Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Exploring Van Diemen's Land - on the Road to Nowhere.....

[An occasional glimpse into our expat lives in the South Atlantic.  This month, we ventured to the other side of the world, Australia, to see family and friends.  We left Stanley on Saturday morning, and arrived in Western Australia on Tuesday afternoon!.....]

The flight was roughly 10,800 miles.  (London is about 8,000 miles (12,000km) away from the Falklands). It would have been 2,000 miles shorter taking the direct route over the South Pole, but emergency runways may have been few and far between.....

I will detail other parts of the trip on separate blogs, but this part started when we boarded the "Spirit of Tasmania" in Melbourne one evening, and arrived the next morning in Devonport, Tasmania.

 The Bass Strait had been as calm as a millpond, so we disembarked on foot, to be met by the sniffer dog checking we weren't bringing any unwanted produce into the state.  He managed to detect which bag had contained our bananas the day before, so it's not worth trying to smuggle anything in!
Penguin in Penguin.  Small town, big penguin.
Our hire car was waiting a few yards from the quay, and the very efficient representative of Europcar found I had been quoted too high a price, and knocked $300 off the rental!   A good start, and it was only 7.30am.  Off onto the relatively empty Bass Highway......

Before we headed south for the mountains, we wanted to see some places along the northern coast - namely the small towns of Penguin, and Stanley.  What would it be like to live in a place called "Penguin"?  Penguin was very neat, and everything was penguin-themed: litter bins, barbers, "Penguin Meals on Wheels"!!  Right on the unspoilt coast.  Delightful.

Stanley was a historical town (one of many in Tasmania!), which is now the centre of the lobster industry.  An extinct volcano rises above it, providing great views over the surrounding countryside.
As we walked round the hill, we could hear the scuttling of many marsupials, but they were very difficult to photograph.  I found out later that most were nocturnal, so my wife did well to capture this pademelon.  No, I'd never heard of it, either!
I couldn't work out why it was so hazy, as Tasmania claims to have "the freshest air in the world", but some forest fires had been burning for months in the west, and lingering in the peat soil.  They would flare up intermittently in the lightly-populated region.
Stanley was very well-preserved, but we had some miles to drive to reach our destination for the night - Cradle Mountain.  Cradle Mountain forms part of a huge World Heritage Site.  It's a rugged wilderness area, but there is easy access at the north and south ends of the park.
Cradle Mt and Dove Lake
Cradle Mountain/Lake St Clair is a National Park within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Site - a great area for hiking and home of the famous Overland Track.  The Wilderness covers about 20% of Tasmania!
Although the road ends at Dove Lake, you can leave your car outside the park and utilise the minibuses which shuttle between the entrance and Dove Lake, about 7 miles south.
From there, a number of hikes fan out: some flat, around the lake, and others to the top of Cradle Mountain and beyond. On our first day here, we saw no mountains - the clouds were at road level (about 1,000 feet), and it rained heavily.  The bus driver explained that it rains about 250 days of the year here and snowed on another 50.  The average rainfall in this part of Tasmania is 3 metres per year! (Other parts of the island were having the driest year on record).  We were quite glad to see blue skies and sunshine the next day.

