Tasmania Pt 2

10th March – The road north from Triabunna up to St Helens is promoted as the Great Eastern Drive, a route of approximately 300km through the towns of Swansea, Bicheno, St Marys and St Helens. Two famous National Parks are included, the Freycinet NP and the Douglas-Apsley NP. This stretch could be the basis for a holiday alone, with lots of walks, nature and delightful little seaside towns to keep us amused. Instead, we did it in a day.

We had done some sums and found that time was starting to run short and something had to give. With quite a bit of nature viewing behind us, we opted to forego the national parks along the route and make a day of covering the 300km, stopping at the little towns along the way.

Swansea was very pretty and we were encouraged to stop, walk and have a coffee. The local IGA is housed in a wonderful old stone building and boasts the same owner/manager family for well over a hundred years. The shop was a true old time general store with lots of interesting bits and bobs inside.

An IGA With Character at Swansea

Bicheno is another gorgeous little town with stone Georgian buildings and an abundance of cute weatherboard cottages. There is a blow-hole of sorts which is really more of a good solid wave crash but fun all the same. We watched one really stupid man about my age walk right up to the edge for a photo during a lull in the wave pattern. Just after he left his position, a huge wave came through and sent tonnes of water over the very spot he had posed in. Why do people continue to do this kind of stuff?

The Bicheno Blowhole

The road continued to become an increasing challenge to towing vehicles. It twisted and turned up and down the hills with a surface that resembled a set of rapids than a road. Obviously, small cars that were not towing anything where little affected by the road surface and so appeared behind us as if by magic to sit a meter or so behind the caravan. The Tasmanians have the cheek to name the road the Tasman Highway but the term is a massive exaggeration.

We stopped for lunch at a little beach in a pretty forest setting. A dozen or so vans were set up for camping there and we regretted that we had already booked a site in St Helens. The problem that we have had is that accommodation is difficult to get and booking ahead seems mandatory. It would have been much better to have been able to just pull in when we felt like it but the reality is that we would have missed out on many occasions.

St Helens proved to be a charming seaside and fishing town, set on the Georges Bay, really a long and deep inlet. It is the largest town in the north-west and has quite a good array of shopping and facilities. We rode our bikes along a very well formed cycle path along the water’s edge into town to explore. The tide was out and we marvelled at the clusters of enormous oysters exposed on the rocks. They were some of the biggest we have ever seen outside of Kalumburu. The problem is that all along the East Coast are signs warning people not to eat wild oysters. The signs may have been paid for by the oyster fishermen but it is too much to risk. We stopped at a seafood outlet at the wharf hoping to buy some scallops but were disappointed to once again find only fried gummy and chips on offer. We asked about other seafood but were only offered oysters at $28 a dozen. Having paid $13 a dozen in Smoky Bay for oysters nearly as big as the wild ones on the rocks outside, we laughed it off and left.

St Helens

That evening, we went to the caravan park’s bar for a beer and found ourselves next to a Mandurah couple. Usually, it is our number plate that invites comment as most WA travellers seem to have hired local vehicles rather than bringing over their own.

11th March – The North Eastern Highlands were once well known for the numerous tin mines which supported a considerable workforce and brought in wealth to the state. We planned a day of driving that largely followed a trail across many of the old mine sites. We left the van behind in St Helens to give us a chance of negotiating the narrow mountain roads.

The first target was a place called the Blue Tier. The road led us through some stunning forest, with towering blue gum, blackwood and sassafras. The feature of the forests is the giant tree fern, many of which are over 4 metres high with a canopy spread of more than 2 metres. They are incredibly beautiful.

The Blue Tier itself is above the heavy timber line and into an altitude where stunted but close packed trees predominate. Once beyond the tiny hamlet of Lottah, the road was basically a one lane affair, cut into the hillside. Signs promoted the use of UHF Channel 40 to communicate with busses and tour operators. This proved to be very effective. There is actually quite a lot of traffic because the Blue Tier nowadays is base for serious mountain bikers to ride down the mountains across many established trails. We encountered a couple of empty bike trailers being towed down the hill on our way up. Those with radios tended to keep clicking the handset at regular intervals so that you could tell when someone was approaching.

