The Maria Island Walk, Tasmania: Wild scenes and wildlife all the way

They call the last part of this trail "The Fridge". It's a scramble up some boulders shaped like a household refrigerator, albeit a fancy modern one; there's a convenient opening in our rock that would be an ice dispenser in the real thing and turns out to be the perfect foothold.

Up we go, on to the summit and into an afternoon mist that has just now emerged from the sea, air condensing and swirling as it lifts. I'm looking north, through the mist and over the water for glimpses of the distant Freycinet Peninsula.

Our guide, Chloe Middleton, is to my right, lying on the rocks, head over the ledge staring at the waves way below as they crash themselves against the rocky shore. She lets go a whoop of delight: "sea eagles!" she yells, and there, sure enough, wings at full stretch are two white-bellied sea eagles rising on the mist in a perfect spiral.

If this were my first day on the island, I doubt I'd believe it was real, I'd think I was immersed in some Tasmanian version of a Tolkien fantasy.

But it's day three of the four-day Maria Island Walk off Tasmania's East Coast and we've had wild scenes and wildlife all the way. Most of the walking has been flat and easy, but today we've opted for a steeper route up to Bishop and Clerk, a small peak atop some rocky columns.

We've walked here from Darlington, the closest thing the island has to a settlement, and the trail has taken us through a gully with chubby wombats grazing nonchalantly on its open sides, up along a cliff's edge with kangaroos sleeping it off in the forest on our right, spectacular views of the sea below and Freycinet in the distance to our left.

Finally, we pick our way over a field of scree (scattered boulders; good practice if you plan a career in hopscotch) for the last, challenging zigzag up to The Fridge.

We return the way we came, down to Darlington and Bernacchi House, our accommodation for the night. For our small troupe of five walkers and two guides, it all started on a white sandy ribbon of an isthmus ...

DAY ONE – FIRST TRACKS

White Gums Camp, Maria Island
traxx-mariaislandwalk
Image supplied by Maria Island Walk for use in Traveller. Check with Amira El Khier amira@mariaislandwalk.com.au for any other use. www.mariaislandwalk.com.au

White Gums Camp, Maria Island Photo: Matthew Newton

Advertisement

It isn't always like this. Tasmania's East Coast can be moody, with lumpy swells under choppy seas, relentless wind and sideways rain. And it can be sublime, like it is in the pictures, with a lazy breeze and crisp clear skies for that unique southern light to shine on down.

By whatever quirk of fate and fortune, we started our Maria Island Walk with picture-perfect weather and it didn't let up.

The crossing in the company speed boat was smooth and easy, delivering us close to the spot French explorer Nicolas Baudin came ashore in 1802, to an island rich in produce from land and sea for the Indigenous Tasmanians he encountered.

As much as it's an exploration of the island's flora and fauna and a gentle journey through its landscape, the Maria Island Walk also wanders through the human history of Tasmania, through its Indigenous, convict and settlement eras.

We had landed on a strip of an isthmus known to geologists as a tombolo, something like the pinched neck of an hourglass. The Maria Island Walk's Ian Johnstone explained that they form when "you get equilibrium between the offshore waves and currents and the waves and currents on the other side moving back".

Johnstone, an engineer, founded the walk in 2002 and remains an utter enthusiast for the island. "It's a little Eden, it's got a mystical charm about it really ... the remarkable history and the wildlife. It's got the beaches and the ancient forests, the blue gum and white gum forests." Accommodation is at two separate bush camps and then, on the last night, at Darlington.

To get to the first of the camps, we took a track through the dunes to a point where Chloe Middleton spotted the subtle marker that led us into Casuarina Camp, tucked away in the bush with small huts for sleeping, a bigger one with a deck for drinks, meals, relaxing and reading.

Our other guide, Millie Oxley, had gone on ahead to prepare the camp and together they gave us the options for the afternoon.

We chose an eight-kilometre walk to Haunted Bay, under a forest canopy most of the way, with bursts of wildlife here and there: echidnas scratching for ants and wallabies nibbling the bush. Near the bay, a flock of yellow-tailed black cockatoos screeched along overhead. It was as if they were there to draw my eye out to sea through a window in the trees, where in a flash and a splash a whale breached, then disappeared.

We arrived at Haunted Bay, so-named from whaling days when the sea would run red with the blood of the harvest. It was astonishingly beautiful, with copper-topped rocks and the deepest of blue seas. In kind weather, a yacht and a craypot would sustain you here for days.

Back at the camp we stopped for drinks on the deck with a spread of Tasmanian cheeses, a prelude to a purely Tasmanian dinner of seared-scallop risotto and mixed berries to finish, good matches for Tasmanian wine.

