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January 12, 2009

Tasmania's Wild North West: Beyond the Ramparts of the Unknown


Photo: Tourism Tasmania/Grant Dixon


By Roderick Eime

Flying into the tiny north-western regional hub of Wynyard, you could easily imagine you are in the middle of nowhere – and that is why so many visitors come!

With a heritage that can be traced back to the early 19th Century, this far flung Van Diemen’s Land outpost was referred to in King George IV’s Royal Charter as “a huge tract of unsettled land, beyond the ramparts of the unknown.”

An easy 20 kilometre coastal drive from the working town of Burnie and a further 50 kilometres to Tasmania’s third largest city and Spirit of Tasmania ferry port, Devonport, Wynyard is perfectly placed to springboard nature lovers into the world-famous wilderness areas along the north and west coasts.

Before heading off into the wild, swing by Burnie and see why it is shaking off the outdated industrial character that has defined it for so long. At the Lactos Cheese Tasting and Sales Centre you can sample fine cheeses, including major brands Tasmanian Heritage, Mersey Valley and Australian Gold. Premium food produce is fast becoming a Tasmanian specialty and you’ll find Australia’s largest single malt whisky distillery in Burnie. Hellyers Road Distillery makes fine, single malt whisky distilled from Tasmanian grown malted barley and famously pure Tasmanian rainwater. The distillery also produces the Southern Lights brand premium grain vodka. If you’re visiting in winter, this stop-off is almost mandatory.

For a fortifying meal of local fresh seafood, visit Fish Frenzy located on the waterfront in Burnie. Tasting Tasmania author, Graeme Phillips, describes it as a “bright and spacious modern cafĂ© with fresh fish and seafood every which way and then some.”

Eventually the lure of the renowned Tasmanian wilderness will beckon you but the “clarion call” will come from many directions.

Most will yield to the irresistible allure of the UNESCO World Heritage Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair National Park, a mere 70 kilometres drive. From the swank Voyages Cradle Mountain Lodge to modest hiking cabins, the options are plentiful.

The raw appeal of the Tasmanian mountainscape has captured the imagination of visitors for decades and none more so than pioneering outdoorsman, Austrian-born Gustav Weindorfer, who built a rough chalet next to the iconic Dove Lake in 1912.

Weindorfer is revered as the “founder” of Cradle Mountain wilderness recreation and is fondly remembered as an eccentric, idealistic yet jovial man who would host guests with generous lashings of his garlic and badger (wombat) stew.

“A mixture that would kill me in five minutes,” recalled local Bill Perkins in a eulogy to the colourful Austrian in 1982. Perkins first met Weindorfer in 1930, just before his death. Today you can see an authentic replica of Weindorfer’s cottage and outbuildings and get a feel for how people enjoyed the country almost one hundred years ago.

If you do nothing else, be sure to complete the Dove Lake circuit, a relaxed two hour dawdle around this imposing feature that is one of Australia’s most instantly recognisable vistas next to Uluru and Sydney’s Harbour Bridge.

If you really want to earn your “Wild Tasmania” badge, head north west from Wynyard into the Tarkine Forest region (the largest temperate rainforest in Australia) and plot a circuit via Stanley, Smithton, Corinna, Zeehan and Strahan. Get lost in the oblivion of true wilderness, a commodity that is fast disappearing in our shrinking, globalised world.

The intriguingly-named Dismal Swamp is a natural blackwood forest sinkhole, believed to be the only one of its kind in the world. Thirty minutes (40km) south west of Smithton, the visitors’ centre showcases Tasmanian specialty timbers with a contemporary interior crafted from blackwood and Tasmanian oak. From there the walkway descends to the floor of the sinkhole, or if you’re game take the exhilarating 110m slide from the viewing platform to the swamp floor. There’s an electric buggy option too.

Proclaimed by Bass and Flinders in 1798, historic Stanley is a delightfully sleepy hamlet distinguished by its characteristic, 150m high “nut”, a long extinct volcanic plug that forms an imposing natural citadel overlooking the town. Take the chairlift or walk to the top for panoramic views of Bass Strait.

The nearby Highfield Historic Site epitomises the optimistic early settlement and is the site of land granted to the Van Diemens Land Company (VDL) in 1824. The homestead is a rare example of the elegant Regency period. Edward Curr, the chief agent of the VDL, started construction in 1832, and later additions were made by John Lee Archer, the colony's first important architect. The harsh life reaped a toll on the residents, particularly the convict labourers and there are many stories of ghosts still wandering the dark corridors including that of Curr’s infant daughter killed in an accident. She has been known to tug on the skirts of women visiting the property. If you dare, take the popular night-time ghost tour.

From Smithton, it’s a two hour drive to the remote village of Corinna, a former gold mining town settled in 1881. Today the entire village is a self-catering, eco-wilderness experience with authentic miner’s cottage accommodation, a totally refurbished hotel and river cruises aboard Arcadia II, a magnificent Huon pine river vessel. Kayaking, walking, fishing, bird watching and nature experiences are some of the activities available to guests.

A further 100 kilometres via Zeehan is Strahan, a once thriving lumber town, now a picturesque bayside site overlooking gorgeous Macquarie Harbour. Before Strahan, there was Sarah Island located within the harbour and reputably the worst penal colony in the land. The ruins are still there and "is remembered only as a place of degradation, depravity and woe." (Rev. John West, anti-transportation activist and publisher, 1842). Local historian and author, Richard Davey, conducts semi-theatrical lamplight tours of the island and he almost channels the spirits of the long-dead convicts as you survey the scattered brickwork that once served as shelter for the wretched men. He’ll tell you glee the tale of the men who escaped from the island and turned cannibal and those who seized a boat they built themselves and were eventually arrested in South America.

Complete your experience with a day cruise on the harbour and into the now legendary Gordon River or take the historic steam train to Queenstown, one of the most significant such journeys in the country.

Where to Stay:

Luxury: Voyages Cradle Mountain Lodge
“showcases the best Cradle Mountain has to offer”
http://www.cradlemountainlodge.com.au/ 1300 134 044

Motel: Best Western Murchison Lodge, Burnie
“Your base for a North Western experience”
http://murchison.bestwestern.com.au/ 03 6435 1106

Wilderness: Corinna Cottages
“an oasis in the heart of the Tarkine”
http://www.corinna.com.au 03 6446 1170

B&B: Sealers Cove Restaurant and Accommodation
“well-appointed, comfortable and homely”
http://www.stanley.com.au/ 03 6458 1414

Must-do, Must-see Checklist:

• Lactos Cheese Factory, Burnie
http://www.lactos.com.au
• Dismal Swamp, near Smithton
http://www.dismalswamp.com.au/
• Corinna Wilderness Experiences
www.corinna.com.au
• Strahan Experiences
www.strahan.com.au
• Highfield Historic Site, Stanley
http://www.historic-highfield.com.au/
• Hellyers Road Distillery, Burnie
http://www.hellyersroaddistillery.com/

Food and Wine:
Visit Graeme Phillips’s comprehensive and authoritive website:
www.tastingtasmania.com

Getting There
Regional Express flies six times each day from Burnie to Melbourne
www.rex.com.au

For more details on all Tasmania has to offer, visit the official site:
www.discovertasmania.com
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