As with so many other Australian holidaying mainlanders, who’re now familiar with this Melbourne skyline departure sight, Tasmania has also been on the top of my list of places to visit with thoughts of a possible relocation there. Its progressive food and wine makers and producers, extraordinarily beautiful natural environment, proximity to the eastern seaboard and up until recently, accessible real estate, gave more than enough reason to make a beeline there when border restrictions eased and weather permitted. And so it happened. A window opened in late January to ride the twisty roads of this punch-above-its-size-state following my return from Western Australia.
After riding the Great Ocean Road to reach Port Melbourne and transit Bass Strait with my motorcycle, I decided to travel Tasmania in a loosely clockwise direction over a 3 week time frame, camping when weather and location permitted. I also wanted to explore some of its islands and of course a few of its iconic experiences such as MONA, Cradle Mountain National Park and the Gordon River.
Learning as a business owner / operator and from my own travels that no matter what product or service you’re offering, delivering an over and above expectation experience is the lever for truly great memory making. This Tasmanian trip resulted in just that with enough lasting memories and photos to fill 2 separate posts without having to scroll endlessly.
Writing about it has been a process of joyously reliving it. Here’s the first of the 2 posts.
CAFE XOXO, DEVONPORT + LOW HEAD: Disembarking early morning from the Spirit of Tasmania after a night’s sleep in a shared cabin with a stranger felt not too dissimilar to leaving a large aircraft after a long haul flight. It always feels a little like being spat out of a big metal capsule into the glaring bright light of a brand new day with rapidly re-orientating senses . My first stop in Devonport was Cafe XOXO. A coffee shop with a mixed cultural menu including Afghan, Indian and Korean dishes for a breakfast of fried eggs on flaky paratha, drained yoghurt, spinach and spicy tomato chutney.
LOW HEAD: From Devonport I traveled east towards Exeter and the Tamar Valley through gently undulating hills, native forests and fields of potatoes, cattle and poppies. After crossing the Batman Bridge over the River Tamar I continued north to the mouth of the river at Low Head where it can treacherously swirl and spill into Bass Strait. Constructed by convict labour and first lit on 27 December 1833, the Low Head Lighthouse became Tasmania’s second and Australia’s third lighthouse and also the oldest maritime pilot station to assist the early colonists. As it wasn’t Sunday when I visited I didn’t get to hear the three ear-splitting bellows from the restored historic foghorn that sound at noon. Probably not very relished by the residents after a big night on the Baileys.
INVERMAY, LAUNCESTON: After looping through the Tamar Valley via Bridport, Scottsdale and the welcome-to-Tassie, sadly-mind-the-roadkill twisty road down to Launceston via Lilydale, I parked up at an Airbnb in Invernay, Launceston. A small self-contained flat at the back of a lovely older couple’s home that was a comfortable base for the first couple of nights.
CATARACT GORGE, LAUNCESTON: I spent the following afternoon at Cataract Gorge, located 1.5km out of Launceston’s city centre on the lower section of the River Esk. Spanning over this river gorge, the Alexandra Suspension Bridge slightly sways as you move along, which demanded a couple of mental tablespoons of cement given I’m not partial to heights. Along with that cement, the desire to also have that view looking up the river pulled me across and meant I happily survived and got the shot.
The First Basin on the southern side features a swimming pool, chairlift, cafes, funicular railway and an open area surrounded by bushland, where a path, known as the King’s Bridge-Cataract Walk runs along the north bank of the Cataract Gorge.
Along the gorge walk that ends at the Kings Bridge are shelters that are built using a technique called Faux Bois, which means false wood and dates back the European Renaissance of the 14th and 17th centuries. Bird wire and concrete are shaped into realistic artistic imitations of tree trunks that almost looked like something from a film set. Oddly, one of the most beautiful fake things I’ve ever seen.
On the northern side of the gorge is an area called the Cliff Grounds that features a landscaped Victorian garden containing ferns, exotic plants and peacocks with a restaurant and function centre venue.
