Jill Hock­ing en­joys the slow rhythms of life in north­west Tas­ma­nia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Australian Holidays -

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.

Pic­tures: Andrew Lecky

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

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