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"Tasmania: Australia’s Holiday Isle”

Text by John Sherman Mills

Photography by Thomas I. Petersen

Just try to say  “Tasmania” without the whirling image of the infamous Looney Tunes character “Taz” buzzing across your mind!  This hair-brained creature of the silver screen we all know and love can claim responsibility for our zany American impression of this mysterious South Sea island.  Yet this enigmatic Australian state, situated 125 miles off the southeast mainland, is truly a Mecca for the serious minded outdoor sports enthusiast. Adventure seekers from all over the world chose this getaway for the incomparable white water rafting, rock climbing, abseiling, caving, salt water kayaking and a myriad of other leisure pleasures found only in this pristine natural wilderness.

Minutes by air from either Sydney or Melbourne, Tasmania’s gateway city is the bustling seaport of Hobart.  Stretching from the mouth of the Derwent River on the Southern Ocean to the verdant foothills of Mt. Wellington, Hobart has retained all the picturesque charm of its early days when hundreds of windjammers and tall ships graced its deep-water harbor. No measures have been spared in preserving its distinctive architectural heritage.  The Theatre Royal, Australia’s oldest theater, retains its original opulent splendor.  The National Trust maintains another eighty-nine historical landmarks, all within Hobart’s city limits.  The part of town called Battery Point has hundreds of gingerbread cottages and stately Georgian mansions, seemingly keeping a watchful eye over the harbor.

Salamanca Place, famous for its regular Saturday Market, is an entire esplanade faced with 19th century maritime warehouses.  These sandstone structures contain a mesmerizing mix of specialty shops, boutiques and restaurants. It’s the perfect setting for street performers, mimes, buskers and sidewalk painters that faithfully converge here every day.  At 39 Salamanca Place you can dine at Hobart’s finest restaurant, Syrup.  Open from 6 P.M. until 1 P.M. the menu includes smoked trout, pan fried oysters, creamy pink-eye potatoes, steamed asparagus and smooth tasting cheeses.

For the thrill of a lifetime, check out the jet boat rides starting near the Franklin Wharf. Twice daily these demons of speed leave from Hobart’s commercial harbor and then zoom inanely up the poplar-lined Derwent River estuary.  Highly trained, daredevil pilots put these sleek speedboats through an impossible sequence of aquatic acrobatics, guaranteed to make your knuckles white and your sides split from laughter. 

As enchanting as Hobart might be, landing here is just the first step toward the enticements awaiting you.  Not to worry if you don’t have a definite itinerary when you arrive. Any one of several  travel agents in Hobart or elsewhere on the island can individualize a schedule of activities for you.  In fact, the tour operators here are highly organized and all have tailored their services specifically for the overseas traveler.  Any equipment you might need, from backpacks to pick axes, are all ready and set to go.  Many packages “dovetail,” so you can effortlessly mix and match your excursions, like fly, cycle and raft.  Furthermore trips are graded by difficulty and physical requirements, so you set your own pace.

I chose to start our vacation with a three-day wilderness bush walk through Tasmania’s south coast region.  A spectacular flight from Hobart lands us at the small Melaleuca airstrip along a deserted, windswept beach. Together with seven other jubilant hikers we get outfitted with our backpacks.  The trail meanders through a World Heritage area resplendent with fragrant Eucalyptus forests, sheer cliffs, craggy granite mountains and foreboding hidden coves. Awesome bush walks are in each of Tasmania’s fourteen national parks.  Favored destinations for trekking include the Freycinet, Narawntapu, Mt.William, Walls of Jerusalem and Cradle Mountain National Parks. 

I return back to Hobart and rent a car for the remaining eleven days of our stay.  Triangular in shape, Tasmania is 175mile long and 189 miles across, about the same land area as West Virginia.  The road conditions are excellent and directions for the motorist are clearly marked.  Tasmania has mild maritime climate year round (70 degrees in summer and 50 degrees in winter) and it rains a little more than two inches each month. Driving is easy, but you do need to exercise caution at night.  Wildlife is as unwary as it is abundant.

