We are talking Tasmania for the next two weeks. We tried and failed miserably to fit it all into one blog but there is so much to say about this incredible island. Its got it all: stunning diverse countryside; a fascinating colonial history; tales of gruesome bushrangers and convicts; two of the best art galleries in the world; weird and wonderful wildlife; breath-taking mountain-top views; meeting wonderful new friends; ghosts galore; deserted mining towns; and discovering a dead body at the foot of a tumultuous waterfall. If that doesn’t grab your attention, nothing will!
When our time at Brisbane came to an end we had a period just shy of two weeks before a house and pet sit further up the coast in Queensland. Thinking about our options Sam had the inspired idea of jumping on a plane and spending the time in Tasmania, or Tassie as the locals refer to it!
Having spent far longer in Australia than we planned, our time to get to New Zealand during the summer had run out, so we decided that Tassie would be our “mini NZ” trip. It wasn’t on our radar at all but we are so pleased to have visited this remarkable and unique place.
Arriving in “Lonnie” we picked up our hire car and drove out of the airport, straight into beautiful green countryside and quiet roads. As we pottered along we both commented on how much it reminded us of Ireland (albeit a good deal drier), which wasn’t the last time we would make that comparison over the next twelve days – especially when it did rain!
Like a lot of Tassie, Lonnie is a very hilly city and we found ourselves staying in a lovely hilltop AirBnB – great for rolling into town, but a killer on the way back, especially after downing a few Boag’s, the local brew. Despite our new commitment to running we couldn’t face going up and down the hills, so instead found a small square that we spent thirty minutes criss-crossing in a successful bid to avoid any semblance of a slope.
Launceston is Tasmania’s second city, although its centre is a bit tired and as we were to discover later in the trip, it’s a distant second to Hobart. However, you don’t really go to Tassie for the built environment, it’s the nature that calls you and we spent the best part of a day at Lonnie’s main attraction, the Cataract Cliffs.
Access into this stunning park area was developed in the 1890’s, with pathways and bridges provided to ensure superb walks and glorious views of the gorges.
With peacocks wandering around and pademelons hopping about it is a visit that is quite enchanting. Having said that, there was something slightly hair-raising about the vintage “ski-lift” journey that takes you across part of the gorge. It’s not the most stable ride although the very sedate pace and unfolding vistas made it a bit more relaxing.
After exploring the walks, nooks and crannies of the Cataract Cliffs we jumped in the car and circumnavigated the River Tamar that runs through the city into the north coast and the Bass Strait. In contrast to the gorge, here the scenery is flat and serene, and information boards along the route tell of wonderfully grisly stories of escaped convict outlaws – including cannablism: check out Alexander Pearce’s story – who terrorised the authorities. We visited Brady’s Lookout, named after the “Gentleman Bushranger” Matthew Brady – Tassie’s very own Ned Kelly….with table manners. On learning that the Governor had offered a reward for his capture, Brady responded in kind, offering a reward of rum for anyone who could deliver him the Governor! Brady’s cunning and good luck eventually ran out in 1826 when he was captured and met his denouement at the end of a hangman’s rope.
We finished our day back at the gorges with a cliff side walk, strapped into safety harnesses and clambering along a rickety rope and timber bridges getting great views of Lonnie – when we weren’t looking down to make sure of our footing!
East Coast to Bicheno and Freycinet
Heading east out of Launceston toward the coast we were treated to winding roads through thick forests with occasional reveals of the landscape ahead as we got higher. Another example of the remarkable variety in Tassie. The names along the coast reflect the efforts of French explorers who navigated the waters on the east coast.
Slowly but surely the weather turned greyer and wetter and reminded us of being back home in the UK. We had hoped to see the wonderfully named Bay of Fires in all its natural beauty, but with the rain setting in it was a bit of a damp squib and we made for our next stop in Bicheno to admire its famed blowhole.
Our AirBnB was directly opposite the beach and the blowhole – a brilliant location made even better by its proximity to a delicious lobster shack! The next day we took a chance with the weather and went to Freycinet National Park, lauded for its views and beaches. The route involves committing to quite a long drive on to a peninsula and having to retrace your steps. Despite the weather it was worth the extra driving as it’s a very atmospheric place especially with the clouds draped over the bays and mountain tops….
….and the crumpled rocks along the coast that have a strange red / copper hue to them rising out of crystal clear almost turquoise water, all of which makes for a slightly unreal unworldly experience – a delightful sensation you repeatedly get in Tasmania.
Sadly the mists prevented us from seeing the iconic Wineglass Bay, so named….well you can guess the rest. However, this is the chance you take here, some days Tassie reveals and revels in its gorgeousness, other times it’s a bit more coy. As if to illustrate that point in spades a few hours later as we started to near Port Arthur we came across the astonishing sight of Dunalley at low tide. We’ve never seen so much beach and so much sky at the same time, truly jaw-dropping.
Where to begin with Port Arthur. Tucked away in the south east corner of the island Port Author is a UNESCO world historic site hosting the remains of one of the largest penal settlements that dates back to the 1830’s. After falling into disrepair when transportation came to an end and buildings were broken up, damaged and left to ruin, it has been rejuvenated by fantastic renovation and conservation work.
The site is enormous covering several buildings, substantial grounds with ornate gardens, lakes and nearby islands including the Isle of the Dead: the final resting place for over 1000 convicts and colony staff. Port Arthur has a strange and eerie feel to it that creates a slightly chilling institutional atmosphere while being incongruously sandwiched between green rolling hills and a beautiful bay.