Once at the top, we parked up and went on a walk trail in the Goblin Forest. This patch of forest is well named. If ever we could have expected to encounter a goblin it was here amongst the twisted and gnarled trees covered in and amazing variety of mosses and lichens. Beautifully coloured fungi abounded. The area was once the site of a big tin mine but all is now regrowth alpine vegetation. Occasionally, signs of the tin mining poked through the growth but it was steadily being consumed by the environment.

We descended the mountain again to Lottah and turned off to drive to the site of the Anchor Mine, about half way down the tier. There, the vegetation was back to massive stands of timber, mostly blue gum, but with some good blackwood and sassafras. The walk to the main mine processing site was through amazing rainforest, which once again was all regrowth because the whole area was devoid of trees around the end of the nineteenth century. Nestled amongst the towering tree ferns and tall timbers was a massive 10 stamp battery, the remaining part of a hundred stamp crusher that operated at the mine’s height. At one stage, they even tried harvesting the flow of the Groom River with a massive waterwheel to drive the process. Sadly, the mine was never a huge success.

Next it was off further down the mountain to Halls Falls. The falls required a short easy walk through more amazing forest. They were a medium sized fall which were pretty enough and certainly active after all the recent rain.

Halls Falls

From Halls falls we drove to the small village of Pyengana, set in a picture postcard standard valley. This is dairy farm deluxe country and the number of cows per square metre is beyond belief. No wonder that it is the site for a very famous dairy that makes some of Tasmania’s finest cheeses. We stopped for lunch at the local oval. Then it was on to the end of the valley, where the South George River comes crashing over a cliff in a 90 metre drop called St Columba Falls. The falls are accessed from the top, which means an easy 900metre walk down to the base, but a steady climb back along the same path. Back along the valley again, we stopped at the cheese factory to sample their wares, purchasing a couple of varieties.

St Columba Falls

By the time we got back to the van we were ready to crash.

12th March – The drive out of St Helens to the Blue Tier had convinced us that towing the van west out of St Helens across the Tasman Highway was not likely to be fun. The map suggested that the mountainous nature of the road would only continue and probably get worse. We therefore made the decision to back track a bit and go through St Marys then across the A4 and the Fingal Valley to pick up the A1 and turn north once more to Launceston.  We would miss out on a few north eastern beauty spots but retain our sanity.

As it proved, we made the right decision. The road up to St Marys was fun, it was just a matter of gripping the wheel hard and staying on our side of an incredibly narrow mountain road. There were a few switch backs involved but the other traffic was well behaved and once again the UHF radios were well used.

After St Marys, the road was flat by Tasmanian standards as it weaved its way across a glorious valley of green farming country. We passed through the towns of Fingal and Avoca along the way. To the north, the towering mass of Ben Lommond, home of Tasmania’s premier ski field, created some wonderful views.   

Once we reached the A1, we turned north through Perth and on to Launceston, staying 8km out of the city in a caravan park at Hadspen. Unfortunately, this proved to be the worst park we have yet stayed in. We were parked in what was basically an overflow area which had a couple of unisex toilet shower units that should have been overhauled years ago. The park had a lot of cabin units and it was clear that the revenue stream from them was sufficient to maintain them and that spending on caravan site facilities was sadly lacking. Christine made a point of letting the management know.

13th March – Today was a bit of a disaster. Firstly, it was bitterly cold with a fair bit of rain forecast for the afternoon. We had booked a 2.5 hour cruise on the Tamar River with a visit to the famous Launceston Cataract Gorge. We drove in to the city, found parking and prepared to wait for the boat. I had a coughing fit in the car park, and immediately a woman nearby threw her hands up in horror. Like it or not, people with any flu like symptoms are lepers, only fit for stoning. I felt so embarrassed and there was no way I was getting on that boat. We negotiated a refund.

