Bush Walking in Tasmania
Early Western explorers were mesmerized by the harsh beauty of this island at the end of the world. Four hundred years later, its lush landscape still beguiles.
I won't tell you the exact location, but there's a beach on the east coast of Tasmania, 230 miles south of the Australian mainland, that frames the most heart-stopping view that I know.
As a diplomat's son I grew up wandering the globe, homeless and happy to move on. Then, five years ago, I walked down a sandy path onto Great Oyster Bay and found myself anchored to the spot.
When my father learned that I intended to sink my savings into a beach house at the end of the world, he flew 14,000 miles from England to restrain me. The morning after he arrived, I discovered him on the beach. His eyes were nailed to the horizon and there were tears in them.
"I. Have. Never. Been. Anywhere. More. Beautiful."
This year I decided to take him on a guided walk along the Freycinet Peninsula. For four days we would explore that view.
The laconic Dutch navigator Abel Tasman was probably the first European to gaze on this 12-mile-long peninsula. Sailing past in a sea mist in 1642, Tasman had the illusion that the feldspar and granite mountains formed a series of islands. Not compelled to linger, he gathered some wombat droppings and then moved on to New Zealand.
Next came the French in a flurry of expeditions to locate a huge landmass known for centuries as Gonneville Land, named after a French sailor blown off course in 1503. None of these expeditions had marvelous outcomes for their commanders. One captain was eaten by Maoris, another jailed for fraud; another, La Pérouse, vanished in 1788 without a trace. A fleet sent to find him found instead the suggestion of what might have been his fate. A group of aborigines was seen waving at one of the passing ships; upon closer inspection through the telescope, they appeared to be wearing the tattered remains of French naval uniforms "and making shaving gestures." It is impossible to underestimate the impact of this explorer's disappearance on French society. It is said that Louis XVI's words on the eve of his execution were: "Any news of La Pérouse?"
One cadet who'd volunteered for La Pérouse's expedition was Napoleon. He was turned down, but one of his first acts on becoming First Consul was to sign the order for a new "voyage of discovery to the Southern Lands." Its prime purpose was scientific—to "study the inhabitants, animals, and natural products of the countries in which he will land"—and yet orders given to its commander, the gloomy botanist Nicolas Baudin, are rumored to have included the establishment of a French settlement in Van Diemen's Land (as Tasmania was then called) and to claim it, before the English, as Terre Napoleon.
Baudin's 1802 expedition was one of the most extraordinary in naval history and yet it has been unjustly neglected. His three-year odyssey resulted in the first complete map of Australia, the discovery of 2,542 new zoological species, and the emu painted on the Empress Josephine's bedroom ceiling. In Tasmania Baudin left his mark in several French placenames. Among them is the peninsula that was named after two cartographer brothers on his expedition, Louis and Henri Freycinet.
Arguably Baudin's most important contribution was to unwittingly spur the English into colonizing Van Diemen's Land. Although Louis Freycinet's maps loosely designated the region Terre Napoleon, uncertainty remains as to the extent of French ambitions. Even so, for a worried English governor in Sydney, Baudin's appearance in his backyard galvanized him to charter an expedition to seize the island for Britain.
Baudin died on his way back to France a little over two hundred years ago. In the same month, September 1803, the whaler Albion dropped anchor in Great Oyster Bay loaded with the first contingent of English colonists. Her captain was Ebor Bunker, whose skill as a harpoonist gave rise to the cry "Lay me on, Captain Bunker! I'm hell on a long dart!" Delaying his arrival, Bunker seized the moment to kill and harvest three sperm whales before disgorging his ragtag cargo of convicts, marines, and free settlers.
Two centuries on, my 72-year-old father and I board The Naturaliste, a motorboat named after one of Baudin's corvettes. Our destination is Schouten Island, off the tip of the Freycinet Peninsula.
From a distance, the peninsula—which became a national park in 1906—is a dense, compact, dusky color: smoky, but at the same time giving the impression that, if you splashed water across it, the horizon might stream into violent purple flames. Here is how it struck the French in 1802: "Two chains of lofty mountains of parallel direction embracing the whole shore and giving it the appearance of a beautiful valley invaded by waves."
The view hasn't changed in 200 years. The casuarina trees, the cerulean sea, and the orange-lichened rocks are exactly the same. The lichen, known as caloplaca, is a barometer of the healthy atmosphere. The color of freshly cooked crayfish, it confirms the official findings that Tasmania has the cleanest rainwater and air in the world. Small wonder that ever-increasing numbers of people want to come here.