Tasmania has ample first class hotels, fashionable resorts, convenient motels and comfortable hostels.  But there’s also a company operating here and throughout Australia called Q-Beds.  This referral service lets you enjoy accommodations in a private home.  It’s a great way to get a glimpse of local life and to jumpstart your opportunities for meeting “friendly natives.”

Set with wheels, Tom and I zip up the island’s Midland Highway for the four-hour drive to the north coast.  The “base camp” for our exploration of the area will be Launceston, Tasmania’s second largest city with 70,000 residents.  A powerful preservation movement has succeeded in sustaining Launceston’s turn of the century ambiance and old world charm.  Graceful Victorian era buildings with their intricate designs of brick and granite line every street.  A portion of Brisbane Street in the business district has been designated a pedestrian only mall.  Strolling here, you feel like you’ve slipped backward to 1910.  A peep at the electronic gadgets and gizmos in a store window, however, will quickly restore your sense of time.

Tom and I choose our sleeping quarters in the nostalgic Batman-Fawkner Inn.  It was in this drafty, old boarding house in 1835 that John Batman (no relation to the cartoon character) and his cigar-chomping entourage of founding fathers wrangled out a set of designs for Australia’s second mainland city, Melbourne, as well as for the exploration of the unconquered Outback.

First on our agenda is a full day of white water rafting through the Cataract George Reserve.  Our travel agent in Hobart hooked us up for this outdoor caper with two other guys and a newly-wed couple.  Instant friends, we’re soon facing the category three rapids that swirl down this narrow canyon, its imposing volcanic walls seemingly hovering over us.  All of us are thankful we passed on the challenges of Tasmania’s world acclaimed descents through the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.  Those runs have exclusively grade four and five rapids, with grueling expeditions lasting six to ten days. 

Our next morning we take the forty minute drive west of Launceston through the drowsy village of Deloraine to the entrance to the Mole Creek Karst National Park.  The park’s highlights are two spectacular limestone caverns: the King Solomon with its glistening, crystallized stalactites and the Marakoopa, with its gurgling underground streams and star-like canopy of florescent glow-worms. The guided tours of each of these natural wonders requires about forty-five minutes, so you can experience both in a single visit.  The treacherous, deadly vaults of Kubla Kahn and Croesus are only accessible by permit.

Just a few more miles west starts the spectacular trek in the Cradle Mountain National Park.  The world famous Overland Trail twists around the azure blue waters of Lake St. Clair to the spiky summit of Cradle Mountain.  This primordial landscape supports an abundance of wildlife including falcons, eagles, wombats and wallabies as well as a proliferation of vibrant wildflowers.

Forty five miles east of Launceston is the Ben Lomond National Park.   Situated on a commanding plateau some 4000 feet in height, Ben Lomond is Tasmania’s favorite winter sports area offering the best-developed ski fields in Tasmania.  Downhill and cross-country skiing as well as tobogganing and snowboarding are ever popular. Winter season lasts from July until September (remember we’re in the Southern Hemisphere).   In summer the precipitous cliffs in the park are a magnet for experienced rock climbers.  Tasmania’s other climbing areas include Adamsfield, Hillwood, the Organ Pipes and Frenchman’s Cap.

Launceston itself is centered in Tamar Valley, the heart of Tasmania’s wine producing area.   Brightly colored signs mark the Northern Wine Route, directing you through a patchwork of vineyards, farmlands and rolling hills.  Visitors in summer and autumn enjoy wine tasting of the region’s award winning pinots, chardonnays and Rieslings.  Vintners take turns in sponsoring weekend music festivals.  Because of the purity of the air, water and land, the valley is acclaimed for its organic products such as honeys, gourmet fruits, handmade jams and distinctive cheeses.  

Heading south from Launceston, Tom and I follow Tasmania’s beloved Heritage Highway, which meanders through the sleepy villages and Colonial towns of the island’s heartland.  The shops and homes, all constructed from gold hued sandstone, remain virtually unchanged for past 160 years.  The yeasty aromas of crusty Beaconsfield breads drift through the tree-lined streets.  

