After a bracing mid-morning amble along a rainforest path flanked by myrtle, musk, dogwood and the odd startled wallaby scampering through the dark and dank undergrowth, Russell Falls, in all of its watery, tiered magnificence, reveals itself. Behold God as acclaimed landscape-cum-water-feature architect.
Perfectly framed by billowing ferns, frosted curtains of water plunge relentlessly over a succession of perpetually sodden layers of perfectly wrought, flinty rock terraces. These falls are the only feature here in this part of Mount Field National Park to exceed the height of surrounding towering swamp gums, which can grow as high as 100 metres.
The park is about 90 minutes north-west of Hobart and I'm at the beginning of a nine-day Globus guided tour (or "escorted journey", as the tourism industry prefers to call them) dubbed "Rugged Tasmania". However in a sign of these fraught times, my trip starts not here in this temperate rainforest on the island but in a concrete jungle on the mainland.
Seventy-two hours before I arrive in Hobart to begin the tour, I'm at a largely deserted, pop-up COVID-19 testing centre inside an austere hospital campus. The presentation of a negative result from a test taken 72-hours before departure is a condition of participating on this tour.
As rugged as those wince-making, eye-watering swabs can be, they're a small price to pay to be able to travel and to do so with a modicum of reassurance.
Here then, over the next nine days, is a snapshot of the future of travel with this tour, as routine as it may seem, having taken almost 18 months of planning to become a reality thanks to the pandemic.
DAY ONE TO DAY TWO: HOBART TO BRUNY ISLAND RETURN, 64 KILOMETRES
Bruny Island isthmus. Photo: Alamy
In a positive start to the tour, I'm able to present my negative test result to Robyn, our effervescent guide, who is welcoming tour group members in the lobby of Hobart's Crowne Plaza hotel as they gradually arrive from all parts of the mainland.
This evening, Globus puts on welcome drinks at the al fresco terrace bar of the hotel with the other members of the tour party. The bar is perched below the 1200 metre-high Mount Wellington tower and it's a chance, outdoor heaters notwithstanding, to give our respective winter puffer jackets, which will be well and truly required in the coming days, a good test run.
The next morning we're off early on our first excursion. Bruny Island is an easy hour or so south of Hobart. We're escorted by Pennicott Wilderness Journeys, the award-winning Tasmanian company which pioneered adventure tourism on the island.
Not long after our departure, Luke, our young wise-cracking coach captain announces our first stop: Hobart's principal lap-dancing joint. It receives a round of ice-breaking laughs. Bruny, he tells us, is a small and unpretentious place. There is only one cop (two on weekends) and he's so laid-back he was once spotted operating a speed gun while reclining in an abandoned armchair awaiting council collection from outside a local house.
Soon after having crossed from the mainland to North Bruny Island via vehicular ferry, we gain a glimpse of the breezy Bruny Island lifestyle as we make a detour to the local drive-through outlet. But we're not stopping to buy grog. No, we're collecting packages of a local delicacy at the Pacific oyster store for consumption at lunch. An oyster drive-through? Every place should surely have one.
I've previously visited Bruny Island - two islands, in fact, connected by the most slender of isthmuses - and am familiar with its reputation for spectacular scenery and fine produce. But I wasn't aware that it's also home to a colony of Bennett's white wallabies, their colouring the result of a rare genetic mutation that gives them their Milky Bar-like fur.
The population of white wallabies totals about 200, compared with about 600 humans. While the lack of predators has allowed the wallaby numbers to grow, they are sensitive to sunlight which results in high rates of skin cancer.
After a seafood lunch at Pennicott's own impressive waterside restaurant, with those exquisite drive-through oysters rapidly polished off, we're off for a walk to what remains of Bruny's old whaling station. At the end of the walk are striking views of the jagged, karst-studded coastline, though Luke downplays the chances of us spotting a white wallaby along the way.
But just mere minutes after we set out, he spots something in the grass of a clearing about 100 or so metres away. It looks to be a juvenile white wallaby and resembles a moving clump of fresh snow as it comes into sight with its tell-tale macerated red nose glinting in the weakening afternoon sun.
DAY THREE TO FOUR: HOBART TO STRAHAN, 301 KILOMETRES
Dawn at Strahan. Photo: Alamy
On a characteristically chilly Hobart winter's morning, yet with Mount Wellington so far devoid of its customary papal skull-cap of snow, our small party is off early on the main part of our Rugged Tasmania journey.
