Cycle, kayak and walk the best of Tasmania's east coast

The pace has quickened. It's 4.10pm and word has gone out that the end of civilisation is near. The brewery that marks the end of our cycling day is closing in 50 minutes and we still have 10 kilometres to ride. I hear gears clicking up and bums come off saddles as the speed increases.

Beside the road, Tasmania's east coast stretches out as a series of long beaches separated by clusters of rocks – a natural Morse code of sand and boulders. It's a coast as beautiful as any in Australia, and yet the only infrastructure in sight is a pair of fishing rods on an otherwise empty beach. 

It's a scene that's made even more beautiful by the presence of a tailwind, propelling us south to the Iron House Brewery with 10 minutes to spare. Mission accomplished, at least for a day, since our self-propelled journey along this coast has only just begun.

In a car, you can cover this stretch of Tasmania's east coast in two hours, and yet we'll be here for six days. In that time we'll cycle a great portion of the Tasman Highway, hike to Wineglass Bay and the summit of an airy peak on Maria Island, and kayak the waters of Freycinet Peninsula. It's a multi-faceted journey, puzzled together by adventure-tour operator Tasmanian Expeditions, that National Geographic Traveller magazine once rated as one of the world's ''50 tours of a lifetime''. 

It's a week that's high on variety, and not just in the range of activities. Nights are spent in cabins, a resort and camping on Maria Island, while the days switch from livestock in the Midlands to the copious native wildlife of Maria Island, and from Tasmania's most famous beach to its most remarkable cliffs.

The trip begins in the Midlands town of Fingal, where we set out cycling through a finger of agricultural land that points towards the sea. Sheep scatter like a wake from the paddocks as we pass, and the wind blows at our backs so that even on bikes, we're coasting to the coast.

Just past St Marys, the road tips off the plateau and swoops towards the sea and the coastline that will be our home for the better part of the next week.

For the first day-and-a-half, these bikes will be our vehicles as we pedal towards Freycinet Peninsula. Past the Iron House Brewery, we stop the first night in the fishing town of Bicheno, where little penguins scramble up the rocky shores – as I return from a walk in the evening, a penguin wanders up the driveway of our accommodation beside me.

From Bicheno, the highway turns off the coast, snaking through beautiful farmland for an hour to the turnoff to Coles Bay and Freycinet Peninsula. 

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Even inland, there's a hint of the ocean lingering in the breeze. It's the sort of subtle sensory experience that you miss from inside a car at 100km/h. On a bike the world moves slowly and everything comes into sharp relief. I start to see things I've never noticed in dozens of car trips along this coast: a tiny old cemetery in a paddock near St Marys, a perfect archway of rock at the end of a beach near Swansea, a horse getting relief by scratching an itch against a vineyard trellis.

This day's ride delivers us into Coles Bay along a section of road where the bald granite peaks of the Hazards seem to rise above the bush like air bubbles. We will see Freycinet from three perspectives: bike, kayak and on foot to the sands of Wineglass Bay. If things move slowly on a bike, they come almost to a standstill in a kayak. The next morning we will make a gentle paddling lap of the bay, skimming across the toes of the Hazards just as clouds skim across their summits.

From Coles Bay we weave through a flotilla of boats to the edge of Richardsons Beach, where the bush is dotted with campers' tents, our kayaks now their morning view. 

Around the pink granite outcrops that line the coast, we pause regularly, hovering as much as sitting, with the water so clear we can see to the ocean floor far below. Tiny fish skitter about, and young stingrays sprawl on the sand. They're small rays – dinner plates with barbed tails – but that's not always the case here.

"We see rays that are wider across than your paddles," guide Chris says. "They're the biggest rays in the world."

Back on dry land by lunchtime, we're driven in the trip's support van past Swansea, where we set out cycling again towards Triabunna, along arguably the most beautiful stretch of this coast. It's the hilliest section of the coastal highway, but each time the road rises over crests, it seems to unveil new beaches and rocky shores. 

Across the water, Freycinet Peninsula runs beside us – an afternoon view of our morning's work – and Maria Island appears ahead as a faint pigment on the horizon.

