DESTINATION AUSTRALIA TAKE THE HIGH ROAD
The weather in Tasmania recalls misty Scotland but the wonderful walking is a world apart, writes Stephen Matchett
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.
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