More Faux Bois and some of the many different stunning lichen and moss that cling to the damp gorge rock faces.
LAUNCESTON: Tasmania’s second largest city is situated on the junction of where the North Esk and South Esk Rivers become the Tamar River; historically used for boating, commercial and recreational shipping. The city has steep areas and low lying parts that was settled by Europeans in 1806 making it one of Australia’s oldest cities.
THE SIDELING LOOKOUT: After a quick visit to the Harvest Market held in Launceston every Saturday morning, I left the city in the direction of Scottsdale. The very twisty, winding road traverses over the Sideling Range, which peaks on top of a ridge with a lookout offering impressive views over Scottsdale and Mount Stronach.
PYENGANA DAIRY: On the other side of this range I headed towards Pyengana Cheese Co. I’ve long loved their Traditional Clothbound Cheddar, which has been made for over 130 years and is Australia’s oldest specialist cheese. Alongside the dairy, the Farmshop offers simple lunches, and the full range of their dairy products. Judging by the size of the Farmers Platter for one that I ordered for lunch, the dairymen and women of Pyengana work up a serious appetite out on the surrounding lush pastures.
The first cheese factory in Pyengana was established in 1890’s, becoming a cooperative in the 1900s and continued operating until the 1950’s. Pyengana Dairy was founded in 1992 by Jon Healey, a fourth generation dairy farmer in Pyengana, who wanted to continue the tradition of making cheese on farms and Pyengana Cheddar was born. The onsite dairy now uses a robotic milking system which allows the cows to come in for milking whenever they are ready; creating a low stress environment for the cows and high quality milk production.
BINNALONG BAY: From Pyengana I then continued east to the game fishing capital on the north east coast, St Helens from where it was a short ride north to the famous Bay of Fires. This 50km stretch of coastline begins at Binalong Bay in the south to Eddystone Point in the north.
The Bay of Fires, which was named by Captain Tobias Furneaux in 1773 who saw the fires of Aboriginal people on the beaches, is known all over the world for its extraordinary clear blue seas, brilliant white beaches and striking orange lichen-cloaked boulders.
ILUKA, COLES BAY: Given it was the Australia Day long weekend and Binnalong Bay was unsurprisingly packed with people, I traveled south along the coast through Scamander and Bicheno to reach the camp ground opposite Muirs Beach at Coles Bay.
Muirs Beach lies on the north side of the Coles Bay headland. It curves to the north, then northwest for 1.8 km and faces southwest into Great Oyster Bay.
WINEGLASS BAY, FREYCINET NATIONAL PARK: After a surprisingly restful night’s sleep in the tent given the nearby main area of the campground was full of families, I set off early to do the Wineglass Bay Lookout hike. The view from the lookout takes in this beautiful, curved bay, which on a clear day has azure blue water rimmed with a lick of white sand. Unfortunately it wasn’t one of those days but nonetheless, worth the steep walk.
A well constructed and maintained track leads up through coastal woodland, past striking granite boulders, to the lookout. It’s a steep 1.3km each way uphill walk with very thoughtful and creative resting seats provided along the way. Given the size of the carpark and the number vehicles that were already parked by 9am on the Saturday of the long weekend, I was glad to have arrived and completed this beautiful hike ahead of the crowds.
COLES BAY: Coles Bay is a popular holiday town and location that is the gateway to the breathtakingly beautiful Freycinet National Park. The idyllic surroundings and the stunning coastal scenery of Great Oyster Bay and the pink-hued granite peaks of the Hazards mountains, (peaking in on the left of this shot), was a wonderful introduction to the extraordinary natural beauty of Tasmania.
SPIKY BRIDGE, SWANSEA: Continuing further south I passed by The Spiky Bridge, which is part of the old convict coach road that connected Swansea with Little Swanport and the east coast road to Hobart. It’s situated next to the east coast highway, approx 7kms south of Swansea. This historic bridge and parts of the old coach road remain enduring legacies of the convict workers from then nearby Rocky Hills Probation Station.
