Yes, it’s a much-loved walk along wild bush tracks and pristine beaches but, as Sarah Maguire discovers, hikers who conquer Tassie’s Maria Island also take a stroll through Australian history.
Behind every sun-bleached midden of oyster shell, derelict farm building and convict prison ruin on this Tasmanian island, 65 kilometres north-east of Hobart, are stories of cinematic scale. Hearing them tumble from the lips of our guides on The Maria Island Walk, I wonder why I didn’t know about these tales before.
Viv and Hilda Robey met in London during World War I, he a battle-injured South African soldier, she an English nurse who tended to his wounds. The couple married and lived out their improbable love story on a lonely sheep farm near the bottom of the island.
Gentleman political prisoner William Smith O’Brien, an Irish Protestant and nationalist, was transported to Van Diemen’s Land (the first name that Europeans gave the island of Tasmania) in 1849 for his leadership of a failed rebellion. He tried to escape Maria Island but was betrayed by the captain of the schooner meant to sail him to freedom.
The stories keep coming, waiting for us on every clifftop and windswept hill, along beaches of white sand and blood-red rock and through stands of giant blue gums.
Award-winning, family-owned The Maria Island Walk has, for 15 years, been leading small groups on gentle journeys around the island. Hundreds of people complete the “soft” adventure each year, requiring only moderate fitness to walk the 30 or so kilometres of bush tracks and beaches over four days; the option of tackling a peak, either Mount Maria or the twin Bishop and Clerk, adds as much as 14 kilometres.
When our party of three guides and six hikers jumped off the speedboat that brought us across the Mercury Passage from the east-coast town of Triabunna and waded through shin-deep water onto the beach, I was expecting my days to be filled with hiking, eating fine Tasmanian food, admiring scenery and glamping in posh tents.
From the outdoor communal area at Casuarina Beach Camp, where we spend our first night, the canvas-walled, timber-framed tents seem to float in a sea of bracken that glimmers silver in the late-afternoon light. The squeaks of spotted pardalotes and the breaking waves of nearby Riedle Bay break the silence, as do the sounds of dinner being prepared behind me in the camp’s dining tent.
Bottles of Tasmanian riesling and pinot noir – and a cheese platter of King Island blue and Ashgrove cheddars – are about to arrive on the table but for the moment, I have a beer in one hand and a book about those wartime lovebirds, Viv and Hilda Robey, in the other. We have just returned from an eight-kilometre bushwalk to their modest timber farmhouse, still standing 52 years after a gravely ill Viv, by then a grieving widower, left the table half set for dinner and a rice pudding in the oven and never returned.
Remnants of their life together are everywhere at the farmhouse. Past the ragged bones of a single armchair, cutlery and bottles, saucepan lids and broken crockery are placed neatly on narrow timber shelves. Strangely, a pile of old shoes moulders on the verandah.
The island’s small farming community, which had its heyday from the 1930s, no longer existed by 1971, when Maria Island was declared a national park. Near Chinamans Bay, all comers can wander through another of the island’s abandoned farmhouses at French’s Farm, peering at rusting bed bases and old kitchen furniture.
The Aboriginal people
After a hot breakfast and morning wash in an ingeniously rigged open-air bucket shower (“It’s not about getting clean, it’s about getting naked,” says guide Dan Fisher of the singular experience), we set off about 9am on a 14-kilometre, five-beach walk northwards to White Gums Camp, our second night’s accommodation.
Tasmanian devils, an endangered species, have scampered along Riedle Bay during the night, their paw prints clear as bells in the sand. Crossing westward over the island’s isthmus to Shoal Bay, Dan pulls from his backpack an image of Bara-ourou, a Tyreddeme man of the Oyster Bay tribe.
It was drawn by assistant-gunner-turned- ship’s-artist Nicolas-Martin Petit when a French expedition made landfall on Maria Island in 1802. Even earlier, in 1789, English explorer John Henry Cox documented the presence of Aboriginal people after coming ashore from the HMS Mercury.
“The Tyreddeme were good mates with the Big River nation, who lived in Cradle Mountain country,” explains guide Jo McCormack as we sit down for a quick break on the beach, an Aboriginal midden protruding from the dune at our backs. “They’d spend summer together in the mountains and winter on Maria Island, coming across in bark canoes.”
There was so much food here, adds Jo: possum, wallaby and seafood, and various plants like the bracken fern, sea asparagus and pigface that we, too, get to taste on our trek across the island.
It’s pouring as we walk into White Gums Camp, a tiny red army clad in identical walking-company-issued raincoats. Beneath umbrellas, the guides, Dan and Amy Morgan, barbecue a meal of duck-and-kangaroo sausages, lamb cutlets and quail marinated in honey and soy.
Forester kangaroos stare at us from afar as we eat our lunch of pasta salad atop a hill on Point Lesueur on the island’s west coast. It might be peaceful, punctuated by the screeches of yellow-tailed black cockatoos, but it’s eerie, too, with piles of rocks across the landscape imagined (incorrectly) by some in our group to be burial mounds.
Point Lesueur was an outpost of the main convict station, 13 kilometres north at Darlington. Inside the cells, extracts of official letters reveal superintendents appealing for more flour and lamps and four carpenters, please. There’s little left at World Heritage-listed Darlington from the first convict era, 1825 to 1832 (the island’s second convict era was 1842 to 1850). The penitentiary is now bunkhouse-style accommodation for holiday-makers and kids on school camp, while the 1825 Commissariat Store is the first stop and information centre for visitors arriving by the public ferry.
The Italian industrialist
Jo’s favourite portrait of Diego Bernacchi is in the dining room of Bernacchi House in Darlington; he’s thick-haired and moustachioed, and is that a twinkle in his eye? “He looks cheeky,” she says. Without him, Darlington would never have been a bustling 1880s township of more than 250 people. He was a guy who could convince other guys to give him money, says Jo, and with that money he made his mark all over the place: in cement works, vineyards, mulberry orchards for his planned silk industry, a coffee palace and grand hotel.
We explore the ruins of his cement works on a 90-minute walk out of Darlington through open woodland and eucalypt forest, breathing in the spicy, mossy smell of damp Australian bush.
On our third and final night, we stay in Bernacchi’s former family home. After two nights in virtual wilderness, it’s fun to sit on the front verandah in the late afternoon and listen to the chatter and laughter of schoolchildren on camp; they’re throwing Frisbees, climbing the giant macrocarpa pines and crying “wombat” at the sight of the adorable creatures, which have thrived on the island since they, too, joined the “ark” in the 1970s.
Bernacchi House has been restored in fine period detail, including the dining room where, for dinner, we eat salmon and risotto and sip pinot gris from the Milton winery on Tasmania’s nearby Freycinet coast.
Before we thump back across the Mercury Passage on our speedboat the next day, the wind in our hair and feeling just a little like James Bond, we’ll have a picnic lunch behind the old coffee palace. The rugs will be weighted at the corners with convict bricks. We’ll stuff our bread rolls with wedges of brie, ham and fresh salad. Dan will crack open bottles of champagne and we’ll raise a heartfelt toast – to our guides, to great company and to Maria Island and the stories she keeps.