Tasmania: A ‘devil’ to get to, but well worth the trip!
Located 150 miles south of the Australian mainland, this island state is surrounded by erratic seas and weather to match. In fact, Tassies often say you can experience four seasons there in one day. Just last month during Tasmania’s summertime, a sizable snowstorm blew through after a string of 80-degree days. Despite its unpredictable weather, this formerly sleepy outpost has now become a popular weekend getaway for mainland Aussie’s and a destination for international travelers. With more than 40 percent of its land composed of unspoiled reserves, national parks, and world heritage sites, it has much to offer visitors. But it sure is a devil to get to!
With the Bass Strait dividing it from the mainland and the Tasman Sea surrounding the rest of the island, Tasmania is located in the “Roaring Forties” (40 to 50 degree south longitude). Here, tropical trade winds and prevailing westerlies meet to become fickle gusts which blow at any strength or direction they choose. With both Melbourne and Sydney less than an hour-and-a-half flight from Tasmania’s southern capital of Hobart, those winds can make it a bumpy flight. But that’s nothing compared to the sea routes.
Visitors can opt for the 11-hour ferry ride from Melbourne through the Bass Strait into the northern city of Devonport. The combination of winds, currents, and tidal flow in this shallow sea strait create conflicting waves and swells. With nothing to see except the “chop,” many choose passage overnight in small berth cabins or seated in premium “ocean recliner” seats. For international visitors, Tasmania’s southern capital of Hobart is increasingly a port stop on cruises around Australia and New Zealand.
As white knuckling as a flight or ferry in the strait can sometimes be, the Tasman Sea has the reputation as one of the roughest stretches of water in the world. Large cruise ship stabilizers can make those sea days acceptable (even pleasant when Neptune obliges), but the Tasman Sea didn’t get its moniker, “The Ditch” without good reason. After two days of sailing through it, my pictures just didn’t do it justice. Despite angry 20-foot swells roiling and crashing against the ship and 70 mph winds creating a very steep tilt, my photographs managed to show only mildly rough seas. And to think, our voyage was considered a relatively calm crossing!
Despite the difficulty in getting there, a trip to Tasmania is well worth every unsettled stomach and moment of schizophrenic weather. With 500,000 residents overall, about half live in Hobart, making it an excellent place to begin touring.
With Constitution Dock at the center of nautical activity, Hobart’s waterfront is where residents and visitors alike congregate. Boating is central to the Tassie way of life as Tasmania’s capital is situated along the River Derwent. The annual end-of-year Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race and the Australian Wooden Boat Festival are just two of the largest celebrations bringing visitors to the docks. For a quick meal, a number of excellent floating restaurants (basically houseboats serving fresh seafood) line the dock. Close by visitors will find the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, featuring the area’s history and art that displayed in 19th century waterfront buildings, and the Maritime Museum, which offers history of the area’s rich heritage of seafaring.
A short walk south brings visitors to Salamanca Place, a scenic row of four-story sandstone warehouses built by prisoners. Dating from the 1800 whaling era, they now house an array of restaurants, bars, galleries, and boutiques. The large open area in front is home to Salamanca Market each Saturday. For the past 45 years, this street market has been Tasmania’s most visited venue. Signs mark where the well-worn Kelly’s Steps, built in 1839 by Captain James Kelly, allow visitors to climb up to Battery Point. Once home to sailors and sea captains, these narrow lanes are full of picturesque maritime cottages and stately mansions, as well as cafés and restaurants.
Nearby, Mount Wellington towers over the port of Hobart. Offering 360-degree views from an alpine mountain overlooking a temperate weather city, its 4,167-foot summit is visited by 300,000 people annually. Although you won’t need a sherpa to climb this peak, fickle weather means the clear view offered at the start of your hike may be long gone when you actually reach the top. Driving up the asphalt road is much faster and allows tours to sandwich the summit visit between other sites in order to maximize the view. Some excursions include nearby Tahune Airwalk, a raised pathway in the trees more than 65-feet in the air. Lazy bikers can schedule a Mount Wellington descent tour, riding up by van and coasting down by bicycle. Finally, when the weather is totally uncooperative, visitors can drown their sorrows while touring the Cascade Brewery in the foothills of the mountain.
The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is a short ferry ride upriver. Unlike any other Australian museum, MONA’s humorous and rather odd art was the brainchild of a local philanthropist. Carved out of sandstone and looking more like a bunker than museum, the catamaran ferry transporting visitors there offers a “posh pit” with champagne and canapés. All Aussies (Tassies included) love their food and drinks!
Sites that speak to Tasmania’s convict history are Richmond Historic Village and Port Arthur. While America was gaining its independence, the British practice of sending repeat criminal offenders to the American colonies ended, and Australia became the alternative. From the late 1700s to mid-1800s, more than 160,000 convicts entered Australia. Most of the inmates’ offenses were trivial (stealing small items or livestock), but British punishment of minor crimes, even by women and children, was harsh, especially for repeat offenders. When faced with hanging versus transportation to a penal colony for a set number of years, most offenders chose the latter. The British believed prisoners could be reformed through a combination of backbreaking work, religion, education, and trade-training, which guaranteed employment once freed. Wherever prisoners went, industry and manufacturing grew as penal colonies strove to be self-sustaining and profitable. Many convicts’ skills and labor created what would become the infrastructure of Australian society.
Port Arthur – Located on a peninsula attached to Tasmania by a narrow isthmus, Port Arthur is just a 25-mile straight-shot from Hobart, but 62 miles by road. That isolation and formidable geography gave it a feared reputation. Considered Tasmania’s most popular tourist attraction, visiting Australia’s best-preserved prison site is well worth the drive. Begun as a penal colony timber camp, it soon grew into a center for brick making and shipbuilding. To sustain the needs of the prison population, as well as support staff and their families, inmates took on shoemaking, blacksmithing, farming, and domestic service. By 1853, Britain ceased transporting prisoners, but the colony remained afloat economically by housing the infirm and mentally ill. Port Arthur eventually fell into decline and was closed after it was no longer profitable. Because if its surreal beauty and horror, as well as a need to memorialize the country’s convict heritage, Australia’s government decided to preserve Port Arthur. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Richmond Gaol – Located just 20 minutes north of Hobart, Richmond Gaol is the oldest intact jail in Australia, predating Port Arthur by five years. More of a British colonial administrative site to oversee convicts, Richmond was the location where prisoners received punishment for offenses and remission of sentences for good behavior and “moral reform.” The picturesque arches of Richmond Bridge as well as the courthouse, church, and other structures (now filled with cafes and boutiques) stand as lasting reminders of this forced migration and labor.
Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary – Due to its relative isolation, Tasmania is home to many animals, which are extinct everywhere except this island refuge. In fact, the only reason many of us recognize the word “Tasmania” is thanks to one of this island’s smaller marsupials, the Tasmanian Devil. Known only as an ill-tempered Looney Tunes character by many, at Bonorong visitors can see this and other animals up close. As a 24-hour rescue service and sanctuary for the injured, a breeding facility for the endangered, and an educational center for visitors, it’s also home to a wonderful array of creatures. Friendly wallabies and kangaroos, echidnas (ant-eater-like mammals), koalas, bettongs (mouse-like kangaroos), quolls (a cat-like marsupial), and wombats (sweet, shy little bear-like marsupials) abound. Staffed by passionate rangers eager to introduce these animals, mend, and then return them to the wild, this was my favorite memory of Tasmania.
With a welcoming atmosphere, warm residents, and sites easy to access, jump if you have a chance to visit Tasmania. Just pack some Dramamine for the journey!