Rock and roll: expedition cruising around Tasmania and its islands

Intrepid. That's one word that sits well with the notion of expedition cruising.

"Getting wet" are arguably two more.

And "feeling seasick" are two which those who are prone to it should consider if they are not to spend their holidays prone from it, especially if day one of the expedition involves sailing from Melbourne across the notoriously wild waters of  Bass Strait to Flinders Island.

Top clockwise:  Bruny Island;  Wineglass Bay,  Cape Raoul; The Painted Cliffs; the avenue of macrocarpa pine trees at Darlington on Maria Island; a Bennetts wallaby; and Trousers Point.
Top clockwise: Bruny Island; Wineglass Bay, Cape Raoul; The Painted Cliffs; the avenue of macrocarpa pine trees at Darlington on Maria Island; a Bennetts wallaby; and Trousers Point. Photo: Richard Woolveridge

We are having lunch at Port Melbourne when one of our party tells us he looked up the forecast for the strait the previous week and it noted waves peaking at 20 metres. I wasn't the only one who stopped chewing.

But after boarding the Orion - which is 103 metres long, can break ice and take around 100 people, with 75 crew - we have a glass of champagne thrust in our hands and are told to chill: the forecast for the strait translates as ocean millpond for our crossing, "though anything can change suddenly", warns one of the crew.

The thing about Bass Strait is that it is shallow - only about 50 metres deep across its 240 kilometre width. The way I understand it, it acts a little like the neck of a champagne bottle, so that when the deep ocean rams up against the shallow ridge of the strait it sends all that urgent water into a major fizz.

Perhaps because it was so calm the captain spent the first day barely drifting across the strait while the expedition team introduced themselves, told us something about what we would be doing around the Tasmanian coast, and pointed out pelagic birds as they passed by on their way from one end of the world to the other.

We were introduced to the irrepressible David Scott Silverberg, a 53-year-old New Yorker who described himself as a conservation geographer and biologist. After a week on board, I prefer to think of him as Kid Rock on account of his extraordinarily youthful zeal for his subject and his adoration of all things rock. He really rocked on rock, notably limestone, granite and dolerite but really on anything animal, mineral or vegetable. But more of that later.

First,  where were we going over the seven days?

The first day was "at sea" in the strait while we were taught how to put on two types of lifejacket (lightweight for Zodiacs, or rubber duckies, heavy duty for sinking ship), where to muster, and how to eat three major meals a day, with snacks in the unlikely event your blood sugar headed further south than the ship.

Dawn broke and we found ourselves stationed off the breathtaking Trousers Point, an arc of white sand set against bush and a backdrop of mountain on Flinders Island's southwest coast.

This was a wet landing by Zodiac, so we rolled over the sides of our rubber craft into the glassy clear and demandingly refreshing shallows of the bay for a look around.

Ah, yes, there was a house up over there on the southern tip. But other than that and our footprints in the sand, there were no obvious signs of human habitation.

A few of us who had not managed to get on the 4WD tour of the island or the bus tour, rather fortunately found ourselves in the care of Kid Rock, for a walking talk around the headland.

If only school had been like this.

To understand rock and the changing shape of the earth, you need to grasp rock time. It's old. Really old. A million years is nothing.

Rock time goes back 4.5 billion years. So, if a cliff face erodes at one millimetre a year, it will have eroded by a metre in a thousand years, or a kilometre in a million years, or 10 kilometres in 10 million years.

"Landscapes," says Scott Silverberg, "are like waves passing to and fro."

This idea of deep time and liquid landscapes really brings home just how infintesimal we are in the great scheme of things, yet, despite our briefest of brief time on this planet,  how influential we have been in realigning Nature.

By our actions, we are changing the shape of the landscape and, says Scott Silverberg, we should realise how connected land and sea are. What happens to one affects the other.

The damage trawling has done to the ocean floor, he says, equals that of deforestation on land.

But on with the walk around this beautiful bay, with its everlasting daisies, its fringe myrtle, its trigger plants (which briefly grab insects to stick seeds on) and native aloe vera known as "pig face", where local Aborigines would lie to pass peacefully on to the Dreaming.

Much of the rock here is granite and it deserves close inspection. Kid Rock tells us of his days studying crystalography, when he would painstakingly carve off slivers of rock and study it under a petrographic microscope. He shows us slides. The colours are amazing, psychedelic and dazzling.

Even in their large scale form seen with the naked eye, they are humbling pieces of ancient sculpture, blushed and rouged with crusted lichen, comprising fungi and algae (the way to remember it, says our geologist, is: Freddy Fungi and Alice Algae took a Lichen for each other. Their relationship is on the rocks).

The wind here whistles up from the south west, rounding the rocks and pushing back the trees on the way to the fabulous and deserted Fotheringate Beach.

Flinders Island is a jewel, one which its 1000 or so inhabitants appear determined to keep unspoilt.

We pass two local ladies on the way back to the ship. I apologise for cluttering up their gorgeous wilderness with bodies. They say we gave a bit of a shock to the man who lives in the one house at Trousers Point (and no-one really knows how it got its name, though there are stories about a cargo of pants washing up). "He's never seen so many on that beach at one time."

Back on board, there's a barbecue on deck as we steam away while the sun dips. A humback whale and its calf surface on the starboard side and accompany us for a while before their tales flick up to signal their farewell.

By morning we are anchored off Wineglass Bay and take the Zodiacs for a burst along the spectacular cliff faces, where a pair of sea eagles are on lookout duty while seals fish among the kelp forests. Different species of crab live at different heights of the kelp, which can grow at a prolific metre or more a day.

