY, GEEVESTON, PORT HUON, CAIRNS BAY AND WATERLOO|
Issued At: 28/01/2019 4:37pm
There is a bushfire at Riveaux Road, Southwest
The fire will put Castle Forbes Bay, Geeveston, Port Huon, Cairns Bay and Waterloo at very high risk within the next 2 hours.
This fire will be uncontrollable. Burning embers, falling on Castle Forbes Bay, Geeveston, Port Huon, Cairns Bay and Waterloo will threaten your home before the main fire. Smoke and ash will make it difficult to see and breathe.
What to do: If your home is well prepared for very high risk fires and you can actively defend it, it should provide shelter. If your home is unprepared go to a safer location now only if the path is clear. There is an Evacuation Centre at Huonville PCYC, 42 Wilmot Rd, Huonville . If your family has made a bushfire survival plan, use it now. If you don’t live near Castle Forbes Bay, Geeveston, Port Huon, Cairns Bay and Waterloo, stay away. Listen to ABC Local Radio or look at www.fire.tas.gov.au for more information.”
Devonport in the north is the arrival port where one of the two ferries, called The Spirit of Tasmania I and II, dock in the morning and in the evening. We arrived in the evening after a calm ten-hour crossing. We settled ourselves into our campsite and cycled off the next morning to explore this first stop. A small $3 ferry took us across the Mersey ♪ and we cycled along the coastal track, past some lovely town beaches, through lush forests, and found a railway museum (happy Roddy). Devonport is the third largest town in Tasmania and is dominated by its port. The river Mersey must be deep as the Spirit of Tasmania and other large ferries dock, filling up most of the space between the two shores. I loved Tasmania immediately when I spotted some houses like this one which reminded me of the Villa Kunterbunt from Pippi Langstrumpf fame (Pippi Longstocking’s villa).
On the way to Launceston we noticed that this trip was going to be a hilly affair but I am glad to report that our Gecko coped well. We stopped off at Deloraine for lunch by the river, took some time looking at the cemetery and the local shops.
Launceston is the second largest town in Tassie, famous for its Cataract Gorge. Our campsite was next door to a huge complex owned by the Christian organisation Door of Hope. I did get a slight rash living so close to what appears to be an evangelical HQ, especially because I couldn’t really find anything on them on Google, other than their own pages. Strange! They seem innocent enough but I am perplexed at the sheer size of the building – where does the money come from?? Roddy thought they probably do some good but I am deeply suspicious.
Launceston is home to the Esk brewery and I can report that Tassie IPA is delicious. We walked for hours that day, from the campsite across town to the Sunday market. It was a little bit dowdy, functioning as a social meeting place for locals more than offering decent second-hand goods but it was interesting nonetheless. The museum nearby, too, was interesting and Roddy discovered that Tassie meat pie culture is alive and well. He has managed to eat his way through quite a number of them. The free Tiger bus took us to the Gorge where we jumped onto the chairlift across the gorge and back, taking in a gorge walk in between.
Onwards and down towards the east coast we couldn’t help but drop in to Tassie’s very own Perth which yet again was very different from either Perth in Scotland or WA but you don’t get far anywhere in Australia without seeing Scottish placenames, Ben Lomond National Park being another example.
Poppies for pharmaceutical use are grown here in the northeast. They are the most profitable crop in Tasmania! Numerous warning signs around those huge fields tell you to stay away and that “Illegal use of crop may cause death”! 50% of the world’s pharmaceutical opium is grown in Tassie! Who’d have thunk it? Apparently people have died from brewing tea with the pods and occasionally wallabies and cockatoos eat them and become disorientated, failing to find their watering holes leading to their deaths.
St Helens was next, a highlight of our time here. The whole of the east coast of Tassie is beautiful and easy to access. The weather there is milder and it’s a few degrees warmer than over west.
