A May 2002 trip
to Tasmania by Ozzy-Dave
Quote: The Great Southern Land has a Great Southern Island. Tasmania is Australia’s island state, as geographically diverse and unspoilt as any settled land on earth. With just 500,000 people sharing a space the size of Ireland, there’s plenty to explore. Our journey turns north for a taste of nature.
1. From the Cradle; Cradle Mountain is Tasmania’s best known national park and world heritage wilderness area.
2. Canyon Country; the Leven River carves out a range of gorges, waterfalls and thickly forested valleys for visitors to enjoy via a network of walking tracks.
3. Get Glowing; extensive caves and underground river systems characterise the limestone scenery of Mole Creek Karst National Park, home to beautiful glow worm displays and temperate rainforest.
4. Penguin Parades; spot fibreglass frauds and the real thing in the town of the same name as we explore the north coast.
5. Tummy Rumbles; Tasmania’s commitment to fine, fresh produce continues in an area famous for its cheeses and berries.
6. In the Picture; get in the picture and search for the Tassie Tiger and other personalities in Sheffield, the town of murals.
This is Chapter Two in a series dedicated to exploring this unique island. It follows the Beginnings journal and can be read in isolation or as a continuing story. The regional map provided here illustrates the area visited by this journal and each destination mentioned in the entries is identified in BLUE.
Enjoy the virtual tour...
HOW TO GET THERE: Fly to Launceston from any Australian capital or catch the overnight ferry from Melbourne to Devonport, an hour northwest of Launceston. You’re then within easy reach of the northern region attractions.
ACCOMMODATION: Bed & Breakfast or self catering accommodation offers the best value – usually less than AU for a comfortable double. Hotels (pubs), some of them of heritage significance, are similarly priced, then there are grand, historic houses, eco lodges and modern hotel/motels for AU-200.
Don’t be fooled by thinking Tasmania is small and you won’t need much time. The abundance of attractions and narrow, winding roads gobble up the hours. Be prepared for all seasons too, sometimes on the same day! In mountain areas weather conditions can change quickly.
Car hire rates are low, starting at less than AU a day for a new, mid-range four cylinder vehicle, including all insurances and taxes. Good maps are provided and Tasmanian roads are well signposted. Petrol costs around AU a litre. The good news is that traffic is light, so driving on the "wrong side of the road" won’t be stressful.
Tasmania is quite compact and some people choose to hire (or buy) a bicycle. While the north coast is generally flat and accessible by bike, long, steep, mountain climbs and narrow, winding roads make the inland parts of the region a hard slog and often quite dangerous.
TIP: Tasmania’s car hire industry is very competitive. Regular specials are offered, especially outside peak season. Don’t be tempted by companies offering older vehicles at reduced rates – these cars are often unreliable and it’s false economics when new-car rates cost little more.
South of Ulverstone, the Leven River wanders through the Dial Ranges, providing rainforest walking trails that explore precipitous canyons. Further east is the pristine limestone landscape of Mole Creek Karst National Park where ancient forests feed a subterranean fantasyland of wet and dry caves, including the biggest display of glow worms in the country.
Mole Creek Karst National Park borders the Great Western Tiers, a forested and mountainous district an hour’s drive south of the coast. The country teems with wildlife and the roads, although good, are narrow and surround the district in a maze of circuitous routes only locals would know or understand. So be careful.
Karst is a German word describing landscapes formed from the erosion of limestone, where water has dissolved the rock to form magnificent underground features. There are more than 200 caves in the park but, thankfully, only two are open to the public. Pollution of the environment would devastate the treasures beneath. Today we’re visiting Marakoopa Cave, famous for its glow worm displays and adjacent rainforest walks.
We share the carpark with a minibus and an old van owned by a couple of hippies munching what looks to be seaweed. The minibus is ferrying a group of Europeans around the north on an eco-tour.
Cave tours run every 90 minutes and a small information kiosk dispenses basic information. There’s time to explore a 20-minute rainforest walk along a nearby creek before the next tour, marvelling at 15-foot ferns and the sounds of the forest.
Our one-hour tour costs A$9 and is led by Aaron. He’s young and enthusiastic, flavouring our 300-step journey with the odd bit of theatre where colourful formations resemble famous landmarks and animals. The glow worms are a highlight – they’re actually fly larvae that produce the light by burning waste products. There’s also cave spiders, shrimp and crickets, troglobites with no need for eyes in their black home.
