Chris Moss discovers a stroll across a small island off Tasmania offers the perfect apéritif to Australia
For once, ‘awesome’ was the right word. David, a fellow hiker, had just sprinted – against his better judgement – headlong into the cold surf, splashing, guffawing, cursing. ‘Awesome!’ cried Matt, the junior of our two guides. Your classic Aussie surfer-outbacker-beach bum, he probably used hyperbole for anything moderately pleasant. But I’d also just taken a dive in the water to wash off a day’s dirt and congratulate myself on wrapping up a 30km walk. I laid back in the water and looked at the curving strip of uninhabited white-sand beach, towering gum trees and deep blue sky, and agreed that some awe was due.
I’d come to Maria Island (pronounced Ma-rai-yah, like the pop diva Carey) directly from London. There was something wilful about the trip. It was my first ever visit to Oceania, but I had bypassed Sydney, the Outback, Uluru, the Reef, to get to Tasmania and, after just a day in Hobart, taken a car-ride and a boat trip to get to Maria Island – a mere dot in the Tasman Sea.
But my unusual starting point turned out to be a great little introduction to Australia. “Maria has many of the same trees, vegetation, animals and birds as Tasmania,” said Brad, the principal guide on the walk. “And you’ve got a good chance of seeing them.”
Just 20km long and about 13km wide at its widest point, Maria Island also has the advantage of compactness. “Travellers often think Tasmania is small, but that’s because they see it on a map beneath Australia,” added Brad. “You really need two or three weeks to do Tassie, but you can feel you’ve done Maria by doing our walk.”
The official Maria Island Walk (MIW), created in agreement with the national park authorities – the whole of Maria Island has been a national park since 1971 – takes just four days and three nights, covers roughly 35km of varied terrain and is ideal for those looking for a moderate workout after a long spell in transit. I was raring to go.
The first leg was a warm-up. We hopped into a launch at Triabunna, a tiny resort on the Tasmanian mainland, and motored across a narrow body of water known as the Mercury Passage to make landfall on Shoal Bay. Maria Island is the shape of an exaggerated egg-timer, with a very slender isthmus in the middle, and we were just in its lower-west end.
After leaving our backpacks at Casuarina (where permanent safari-style tents are erected) we went for a brisk stroll over to the southern tip of the island. The landscape was classic Tasmania: towering, twisted eucalyptus on all sides and bracken rising to knee-height. Near Haunted Bay, in the extreme south-east of Maria Island, we saw native penguins nesting on the beach and someone spotted a seal offshore.
The second day took us across the narrow white sand-lined isthmus. If the sea were a tad warmer, the beach crowd would probably descend on Maria Island. The only other tracks on the sand, though, belonged to the handful of local cyclists making good use of the low-level coastal circuit.
We paused near Chinamans Bay for mid-morning tea, sitting on the stoop of an old white house. This was the woolshed of Old French’s Farm, one of the few buildings to hint at Maria Island’s previous life as a sheep-farming outpost. Before them (deep breath) Toorernomairremener aboriginals had occupied the island for thousands of years but, as elsewhere in Australia, these nomadic, low-impact communities had left little evidence of their lives, or indeed environmental damage.
“The French family were one of the few still working on Maria Island after a boom period,” explained Brad. “They and a few other families dedicated their time to shearing and farming, while others fished for crayfish. The bay is named after settlers – yep, from China – who laboured on the farms and also fished for abalone.”
Further on, we arrived at Point Leseur, where, between 1842 and 1850, there had been a probation station. Tasmania was one of the choice locations for convict stations in the early 19th century and Maria Island seemed ideal for isolating miscreants – the ruins of ‘apartment cells’ still litter the area.
After a light lunch of salad and fruit, we walked up to a grassy headland and were surrounded by Australian wildlife. There were wallabies and kangaroos studying us from 20m away and about ten big, fluffy, blind wombats either standing stock still – so you can’t see them, or so they think – or scurrying five feet and then standing still.
