Tripping in Tassie

Thanks to our son’s amazing trip planning skills, we had an undeniably awesome experience on the island of Tasmania.  Just as we Canadians love the unique landscape and people of our rocky island province, Newfoundland, the Aussies share a passion for the landscape and people of Tassie.  In comparison to some of the other states of Australia its rugged beauty and dense hardwood forests provide a playground for those seeking a quite different adventure experience than the coastal areas on the mainland can provide.  Few people want to make it their home, it seems, but everyone wants to visit!  Or rather, many might like to make it their home but lack of proper employment makes living there a bit less desirable as it would require a considerable change in lifestyle. Those who are willing to step back in time, slow down, and live simply are a perfect fit for Tassie. 

There are really only two cities on the island.  Launceston, a city of about 86000 in the north central part of the island,  is where our trip began.  We touched down at the airport in sunny mid day about an hour and a half after leaving Sydney , picked up our spacious Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4 and hit the road west. Ahead of us, the Great Western Tiers loomed.  Unlike Sydney, rain had been scarce and the fields were dry.  Small farms dotted the landscape, always flanked by mountain ranges.

A stop at Mole Creek for a cold drink at the local pub gave us a chance to chat with a genuine local…the kind of bloke you never meet in the city unless you’re in the seediest part of town!  When I asked him what kind of crops are grown on the island his reply was “you mean other than marijuana?”  Too funny!  He continued to chat with us, his language and subjects quite colourful indeed!  

Tasmania is much more mountainous than I expected. Rarely does a road remain straight for long. We travelled west through various ranges, twisting and turning as we gained elevation through the passes. Large forests and conservation areas of gigantic ferns and towering gum trees provided numerous spots to stop to explore.  We were headed for two nights in a little cabin in the woods of Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park.  Trevor and Eliza had been there before but were unable to climb to the summit of Cradle Mountain due to weather conditions so they were hoping they could conquer it this trip.  

One thing you can never be sure of in Tasmania is the weather.  We packed for all kinds of weather ranging from hot days of 30 degrees to the possibility of snow in higher elevations, no different really than a visit to the Rockies in Canada.  We had arrived in the heat but by the time we were settling into our little mountain chalet, named Currawong after the local bird of that name, we were changing into warmer clothes and jackets.  Visits by pademelons, a small marsupial similar to a wallaby, currawongs, possums and wombats were not uncommon.  As in all parks around the world, wildlife can get accustomed to the presence of people, mostly because people have been negligent with their food scraps or even purposely offered them the scraps.  

The kids did indeed conquer the summit…and quite the challenge it was.  Leg and shoulder muscles cried out in protest the following day.  We spared our out of shape bodies from such torture and did the circuit around Dove Lake which had its fair share of steep rocky climbs and rough paths.  The views were spectacular and we were more than happy to stop to admire them at regular intervals!

We continued our journey twisting west through the mountains with a short stop at Zeehan, an old mining town.  Silver and zinc had once upon a time put this little town on the map.  It is home to the original school of metallurgy opened in 1894 to train men in metallurgical chemistry, issuing certificates and diplomas from the University of Tasmania.  The school changed to a trade school in the 30’s and ceased operation in 1960.  Now the town is a historical relic of its former booms and busts.

Strahan was our lunch stop.  Located on the west coast, it has the second largest natural harbour in Australia.  A walk around Macquarie Harbour gave us a chance to stretch our legs and visit the starting point of the West Coast Wilderness Railway.  In its heyday in the 1920’s, the WCWR would carry passengers from Queenstown to Strahan for the big annual picnic.  Recently, it has been reconstructed and the steam train carries tourists east along the steep railway through the King River Gorge from Regatta Point where we were standing to Queenstown, where we were heading.  The Railway is known for its rack and pinion construction through the steepest parts of the old growth rainforests.