Our journey properly begins after a sandwich lunch on Crocketts Bay, a blinding white beach from which we survey the itinerary of the next three days. Of the half-dozen treks I have made in Tasmania, this one, organized by a local company called The Freycinet Experience, is the most picturesque and varied. I have tested it twice, and on both occasions have felt the sensation of what it must be like to set foot in an unspoiled New World, before Homo sapiens put it to his filthy purposes. There are no more than ten to a group, and the walk, which features an optional six-hour climb of Mount Graham (from the 1,900-foot summit of which you can survey the entire area), caters to most levels of fitness. You sleep for two of the three nights in sturdy freestanding canvas tents (sleeping bags provided) and rise at the civilized hour of 7:30 a.m. Six hours of the day are devoted to walking. By the end of the trek you will have trodden two hypnotic strips of quartzite sand (including Wineglass Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world); ascended through a forest of towering white-gum trees, and tracked an aboriginal trail into a valley of absolute silence. In England it is impossible to find a place without background noise. On the Freycinet walk whole hours go by when I hear no plane, no traffic, no human voices, nothing.
The creation of a Sydney environmentalist, Joan Masterman—she also helped to establish Cradle Mountain Huts, a unique private venture along the better-known Overland Track—the walk aims to leave behind no imprint whatsoever. We're encouraged to slough off the grosser habits of the world we've come from and learn to tread with the lightness of ghosts. Chastised for tossing away an orange peel after a picnic lunch, my father soon adapts to spitting his toothpaste water into a bucket. Boots are scrubbed for the root-rotting fungus Phytophora cinemomi, while at the end of the season the two campsites are completely dismantled and removed by boat. The place, in other words, remains as Baudin and the first settlers found it.
Baudin had François Péron to guide him, a bilious one-eyed zoologist who celebrated Baudin's death by penning a grotesque attack on his commander's achievements—part of the reason for his neglect. We have Mandy, a beautiful 28-year-old woman from the Australian state of Victoria, who quells any idea of mutiny by pointing out, in the fork of a gum tree, the nest of a white-bellied sea eagle "as big as a double bed." Under Mandy's tutelage we learn to distinguish a variety of bird calls, such as that of the yellow wattle bird, whose guttural, coughing gurgle is "reminiscent of vomiting," and the black swan, whose cry reminded the late-18th-century explorer George Bass of a rusty alehouse sign swaying in the wind. Mandy is also an eager student of animal droppings. Several times she stops to inspect the grayish scat of a Tasmanian devil, a nocturnal predator that eats, literally, everything: echidna quills, bottle tops, even a pencil that one of the rangers had dropped.
At one point she invites us to scrutinize a turd in the shape of a compact brown cube.
"Wombat," says Mandy. "It's a very good fire-lighter."
One scat missing is that of the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. Local residents were particularly good at hunting these dog-sized marsupials for a government bounty of one pound sterling per skin. The bounty was the initiative of the MP for the district, John Lyne, who introduced the bill in 1886 after inflating the risk to his sheep. By 1909 more than 2,200 bounties had been paid and the Tasmanian tiger was virtually extinct. The last one died in captivity in 1936 and it is unlikely any survive, despite numerous alleged sightings.
"I hold out for them," Mandy says, "but I'm a bit of an eternal optimist."
We're walking along a clifftop on our third morning when she darts into the bush, reappearing with a black triangular stone.
"An aboriginal knife," she says, and hands it around.
The most haunting absence in this landscape is that of the native population. We owe to Baudin, and to his artists and scientists, some of the most enduring and sympathetic images of the Tasmanian aboriginals. "The confidence which (they) showed us, the affectionate testimonies of goodwill which we could not understand, the sincerity of their demonstrations, the frankness of their manners, the affecting ingenuousness of their caresses, all seemed to unite in developing the kindest and most interesting affection and friendship," Péron wrote. At that time, every July and August the estimated 700 members of the Great Oyster Bay tribe would play host to men, women, and children from other tribes on the island, all coming to collect black swans' eggs from Moulting Lagoon. Barely a life span after the first visit of the French, the colonists, and their diseases, had taken their toll: By 1876, the last full-blooded Aborigine was said to be dead. Today their presence is recalled in the piles of oyster shells on the beach and in a scattering of flint tools.
Respectfully, Mandy replaces the tool where she found it.
Baudin acquired his empress' live emus, her kangaroo, and her wombat by offering their owners "six bottles of red wine." At lunch our group consumes the same amount of local Cabernet Sauvignon while discussing the critical moment of Baudin's expedition: the afternoon on which he dropped off his myopic engineer, Boullanger, to establish whether the peninsula did in fact consist of three islands, as the earlier maps of Tasman and Furneaux had it (and as the present tourist map inadvertently preserves it, as Ile Freycinet). So anxious was Baudin to chart this coastline correctly ahead of the British that he risked his last longboat on the enterprise.
At 4 p.m. we stare down from a cliff on Cape Tourville and imagine a tiny sail plunging through the whitecaps. That night in 1803 a briny northerly carried Boullanger away, leading Baudin to spend another two months scouring the coast for him, a delay that may have cost the French Tasmania. Once this bay was black with whales. Today a school of bottlenose dolphins frolic in the water.
