The Open Road: Tasmania
Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Summer 2013
here’s no soundtrack to the view that stretches out in front of me from my lofty perch on the summit of Mount Amos in Tasmania’s Freycinet National Park. That’s because up here, 1,500 ft (450 meters) above the Tasman Sea below, I’m completely alone – with nothing but pure nature surrounding me.
I can see the waves crashing against the rugged coastline and, in a fizzle of white and turquoise, lapping against the perfectly concave sandy beach that is Wineglass Bay. Less than two hours ago on that very same beach, a tame kangaroo bounced along to say hello, letting me stroke its soft fur coat.Energised and inspired by that brush with nature on Tasmania’s whitest and most famous strip of sand, I had decided on a whim to scale the heights of the nearby Mount Amos – the central peak of the Hazards which dominate the skyline of Tassie’s east coast.
I started the climb emboldened by the sounds of the bush, with cicadas singing away in symphonic unison and creatures rustling in the undergrowth. A raucous group of yellow-tailed black cockatoos gathered in the branches overhead making eerie high-pitch chuckling calls. Perhaps these were goads directed at me for embarking on a foolhardy three-hour hike with only a pair of flimsy trainers and half a bottle of water?
As the gradient increased, both sounds and trees began to thin out. Soon I was grappling up a series of precipitous, rocky slopes without ropes or anything to hold onto. The path was marked only by the occasional red ribbon or painted upon a rock. With rocks so slippery, it’s easy to understand why the climb is forbidden when it rains.
That’s because up here, 1,500 ft above the Tasman Sea below, I’m completely alone – with nothing but pure nature surrounding us.
Rain, fortuitously, is quite rare here: Freycinet boasts 300 days of sunshine a year. And on the day I drive my campervan nside the park perimeters, it’s gloriously sunny and clear. In fact, it’s the hottest day I’ve had so far in Tasmania.
The setting sun now warms my back as my body casts a shadow over the rubble and shrub canopy. The evening light emphasises all the contours of the surrounding rocks and ridges, creating a crowd of peering faces on the granite peaks. Cracks become wrinkles, shadows become sockets, fissures form mouths – the uncanny result being that although alone, I feel very much in the company of others.
In such glorious surroundings, it’s hard to imagine that earlier in the week, as I explored the other side of the island in my Apollo Euro Deluxe van, I had been caught up in deluges of monsoon proportions. Tasmania, as I had discovered, is a meteorological conundrum.
While the east basks in sun most of the year round, the west and north coasts receive up to 80 inches (two meters) of rain annually. This was most evident when I drove over the apocalyptic moonscape of Queenstown’s bleak mining area after a sodden visit to the quaint fishing village of Strahan.
I feared my impending trip to Tasmania’s most iconic site, Cradle Mountain, would be a complete wash-out, the picture-postcard peak of the renowned ridge either ravaged by rain, marred by mist or concealed by cloud.
Wildlife in the Cradle
That afternoon, the hike I had planned seemed to clash with the 70 percent chance of rainfall in the Central Highlands. But miraculously, the dark clouds parted and I was blessed with the one rare day in which the craggy, jagged top of Cradle Mountain is bathed in sun.
Rewarded with such sights, it’s easy to see why Tasmania is frequently described as an “island of inspiration”. Almost half of the 24,000 square mile (62,000 sq km) island is covered with reserves, nature parks and World Heritage Sites like Cradle Valley, making it a veritable bushwalker’s paradise. Tassie is not only home to the last temperate rain forests in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s also Australia’s most mountainous state.
Unlike the granite Hazards of Freycinet, the distinctive mountains, serrated peaks and soaring, fluted cliffs of the Cradle Mountain are formed by dolerite. Tasmania has the world’s largest areas of exposed dolerite – making its flora and fauna all the more different from that of mainland Australia.
On top of this, Cradle Valley National Park is also home to the Fagus Beech, Australia’s only native deciduous tree. Seeing the area painted with a beautifully autumnal palette of orange and gold was an unexpected joy, and it made my two-hour walk around the rusty red waters of Dove Lake all the more mesmerizing. As if I had not already lucked out enough, the day was capped off with the kind of magical pink sunset usually only seen on the internet.
Naturally, I was less lucky the next morning – my early morning walk to Crater Lake started under a shroud of mist and light drizzle. But once again, mother nature delivered with an eerie performance as the dense curtain of fog cleared as if on cue, revealing yet another shimmering mirror of green and orange.
Perhaps only a sighting of the infamous Tasmanian Devil could have rendered the scenario more perfect – although that morning I did encounter, with considerably less fanfare, a lonesome echidna. The funny-looking spiny anteater, common only to Australia and New Guinea, was striding across the hiking trail with a heavy husk of black spikes and short stubby legs. Also, perched atop the empty boat house beside Dove Lake, was a Black Currawong, or Jay, surveying the scene with its piercing yellow eyes, the same color as the leaves of the Fagus Beech.
On Four Wheels
The major appeal of exploring Tasmania by campervan is the freedom to make anywhere and everywhere your home for the night. You don’t waste time traveling between destinations because the journey itself is the holiday.
To truly see Tassie, you would usually need months; with a van, it’s possible to get your bearings in a single week. Without my Apollo, there was no way I would have crammed in so much in eight days: I couldn’t have slept overlooking the ocean on the Table Cape Lookout near Wynyard, or taken refuge from the rain in the obscure artsy town of Sheffield.
Nor would I have taken a detour from the lush Derwent Valley to see the tiered Russell Falls in the sprawling Mount Field National Park – a mere 50 miles (but a world away) from Hobart. I wouldn’t have spent impromptu nights opposite Bruny Island and beside Lake Burbury.
The dolerite peak of Mount Ossa, Tasmania’s highest point at 1,614 meters, would have remained a mere statistic in a guide book, while I would not have seen for myself why another of the island’s mighty bluffs was named Frenchman’s Cap.
Nothing beats falling asleep to the sound of the waves crashing against the shore – as I did at the isolated Bay of Fires. And without my van, how would I have managed to take a detour to have breakfast at the legendary Mount Elephant Pancakes ahead of my unplanned hike?
Campervanning gave me the freedom to watch the sun set over Cradle Mountain knowing I didn’t need to drive back to the nearest town (some 30 miles away) to find a hotel – the World Heritage Area itself would be my base for the evening.
The island’s laissez-faire attitude towards travelers bunking down by the road – or in my case, by the sea, lakes and mountains – fitted my ambitious schedule perfectly.
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Summer 2013