Our overnight stay in Queenstown was at the historic Empire Hotel.  A luxury hotel in its glory days, it now offers cheap one room accommodation with shared bathrooms down the hall and fantastic food in the pub.  One thing about Australia, it seems no matter how run down the building may be, the food is prepared by amazing chefs!  The Empire sits proudly across the street from the steam railway station so it attracts tourists from all over.  The bed was horrible but the experience was great!

The location of the accommodation was paramount since we had to be at the train station the following morning bright and early.  It was there that we were suited up in wet suits to raft the King George River through the gorge to Dubbil Baril where we would meet the steam train to bring us and our raft back to Queenstown.  

The rafting was a memorable experience for sure.  Though the rapids were not as intense as some we’ve been on in Canada, the scenery was magnificent.  The gorge is home to some of the oldest living things in the world… the Huon Pine, a tree unique to Tasmania can live to be more than three thousand years old.  Some in this area are estimated to be closer to four thousand years!  Felling of these pines is illegal as they are close to extinction but the nature of the timber is such that it doesn’t get waterlogged so any pieces found in the water are free for the taking.  It is a much sought after wood, sold for large sums at sawmills in the area.  Large pieces are used as dining tables, smaller pieces for chopping boards and bowls, etc.  It was amazing to see so much of the huon pine lining the gorge.  

As we chased the rapids down the river, we came to a spot that could not be travelled unless we were extremely experienced.  The company required that we get out of our rafts at the top of the rapids, send our rafts ahead via a rope link along the edge of the gorge and portage the rapids by climbing over the rocks, up a steep path and down an equally steep and rocky path to the base of the rapids to get back into our waiting rafts.  Jim slipped on a rock and if our guide had not been ready, Jim may have found himself down the creek without a paddle!  He was pulled to safety, thank goodness, and portaged like the rest of us.  Once back in the rafts, I managed to find myself in the water as well.  One second I was paddling at the front of the raft.  Next second I had folded up like a lawn chair and slipped into the river!  I was quickly pulled back in and we all had a good laugh about the story our guide would be telling about the two old geezers he had on his trip today!

The train was waiting for us when we arrived at Dubbil Baril.  It was halfway along its tour from Regatta Point to Queenstown so everyone on the train watched us pull out of the water and make our way up the steep path to the railway tracks with the raft over our heads, cheering us on!  

The scenic trip back took us through beautiful dense rainforest, accompanied by some great stories about days gone by and a stop at a little mining town where those who wished could try their hand at gold panning.  Nobody got rich!

We were back in Queenstown by mid afternoon And on our way east towards Derwent Bridge with a couple of short nature hikes in the forest along the way.  Derwent Bridge is at the south end of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park.  We were booked into the Wilderness Hotel.  Nothing luxurious about the rooms but the beds were comfortable and the dining room overlooked the forest.  A big fire burned in the centre of the  common area and we treated ourselves to some delicious food prepared by a very capable and creative Sri-Lankan chef.

We were on the road early the next day with a short stop at Pumphouse Point to see the hotel on the isthmus of Lake St. Clair.  Not in our price range!  From there we travelled southeast towards Hobart.  Along the way, we left the main highway to hike in Mount Field National Park.  Russell Falls was our treat for hiking two hours on moderate paths and steep stairs!  The massive myrtle, sassafras and King Billy pines stretched so high up it was difficult to see their tops.  Following our hike, we drove a short distance to the Big Tree Reserve where we wandered through Swamp Gums that reached upwards of 90 meters in height and had held their tops high for close to 400 years.  Hard to believe that these trees were here in 1642 when Abel Tasman, the first European explorer to set foot in Tasmania, arrived on the continent!

A quick stop at the Styx River to look for platypus led to a bit of fishing for Trevor.  He caught no fish, we spotted no platypus.  So on to Hobart where we would stay two nights.