Exhausted but invigorated, we emerge an hour later onto a stretch of shore called Friendly Beaches and plod barefoot along sand as white as the sea foam. We spend our third night behind the dunes, in the comfort of Friendly Beaches Lodge, an award-winning inn designed by the environmental architect Ken Latona. Latona's guiding principle is that his buildings should "sit lightly" on the earth, and so discreet is his achievement here—more so even than at the Bay of Fires Lodge, farther north along this same coast—that no one would guess at the presence of ten famished humans.
At 7 p.m. I float fresh from a steaming-hot bath into the dining room to enjoy a plate of Tasmanian oysters gathered hours earlier from the bay. Our dinner is rare roast beef with a Coombend Sauvignon from an excellent little vineyard half an hour away (and on a latitude equivalent to that of Bordeaux). As Mandy sings and plays guitar, I stray a bit and take up my book again, losing myself in the words of an earlier guide, the Frenchman whose island this nearly became: "Among so many novelties one is filled with amazement and can only wonder at the inconceivable fecundity of nature."
Day Trip to Maria Island
Maria Island, a half-hour by boat from Triabunna, sits on the southern rim of Great Oyster Bay. An early settler called it "one of the sweetest spots in Van Diemen's Land," and so it remains. Under the English, Maria Island became a convict settlement for political exiles like the Irish MP William Smith O'Brien. Framed on the wall of O'Brien's modest cottage is a heartbreaking letter to his son, written in 1850 with no expectation of a reply for 14 months:
My dear Edward,
I am glad to hear that you are about to go to school but you forgot to tell me to what school you are to be sent.
Maria Island was later turned into a resort by an egotistical Italian silk merchant who planted vineyards (many of the vines had originated at Château Lafite) that grew in abundance. Asked why he had emigrated to Tasmania, Diego Bernacchi replied: "Ah, that is romance!"
In 1963, in the same spirit of optimism, the island was acquired as a reserve for the Tasmanian tiger prior to an expedition made in the hope of capturing several specimens alive. Despite the absence of thylacines, Maria Island today is a menagerie. Squadrons of gray Cape Barren geese float through the eucalyptus, Tasmanian hens streak across the path like Mad March Hares, and if you're lucky you might just see, perched high in the manna gums, a 40-spotted parladotte, a small bird that breeds only in Tasmania. A day trip is highly recommended. Maria Island ferry departs from Triabunna twice a day October 1-April 30, and once a day May 1-September 30. $ $18 for a round trip; 61-3-6234-9294.
Walking on Sunshine
How to Get There
The best way to get to Tasmania is to fly to Melbourne, (Sydney's airport is Australia's busiest and has frequent delays). American Airlines (partnered with Qantas) flies daily from Los Angeles to Melbourne (14.5 hours) and daily from New York, via LAX (20.5 hours). Two Australian airlines, Qantas and Virgin Blue, have one-hour connecting flights to Hobart, Tasmania's capital.
FREYCINET EXPERIENCE holds four-day guided walks of Freycinet National Park. Included are two nights at Cooks Beach and Bluestone Bay and a night at Friendly Beaches Lodge. They depart Monday and Friday, from mid-October through April (spring and summer in Tasmania). Package includes all transportation in Tasmania; meals and wine; park fee; and hiking gear, including a light backpack, weatherproof jackets, and sleeping bags. Rates: $1,045; Battery Park, Hobart; 61-03-6223-7565; www.freycinet.com.au.
KABUKI-BY-THE-SEA, though a 50-minute drive from the central peninsula, is my favorite hotel and restaurant in the area, with matchless views of the entire Great Oyster Bay, tasteful Japanese-influenced cabins perched above the rocks, and consistently good food. It's where I stayed the night before I found my own house. Room number four is especially charming, with its Japanese-inspired decor. My father and I celebrated journey's end here with a splendid meal of gyoza dumplings, sashimi, and sticky bread-and-butter pudding. Dinner, $30. Rooms, $110, breakfast included. Rocky Hills, Tasman Highway, Swansea; 61-03-6257-8588; www.kabukibythesea.com.au.
THE FREYCINET LODGE is unique in being situated within a Tasmanian national park. The 60 cabins are decorated in a clean, rustic style; many have Jacuzzis and terrific views of the Hazards, as the three central peaks of the peninsula are known. The best rooms are the Wineglass Premier cabins (numbers 27-36), each with its own large Jacuzzi, king-size bed, and balcony. The restaurant is overpriced, but has improved under an English chef who offers such dishes as baked Tasmanian lamb wrapped in vine leaves with minted couscous and a tomato-and-pepper chutney and chili-and-cilantro-crusted baby abalone. Dinner: $45. Rooms: $175-$270, breakfast included. Freycinet National Park, Coles Bay; 61-03-6257-0101.
THE EDGE RESTAURANT, in Edge of the Bay Resort, outside Cole's Bay, is one of the best restaurants on the east coast of Tasmania. The owner prides himself on being a bit of a tyrant, but the dining room itself is stylish and the food is terrific. $ Dinner, $35. 2308 Main Road, Coles Bay; 61-03-6257-0102; www.edgeofthebay.com.au.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity. Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.