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Tasmania: Windswept & wild

Steeped in convict lore, Tasmania, Australia’s isolated island state, has a breathtaking natural beauty that’s often overlooked. Sign up for an Overland Track through the heart of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park and discover spectacular, glacially-carved valleys, fragrant eucalypt forest and golden buttongrass plains

Tasmania: Windswept & wild
Hiker on the track. Image: Getty

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I don’t know what time it is, and I’d have to think hard to name the day of the week. All I can be sure of is that I’m the highest person in Tasmania.

I’m sitting on a boulder at the pinnacle of Mount Ossa, the tallest peak on Australia’s island state. The view, to every single compass-point, is of mountains and valleys — a shaggy green landscape under a blue sky. There’s no noise, save a wavering, insect trill. It is, as they say in these parts, ‘pretty bloody speccy’.

Spectacular and Tasmania go together like cold and beer, I’m starting to learn — more than halfway through the Overland Track. This six-day hike is a bushwalkers’ rite of passage through some of the island’s most soul-lifting scenery. An hour into the trek, mobile reception vanished. I’ve not looked at a clock since then. I’m in a delicious technology-free limbo, where the days are measured out simply by where the sun sits in the southern sky, and where all that matters is the path ahead. Email? What’s email? The escape is bliss.

Tasmania is referred to as Australia’s best-kept secret — but they’ve been saying that for decades. It has a population of just half a million and is a 50-minute hop off the coast from Victoria. Marketing posters from the 1930s dub it ‘The Switzerland of the South’, while wry locals refer to mainland Australia as ‘the North Island’. It grows everything from apples to olives in abundance and has some of the purest air in the world, blowing in from Antarctica.

The island’s rumpled mosaic of farmland and bush is stuffed with surprises. Half the world’s legal supply of opium poppies is cultivated here. The tallest recorded hardwood tree on the planet, a 330ft-high eucalypt, stands in the wild south west. Some 40% of the island is protected land. Canadian outdoor clothing firms favour the scenery here for their photoshoots, when conditions don’t suit at home, and wine buffs talk openly about Tasmania’s sparkling white as a serious rival to the Champagne region.

The place is unassuming, too. At one point during my stay, I’m driving through the waterfront capital of Hobart on a sun-soaked morning with David, a local guide. He casually juts a thumb towards a lady who’s just strolled past. I expect him to say she’s a friend of his, a relative perhaps. “That was Lara Giddings, the state premier,” he states matter-of-factly, then becomes more animated. “The cafe behind her does great weekend brunches.”

Things haven’t always been rosy. In the past, the destination was the stuff of dread and whispers. British settlers first arrived in 1803, laying claim to the island then known as Van Diemen’s Land. The next five decades are coated in a thick, horrid history. The island housed the most cruel and notorious of Australia’s penal colonies, ‘processing’ upwards of 70,000 convicts. At the same time, the indigenous population — here for 35 millennia before the European arrivals — was all but obliterated. It’s a mighty depressing tale.

When history drew breath in 1856, however, the island’s name was changed to Tasmania — after Abel Tasman, the Dutch seafarer said to be the first European to set eyes on the island — in what was essentially a canny PR decision. Unable to reverse the past, a new generation of islanders were looking to the future. More settlers were needed. The name Van Diemen’s Land was synonymous with convicts and brutality. Few would willingly spend long months at sea to reach such a place. But a fresh start as the newly christened Tasmania? With its bounteous hills and lakes, its bays and rolling fields? Well, they were onto something.

Wide-eyed wanderings

 The rain is pummelling down. More accurately it’s pummelling sideways, the gale-force Roaring Forties winds giving me a horizontal soaking. The west of my body is totally sopping, the east only sodden. Visibility, through the murk and tumbling mist, is next to zero. It’s the first day of the Overland Track, and I’ve reached the ridge below Cradle Mountain.

It was from here, in 1910, that an Austrian immigrant outdoors aficionado named Gustav Weindorfer — famous among other things for establishing a Cradle Mountain visitors’ chalet, Waldheim Chalet, and the wombat stew it served — looked around at the spread of peaks and declared the land should be preserved “for the people for all time; it is magnificent, and people must know about it and enjoy it”.

