National Geographic Traveler Article: Tasmania

A boat shed stands on the shoreline of Tasmania.

Photograph © Thad Samuels Abell II


Australia’s Best Kept Secret
By Richard Busch

Tell someone you’re off to Tasmania and you might get a funny look.



“Umm. . .you’re going to Africa?”

Tasmania… Tanzania… Easy to see the confusion. But Tasmania lies a long way from Africa—over 6,000 miles east across the Indian Ocean, a small, heart-shaped island 150 miles south of the Australian mainland, far off the usual tourist track. So it’s not surprising that most people know little about this Australian state, except maybe the fact that it’s the home of the devil.

Not the devil, but the animal that looks like a cross between a small dog and a pig, the high-strung creature with a propensity for growling, baring its teeth, and spinning around in circles, like the character in the Saturday-morning television cartoons.

The Tasmanian devil is an apt symbol for the unfamiliar—at times fantastic—character of this place. One day, while I was hiking in the wilds of the mysterious Great Western Tiers, surrounded by eucalyptus forest and shallow caves once occupied by Stone Age Aborigines, my guide whispered to me, “Keep an eye out. At any moment you might see a hobbit or an elf pop out from behind a tree.” I almost believed him.

In a way, that lack of familiarity to the outside world is fine with most of the 470,000 people who live here. They know they’ve got something special, and they don’t want to see it changed by tourism. By the same token, Tasmanians struck me as a warm, welcoming lot, happy to share their home with outsiders.

People smart enough to visit here discover that unlike the multicultural, cosmopolitan Australian mainland, Tassie (as locals call it) is one of the world’s best kept secrets, a place that at times seems closer to the 19th century than the 20th—less affected by outside influences, more provincial, quieter, more relaxed.

Named for Abel Tasman, who landed here in 1642 on an expedition for the Dutch East India Company, the island has a history that is primarily British, going back to the early 1800s, when Tasmania was the site for numerous penal colonies, the remains of which still exist (as do Aboriginal sites dating back some 35,000 years). Indeed, the place frequently reminded me of England, especially on the eastern half, where sheep fleck the green, rolling countryside, inviting little towns are graced with handsome Georgian and Victorian architecture, children walk to school in neat uniforms, and flower gardens brighten almost every home.

Perhaps most compelling of all are Tasmania’s natural landscapes. Within an area about the size of West Virginia lie trackless mountains spangled with crystalline lakes, deep gorges slashed by free-flowing rivers, dense temperate rain forests, rocky headlands and white-sand beaches, grassy moorlands and alpine plateaus.

I came to Tasmania in November, springtime in the Southern Hemisphere, where the noontime sun hovers in the north—a novel sight for this first-time visitor to the antipodes. Arriving in the capital city of Hobart, I was greeted by a sweet, briny fragrance in the air. Trees were just leafing out in a harmony of delicate greens. My plan was to make a 655-mile clockwise loop of the island, starting at Port Arthur, the former penal settlement located on a spit of land called the Tasman Peninsula, about 60 miles southeast of Hobart.

Port Arthur ranks as one of the most visited—and haunting—sites in all of Australia (and sadly the place where a deranged gunman killed 35 people last April). Thousands of Tasmania’s first white settlers arrived in the 1830s, ‘40s, and ‘50s—most of them convicts. (Back then the island was known as Van Diemen’s Land, for Anthony van Diemen, the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies at the time of Abel Tasman’s discovery.) The mid-1800s was a time of rampant poverty and crime in England. To relieve prison overcrowding, men, women, and children—often petty thieves rather than hardened criminals—were sentenced to “transportation,” taken half a world away, to some of the most uncivilized places on the map. They sailed in overcrowded, disease-ridden ships on a journey of some 15,000 miles—down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, and east across the Indian Ocean. The trip took up to eight months, and many died along the way.

