PURE AND SIMPLE
Jill Hocking enjoys the slow rhythms of life in northwest Tasmania
TIME travel is real. If you don’t believe me, go to the northwest coast of Tasmania and holiday, 1960s-style, at Sisters Beach. The plane trip gets me in the retro mood. Launceston airport does a passable imitation of Melbourne’s Essendon 40 years ago: funnel down the stairs, stroll across the apron, grab the bags from the tractor trailer and collect the hire car. Within minutes I have cleared Launceston and am motoring west on the A1, the mountains of the Great Western Tiers in inky silhouette to the south. I hum along to a Beach Boys CD, buy kilos of ruby-red cherries from a roadside stall and munch as I go.
My lunch stop is in the small town of Penguin (named after the colony of birds that inhabits its shores). Penguin is a delight, its Groovy Penguin Cafe a blast from the past. With its sets of bakelite canisters and laminex tables, it resembles my nan’s kitchen. (Perhaps not. Her walls didn’t dazzle like a Matisse canvas.) I eat a lentil burger, salad and fabulous rhubarb cake with excellent coffee.
It’s mid-January but the pace in Penguin is as relaxed as a tortoise. Couples drink tea from vacuum flasks outside motorhomes, townsfolk go about their business and children play cricket on the beach. Just outside town, the flags on Penguin surf beach flap in the breeze as lifesavers patrol a stretch of empty sand.
There is much to seduce the traveller in northwest Tasmania. I have rented a cottage at Sisters Beach, a hamlet encircled by the Rocky Cape National Park, for a week of healthy outdoor activity leavened with generous dollops of lying about. Rocky Cape is smaller and less known than Cradle Mountain, a couple of hours to the south, but that is part of its allure.
The first Europeans to settle at Sisters Beach were the Irby family, who in the 1930s cleared land, built a home of stringy bark and split slabs, and grew vegetables and gooseberries. The 3064ha Rocky Cape National Park was declared in 1967 after a long tussle to save the bush from subdivision for holiday shacks.
Sisters Beach is my kind of place. My mobile phone doesn’t work and there are no high-rise apartment blocks, souvenir traps, cafes or restaurants. It’s BYO everything here. The general store runs to milk, bread and ice creams, but for day-to-day provisions I plan ahead. (There’s a supermarket in Wynyard, a 20-minute drive to the east.)
Architecturally, Sisters Beach is a hybrid of fibro cottages and modern holiday houses, a combination that dovetails perfectly with the surrounding bushland and rocky headlands. On foot, I am five minutes from the beach, or two minutes if I’d brought my bike. The permanent population of 300 can balloon to 1500 in the holiday season, but during my stay half the holiday houses are empty.
On the first evening, I stroll to the beach. The Sisters Creek, stained the colour of light beer, forms a swimming hole before it breaks into rivulets and uncoils across the sand to the sea. A ribbon of houses peeps over a low shelf of dune. Inland are dense groves of saw-tooth Banksia serrata and, 2km offshore, Sisters Island glows gentian in the soft evening light. Glossy mounds of seaweed-like giant licorice straps glint in the sun. Great humps of rock are mottled in subtle greys and mauves; galaxies of shells and flat white-veined rocks lie in pools. Three kilometres of coastline, two families, two whooping dogs and me.
I feel thankful to the forward-thinking people who fought for this national park. I find a brochure on local activities and bushwalks on a back shelf in the general store, so the next day I take a long circuit hike in the park. It is perfect walking weather: top temperature 20C, blue skies trailing wisps of cloud and a gentle breeze. The track leads across hard-packed sand where walking is easy, to a scramble across jagged rocks where each step risks a sprained ankle.
I hike through a coppice of knobbly trunked banksias; cockatoos gorge on the pods, their tails splayed like a Victorian lady’s fan. I pause at the entrance to Aboriginal caves and cross meadows of delicate pink heath and spectacular xanthorrhoea. My lunch spot is a rocky cove lapped by crystal waters. After lunch, a quick plunge in Bass Strait is refreshingly cold.
