Walk on the mild side

On a milestone birthday, Jo Chandler fast-tracks her spiritual communion with nature at the Bay of Fires.

A lonely, perfect, unoccupied beach at the end of the Earth is as good a place as any to have a small crisis of conscience about wild places and the conditions required for meaningful engagement with them.

Yes, it's all very gorgeous. Pristine is a word dirtied by too much wear in a grubby world, yet in regard to Tasmania's Bay of Fires, it still works. However, intruding on the idle seashore here is the realisation that all that sand, sea and zen has been delivered in blatant contravention of a fundamental tenet of travellers' lore.

Here's how the deal is supposed to go: achieving a moment of deep spiritual communion with nature demands certain ritual sacrifices. The reward will be inversely proportional to the pain or effort invested. As the white-knuckle travel writer Mark Jenkins insists, the dividends of adventure require determination, motivation and risk - ''your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness''.

And so we who yearn for that collision beat our chests, willingly forfeiting creature comforts for access to unspoiled locations and blessed isolation. You lug your pack, endure your blisters, suffer the extremes of weather and the discomforts of trekking for the joy of that flawless, hard-earned moment when the objective is realised. Money may buy many things but never this sweet spot.

Several years ago, on the well-worn Overland Track to Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, I made the startling discovery that the price for visiting those glorious peaks and gullies need not be to sleep on the damp ground or to huddle over the Trangia stove for warmth.

Instead, one could hand over money (rather a lot of it) and sneak away from the unwashed pilgrims of the path, gain entry to secluded huts hidden in the bush and recover from a long day's walking with afternoon tea, warm scones and a hot shower. Not so much colliding with the earth as falling into a nest of throw cushions artfully strewn on a mountain top. Should one feel smug or deeply shamed?

Our poor young guides were loaded up like pack mules with our supplies, while we ''trekkers'' were burdened with little more than our conscience, a change of (thermal) underwear and a good book to keep us occupied while they cooked dinner. What can I say - they were young and students and ripe for exploitation.

Real hikers we passed on the track sniffed out our unnatural cleanliness with appropriate disdain. And back home, there would be a certain loss of kudos in retelling the adventure to sneering, hard-core bushwalkers - ''we had to pump up hot water for the shower by hand''.

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I wondered, just for a moment, whether the panorama from the peak of Mount Ossa might have been better appreciated with a veneer of sweaty grime. But, you know, executing a bit of an asana on the rug in front of the fire that evening, waiting to be summoned to the table for dinner, I got over it.

Having tasted ''eco-luxe'', the damage was done. I yearned for another hit. So, finally, here I am, having a bit of a moment while contemplating the shore from rocks beneath the cantilevered deck of the Bay of Fires eco-lodge - a construction celebrated for its clean, whispered presence on the wild landscape.

Behind me, two solid days of walking, including the odd bit of scrambling over boulders and one moment of genuine, exhilarating discomfort - balancing my pack on my head while wading through icy waist-high water.

Ahead of me, a selection of Tasmanian gourmet treats, a blazing fire and a luscious local pinot. I've done the miles but have I earned the reward? Guilt lasts about two seconds. Appreciation of the view slightly longer. Dinner must be ready by now?

The Bay of Fires guided walk is run by Anthology, the company that also runs the Cradle Mountain guided trek. The excuse I've employed to get here, to pull on hiking boots and scratch that itch, is the beloved's dreaded milestone birthday - halfway to 100 but emphatically not middle aged.

What better present for a bloke with prematurely dodgy hips, a visceral loathing of sand and a deep suspicion of group itineraries than a long walk on an endless beach in the company of strangers? I'd have to go along, of course. I keep it as a birthday surprise until the plane lifts off for Launceston. He's plainly speechless with delight.

He recovers somewhat when we arrive at the handsome Quamby Estate, on the first night of a four-night itinerary. The grand 180-year-old homestead is plonked in a postcard bucolic scene of rolling hills.

Outside it might be the setting for a lush BBC period piece. Inside, the boutique guest house is a sleek mix of polished heritage and groovy. Our room is huge and decadent, as is the bath tub. It's dusk when we wander to the restaurant in the garden. A pink sky at night augurs well for conditions when we hit the trail.

In the morning comes the reckoning. Who will be our fellow walkers? What if we don't like them? (The reverse is so unlikely as to not be worthy of consideration.)

Having survived a few similar random gatherings over the years, I'm not too concerned. Usually the people who sign up to such itineraries share, if nothing else, some rich common ground in their regard for wilderness. They are often well-travelled or adventurous, though age, physical decay, time constraints, yearning for indulgence or encroaching softness have inclined them to fork out this time for the easy route. In a worst-case scenario, there's at least no shortage of personal space.

We gather after breakfast - two Australian journalists; one effervescent Kiwi-born magistrate from Bedfordshire; one cricket-mad Briton into commercial property; one spry Swiss gentlewoman who long ago gave up the Alps for Alice Springs and love; her attentive, elegant art-dealer daughter; one lanky American librarian; one softly spoken, middle-aged English adventuress-cum-mild-mannered-medical-administrator. We'd make an excellent cast for a Christie-esque murder mystery.

As we exchange pleased-to-meet-yous our two guides, earth children and university students with soft manners and formidable energy, check our packs to ensure we have brought all the proper kit and nothing that might unnecessarily weigh us down.

Being familiar with this shakedown, I know to hide the odd extraneous luxury. I also know I will regret the burden later but will ultimately be comforted that the hair stands up well in the photographs. (Pain is fleeting, pictures are forever.)

We pack ourselves a picnic and load our kit on the mini-bus for a road trip through pretty scenery and sleepy towns to Mount William National Park in the island's far north-east corner. Finally we set out on foot, crossing the headlands to the sand - bearing south, finding stride and settling the mind as we plod the length of the first of many beaches. We have nine kilometres to cover this first afternoon.