Hobart is the largest city in Tasmania and capital of the state population, about 220,000.  We stayed in a guest house that at one time was simply a barn on the Sloane property.  Sloane’s Barn was converted two years ago to a very comfortable and well equipped holiday home.  We were walking distance from the harbour and therefore close to all that was happening on the weekend in the big city.  In the two days there, we took advantage of Jim’s recent discovery that sushi was “pretty good”, dined on fresh fish at The Drunken Admiral, wandered through the Saturday morning Salamanca Markets, and visited the acclaimed MONA, Museum of Old and New Art where we were equally shocked and delighted with strange and bizarre pieces of art,  some of which bordered on science, others on porn. 

From Hobart, we travelled southeast down the Tasman Peninsula to Port Arthur, the location of the first penal colony in Australia.  Prisoners were sent here from as far away as Ireland and Canada to spend their days in seclusion with the view of the sea through the bars of their cells.  The buildings were built first as a grainery and mill but eventually were remodelled to house hundreds of petty thieves and such who would live out sentences far too severe for their crimes.

By afternoon, we were heading north up the peninsula to Eaglehawk Neck where we stopped to see the Tasman Arch, carved out of the rock by the force of the surf, and then on to see the Tessellated Pavement, a unique rock formation that likens the appearance of the shore to that of a tiled terrace.  Rocks, fractured by movement of the earth have been eroded by water and sediment from the sea giving them an unusual and beautiful pattern.

Following the east coast north, we arrived at Freycinet National Park on the Freycinet Peninsula.  Two nights in another holiday house gave us time to see some beach or hike.  The kids did another fairly challenging hike.  We wandered the area near the house and enjoyed some time on the sandy beach.  The house was modern and comfortable but without screens on the numerous sliding doors, it was difficult to cool the place down in the evening when the bugs came out and the possums chose to visit!  A resident Wallaby appeared regularly but didn’t hang around too long once he realized we weren’t going to feed him!

Our last day was pretty relaxing.  We left the park and headed north to St. Helen’s and then left the highway to view the Bay of Fires.  We had a sunny day so the orange lichen on the rocks glowed brightly.  We were reminded of Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia by the way the rocks have eroded so smoothly.  Although the lichen gives a fiery look to the area, it was actually named Bay of Fires by the French explorer, Tobias Furneaux when, in 1773, he saw all the fires of the aboriginals along the coast. 

Then we headed inland, winding again along forest roads through mountains until we came to a little town called Pyengana in a valley surrounded by mountains.  Our accommodation was just a few kilometres out of town at Pub in the Paddock, another amazing old place that was easy on the pocketbook.  Old, run down and charming!   They boast about their beer drinking pig and sure enough, there she was…Priscilla and her two mates were indeed in residence and accepted numerous offers of watered down beer throughout the afternoon and evening as people stopped for a cold one.  

By evening, we were the only guests there except for two motor homes in the parking lot.  We enjoyed a quiet warm evening on the patio before retiring to our cute little rooms with crisp clean sheets on the beds.  It was our last night in Tasmania. We had thoroughly enjoyed the vacation from start to finish.  A two hour drive to the airport in Launceston the following day would sadly bring it to an end.

A Day in the Blue Mountains of Australia 

Rain…we’ve had an abundance of it since we arrived in Sydney from Claresholm, Alberta.  When we left our small rural hometown it was still in the throes of winter with snow and sub zero temperatures in the forecast so the warm rain we got in return was not ideal but better than home, for sure!  

Now, a week after our arrival, we are venturing west of the city to the bushlands of the beautiful Blue Mountains National Park with the weatherman’s promise of blue skies and sunshine.

Our day begins early.  We need to meet the train at Gordon Station at 7:45 am in order to arrive at Katoomba, the gateway to adventure, by about 10:30.  Unfortunately, one of our connections was late so we waited a full hour for the next train, therefore arriving halfway through the day.  We had much to do and see so we went straight to the tourist office to purchase passes for the Hop-On, Hop-Off Explorer bus.  This allowed us plenty of flexibility in terms of how much we could fit in to our day. 

Ideally, the Blue Mountains should be a longer trip…three days would give it justice…but we had the afternoon!  

