Just Back: Sandy's Tasmania Trip Report
Just Back from Tasmania
Outside GO President Sandy Cunningham reports back from Australia's island state
By: SANDY CUNNINGHAM
Its true...I survived another trip to Australia. I managed to escape unharmed despite everything I endured: the long coastal walks, the exquisite wines, the lashings of locally grown and harvested food, the exceptional guides, and even the Tasmanian Tiger Snake. Funny thing is, I never saw a snake the entire time I was in Tasmania, and we spent a lot of time in the bush. “It is most unlikely you would ever see a snake,” says my fellow walking mate David Edwards, a self-proclaimed recreationalist from Adelaide. "I never see 'em and if I do we just call the snake catcher and you pay him $150 to cart them out of town a few kilometers and then they just let the little blighters go."
I first set my sights on Tasmania back in April when Tourism Tasmania hosted a contest seeking a “Chief Wombat Cuddler." Their video went viral—it was undoubtedly one of the most widely shared social and print media campaigns I had ever seen. I was hooked! I could think of nothing better than cuddling an orphaned wombat—especially one called Derek. I didn’t win the competition, but when I got a call a few weeks later from Tourism Australia about going on a trip, I didn't hesitate for a second!
A BIT OF BACKGROUND
Tasmania is a sparsely populated and largely wild place. Unlike mainland Australia, which is largely an urbanized society, Tasmania's roots are steeped in agriculture and aquaculture, and an impressive 40 percent of the state is protected in national parks and reserves. The ones I saw were stunningly beautiful and within easy reach of a major city—and all safe to visit. The wildlife is incredible, too. With fewer introduced predators and a relatively large amount of intact habitat, Tasmania is a refuge for many animal species, including the Tasmanian devil. Bennetts wallabies, seals, penguins, and wedge-tailed eagles can also be found without venturing too far from the state's capital, Hobart, and encounters with friendly wildlife are an almost inevitable feature of your experience on the island.
SAVING THE DEVIL DOWN UNDER
Like many more before me, a trip to Tasmania would involve a quest to see the Tasmanian devil. A quest that as it turns out, was bittersweet. The devil is a Tasmanian icon, but this hasn't always been the case. Early settlers considered devils a serious nuisance and in 1930 placed a bounty on their little chicken-eating heads for $.25 for males and $.35 cents for females. Extinction was almost certain until they were protected by law in 1941. Unfortunately, the Tasmanian Tiger did not fare quite as well, and the last one died in captivity in 1936. In the 1990's it became evident that Tasmanian devils were once again under threat—this time from Devil facial tumor disease, a type of parasitic cancer now plaguing these creatures.
While I would have loved to spot one of these feisty devils while on our walks, our trip was not void of all iconic Australian creatures. We met very friendly wallabies in the bush on our walk along the Freycinet Peninsula, and we also spent some time at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary just outside of Hobart. This refuge specializes in rescuing injured and sick animals; many of whom will live out their little lives in this beautiful sanctuary because they cannot be reintroduced to the wild due to their injuries. When we arrived, we were greeted by an amorous kangaroo couple who had no shame whatsoever!
Our guide brought out a wombat named Maria. She was gorgeous and everything I had hoped for. Sadly though, I wasn't the Chief Wombat Cuddler so I wasn't allowed to wrap my arms around her. Given more time I would definitely opt for the private night tour, as this is when all the naturally noctural animals spring into action. You get to hand feed the devils all while sipping on champagne. Sign me up! Although watch out for the roos that roam wild all over the sanctuary—it's good practice to always check the loo's before entering!
If you would like to learn more about the amazing work done here at Bonorong, visit them here.
I am not going to beat around the bush—we ate a lot of oysters while in Tasmania. We enjoyed them absolutely everywhere, but our best experience hands-down was in the Freycinet Peninsula where we suited up in waders up to our chins and made our way through the water to harvest Pacific oysters straight from the ocean. A floating table was draped with a white cloth and wine glasses were plucked from our guide’s backpack along with the accoutrements for dining al fresco in the water. We washed them all down with a delicious local sparkling white "Lara" from the Sugarloaf Ridge winery in Carlton.