We spent the time wandering around Launceston, buying a few gifts for grandchildren and avoiding the increasing rain. All the time we walked, the tide had been dropping and by the time we got back to the river, the water had gone. The Tamar River Estuary looks huge on the maps, but up near its top it is heavily silted. All we could see was vast areas of mud with a tiny river of water flowing down the middle. The mud was so soft that the deep keeled yachts still sat upright, keels buried in the mush. We wandered the river banks, tried unsuccessfully to stop and buy a coffee and snack.

Downtown Launceston

We headed back to the caravan for lunch and to sulk as the afternoon rained down. We’ve seen more rain in Tasmania than we have in Dowerin over the last five years.

14th March –   Today we explored the Tamar Estuary, driving up the western side, crossing the huge Batman Bridge to the eastern side and back down to Hobart. There are some pretty little places along the way, and some larger places like Beaconsfield, the site of the attention grabbing mine collapse back in 2006. The Tamar Valley is mostly rolling green hills with farming land and patches of forest. The river itself is shallow, with just a narrow channel of deeper water and large areas of mud flats.

Beaconsfield Mining Museum

Normally, a Saturday touring the Tamar Valley would produce lots of little markets and interesting cafes. Alas, we found everything to be very quiet. Most markets have been cancelled due to a restriction on gatherings of more than 500 people and it appears that restaurants and cafes are choosing to shut.

We dropped in to George Town, near the northern end of the estuary, to catch up with friends who have their yacht moored at the yacht club. That was a quick hello and an apologetic “Sorry, I have a bad cough” from a down wind position. We now have to actively shun contact situations, even though my cough could not possibly be coronavirus.

All in all, the daily escalation of the virus situation is becoming alarming, with even a suggestion of closing state borders. I have read that such an act is against the constitution but it might be hard to argue that point at a border crossing. Besides, we need a ferry to get off the island. Thankfully, the shopping lunacy that has gripped much of the rest of the country has not affected regional Tasmania. We have even seen toilet paper in supermarkets, although hand sanitiser is all out.

15th March – Today was a relocation day, driving the short distance from Launceston to Devonport, around 95km. We stayed in a caravan park at East Devonport, meaning we could see the city across the Mersey River but to get there we had to drive a few kms down to the bridge and back around. A ferry does operate from just near the caravan park but not on weekends. A shame. I would have liked to go on the “Ferry ‘cross the Mersey”.

A cute coffee house in East Devonport

We went in to the city itself to a Woolworths. Here we started to see the depletion of stock that the news is so full of. There were no stocks of toilet paper, flour or rice. The city is small but bustling, even on a Sunday. A couple of ships were loading, one a grain ship and the other full of semi trailers. Trains came and went, loading containers from the mainland. The car ferry berths on our side of the river so the whole thing creates a busy atmosphere.

We took it easy, not doing much else other than a walk around the little village of East Devonport and took a stroll along the river bank. We also got on to the internet and upgraded our upcoming ferry ticket from a recliner seat to a cabin, figuring a degree of isolation was better for us and better for other passengers. 

16th March – What trip to Tasmania would be complete without a visit to Cradle Mountain? Our itinerary had originally planned for taking the caravan up close to the mountain and staying for a couple of nights to do some of the longer walks. However, the horrible cough was taking its toll, the temperature was forecast to be around zero and the roads were proving to be far worse than we had anticipated. We settled for a day trip.

The drive was only around 80kms but it took us nearly two hours. We chose to go on the more scenic route past Mt Roland and even drove up to the Mt Roland Lookout for some amazing views. The road was twisted and winding for much of the drive, though some spectacular forest areas and some picturesque farming land. Just out of Devonport, the apple orchards were really beautiful with the tree packed full of incredibly bright red fruit.

Mt Roland

Eventually, we reached the Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre and made some lunch in the car park before organising tickets for the bus. A shuttle service operates to take people to the various key areas and walk trail starts, a very sensible arrangement because the road beyond the Visitor Centre was definitely a one lane affair. We got out at Dove Lake and did two short walks around the lake to admire the changing vista of Cradle Mountain. It really is quite beautiful and lives up to all the hype. I enjoyed the flora as much as the scenery, with a huge variety of gorgeous plants lining the pathways we took.

