Tasmania, the Australian island state in the rugged Bass Strait, is known for its stunning natural beauty – Sam Wallace takes a closer look.
A ferocious sou’easter tears through The Neck Lookout on Bruny Island. There’s nothing but 1700km of Tasman Sea between this 100m wide isthmus of sand dunes and New Zealand’s Fiordland coast. But it is almost certain that the icy wind from this district has traveled several thousand more miles, over the Southern Ocean directly from Antarctica. It’s only the first day of a nine-day Globus coach tour of ‘rugged’ Tasmania, and we’ve barely made it out of Hobart, but we’re already literally blown away.
On the northwest side of The Neck, however, the seas are calm and views of the Tasmanian mainland promise another side to this 1,200km road trip: comfortable accommodation, good food and drink, and a fascinating route. which crosses landscapes shaped by powerful forces, both natural and human.
More than once we will be told that Tassie is closer to Antarctica than to Cairns or Darwin. This remoteness was surely a reason why repeat convicts from the colony of New South Wales began to be sent here from 1803. Our adventure begins in Hobart, where they first settled, and around Salamanca and Battery Point – now the location of weekend markets, busy restaurants and fine harborside lodgings – evidence of those difficult colonial beginnings is just steps from our hotel.
The first leg of my first coach tour is a short encounter; Tour Director Robyn introduces us to our fellow travelers and the delights of Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir and sparkling cuvée, prepared a few hours away on the Tasman Highway. Later, we head for a nightcap at the Aura Bar on the roof of the Crowne Plaza. Surrounded by rolling hills of twinkling suburban lights, a glass of Charles Oates blanco — a twice-distilled cider spirit made from apples grown just west of town — seems like the perfect aid to contemplating the days ahead.
The trip to Bruny Island is with local operator Pennicott Wilderness Journeys. During the 45 minute drive south to the ferry at Kettering we see a sign for the town of Sandfly and pass through the settlement of Snug. Tour guide Andrew lives just down the coast in Flowerpot, he tells us. And there was me who thought “wombat” was a weird thing to call.
Bruny, says Andrew, is a mini-Tasmania: the variety of landscapes found on the mainland are all here. We see golden beaches, rocky headlands, temperate rainforest. All 12 endemic bird species of Tasmania are found here. On The Neck, little penguins nest in burrows that you can see from the viewing boardwalk.
Along the isthmus, South Bruny receives three times as much precipitation as North Bruny, much of which falls on the day of our visit. Unfazed, we enjoy a stop at Resolution Creek in Adventure Bay, where Captain Cook has anchored for fresh water. Near the creek is Two Gum Point and a plaque of a 1792 painting by George Tobin, who was the ship’s officer and artist under Captain William Bligh. After 230 years, the gum trees look exactly the same as in Tobin’s watercolor.
Art appreciation is a hungry job, so luckily lunch is a splendid affair at Pennicott’s own restaurant overlooking the bay. First, Bruny cheese, then a tasting of local oysters; they sell 100,000 dozen a year of these meaty, juicy bites, and only on the island, including through a drive-in. Finally, the delicious blue-eyed trevalla, or cod, and its fries are washed down with Bruny Island Brewing’s freshest whey stout.
It’s time to stop and sample the whiskey and apple brandy at Hounds Tooth Distillery before the coach perfectly times its journey for the return ferry. The sun seems to have given up early for the day, battered by storm clouds and the hills around Hobart as we return to the hotel.
Rod, our driver for the week, has the bus in front of the hotel at 8am. Robyn assigns seats – she’ll alternate who gets the front rows throughout the tour – but there’s plenty of room to sit wherever we want. As I leave town, I test out my reclining seat and footrest, listen to the safety audio, note the toilet in the back, and watch the road ahead on the TV above the windshield.
Robyn and Rod are a knowledgeable double act: both Tasmanians, Robyn is a constant source of information and history about the places we pass through; while Rod’s nuggets of wisdom are delivered as dryly and gritty as his ride is smooth.