Just before evening, our guides, Rosie and Dom, veer inland to the hidden Forester Beach camp, a colony of white semi-permanent tents in low heathland with a composting toilet. There's nothing particularly ''luxe'' about the minimalist facilities, other than the blessed knowledge that ''pitching camp'' involves little more than dropping your pack and laying out a sleeping bag.

Rose and Dom do a fine job of cooking the Tasmanian salmon steaks they have hauled in for dinner and we share wine, company and a magic night sky.

A few years ago the Australian writer Frank Moorhouse delivered a speech to travel scribes bemoaning the emergence of faux-trekking experiences rather like this one. Real backpacking was ''inescapably a re-enactment of our ancestral or atavistic past'', he insisted. It was about ''exposure to the weather, cave dwelling, fire making, finding shelter, being haunted by superstitions, by encountering ghosts and enduring the risk and hazard of the journey''.

In celebration of that, Moorhouse was in the habit of taking off into the wilderness twice a year with maps, compass, backpack, tent, food and a supply of whisky decanted into light plastic flasks. His treks were ''limited to eight days, because I can carry only that amount of whisky''.

Of course, he is right. There is certainly a purity in raw, self-sustained engagement with wilderness. But horses for courses. Sometimes soft-core trekking allows a path back to nature when, for whatever reason, we are not able or inclined to endure the weather, the hardships or the ghosts of our primeval selves.

We all undertake our travels within the constraint of our respective realities - Moorhouse's was the whisky, ours is a combination of arthritis (his), too much to do (mine) and the yearning to pause to recognise a milestone (ours).

The itinerary for the second day is inescapable: a solid seven hours of walking, covering about 14 kilometres. The trail meanders across the ridges where the scrub meets the sand, over lichen-painted boulders demarcating coves and along great sweeps of shoreline. In places, the walking is challenging and fitness and flexibility will determine the pace but it's never arduous.

Being at the mercy of weather and tides, conditions are unpredictable. There's a creek crossing that might be anywhere from ankle-deep to chest height. Our diminutive Swiss walking companion, on the occasion of her 70th birthday, cheerfully plunges into water up to her armpits.

For me, the chief allure of the long walk is the opportunity for meditation, the footfall into reverie. But there are endless lovely distractions. Seabirds forage over the shallows and the coastal heath and the sclerophyll forest beyond is inhabited by busy wrens and the odd paddymelon, kangaroo and echidna. We carefully skirt the great middens left behind by the Aboriginal people who once gathered here to feast on the bounty of the sea and whose circle of cooking fires endure now only on the map.

The Bay of Fires was named by the British commander of HMS Adventure, Captain Tobias Furneaux, when he sailed past in 1773 en route to New Zealand, where he would rejoin Captain James Cook. His name endures in the Furneaux Group of islands, the remnants of the land bridge that once extended across Bass Strait to the Victorian coast. We can contemplate the passage of deep time by studying the stepping stones strewn on the horizon.

The last leg up to the eco-lodge, teetering on the edge of a high precipice, is the trickiest section of the whole walk. You arrive on deck exerted and exhilarated to find your lodge hosts waiting with a welcoming drink. For a moment, you might feel faux-intrepid. Then the cooking smells mingle with the sunset.

We have two nights here. Plenty of down-time. The next day is a relatively short walk and a long paddle in a kayak across nearby Anson's Bay.

The lodge is rightly recognised for its sublimely simple aesthetic. Bedrooms are sparse - a wide bed, windows to the bush (or the woodpile), hooks to hang your clothes, boots at the door, swallows nesting in the rafters. Bathrooms are simple steel-lined cubicles and guests pump up their limited supply of solar-heated water. There are no mirrors - reminding me of visiting my aunt the nun in her convent. Here, she counselled, we reflect on deeper things.

A small library soaks up the sun and the views. Wallabies graze outside the glass-walled communal lounge-dining area, full of light in the day and mellow music in the evening. Cheese and wine are served beside the fire. There's always cake on the sideboard and tea and coffee are at the ready.

To the hiker, this is the height of barefoot luxury - peace and the pleasure of unspoiled nature, with perks. But the habitual indulgent might regard it as hard going - you will break a nail, it is good manners to help with the cleaning up, you can't bring a hair-dryer and the dress code is polar fleece. The only entertainment - beyond sharing and reading stories - is provided by the baby swallows we cheer as they make their maiden flights.

Cruising the net on return home, I notice that one unhappy camper has blogged a review complaining that the experience reminded her of school camp but with an exorbitant price tag. (I offer a quiet prayer of thanks not to have been on her hike.) At the other extreme, Lonely Planet listed the Bay of Fires walk last year as the world's hottest destination.

For us, it will be remembered as the location for the world's coldest swim - plunging into the bluest, most perfect waves to mark a 50th birthday, emerging with the bluest, imperfect limbs. For being barked at by a passing seal, unhappy about the human intrusion. For watching a flotilla of pelicans come into land around our kayak.

For warming up by the fire in the company of not-so-strangers - all karmic gifts and good company. Eating heartily, relaxing indulgently, treading carefully. And we resolve to next time earn it the hard way. Maybe.

Jo Chandler travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.

The Bay of Fires guided four-day walk costs from $2000 a person, which includes one night at Forester Beach camp, two nights at Bay of Fires lodge, all meals, a limited selection of wines, transfers from Launceston and two guides. Accommodation at Quamby Estate is an additional $150-$300 a room a night. A portered option costs an additional $500 a person. The season runs from October 1 to May 1. Phone (03) 6392 2211, see www.bayoffires.com.au.

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