Weindorfer’s wish was granted, and his vision was integral to the creation of the Overland Track. The six-day, 40-mile trail, made up of former trading paths and Aboriginal hunting tracks, stretches through what’s now a national park reserve between Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair in Tasmania’s Central Highlands. The trek has become so popular that only a set number of pre-booked walkers are allowed to embark on it each day. I’m one of a group of nine doing the walk with Cradle Mountain Huts, an outfit that takes the sting out of the week by laying on private huts, hot showers and good food and wine. Purists may baulk at this approach. I now know I’m not much of a purist.

We’re covering between six and nine miles a day, including side trips to lakes and waterfalls, or climbs up the ravishing dolerite mountains — the backdrop to our daily exertions. In the main hiking season, between November and April, it’s only possible to walk the track from north to south. It means not a soul comes the other way, save the odd root-chomping marsupial — creating a profound sense of aloneness. “See that spot in the distance,” says Anna, one of our two superb guides, on the second morning. She’s casting her arm out across a fantasy of green hills to a mountain pass on the horizon. “That’s where we’ll be in four days.”

The other members of the group — who, like me, all carry 20lb backpacks — are a chipper, comradely bunch. They include a doughty 67-year-old lady from Sydney, transporting herself along the trail seemingly by will alone, and a sweet Korean couple who, when we’re picked up from the northern city of Launceston to begin the walk, ask the guides with gentle concern if they’re absolutely sure there won’t be any grizzly bears.

Bears there aren’t, but when the weather clears to grant us five consecutive days of near-perfect hiking conditions, Tasmania’s native flora and fauna starts asserting itself. The heat brings out the lovely muzzy scents of the Australian bush while we walk, with wafts of tea tree and eucalyptus puffing over the track. Each dawn is busy with flitting birds — scrubwrens and honeyeaters, dusky robins and silvereyes — and evening sees the emergence of pademelons, the pretty brown wallabies endemic to the island, poking shyly around areas of heathland.

It doesn’t take long for a 24-hour routine to form: ease out of bed sometime after first light; fill up on breakfast and sip a quiet coffee outside the hut, enjoying the cool breath of morning; pull on boots and join the trail, maybe stopping for a mid-morning swim — plunging into a drinkable lake or a river twitching with trout; pause later on for a sandwich, then walk some more; reach the next hut and melt into the shower, emerging for food, wine and sunset; talk, read, distil your thoughts, then sleep. Repeat the next day.

We each tackle the trail at our own pace. “I loved yesterday,” one group member enthuses after breakfast one morning as she zips up her gaiters. She addresses the rest of us. “No offence guys, but out here solitude is bliss.”

We journey over buttongrass plains and alpine plateaus, filing ant-like down mighty U-shaped valleys one hour and slipping into dark, cathedral-like worlds of temperate rainforest the next. At stages, the dominant colour is the purple of the wildflowers. At others, it’s the white of the slender-trunked gum trees, sun-dappled and tangled. Most often, though, the prevailing sight is the ungovernable green of the mountains, their summits topped with columns of rock.

The two main climbable peaks along the track, Mount Oakleigh and Mount Ossa, are personal highlights. Oakleigh involves a sweaty clamber up a steep, forested hillside to reach a lookout with a silencing view over the entire national park. Ossa, higher still, takes you through cliff-folds and bare gullies to arrive at the roof of Tasmania. From the top, the panorama stretches as far as the ranges on both coastlines. But almost unfathomably, the whole scene reveals not a single town, village or settlement — not even a stray house among the hills.

Ossa is named after a mountain in northern Greece. Some of the other peaks, and lakes, have Classical names — there’s a Hyperion, a Narcissus, even an Olympus. The tale goes that one of the first colonists to travel to the area had a keen interest in mythology and, overawed by what he was seeing, started flinging timeless names at the scenery.

But my own favourite Overland Track story is of a meeting that once took place around Lake St Clair, the trail’s end point. We arrive here on day six, weary and elated but readying ourselves for a return to the real world, mobile reception and all. Some 80 years before us, the ranger in charge of the lake’s first tourist camp was walking this way. He was transporting an iron bathtub, the camp’s new visitor commodity, on his head. It being tough work, a quiet trail and a hot day, he was stripped naked, only to encounter a wide-eyed group from the Hobart Women’s Birdwatching Association coming the other way. He’s said to have bidden them a good morning, then loped on into the mountains. It seems a very Tasmanian anecdote.

