Paradise at world's end
• Photo gallery: Tasmania
By Thomas Curwen
Los Angeles Times
CRADLE MOUNTAIN, Tasmania — Only toward dawn did the sea calm. I rose from my berth and glanced out the window. The setting moon cast a broad light on the rolling waters of the Bass Strait, and in the distance, the lights of Tasmania began to dot the darkness.
We had left a rainy Los Angeles four days before, exchanged winter for summer, overnighted in Melbourne and were two hours away from a landfall that we had been anticipating for almost a year.
Tasmania, this triangle of land 250 miles off Australia's southern coast and no bigger than Southern California, has long been thought of as the world's end. Jonathan Swift shipwrecked Gulliver northwest of here. England transported its convicts to these shores, friends confused the island with the East African country of Tanzania, if they'd heard of it all.
We knew enough about Tasmania — its rugged beauty, its dark history — to want to step beyond the familiar, heading straight into the back country. Our plan was ambitious: hike 50 miles in 10 days among the island's peaks and rainforests in the west and along its wave-tossed coast in the east. We wanted to see Tasmania in an unmediated light.
Quamby Estate, our lodging for the first night, was as elegant a place as we had ever stayed,
We had booked with the company Anthology, which owns the country-house-turned-resort and uses it as a staging ground for its guided hikes.
To stay amid such elegance provoked guilt when I asked about the convicts. In the early decades of the 19th century when Quamby was built, Tasmania was called Van Diemen's Land, and nearly half the felons transported to Australia ended up in this farthest-flung corner of the British Empire, some at Quamby, then in very different circumstances.
At dinner — a nice porterhouse and a pinot noir — we gazed across the countryside in the twilight and for a moment forgot where we were. On the way from the ferry, we had passed through villages with tall steepled churches, tearooms, village squares and Georgian homes and by pastures filled with sheep and Holsteins separated by neat hedgerows and tidy stone walls.
More English than England, novelist Anthony Trollope wrote when he visited here more than a century ago, and the scene, though picturesque, filled us with a wistful melancholy. So far from home, so deep their fealty to the crown, the early settlers tried to shape this country into something they might recognize — even if it meant waging war against the Aborigines and tearing down the forests.
4 SEASONS IN 1 DAY
The first thing to know about bush-walking is to be brave about the mud, and there is plenty of mud on the Overland Track. We hit it the second day.
Anthology had shuttled us — 10 strangers and two guides — to the trailhead. Stretching almost 50 miles from the island's most iconic peak to Australia's deepest lake, the Overland Track crosses the Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park and is one of the premier hiking circuits in the Southern Hemisphere.
We shouldered our backpacks and covered 7› miles, aiming to stop early evening at one of the six huts Anthology owns in the park.
To experience four seasons in one day in western Tasmania is not unusual. The next morning we were hit with a pelting mist. Gusts of wind blew us sideways, and less than two hours out, we faced a broad puddle of water, no duckboard, no stones, no branches.
Those with hiking poles fathomed the depths, those without followed; we all ended up with wet boots and gaiters.
But the discomforts of the trail disappeared amid the vistas and tableaux: tall dolerite peaks jutting over forested valleys and alpine plateaus, ancient forests unfolding in carpets of imperial green.
"This is paradise," we agreed as we approached Lake Windermere, wandering through flowering tea trees, silver-barked eucalyptuses and lichen-mottled granite. The pandani plant, we decided, looks like a yucca, the columns of stone like Devil's Postpile, and the call of the yellow wattle bird like a belch, but how would we explain the echidna, the wallaby, the platypus, the wombat, pademelon, quoll and devil, animals whose names alone made it clear we weren't in Kansas anymore.
Our days fell into a simple rhythm, destinations less significant than the walking itself; we became a freight train moving in single file, pausing to photograph a flower, savor some chocolate, marvel at the quiet in the heart of the rainforest.
The Anthology hut lodgings are a triumph of practicality and plywood, two-story designs with a combined living room and kitchen, a room for showers and toilets, and bedrooms upstairs. The design invites familiarity, and 12 strangers soon become 12 friends.
Over breakfasts — typically porridge, cereal, homemade bread and canned fruit — and dinners — a rotation of pizza, lentil salad, sausages, risotto — we learned about the son who was married in the park, about a plan to ride the route of the Tour de France, rock climbing, water management, music education, and we debated Tasmania's future.
Dinner was over, and there was still a little wine. The plan for a new pulp mill, perhaps the most contentious issue in Tasmania today, was on the table, and it was easy to argue against. This trip, if anything, proved how easily the ecosystems of this island can be compromised.
One guest who was born in Tasmania offered a different perspective. The mill may not be the answer, she said, but a diversified economy is.
"Tasmania," she argued, "cannot become merely an environmental museum."
Afterward, I stepped out on the deck of the hut. An upside-down Orion peered down upon me, and the Southern Cross was slowly rising. Draw a line from two of its stars, and you will find your way to true celestial south.
The next day we headed to the Bay of Fires, Tasmania's beautiful — and mostly empty — east coast crescents of sand. To the left was the ocean, a thousand shades of blue, and to the right, bluffs held tight by marran grass and coastal heath. The vault of the sky, cut by slivers of clouds, arched overhead.
Built on a bluff overlooking Abbotsbury Beach, in a forest of long-needled she-oak trees, the Bay of Fires Lodge is nothing less than a mirage as stunning as its setting.
Wind-burned and sun-blasted, we climbed the steps, found the showers and fell into the embrace of this wood and glass pavilion.
Dinner that night was rocket lettuce, corn and pecorino salad, braised wallaby and beef meatballs with roasted capsicum sauce, potatoes with lemon and thyme sauce, dressed greens and a raspberry and vanilla bean panna cotta with macerated strawberries.
Exhausted, we slept to the sound of the waves drifting through our room's open louvers.
On our final day, we slipped down to the beach to celebrate a birthday. The Champagne was slightly warm, but that hardly mattered. Once again strangers had become friends.
The sun sparkled off the water. Some of us decided to go swimming. Lost in the aquamarine water, I stood waist deep as a black dorsal fin broke the surface and disappeared, a bottlenose dolphin, then a pod, lingering for a moment just beyond the break.
For nearly two weeks we wandered Tasmania's mountains, rainforests and beaches, and with each step we fell back in time. Fifty years, 200 years, 180 million years, the evidence of creation and discovery was everywhere, leaving us exhausted and exhilarated.