More Than a Feeling: Tasmania (Part One)

Monday 16th December
I had booked the tour through Topdeck but the operator was Under Down Under and the first part of the morning was spent travelling through Hobart picking up different people. There had initially been 4 of us in the YHA and by the time we left for Strahan our numbers had swelled to 20. The bus was a little bit cramped but with people from all over the world including Argentina, Israel, USA, Vietnam, Japan, Hong Kong and much of Europe so between us we could probably have resolved many of the world’s issues.

Our first stop was the Mt Field National Park where we had a pleasant early morning 20 minute walk to the 45m high Russell Falls. Whilst we were on the way we made a brief diversion to see the Horseshoe falls. The Russell Waterfalls were tiered and there must have been recent rain as they looked quite impressive especially in their rainforest surroundings. We didn’t see any Platypus but we did see a wallaby unique to Tasmania called a Pademelon.

We carried on our journey travelling in to the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park. Here we had the option to do a 1 hour walk to Platypus Bay on Lake St Clair Australia’s deepest natural fresh water lake. We didn’t have a lot of flexibility with the time but myself and two others decided to do this walk and got to the platypus viewing platform in 20 minutes. We waited about 5 minutes but there didn’t seem to be any activity so we continued to the beach where we saw the remains of a sunken barge and on our way back we saw another Pademelon.

It was turning in to a very sunny day and our guide Ducky told us that another walk could be fitted in and this would be through the heritage listed Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. We started off by filling up our water bottles in the Franklin River which whilst it appeared slightly discoloured was perfectly fresh and safe to drink.

The intention had been to walk Donaghys Hill however unfortunately the footpath had been closed due to a fallen tree which after two weeks had still not been cleared. This had sounded a particularly good walk because it was a bit more challenging and would have given good views of Frenchmans Cap. Instead we did a shorter walk to Nelson Falls which were slightly taller than the Russells Falls we’d seen that morning.

As a result of doing a shorter walk we had a bit of flexibility with our times so when our guide saw a new lookout on Lyell Hwy had opened he contacted head office to see if it was suitable for a van and trailer. Google maps implied it was fine so we went to investigate. At the top we had a fantastic view of the Iron Blow an Open Cut mine and the old mining town of Gor

We made a brief stop in Queenstown a small mining town where the West Coast Wilderness Railway to Strahan would normally have departed from. Unfortunately it is currently closed pending track maintenance and a new owner which is limiting the number of tourists to the west of Tasmania. The sun was shining and the town seemed quite nice in its industrial landscape however our guide said on wet days it can feel very remote and not very desirable. It sounded like Australia’s Blaenau Ffestiniog. One quirky fact about the town is the teams football pitch which is made from gravel and sand because it rains so much the grass pitch was often cut up.

We arrived in Strahan and after a BBQ cooked for us by our guide I decided I wanted to walk down to the harbour because there was an opportunity to see some Platypus in a nearby stream. A couple of people decided to join me but by the time we got to the harbour it was starting to get dark. We did however see a creature that appeared to be a platypus swimming through the harbour water and as it made the “v shape” ripples through the water it kept ducking under. The low light meant it was hard to get a decent picture but we were fairly certain in what we had seen and as it wasn’t a bird it could only also have been a seal or a crocodile neither of which lived in the area.

Tuesday – 17th December
The next morning I’d decided to join the World Heritage Cruise from Macquarie Harbour in Strahan to various sites including Sarah Island the site of an old penal settlement and a journey along the Gordon River to a rain forest where some huon pine still grew.

Whilst the sun wasn’t shining and it appeared overcast it didn’t look like there was any danger of rain and the sea was calm. As we made our way through the Harbour (larger than Sydney in size) we were presented with some good views of the 40km Ocean Beach, the longest stretch of uninterrupted beach in Tasmania. We could also see the ‘Training Walls’ which were built in 1900 to maintain the channel in the same place and to help deepen it. This was intended to make it easier for boats to travel in to the harbour because the harbours natural entrance was difficult to navigate and culminated in “Hell’s Gate”.

Hell’s Gate is a narrow passage and the only way in and out of harbour. Whilst it didn’t look it on the day we sailed as it was high tide the water is shallow and only a maximum height of 1 metre on the other side. The captain said the sea was particularly calm so we were able to travel out in to the “Roaring Forty’s” in the Southern Ocean as far as Cape Sorell home to a 45m lighthouse the second highest in Southern Hemisphere. We then returned back through Hell’s Gate to Macquarie Harbour where we saw the salmon fish farms. Tasmania has the cleanest air in world and due to the near perfect conditions 15000 tonnes was farmed in 2010.

We made our way through the harbour to Sarah Island which was home to a penal settlement between 1822 to 1833.  The convicts gave the the island the nickname “Devils Island” and for many of its years in operation it was a place to be feared because of its harsh/fearful landscape, hard labour, cruel and vicious punishment. However under the leadership of  David Hoy a Master Shipwright from Scotland it became Australia’s most productive shipyard despite still using convict labour.