Rod, our knockabout though kindly coach captain, greets each of the passengers with an electronic thermometer. No one says what would occur should anyone indicate a fever and no one asks either. A few members of our party have been partly or fully vaccinated and with everyone fighting fit, masks are not required.
I'm the first to admit that an escorted tour is hardly to every traveller's tastes. Too regimented. Too prescriptive. Too, well, people-y. But there are many unarguable advantages, some of them directly related to the pandemic, including the leave-it-to-someone-else-to-organise convenience and, as far as it's possible these days, a level of certainty.
One of the other most pointedly, though less obvious, attractions is the fact that rental cars in Tasmania these days are almost as hard to snare than a non-blurry snap of a thylacine.
We are on a protracted, ever-meandering drive, via Lake St Clair, the end point of Tasmania's iconic Overland Track, and the gritty former mining town of Queenstown. This is mountainous country, surely impenetrable enough to hide the odd Tassie tiger or two, and our journey leaves no one in doubt why this tour is called "Rugged Tasmania".
It's near enough to dusk by the time we make it to Strahan which is shrouded in smoke, the result of a controlled burn by the Tasmania Fire Service on the other side of the harbour.
A visit to this town is incomplete without the customary cruise on Macquarie Harbour. Once the site of an unforgiving penal colony for those judged the worst of the worst convicts, the harbour is so extensive, as everyone in these parts is inclined to routinely inform you, it makes Sydney Harbour seem like Lake Burley Griffin by comparison.
The next day, with the pall having largely lifted revealing a silvery grey sky, we're taking a cruise aboard the luxurious Spirit of the Wild, notable for its premium deck fitted with business class-like white bucket seats, strategically positioned to maximise views through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
As convict era penitentiaries go, Sarah Island put the "fatal" in "shore". Even the island's convicts who escaped by stealing a ship and sailed it - in quite the feat of navigation - all the way to Chile couldn't escape it. They were apprehended and handed over by the Chilean authorities and returned to the horrors of Van Diemen's Land.
However, visiting Sarah Island today, its vegetation interspersed with the ruins of its life as the cruelest of prisons, we are immediately struck by its beauty, tranquility and setting with the mountains of the West Coast a steely blue presence in the distance. It leads you to consider that there are few truly bad places, with bad places rendered so by bad humans.
The Spirit of the Wild is the first daily cruise boat to enter the Gordon River, the antithesis of the forbidding Hells Gates, where the Southern Ocean angrily meets Macquarie Harbour. At the river mouth, the vessel switches to "whisper mode", or electric power, in respect of the precious nature of this UNESCO World Heritage-listed wilderness.
Here is the site of one of Australia's most bitter environmental battles in the 1980s that ultimately led to the abandonment of plans to dam the Gordon and Franklin Rivers. As we drift along the idyllic river, as still as the departure lounge of an Australian international airport terminal, the reflections in the pristine water of the thickly-vegetated forests, studded with prized Huon pines, shimmer-like abstracted renditions on the surface.
DAY FOUR TO SIX: STRAHAN TO CRADLE MOUNTAIN, 230 KILOMETRES
The Boat Shed on Dove Lake at Cradle Mountain, Tasmania. Photo: Alamy
Stop and consider your least favourite uncle with the worst table manners. Then multiply it 100 times (or more) and you have a sense of what it is like to observe Tasmanian devils at dinner.
It's a wrench to give up the multiple roaring fireplaces of Cradle Mountain Lodge, irresistibly set on the forested edge of the World Heritage-listed Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, to which we've travelled north-east from Strahan.
But on this cold and wet night, we're off to Devils@Cradle, a nearby wildlife conservation park, for an unmissible after-dark feeding tour.
A quartet of young devils, viewed safely from a raised viewing platform, snarl, snort, grunt and gnaw over the flesh attached to a leg of the wallaby left by their keeper. It's not hard to see why one of the executives of Warner Bros, the creators of that Looney Tunes cartoon character, Tas the devil, was opposed to it because he deemed the animal simply too objectionable.
Dinner deteriorates into an unseemly pitched battle as the devils fight, literally, for every last sinew until only one of the animals is left at the table. Of course, there's a profoundly serious aspect to any encounter with these extraordinary creatures in that the species has been devastated by a condition called devil facial tumour disease.
Due to extensive conservation efforts, such as those at Devils@Cradle, where none of the animals suffer from the condition, devil populations have recovered to some extent. Yet even when released into the wild one of their worst enemies are the trucks and cars responsible for the appalling road-kill on Tasmanian roads.