They had the best of Tasmania's ingredients at call and, as much as they're experts in the local lore and environment and in wrangling their guests in the most relaxed and welcoming way, the guides were also excellent cooks (Oxley, for example, also works at Tasmania's renowned Agrarian Kitchen).

DAY TWO – CONVICTS AND PIONEERS

It was an early rise with the bush chorus replacing breakfast radio. I started with a swim in Riedle Bay and then a hot bush shower in a timber shelter completely open to the forest on one side – a perfect start.

We had a long walk on the shores of Shoal Bay and at one point saw a white-bellied sea eagle perched in a distant tree, eyes peeled for potential prey.

Oxley explained that these mighty raptors inherit the family home – the same nest can endure from generation to generation, renovated and extended in each breeding season.

"There is a nest on the east coast (of Tasmania) that is thought to be 200 years old," she said, "it measures two-metres by four metres." That's an eagle family serious about home improvement.

We headed inland for French's Farm and morning coffee. There's no longer any farming on the island, but their remnants are scattered throughout. The farmhouse was intact, as was the shearing shed. The fields nearby, where the French family once grazed their stock and grew their crops, are now very much the grazing lands of the local wombats.

From French's, we followed a series of roads and tracks to a convict settlement know as the Separate Apartments; a probation station for convicts who had already served part of their sentences.

All that remained were some red brick ruins on the crest of the hill. Hard to believe 336 men once lived on this windy peak. Hard to imagine that a place that is now a paradise for us was so foreign to them it was purgatory.

We walked along the beaches and into a forest to find White Gums Beach Camp, our home for the night, with the same discrete set-up. The sleeping huts are like gypsy wagons without the wheels – canvas, timber and flywire tucked in among the trees.

I could sleep always in one of these, whatever the weather, looking out through the trees as they filtered a half moon, with an orchestra of wildlife and the waves slapping the shore in the distance.

DAY THREE – CIVILISATION, ALMOST

We were still shining under that Tasmanian sun and started the day with a swim in the clear waters of Four Mile Beach and then hit the trail for Darlington.

Parts of the shoreline seemed purpose-built for snorkelling: sparkling blue and clear, reefs reaching out to deeper water and the seaweed swinging in the currents like a dancer's ponytail.

We made our way up a small hill and there, over the rise, was Darlington, with its camping ground, a wharf, some old cement silos and the house of the entrepreneur who created that cement enterprise, Diego Bernacchi.

After our walk to Bishop and Clerk, we settled back at Bernacchi House for a refreshing beer, a hot shower and a cheery last dinner together.

DAY FOUR – CONNECTIONS

The last day and we're free to roam and that took me past the disused cement silos, past some crumbling convict ruins and the island's cemetery, over the grassy air strip (interrupting a slumbering mob of kangaroos) and on to the Fossil Cliffs.

We'd passed Aboriginal middens on our walk and they were most likely thousands or tens of thousands of years old; here was another era altogether. This was once a quarry, and those works revealed fossils of scallops, sea fans and other sea creatures up to 300 million years old. There always seems to be another layer to Maria Island's remarkable history.

Maybe it was time to go though – after days of that sparkling blue weather, the wind had swung south and was stirring up the sea and bringing in some cooler air.

After a lunch of sparkling Tasmanian wine, oysters and fresh salads, we made our way back to the wharf for the boat ride back to Triabunna, and back to reality.

THE MARIA ISLAND ARK

No fee for use in Traveller, image supplied by Tourism Tasmania
Must credit photographer:
Rob Burnett

Photo: Rob Burnett

Most people touched by Tasmania, at whatever level, include it in their escape plan: "If it all falls in a heap, I know where I'm going ..." they'll say. And why not? The air is clean, the water pure and the food abundant.

But not all is perfect in paradise. The Tasmanian devil, the signature species, has been hit by a contagious cancer. So Maria Island National Park has become something of an ark for it with the introduction of a tumour-free insurance population.

Alter the species mix and you upset the balance though – the devils put ground-nesting birds such as shearwaters and Cape Barren geese at risk, along with little penguins. In one part of the island, a penguin rookery has been fenced to keep the devils out.

The devils were introduced in 2012 and are breeding well. According to Tasmania's National Parks and Wildlife Service, by 2017, about 80 healthy devils had been released back to the main island.

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Hobart airport is served by all the major domestic carriers.

TOUR

Walkers are collected from their Hobart accommodation for an early-morning drive to Triabunna and then the boat trip across to the island. The four-day/three night walk includes transfers from central Hobart, guiding, accommodation, food and drinks, starting at $2550 per person; add $200 for a pack-free walk (on selected walks). Phone (03) 6234 2999; see mariaislandwalk.com.au

MORE

traveller.com.au/Tasmania

discovertasmania.com.au

Jim Darby was a guest of The Maria Island Walk

 

Comments