Australia's southern isle is wild, remote and perfect for hiking. Mix wildlife with creature comforts and world-class walks in the Tasmanian bush
If Tasmania were a restaurant it would be a real find. One of those little-known places that’s just a bit off the beaten track but still worth the journey. And, really, not that difficult to find. A quick nip down the south-east air corridor to the Singapore ring-road, off at the Victoria junction and then, when you hit Melbourne, take the turn-off to Hobart: “... you can’t miss it – old Georgian place, trees everywhere, garden’s gone a bit wild.”
That, of course, is the first thing that hits you about Chez Tassie: the gardens. Woods, rugged rockeries, amusing temperate rainforests and some ambitious water features. The whole horticultural swag bag, in fact. Admittedly, most of the grounds look as if they’ve never had a strimmer run over them, but that adds to the charm. Especially given the menagerie of creatures – quolls, echidnas, wombats, bettongs, pademelons and potoroos – that have wandered in from Wonderland.
So, Restaurant Tasmania gets full marks for location and decor. But what about the food?
Well, a real surprise there – it’s excellent. Especially if you book one of the outdoor tables: a rock up by Cradle Mountain for the view, perhaps. Or an alfresco woodland glade on Maria Island. Not that I went to Tassie expecting a gourmet experience. I dropped in to take a few weeks’ exercise, strolling along one of the country’s premier long-distance routes, and one of its most deserted.
Despite its infamous seven-out-of-ten days of rain, the Cradle Mountain Overland Track is a world-renowned route of peaks, rivers, temperate rainforest and the glaciated valleys of Tasmania’s dolerite rock mountains.
There were eight of us walkers and two guides – Ben and Murray – embarking on the Cradle Mountain Huts walk, a Vibram-soled step up from eating beans and sleeping on the ground.
We stayed in well-concealed private huts at the end of each day’s hiking and enjoyed the luxury of beds, hot showers and – hallelujah – a drying room. I felt as if I’d turned up for a long-haul flight in economy and been unexpectedly upgraded to first class.
Ken Latona, visionary architect and outdoors aficionado, established five huts along the trail, working within the strict rules that keep the Overland Track a pristine wilderness despite the thousands who walk it every year.
The most non-negotiable of rules, equally applied to the trail’s public huts, is the ‘anything going in, comes out’ law. So firewood, food, and gas for cooking and heating are helicoptered in during the season. Then, come winter, all waste – apple cores, tins, ashes and the contents of the drop loos – is bagged up and choppered out again.
Our trek was all about context and understanding. While many walkers we met en route were stomping through to the trail’s end as fast as possible, Ben would frequently lead us off the main path to show us some hidden surprise.
“Hear that car-wiik-wiik-car call? Black currawong, one of Tassie’s endemic birds,” he’d announce. Or, “That’s Tassie-devil shit – white from bones they’ve eaten – and that’s wombat dung, comes out in little squared-off cubes that won’t roll off the logs and tussocks they use to mark their territory.”
We took botany classes in Braille, wandering through gum forests feeling the different textures of each species’ bark before opening our eyes to see the trees’ bright crimson, ochre, emerald and umber hues.
We sheltered in the old huts of the early prospectors and trappers – “See the nail holes by the fire where they stretched the skins to dry?” – and learnt that the landscape wasn’t totally untouched by earlier man, either; the Aboriginal Big River tribe had burnt stretches of the upland plains to encourage bigger marsupials in to graze, making them easier to hunt.
And every night there was more Tassie culinary magic, as gourmet meals were conjured up from Ben and Murray’s laden packs. Though the huts had real names, we ticked each off according to its menu: ‘Chicken Hut’, ‘Curry with Poppadums Hut’ and, inevitably, ‘Pizza Hut’.
The climate matched the meals for variety. Gustav Weindorfer, the Austrian émigré whose enthusiasm for the area in the early 20th century was instrumental in it being declared a national park, reckoned that: ‘there’s no bad weather up here, only many different kinds of good weather.’ Murray’s forecast was a daily “fine with mainly showers”.