Apples & art

Two days later, I’m watching a frightened middle-aged lady being marched under punishing sunshine into South Hobart’s Cascades Female Factory, the women’s prison that operated from 1828 to 1856. These days, it’s a mere skeleton of a building — broken walls and silent memorials — and what’s taking place in front of me is a costumed re-enactment of the life of ‘Louisa’, a Londoner sentenced to seven years in Van Diemen’s Land for stealing a loaf of bread. Hundreds of women and children died in the prison.

“I actually came over from the UK, too,” explains Judith, Louisa’s alter ego, after the performance. “When I moved here, I was a tour guide. Then eight years ago, I thought, well, those poor female convicts, their story needs telling. So I came up with the idea for this. We do it daily now. But you know what?” Her eyes come alive. “Tasmania. It has a sad history but it’s heaven. The best place in the world. You won’t catch me moving away from Hobart now.”

I can understand her enthusiasm. The state capital, located on the handsome shores and bays of the Derwent River Estuary, is easy-going, unrushed. The city’s historic core, around the wharfs of Sullivans Cove, from where cargos of apples were once shipped halfway around the planet, is full of spruce colonial architecture. It comes across as a place ripe with life — the Saturday Salamanca Market is a merry jangle of food stalls and buskers — but to a short-term visitor like me it’s hard to discern any sense of urban urgency. This can only be a good thing.

As a visitor destination it’s attracting more mainland Australians than ever, largely thanks to the MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), the game-changing attraction that opened in 2011 on the city fringes. It’s the brainchild of gambling multi-millionaire David Walsh, who describes his project — essentially a mammoth set of galleries blasted into a sandstone cliff — as ‘a subversive adult Disneyland’. It’s hard to overstate the impression it’s made. I spend hours here engaged, moved and disturbed by the art I’m witnessing.

There’s no signage, and the art installations — everything from tattooed pigskins to functioning euthanasia machines — are arranged seemingly haphazardly. At one point, after admiring a 3,500-year-old Egyptian sarcophagus, I turn around to be faced with a statue of an exploded suicide bomber. The juxtapositions become exhausting, although it seems no great mental leap to infer that Tasmania as a whole is just as discombobulated; its spiky past and its present somehow rubbing along together.

Early on my final morning, I take a car to the top of Mount Wellington, which stands barn-like over Hobart. It’s not yet eight o’clock, and there are only three or four people around. Far below, the rising sun is setting the river on fire. The tiny corrugated rooftops of the city are glowing and glinting. I realise the island has had an almost sedative effect on me. I turn away and face north, towards Cradle Mountain. All I can make out are nameless green valleys, but I know that somewhere out there, boots on and watch off, I started to see Tasmania, and what all the fuss is about.

ESSENTIALS

Getting there
Airlines flying to Australia include Etihad Airways, Qantas, British Airways, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand. Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly to Tasmania from mainland Australia. etihad.com   qantas.com   ba.com
emirates.com   singaporeair.com   airnewzealand.co.uk   virginaustralia.com   jetstar.com
It’s also possible to sail from Melbourne to Devonport on the Spirit of Tasmania ferry. spiritoftasmania.com.au
Average flight time: Approx 24h to Australia plus approx 2h to Tasmania.

 

Getting around
The main city in the north, Launceston, is 123 miles from Hobart in the south. Buses travel the route.

 

When to go
Tasmania has warm summers with tenperatures around 21C (December-February) and cool winters (June-August). Cradle Mountain Huts runs an Overland Track hike from 1 October to 1 May.

 

Need to know
Visas: UK citizens should apply for a free eVisitor permit before departure. immi.gov.au/visitors/tourist/evisitor
Currency: Australian dollar ($). £1 = $1.44.
International dial code: 00 61 3.
Time: GMT +10.

 

Places mentioned
Cradle Mountain Huts. cradlehuts.com.au
Louisa’s Walk. livehistoryhobart.com.au
MONA. mona.net.au

 

More info
discovertasmania.co.uk
australia.com
The Rough Guide to Tasmania. RRP: £13.99.

 

How to do it
STA Travel has return flights to Launceston via Melbourne from £1,001 for November 2013. Private rooms at the Arthouse Hostel in Launceston are from £38. The Overland Track fee for independent walkers is from £139. statravel.co.uk

Austravel has an 11-day package with flights, two nights in Launceston, the six-day Cradle Mountain Huts walk and three nights in Hobart with car hire from £3,395 per person. austravel.com

Published in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)