Having travelled through a number of places in Tasmania, Mallika Naguran and Jeremy Torr suggest travel tips that would come in handy for the intrepid traveller, especially those who look forward to a drive holiday in this remote island state of Australia.
LAUNCESTON, 24 January 2018. Tasmania is not exactly the first destination most people have in mind when thinking of travelling to Australia. But why not? An island located just south of the bigger land mass that together make up the Australian continent, Tasmania is a marvel when it comes to any and all of these at once—nature, wildlife, culture, fresh produce cuisine, vineyards and wineries, scenic walks, river cruises, festivals, and more.
If you come across picture perfect snapshots of Tasmania and think they must have been photoshopped, chances are they have not! Gorgeous views are there for the taking everyday, sometimes sights that could reduce one to tears for their sheer beauty, if one takes the time (and dares to be different) to explore Tasmania outside of the well-popularised destinations. Don’t be a tourist; be a traveller, and a responsible one too.
1. Try Launceston, not just Hobart
Too often people head straight to the east and south for Hobart when visiting Tasmania especially for the first time. While Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, boasts famed attractions such as MONA, Salamanca Market and close proximity to islands and National Parks, do not discount the other destination up north.
Launceston is a pleasant riverside city minus traffic congestion, pollution and crowds. It offers a lot with its period building charm, boutique stores and cosy cafes on pedestrian friendly walkways such as Brisbane Street, St John’s Street and at Royal Park pier. Spend a night in Lonnie (or Launnie, how the locals lovingly call Launceston) after having freshly shucked oysters at a number of fine restaurants to wake up to unbelievable biodiversity of creatures at the Tamar Valley Wetlands Reserve – do pack your binoculars! Black swans, pacific black ducks, cormorants, herons, egrets, Australian pelicans and more will wave at you.
If you are lucky you will also see lizards, potoroos and even a snake or two. Best time to catch the birds would be in the early morning as they awake, stretch, glide and feed. There are over 200 species of resident or regular bird visitors in Tasmania, of which about half are seabirds. “Tasmania is a bird haven with over forty Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) globally recognised as sites of conservation significance,” writes Dr. Sally Bryant of Tasmanian Land Conservancy in the Foreword of Sarah Lloyd’s The Feathered Tribes of Van Diemen’s Land.
At any time of the day, walk through the impressive Cataract Gorge and on the suspended footbridge over the South Esk River, which spills into the meandering Tamar River that stretches for 58km before pouring out to the Bass Straits in the north. The track of low to medium walking range along the gorge will take you to the historic Duck Reach Power Station, a hydro power station that supplied some of the first ever renewable energy to residents, from in 1895.
And if you are really lucky, you might spot a seal swimming up the gorge. Then plunge into the open infinity-like swimming pool at the First Basin for a cool splash while marvelling at the majestic rock formations, the posing peacocks and pademelons. But remember, they belong to the wild, so do not feed them.
As for markets, save the weekend for Launceston Harvest Market (Saturday morning on Cimitiere Street) and Evandale Market (Sunday morning, near the airport) for breakfast while strolling and shopping fresh produce, cheese, seasonal fruit, curiosities (not junk… they have hidden value), handmade craft or pottery, flowering plants, and more. Meet the farmers and mingle with the locals in the sunshine. It’s sunnier in Launceston than in Hobart, even in winter!
2. Try off the beaten tracks, not just Cradle Mountain
If you liked Launceston, you can choose to head north and northwest for a taste of Tasmanian wilderness across a number of national parks (there are 19 National Parks and reserves in total – a short term statewide membership pass is great value). If you only have Cradle Mountain on your checklist as the one to visit, you risk losing out on all the different layers of outdoor landscapes, the kaleidoscope of vegetation that subtly alters (eucalypt forest, blackwood, rainforest, paperbark swamp forest, moorland, sedgeland, coastal heath and more) as you drive south from the northwest, and the sweeping beauty that defines each area.
See marsupials like Forester kangaroos, Bennett’s wallabies and pademelons at Narawntapu National Park in the north (less than one hour from Launceston; go via Exeter and Bakers Beach Rd). Walk to the hills or along the beach, and pitch a tent.
If you are into caves, you will enjoy Mole Creek Karst National Park. Again just over an hour’s drive west of Launceston via Deloraine, you can visit the two spectacular public caves – Marakoopa and King Solomons – also described as the Mole Creek Caves. Apart from these, there are hundreds of other caves, sinkholes, underground gorges, streams and springs. Not surprisingly, this is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
For an alpine experience, try Ben Lomond National Park, Tasmania’s most developed ski field which is less than an hour east of Launceston, via Evandale. Great for short or long walks, or just a superb drive out to the park where a rich source of plant life greets you. Wombats, echidnas and even the elusive eastern quolls have been spotted here. If you are into birds, look out for the rare pardalotes and soaring wedge-tailed eagles over the looming granite cliffs.