Afterwards Aaron is more pragmatic, "We used to get 20,000 people through a year but this year we’ll be lucky to get half that. Tourism is responsible but poorly promoted, and the funds are poorly managed," he explains.
We’re standing next to a newly erected sculpture – brilliant, but expensive.
"They spent $60,000 on three sculptures when we don’t even have a decent visitor centre."
At Leven Canyon, further west, we follow another rainforest trail to a sky platform stretching beyond the cliff face. It’s 1,200 feet straight down and a soup of clouds and fog float around us while eagles work the currents. 180-degree views take in the Black Range and Leven River below.
Turn-of-the-century picnickers used to travel here from far afield by horse and dray. Amazingly, we’re the only ones here today.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 8, 2002
Caves and Canyons
Attraction | "Life in the North"
If it’s world-class fresh produce you want, then the rich farmland of the north is ripe for the picking. Then there’s the lure of scenic coastal villages where penguins outnumber people and life feels like a holiday year round.
We left Launceston bound for Goat Island House on the central north coast, eager to see our friends and explore the area. Our route passed some of the north’s finest lifestyle and heritage attractions, so we decided to make a day of it rather than rushing through.
Approaching Christmas Hills Raspberry Farm , our stomachs chanted in unison.
I’m a berry buff and Karen needs no encouragement, so a table in the autumn sun overlooking the property’s lake was a welcome diversion. Loads of raspberries lightly dusted with sugar, double cream and a raspberry smoothie for me, Frangipani Tart of almond and raspberry paste, also with double cream, and a pot of tea for Karen.
The nearby town of Sheffield is a must-see. It’s busy today, in fact it’s busy every day – stark contrast to the languishing ghost town of years ago.
Some savvy council member got the idea of painting murals everywhere after a trip to Canada. Apparently it had rescued a similarly languishing town there and so the project was born. More than 40 murals depicting rural life, history and legend adorn buildings around the town and it’s a fascinating place to wander. There’s even a useful "mural map" in the main street to help you plan your route.
Turning north, we head for the coast and the market town of Ulverstone. The old coast road to Penguin hugs the shore, verges of manicured shrubs and flowerbeds evidence of proud locals and a community-minded spirit. Each bend in the road is greeted by sublime views of the ocean and cliffs.
Penguin is famous for its fairy penguin colonies and you’ll see them waddling ashore to nest most nights as it gets dark. If you miss the little critters you can spot their bigger cousins in the streets around town. Most are posed as bins and they’re bolted down so don’t get any ideas, there’s been a history of penguin-napping in the area!
Tassie’s fourth-largest town is our last stop. The Lactos Cheese Factory at Burnie is famous for its brie and camembert, but it offers many cheeses for tasting and stocks a tempting range of quality produce.
Loaded with cheeses, quince jelly and truffles we drive back along the coast to our friends at Goat Island House in Penguin. The sun is setting and the cute little critters will be coming ashore soon.
Better find the torch.
Northern Tasmania Sights & Attractions
Attraction | "Cradle Mountain National Park"
It’s 125,000 hectares of World Heritage Area, dominated by an ancient, glaciated landscape punctuated by more than 20 major peaks and the start of the world-renowned 85 kilometre six-day Overland Track. There’s walking, fishing, canoeing and horse riding – or perhaps a sauna, massage and drinks by an open fire. Naturalists, photographers, mountaineers, bush walkers and lovers – they're all here, but their goal is common; to experience a unique untouched wilderness.
The road serpents through the ranges, hitting another plateau, and cloud forests surround us. The landscape is eerie. We’re close to the park entrance and the alpine landscape is defined by grassy plains and ghostly eucalypt forests framed by brooding mountains.
We stop the car on a deserted stretch and stand awe-struck by the shrouded grandeur. It’s like a scene from a Dracula movie. The silence screams for the morning sun to penetrate the heavy atmosphere.
At the Visitor Centre the sun breaks through, signalling a good day for walking. The facilities are excellent. Weather reports, information galleries, current track conditions, menus of short and longer walks and extensive flora, fauna and historical displays educate the masses, and there’s a shop selling books and other knick knacks. Park guides are on hand to help visitors plan their stay.
We have a full day so decide on two short walks in the immediate area followed by a longer circuit walk around nearby Dove Lake. A well-stocked shop serves hot and cold snacks and a range of basic supplies and the accommodation complex at Cradle Mountain Lodge has a café and restaurant. Plenty of exercise will be a good excuse to check them out.