The mountain complex is a basalt intrusion into the sedimentary rocks, and has resisted erosion over the aeons, so that it now rises to over 5,000 feet (1,545metres) above sea level.  Twenty-thousand years ago, glaciers  carved out several tarns and corries around the massif.
 The views were enhanced by Australia's only deciduous native tree, the fagus or Beech, which changes colour in the Autumn.  This tree is unique to Tasmania, but is related to other beech trees in Patagonia and New Zealand - a relic of when the land masses were joined together as Gondwanaland.
Marion's Lookout
Although the park is the home of the famous Overland Track, and we walked on some of the route, the paths were extremely well-maintained, and within a couple of hours we had reached a wonderful, if windy, viewpoint.
Cradle Mt and glaciated landscape
From Marion's Lookout, we partially retraced our steps (and, en route, finding my glasses which I had absent-mindedly left beside the path when I had put on some sun cream.  Lucky or what?), and then diverted downhill to arrive back at the start of the Overland Track.  We passed groups of walkers who were just starting out on their 6-day, 65km hike, laden with their backpacks.  Their thighs must have been in good condition after climbing a kilometre in a couple of hours, much of it up a steep boardwalk through the forest.
The path is very steep in places
As we got lower, we passed through parts of the park which had been logged for timber, before the park had been protected in 1922.  Many of the trees in Tasmania are extremely slow growing and, once felled, can struggle to re-establish their former extent.  Button grass then takes over and changes the landscape from forest to moorland.
Button grass thrives when trees felled.
The Overland Track is a very popular hike, so, in summer, numbers are restricted, and walkers need to book and can only travel north to south.
The start of the Overland Track
We had heard the wildlife was superb, and had seen copious amounts of the unique cubed dung of the wombat, but had seen no animals on our walks.  However, we discovered the best time to see the wildlife was at dusk or at night, so we joined a 4x4 evening tour, which also included a visit to a sanctuary for the endangered Tasmanian Devils.
Tasmanian Devils
These unique creatures have recently been devastated by a contagious cancer of the face which is passed by saliva.  As their feeding is usually done in groups and by ripping apart carrion (or roadkill), the disease has spread rapidly through the population.  But centres like this one are now breeding disease-free animals to be released back into the wild.
We also saw more pademelons, wombats, wallabies and quolls - a marsupial predator which filled the evolutionary niche that small cats do in other parts of the world.  Unfortunately, feral and domestic cats brought from Europe have now made most native species endangered........
Crepuscular Wombat
We saw lots of wombats on the night drive, and a few at dusk.  We had been warned to keep well clear of them on the roads, as they are very robust and the car is likely to suffer more damage than them in a collision. Sure enough, we saw a lot of roadkill - mostly wallabies - but no wombats on the roadside!
Waratah,  once the mining centre of Tasmania.
Forest fern
Leaving Cradle Mountain, we headed west, into the Tarkine - the world's largest temperate rain forest.  Filling up with petrol at the sleepy town of Waratah, we asked what the road ahead was like.  "Oh, The Road To Nowhere?  Good Luck"!!  Luckily, I trusted my navigator.....
Road to Nowhere, on left, in trees.
Soon, we were driving in dense, impenetrable forest, with centuries-old trees, and a thick carpet of ferns and mosses.  The only sign of human habitation was a small compound of huts servicing what had once been the world's biggest tin mine.
After an hour, the road becomes unsealed....
After that, the road surface changed from tar to gravel.....this would test our little Hyundai i20 ...and the driver!  Still, navigation was easy.  And traffic was non-existent....Ho Hum.
The forest closes in
Eventually, after a couple of hours,  we came to a clearing in the forest, with a few buildings scattered around.  This was Corinna.  The end of the Road to Nowhere.
The end of the Road to Nowhere...
We had reached the Pieman River, and the only way across was by the Fatman.......
Ferry instructions
The Fatman was a one-vehicle ferry, which winches itself across the river by means of a wire.  (I have just heard that the wire snapped this week).  We parked the car in the middle of the clearing, forming what we hoped would be an orderly queue for when the ferryman reappeared after lunch.
 Unfortunately, 8 mature motorbike riders soon appeared from the local hotel and claimed they had been waiting longer.  We weren't in any rush, so were happy to explore the clearing while the ferry shuttled them across the river.....
Smaller than the Bass Strait ferry.  The Fatman.
Soon we were across, and again travelling through the familiar, dense forest.  After a couple of hours, the landscape cleared, and we approached the harbour town of Strahan - home of Atlantic salmon (!) and Tasmania's first penal colony....

More about the convict history of Tasmania in the next instalment...