Or go northwest to catch the breathtaking cliffs of The Nut. It’s a stiff climb up this 143m high volcanic massif for panoramic views, but you can take a chair lift if you have week knees. Forget Wineglass Bay – the beaches and bays here are prettier (in our opinion) and better in terms of accessibility. To get to Wineglass Bay, on the east coast one needs to climb up steep tracks for about an hour as Wineglass Bay is not easily nor quickly accessible. Often people only spend a few minutes on the beach because they had taken all day driving to get there, and have to rush off for another destination. Don’t get us wrong; Freycinet Peninsula is stunning. But there are other spots in Tasmania that are equally if not more stunning. And being a responsible traveller, you might like to avoid well trodden paths to prevent erosion, over consumerism and degradation of natural areas.
One favourite is the Rocky Cape National Park where some of the oldest rocks in Tasmania, one billion year old Precambrian quartzites, form the headland of twisty, humped hills covered in wildflowers. Short walks take you across and over the hills, by the pebble dunes, Aboriginal caves and middens to look out over the Bass Straits, spy on wallabies, wombats, echidnas, possums and even a Tasmanian Devil or two.
Stay with Helen of Eagle’s Roost Farmstay B&B for a close-to-nature experience. Helen is a knowledgeable natural scientist and superb cook, plus her infra-red cameras allow you to be a part-time zoologist and see what went on in the forest the night you stayed there.
If you want to head further west to wild places, try cruising Arthur River. Less famous than the Gordon River, it is nonetheless equally worth a visit as it winds up into the Tarkine wilderness from the coast that waves to Patagonia as the next landmass. For a truly out there experience, take a drive south from Arthur River into the Tarkine itself, to the Savage River National Park and Regional Reserve – one of the few remaining temperate wilderness areas on Earth complete with rich primitive flora, undisturbed river catchments, old growth forests, geodiversity and completely natural landscape. The official visitors guide published by Tamanian Parks & Wildlife Service will give you more information. But go prepared; this landscape is not for the foolhardy.
3. Try experiencing wildlife, not just looking
The Tasmanian Devil, contrary to popular notion, is not out to hunt down and eat humans. The carnivorous marsupial is mild in nature, doesn’t bite (much) even when picked up but can be aggressive to its own kind due to its territorial nature. If you’d like to see one, it is not easy however. It is endangered on mainland Australia and can only be found in small numbers in Tasmania, partly because of the Devil Facial Tumour Disease decimating stocks. However, you can often hear them screeching without seeing them as they venture out at night to feed.
For a better bet at spotting the devils, try a Devil Tracker Tour at the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo. The guides there can give you deeper understanding of this most misunderstood animal. The other top-line curious mammal that hangs out in Tasmanian forests is the Duck-billed Platypus. Related to the porcupine-like echidna, it is a montreme. That means it lays eggs but bizarrely, suckles its young. Both were around on land at least 20-50 million years ago, but the platypus decided to be a swimmer instead and spends most of it’s time hunting worms, small crustaceans and grubs with its wide bill at the bottom of rivers and creeks.
If you want to see one, we recommend you go to Liffey Falls or Platypus Park Retreat near Bridport where you can usually catch one in its natural setting if you move slow and quiet. Personally, we strongly dissuade people from visiting the totally artificial, constrained habitats of Platypus World and Seahorse World at Beauty Point.
If you like other wildlife, especially the endearing wombats, take a trip to Cradle Mountain where they like hanging out in the carpark and buttongrass alpine meadows. They are utterly cute – like the pademelons, which bounce about almost everywhere there is tree-shade, grass to eat and a place to sleep. Sadly, these little wallabies are not that good at crossing the road which helps give Tasmania the unfortunate title of Australian state with most roadkill. Some estimates indicate that up to half a million creatures die on Tassie’s roads every year. So try not to feed the animals; that not only spoils their dietary habits but familiarises them with people and vehicles. Both can lead to an early and painful death.
As for other animals, our favourite is the Tasmanian Native Hen. Found everywhere across the island apart from the deep south and west, these flightless comedians combine community shyness with nosiness, and gymnastic speed with dodging capability. Able to instantly accelerate to some 50km/h, they are rarely seen as roadkill but are great at finding seeds and other food almost anywhere, together with a unique ability to all want the same morsel at once. This results in frequent squabbling as they rush or stalk pompously about on laughably long legs.