Near St Helens, the Bay of Fires is spectacular and named not after the orange lichen clinging to the rocks but after the fires the British invaders saw from their approaching ships. The fires had been lit all along the bay by Aboriginals who used to live here for 40,000 years before the British arrived, those people who like invading so much that they have voted for Brexit to keep immigrant out. Somehow this also reminds me of those same British who invaded North America and now want to keep the Mexicans out who were there before them anyway…, and of course the Brits again, who invaded Australia and now want to keep the boatpeople out. Is there a pattern? Tasmanian Aboriginals did suffer more than most. Reading the tourist plaques along the way, I got the impression that the whites waited no time in killing them all in a short period of time but I have since learned that many Aboriginal retreated into the bush and used their knowledge of their environment to survive there and to escape the many attempts by whites to find them and kill them. The Aboriginal culture has therefore not been eradicated but it’s nevertheless difficult to see how true reparations can be made. Mind you, the dream of the present PM to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the invasion by rebuilding Captain Cook’s ship The Endeavour and sailing it around the country with much pomp and glory to the tune of $7,000,000, is probably not going to help. A true, heartfelt apology, a treaty and real efforts to achieve equality of opportunity amongst all Australians would be a start. Mulling all this over, I spent hours climbing over the orange rocks, taking photos and listening to the crunch of my feet on these crystal white beaches. I also made friends with a splendid wren baby.
I say friends but I guess the wren baby was terrified. It did find its way back into its nest though and I backed off – unlike James Cook!
To round the day off we went to the harbour in St Helens and had a chippy. Happiness achieved.
En route to Port Arthur we drove down that beautiful coastline of white sand and granite rocks via Beaumaris, Scamander, Four Mile Creek and Chain of Lagoons. I would have liked to stay longer. Due to the summer holidays, though, we had pre-booked our campsites, which was a good idea as most were quite full – school holidays. We stopped for lunch at Bicheno. This town is a wee jewel with more fabulous rocks and a lovely beach. I had a chat with a man who was about to launch his stand-up paddleboard to find out about it – something to try and buy on gumtree…
Further down the coast, Swansea offers views over to the Freycinet peninsula, a wilderness region ideal for camping and hiking. I bought a most beautiful blue painted ceramic pot filled with unpasteurised local leatherwood honey. It’s quite a tart honey and takes a little getting used to but I have come to love it. Unfortunately honey is one of those items you can’t import into WA due to spoilsport quarantine regulations.
We hadn’t realised quite how important mining is to Tasmania but there are still working mines here. They had their own gold-rush back in the day. Nowadays they mine mostly tin, copper and iron as well as some gold. Other industries are tourism, timber, hydro-electric energy, smoked salmon, cattle and sheep, poppies, potatoes, grains and lots of fruit. In the south especially there are many fruit stalls along the road offering apples, apricots, blueberries, etc and the best cherries I have ever tasted. Huge and juicy! Mind you, I read that Tassie farmers are very pro genetic engineering so perhaps this accounts for the juiciness and the size!?
The journey to Port Arthur was our longest driving day here in Tassie but the route was beautiful. Port Arthur is the historic site of a convict colony for the most severe offenders. The governors used the harshest methods of incarceration such as a month long stay in isolation in total darkness. Various methods of punishment and rehabilitation were tried out here, all hair-raising stuff by today’s standards. Port Arthur is located on the Tasman peninsula on the very south coast of the island meaning it’s very isolated and was thus perfect for its purpose. Boys as young as 9 were deported from England and incarcerated here on a separate island called Point Puer, away from adult convicts. The boys were put to hard labour such as cutting stones. The church they built with those stones is still on the site today.
The whole site is open to tourists and we spent a whole day there doing various tours, including a boat ride to the Isle of the Dead where various staff and prisoners were buried. Most graves are not marked though as there was no money. One story that touched me was the one of Annie, the wife of a member of staff who died in childbirth. They managed to save her baby and other women of various “classes” who were normally segregated gathered together, taking it in turns to wet-nurse the baby.
Unfortunately Port Arthur is also famous for the massacre that took place there in 1996 when a local gunman, inspired by the Dunblane massacre, drove to the historic site and shot 36 people, hunting them down. He was arrested the next day and has been in Hobart’s Risdon prison since then. He was sentenced to well over 1000 years so I am sure he won’t be released. As terrible as this event was, there is a silver lining here if you can call it that ever, as the event prompted a dramatic change in the Australian gun laws. A gun buy-back scheme was initiated despite some resistance from gun owners, and one million guns were eventually destroyed. Gun laws were tightened up severely and there has not been an incident like this since – USA take note! Most of the people who were killed in 1996 died in the café on the historic site. The walls of the café were left standing and a memorial erected creating a calm contemplative space. The name of the gunman is not mentioned anywhere in order to prevent him from gaining any kind of status.