As we press forward, we discover the Tasmanian National Trust has opened many mansions, homesteads and historical sites to the public. A dark fascination for me is the Trust’s Richmond Gaol, Australia’s oldest jailhouse standing in its original condition.  Built in 1825, this austere structure with all its creaky planking and dimly lit cells incarcerated gangs of Australia’s most demonic convicts, some headed for the gallows awaiting in Hobart.  One of the notorious inmates was the London swindler, Izzy Solomons.  Legend has it he was the inspiration for the character of Fagin in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.”  I confess a collection of creepy metal contraptions (trust me, you don’t want to know) gave me a near lethal case of goose bumps and forced my premature departure back into town.  We continue with a short walk to the magnificent Richmond Bridge, crafted by more congenial convicts in 1823.

One of our more humorous discoveries along the route is Woolmers Estate, an expansive sheep ranch started in 1815 with a land grant from the King of England.   Overlooking the tranquil Macquarie River, the Main House remained a modest, single story structure until 1958. The last son of the Archer family, however, then commissioned a Gargantuous neoclassical addition, cramming it with the finest of European furniture and works of art.  Royalty such as Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and Lady Diana have all made their way to this “jewel of the island.”  When he died without any heirs, he created a foundation bearing his name and bequeathed his beloved Woolmers to the people of Tasmania.

As the Heritage Highway ends we veer toward the southeast corner of Tasmania and the city of Cygnet.  A crunchy gravel road snakes halfway up a hillside checkered by orchards and farmlands and leads to the Talune Wildlife Park.  Owned by a former science teacher Mike Jagoe, this nature center allows wallabies, wombats, potaroos, emus, possums and kangaroos to roam freely.  Unlike any other exhibit in Australia, visitors here can walk among and actually feed the animals. 

Tasmania’s most visited area is the southeastern territory called the Tasman Peninsula, named after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who was the first European to drop anchor at the island in 1642.  You enter the peninsula by crossing a bizarre isthmus called Eaglehawk Neck, a sandy stretch of land only a few hundred feet long and thirty feet wide.   It was a perfect natural barrier against any prisoner trying to escape from the penal colony that was built here in 1830.  Records show only one felon made an attempt.  He shed his prison uniform completely, wrapped himself in a Kangaroo skin and hopped awkwardly along the shoreline.  His masquerade, unconvincing to the humorless guards stationed here, was less than short lived.

Tom and I drive across the Neck and soon spot tour guides that can arrange the most phenomenal scuba diving and sea kayaking trips imaginable.  With waters renowned to be the clearest in the world, the eastern coast of the Tasman Peninsula is nothing less than breathtaking.  Ferocious surfs have carved contorted rock formations like the Devil’s Kitchen, Tasman Blowhole and Patterson Arch.   All can be viewed from the Tasman Trail, a dramatic backpacking path skirting the edges of the highest sea cliffs in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Peninsula also features the Tasmanian Devil Park where you can see the elusive critter that Tasmanians have embraced as their feisty mascot.  Just down the road is the Bush Mill settlement, a working replication of a logging camp that operates the world’s steepest steam railway.  Tom and I hold on tight as the engine squeaks along a rickety trestle into the forest of Cypress Pines.

The heart of Tasmania, however, is to be felt amongst the ruins at the Port Arthur Historic Site.  From1830 to 1877 Port Arthur was the severest penitentiary of the British Empire.  1,200 convicts and 1000 guards and support staff lived within the complex at any one time.  In addition to the 90-minute walking tour of the grounds and buildings, Tom and I linger in the newly created museum.  The sensitive displays recount compassionately how many of the prisoners coming from England had committed such minor offenses as stealing a loaf of bread.  Australians consider this age of imprisonment to be the darkest of chapters in the continent’s history. You sense that in reaction to the adversities suffered here emerged the inspired human values and camaraderie that are echoed today in the “G-Day, mate” you hear so pleasantly throughout Australia.

As our two-week vacation draws to an end, I sense that we have discovered for ourselves this paradise that the Australians have long time called their “Holiday Isle.”  Tasmania is a unique and special part of the Land Down Under.  One to which we will soon return.