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Tasmania’s Island adventure

The climb to the top of Mount Bishop and Clerk, the highest point on Tasmania’s Maria Island, is said to reward intrepid travellers with panoramic views over the top of the island’s eucalypt forests and out across the Pacific Ocean. To the west, we’re told, lies the Freycinet Peninsula; to the south, over the distant horizon, lies the icy landscapes of Antarctica.

We take it on trust. Because the peak we’ve conquered today is a cloud-covered triumph. We hear the ocean and the wind, we can even smell its Antarctic purity, but we can see not much further than arm’s length. That’s enough, though, to peer warily over the edge of the peak and see the beginnings of a sheer drop that leads to oblivion.

A few steps back from the edge sits the climb’s other reward: a stash of chocolate and extra water that our guide Ben has lugged with him from the morning’s departure point, Bernacchi House, once home to an enterprising 19th century Italian settler, Diego Bernacchi, who was convinced Maria Island could sustain a vineyard and winery. A worthwhile dream, to be sure, but it proved unsustainable.

Bernacchi House provides a warm welcome for participants in the three-night, four-day Maria Island Walk. Having spent the previous two nights camping out, guest arrive at Bernacchi House to be greeted by an open fire in the hearth, cheese and wine on the verandah at sunset, a sumptuous dinner, and a blissfully warm shower. A deep and restful sleep follows as surely as night follows day.

Not that the previous nights’ camping out involved much hardship. In fact, the tents we slept in were more like up-market huts, complete with polished timber floors, raised (if narrow) beds and screened windows. Each of these huts are positioned discreetly among the gum trees, connected via boardwalks to the dining hut, where we feasted like bush royalty.

A copy of the menu souvenired after our first night on Maria Island reminds me of just how well we ate: Shitake mushroom soup, followed by grilled quail with a spiced couscous and an eggplant ratatouille, then chocolate mud cake with a berry coulis and cream. The wine list was no less impressive: Frogmore Creek Chardonnay and/or Bream Creek Pinot Noir – both of them award-winning Tasmanian wines that were so good I subsequently bought a dozen for the cellar.

  • Maria Island was named by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642. The island’s original inhabitants were the Tyreddeme Aborigines.
  • English settlers established a penal settlement on Maria Island in 1825.
  • Maria Island’s potential for tourism captured the imagination of Italian entrepreneur, Diego Bernacchi. In 1884, Bernacchi secured a long term lease of the island and established the Maria Island Company.
Maria Island

Wildlife abounds on Maria Island. Kangaroos, wombats and wallabies are everywhere, making Maria Island a great destination for travellers keen to experience Australian fauna in its natural state. The island is also home for the elusive 40-spotted pardalote, a very shy bird endemic to the region and much loved by amateur and professional bird spotters.  A colony of fairy penguins also call the island home, and these can be spotted on a night walk from Bernacchi House.

Walking on Maria Island gives us time to be part of this natural environment, rather than merely look at it. We amble along deserted beaches, wander through paddocks where pug-nosed wombats graze unconcernedly, and we take time to enjoy phenomenon such as the magnificently patterned Painted Cliffs.

Embracing the prevailing weather conditions is part of the experience, and although the postcard views largely eluded us, the overcast skies and occasional drizzle added a moodiness that was both melancholic and atmospheric.

We learnt to pay attention to the detail rather than the big picture. We marveled at the intensity of orange lichen against the grey-blue watermarks of a Tasmanian gum; we photographed fossilised sea creatures, reading a million years of history as we ran our fingers over the fossil’s Braille-like impressions; and we listened out for the call of the elusive 40-spotted pardalote.

Maria Island has heartbreaking tales aplenty. It used to be penal colony, and its museum in the small settlement of Darlington includes copies of newspaper reports alerting Tasmania’s free settlers to the details of yet another convict breakout. The escapees ranged in age from 17 to 21-years-old, young Irish and English men who advised family back home that they, too, should get themselves transported to Tasmania because despite the bleak conditions, the new lives that could be built on the other side of the world were infinitely better than the ones they’d left behind.

The crumbling remains of convict cells at Point Lesueur and the ochre pits of the island’s long-gone original occupants, the Tyreddeme Aboriginal people, point to two sad chapters in Maria Island’s history. So too does the grandly-named Coffee Palace in the now abandoned settlement of Darlington.

Like Bernacchi House, the Coffee Palace carried the hopes and dreams of white settlers who hoped to make a life on the island. But it all came to nought. Protected by Maria Island’s status as a national park, Cape Barren Geese now wander freely through the courtyards and across the roads where Bernacchi and his peers once trod, and where the Tyreddeme must have walked before these settlers came and went.

The guided four day Maria Island Walk is a quirky blend of history and nature, food and wine, luxury and adventure. It leaves a small footprint, thanks to the eco-friendliness of the base camps at Casuarina Beach (day one) and White Gums (day two) and the mindfulness of our guides who ensure we leave nothing behind but footprints. At the end of each season, both camps are dismantled and the island is left to winter alone.

