The bar has been set high. "I reckon this is the best bit of coastal walking I've seen anywhere in the world," says guide Ben as he outlines the day ahead on a map.
It's a day that will see us rounding rocky, ocean-beaten shores on the west coast of Tasmania's Flinders Island. The scoured granite cliffs of Mount Killiecrankie will tower overhead, boulders will balance on boulders in defiance of gravity, and there will be a beach that might have been transplanted from a Thai island. It could indeed be one of the most beautiful coastal walks in the world, but then again it might not even be the most beautiful walk on Flinders Island.
Propped like a barrier at one end of Bass Strait, Flinders Island is a striking piece of the land bridge that once joined Tasmania to mainland Australia. Framed in beaches, with mountains seeming to bubble up from its shores, it's the largest island in Bass Strait – twice the size of Singapore – and yet it's home to fewer than 1000 people.
This emptiness is one of the island's greatest attractions, and the hiking potential is massive and, until recently, largely untapped. It has a disproportionate number of Tasmania's listed 60 Great Short Walks – three are on Flinders – and at least three adventure-travel companies have recently started hiking tours to the island. I've come on the first trip run by Tasmanian Expeditions.
It's our second day on the island as we set out around the toes of Mount Killiecrankie with Ben's promise sounding in my ears. It's not the only noise here though, as relentless winds screech ashore on this island that straddles the line of the notorious Roaring Forties.
We set out walking this day from the Dock, a gloriously empty bay that could fill postcard stands with its cinematic landscape of rock spires rising from the beach. Highest of all is Mount Killiecrankie. Our day was supposed to begin on its slopes, climbing to a view, but on this island, nature dictates the possibilities. By the trail on the mountain this day there are tiger snakes nesting, making them aggressive. Unsurprisingly then, we're content to spend the day at the mountain's foot instead.
The coastal trail heads at times through a tangle of casuarinas, and at other times across beaches or scrambling through boulders and over coastal rock shelves. The sea is coloured like stained glass, and clipped into the back of some high boulders is an old rock climbers' camp, looking like a hermit's hovel.
But mostly what's here is a grand sculpture park of natural rock. There are rocks sliced like toast, great walls of pitted granite, and lichen-smeared rocks textured and coloured like the rind of an orange.
The greatest surprise comes as we round the bend into Killicrankie Bay. Suddenly, gnawed into this violently rocky landscape is Stacky's Bight, a protected cove nestled into the base of the cliffs below the track.
We descend to the sands for lunch and a swim in the crystalline waters. A limestone arch splits the cove into two gorgeous beaches. The sand is almost the colour of butter, and the well-named Old Man's Head rock tower peeps up behind to complete a perfect picture. It could easily be some tropical paradise, if you ignore the water temperature.
To contest Ben's claim about world-topping coastal walking, we need only head a few kilometres south, where another day we set out on foot for Castle Rock, one of Tasmania's Great Short Walks.
Most of this walk is trackless, for the pure fact that most of it is along beaches – a succession of sandy strips partitioned by dramatic granite headlands. It's hard to imagine more beautiful beaches and yet, except for our group of hikers, they're entirely empty.
Visible ahead always is Castle Rock, like a great paperweight holding the island down against the Roaring Forties winds. More than 10 metres high and rising directly from the sand, it resembles the prow of an enormous ship wrecked on the beach. We snack in its shade and continue walking north on long Marshall Beach, where, if possible, the colour of the landscape only intensifies. The sandy seabed radiates through the shallows, and the orange lichen is so thick it looks airbrushed onto the rocks.
Marshall Beach is also our approach to camp. Tucked among scrub behind the beach, Tasmanian Expeditions has created a semi-permanent campsite.
One step short of glamping, it's still a far cry from a standard pitch-your-own camp. Tents sit on wooden platforms, with enough room to stand up inside, and each tent contains comfortable stretcher beds. The camp shower is outdoor, using solar-heated bags, and the entire camp is framed around a kitchen tent where guides barbecue up high-quality meals sourcing as much local produce as possible – this trip we dine on the likes of salmon fillet with lemon and garlic, and chicken marinated with lemon thyme.