Sudden bursts of wind are common in south Tassie. One minute it’s calm and then suddenly everything flies about for a minute, then it subsides. It’s reminiscent of the willy-willies, or dust devils, of the hotter mainland regions – these are tiny hurricanes that you can see twisting across the land and sometimes across the road when you least expect them, whirling up dust as they zoom across.
For a long time I had been curious about Hobart and was quite excited when we finally drove there. Roddy had been there when he trained for the Australian Antarctic Division and we did visit the base there and spotted the Aurora Australis in port. How amazing would that have been had he been able to go to Macquarie Island? Who knows, it might still happen one day. Oak and cypress! Our entrance to the city took us over the magnificent Derwent Bridge, through the town centre, up the huge hill to the west of the town and down to the small town of Snug where we were camped. Travelling to Hobart on the local bus, we got chatting to the first of the three long-distance cyclists we met in Tasmania. Talking to them renewed a long-held wish to do that myself one day. Europe springs to mind as the perfect location for this venture as there are Europe-wide cycle tracks that would be a safe way of planning a first such trip. We were lucky that it was the weekend while we were in Hobart as there is a Saturday market near the harbour called the Salamanca markets. It’s quite different from the one in Launceston with high quality products in a beautiful outdoor setting. I could have bought loads but “restricted” myself to buying a dress and Roddy also bought me a skirt – “hippyshit” as you might say.
After the markets we visited a friend of a friend who lives in Hobart. Anna is the now retired teacher of my teacher friend Adelle from Perth and it was Adelle who put us in touch. We spent a few lovely hours over lunch with Anna, who showed us much generosity as a hostess and in spirit. She is of Scottish stock, though born and bred pure Aussie, but after a few hours she fell into broad Glaswegian which seemed to totally change her character, as language tends to do. She is a talented painter and a writer too, an inspiring woman and kindred spirit to meet and we both hope to see her again in the future.
Later in the afternoon we took the ferry upriver to Mona and back just for the ride, to see more of the land around us.
Hobart is a beautiful small city surrounded by water and Kunanyi or Mount Wellington; a place I would like to revisit.
Southport, as the name suggests, is the southern most harbour and township in Tasmania. Here we cycled around and visited the thermal springs at Hastings Caves. It’s not like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, in fact it looks just like a swimming pool but the water comes from natural springs from deep within. I thought the pool was so-so but it was here that I spotted a platypus in the stream fed by the thermal springs! I even took a photo of it but it is hard to see it. Platypus and Echidnas are the only members of the monotreme family: mammals that lay eggs. Platypus live in streams and lakes. I spotted it as it was flapping about, twisting and turning like a leaf in the wind and then swam in a straight line, dipping up and down, looking for gunk in the water. The male has spurs at its hind-feet that inject venom in order to fend off other males during mating season. It could even kill a smaller dog! It looks so innocent too! I also saw or rather initially heard a tiger snake that had been basking on a sunny path and was shooed away when I appeared. I was startled when I heard quite a loud whirring sound, like a zip wire. Then I saw the jet-black snake zoom off into the bush. I guess the snake was so hot, thus so fast and the vegetation so dry that it made that sound. In Tasmania tiger snakes are jet black whereas in WA they are mostly dark brown with tiger stripes. There are only three types of snake in Tassie: tiger, lowland copperhead and white-lipped snake. All are venomous but generally quite shy. We were told that there had been snake bites but no deaths for a while as people generally know what to do – bandage hard, stay completely still as in ‘don’t move a muscle’ so as not to activate the lymphatic system, which pumps the venom round your body, and get someone to phone for a helicopter if out in the wilderness. I have packed a snake kit and carry it with me whenever we are out on foot or on bike. Wildlife became more and more of a feature as we travelled into the centre of Tasmania.