DAY SIX TO NINE: FREYCINET TO HOBART, 193 KILOMETRES
The Hazards, Freycinet National Park. Photo: Alamy
We're off on a cruise along Freycinet National Park, including a scheduled lunch stop in Wineglass Bay, one of Tasmania's most emblematic natural attractions. You can only gain a full sense of its pronounced elliptical shape from a high vantage point, ideally following a three-hour or so return hike from the lodge.
Our host is Noah Pennicott, son of founder Robert, and we soon discover he possesses as keen, if not quirky, a sense of humour as his Bruny Island colleague, Luke. He explains that the name of Wineglass Bay was not inspired by the shape of a drinking vessel but the bloody run-off in the water from a 19th century whaling station as off-shore kills were butchered as part of what was once one of Tasmania's most lucrative industries.
During the life jacket demonstration, Noah proves that Tasmanians can laugh at themselves, indicating that special two-headed buoyancy vests are available, as required, for any locals aboard.
But we're not here for comic relief, as welcome as it always is, but for the star attraction, the awesome granite coastline, studded with sea-caves and blowholes and home to soaring albatross and sea-eagles as well as seals basking atop sun-drenched exposed rocks.
The coastline along here is dominated by the Hazards, a mountain range, consisting of five peaks from 331 to 485 metres, each thrusting dramatically from the ocean. The name is not derived from the danger posed to shipping by the mountains and their cliffs but in honour of Captain Richard Hazard, a local African-American whaler in the early 19th century.
Then again, the Hazards did at times cause navigators grief as they falsely assumed that the peaks were separate islands. That myth was dispelled by Nicholas Baudin, a French explorer, in 1802-03 who described the range as a "strange formation".
The next day, by the time our coach draws up outside the Crowne Plaza Hobart where the tour began, there's the knowledge that while it's not as if we've climbed Everest (or Ossa, for that matter, the state's highest peak), we've proved that in the depths of the worst of the pandemic, a tour like this has proved possible. Frankly, I wouldn't have swabbed it for the world.
Globus' nine-days Rugged Tasmania escorted journey starts from $4564 a person, twin share, and includes transport in a private coach, first class or superior first class accommodation, selected breakfasts lunches and dinners, porterage and gratuities. (There is an additional itinerary, Rugged and Wild Tasmania, with travel in the opposite direction to Rugged Tasmania).
The next available Rugged Tasmania departure dates are September 24, October 8 and 22 and November 5. Globus and its affiliate is also accepting pre-registrations for its 2022 Australasian tours around Australia and New Zealand, including to the Red Centre, NT, the Kimberley, Western Australia, and the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.
Anthony Dennis travelled as a guest of Globus.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO AND SEE
STROLL AROUND THE ROCKS OF THE SOUTH
Battery Point, Hobart. Photo: Alamy
What with all the MONA hype it's easy to overlook historic Hobart treasures such as Battery Point. South of Salamanca Place, it's jam-packed with heritage homes (Including Errol Flynn's old family abode) and Jackman and McRoss, still one of Hobart's best bakery-cum-cafes with superb views of Mount Wellington.
TAKE A TIPPLE AT ONE OF THE TAMAR VALLEY'S TOP WINERIES
Josef Chromy fled his war-torn Czechoslovakia in 1950 before immigrating to Australia and becoming one of Tasmania's most successful business figures. He established this eponymous, beautifully situated winery, a short drive from Launceston in the Tamar Valley, only late in life. See josefchromy.com.au
GO FUNGHI SPOTTING IN A FANTASTICAL FOREST
Tasmania is home to 95 per cent of Australia's temperate forests, and the forests, in turn, are home to astounding varieties of fungi, many of them colourfully and arrestingly beautiful. The number of species total more than 300 and come in all manner of shapes and sizes and a kaleidoscope of colours and textures. See parks.tas.gov.au
GORGE YOURSELF ON LAUNCESTON'S FAVOURITE PARKLANDS
Few cities can boast a gorge as its public playground. Cataract Gorge, only a 15-minute walk from Launceston's city centre, is one of the city's main attractions, drawing visitors to its suspension bridge, manicured gardens and single-span chairlift. See launcestoncataractgorge.com.au
TAKE A TRIP TO HOBART'S PEAK ATTRACTION
Mount Wellington, which dominates Hobart and is visible from as far as Bruny Island, makes for an easy excursion from the city centre. If you don't have your own wheels book an organised tour. The peak is not only a lookout but also a natural reserve for walking, climbing, biking and horse-riding. See wellingtonpark.org.au