Getting to Maria Island Walk is an adventure in itself. On the day of departure, we’re collected from our hotel in Hobart and kitted out with a backpack, waterproof jacket, a head torch, a silk sleeping sheet and a packed lunch. Then there’s a short drive to the seaside town of Triabunna, where we board a charter boat and cruise across the Mercury Passage to Maria Island. The boat weighs anchor a few metres offshore and we clamber into a dinghy for final leg of the journey. It’s a special beginning to an experience none of us wants to end.

Walkabout in New South Wales

There is so much to do in New South Wales, but a week will surely persuade you to come back for more.

Day One

After breakfast head down to Circular Quay to see two Sydney icons at once the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the white-sailed Sydney Opera House.

Next, stroll across to The Rocks area to see where European Sydney started out. The compact waterside area is criss-crossed with alleyways and crammed with terraced houses, old pubs, and former maritime storehouses. Make the most of the experience by going on a guided walk with an operator such as The Rocks Walking Tours. 

Nearby are some steps that take you up to the walkway that spans the Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can walk right across the bridge and take a local commuter train back to the city centre.

Or, you could actually climb the Harbour Bridge with BridgeClimb. It’s a truly memorable experience, and the views from the top of the arch are magnificent.

Afterwards, head back to Circular Quay and take a boat trip on Sydney’s glorious harbour. There are lots of tour boats to choose from. One that gives an Aboriginal perspective on things is the Tribal Warrior Aboriginal Culture Cruise. If you are the adventurous sort you could even take zip around the Harbour at break-neck speed on a jet boat.

From here you could walk past the Opera House and into the Royal Botanic Gardens. You might then want to pop into the Art Gallery of New South Wales, before heading towards the city again.

Ahead of you is Sydney Tower, the tallest building in Sydney. The tower offers stunning 360-degree views across the city, and beyond to The Blue Mountains. Daredevils can walk around the outside of the tower on a Skywalk.

Day 2
Spend the morning in Darling Harbour, Sydney’s main entertainment precinct. There are plenty of bars and restaurants around here with outdoor seating, and lots of major attractions.

A must is to clamber over real ships and a submarine at the Australian National Maritime Museum, and discover our love of maritime and the ocean.

Day 3
Today it’s time to head to the hills.

The World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains are less than two hours from Sydney. You can get there by train and join a tour, take a tour from Sydney, or wander around alone.

On the way, you could stop off to see the kangaroos and other creatures at Featherdale Wildlife Park.

In the Blue Mountains you can ride the world’s steepest incline railway and enjoy spectacular rainforest views from a cable car at Scenic World.

There are lots of incredible bushwalks, majestic waterfalls, and the sandstone escarpments and canyons are awesome. Stay the night if you wish to extend your trip, and immerse yourself in the amazing scenery again the next day.

Day 4
Travel back to Sydney and head north to the Hunter Valley wine country.

Most of the area’s 120 wineries offer tastings at the cellar door. There are plenty of great restaurants, romantic retreats, quality eateries, galleries, and producers selling handmade cheese and olive oil.

You can roam around the beautiful farming countryside on hired bicycles, in a horse and carriage, or even in a hot air balloon.

Day 5
From the Hunter Valley make your way to Port Stephens. The pristine waters of the harbour here are home to two large pods of bottlenose dolphins. You are almost guaranteed to see them on a dolphin-watch cruise. This is a perfect place to spot whales during their annual migration too.

If you want to see koalas in the wild then Port Stephen’s Tilligerry Habitat State Reserve offers a good opportunity.

Day 6
Drive south from Sydney via the Royal National Park on the new Grand Pacific Drive. A focal point of the trip is the dramatic 665-metre (2,181-foot) Sea Cliff Bridge. 

From here, the unspoilt natural beauty of the southern coastline of New South Wales unfolds in a series of bays, harbours, beaches and small townships.

You could stop off at Jervis Bay and the Aboriginal-managed Booderee National Park.
The park is known for its kangaroos and other wildlife, fascinating bushwalks, sparkling green water, and pristine beaches.

One of these is Hyams Beach, which has some of the world’s whitest and noisiest sands – it makes a loud squeaking sound when you walk on it.

You can go on a dolphin spotting cruise here, or take an adventurous dive among underwater arches, caves and rock stacks.

At Huskisson, camp among the kangaroos overnight, or stay at Woollomia Village Retreat, an Australian Historical replica village.

Day 7
Kangaroo Valley Views NSWYou might want to keep heading south along the coastal route all the way to Melbourne or beyond – or you can slowly head back to Sydney.

This time head inland via Kangaroo Valley, and call into the Southern Highlands, then return to Sydney.

This gorgeous rural area offers quaint towns, historic pubs and hotels, orchards and wineries, antiques, Devonshire teas, and a gentrified way of existence.

Up close and personal with Australian wildlife

Nature was inspired when it created Australia. There are animals you’ll see nowhere else and plants that will amaze you. Australia is one of the most diverse countries on the planet, home to more than one million species of plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else in the world.