Each morning we drive to a new location and a new walk – trails are never hard to find since the long-distance Flinders Trail runs around the circumference of the island. This particular evening, after wandering in from Castle Rock, we also drive out to nearby Wybalenna for a reminder that not everything on Flinders Island has always been about beauty. There was also cultural brutality.
In 1834, 135 Tasmanian Aboriginal people were rounded up and sent to this wind-blasted headland. By the time they were shifted to Oyster Cove 13 years later, only 47 had survived the attempt to "civilise" them. What remains today is Wybalenna's red-brick chapel, sitting alone in grassland beside a cemetery of unmarked Aboriginal graves (and the graves of a few early European settlers).
Down the slopes beside Wybalenna is Lilies Bay, where both the pylons of an abandoned jetty and the distant tall tips of the Strzelecki Peaks, Flinders Island's highest mountains, spear out of the sea.
As I stand on its shores, a large ray glides away, and a lone dolphin surfaces and disappears a few hundred metres out to sea. It's pretty much the perfect end to a hiking day.
The Strzelecki Peaks are the second of Flinders Island's Great Short Walks, and the island's greatest walking challenge – a climb from beside the coast to the range's 756-metre summit. The track sets out through an avenue of tea tree, but one of the walk's finest features is the ever-changing bush as we climb – from this tea tree to dry sclerophyll to pockets of cloud forest as we near the top.
Across the summit, a fierce wind blows even on this finest of days, turning the final approach into a scramble, moving like spiders, using our hands and feet on the granite slopes.
The view from the summit seems to encompass most of the island and far beyond. From here the tiny range on which we stand looks as wild as mountains many times its size. Granite peaks rise all around us like islands atop the range, and sheer plates of rock armour the slopes.
"That was the most enjoyable day of walking I've ever had," fellow walker Heather says over the wind. "It was a very, very happy day."
On the final morning we return to the coast, stepping out onto the sands of Flinders' most famously scenic location, Trousers Point, and the last of the island's three Great Short Walks.
Everything about the morning is classic Flinders Island: the mountains rearing up direct from the sea beside us; the lichen so thick it looks like jam spread across the boulders; and the wind that threatens to delay our afternoon flights home.
Almost every visitor to Flinders drives in to Trousers Point, but we're walking in, beginning at its far southern end, our feet sinking into its soft sand with every step. The Bass Strait sea is thundering ashore, sea birds are blowing inland, and the beach is a graveyard of cuttlefish.
At the northern end of Trousers Point is the tiny beach that forms the island's most striking image. Loose boulders sit across the headlands like knuckles, the lichen blazes brightly, and the Strzelecki Peaks rise in a dark wave just behind the shores.
It's like the Bay of Fires meets Freycinet Peninsula, and I'm faced once again with the recurring questions that come with walking here: Is this Flinders Island's best beach? Its finest walk? Now I'm just confused.
Sharp Airlines flies to Flinders Island from Melbourne's Essendon Airport (sharpairlines.com). Flights from Launceston are included in World Expeditions' walking trip.
Tasmanian Expeditions' Flinders Island Walking Adventure is a six-day trip beginning and ending in Launceston. It includes day walks each day, with nights in a private camp. The trip begins at $2395, including flights from Launceston, accommodation and all meals. See tasmanianexpeditions.com.au
Andrew Bain was a guest of Tasmanian Expeditions and Tourism Tasmania.
FIVE OTHER FLINDERS ISLAND ATTRACTIONS
Wildlife is prolific on the island, but you can get up close and personal – and feed the wallabies – at this remote bush sanctuary near the east coast.
Fossick for "Killiecrankie diamonds", a type of topaz found in streams around Killiecrankie Bay.
The island's second town is home to the Furneaux Tavern, serving up predominantly island produce, including seafood fresh off the boats.
The island's sole vineyard, on the outskirts of Lady Barron. The wines are grown, pressed, bottled and labelled on site.
Island history, from shipwrecks to sealers, spread across six buildings, including a replica muttonbirding shed.