Tasmania – Explore the possibilities
Tassie has always been on the list – Australia's last wilderness an' all. I'd made a few notes during my travel research over the last couple of years – Bay of Fires (great name), Wineglass Bay, Cradle Mountain. Trouble was, when I studied a map of the island, those places didn't suggest an obvious route. Especially as we had to be in a particular spot, an architectural-award-winning house perched on a cliff above the northwest coast, half way through the week. We ended up with a crazy route that described a figure of eight in order to make everything possible.
Tasmania lies 240km south of Victoria, across the Bass Strait. (The Tasman Sea is between Australia and New Zealand.) It was separated from mainland Australia by rising sea levels at the end of the last glacial period. Apparently, it is the 26th-largest island in the world, with 334 smaller islands around its coast. Measuring 360km across and 300km from top to bottom, it's roughly the size of the Irish Republic or Sri Lanka. In 2011, Tassie had a population of a little over half a million, and almost half of them lived in greater Hobart, the state capital.
The island was renamed (in 1856) after Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who had been the first European to set eyes on it, as long ago as 1642. He called it Van Diemen's Land, after his sponsor. James Cook didn't get there until 1777. European settlers arrived at the beginning of the 19th century: huge numbers of convicts and their guards arrived over the next 50 years. Aborigines lived in the region before it became an island, but most had been wiped out within a few decades of European settlement. I was shocked to learn that none has lived there for over a century.
The first view of the Tasmanian landscape (above right) was as we dropped below cloud on our approach to Launceston (pronounced Lon-sess-ton). The pale golden grain colour was to become a feature. Launceston airport was tiny – we like tiny airports. Our flight was a bit late (guess who we flew with?) and we landed within minutes of a plane from Melbourne, a relative hop-skip-and-a-jump away. There are two baggage reclaim belts. One said Melbourne, the other said nothing: it soon became obvious from the volume of luggage coming around that 'Melbourne' was in fact 'Brisbane'. But we like small airports, as I said.
We flew to Launceston, Tasmania's second-largest city, because all my places were in the northern half of the island. We weren't there to do cities, so this is the last mention of Hobart, lovely as I'm sure it is. Launceston airport is south of the city, which we only visited briefly, on our way back, for lunch by the river, which was pleasant enough. The North Esk and South Esk Rivers join to form the Tamar, a long estuary (Launceston is 45km south of the Bass Strait), which you can cruise if you like.
We headed southwest, promptly missing the highway turning and ending up in the charming little village of Evandale, which has a pretty Georgian high street, famous Penny Farthing championships, and the most extraordinary cows. Tasmania has lots of cows, often packed into high-density fields, and many are black and white, but the overwhelming majority are randomly so, not striped, like this.
Belties originally came from southwest Scotland and are bred for their marbled beef. They don't mind inferior grazing land and have two coats to keep them warm. Their striking appearance means I do remember seeing them once before in Australia. Possibly in northern New South Wales?
We took the Midland Highway as far as the Esk Highway. The roads were empty, relatively pothole free and a joy to drive. Cows gave way to sheep; grey sheep rather than buff-coloured. Places became increasingly small and unrecognisable as such. By the time we passed through Tullochgorum this was all there was.
Fingal, a coal-mining town, had pretty buildings and a wide avenue, deserted save for small gatherings of Masked Lapwings, who were most disgruntled at being disturbed. But then they're cranky by nature.
By the time we reached St Marys (not many possessive apostrophes in Tassie), we were in the Break O'Day region, a curious name. The Scots and the Irish must have been early to this part of the world. We descended through a forested pass to the coast. By now it was early Saturday evening, but not a soul was about. At Scamander we screeched to a sudden halt at the sight of what must have been more than a hundred Black Swans on the lagoon in the Scamander Conservation Area. According to my bird book, Australia does have Mute (white) Swans, but I've only ever seen Black. There were a lot of them in Tasmania – even in rough sea on the west coast – but the number here was as impressive as their splendidly contrasting beaks. As they take flight, you think they're never going to become airborne. Much powerful flapping and a long run-up is necessary. They get spooked very easily: the sound of a camera shutter will send them gliding away rapidly, but usually they see you coming long before you're in position.
There was a lot more people action in the fishing port of St Helens. Outside the police station, they were randomly breathalysing. Thanks, boys: welcome to Tassie, indeed. We didn't hang about, having asked a policeman the way to Binalong Bay. The road skirts Georges Bay, a large sheltered inlet that's home to many birds.
We rounded a corner where a slightly startled wallaby sat on the verge. Frequent roadkill was to become a worryingly common sight on many roads during our visit. A couple of people in national park information centres assured us that this could be considered a sign of a thriving ecosystem. Perhaps, but it soon became disturbing. Whereas the standard of driving seemed generally higher than on mainland Australia, many drivers sped by at far too great a speed.
And then we arrived at the Bay of Fires. This (below) was the view from our cabin. I rushed down on to the snow-white sand and felt hugely excited at the prospect of our Tasmanian adventure. You know that feeling when you first arrive in a beautiful place and you can't drink enough of it in?
We quickly went next door to the Binalong Bay Cafe for the first of several delicious dinners, accompanied by the first Tasmanian red of the trip.
So, Queensland is the Sunshine State, New South Wales the First State, and Victoria The Place to Be. In Tasmania, Explore the possibilities; with me, in the Bay of Fires, Freycinet National Park, on the northwest coast, at the Edge of the World and walking on Cradle Mountain.