Apple Isle (Tasmania) is a brilliant excursion from Australia

Tasmania has something for the mountain lover and beach bum, the history buff and culture-vulture, the indefatigable trekker and wildlife lover
Apple Isle (Tasmania) is a brilliant excursion from Australia

My decision to take off alone on a backpacking trip to Tasmania barely five days after landing in Melbourne caused consternation. &ldquoBut what&rsquos to see in Tasmania&rdquo protested a friend. &ldquoNothing but jungles&rdquo The bush did, in fact, draw me to the island south of mainland Australia. Tasmania, however, has much more.

Melbourne is the ideal departure point for Tasmania. You can either fly to Hobart or Launceston, or take &lsquoThe Spirit of Tasmania&rsquo boat to Devonport, across the 240-km Bass Strait (which is far more romantic, even when travelling alone). The &lsquoApple Isle&rsquo, discovered in 1742 by the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, is Australia&rsquos only island state. Once an outpost of Empire where deported convicts were held, Tasmania is now one of Australia&rsquos major tourist draws. Its gory history only adds to the attraction.

I was told the entire island could be explored in one week, but even the fortnight I&rsquod scheduled was insufficient. Tasmania offers a diversity of natural splendour, places of historical interest (including ghostly ruins), charming towns with excellent tourist facilities, heritage buildings and old-world cottages, and friendly people. It has something for the mountain lover and beach bum, the history buff and culture-vulture, the indefatigable trekker and wildlife lover, and the simply curious.

The Tasman House Backpacker&rsquos Hostel in Devonport was the only place I&rsquod booked from Bombay. Devonport, divided by the River Mersey, is an important business and retail centre despite its laid-back ambience. It has several attractions, but I was keen to trek in Cradle Mountain. 

Cradle Mountain is the starting point of the &lsquoOverland Track&rsquo, the dream of trekkers around the world an 85-km route to Lake St. Clair through rainforest, alpine highland, ancient pine, and deciduous beech ablaze with colour in the autumn. Cradle Mountain was named in 1827 by Joseph Fossey, for reasons which are immediately obvious. But it also has several not so readily apparent wonders, and the best way to enjoy them (or those of any other Tasmanian National Park) is to camp inside. Half a day was not enough, though I was lucky enough to spot a couple of wallabies--one delicately feeding off a streamside log on the beech-wooded mountainside. We had just enough time to walk round Dove Lake.

I&rsquod been devoured by the desire to visit Strahan, on the west coast, much before I left Bombay. Strahan has been called the world&rsquos best &lsquolittle&rsquo town by the travel editor of the Chicago Tribune. It is indeed lovely, as is the Youth Hostel set in a wild garden with a stream boasting a real, live platypus. It&rsquos delightful to walk around, especially on the waterfront Esplanade, and if you walk long enough you can make it to Hogarth Falls. The actual waterfall is at the far end of a rainforest full of man-ferns my height, and swamp gums towering overhead.     

Strahan is also the gateway to the Franklin-Gordon National Park, a famed World Heritage site. From Wild Rivers National park, the Franklin and Gordon rivers hurtle through rainforests, lush valleys and spectacular gorges, to merge and empty into Strahan&rsquos vast Macquarie Harbour. These rivers were very nearly damned for hydoelectricity in the 1980s. A major controversy broke out over the issue, and the environmental campaign which saved the rivers is said to have brought down the government. Cruising down the Gordon on the Wanderer III, I thanked the campaigners for allowing me to enjoy the reflection of the Huon and celery-top pines in the clear waters. As the Wanderer III proceeded upriver, we passed several fish-breeding farms. (Tasmania, incidentally, is a foodies&rsquo paradise, especially for sea-food.)

&ldquoWe are now approaching Hell&rsquos Gates.&rdquo The sudden announcement jolted me from pleasant thoughts of grilled crayfish washed down with Sauvignon Blanc. Hell&rsquos Gates is a narrow stretch of water between two huge rocks. It was called the Gates to Hell by transported convicts, because it is the approach to Sarah Island-a brutal penal colony from 1822 to 1833. The name seems incongruous today, with two rocks dramatically framing a serene, sunny green island. When the island tour guide tells you of its horrific past, however, the air turns sinister and the ruined buildings bear witness to that dark period. Heritage Landing is a pleasanter halt. We rambled through ancient protected rainforest, the highlight of which is a gigantic 2000-year-old Huon Pine.

