Thanks to a handful of luxury-minded outfitters, experiencing the rugged, awe-inspiring landscapes of Australia’s southernmost state has never felt—or tasted—so good.

 

 

The scenery is breathtaking. Dark, eerie rain forests dating back thousands of years meet with untamed rivers as they snake their way down through furrowed mountain ranges. Uninhabited beaches stretch on seemingly forever, windswept and desolate. Tasmania, a heart-shaped island about the size of Sri Lanka, is a wild place, lying quite literally at the edge of the world—closer, in fact, to Antarctica than to Cape York, Australia’s northernmost point.

Until recently, hiking through Tasmania’s spellbinding wilderness usually meant having to rough it, living off a diet of bland, dehydrated food and sleeping in tents barely able to withstand the fierce elements. Creature comforts such as showers, soft beds, and a tipple at the end of the day were unheard of. But thanks to a handful of luxury-minded tour operators, the island’s trekking scene has taken a substantial leap forward.

Architect-turned-entrepreneur Ken Latona kick-started upscale bushwalking in Tasmania a decade ago with Cradle Huts, a series of eco-lodges dotted along the Overland Track. Starting at Cradle Mountain and ending at Lake St. Claire, the enchanting 80-kilometer trail is peppered with dolerite ridges, pandani forests, and freshwater lakes. It’s one of Australia’s most famous walking routes, renowned as much for its scenery as for its incessantly bad weather. Snow is not uncommon, even in summer, and messy encounters with knee-deep mud and vicious leeches are but a few of the challenges faced by hikers. So when Cradle Huts began offering guided treks with hot showers, gas heaters, dry beds, gourmet meals, and even bottles of helicopter-delivered wine, it was nothing short of an outdoors revolution.

Now there are more than half a dozen such walks available across the island. Even in the most remote pockets of Tasmanian wilderness, they offer rustic hospitality and a level of pampering similar to Latona’s.

“Tassie’s guided walks are a great way to get people into places they wouldn’t otherwise go,” says Ian Johnstone, operator of the Maria Island Walk, a four-day hike that traverses a former penal colony—now a national park—off the east coast of Tasmania. Trekkers spend two nights in canvas tents and one night in the beautifully restored Bernacchi House in Darlington, the island’s eerie colonial-era ghost town. “People love to get back to nature, but they don’t necessarily like the challenges that go with getting there,” Johnstone says. “So we take out the inconvenient bits and just let people enjoy.”

In 2005, the Maria Island Walk was selected by National Geographic Traveler magazine as one of the world’s “next great places.” Johnstone’s zesty scallops with black rice—one of the gourmet dishes served en route—also appeared in a book showcasing Australia’s most tantalizing cuisine. The Freycinet Experience, a guided trek operating along Tasmania’s sublime eastern Freycinet Peninsula, received top honors from the Royal Australian Institute of Architecture two years ago for its lodge, originally designed by Latona. Latona himself has had his fair share of the limelight: in 2007, Cradle Huts was named the best wilderness experience at the Australian Travel and Tourism Awards.

The greatest “award” of all, however, goes to Tarkine Trails, which began with the aim of saving Tasmania’s native forests from a voracious wood-chipping industry. Avid bushwalkers, Tarkine Trails’ founders—a group of young, idealistic, modern-day hippies replete with dreadlocked hair and heavily scented with patchouli—hoped to show that utilizing the forest for tourism could be more lucrative and economically sustainable than chopping the trees down.

The guided treks developed by Tarkine Trails may not push the luxury envelope, but they are among Tasmania’s most memorable hikes. One course meanders across a plateau in the Tarkine-447,000 hectares of temperate rain forest in the island’s northwest corner, home to a rare species of myrtle beech and lofty eucalyptus trees. The area had long been under threat from loggers when the folks behind Tarkine Trails learned that large sections of it had been earmarked for felling. Together with a conservation group called the National Tarkine Coalition, they decided to craft a walking track straight through the rain forest, opening it up to visitors and drawing attention to its plight.

“The forest was so thick it was impenetrable,” recalls Mike Thomas, a spritely medical doctor who spent more than 100 days cutting what is now known as the Tarkine Rain Forest Track. Following animal trails and the natural contours of the land, the track, which takes six days to hike, skirts a picturesque creek before ascending to the lush plateau where little treasures, like a three-tiered waterfall and ancient myrtle groves, await. Although Tarkine Trails does operate walks with car and hut support, this isn’t one of them—the area is remote and inaccessible by road, and the forest is too dense to build lodges. Hikers, as a result, are required to carry their own supplies.

The Tarkine made national headlines in 2005 when, as part of an election bid, the state government announced plans to protect 80 percent of its remaining forest from logging and to develop ecotourism projects in the area. Tarkine Trails’ operations manager, Rob Farlie, calls the outcome “a miracle,” but notes that there is still uncertainty surrounding the future of the area. “We won’t give up until the whole of Tarkine is … completely out of reach from both mining and forestry,” he says.