The reason why the “spikes” were incorporated in the design remains a mystery. One of the often quoted reasons for the spikes was to stop cows from falling over the edge into the gully. Another reason given is that when the bridge was constructed, the convicts responsible for the construction wanted to exact some form of revenge on their supervisor and started sticking the rocks in the wrong way. Whatever the reason it’s a random and curiously interesting stop along the way.
TRIABUNNA: It didn’t take long to travel from Coles Bay to Triabunna. Distances in Tassie are measured by time not kilometres as the twisty roads don’t always equate to the general 100km per hour over distance rule of thumb. As the weather was forecast to bucket down at night, I checked into a room at a holiday park within walking distance of the harbour from where I’d booked to take the ferry to Maria Island the following morning.
MARIA ISLAND: Maria Island, a tranquil island of rich heritage is Tasmania’s only island National Park. Located 6 kilometres off Tasmania’s east coast, the ferry from Triabunna takes about 30 minutes to cross the Mercury Passage and dock at Darlington. This historic settlement has many remnants of its diverse past including a coffee palace, a grand hotel, whaling and sealing industries, penal settlement and an Italianate pleasure resort.
Shore-based bay whaling was conducted in the 1830s and 1840s at four locations on the island. The cemetery was in use for all the settlement periods. During the convict eras, it was only used for free settlers. The above headstone sadly for a day old baby.
There are many planned walking routes on Maria Island on which mountain bikes can also be ridden. After hiring one for the day I started with the Fossil Cliffs route with many interesting sites along the way. The above building is the Convict Barn. Built in 1846, the bricks are slowly disintegrating as they were partially made with seawater. As the water evaporates it leaves behind crystals of salt that expand and grow causing the bricks to slowly decay.
As I was looking at all the old machinery and tools in the Convict Barn I heard muffled snoring and soon found the furry source. One of the many wombats living on the island tucked away and fast asleep inside some kind of old roller.
The Fossil Cliffs offer an insight into the past environments of Maria Island. Extending along the northern shores of the island, these spectacular brittle cliffs plunge sheer to the sea.
A former limestone quarry allows you a close look at the many animals immortalised as fossils in the rocks. Looking at the cut face of the quarry you can see thousands of mussel-like shells studded within the grey limestone. On the lower platform there are also a variety of fossils including sea fans, coral-like creatures, scallop shells and sea lilies.
From the 1880s the island was used by Diego Bernacchi where he tried producing silk and wine, and finally concrete – where limestone was quarried from the Fossil Cliffs nearby. This large red brick ruin dates from Bernacchi’s cement works and was built around 1889. During the convict era this area was used to fire bricks with clay obtained from above the reservoir.
The Manager’s House was once a substantial brick and timber house that was built in the same period as the cement works as a residence for the manager of the Cement Works.
During the first convict period (1825 – 1832) the convicts constructed a dam on the creek in order to make a reservoir to supply the settlement of Darlington. Enlarged by each generation of settlers, it is still in use today.
PAINTED CLIFFS, MARIA ISLAND: Even though this photo, which was taken in the middle of the day, doesn’t do it justice, the Painted Cliffs at the southern end of Hopground Beach are beautifully coloured and patterned sandstone, carved and moulded by the sea and bordered by rock pools teeming with marine life.
Natural and historical clearings provide grazing for many animals, such as bare-nosed wombats which occur in high quantities on the island.
Mrs Hunt’s Cottage was built in the early 1900’s over the ruins of the old Visiting Magistrate’s dwelling. The position commands an excellent view of Darlington and the surrounding waterways which would’ve been important for the commandant and later for Mrs Hunt.
Ruby Hunt was by all accounts a bit of a character and operated a pedal wireless, which at the time was the only communication link with the mainland of Tasmania. If someone wished to send a message they would put it in a bottle at night outside Mrs. Hunt’s door, and she would make the necessary call and leave the answer in the bottle for collection during the next night. She was one of the last to leave Maria island in 1968 before it became a National Park.