From Strahan it was on to the state capital, Hobart, of which Charles Darwin said, &ldquoIf I was obliged to emigrate I certainly should prefer this place...&rdquo Hobart is one of the world&rsquos loveliest cities, with a historic waterfront, elegant colonial architecture, stylish Georgian sandstone warehouses, (now housing boutiques, cafes, and art galleries), and several green patches. It was in Hobart&rsquos Botanical Gardens that I was properly introduced to Tasmania&rsquos unique flora and fauna and in Bonorong Wildlife park I got to cuddle a koala, a creature after my own heart it sleeps for 20 hours in a day, feeds for three and a half, and moves about for no more than half an hour.

Angry yapping attracted me to the adjoining enclosure, where it was feeding time for the Tasmanian Devils. The Tassie Devil is a small nocturnal creature with bad eyesight and a keen sense of smell, found only in Tasmania. It is black with a whitish patch on the back or the rump, and has red eyes. Weighing barely 4.5 kg, it has a jaw strength of three tonnes. A Devil--&lsquothe vacuum cleaner of the bush&rsquo--can polish off a whole cow in one week, bones, horns and all. Like all marsupials it rears its young in its pouch, although mothers have been known to eat their babies. As if that weren&rsquot enough bad press, it is basically a coward. The Devils I saw, fighting over a leg of lamb, more than lived up to their name. 

The high point of Hobart is, literally, Mt Wellington. A drive to the top is a must, though the view depends upon the weather. The other high point is the Salamanca Market on Saturdays. I picked up a gorgeous hand-knitted blouse, talked to a well-known historian, bought souvenirs, and ate Tayberry Ice-cream (a tayberry is a sweet and sour berry).

There were still several places to visit, and time was running out. I discovered a couple of companies running one-day tours.  I took the aptly named &lsquoBottom Bits&rsquo tour to Mt. Field National Park, and to Freycinet, which boasts the spectacular Wine Glass Bay. The main attraction of Mt. Field is the dramatic cascades of Russell Falls. Not only was the trekking path well maintained, but it allowed access to the handicapped. Our tourism departments in India could use some help from the Tasmanians.

Freycinet is a rich forest park full of wild flowers and orchids, and jagged peaks of pink and gray granite erupting from aquamarine waters. Outside magazine calls Wine Glass Bay (named for its shape) one of the ten best beaches in the world. The best vantage point is from Mt. Amos&mdash4000 feet of solid but slippery rock. I was determined to climb it. Rob, the driver-guide-owner of Bottom Bits wouldn&rsquot let me go alone, but eventually he and another person ventured up with me. The view was worth every grazed shin.

A visit to Tasmania is incomplete without a visit to the Port Arthur Historical Site on the Tasman Peninsula. (On the way is an eccentric little town named Doo, where an unwritten rule respected by all residents demands that each cottage have the word &lsquoDoo&rsquo in its name&mdash&ldquoShe&rsquoll Doo&rdquo, &ldquoJust Doo It&rdquo, &ldquoLove Me Doo&rdquo.) First colonised as a timber station, Port Arthur quickly became the Empire&rsquos gaol. It is surrounded by water, the only available escape being the narrow isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck. Between 1830 and 1877, about 12,500 transported convicts were imprisoned here, guarded by as many as 18 vicious dogs chained across the isthmus, a double guard of sentries, and armed constables. It is a triumph of the human spirit that three bushrangers nevertheless managed to escape in the 1840s.                                                                            

The sandstone prison buildings and parts of the Church are well preserved. Lantern-lit night tours tell chilling tales of ghostly apparitions and clanking chains in the cold night, evoking the bloody punishments meted out to transportees&mdashsome barely in their 20s&mdashfor offences sometimes no worse than stealing a loaf of bread or a bundle of clothes.

A girl I&rsquod met had raved about Bruny Island. A car-cum-passenger ferry from Kettering, on the outskirts of Hobart, took me there for a short trip. Simon, the manager of the YHA, came to fetch me in his car a narrow isthmus separates north Bruny from south Bruny, and a ride across it is like driving through water. Bruny Island had several other delightful surprises  it was there that I saw my first echidna in the wild and spotted my first white wallaby at night it was in Bruny that I stayed overnight in a caravan for the first time in my life. The YHA was bang on the beach at Adventure Bay. I went for a long solitary walk on the beach in the moonlight&mdashstartled half out of my skin when Billy, the YHA dog who&rsquod appointed himself my protector, rubbed against my leg and refused to return to the hostel until I did.

Back to the bright lights of Melbourne but Bruny was a fine way to end my visit to the Apple Isle, a rare idyll that will bear revisiting.

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