4. Try a relaxing drive, not dashing from one attraction to another
Tasmania is bigger than you think. It’s about the same size as Switzerland, Sri Lanka or Ireland. It may look small compared to mainland Australia, but it takes a while to get from one end to the other. Also, unlike many of the mainland roads, the local highways were laid down by early settlers in carts, and twist about the landscape as much as any English country lane. Straight they are not. This means you mustn’t be fooled by what the GPS tells you about drive times. It is further than you imagine; as well as the twists and turns and narrow roads, there will be endless stops to take in amazing views and refreshing coffees and snacks. Guaranteed.
Driving in Tassie always takes longer than planned, given the ruggedness of the landscape, with hills, mountains, bridges and vast valleys as well as rolling agricultural land, depending which part of the island you are. Don’t rely on the GPS, go back in time and grab a printed map when you collect your car or board the ferry. You won’t regret it. That way you can enjoy the hills as much as the dales – and the views that they offer.
The other aspect to driving in Tasmania is that while you are extremely unlikely to fall asleep at the wheel like on the mainland, you are much more likely to hit something. It might just be a fallen branch, but it could be a rock or a delivery truck instead. Steep, narrow roads, loads of randomly bouncing animals, landslides and flooded old wooden bridges all offer unique grip levels, challenges and potential accidents. We have many times seen tourists standing dejectedly beside dinged up rental vehicles, especially on gravel back roads.
Be wary of driving at dusk and dawn, keep your lights on, and toot the horn and go slow on every twisty mountain bend. Logging trucks can’t bend in the middle so they simply take up the whole road instead. Also, don’t rely on road signs to tell you the way; locals never get lost and they don’t see the need for lots of directions or advisories.
Lastly, always take some water, and if you can, let somebody know when you expect to arrive. Large tracts of the island are too sparsely populated to justify mobile phone coverage, and if you do go off the road somewhere remote it could be a while before somebody even knows where to start looking, let alone comes to find you.
5. Try hanging out in Tasmania, not just chowing down
Ask most mainlanders (Australians) about Tasmania and they usually say it is cold, full of inbred weirdos and unsophisticated. Ask Tasmanians and they will most likely agree – so that mainlanders don’t go and live there and spoil the place.
Nonetheless, despite its hick reputation, the state has more than its fair share of festivals year round, and skiing in winter too. The most famous event is probably the Sydney-Hobart yacht race, a world-class event that draws top-class sailors from almost every country with a coastline. And if you drop by Hobart for the finals, visit MONA, the Museum of old and New Art. Established by an anti-establishment professional gambler to compensate for his gambling successes, it has acquired an international reputation for provocative new exhibitions and installations.
At the other end of the scale is the Kentish Museum in Sheffield, northeast Tasmania. Run by volunteers, it has a very slim budget yet evocatively captures the spirit of the early settlers in the region. Look out for the historical exhibits and the world's first coin-operated petrol pump as well as a huge range of memorabilia about Gustav Weindorfer, the man who first pushed for the appreciation and gazetting of the magnificent Cradle Mountain range.
If you like art more than old clothes and pitchforks, the Burnie Regional Art Gallery (BRAG) is the largest gallery of its kind in northwest Tasmania. As well as a permanent collection of over 1,000 Australian works from the likes of Lloyd Rees, Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley, James Gleeson, Arthur Boyd and Ben Quilty, it is where the biennial Burnie Print Prize, one of the richest prizes for printmaking in Australia is judged and displayed.
And of course, there is the National Penny Farthing Championships held in Evandale, northeast Tasmania. This carries on a local tradition started at nearby Launceston Cricket Grounds, where the Northern Tasmanian Cycling Club was formed in 1884. Muscled riders leap up onto 2-metre high bicycles to pedal furiously around the old village streets in search of victory – and a nice cream and scone tea at the end, most likely.
Lastly there are the festivals. The Tulips Festival, The Falls Festival, The Cygnet Folk Festival, The Tamar Valley Folk Festival and the Party in the Paddock attract tens of thousands of attendees and scores of top musicians from across Australia throughout the summer months partly thanks to the wonderful long days and balmy sun-drenched evenings.
Or conversely, if you like your skills display to be a bit more immediate, why not drop in to the Boat Festivals in Hobart and Launceston. The Launceston Wooden Boat Rally has been held annually since 2006, and ‘celebrates and share a passion for the sea and for wooden boats old and new’ as well as offering a great day out. The Australian Wooden Boat Festival is held every two years, and capitalises on Hobart's historic waterfront to display the colour and excitement of hundreds of wooden boats, from magnificent tall ships to classic sailboats, rugged working boats to superbly detailed models.
Tasmania isn’t that dull a place to visit, at all.