The village of Boat Harbour is around the cliffs, within surf-ski distance east of Sisters Beach. Neat-as-a-pin cottages are piled in tiers above the harbour. Craggy rocks bookend a scoop of corn-coloured sand, swimmers at one end, surfers at the other. I sip coffee on the forecourt of Jolly Rogers, the cafe abutting the beach. This place is a little marvel and, what’s more, there’s no one about.
Fifty kilometres inland from Rocky Cape is the Tarkine Wilderness: 377,000ha of rainforest, untamed rivers, broad plains of button grass, rolling dunes and an ocean-pummelled coast. The Tarkine was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage listing in the early 1990s. It is a place, like the Gordon-Franklin Rivers and Lake Pedder, where monumental environmental battles have been played out through the years. The Tarkine remains a working forest and the battle lines are still drawn here.
One day I take the self-guided South Arthur Forest Drive, touted by Forestry Tasmania as a ‘‘ drive on the wild side’’. (Keep an eye peeled for logging trucks.) The route showcases snippets of natural wonder close to the gravel track. Silver streams slice through forests of myrtle and sassafras, encrusted with ferns and mosses. At the Julius River Reserve, a short forest walk is marked with small orange triangles nailed to tree stumps. Without them, I would be lost within seconds in this enchanted forest.
I watch speckled ducks paddle across Lake Chisholm — a flooded limestone sinkhole — barely rippling the placid water. A Tasmanian devil pelts off through the bush, long tail held high, its boxy head supported by a stumpy white-striped body. From the lookout at Dempster Plains, I survey a broad golden yonder of button grass, set among stands of rainforest. Emerging from the Tarkine, I take the back roads home through dispiriting tracts of ramrod-straight blue gum plantations.
Plantation forest aside, driving northern Tasmania’s backroads is a small joy, the countryside groomed like a well-tended garden. The potato fields are carpets of rich, chocolate brown. Cows cut narrow paths as they file towards milking sheds. In farmhouse gardens, dahlias, blowzy roses, foxgloves and gazanias jostle in a riotous floral treat. Every few kilometres, a tiny settlement comes into view: a ghost of a railway siding, a hotel reborn as a dwelling, a faded store and petrol bowser presenting a snapshot of a village whose glory days are long gone.
An hour to the west of Rocky Cape lies Stanley, the historic small town at the base of the volcanic stump, the Nut. In 1798 Matthew Flinders described the Nut as ‘‘ a cliffy round lump resembling a Christmas cake’’ and 28 years later Stanley was founded as the first deep-sea port in Van Diemen’s Land. Depression-era prime minister Joe Lyons was born in modest Lyons Cottage in 1879. I stroll Stanley’s heritage-painted streetscapes, ride the chairlift to the top of the Nut and gaze back along the coast to Rocky Cape.
From Stanley to Penguin, this corner of Tasmania is just right for an old-fashioned seaside holiday, but that doesn’t mean it is quarantined from the pressures of development and change. Tasmania’s property boom has reached the north coast. Two minutes’ walk from the cottage, I notice a rundown property with a ‘‘ for sale’’ sign in the front yard and, according to one local, a $1 millionplus price tag. The sign proposes a development including a beach-access brasserie.
The previous holiday tenants in our cottage echo my thoughts. Their entry in the visitors’ book notes: ‘‘ Our kids don’t want to go home. You have something perfect here. Why would you want to change a thing?’’ Susan Kurosawa’s column returns next week.
Heritage meets the sea: Stanley, a historic outpost in Tasmania’s north, is a charming coastal village renowned for its imposing volcanic mound, the Nut
Room to move: Enjoying the view in Rocky Cape National Park
Life of leisure: Boat Harbour cottages overlook a pristine scoop of sand