We took a different and more leisurely route back to Devonport, stopping at one point to take in the amazing views of Mt Roland near the little town of Wilmot. It was getting late by the time we got back and we were pretty tired, me from coughing more than exertion. We slept well.

17th March – Another massive day of driving today, at least by Tasmanian standards, with a 275km drive back south to Hobart. It was really easy, along the A1, the only decent road on the whole island (I know that it’s a big exaggeration but I have had enough of all the bad roads). Surprisingly, we had had a lot of difficulty finding a place to stay in Hobart, with the closer in caravan parks being booked out. I think this is partly because rental values in Tassie are amongst the highest in the country and we are seeing large numbers of people living in caravans right across the island. Tasmanian plated vans vastly outnumber those from the mainland.

We booked in to a place out at Seven Mile Beach, a holiday village about 22km from Hobart itself. It is close to the airport so the access roads to the city are good but the area itself hold little for us, with a nice sand beach that the temperature rules out and not much else.

Seven Mile Beach

18th March – It was a day to tour Hobart city while the car got a much needed service. Rain was forecast to start around midday (which it did) so we went in around 9:00, dropped the car off and hopped on the “Red Hop On Hop Off” bus tour. You find these in many parts of the World. Some are excellent and others are rubbish (eg Canberra). Hobart’s is one of the better ones. Buses circuit once every hour and seemed to be very much on time. The commentary is informative and interesting, although we are just about over any talk of the convict era. It was a very relaxing way to see the sights without worrying about traffic or parking. We chose to sit in the open air on the upper deck in deference to the other passengers, although the coughing is a little more controlled now.

On the Red Bus

We got off the bus at the dock areas and wandered through the numerous beautiful docks that adorn Hobart’s waterfront, Victoria Dock, the famous Constitution Dock where the Sydney to Hobart boats cluster and the associated dockside eateries. Everything was pretty quiet, with relatively few people venturing out these days. There is a wonderful line of floating food outlets at Constitution Dock, mostly supplying seafood but some with Thai food and Pizza. This is the sort of vibe that Perth’s Elizabeth Quay so badly lacks. Further along, Salamanca Place hosts Australia’s largest outdoor market on Saturdays, supplementing the gorgeous line of shops set in the old Georgian stone warehouses. Salamanca Markets have currently been suspended, like everything else. For me, the highlight was the number of sailing ships tied up along the docks, with a couple of square riggers, a schooner and some smaller but still beautiful wooden boats. I never tire of looking at the complex rigging and timber work of these old boats. I sometimes think I was born a couple of centuries to late.

Once back on the bus, we drove through the wonderful Battery Point area, where every house seems to be a slice of old world charm. The bus did well in the narrow winding streets. What a place to live! The price of the houses might be a barrier.

Once through South Hobart, the bus climbed the foot of Mt Wellington to the Cascade Brewery, where we decided to alight and sample some wares. A sign posted on the front door announced that tours had been cancelled but that the bar and restaurant were still open. We ordered a tasting rack of a draught beer, pale ale and two ciders. We supplemented the drinks with a fabulous Tasman pizza with smoked salmon and caramelized onion.  It was interesting to see that the dining area was more spread out than one usually finds, another technique some places are using. Cash was not being accepted, with contactless payment being the only way. While we ate, the rain got heavier so we abandoned any thought of walking down the Hobart Rivulet Walking Track.

We got word that the car was ready so we caught the next red bus back down the hill and picked up the car. From there, we headed back to the caravan to sit inside with yet more rain tumbling from the skies. One of the most amazing facts we gleaned from the bus tour is that Hobart is Australia’s second driest capital city, after Adelaide. This is a statistic that I currently find it hard to believe. It may not be constant heavy rain, but a rainless day has been rare.

19th March – With yet another rainy day forecast, and some antibiotics finally obtained (don’t ask how), we decided to have a day at home with a fair bit of it in bed. Christine busied herself with a bit of caravan cleaning while I slept, far more than I realised at first, with some noticeable improvement in the dreaded cough. The news is so full of doom and gloom about the coronavirus and all we can do is keep fingers crossed that when (and if) we finally make it to the mainland, we are free to keep driving west and cross into SA and WA. We don’t care if we have to enter WA and face 14 days isolation. We will be doing that anyway.