Forty kilometres south of Swansea, we pause at Kelvedon Beach, where a decaying old boatshed stands sentry, and the high-tide line is marked by a string of scallop shells hundred of metres long. 

"I don't get it," says American traveller Adam, looking along the empty white sands. "Why aren't these beaches full of people?"

We roll on south on the Tasman Highway, with the roadside dotted with lagoons that are in turn dotted with black swans. An echidna scratches at the dirt beside the highway, and on this longest stretch of cycling for the week, we settle into our individual rhythms, the line of bikes stretching out over a couple of kilometres.

Our riding for the week ends at Triabunna where, the next morning, we board the ferry for Maria Island on a day as wild as the island's convict history. Wind gusts rip over the sea, and the Mercury Passage is anything but mercury-still as the ferry bounces across to the island.

"It could be better out there, but we'll survive it... I hope," the skipper jokes as we leave Triabunna.

On the island, there's a typical Maria welcome, with a crowd of wombats, wallabies and Cape Barren geese grazing the lawns of Darlington. It's on these lawns that we'll camp for the next two nights, among the wombats, an occasional Tasmanian devil and Darlington's World Heritage-listed convict buildings. What we're really here to do, however, is walk.

This first afternoon, our walk is like a game of connect-the-cliffs as we loop out to the Fossil Cliffs on one side of Darlington, and then to the Painted Cliffs on the other side. 

We set out alongside the island's faint airstrip, where a mob of Forester kangaroos grazes as if waiting to welcome a flight. At the airstrip's end, the path dips into a quarry cut into the Fossil Cliffs by Diego Bernacchi, the eccentric entrepreneur who leased Darlington in the late 19th century and attempted to create a wealth of industry. Among the ventures was a cement factory that used these cliffs composed of millions of ancient marine shells for its lime.

Across Darlington, the sandstone Painted Cliffs are Maria Island's true postcard moment. Patterned in swirls and swooshes, they look like nature doodling in stone, and pose a striking contrast to the Fossil Cliffs, just three kilometres away. They're as low as the Fossil Cliffs are high, and as extravagant in appearance as the Fossil Cliffs are grey.

The next morning we set out on Maria Island's finest walk: Bishop and Clerk, a twin pair of dolerite peaks rising behind Darlington. The trail takes us again to the top of the Fossil Cliffs and then up – ever up – through a large boulder field and a band of rock that shields the summit from those not prepared to scramble and stretch to earn their view.

The narrow mountaintop is like a sculpture park, with cube-shaped boulders and columns of dolerite as artistic in their own way as the patterns on the Painted Cliffs. The wind continues to howl and I anchor myself against a boulder, staring out over Darlington and the Mercury Passage to the Tasmanian mainland, where most of our slow journey is laid out in full view: Freycinet to the north, Triabunna to the east, and the road that has brought us here hidden somewhere along the white stripe of the coast.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/tasmania

discovertasmania.com.au

FLY

Virgin Australia flies direct to Launceston, from where this trip begins. See virginaustralia.com

TRAVEL

Tasmanian Expeditions runs the six-day Cycle, Kayak and Walk Tasmanian trip, departing from Launceston and finishing in Hobart. Prices start from $2245. See tasmanianexpeditions.com.au

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Tasmanian Expeditions.

FIVE OF THE BEST TASMANIAN EAST COAST BEACHES

WINEGLASS BAY

The most familiar of Tasmanian beaches, with that perfect curve, the rising Hazards mountains and perhaps the odd dolphin in the bay.

BAY OF FIRES

Lit with orange lichen, translucent seas and white sands, this north-east slice of coast is a showreel of beach beauty. 

FOUR MILE BEACH

Continue walking south from Maria Island's Painted Cliffs and you come to this gleaming-white, little-visited beach. There's nothing here, but that's the beauty of the place.

FORTESCUE BAY

A Tasmanian camping favourite, cut deep into the coast near Port Arthur. The hike to Cape Hauy begins here, making the bay the perfect swimming cool-down after nine kilometres of sweat.

CRESCENT BAY

Walk in from the Remarkable Cave and you suddenly emerge beneath Tasmania's most striking line of beach sand dunes, all in sight of Tasman Island.

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