From Southport the only way out is back up north so we drove via quirky small towns such as Cygnet and Geeveston which are now all off-limits. The skies which were blue when we were there are now sulphur yellow and people have evacuated or are “defending their homes.” We drove via Hobart up inland to Mount Field National Park and camped in a beautiful site in amongst those huge Huon pine trees. Seeing wallabies, pademelons, a small kind of wallaby, platypus, possums and lots of other native animals was commonplace here, especially at dusk and dawn but not restricted to those times. So far we hadn’t seen a Tasmanian devil even though we knew that they were around. They are quite shy though and difficult to see in the wild. Unfortunately we saw one or two dead ones by the side of the road, they eat carrion and are therefore attracted to roadkill – becoming roadkill themselves. I did, however, see another platypus! It sat on a rock but then leapt into the water, swam 10m very quickly and then took a dive, never to be seen again. I live for these moments, I really do! We waited until it was dark and walked the short walk to the Russell Falls, not so much to see the falls – it was dark – but to see the glow-worms by the side of the path. Now, it was a bit “like Sauchiehall Street” but beautiful nonetheless. The next day we did go back to see the falls and took a walk through those magnificent woods to another waterfall, the Horseshoe Falls. The vegetation is so varied – we were both amazed. Pine trees, eucalypts, fern trees, huge Huon pines, all mixed together, sometimes looking so harmonious as if they had been carefully planted that way but are, in fact, utterly wild. In the National Park Info centre I saw a stuffed platypus and other native animals. The girl who held the platypus told me it had fallen off the top of Russell Falls! Silly wee platypus! It was fascinating to feel its coat though; it has a thick, woolly and soft undercoat and a slick waterproof overcoat, so it never gets wet. As I mentioned before, it is a mammal that lays eggs but it is also a marsupial and has a pouch. The females lactate but have no teats, instead the milk oozes out of their skin like sweat – gaaahds – but, I guess, if you have a duck’s bill you can’t very well sook on a tit. Nature knows best!
While we were in Mount Field we became more and more affected by the bushfires. Our plan to travel on westwards to Strathgordon fell through as the campsite there was shut. The dead-end road was still open but all walking tracks were closed and we were advised not to go. Every so often a helicopter landed metres from our site, off-loading Alpine walkers who were being evacuated. As a rule, everyone undertaking a walk is told to register their intended destination, their route and their contact details, together with the expected arrival or return date so that rangers can check on them. As the fires were coming closer people were taken off the hills in these remote areas before it was too late. Since we have left, Mount Field has also been shut down, the road to Southport is closed as it is a dead end road and the woods nearby are on fire. It’s horrendous and quite surreal for us.
We detoured via the middle and over the Highland Plateau. Our van was struggling a bit as it was getting hot and it doesn’t like the combination of heat and ascent, but we managed. The drive was spectacular as the woods really are astoundingly rich, tall and awe inspiring – no wonder they burn so well! We camped at Wayatinah, a rudimentary campsite on a lakeshore. The town is a company town created to cater for the employees of a massive hydro-electric plant. There are three of these close together using the massive energy generated by the rivers on this plateau.
Lake St Clair was our planned next stop and we were now back into proper tourist territory at the southern point of the Cradle Mountain and St Clair National Park. This is hiking country and we did our part. Despite the tourist pull of this area, Tasmanians are very aware that their state’s attractiveness relies on its wilderness aspect and they are very environmentally conscious, so even places with well-developed tourist traffic are always kept natural. There are various shorter and longer walks. We walked the Aboriginal Cultural Walk and the Platypus walk through eucalypt forest and along streams and Lake St Clair. The next day we took the small but vastly overpriced ferry to Echo point which is the last hut on the Overlander walking track on Lake St Clair. The 10km walk back to the camp was beautiful with much tree root scrambling, rainforest and lake views. 10km doesn’t sound that much but we were knackered afterwards as it wasn’t as straightforward as walking on a path.
The huge march flies were annoying! These are like horseflies or clegs as they are called in Scotland, Bremse in Germany. They were not as aggressive as the cleg or the Bremse but they were everywhere – even, as we discovered during a romantic interlude, in Roddy’s gentleman’s garden!!
Horizontal trees were a particularity in Strahan on the extreme west coast. These trees grow like normal trees initially but then suddenly bend horizontally creating an impermeable thicket! An old stream train runs from Strahan through the Teepookana Forest to Dubbel Barril – one of those wonderfully weird spellings you come across in Oz. I guess spelling was not the greatest skill of those convicts. After Strahan we drove north through the sticks and small forgotten towns like Zeehan, Rosebery and Tullah to Waratah. During a short stop in Rosebery I saw an unusual café and decided to take a closer look. Here are some photos to illustrate:
These towns have suffered through the close-down of their mines which have evaporated their populations in a very short time, leading to destitution. As there are many empty shops, Steve, a local man persuaded the town council to let him have one of those shops. He and his friends run the charity shop next door, often buying new things and selling them cheap to allow poor families to be able to buy new clothes for their children. The café is mainly a meeting place; coffee and tea are free for all. The atmosphere is affecting and warm. People here don’t have much but they are willing to share what they do have. Amazing!
