DES­TI­NA­TION AUS­TRALIA TAKE THE HIGH ROAD

The weather in Tas­ma­nia re­calls misty Scot­land but the won­der­ful walk­ing is a world apart, writes Stephen Matchett

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

WHEN God cre­ated the Scot­tish high­lands, he was just prac­tis­ing for his mas­ter­work of wilder­ness, the west coast of Tas­ma­nia. Sure, Scot­land is way ahead when it comes to cen­turies of slaugh­ter and mur­der­ous mu­sic. And they might get marginally more rain but oth­er­wise in the scenic stakes Tas­ma­nia’s Cra­dle Moun­tain-Lake St Clair Na­tional Park and the beau­ti­ful lochside — sorry har­bour-shore — vil­lage of Stra­han has it all over the Scot­tish scenery.

The price of an air fare to Ed­in­burgh will give you a good start on a week walk­ing and tour­ing re­gions of Tas­ma­nia where sights of rare beauty are so com­mon they are al­most av­er­age. And even if ‘‘ walk­ing’’ rings alarm bells, read on. Be­cause what the cun­ning Tas­ma­ni­ans have con­trived is a set-up where you can spend a day trekking, driv­ing and cruis­ing in fair-dinkum wilder­ness and your evenings in bed, bath or bar.

We start our tour in Launce­s­ton, a splen­did city guar­an­teed to de­light those who revel in do­ing not much. This may have some­thing to do with the fact our flight from Syd­ney ar­rives on the date it leaves, but only just. (The ex­cuses on of­fer at the air­port are familiar to all fly­ers, start­ing with storms and stop­ping just short of blam­ing goats on the run­way.) So by the time we ar­rive in Launce­s­ton, most of the town has shut, with only the most cos­mopoli­tan of fast­food out­lets open.

But our ac­com­mo­da­tion at hill­side Hatherley House, which is less bed and break­fast than man­sion and break­fast, is wel­com­ing and the fruit trees and flow­ers of the for­mal rear gar­den make break­fast on the veranda a de­light.

When we strike out from Launce­s­ton for Cra­dle Moun­tain, we want to take the pretty way, which is tricky, what with all the ways be­ing lovely. We drive cross-coun­try, through soft and green land­scape, which could be the Cotswolds, ex­cept for the gum trees.

Af­ter lunch in Delo­raine, in a bak­ery with more show rib­bons than a gymkhana, the ex­cit­ing stuff starts as we climb into the high coun­try, up nar­row roads sur­rounded by forests that do a pass­able im­per­son­ation of pris­tine coun­try, at least un­til you reach the wilder­ness of the Cra­dle Moun­tain World Her­itage area.

It is a decade since I last saw Cra­dle Moun­tain. Then, be­ing younger and even more fool­ish, I started from there to stag­ger down the Over­land Track to Lake St Clair. The park around the moun­tain was fab­u­lous then and it’s fab­u­lous now. But what are much, much bet­ter are the fa­cil­i­ties pro­vided by the Tas­ma­nian Na­tional Park Ser­vice.

Bush­walk­ers who con­sider the trek to Lake St Clair a six-day stroll in the park will sneer at the fab­u­lous day walks in the top end of the park. One 8.5km track takes you from the Na­tional Park’s head­quar­ters through open heath across a fair-sized ridge and spec­tac­u­lar stream to the top of Dove Lake.

One of the many great things about this hike is that it is all on a tim­ber board­walk. This is not only easy on the feet but on the en­vi­ron­ment be­cause while 50 boots a day churn up the boggy soil, 100 turn it into a morass.

And if the idea of the re­turn trudge takes the gloss off the ex­pe­ri­ence, you can go back on the shut­tle-bus that runs on a dis­creet road be­tween park head­quar­ters and the lake.

Other day walks in­clude the path around Dove Lake, a place of such beauty it looks as if it was pur­pose built to serve as a set for a film about heaven. For walk­ers up for a harder (but not ex­ces­sively so) day trip, there is a track along­side a wa­ter­fall to Crater Lake, fol­lowed by a scram­ble to the 1200m peak of Mar­ion’s lookout and on to Cra­dle Moun­tain it­self.

If you aren’t in a hurry, there are enough spec­tac­u­lar day walks to keep any­body busy for four days or so. And the good news is that you can re­turn af­ter each of them to com­fort­able ac­com­mo­da­tion, ei­ther at the Cra­dle Moun­tain Lodge, which is all an­cient tim­ber and old leather, or five min­utes’ drive from the park at the Cra­dle Moun­tain Chateau, set in its own for­est.

The lodge is full this early De­cem­ber so we stay at the chateau where the rooms are com­fort­able in the way of a busi­ness ho­tel trans­planted to the wilder­ness and the staff are friendly. So friendly they al­most, but not quite, com­pen­sate for the food.