I grew up on a farm flanking the western edge of the Tarkine. As a child I would spend hours traipsing through the forest on foot or horseback, building cubbyhouses out of ferns and catching yabbies (crayfish) to barbecue. As a teenager I would trek through the unspoiled wilderness for days on end, praying that the weather wouldn’t turn bad and force me back to base. I am, in short, infatuated by the island’s natural environment—yet these days, somewhat softer with age, I’m less inclined to roughing it. Which is how I end up joining four other Aussie guests and two young, spirited guides in Tasmania’s far northeast for the Bay of Fires Walk, Ken Latona’s second venture and currently the island’s top wilderness experience.

The four-day hike skirts the surf line of Mount William National Park. Established in the 1970s as a habitat for the eastern gray kangaroo, this reserve is renowned for its smooth, sunburned boulders, which frame beach after beach of perfect white sand. Things aren’t exactly idyllic on the day we set off, though. Whipped up by a feisty offshore wind, the ocean is a thunderous cauldron of foam. Spraying sand and spindrift flay the back of my legs, and my feet sink ankle-deep into the wet sand with every step.

It’s a reminder that the climate here, driven by Roaring Forties winds and ice-cold Antarctic currents, can be as cruel as Tasmania’s history. Following the island’s settlement as a British penal colony in the late 1800s, its Aborigines were hunted to extinction, a fate shared by the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. Yet remnants of Tasmania’s original inhabitants are everywhere on our walk. Our guides, Rosie and Monica, explain that the Bay of Fires got its name from English explorer Tobias Furneaux. Sailing up the east coast of the island in 1773, Furneaux recounted seeing the heath ablaze with fires—generally considered lit as part of a sophisticated fire management scheme. Later on we stop at an enormous midden, which Rosie identifies as a mound of seashells discarded during tribal feasts.

Early in the evening we stumble into the Forester Camp, a group of aluminium-and-canvas tents tucked behind sand dunes about four hours from where we set off. Rosie and Monica, seemingly energized by the day’s efforts, prepare a menu designed by Daniel Alps— one of Tasmania’s top chefs—using mostly organic and locally sourced ingredients. We savor double Brie and blue cheese with black olives and a punchy Pinot Noir before Monica, a dutiful vegetarian, plays the good host and throws some fillet steaks on the barbecue for us.

The next day we wake to big, blue skies and only a whisper of a breeze—Tasmania’s weather is nothing if not capricious. We continue our walk along the coast as temperatures begin to push their way into the 30s. The ocean, a mesmerizing turquoise, makes me feel as though we’re on a tropical island in the South Pacific. But dipping a toe into the ice-cold water of the bay reminds me just how close we are to the South Pole.

Day two is the longest distance we’ll have to walk—seven hours of hiking broken up by a leisurely lunch, a numbing swim, and a visit to the old stone lighthouse at Eddystone Point, also named by Furneaux. We arrive at the lodge that we will call home for the next two nights just in time for a late afternoon tea: apple-and-cinnamon cake still warm from the oven. We enjoy the cake on the deck, a sleek timber-and-steel structure that juts out of the heath offering spectacular, 180-degree views of the coastline, dazzling in the afternoon sun.

At all Latona’s lodges—five on the Overland Track and one on the Bay of Fires—every effort has been made to minimize the ecological impact. There are solar panels to capture the sunlight and deep-cycle batteries to store it. Composting toilets are flown out by helicopter to be emptied at the end of each season, and gas is used for all cooking. Staying at any of the lodges, guests are subtly reminded to watch their energy consumption. Fancy a shower? First you must hand pump the water into a header tank that only holds 20 liters—enough for a four-minute shower.

On our final day at the lodge we ditch our walking boots and hop into kayaks for a mellow paddle across an estuary at Anson’s Bay, its shores lined with the fibrocement shacks that define summer for many Australians. The weather is turning again: ominous black clouds roll in from the coast and a swift headwind makes it increasingly difficult to control our kayaks. Unperturbed, holidaymakers still flock to the water, casting out lines in the hope of catching a fish for the evening barbecue. Despite my bucking boat, I rest easy in the knowledge that I’ll be enjoying my evening feast on the deck of a Latona lodge, washed down with a fine Shiraz or two.

Details

Tasmania’s trekking season runs from October through to May.

Cradle Huts: The six-day Overland Track is $2250 per person, all inclusive; the four day Bay of Fires is $1700 per person, all inclusive. +61 363919339; www.cradlehuts.com.au

Maria Island Walk: A four-day trek sleeping in a permanent tented camp and heritage-listed Bernacchi House on Maria Island, a former penal colony on Tasmania’s east coast; $1600 per person all inclusive. +61 362278800; www.mariaislandwalk.com.au

The Freycinet Experience: Four days of lodge based walking around the sublime Freycinet Peninsula; $1800 per person, all inclusive. +61 362237565; www.freycinet.com.au

Tarkine Trails: The six-day Tarkine Rain Forest walk costs $1500 per person, all inclusive. +61 62235320; www.tarkinetrails.com.au

This article appeared in the June/ July 2008 issue of DestinAsian Magazine.