During this period the Island became an education centre and led to convicts becoming skilled labourers allowing them to find employment once released. This also led to the authorities agreeing to various concessions so that workers/convicts had a better lifestyle which enabled them to carry out the work to a high standard. Unfortunately the success was ignored and when Port Arthur replaced Sarah Island the government reverted to the style of prison which was meant to break the spirit.

After visiting Sarah Island we made our way up the Gordon River to a rain forest which is home to Huon Pines. The high oil content meant the wood didn’t rot as quickly in water and therefore the timber was of great value to ship builders. The trees were logged in the convict period of Sarah Island and then again from 1860 to 1964.

The Gordon below Franklin Dam became a global issue in the 1980s when the Tasmanian Government wanted to build a reservoir and a hydroelectric dam to encourage industry and jobs. A group of conservationists were determined to protect the last free flowing river in Tasmania and in 1984 the Franklin-Gordon National Park gained World Heritage Status. In the same year the Federal Bob Hawks led Labour Government defeated the Tasmanian Labour (state) Government in court and the result changed the Australian political system and the constitution. The captain told us that it is estimated tourism has created more jobs and brought in more money than the dam would have.

Returning back to land we saw a Huon Pine timber cutting display and then made our way to Ocean Beach. By now any lingering cloud had totally disappeared and the sun was shining brightly presenting fine views of Cape Sorell lighthouse and the Southern Ocean. After leaving Ocean Beach we travelled to the Henty Sand dunes where there were impressive 30m high sand mountains. At the entrance Ducky our guide pointed out a piece of cardboard suggesting we could try and use it as a sand board however I was the only one to give it a go and it just sunk in to the ground. Instead we all ran and jumped off the top of the dune to get a group picture.

That evening we saw the longest running play in Tasmania called ‘The Ship That Never Was’. This was based on a true story about how a group of convicts that built the last ship and were to sail the ship to Hobart where they would then be transferred to Port Arthur decided to seize the ship and sailed it to Chile. The play was very funny and whilst it was hard to follow at times it was captivating. There was a lot of improvisation like a pantomime and members of the audience had to participate. My part was to play the rain during a storm which meant spraying water over everyone whilst stamping my feet to represent thunder.

Wednesday 18th December
Every tour I’ve been on has always had a morning song, which has always been nice because when ever I hear it, it takes me back to those special moments. My first backpacking tour abroad was to Europe in September 2009 and the song was “Walking on a Dream” by Empire of Sun. This time it was our choice and I suggested “More than a Feeling” by Boston which was initially agreed on as a classic. However by day 3 a little mutiny was taking place and “What did the fox say?” whilst not the official morning song was becoming the song of the tour.

Our first stop was back to the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park, this time to the Cradle Mountain location. We had left the hostel early however the weather conditions didn’t look that great as there appeared to be a lot of cloud and we didn’t stop at the first viewing platform because there was no view to see.

Whilst it was still early and despite a small patch of blue sky and the fact the cloud seemed to be fairly quick moving and thin I was still surprised when by the time we started the walk all the cloud had disappeared. The  views of Dove Lake and Cradle Mountain were spectacular and as it quickly heated up I soon had to take off the fairly thick jumper I had started with.

I’ve done a number of ‘hikes’ since starting my “walkabout” and I would have hoped by now they’d be getting easier. Instead each just makes me fear I’m getting more unfit though at least this time I was one of the pace setters.

We walked past Lake Lilla and Wombat Pool on our way to Marions Lookout where we would get more good views of Dove Lake below and Cradle Mountain. We had hoped to see some wombats and whilst we saw a lot of droppings we were not in luck. Wombats are nocturnal and as it was a particularly hot day we were told they were probably staying in their holes.

I decided to do the slightly longer walk down to vary the walk which took me past Crater Lakes and Crater Falls. I walked down with Constantine and Vik and whilst we were setting a good pace the heat was getting a bit intolerable and none of us had eaten lunch. When we saw a crossroad with one path to Ronny Creek Car Park and one to the path we wanted back past Lake Lilla we realised we’d not got the time. We decided to call it a day and headed for the car park so we could get the bus to the visitor centre.

After leaving the national park we made our way to Launceston and on our way passed the poppy fields at the foot of Mt Roland. These are harvested for medical purposes and clear signs suggested there might trouble if they were illegally picked and used for any type of reason…Eventually we arrived in the town of Sheffield which has a number of murals throughout. When I say a number, I mean 50 in a town of just over 1000 people. Still if that’s what you need to do to attract the backpackers that need a brief toilet stop so be it. I decided to check out the fudge shop and had a ‘blue heaven’ milkshake which I can’t really describe the flavour of.

We were half way through the tour when we arrived in Launceston, though apart from visiting the shops we didn’t really explore the second largest town in Tasmania. Luke is a chef and rather than eating out we all decided to put $5 for him to make dinner (with assistance from the rest of us). The night before he’d cooked us a stir fry and tonight it was burritos with enough left over for lunch.

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