Even closer were a couple of once-threatened Cape Barren geese. These attractive and fairly tame-seeming birds attract ornithologists from all over the world, keen to see a rarity: forty-five birds were brought to Maria Island in the 1960s as the population was dwindling in Tasmania, where it has thrived beyond all expectations.
We followed a string of beaches northwards, each more beautiful than the one before, along the west coast of the island (the east coast is sheer cliffs). Tasmania and its islands can draw rain clouds – it had apparently poured through summer with the riverbanks breaking – but for my May stay, it was all sunshine and clear skies.
Hiking on a beach is laid-back, but never dull. As well as oystercatchers, plovers, terns and more of those geese, there was a lot of beach debris: from cuttlefish, abalone, oyster, tulip and scallop shells to sculpted driftwood and great mounds of aromatic seaweed. At each rise between beaches we were gifted lovely views up and down the island and soon came to White Gums Camp, where we spent the second night.
The MIW has won lots of Aussie gourmet prizes and the barbecue that night showed why. After a starter of miso soup with wakame, shitake mushrooms and ginger, we had duck-and-roo sausages, grilled quail, cous cous and ratatouille and some fine Tasmanian white wine.
The third day we were given a choice of two challenges, each involving an ascent. The majority opted for the slightly lesser of two hills: Bishop and Clerk, a 620-metre climb at the island’s north. The only person under 50, I joined Matt and went off for a couple of hours forest trail to attempt the slightly trickier summit of Mount Maria, at 711 metres the island’s tallest point.
Silvery streams criss-crossed the lower grassland areas, where the gum trees were tall and twisted, and the walking area wide open. As we climbed, the trees got denser and stockier and the land became less boggy. Matt showed me wild pepper and some native currants we could eat. Kookaburras chattered in the high canopy and lizards and smalls birds scuttled through the undergrowth.
The walk was a decent workout and the only challenging section was at the very end when we had to scramble up a boulder field. It was more ungraceful than painful, stretching legs into unusual positions and employing every limb to hold on to the smooth, rounded rocks. From the top I could see both sides of the isthmus, the Tasman Sea beyond and, turning to the north, the Freycinet peninsula – Tasmania’s most famous beauty spot and home to the dazzling beaches of Wineglass Bay.
We lunched on the summit before clambering back down the boulders to wrap up the hike with a side-trip to Painted Cliffs, a strip of low coastal rock where you can see beautifully coloured strata. The sun was low by this time and the rocks glowed red, orange and yellow. From here it was a ten-minute climb up to Darlington, Maria Island’s only town (the population used to be several dozen but now there are only two guards living permanently on the island).
Our last night was spent not in a tent but in the former home of Maria Island’s most illustrious settler – Diego Bernacchi. Between the 1880s and 1900, this Italian expat tried to develop vineyards, a silk factory and a cement works and had even opened a hotel to promote the ‘Riviera of Australia’ as a tourist destination. Darlington – a scattering of cottages with a ‘Coffee Palace’ and our lovely house with a veranda looking out over the ferry port – is his legacy.
We had another feast that night and I slept the deep sleep of the happy summitter. I’d walked off my jetlag and my body’s rhythms had returned to normal. But as a microcosm of Tasmania – and also, in its little way, of Australia – the small number-eight shaped islet was a wonderful introduction to Oceania. Maria Island wasn’t blow-you-away beautiful like, perhaps, Australia’s better-known natural wonders, nor was the walk a major, once-in-a-lifetime hike to some iconic landmark – but it was moderately awesome, which is good enough for a non-surfing, non-beach-bum Brit like me.
The four-day Maria Island Walk operates from mid-October to late April; trips leave daily on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in peak months and cost A$2,150 (£1,420) pp, including two guides, three nights’ twin-share accommodation, food and wine, National Park Passes and loan of equipment. The trip starts in Hobart, and includes bus and boat transfers to Maria Island.