The kelp - a veritable world of life in itself -  is held to rock by a sucker cup called a holdfast. If urchins invade they can cause local havoc because they eat the sucker, releasing the kelp and triggering an "ecological cascade" that threatens the wildlife that depend on it. Star fish and seals eat urchins, so a balance of numbers is crucial.

After a wet landing on the beach, a curious Bennetts wallaby hops up thinking my small green camera may be some edible object it's not come across before.

Given this is routinely described as one of the world's top 10 beaches, it's not surprising the local wildlife has got used to people tramping up the hill for the spectacular view over the bay at the top, passing the sweet honey-smell of the kunzea bushes and  golden sprays of acacia dealbata trees.

Over the top and down brings you to Coles Bay, which has its moments, but in a less jaw-dropping way than Wineglass.

Our expedition takes us on to Maria Island, one of the true jewels in Tasmania's wilderness crown and one where all the seasons can visit in a lot less than a day.

This was once a convict settlement, then a whaling station - a place where pain, slaughter, blood and blubber were the currency of the waking days.

Then in the late 1800s an Italian entrepreneur called Diego Bernacci decided to make the island his kingdom,  and the little town of Darlington  became known as San Diego.

He developed a cement works by mining the fossil cliffs, made wine and silk, and had a go at making the island a tourist destination.

Although the cement works closed in 1930, the four truly hideous storage silos by the wharf remain as a towering testimony to Diego's ambition. If only the word "heritage" wasn't so zealously applied in such a beautiful spot.

For the past 40 years the island has been a National Park. The wildlife is plentiful, and the walks are wonderful – including the challenging climb to the summit of the dolerite columns of Bishop and Clerk.

If you're not a camper or don't have a luxury expedition ship anchored offshore, the accommodation is punishingly primal and probably best avoided given that the southerly winds here can snap freeze every hair on your body in seconds.

The island has an ever growing population of wallabies, pademelons, and wombats, and a rich variety of birdlife, including Cape Barren geese, sea eagles and wedge tail eagles.

Apart from the limestone fossil cliffs, the island's big rock attraction is "The Painted Cliffs", a squeaky clean looking  water frontage of biscuit coloured sandstone with dramatic white swirls caused by iron oxide. Incredibly, the cliffs are three billion years old, yet look like they are scrubbed daily.

Then it is on down Mercury Passage to Port Arthur, a confusing place for the senses with its history of torment and suffering hovering like a shroud over the beauty and serenity of its English-style gardens, where the sweet song of the blackbirds rings out.

Regrettably, we only had a day to explore. It is not enough, which is why entry tickets are sold for two days as there are so many stories here, which the guides tell expertly,  that make for an extraordinary insight into life in the colony's early days.

There were over 1000 convicts at Port Arthur at any time and they were encouraged to educate themselves, through two hours of voluntary schooling every evening and by using the prison library and its 13,000 books. Given the strict hygiene standards, the premature death rate at Port Arthur was apparently two and a half times lower than in squalid London.

The hardest of the hard were put in solitary confinement in The Separate Prison, where they would be hooded and forbidden to speak.

One of the lesser known aspects of Port Arthur was its reformist approach to juvenile crime. Incredible as it may seem, in England in the 1830s, childhood for the poor was considered over by the age of four, when the child would be put to work. By the age of just seven, a child legally became an adult. At the age of eight a child could be executed, and, at nine, transported.

Go figure, execution was considered less severe than exile at the time.

If a husband was transported, there was a strong incentive for a wife to commit a crime to follow him, and abandon her children to an uncertain fate.

The first boys to be transported to Port Arthur's juvenile prison, Point Puer (from the Latin for child, as in puerile)  arrived drunk, having downed all but two dozen of the commandant's supply of six dozen bottles of wine during the sea voyage from England. Yet they were not flogged or disciplined when they were found out. With sore heads, they were just given a painfully long lecture about the evils of alcohol.

After the stink of grey London, Point Puer must have amazed the first boys – the youngest just nine - with its heady fresh scent of eucalypt and brine, its white sand beach, and clear water.

Here, the reformist approach was not predicated to punishment but to rewarding good behaviour to develop social skills, so that when inmates were eventually freed, they would be  useful in society rather than a menace.

It was here that the young charges, who were being taught different skills, learnt how to throw a sickie by sucking copper nails to turn their tongues green, or swallow soap to make them throw up and froth at the mouth.

Apparently, not much has been written about Point Puer, though Marcus Clarke's classic For the Term of His Natural Life has a suicide scene which purports to be of two boys at the prison who made a pact to leap from a cliff not far from the barracks.

Some 3000 boys went through Point Puer during 15 years until it closed in 1849, when Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight in England opened.

Steaming out of the heads into the swell of the Tasman Sea, it's easy to understand why the few convicts who tried to make a break for it by sea didn't get very far.

The sharp cliffs rise up hundreds of metres, towering over the relentless pummel of the waves below. There's a sense of timelessness cruising along this ancient coastline. It has barely changed since those sailors in wooden ships gazed in amazement at the same spectacle – like the ragged battlement of Cape Raoul - all those years ago.

Our final stop before disembarking at Hobart is South Bruny Island, the highlight being a three-hour "cruise" on 900-horsepower super inflatables past the rock caves and into the Southern Ocean to see the colony of Australian fur seals hang out on rocky outcrops.

It's a sunny day but that wind has teeth, and although we all look like red penguins in our top-to-tail waterproof splash coats, the two highly educated comedians guiding us are wearing shorts and t-shirts, with not a sign of a goosebump on their skin. At $100 a head, this trip is very good value. You learn a lot, and you will see eagles, fur seals, and pelagic birds, and probably whales and dolphins depending on the time of year.

It's a blast after the rock and roll of the big ship.

 

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