A fuzzy Monday morning saw me return from George Town to Launceston to pick up a rental car for the week, easily the best way to see Tassie. It was great to be back behind the wheel, even if a yellow VW Beetle wasn't quite the Ford Falcon we'd rented in New South Wales; in a Beetle you really feel the corners and bumps in the road, especially if you're constantly breaking the speed limit1.
Driving through Tasmania is a wonderful experience, with beautiful landscapes and plenty of little towns that haven't been overrun with concrete or high-rises. They say Tasmania is the last real wilderness in Australia, and during my circuit of the island I saw what they meant. The route I took was the obvious one, but staying as out-of-the-way as possible: I struck west from Launceston in the middle of the north coast to Stanley at the far northwestern tip, where I stayed a night; I then headed south, halfway down the rugged west cost to Strahan (pronounced 'Strawn', to rhyme with dawn); then I cut east through the middle of the island, past Queenstown and the Lake St Clair area (where I spent another night); and finally I drove down to Hobart and Port Arthur on the southeastern tip.
Each area of Tasmania has its characteristics and charms. The east coast, home to Bicheno and Coles Bay, is the drier area, and is very much like the wilderness areas of England; in fact, Tasmania's Midlands area is often used for filming movie scenes set in England because it is more like cinema's interpretation of countryside England than England itself – there are too many satanic mills in the mother country for the moguls' liking. The west and southwest is rugged beyond belief, and the southwest in particular is largely unpopulated. The south coast is rugged too, but has more bays and coves, and the north coast is relatively industrial and isn't so daunting. All this in an island that takes four hours to drive across: it's the holiday motorist's dream.
So my first destination was Stanley, population 580 and home of the Nut, a kind of small Ayers Rock in the sea. Climbing up the Nut was a serious piece of exercise; 152m straight up is tiring, but the view was worth it, as was the sunset. The Nut is supposed to be 12.5 million years old, which is pretty much how I felt when I eventually reached the summit.
The next day I drove for miles, down through the rugged forests of the northwest, and over stunning mountains to the west coast and Strahan. What a gorgeous place, with just 600 inhabitants and some great forest parks around, not to mention the 33km Ocean Beach to the north. I went for a walk in the People's Park, home of the Hogarth Falls, a picturesque waterfall surrounded by rainforest. It's amazing to walk into these forests: outside it's hot and sunny, but under the high ceiling of trees it's cool and quite dark, the perfect setting for a waterfall.
On from Strahan I arrived in Queenstown, a mining village due east of Strahan and set in the most weather-savaged terrain I've ever seen. 'Terrain' is the right word; 'landscape' seems too tame. The area has been completely ripped apart by man, and there are opencast mines all over the place, but the incredible hues of the rock mountains have to be seen to be believed, as do the roads. There are hairpin bends everywhere, and in a Beetle you feel every single one.
After Queenstown I drove over Lake Burbury, surely one of the bluest lakes in the world, and stopped for a walk at Nelson Falls, part of the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. Yes, it was another waterfall, but this time even more spectacular; if I'm not careful, I could be well on my way to becoming a waterfall fetishist.
Finally I pulled up at Derwent Bridge, a little town on the southern point of Lake St Clair, the deepest natural freshwater lake in the whole of Australia, and home to one end of the 80km-long Overland Track, a bushwalkers' Mecca. Perhaps one day I'll come back and do this walk, which takes about five or six days to complete; it starts off at the idyllic Cradle Mountain and ends at Lake St Clair, where I spent Wednesday morning walking.
The landscape round Lake St Clair is beautiful and tranquil. I did one of the shorter walks, which took me five hours of trudging through rainforest, marshland, rocky plains and rivers. 'Trudging' is exactly the right word: it even sounds like the noise you make when walking Tasmania's parks. If it were a real word, 'sludging' would be another; lots of rain had fallen the night before.
The track led up the mountains to two glacial lakes, Lake Sorrow and Forgotten Lake: lonely names for lonely places, though with a stark beauty that's humbling. There was an optional extra track going up Little Hugel, a small mountain but still quite a challenge, so I thought I'd go for it, and after some seriously wet climbing through rainforest, up vertical rock slopes and onto the top, the whole park lay at my feet. It's quite a feeling, climbing for an hour completely on your own, and standing right at the top of a mountain, especially when you know that if you stumbled and twisted an ankle, you wouldn't be found for days.
It's also quite a feeling when you can see a storm rolling in on top of you, and you know you've still got to get down, so I took a couple of self-timed photos – Edmund Hillary conquers mountain-type shots – and headed back, timing it perfectly. The heavens opened as I drove off, and they stayed open all the way to Port Arthur, right down in the Tasman Peninsula on the southeast of Tassie.
Port Arthur was the site of the worst-of-the-worst penal prisons, and it's still got that air about it. The port itself is rather beautiful, but sitting on the slopes behind the port are the ruins of some really nasty places, like the Model Prison (where convicts were isolated completely for months) and the Penitentiary (where inmates eked out an existence in tiny cells). It's an amazing place, but it's deeply spooky, especially if you visit the Isle of the Dead – Port Arthur's cemetery on a little island in the bay – or take the night-time ghost tour, which consists of an hour-and-a-half of lantern-lit tale-telling among the eerie ruins. Atmospheric isn't the word; it's brilliant.
I spent the Thursday afternoon and Friday morning exploring the south coast of the Tasman Peninsula, though it wasn't quite as spectacular as I'd imagined it would be. With names like Remarkable Cave (which it is) and the Devil's Kitchen, you can probably imagine the sort of rugged coastline there is. It's also the kind of attraction that's really hard to visit without your own car – in fact, the whole of the Tasman Peninsula is poorly served by public transport – so renting a car was a great flash of inspiration. I'm beginning to think that it might be a good idea to look into buying a car and a tent, and going round Australia via campsites...
So that was Tasmania. In Australia, they say, dwell the salt of the earth.; if that's true, then Tasmania has the whole condiment set, including a silver mustard jar with spoon and blue glass lining, and a handcrafted vinaigrette jug. Visit it: you'll love it too.
1 I didn't break the speed limit on purpose – the speedometer was in miles per hour not kilometres per hour, but I only realised at the end of the trip. I thought those corners were a bit tight...