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A brief taste of Tasmania

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on December 13, 2004

After 25 years of running The Travel Bookshop in west London, Sarah Anderson sold up and took off around the world with books for company. In her latest exclusive dispatch for Times Online, Sarah writes an e-mail from Tasmania

It would be cheating to say much about Hobart as I was only there for one night – but with Trollope writing that Tasmania was “more English than is England herself”, I was intrigued.

In Mark Twain’s Following the Equator, he describes Hobart as “an attractive town” and adds: “It sits on low hills that slope to the harbor – a harbor that looks like a river, and is as smooth as one. Its still surface is pictured with dainty reflections of boats and grassy banks and luxuriant foliage. Back of the town rise highlands that are clothed in woodland loveliness, and over the way is that noble mountain, Wellington, a stately bulk, a most majestic pile”.

I went for a wander along Salamanca Place, now full of renovated warehouses where the tourist shops have a selection of well-designed objects, predominately wood and glass. In the lead-up to Christmas, the shops, which include Aspect Design (79 Salamanca Place), were busy. In Salamanca Square, we stopped for a drink at Bar Celona which wasn’t that crowded, so maybe things have changed from the time of Edward Braddon, a settler from India, who wrote that Tasmanians were great drinkers and “the place is quite unsuited to sober people”.

Maria Island up the east coast was my next destination and this turned out to be really special. The Maria Island Walk is in its third season and takes a maximum of eight people on a four-day, three-night trip. Nicholas Shakespeare wrote in his book In Tasmania (2004): “Maria Island is almost my favourite place in Tasmania”.

Francois Peron, known by some as the first anthropologist, wrote a description of the island’s Aborigines for Nicolas Baudin, the French Commander who had been mapping Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was known. Fourteen miles long, it is now a National Park but has a varied history of European occupation: it was a whaling station in the early 1800s, then a convict station. In 1884, an Italian entrepreneur, Diego Bernacchi, secured a long-term lease of the island and started a string of businesses – most of which went bankrupt in 1892. Nevertheless, a brochure promoting the island in the 1890s stated: “Here may the invalid laze the hours away and, book in hand, become intoxicated with the splendour of the scenery and the sounds of the unceasing sea”.

You don’t need to be an invalid to appreciate the beauty of Maria Island and I didn’t really relate to C.J. Koch’s description in an article in the Launceston Sunday Examiner-Express on March 10, 1979. “It was the first time I had been across there, and both of us found the seascape around us strange and unfamiliar, although both of us were native Tasmanians. The grey-green swell; the cold, stark light; the mournful, deserted island with its ruined convict station; what did they remind us of? We imagined the scene to be like the Hebrides … And Vivian [his companion] said something then that I have often remembered: that a country and its landscapes perhaps don’t fully exist until they have been written about – until poets and novelists create them”. Parts of Maria Island did remind me of Scotland but the constantly changing light never seemed cold or stark to me.

There were six of us and two guides, Emma and Hanny. I couldn’t have wished for a nicer group of people and we had the added bonus of there being both a botanist and ornithologist among us, both extremely generous with their knowledge. We landed at Chinaman’s Bay and from there it was only a short walk to our eco-friendly campsite with twin-bedded cabins (see picture, above) well hidden in the landscape.

After leaving our packs (the first time I had ever carried a serious pack), we set off through gum forests where we found rare orchids and walked through a penguin rookery, with babies crouching under rocks, before arriving at Haunted Bay – so-called because of the ghosts of whalers. However, it was a beautiful day and didn’t seem remotely spooky. Each day as we were walking we saw much wildlife including hooded plovers, pied oyster-catchers, Cape Barren geese, Bennetts wallabies and thrillingly for me, a wombat. The walking ended in time to swim from empty white beaches covered with unusual shells and was followed by fresh food cooked by our guides that included home-made soups, scallops, quails and couscous.

We ended up in Darlington and spent the last night in Bernacchi’s newly restored house where we were given a banquet of Huon smoked salmon and beef. I was tempted by the thought of coffee at the Coffee Palace in Darlington but it is now a museum – in fact the township is deserted apart from the park rangers and a few campers.

After leaving Maria Island, I thought everywhere else would be disappointing but Nine Mile Beach was just as Nicholas Shakespeare described: “One of the cleanest beaches in the world: no dead birds, no cans, no plastic bags, no tar, no people. Just the three peaks known as the Hazards leading into Mount Freycinet and the sea stretching for 1,200 miles to Antarctica.” Except there was a lone jogger. You can see Maria Island from the beach, as Louisa Anne Meredith noted in her book, My Home in Tasmania, (1852). “This was a lovely glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, calm and sunny, with the bold precipitous cliffs of Maria Island rising grandly in the distance.”

Swansea is where George Bernard Shaw’s uncle, Edward Shaw, was churchwarden, magistrate and coroner – and where he built a store where good coffee is now available, The Left Bank,  Nearby in Bicheno is Natureworld, predominately a rescue reserve for animals. It still has a healthy number of Tasmanian devils, happily, as 50 per cent of the island’s population has died in the past year from Devil Facia Tumour.  It is a good place to see up close some of the birds and animals I had seen on Maria Island.

I leave feeling there is so much I haven’t seen, but haunted by Nicholas Shakespeare’s words: “The light in the sky is brilliant and intense. There is no haze or humidity and it produces in me a feeling I frequently experience in Tasmania, an absurd illusion that I can see an enormous distance, back almost to when this landscape was looked upon for the first time with human eyes”.