It is also said that Ruby Hunt would hang a lantern in her cottage window to guide in the ship that collected and delivered the mail for the island.
TASMANIAN BUSHLAND GARDEN, BUCKLAND: After spending the day on beautiful Maria Island, I left Triabunna the following morning in the direction of Copping via Buckland to visit the Tasmanian Bushland Garden. This small botanical garden opened in April 2010 and is a special reserve and display garden featuring the native flora of south-east Tasmania with various sculptures and features throughout.
LEAP FARM, COPPING: I love all cheeses but have a particular soft spot for goats cheese. After reading that Leap Farm had won State and Gold Medals in the ‘From the Dairy’ section of the 2020 Delicious Produce Awards with their Tongola Curdy and Zoé cheeses, I contacted Iain and Kate Field to see if a visit was possible. Iain generously obliged, taking me up onto the elevated parts of their stunning 107 hectare property in the Bream Creek region overlooking Marion Bay.
Iain immigrated to Tasmania from the UK in 1996 to pursue tertiary studies, and found himself working as a biologist on Macquarie Island not long after. Inspired by the wildlife, Iain completed a PhD in ecology. Kate moved to Tasmania in 1997 to pursue a medical degree. After graduating she explored a diverse range of opportunities around Australia and completed specialised training in Emergency Medicine.
Iain and Kate started Leap Farm in July 2012. Not long after, they contacted Swiss couple Hans Stuz and Esther Hausermann, the original owner / operators of Tongola Cheese to inquire about purchasing some Toggenburg goat does in order to start their own cheese enterprise at Leap Farm. They ended up having a close working relationship and eventually taking over Tongola Cheese.
Iain explained that Leap Farm utilises organic principles to improve soil ecology and increase biodiversity, which in turn improves productivity and the quality of their goat’s milk. Kate and Iain’s work to increase the diversity of their pasture, range of native animals and habitats through protecting stands of native forest and encouraging revegetation means the biodiversity of Leap Farm will be protected and made more resilient to increasing weather variables. All making for very happy goat country and delicious cheeses such as their prized Curdy and Zoé for years to come.
TARANNA: From Leap Farm I continued south to overnight in a creatively repurposed water tank on a 5 acre property in a small hamlet just north of Port Arthur called Taranna. Unpowered but delightfully comfortable and cosy with thoughtful extras made this a memorable stay.
PORT ARTHUR: I spent the following day at one of Australia’s most famous world heritage sites that has been described by UNESCO as “…the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts.” The Port Arthur Historic Site has more than 30 historic buildings and extensive ruins that are now a large open air museum with so much history and many stories that can be heard through a variety of engaging tours and activities. I took a short walking tour which included the above Penitentiary.
The Penitentiary was originally constructed as a flour mill and granary in 1843, before it housed hundreds of convicts in dormitories and solitary cells; or the much-feared Separate Prison, where harsh physical punishment was replaced with punishment of the mind. It housed prisoners until the settlement closed in 1877 and then subsequently was devastated by fire in 1897 leaving only the masonry walls and barred windows.
The Port Arthur penal settlement began life as a small timber station in 1830 and quickly grew in importance within the colonies. Ship building was introduced on a large scale as a way of providing selected convicts with a useful skill they could take with them once freed. The 1853 cessation of transportation resulted in fewer transportees arriving at the station, however, Port Arthur’s story did not end with the removal of the last convict.
Almost immediately the site was renamed Carnarvon in an attempt to erase the hated ‘convict stain’. During the 1880s, land was parceled up and put to auction with people taking up residence in and around the old site. The many homes, gardens and buildings are now beautifully preserved and maintained.
The ruins of the Broad Arrow cafe at the Port Arthur site where the horrific massacre occurred that took the lives of 35 people and wounded 19 others in and around the grounds on the 28 April 1996 have been turned into a sobering memorial garden and pool.