During its 47 years of operation, Port Arthur housed nearly 13,000 prisoners, who built ships by day and shivered in dank stone cells at night. Punishments were harsh, even for minor transgressions. In 1833, commandant Charles Booth announced that he intended to take “the vengeance of the Law to the utmost limits of human endurance.” Floggings were public, a hundred lashes not unknown. The favorite implement was the cat-o’-nine-tails—thin strips of rope knotted at intervals, soaked in salt water, then dried to cut like a saw blade. Some prisoners served long periods of solitary confinement—unable to talk to another human being for months, even years. Some went insane.

Transportation ended in 1853, and the last prisoner left Port Arthur in 1877. A century later, Port Arthur was named a National Historic Site. Now visitors come here each day to tour the ruins—to see the isolation cells, the flogging yards, the asylum, the hospital, the commandant’s house. They also gather after dark for the nightly “ghost tour.” The night I went was appropriately rainy. The guide handed out lanterns and led the group across the yards and through the buildings as he recounted stories of the horrors that happened here. And he told of strange occurrences that have become legendary—apparitions in hallways, wispy forms peering out from behind darkened windows, lights shining from under doorways of empty rooms. We saw no ghosts, but the experience was nevertheless unsettling.

Like Port Arthur, Hobart itself has roots in the era of penal settlements, having been founded in 1804 along the banks of the Derwent River. Today’s city sprawls to the east of Mount Wellington, a gently sloping 4,167-foot monolith that dwarfs all other physical features in the area. When I was there, snow still capped the mountain’s peak, giving it a bit of a Mount Fuji appearance.

With a population of 185,000, Hobart feels more like a large town than a city. Buildings are low, and there’s little traffic or pedestrian congestion, even at rush hour. Reminders of the city’s colonial past include more than 90 historic buildings classified by the National Trust. Most were built by convicts from local sandstone in the boxy, unembellished Georgian style of the period. With their elegant simplicity, these structures seem the architectural equivalent of Shaker furniture—clean, efficient lines and a look of solid construction.

I visited the 155-year-old Parliament House, an unadorned building that began life as a customs house. In the 1837 Theatre Royal (oldest theater in Australia), I saw a stage on which the likes of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh had performed. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery contains Hobart’s oldest building, the 1810 Commissariat Store, with some fine displays of Aboriginal and colonial tools and other artifacts.

Many of the colonial buildings dot the harbor area, site of the original settlement of Hobart Town (as it was called until 1881). Vessels of every description, from sleek yachts to tubby fishing boats, come and go. People take their time here, and the mood is mellow. Near the water I found Salamanca Place, a row of restored 18th- and 19th-century warehouses that now house stylish shops, galleries, and restaurants. It’s the main focal point and gathering spot in the city, and on Saturday mornings it draws a lively crowd to its bustling open-air market.

Around the corner from the market I followed narrow, winding streets through Battery Point, a hilly residential neighborhood that dates back to 1805. Blocks of forthright little pastel dwellings nestle together like Monopoly houses, their tiny lots lush with well-tended gardens. A scattering of pubs and inns and B&Bs gives the whole area a cheery, welcoming feel.

Hobart was delightful, but I was ready to delve into Tasmania’s wilderness. Nearly a third of the island is protected within 14 national parks and other reserves, and a huge swath of this land is also a world heritage area. Wherever you are, wilderness is always within easy reach, making the island a mecca for bushwalkers (Aussie for hikers), white-water rafters, camp-ers, and other outdoors enthusiasts.

I pointed my rental car toward Mount Field National Park, 46 miles to the west of Hobart. The park encompasses several ecosystems. At lower elevations, impressive stands of swamp gum, a species of eucalyptus, reach heights up to 280 feet, the tallest hardwood in the world. A trail led to Russell Falls, where great sheets of water cascaded down a steep rock face like a scene from an ancient Chinese painting.

I accompanied park ranger John Megalos up to glacier-carved Lake Dobson, at 3,363 feet a sparkling centerpiece in a wonderland encompassing sphagnum moss, tea trees, and smaller species of eucalyptus. John pointed out graceful palmlike pan-danis, which, he explained, are actually heath plants, common at similar elevations throughout the island. He also showed me two native Tasmanian conifers—pencil pines and bonsai-like King Billy pines, both relatives of California redwoods. “It’s magical here,” he said at one point, stopping to admire the scenery he had admired many times before. As if to underscore the point, a lone Bennett’s wallaby bounded across the path not 30 feet in front of us.