Waratah also is a small town with a bigger past. It was the first town in Oz with a hydro-electric plant in the town, using its scenic water fall for the purpose. Here I met a Swiss couple, Anita and Bruno from near Luzern. They had been cycling around the world for the last 4 years and were a total inspiration to me to do something similar one of these days. They sold up and got on their bikes. We had a great chat about some of their experiences and the equipment they had. After they left I could have kicked myself that I hadn’t asked them for a contact but as they said they were also going to Stanley I emailed the campsite there and managed to meet up with them again a few days later.
Before Stanley, though, we headed for the icon of Tassie, Cradle Mountain. This must be the big highlight for most people going to Tasmania, I guess. The weather was kind, not too hot and clear most of the time so the views of the mountain were spectacular.
After checking out the many walks in the area we decided to walk round Dove Lake at the base of Cradle Mountain. The walk was very varied and beautiful. The National Park there provides a shuttle bus from the campsite and chalet complex to the Lake with various stops in between. This made it so easy for people to get to a certain point from which to walk from without the need for massive car parks. In the evening we went out again to walk along Ronnie Creek where wombats were supposed to be found grazing. We saw 12 of these sturdy, barrel-like creatures who were completely unperturbed by us and I realised that Roddy absolutely loves them. He was like a kid and couldn’t stop talking about them, especially when we saw a wombat mum and her baby. I guess that explains his love for guinea pigs – they look kinda similar. Factoid: wombats’ bums are reinforced by cartilage, which makes them fairly indestructible!
The next day we went to a Tasmanian devils sanctuary. There they breed devils for the purpose of having healthy stock to be reintroduced into the wild later. Many wild devils have been befallen by a deadly contagious facial cancer, which is threatening the species. Therefore various sanctuaries across Australia breed them and exchange “studs” to widen the gene pool to ensure that they have healthy, virus free devils to be released in case the wild population dies out. As the devils are very shy, this visit allowed us to see them close up and find out lots of interesting facts about these rare animals from the ranger.
Another walk from Dove Lake via Lake Lilla to Ronnie Creek ended our stay at Cradle Mountain. Just beautiful! Go there if you can.
Now we really were on our last furlong. Heading to Stanley on the north coast, we were very much en route to Devonport and back to the mainland. Stanley was the film location for the beautiful film “The Light between Oceans” – the town shots, not the lighthouse – and you could see that it would not have taken much to transform the town. The original pioneer houses are incredibly well maintained. All they had to do was to change some of the signs and put dirt onto the tarmacked roads. I guess there was more to it than that but the pictures speak for themselves.
The Nut is a huge granite rock in Stanley that we ascended in a chairlift, encircled up on top and then descended from. Here we did meet up again with Anita and Bruno, the Swiss cyclists and additionally met Bea, a Swiss woman backpacker. We all got on so well together, had a beer in the Stanley Hotel at night and then went to the penguin-viewing platform. Along this part of the north coast tiny penguins come ashore at night to feed and rear their young. Unfortunately that night they didn’t, or maybe they waited until no one was there any more. Or maybe they were there all along but by that time it was so dark that we couldn’t see them.
Burnie was the last town before the return to Devonport but we didn’t really see that much of interest there so I won’t bore you with it. Harsh! We gave Bea a lift into town as she was hoping to catch a bus to Cradle Mountain to walk the Overlander Track to Lake St Clair. I am looking forward to hearing from her to know how she got on.
There would have been so much more to do in Tasmania; so many roads we didn’t drive down, island we didn’t visit, but you have to make choices, don’t you? We have decided that we will be back in Perth middle of April because Roddy needs a Pet scan which is overdue and we want to see the East Coast and the Red Centre before then…
So! Back we are on the mainland now and are having new adventures. Meanwhile the Aussie schools have gone back after the summer holidays but somehow that doesn’t affect me. I am a lucky vegemite!