Port Arthur was built on a philosophy of discipline and punishment, religious and moral instruction, classification and separation, training and education. Built in 1837, The Church was the cornerstone of religious convict reform. Up to 1100 people attended compulsory services here each Sunday. It was never consecrated allowing for multi-denominational services to be held.
HOBART: After quite an intense, at times difficult (learning about its brutal history) and also lovely day chatting with one of the veg gardeners while walking around the Port Arthur site, it was on to Hobart. As a mainlander it’s easy to forget just how important historically and presently Hobart is to Antarctica with the large presence of Antarctic science programs. Mawson Place, set on Hobart’s waterfront, is a public space created to honour the achievements and contribution the explorer Douglas Mawson made to Australian Antarctic, scientific and maritime history. I took a short walk around Mawson Place imagining those incredibly brave early explorers and along the waterfront before dinner in the pub behind the central hostel where I was staying.
Tom McHugo’s Hobart Hotel has long been a legendary pub; Tom McHugo the man being one of the first publicans in early Hobart. With a menu loaded with fresh produce grown nearby, pub classics sit side by side with innovative dishes at incredibly reasonable prices in an unassuming and warm environment that attracts patrons from hi-vis clad tradies who equally share the bar with executives, writers and doctors. After safely stowing my bike away in the alleyway between this great pub and my hostel accommodation, I was so ready for dinner.
Two of the delicious dishes I chose: A light, clean and fresh Miso Custard with Peas and Greens and umami flavour bomb, Fried Haggis Bao with Chilli Oil.
Breakfast most mornings was a visit to Pigeon Whole Bakers, located two doors down from my accommodation on the other side of the road, in the redeveloped Mercury Newspaper Press Hall. A stunning modern bakery practicing age-old techniques producing high-quality breads, pastries and other delicious baked goods. Heaven.
Eccles Cakes have long been one of my favourite pastries. A very flaky turn-over pie with a heavily spiced currant filling baked with a sprinkling of crunchy demerara sugar on the top. Eating one of these with a very good black coffee in an open, airy and natural light filled modern space was an absolute treat!
FAT PIG FARM, HUON VALLEY: Fat Pig Farm is home to the host of SBS television series Gourmet Farmer, chef and writer Matthew Evans and his partner Sadie Chesterman. Together, they run their 70-acre family farm in the beautiful Huon Valley, about an hour south of Hobart. They live and grow a variety of produce from their market garden, heritage orchard and fields with Wessex Saddleback pigs, Jersey cows and goats providing milk and meat all of which are preserved and served fresh for their Friday Farmhouse Table lunches, workshops and other events.
Having co-owned and operated a similar venture in Western Australia, albeit with accommodation which overtook any time for growing produce, I was super keen to experience Fat Pig Farm. I have enormous admiration for all small scale farmers and can appreciate the inherent challenges of very small margins, labour demands and the 7 day a week commitment.
Delicious modern Farmhouse dishes sourced from as much of their own produce as possible came out one after the other with specially matched beer, wine, cider and spirits from around Tasmania; the hero of the dishes being the produce itself that is listed on the entrance blackboard.
Sadie was the most wonderful host from the very start directing traffic in the car park through to the end of the beautifully paced multi-course lunch served from the open kitchen and farm tour afternoon, ensuring everyone was cared for and personally spoken with.
The 1.5 acre market garden was a joy to wander around. New beds being prepared, old beds about to be cleaned out and sorted, jumbled patches of very happy perennials all waiting to be harvested for the next Farmhouse table feast.
So ends the first half of my Tasmanian trip. The last half will continue with my stay in Hobart including a visit to MONA, a house sit for for 4 nights, a stay on Bruny Island before venturing into the wild west of the state and the north to the justly famous Cradle Mountain region and finally back to the top of this beautiful island.
Thanks for riding alongside.