From Mount Field, I drove to the west side of the island, where the terrain is rougher, the vegetation denser, the rivers wilder. The character of the region is shaped by the Roaring 40s—fierce prevailing winds that gather moisture from the open ocean, assault the coast with waves as high as a four-story building, and annually dump some eight feet of rain.

My destination was Strahan (pronounced Strawn), a frontier village of 600 souls that lies near the coast at the northern end of Macquarie Harbor. The town was founded in 1883 as a shipping port for a local copper mine. It postdates another settlement near-by, the notorious Sarah Island penal colony, established 60 years earlier on a tiny piece of land in the middle of the harbor. Difficult to access and almost impossible to escape from, it was intended for the most hardened criminals, who were put to work building ships from the local huon pine. Finally, after 11 years, and with the construction of the more accessible Port Arthur, the site was closed.

Today, tour boats take visitors for cruises down the harbor and up the Gordon River, with a stop at Sarah Island. At the Strahan town dock I boarded Captain Guy Grining’s boat, the Heritage Wanderer. We steamed past the narrow, hard-to-navigate harbor entrance known as Hells Gates. “Prisoners called it that, not because it was difficult getting in and out,” Grining said to the group, “but because they felt as if they were entering Hell itself.”

After a brief tour of the island, a melancholy place of dilapidated buildings, we cruised to the end of the harbor and a little way up the Gordon River, past steep, brushy banks marked by occasional huon pines—trees whose twisted trunks and branches give them an Oriental aspect. Though these were merely 20 or so feet tall, they were several hundred years old. “Youngsters,” said Grining, explaining that huon pines can live up to 4,000 years. “Next to the North American bristlecone pines they’re the oldest living things on earth.”

We saw nothing that ancient, but on our return trip Grining dropped us off on the riverbank at the Heritage Landing nature trail, which led through a lush temperate rain forest to a huon pine said to be 2,000 years old. With a thick trunk and muscular branches that soar above the forest canopy, it seemed a noble presence, eminently worthy of protection.

From Strahan I headed north and east toward Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, a lake-stippled realm that draws a steady flow of hikers to its rain forests, grasslands, high plateaus, and mountains—among them the island’s tallest peak, 5,305-foot-high Mount Ossa, a favorite challenge for serious walkers.

It was evening when I checked into my cabin at the Cradle Mountain Lodge. There to greet me was a pair of brush-tailed possums—appealing, long-haired creatures resembling raccoons more than our ratlike North American possum. No sooner had I opened the cabin door than the pair scurried from the underbrush and purposefully headed my way. It was as if they’d been waiting for me. Not having any food, I knelt down to say hello. They tried to push past me into the entranceway, stopping only when I blocked their path with a suitcase. They finally tottered off to try their luck at the next cabin.

I had budgeted just a short time at Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair, but it only took one look at the region’s glacier-gouged peaks and transparent rivers and lakes to be convinced that Gustav Weindorfer was right.

Gustav who? Weindorfer, an Austrian by birth, was one of the region’s first European settlers, who came here in the early years of this century. He blazed trails and fell so in love with what he saw that he became the first advocate for national park status. The region, he said, should be available “for the people, for all time.” In 1912, he purchased land at the edge of the forest, built a wooden chalet, and named it Waldheim (“forest home”). He marked the event in his diary: “This is Waldheim,” he wrote, “where there is no time, and nothing matters.”

It struck me as a wonderful Zen-like expression of the spell that living in wilderness can weave. As I walked through the dark, mossy forest that surrounds the house, trodding paths that Weindorfer himself had blazed, it was easy to understand why this park has become one of the most-visited sites in Tasmania.