The bus travels in a circuit with about thirty possible stops.  Many of the stops are in the town of Katoomba and might drop you off or pick you up from various hotels or attractions.  The map we received with our pass was full of information about the various stops so we could pick and choose the ones that interested us the most.   As well,  the drivers were a wealth of information about the area, pointing out specific viewpoints and in some cases stopping for five or ten minutes to allow for photo opportunities.

With our pass, we also chose to purchase a pass for Scenic World.   We wondered if we would get our value out of that since we essentially only had about five hours to use it.  In retrospect, we are glad we did.  It allowed us access to areas of the forest that we would not have had time to see otherwise.

The Blue Mountains are aptly named.  Hundreds of species of Eucalypts make up the forests.  Looking out across the vast panorama,  a blue haze is apparent, a trick of the eyes as sunlight filters through the oils suspended in the air by the Eucalyptus trees.  

Our first stop was Scenic World to make use of our additional pass.  From here, there are four “ways” to travel the various trails below…the Railway, the Cableway, the Skyway and the Walkways. We chose the Railway first.  This train travelled on an old mining rail and took us 310 meters down the mountain at a very steep 52 degree grade, making it the steepest passenger railway in the world.  Upon disembarking, we found ourselves in an old coal mining area of the Janieson Valley from the 1800’s.   Walking out on the boardwalk through the ancient rainforest, we saw remnants of the  old mines and the shafts that would have taken the miners into the mountain.  A miner’s hut gave us insight into the life of those men who worked underground.  

From there, we ventured along hiking paths, spongy and wet underfoot, where lyrebirds dug in the underbrush for food, oblivious of all the cameras snapping at them.   Water cascaded from rocky escarpments, the faint smell of eucalyptus in the moist air.  

Following the boardwalk deeper into the valley past huge turpentine trees and termite mounds, we found our way to the Cableway that carried us 545 meters back up the mountain to the Scenic Centre at the top of the escarpment.   A coffee and muffin on the lookout deck gave us a few minutes to bask in the warm sunshine.   

Then we were off to experience the Skyway, a large tram with a partial glass bottom that glides slowly across the gorge, 270 meters above the ravine, offering panoramic views of the Three Sisters, Katoomba Falls and the whole Jamieson Valley. It was beautiful! I couldn’t help thinking that the only thing better might have been a zip-line across! 

Our pass would allow us to use any of those three modes of transportation as often as we wished but there were other things we wanted to see so, when we got off the Skyway, we walked down to Katoomba Falls and along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk.  The trails are all well marked and maintained and even though there were thousands of people in the area the walks usually felt solitary and peaceful in the protection of the massive canopy of trees. 

Back on the bus, we contemplated visiting Echo Point to hike closer to the iconic rock formation called The Three Sisters and Honeymoon Lookout but since we had done that hike the last time we visited the Blue Mountains, we decided to forego.  We would recommend it to anyone who has not been before.  Also at Echo Point is the Waradah Aboriginal Centre where guests can experience a live Aboriginal Cultural Show.  Time would not permit.

However…a bit of history about The Three Sisters…Legend has it, according to both our bus driver and Wikipedia, that many years ago three sisters, Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo, lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe. They fell in love with three men from the neighbouring Nepean tribe, but marriage was forbidden by tribal law. The brothers were not happy to accept this law and so decided to use force to capture the three sisters. A major tribal battle ensued, and the sisters were turned to stone by an elder to protect them, but he was killed in the fighting and no one else could turn them back. 

The bus runs only till 5pm so we had time for one more short hike.  A path and a series of steps took us deep into the gorge to see the beautiful Laura Cascades.  Since there had been so much rain in the area in the past week, the falls were full on.

Our final stop was the lovely little town of Leura.  We were famished by the time we got there but had no trouble finding a nice place to eat. Leura caters to the tourists and has wonderful little artisan shops, coffee shops and restaurants.  Arriving late in the day, many of the shops were closed but the window shopping was great!

A day well spent, we boarded the train back to the city.  It had been a quick but great visit to the mountains on an exceptionally beautiful sunny day.