Tasmania wowed on every level. It is often likened to New Zealand more than mainland Australia, but in every sense Tasmania richly and rightly deserves and owns its own brand of island perfection with its non-stop adventures and culinary highlights.
A HAZARDOUS STAY AT SAFFIRE
Saffire Freycinet is one of Australia’s spectacular luxury lodges and was our home for the first night of our stay. The luxury outpost overlooks the Hazards mountain range, Freycinet Peninsula, and the pristine waters of Great Oyster Bay, the oldest national park in Tasmania. Saffire Freycinet impresses on so many levels, from the out-of-this-world architecture and views to the service and incredible experiences they offer. With little time to dawdle, we packed it all in in less than 24 hours. We opted for the Devil Experience; our introductory crash course on all things devilish. We took advantage of Saffire's tremendous local connections with local farms and wineries, which made for a seemingly endless tasting menu paired with some of the most incredible wines. Coupled with impeccable service and great attention to detail, it is no wonder why this boutique luxury lodge is so applauded all over the world.
LAND OF THE LIVING GODS
Our Freycinet Walk began the following day with a beach landing and a short hike. We ended up on Friendly Beach (named for the warm welcome the sailors who first landed there received from the indigenous people). It was here we spent the next three nights using Friendly Beaches Lodge as our base camp. Often called the invisible lodge, Friendly Beaches is tucked deep within Freycinet National Park in a secluded 320-acre private sanctuary, just over 300 feet from the beach.
Friendly Beaches Lodge aims to make its environmental footprint as minimal as possible. The sun and rain provide energy and water. The lodge’s busy kitchen produces minimal waste and includes a comprehensive recycling program. Joan Masterman, the owner, is passionate about the arts and this is reflected in the incredible collection from prominent Tasmanian artists in the lodge. A small library with a great selection of local books draws you in after a long walk. The staff and guides are young, energetic, and robust in all things Tassie; their knowledge of everything local kept us entertained throughout our time here. The meals and picnics were world-class, catering to everyone’s dietary requirements with ease.
Each day we explored a different coastal track, always meandering alongside the breathtaking turquoise ocean waters and surging swells. We would trek inland and through the bush, stopping to admire wild orchids and plants used for their medicinal qualities. Each day stories would unfold and we learned more and more about this remote Australian island outpost.
Tasmanian Aborigines arrived in Tasmania over 30,000 years ago when a land bridge connected the island to mainland Australia. Sea levels rose around 10,000 years ago, isolating Tasmania from Australia. Freycinet itself is steeped in European history. It was first discovered by Abel Tasman in 1642, when navigating the east coast of Tasmania. Along the beaches ran huge walls of middens. These were created over time by the aboriginal people who would dive for oysters and toss the shells onto shore, slowly forming these huge walls of shells, sand and local scrub. It is said that aboriginal women were the chosen ones to dive for oysters as they could hold their breath for up to seven minutes and the most revered were pregnant women because they could hold their breath for as long as nine minutes. The initial meetings with explorers, sailors, and whalers were recorded as being very friendly–at least until the sheep farmers and colonists arrived and things took a turn for the worse pretty quickly.
We learned about the whaling parties, tin and coal miners, and pastoralists who were among those who lived and worked on the Freycinet Peninsula. Old mine shafts, abandoned farmers' huts, and the remains of whalers' camps form part of the area’s rich cultural heritage.
After an incredible five days in the Freycinet Peninsula we headed back north to Hobart. The capital of Tasmania, Hobart was unexpectedly one of the great highlights of the trip. It is a gorgeous coastal city with great history, a booming food and wine scene, an abundance of adventures, and of course, MONA.