With a catchy mission statement of “A machine to grind rogues honest” it’s not difficult to imagine how tough conditions must have been for the convicts – especially the repeat offenders who found themselves in the punishment block in tiny solitary confinement cells where a practice of total isolation and silence was designed to break their spirit…. and often did.
On arriving at the site we had a spare twenty minutes before boarding a boat for a tour of the bay. A guide suggested we take a look at the Memorial Garden that honoured those killed at Port Arthur. We assumed that this was a reference to staff and/or convicts, but were shocked to discover that the Gardens honour the thirty five innocent victims of Australia’s worst mass shooting which took place in April 1996. We both felt quite ashamed at not being able to recall this atrocity. We subsequently discovered that there is an unwritten rule that no one speaks the name of the perpetrator, and that the incident fundamentally changed Australian gun laws by introducing far greater controls.
The Garden is a sombre and peaceful remembrance to the victims and their families. The massacre is very much in the consciousness of the Australian people and a couple of weeks after visiting Port Arthur it was back in the headlines when the appalling One Nation Party was caught out seeking fundraising assistance from the NRA in the States with the aim of softening Australia’s gun laws shaped by the atrocity. One can only hope voters remember this act when they go to the polls in May.
Close to our BnB (which included a bizarre diorama of convicts building a railway – that was a first) we made our way to the wonderfully named Eaglehawk Neck for a bite to eat and a beer. Our landlady recommended checking out the local natural phenomenon on the beach – the tessellated pavement.
Sure enough a strange set of geological circumstances that we don’t have the intelligence to understand let alone describe have created a peculiar rock platform with an appearance and symmetry that looks manmade but is entirely natural. It’s not going to get anymore technical than that, so here is another picture…..
One of the things that is really noticeable in Tassie, compared to the mainland, is the amount of roadkill on the sides of the roads. All sorts of creatures, but particularly wallabies it seems, suffer collisions with traffic. In turn this has created a threat to the Tassie Devil who feed on carrion. Attracted to the roadside feasts on offer, the Devils themselves get hit. As a result measures are being taken to move roadkill away from the highways to help protect Devil numbers. We have to be honest and say that there is nothing very endearing about the Tassie Devil – the Bogan of Australian wildlife (its the teeth that do it). As they are nocturnal we didn’t get to see any in the wild and didn’t want to see them in zoo’s or wildlife centres – so we had to make do with being aware of their presence.
Taking the road sign advice we motored back from Eaglehawk Neck slowly in the dark, creeping along with the full beam on. Sure enough an animal that we weren’t able to identify ran in front of the car. Thankfully we were able to stop and then watched bemused as the animal stared at us mesmerised by the headlights, it then seemed to do a pirouette and finally scuttle off to sanctuary. We didn’t hold much hope for the longevity of that critter.
The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart is quite an adventure, an attraction that brings people from all over the world to Tasmania. There can’t be many galleries that offer their very own catamaran ferry to take you to its grounds…
..which are set in its own vineyard…
MONA is very much an experience and one that deserves several hours to make the most of its remarkable collections. Finding all of the displays in its labyrinth of rooms, doorways and levels is part of the fun. Despite covering every er….nook and cranny we never did find the famed wall of vaginas! However, there is so much on offer here it overwhelms the senses with dazzling displays that mess with your mind, perception and, yes taste. We could fill an entire blog with pictures and thoughts on MONA, so here are a few examples of the extraordinary art on show starting with the tattooed man – Tim – who sits on his plinth for six hours a day. When he dies his skin will be “removed” and displayed….
….a perfect huge sphere in one of the restaurants that can be entered for an intense sensory perception experience…
…a jet of water that forms and fires out the most common words being used on the web at that moment…
…..the ever changing Light Tunnel…
….the genius of skeletal x-ray stained glass
..and this remarkable room where you are let in one by one. From above and when you first enter the room the “black” looks like a black painted void – then as you adjust your senses you realise that the “black” is actually crude oil filled shoulder high reflecting the light from above – as you might imagine the smell is intense and the effect amazing.
This eclectic selection barely scratches the surface of this fabulous collection. We spent the best part of a day at MONA and loved it. It is in your face and certainly some of the exhibits are gut churning, but it’s fun, challenging and makes you want to come back for more, a cultural highlight of our travels.
Hobart: Barney and Frankie
Having decided to travel to Tassie we checked out house sitting opportunities and were fortunate enough to land a five day sit looking after a Terrier called Barney and a Beagle called Frankie. They were a hilarious couple, very playful and mischievous, but obedient and great fun to walk. Little Barney is one of those dogs that starts a commotion by yapping furiously at much larger dogs and once satisfied that it’s all kicking off, he will scamper off content with the mayhem he has created in the local dog park.
Hobart also afforded us the opportunity to meet up with Julie and Den, relatives of Sam’s sister Sandra. Unlike other friends and relatives we’ve hooked up with on our travels we hadn’t met Julie and Den before and it was such a great pleasure getting to know them, enjoying their wonderful hospitality, benefitting on advice on where to go and being taken to some breathtaking sights……all of which we will cover in the second part of our blogs on tremendous Tasmania.
Next Up – Tasmania Part 2: More Hobart, the Wild West, Murder in the Waterfall, Cradle Mountain Wombats and PPPPenguin Butchery!