The bain-marie bistro is what we ex­pected but in the so-called fine din­ing restau­rant there are com­bi­na­tions of food groups not seen on the one plate since the birth of cui­sine nou­velle. If you don’t mind the rus­tic set­ting, the pub grub in the bar of the lodge down the road is heartier and cheaper.

But while you have a choice where you eat, you are stuck with the weather. And there is no doubt­ing that while the scenery is beau­ti­ful it is of­ten less damp than sat­u­rated. I feel wet­ter at Cra­dle Moun­tain this sum­mer than I have ever been in spring­time Scot­land and there is no deny­ing that it gets a bit brisk in the win­ter. It rains three out of the four days we are here, but even in the rain the coun­try’s still spec­tac­u­lar.

It is the same when we strike out for the west coast. Even though it rains most of the morn­ing it takes us to get to Stra­han, the drive across high-coun­try moors, through dense forests and spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain cross­ings is well worth the ef­fort.

So is Stra­han. While the back­blocks are stan­dard Aus­tralian coun­try town and the mer­chants have had the chi-chi con­sul­tants in, this does not di­min­ish the beauty vis­i­ble from this tiny town that sits on the edge of Mac­quarie Har­bour. A walk along the wa­ter’s edge from the pub to the Thomas the Tas­ma­nian Tank En­gine-style rail­way sta­tion will put what­ever up­sets you in life into per­spec­tive.

So will a drive out to­wards the sea where there are spots to park your car and walk along the beach to the nar­row in­let where the winds and waves of the Great South­ern Ocean rush and roar into the vast­ness of the har­bour. I sus­pect the con­victs on the way to the prison camp of Sarah Is­land, who chris­tened the heads Hell’s Gates, did so as much for the dan­ger of the pas­sage as for where they were go­ing.

One of the other great joys of Stra­han is com­ing back to the same spot on a big tourist cruiser, which on a calm day will gin­gerly ven­ture out to sea, be­fore run­ning back down the har­bour and up the Franklin River. This half-day trip is enough to turn an avid ur­ban­ite deeply green. The river runs broad and deep be­tween moun­tains that are ram­parts for a wilder­ness that has ex­cluded hu­man­ity for mil­len­nia.

It’s as close to the depths of the un­touched west coast as you will ever get. Un­less you take the train. The next day we catch a bus over the moun­tains to Queen­stown, which the lo­cals love but af­ter a cen­tury of open-cut min­ing looks like the low-rent end of Mor­dor. There we board the train that used to haul the ore back to Stra­han, over moun­tains, across a river and through rain­forests. It has taken a vast pub­lic sub­sidy to re­store the line, which makes it poor pub­lic pol­icy, but you should still go for a ride on this scenic pork bar­rel be­cause the coun­try­side the line crosses is fab­u­lous and the achieve­ment of the peo­ple who built it, and those who now main­tain it, is ex­tra­or­di­nary to see. Even bet­ter, this is an­other wilder­ness visit with­out walk­ing.

Back in Stra­han we ac­tu­ally do walk some­where, from the sta­tion back to the re­stored Vic­to­rian man­sion, Franklin Manor. This is a grandly com­fort­able ho­tel with a con­sid­er­able cel­lar.

Like ev­ery­where else in Stra­han, there is a sense about the place that if you stay for a week you will want to re­main for a year. Cer­tainly it looks as if no­body likes to leave the vil­lage. On the 300km drive to Ho­bart, we see a bare dozen cars un­til we get down from the high­lands on the run into town.

Tas­ma­ni­ans don’t see the Scot­tish com­par­i­son; for them, their high coun­try and west coast don’t need com­par­ing with any­where. And they are right; this vast and empty area has su­per­fi­cial sim­i­lar­i­ties with Scot­land, but is rare in its own right. Even down to the liquor. At the Grape Bar on Sala­manca Place on the Ho­bart wa­ter­front, an ami­able and eru­dite young wo­man will serve you two lo­cal whiskies. (If you like the Lark Dis­tillery’s drop, its shop is just around the cor­ner.) Nei­ther of them is an im­i­ta­tion of scotch but they are whiskies all the same.

A few drinks in this bar is a great way to end our week of un­beat­able ex­pe­ri­ences. That is, apart from the flight back to the main­land, which is 21/ hours late

2 de­part­ing Ho­bart. We are lucky to leave at all, as the air­line agent who ticks us off for queu­ing the wrong way makes clear. It is time that would have been bet­ter spent walk­ing in this fab­u­lous is­land. If there is a bet­ter way of get­ting some ex­er­cise, I don’t know about it.

www.pure­tas­ma­nia.com.au

Be­yond com­pare: Clock­wise from main, boats moored at beau­ti­ful Stra­han; on the board­walk at Cra­dle Moun­tain; Cra­dle Moun­tain Chateau; mist on the Franklin River; the re­stored Vic­to­rian grandeur of Franklin Manor

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