Among the most well known of these are the koala, the wombat, the kangaroo, the laughing kookaburra, and the egg-laying platypus – a creature so odd-looking that sceptical European scientists thought it was several different animals sewn together.

Some of Australia’s unique animals and birds are easy to spot, even in the major capital cities. It’s not unusual to see a possum climbing up a city lamp post in the evening, or giant fruit bats taking off from their roosts in city parks. Pelicans, sacred ibis, colourful parrots, and cockatoos look right at home too.    

Within easy distance of every city are several national parks and wildlife reserves. This isn’t surprising when you consider that Australia boasts 516 national parks, 145 marine parks, 2,700 designated conservation areas, and 33 Indigenous Protected Areas. There are also 15 natural World Heritage Sites, ranging from the Great Barrier Reef to the Tasmanian Wilderness.

One of the most iconic Australian animals is the kangaroo. There are 63 species of kangaroo in Australia including different kinds of wallabies, tree-kangaroos, wallaroos, pademelons and the quokka – a cat-size marsupial that lives on some of the smaller islands off the coast of Western Australia.

While some of these animals are rare or elusive, others are quite common. It’s not unusual to see lots of powerful red kangaroos bounding besides your car as you travel through Australia’s Outback. You can often easily see big grey kangaroos in native grassland beside the road too.

In some places such as Booderee National Park, south of Sydney – they wander right up to you. While at Pebbly Beach, between Ulladulla and Batemans Bay on the New South Wales south coast, kangaroos graze on the grass edging the pristine beach and casually hop among the picnic rugs. 

One of the best places in Australia to see a large range of animals and birds up close is Kangaroo Island, in South Australia. While kangaroos may have given the island its name, in the space of one day, you can easily spot koalas, wallabies, goannas, echidnas, brush-tailed possums, and platypus. You can quickly tick off dozens of the 270 species of bird found here, including perhaps the rare glossy black cockatoo.

Other Kangaroo Island highlights include watching fairy penguins waddling home after a day out at sea, taking a swim with the Island’s resident pods of dolphins, and walking beside hundreds of rare Australian sealions as they laze on the sand.

While Kangaroo Island is the perfect spot for observing koalas in the wild, you might want to spare a thought for those that end up needing a caring hand. The Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie is the world’s first hospital dedicated solely to the care and preservation of koalas.

Then there’s Phillip Island in Victoria, home to the Koala Conservation Centre. This was set up for research and breeding purposes, and you can get quite close to these cuddly creatures. Phillip Island is also world famous for its Penguin Parade.

Another great place to spot koalas in the wild is beside the Great Ocean Road, one of the most spectacular scenic drives in Australia. You can also see koalas in their natural habitat around Port Stephens, north of Sydney too.

Beautiful Port Stephens is also home to resident pods of dolphins, and several companies operate dolphin-watching tours and whale-watching tours.
 
The most prolific whales in our waters are the southern right whale and the humpback whale. These pass along the western, southern and eastern coastlines during their annual migration. Some of the most popular whale watching spots include Hervey Bay in Queensland, Warrnambool in south-western Victoria, Victor Harbour in South Australia, and Byron Bay, Eden, and Narooma in New South Wales.

From June to November you can see plenty of humpback whales migrating northwards along the Western Australian coastline to shelter in Camden Sound on the Kimberley coast. They also congregate off Broome, where the females give birth. In September you could head to Dunsborough to see blue whales and their calves in the calm waters of Geographe Bay.

Between early April and early July each year marine adventurers can try snorkelling with the world’s largest fish – the whale shark. Ningaloo Reef, on Western Australia’s Coral Coast, is one of only a few places in the world where this is possible.

Wild dolphins are common right along the Australian coast, and there are plenty of opportunities to swim with them at Port Phillip Bay in Victoria, Baird Bay on the South Australian coast, Port Stephens and Huskisson in New South Wales and at Rockingham near Perth.

One of the most famous dolphin habitats is Monkey Mia on the shores of World Heritage-listed Shark Bay, in Western Australia. The wild bottlenose dolphins around here have been swimming around the ankles of tourists every day for the past forty years.

If crocodiles are more your scene then head up to the Northern Territory to search for saltwater crocodiles in Kakadu National Park. Kakadu’s many habitats, which include lily-spotted wetlands and vast plains, support more than 280 species of birds, or about one-third of Australia’s bird species.

The most iconic of all Australia’s wildlife sanctuaries though is the Great Barrier Reef. Go snorkelling or diving in the tropical, clear waters and you’ll find yourself immersed in an environment shimmering of dazzling fish, colourful corals and sponges, dugongs, and green turtles.

Meanwhile, to get close to endangered Tasmanian Devils, make your way to Devils @ Cradle. At this sanctuary and breeding centre at Cradle Mountain, in north-west Tasmania, you can get up close to plenty of these noisy marsupial carnivores.