To the east of cradle mountain lies the Great Western Tiers, a wilderness area also proclaimed for its varied landscape—moorlands, rain forests, and a stunning alpine plateau. On my way there I had a momentary shock: Suddenly, on the side of the road, I saw an enormous Tasmanian devil, at least 12 feet tall, its teeth bared. It turned out to be a sign for the Trowunna Wildlife Park, a rehabilitation center in the northern village of Mole Creek. Hoping to see animals I’d likely not encounter in the wild, I turned in the driveway and was soon rewarded by the sight of kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, pademelons, quolls…and devils, which for me were the highlight.

Manager Androo Kelly (he changed the spelling from Andrew because of his love for kangaroos) explained that devils, which are found only in Tasmania, are the world’s largest carnivorous marsupials. And they’re not wasteful: With their powerful jaws, they grind up every bit of their prey, including bones and fur. At feeding time, Androo tossed a rabbit carcass into the pen, and four devils immediately set upon it with a burst of otherworldly screams, grunts, and growls, each pulling in a different direction, bodies quivering, eyes wild, dust rising. Fascinating creatures, I decided, but probably not good as pets.

Next morning I was up early for an all-day hike in the Great Western Tiers. At 9 a.m. I met my guide, naturalist Sean Cadman, by the little post office in the village of Meander—a sprinkling of homes by a narrow country road backed up by fields and farms. We walked south across a flat, grassy moorland, then up a gentle slope through eucalyptus forest. Gradually the slope grew steeper, and by late morning we could look north and catch glimpses through the treetops of the sunlit lowlands around Meander far below.

Huge rocky outcrops and shallow caves covered the slope where we stood. Some of these caves, Sean explained, had been inhabited by Aborigines thousands of years ago. At one point he noticed something on the ground, embedded in a patch of moss near the mouth of a cave. He picked up a small dark stone with a jagged edge.

“A cutting tool,” he said. “Look, you can see how pieces have been chipped away to get the edge.”

He gave me the stone. It fit comfortably in my hand, as it surely did for the Aborigine who had left it here long ago. I visualized a scene from the distant past, a Stone Age tribe—men, women, and children—going about their daily lives, keeping a fire, hunting and skinning game, cooking, sleeping, living in harmony with nature. That picture stood in contrast to the brutal reality of more recent history—how, by 1876, whites had exterminated all native Tasmanians.

I handed the stone back to Sean. Placing it carefully in the moss as he had found it, he noted that the Aborigines had likely spent summers up on the plateau some 1,500 feet above us, hunting wallabies, wombats, and other animals. Then, when the weather turned cold, they came down here for shelter.

Continuing up the long, steep slope toward the plateau, we followed a track that had been used for centuries. By early afternoon we were deep in temperate rain forest. We stopped in a small clearing for lunch, surrounded by ferns, moss-covered rocks and fallen logs, myrtle beech, and pines. There must have been a thousand shades of green. The air was moist and still, and there was no sound other than our own voices.

We ate fresh Tasmanian cheddar cheese, crusty bread, a crisp green salad, and, for dessert, some dense, whiskey-laced fruitcake that Sean’s wife, Rosemary, had made. An hour later we had reached the plateau. In the distance, to the west, dark rain clouds wreathed the high peaks.

Sean led the way on eastward, the wind blowing hard, as is usual up here. All around us the stunted vegetation grew no taller than a few feet, but some form of life clung to every square inch of space: grasses, sedges, and mosses growing on soft, spongy peat beds; bright green cushion plants—round-topped plant colonies that look like Alice-in-Wonderland ottomans; bonsai-like tea trees with thick, brown, gnarly stems. Small rivulets and pools of water encircled boulders covered with lichens of yellow and orange, olive and gray, white and black. The view in all directions was like a Japanese garden.

A cold hard rain began to pelt us. Fog had cut the visibility to a few feet, and Sean had to navigate us home by compass. Even then, this plateau was so surpassingly beautiful that I kept thinking it might just be the handiwork of one of the elves Sean had mentioned a short while earlier.