We now travel through the heart-shaped heart of Tasmania, following the River Derwent west and then centrally, where most of the state’s rivers, lakes and mountains generate hydroelectricity. Like a heart, the left pumps – electricity in this case (there are 54 dams and 30 hydro systems on the River Derwent alone) – where it’s needed in the drier, more populated east and south .
On the water, black swans and their mirror images loom in bright sunshine, while signs of man’s impact on the environment are reflected all around: chimneys of the Nyrstar zinc smelter, the second largest in the world; the last golden leaves of the orchards – this is Apple Island after all; pine plantation to supply the Norske Skog Boyer newsprint mill.
Our first stop is just inside Mount Field National Park, on the edge of a largely continuous conservation area that dominates southern and western Tasmania: around 42% of the 68,000 km² of land in the State are protected as reserves or as World Heritage Sites. Russell Falls is a delight: a stepped waterfall viewed via a loop trail suitable for all mobility levels. Pay attention to swamp gums, which are the tallest flowering plants in the world.
The next two-hour stretch on the road climbs through plantation pines, down to the rocky Nive River with the twin power stations of Tarraleah and Tungatinah to the valley floor, and back up to the highlands of center. Lunch is a schooner from James Boag Draft and pie and chips at the Derwent Bridge Hotel, a log cabin.
Then a natural wonder and a man-made wonder. Lake St Clair – Leeawuleena, or ‘sleepy water’ in the Aboriginal language – is still a pond despite a strong southerly wind and feels as cold as expected for Australia’s deepest freshwater lake, formed by glaciation for millions of years.
Meanwhile, formed in less than 20 years, the Wall in the Wilderness bears witness to one man’s artistic vision: to portray the indigenous and colonial history of the central highlands, carved in relief into 3m wooden panels high and 100 m long. Sculptor Greg Duncan first built what looks like a Viking banquet hall, with the two-sided wall imagery feasting the full center length. The fine grain and warm color of the huon pine panels come to life in the carvings of emu, thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) horses and carts, men and machines.
The final leg of the day’s journey is a sobering reminder of the historical impact of mining on Tasmanian landscapes. Crossing the man-made Lake Burbury takes us out of the conservation area and into the devastated wastelands of Linda Valley and Mount Lyell. It’s a harsh description of a place where gold was first discovered in 1883, before richer copper deposits were ripped from the ground. The bare rock, smudges of mineral deposits, and deep scars of the Iron Blow open pit mine deserve all the comparisons to ravaged, moonscape, and more. But there’s also a chilling beauty: from the Iron Blow Lookout, the overly blue lake at the bottom of the pit is mesmerizing, and the setting sun sets fire to the mineral reds and oranges on the mountainsides.
Robyn tells us that 50% of Tasmania’s economy is derived from metals. Later in the tour we pass the huge tin mining operation near Rosebery. In Macquarie Harbor on the west coast, intensive logging of the slow-growing huon pine, prized for shipbuilding because of its hardness and natural waterproofing oils, continues the history of the extractive industry . Wood and metal – the “piners and miners”, says Robyn, shaped what Tassie is today. Add the “wind turbines” – hydroelectric projects – and the pro-conservation backlash to their excesses, and you begin to grasp the forces at play in rugged Tasmania.
But above Queenstown, in the shadow of Mount Lyell, Rod tells us, mountain biking is now a popular calling card for visitors. And “winers” – to quote Robyn’s deliciously rhyming slip – such as Josef Chromy produce fine vintages from their 2,000 hectares of vines to wash down the abundance of trout, salmon and oysters harvested from the cool waters. from South.
I’ll take the raw with the sweet, Rod and Robyn, Boag beer and Bruny brandy. Blow me anytime, Tassie.
Air New Zealand has resumed its direct Auckland-Hobart service, now operating twice a week. airnz.co.nz
Contact Globus for details of guided tours in Tasmania, as well as other Australian and global itineraries. globustours.co.nz