The ‘different kinds of good weather’ meant that Cradle Mountain itself appeared as a faint Zen painting of barely darker air in the luminous clouds above Dove Lake. We sloshed across Frog Flats and stood under dark columns of King Billy pines, forming 70m-high umbrellas, as Ben told us about Tassie’s three species of snakes. “We’ve only got the tiger, the copperhead and the white-lipped whipsnake here so you don’t have to worry about which ones are venomous – ‘cos they all are.”
By the time we took the ferry down the length of Lake St Clair to the walk’s end, I’d undergone a conversion. Weaned off my tendency to yomp hurriedly through each day, I’d become a neo-walker, happiest to stop and look, smell, touch and listen to the surrounding world.
Only 19km long by 13km wide, do too much walking on Maria Island and you’d fall off its edge. A small boat took us across Mercury Passage and dropped us – four hikers and our guides, Jessie and Victoria – on the white-sand beach of Shoal Bay.
Though small, Maria Island tells pretty much the whole Australian story in miniature. Aboriginals colonised the island, arriving on rafts of bundled reeds, but it was 1642 before Abel Tasman became the first European to spy Maria Island, and a further 140 years before crew from the brig Mercury actually landed here.
Things happened fast after that. A convict colony was established on the island in 1825, and the transportees set to work making bricks, lumbering timber, potting, weaving and farming. The convict station was closed in 1851 and 30 years later Diego Bernacchi, an Italian silk merchant, took over the island’s lease. He had ambitious plans, establishing a silk farm, vineyards and a cement works.
Old cells were turned into cottages and stands of European trees were planted.
Our four-day walk carried us in roughly chronological order through the island’s history. We started on faint tracks through the eucalyptus forests. Kangaroos, wombats and the rare Cape Barren goose kept us company, as did hoodlum gangs of raucous yellow-tailed black cockatoos, the splashes of sulphur on their dark bodies making them look like they’d been shot by paintballers.
We reddened our fingers on the soft rocks at Bloodstone Point, where Oyster Tribe Aboriginals once scraped off pigments for their body paint. At Lesueur Point a line of convict cells, each barely big enough to take one man, still stand atop a hill, providing a pleasant view but not much in the way of luxury.
Our accommodation was much less penal. At night we trod boardwalk paths to camps hidden away among the towering trees, and unpacked our gear in space-age wood-and-canvas cabins. Seduced by flaming sunsets over aquamarine waters we braved the Tasman Sea to swim off deserted beaches.
Then, back at the ‘settlement on Mars’-styled dining-room module, we drank wine on the veranda as Victoria and Jessie cheffed up their equivalent of convicts’ gruel – tomato and fresh basil soup, and Thai scallops with black rice, which pushed the Tassie food benchmark to a new level.
Our third day’s walking brought us back to the modern world – or an 1800s version of it. After strolling to abandoned brick kilns and through early settlers’ farmsteads we finally strode into Bernacchi’s Utopian hamlet of San Diego, now reverted to its original name, Darlington. We marched right though the door of his former house for a supper of freshly harvested abalone and Tasmanian wines in the fittingly opulent dining room.
We pulled away on the small ferry running back to the ‘big island’, as the mainland is known on Maria – just as for Tasmanians the Australian mainland is the ‘north island’.
A few hours later and I was back on the water, this time under my own power. Paddling sea kayaks with Tom Bath, my guide, I shovelled water along the coast of the Freycinet Peninsula. It was nearly sundown when we stopped at a small jetty for a breather. And more Tassie foods. Tom pulled out a thermos and mugs.
“Milo with marshmallows,” said Tom. “Do you know Milo, Jasper?”
Well, no, I didn’t then. But I soon discovered that Milo is to Horlicks what Vegemite is to Marmite: the sort of thing that us Northern Hemisphere folk really shouldn’t like.
Maybe I had become a Tassie by osmosis, or maybe it was just the old ‘location, location, location’ thing, but I reckoned right then that Milo and marshmallows was about the best drink in the world outside of a Margarita.
I’d come to Tasmania prepared for a country of superlative wilderness, wildlife and walks. But seeing the island as a restaurant was a fabulous surprise.
Worth five Michelin stars at least.