The news is also full of the lack of stuff in supermarkets around the country. Fortunately, Tasmania still appears much better off than the mainland and we have seen a few bare shelves, but nothing like the crazy scenes across Bass Strait. Storage space limits our ability to buy and store but we have enough stuff to keep us alive. Who knows; we might not get enough food and lose some weight. As long as the wine taps stay on.

20th March – We had another day of exploring Hobart planned but the day dawned cold and miserable. Nothing much is open in the way of museum or attractions so in the end, we lazed around and watched a couple of movies, did some washing, drove in to Sorrell to do some shopping and started the process of organising  to van for hand over.

21 March – It rained most of the night so by the time we had packed the car, the ground was slush, making the inside of the van pretty dirty. We drove across the city and up to Mt Nelson to return the van to the owners. We had a bit of a mental list of things that needed fixing but she wasn’t much interested, announcing that she already had a buyer for it. Once unhitched, we waved goodbye and set off north, a sense of relief and freedom at being on the road without the van behind. The rain persisted for some distance north but by the time we stopped in Perth for lunch, it was beginning to warm a little and was relatively dry.

In Devonport, we set up the tent in a caravan park, alongside lots of vans and camper trailers also waiting for the morning ferry. The talk was all the same. Time to get out of Tassie while we still can.

Tomorrow, it is an early start and on to the ferry then back to Melbourne, which is timed to arrive at around 7:30pm. All in all, the trip has been disappointing. The weather has not been helpful, with very few days that produced any warmth or were free from rain. We got to sit outside only a couple of times. The caravan was serviceable but had a few issues. My cough was a major problem, especially as the whole COVID-19 thing escalated. It has been crazy. I have not been sick at any stage. I simply cough terribly for a couple of hours in the late morning, making public appearances quite awkward.

Would we do Tassie again? I think not. It is ticked off the list. Hobart itself is definitely worth a return visit by air. If I was to tour again, I would hire a smallish car and stay in cabins along the way. I would not tow again. Most other travellers we talked to that had towed things had a similar viewpoint.

We are both looking forward to getting home, even if it does mean not socialising or seeing the grandies.

In the line for the ferry.

**** THE TRIP HOME **** We had a cabin organised for the trip home, both of us now having the dreaded cough (definitely not COVID-19). t meant we could isolate as much as possible. During the passage, the news came through that both SA and WA were closing borders, giving us only a two day window to cross the border. With the boat still in Smoky Bay, there was no way we could make it. A WA couple we had met in Devonport figured that with two big drives, they could make it, even towing their van.

Off the ferry, we drove out of Melbourne in the dark to Bacchus Marsh, 50km north, and stayed in a chalet for the night. The next day, we drove around 800km into SA to stay in another chalet in Clare, north of the Barossa Valley. All the way, we found things were closing down. All cafes and restaurants are now shut, although there were a few bakeries still doing takeaways. Pubs are shut and even some fuel outlets are credit card only with no one in attendance. Traffic remained quite heavy, mostly caravans and campers heading in both directions.

From Clare, we had a shorter drive to Smoky Bay and the boat. We spent time in the afternoon cleaning all the brown dust away and moving essentials from the car to the boat. A quick trip down to the local shop for what ever food we could find still on shelves produced some grumblings from locals who glared at us like we were pariahs.We had planned on spending a day or so in the area but with things the way they were, we chose to head off the following morning.

We made the border 24 hours after it had closed. Initially, the suggestion was that we would have to quarantine at Eucla for 14 days but the authorities obviously realised how impracticable that was and all we had to do was to sign an agreement to self isolate on the drive home and stay in Dowerin for the remainder. By now, the traffic had thinned considerably, although we still saw the occasional caravan with eastern plates driving towards Perth. The idea of isolating in Dowerin is not daunting, there are lots of people to help out sourcing anything we need. We are just so glad to be home.

It will be a chance to catch up on some much needed maintenance around the place.