Van Diemen’s land was the original name used by most Europeans for the island of Tasmania (later renamed after dutch explorer Abel Tasman, the first European who landed there in 1642). This infamous place was home to 40% of all convicts sent to Australia via the transportation system, some 75,000 men and women. It has a gory, tragic history (including the most thorough genocide of aboriginals), contrasted with the most gorgeous, dramatic, wild landscapes in all of Australia, home to unique and prolific wildlife.
The Tasman Peninsula
Our first stop after leaving the farm was to the Tasman Peninsula, notorious for the penal colony Port Arthur, home to the worst re-offender convicts, and run by some of the nastiest, most brutal wardens. Driving down through the narrow isthmus Eaglehawk Neck, I vividly recalled the historical importance of this section of land. At only 30m (98ft) wide, it used to be fenced, guarded by soldiers, man traps and half-starved dogs, always on alert for escapees fleeing Port Arthur by foot.
These days, it’s a lovely tourist destination. Since we had our dose of depressing penal history thanks to Robert Hughes’ epic book The Fatal Shore, we skipped the tour, and explored the glorious natural landscapes instead. First, a little sea cave, whose opening is shaped like the island of Tasmania:
From there we visited the stunning Tasman National Park, and hiked to Cape Hauy to see the amazing dolerite sea cliffs dropping into the ocean.
The next morning, we experienced our first car trouble of the entire trip– but it was only a flat tire. We put on the spare, and thankfully, we were headed back through Hobart anyway, so we quickly got a replacement and continued on our way.
The Little Devils
On the way to Hobart, we stopped at a little animal park called the UnZoo to see the infamous Tasmania Devil. Although we frequently saw road signs for them in the wild, they are increasingly rare since the rise of the horrible contagious facial-cancer in the 1990s. It’s killed off 80% of the population, and put devils on the Endangered Species List in 2009. Thanks to the tiny isthmus at Eaglehawk Neck, the disease has not spread to any individuals on the Tasman Peninsula, so the UnZoo Conservation Park is protecting and monitoring the last disease-free population in the world. We had a great time watching the devils and a few other animals as well.
The Wild Southwest
As we headed west, we drove through a large hop-growing area, which neither of us had ever seen before. A nice change from vineyards.
Mt. Field National Park is home to arguably the most beautiful waterfall in Tassie, Russell Falls. The weather turned rainy here (how shocking in a rainforest!), so we couldn’t explore the whole park as intended, but we made it to the falls, and even ran into an echidna along the path.
The Southwest National Park is the most remote and wild part of Tasmania. The vast wilderness is virtually inaccessible, but for a narrow winding road up to Strathgordon, Lake Pedder and the Gordon Dam. It was another stormy day, but definitely worth the long drive to see the gorgeous mountains we’ve been missing after months on a dry, flat continent. The weather cleared for a moment just as we arrived at Lake Pedder.
As we approached the end of the road in the mountains, we were blasted with hail and rain. We sat in the car wondering if we’d have to brave the elements for a glimpse of the dam, but again, the weather cooperated and gave us just enough time to hop out and walk down to the immense Gordon Dam. It was so surreal walking along this megastructure in the middle of nowhere.
Across the Lyell Highway
To get to the west coast of Tasmania, we had to drive along the Lyell Highway through more mountains and forests. It’s a beautiful drive, with stunning vistas and our first glimpse of Australian snow! The southern end of Cradle Mountain National Park is Lake St. Clair, where the 6-day Overland Track ends (we hope to come back one day and complete it). This is Australia’s deepest natural lake, at 200m (656 ft) deep, at an elevation of 738m (2,421 ft). We went on a nice stroll through the forest to the lakeside, where platypus live happily. It had a very different feel from the rainforest, almost like the Sierras at times.
On the west coast of Tasmania, we made a special trip out to Hells Gates, the tiny, narrow inlet to another infamous penal colony, Sarah Island, in Macquarie Harbour. Isolated by vast mountainous wilderness, treacherous seas and deathly tidal currents. Despite the location, several convicts managed to escape, most notably Alexander Pearce (who escaped twice, both times cannibalizing his fellow escapees. Yum.)
We finally made it to the one and only Cradle Mountain National Park, by far the most visited and touristy parks in Tassie, complete with foreigner-filled shuttle buses. It was a cloudy, windy day, but we were excited to see this wonderful place…and as luck would have it, the last Australian animal on our list to see: the wombat.
That night we setup camp in another lovely rainforest, near the wonderful Liffey Falls.
Bay of Fires & Freycinet
After driving a loop around the west coast, we headed east to the pretty white beaches and granite cliffs. Beautiful sandy bays make it an ideal swimming area, which I delighted in, even though it was pretty cold (low 60s F). We went on our last long hike of the trip along the Wineglass Bay & Hazards Beach Circuit (11km), and enjoyed every minute of it.
Freycinet National Park also extends into the ocean as a Marine Reserve, protecting one of the most diverse and unique underwater areas in Tasmania.
Our last night in Tasmania was spent in Narawntapu National Park (the first Tassie park to revert to the Aboriginal name). A wildlife haven, we went on an evening hike around the grassy Springlawn where countless pademelons and wallabies grazed, and to the bird hide on the lagoon where we watched black swans, ducks and grebes float idly at sunset. A special end to a special place.
After a pleasant trip overnight on the ferry, we made it back to Melbourne just in time for a stunning sunrise.
Now all that remains is the Great Ocean Road, Canberra and the final leg back to Sydney!