SUBS + KAYAKS
On our second to last day in Hobart, I was rudely awakened by a horribly loud bird. I thought about ripping the screens off the window of my suite and hurling some bathroom amenities at the thing, which later turned out to be a Butcherbird, to make it stop squawking like an old fashioned car-horn. Alas I had no luck and the bird escaped an onslaught of perfumed lotions and potions. It was a rough start, made worse by being a very wet and chilly morning. Despite the pouring rain, we jumped in our van to head down to the beach for a morning of sea kayaking. Our guides kitted us out in everything wind and water proof. Things started looking up when I was paired with the the roguishly handsome Reg Grundy, the owner of the Roaring 40s Kayaking operation. A natural born storyteller and avid outdoorsman, my ride with Reg was a thrill a minute. We paddled around the bay and into the harbor, sidling up to an enormous and ominous looking Australian submarine. The submarine crew kept a close eye on our dodgy lot as we paddled in and around the harbor. Normally a typical morning sea kayaking with Reg would mean docking at one of the amazing fish-n-chips shacks on the harbor, where he loads everyone up with grub before they paddle out to sea. Unfortunately, we had to skip the fish-n-chips to get to MONA for lunch and a wine tasting.
Like all illustrious and colorful locals, David Walsh is a cult celebrity. Every local has a friend or relative who knows a thing or two about Mr. Walsh. In the words of one local, "He is loose as a goose and loves to poke the bear whenever he can.” Make what you want of that statement but in the end, this guy certainly has the art world talking about his unabashedly bawdy museum, MONA. The son of working class parents, David grew up in the working-class suburbs of Hobart. As a young university student, David learned the art of counting cards at the local casino, and ultimately creating a computer program to beat horse racing. It's widely reported that he's a member of the the world’s largest gambling syndicate, the 12-person group known as the Bank Roll, and rumors of his earnings vary from the sublime to the ridiculous, depending on who you listen to. Australian taxation and revenue apparently don't have a clue, either…
But it's what David did next that is what the world is talking about. He created the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which has become arguably one of the most talked about places in the world. Art aside, this incredibly outlandish individual has generated a huge amount of buzz for Tasmania. The Tourism Industry Council Tasmania estimates that the museum contributes more than $100 million a year to the state’s economy. In addition to the museum there are the MONA Pavilions for those who seek an out of Hobart stay with an out-of-this-world experience. Wining and dining on site is not to be missed. Between The Source, Wine Bar, and the Cellar Door, there is very little reason to leave the property, and experiences and adventures can be arranged directly from here. An ongoing list of what’s happening is updated on MONA's website, but the thing that grabbed me most was their summer concert series on the lawns outside—a good reason to go back! I won't list the notorious exhibits of the museum itself one by one, since the element of shock and awe is half the fun. You simply have to go see it for yourself.
LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE
The last day of our Tasmanian adventure was spent on one final walk. This part of the itinerary hasn't officially been launched yet, but I can tell you it involves an oyster farm, a lavender farm, and of course—one more winery. But first, we made a pit-stop in famous Port Arthur.
One of the things I certainly noticed on this trip was that Tassies love to talk about their convict heritage. Of the more than 70,000 convicts who were sent to Australia over a span of 80 years, more than half were sent to Tasmania. The locals not only talk about their convict heritage, they wear it as a badge of honor and pride. My sea kayaking guide Reg Grundy said to me, "Many people who were brought to Tassie as convicts were very minor petty criminals whose trade served a purpose or need for the crown in developing the new colony.” People were targeted for their abilities or skills like farmers, engineers, fishermen, as well a bevy of young ladies to keep the lads amused. There were genuine criminal sorts of course, and they were locked up in the ominous prison of Port Arthur—a place of ghosts to be sure! Port Arthur is Australia's most intact and evocative convict site, and an essential destination on any trip to Tasmania.
We viewed the prison on a cloudy and drizzly day, which helped add to the ominous aura surrounding its ruins. Sadly we did not have time to do the full tour, but I am determined to read more about this World Heritage-listed Historic Site on the Tasman Peninsula.
The remainder of our walk on the yet-to-be-launched Three Capes Track was brisk and beautiful. As we headed out of the forest with bellies full of hot chocolate, happy and content with another day of adventure in Tasmania, our guide leapt out of the bush yelping: "Tiger Snake…just missed me!”
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