As appealing as the Tasmanian wilderness may be, I was never sorry to come back to civilization. One reason for that had to do with the excellent “heritage accommodations” that sprinkle the island—inns and houses that date back at least 75 years, many of which have been tastefully refurbished. With their interesting architecture, quirky individuality, and sometimes excellent food, they offer a comfortable break from the rigors of the outdoors.

One such place is Arcoona, in the town of Deloraine, just ten miles north of Meander, where I had checked in after bidding farewell to Sean. A redbrick, gingerbready house, Arcoona is festooned with porches, white trim, and gables and chimneys galore. Inside, it has an Old World feel—cozy lounges with bookshelves and fireplaces, a billiards parlor, and guest rooms with high ceilings, carved wood trim, antique armoires, and bathrooms with brass fixtures and thick towels. Built around 1892 by a local doctor, today it is owned by Pamela and Robin Claxton, who several years ago left well-paying jobs in Sydney and came down here for new lives with, as Robin puts it, “better scenery, fresher air, and a slower pace” (a story I heard repeatedly in Tasmania). That evening I sat near the fire in the high-ceilinged dining room and savored an appetizer of smoked salmon, and a main course of beef tenderloin with a creamy mushroom sauce accompanied by some excellent Tasmanian Pinot Noir.

Arcoona was just one of the first-rate accommodations I stayed at. I also gave high marks to Franklin Manor, in Strahan; the Cascades, in Koonya (near Port Arthur); and the Shambles, in the northeast- ern town of Launceston. The latter have rooms so small that you can stand in the center and nearly touch the walls, but they are utterly delightful. Each has a kitchen, a sitting room with a fireplace and books and overstuffed chairs, and a bedroom with a bed that occupies almost half the space. The cottages are clearly a big attraction on the newlywed circuit—as countless guest-book raves attest. One, signed by a couple from South Australia, was typical (including the delicate female handwriting):

“Loved your open fire. We started our honeymoon here and will never forget it. (Your bed was quiet and comfortable.) Thank you!”

From Launceston, I turned south, and in an hour had come to the colonial town of Ross, one of several towns that began in the 1820s as outposts for convicts engaged in building roads and bridges linking Launceston with Hobart. Ross today is a sleepy place, with a population of 300 and one main street lined with old houses and huge elm trees dating back a hundred years or more. There I met Tim Johnson, a fifth-generation Rossonian known throughout the island for his informative and humorous tours, which he delivers with a theatrical flair, complete with a comical period costume of stovepipe hat and black tuxedo with sleeves several inches too short.

Taking long-legged strides down the main street, his arms flapping as he recounted Ross’s history with boyish enthusiasm—pointing out the town hall, the jail, the Catholic church, and other buildings—Tim seemed the reincarnation of Ichabod Crane. Continuing down to the Macquarie River, he led the way to Ross Bridge, a structure whose graceful arches and warm sandstone colors reflected in the gently running river. The bridge, Tim explained, is one of the most famous in all Australia—built by a convict genius named Daniel Herbert, who was an artist and student of Celtic symbolism. Herbert incorporated dozens of carvings that for more than 150 years have fascinated Celtic scholars the world over, who regularly come here to study the designs. Tim’s pride in Ross Bridge was palpable.

“This bridge,” he loudly proclaimed at one point, “is the icon of Ross. The icon of Tasmania!”

Back in Hobart on my last evening in Tasmania, I retired early, got up at 4 a.m., and drove to the top of Mount Wellington to watch the sunrise. Arriving at the windy summit before dawn, I could see rugged stone outcroppings silhouetted in the twilight. Hobart blinked below as the first light of day painted the horizon a salmon pink, streaked with low-lying clouds. Past the city flowed the Derwent, and far off to the east lay the Tasman Peninsula, where the remains of Port Arthur stood to greet visitors for another day. Alone with my thoughts, I marveled at how this island, whose past had been so full of cruelty and pain, had been able to emerge as a place so peaceful and pleasant and inviting. It was a transformation that seemed to me at that moment nothing short of miraculous.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.