The Pencil Pine Falls and Enchanted Walk take less than an hour and provide a good introduction to the overwhelming but fragile beauty of the area. Regularly spaced information boards educate walkers and many of the trails are boarded to minimise environmental impact.
At the shop we indulge in hot vegetable pies and stock up with fruit for the afternoon’s adventure while watching the grazing wallabies and native birds feasting on autumn flowers.
Dove Lake mirrors a 360-degree panorama of peaks and forests as the clouds lift to expose the full glory of this inspiring place. We take 3 hours to make the circuit walk, pausing at the lake’s southern shore for a simple but memorable picnic. Ribbons of silver-blue disturb the lake’s surface as a handful of canoeists pass. Although we share the experience with many others, it somehow remains personal.
Back at the lodge in front of a toasty fire we reward ourselves with crusty bread, carrot and orange soup and soft red wine. When we return – and we will return – we’ll definitely stay here.
Cradle Mountain National Park
Tracey and Rob are two of our favourite friends. Favourite because they’re good souls and favourite because they’re fun. They’ve been together a few years now and have the cutest little daughter called Lily who’s just started school.
A sense of adventure, spirit and just plain good karma defines their life. In recent years they’ve forged a living in some of the remotest and hottest parts of Australia; Rob managing to find work as an occupational therapist and Tracey gravitating to community-based care work on aboriginal missions and in hospitals.
That all changed when Lily was born and they moved to a small town on the north coast of Tasmania, a place where life is slower and safer, almost boring you’d say. Then they found Goat Island House.
The coast road from Ulverstone to Penguin is quieter these days thanks to the inland highway and houses rarely come up for sale.
It’s an area of pristine coastline with cottage-style houses, cottage-style gardens and cottage-style tea rooms, and when the opportunity to buy came along they grabbed it.
The location put most people off so they didn’t get much competition. You see, all properties front the road except two, Goat Island House and its neighbour. These two actually front the beach – well, if you don’t count the train line. That’s right, train line and beach out the front, road out the back.
It’s late afternoon and we’re in the lounge room stoking the fire, watching the sun set over a panorama of calm autumn ocean when I hear a low rumble.
"That’s the 5:15," says Tracey. "It’s probably Bob, if it is he’ll wave."
Sure enough, Bob tools past, giving us a wave and a short toot-toot on the whistle.
"Sometimes they stop for a chat and a cuppa. Depends how busy they are."
Within a couple of days I got used to the trains and even looked forward to them. I even met Bob.
At night we’d explore the property by torchlight, looking for penguin nests in the thick undergrowth.
They would journey across the beach and railway line to the frontyard where they’d search for a dark and warm place to call home. And with an acre to search they usually found a suitable spot. Their distant chatter surrounded us as we drifted off to sleep each night.
Of goats and cats
Goat Island House overlooks its namesake, a small, rocky island that used to be a quarry and home to a solitary goat but is now the domain of seabirds and a community of bats that inhabit a cave there.
You can walk across to it at low tide and explore. A national senator owned the house a long way back and used part of it as an office. A couple of school teachers had it next and they sold it to the "cat lady" who used it as a refuge for the area’s strays.
The cat lady eventually succumbed to dementure and was evicted, threatening to haunt the place from beyond the grave according to the neighbours.
Tracey and Rob bought the house, fumigated it, and progressively restored it to its former glory.
It’s been a slow process and they haven’t got a lot of money, but they’ve created a proud family home of character and warmth. There’s a good vibe here – so good, Tracey says, that even the cat lady has acknowledged it.
Late last year Lily had a friend over to sleep and after a night of pizza, games and videos everyone went to bed tired and content.
At 2:45am Tracey and Rob awoke to two little bodies in their bed, awake, frozen and alert. Everyone heard the footsteps, they went up and down the hall for what seemed like minutes Tracey said, almost running, then slowing to a clumsy sounding walk, like they were looking for something. Rob investigated with the aid of a cricket bat and found nothing.
At 6:45am that morning the transistor radio in the kitchen came on. They all remember it, they recall Johnny Cash singing about a burning ring of fire.
Rob tried to turn it off and eventually succeeded, but not before Johnny had made way for Aretha Franklin looking for a little RESPECT – a dicky switch he reckons.
Tracey gave the radio to a secondhand place in town. It’s still there and works fine, nothing wrong with it claims the owner.
At the hospital that same day, where Tracey works, she learned that the cat lady was admitted comatose from some sort of seizure at around three o’clock that morning. She was pronounced dead at 6:50am.
They haven’t been visited since.