Built to prepare expeditioners for Antarctic conditions, Tasmania’s Thousand Lakes Lodge is a retreat for the adventurous, writes Andrew Bain.
A cold wind blows across Tasmania’s stark Central Plateau, ruffling the alpine scrub. Rocky outcrops run like stitches through the patchwork and the Ouse River curls through, blue and strong as it pours from Lake Augusta. There’s a sense of raw wilderness here, something almost other-worldly, which is hardly surprising given that the area was once a training base for Antarctic-bound expeditioners.
Though I’m standing 1200 metres above sea level, there’s little here of any height, except for one unusual building: the former training facility that now houses the Thousand Lakes Lodge.
The place feels almost too remote for Tassie. Set in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area near the centre of the state, off a quiet highway and 13 kilometres down a narrow dirt road, the lodge is a bold enterprise to lure visitors to the middle of Tasmania’s nowhere.
Opened at the end of 2016, the nine-room retreat sits in a tundra-like landscape near the eastern edge of the Walls of Jerusalem National Park. The building was constructed in the 1980s to house the Antarctic expeditioners and give them a sense of the icy continent’s isolation, vastness and chill. But the area wasn’t cold enough for long enough in the year and the facility – then known as Bernacchi Lodge (named after Tasmanian Louis Bernacchi, the first Australian to winter in Antarctica) – was ultimately abandoned.
It sat derelict for years, home only to possums, a Tasmanian devil and occasional squatters. In 2013, the building’s demolition was put out to tender and that’s when Launceston-born former V8 Supercar champion Marcos Ambrose spotted it. “Marcos had just come back from travelling and he felt like he’d lived his life in a bit of a concrete jungle,” says the general manager of the lodge, Lynette Polley. “When this came across his desk, he already knew the area and the potential to get people here.”
Ambrose and four other investors purchased the angular building and poured 18 months and $1.3 million into its restoration. The transformation is remarkable. Cumulus Studio, the architectural firm behind Pumphouse Point in nearby Lake St Clair, was employed for the design and there are distinct parallels between the two lodges, from the large, inviting lounges to the communal dining and honesty bars.
Eight rooms line the upper floor of the lodge in what were the Antarctic facility’s dorms. Only six have an ensuite, a decision made to preserve the integrity of the building; the remainder have private bathrooms in another part of the hotel.
Rooms are as simple as the plateau landscape but that encourages guests to make use of the two lounges that form the lodge’s heartbeat. The cavernous main lounge frames an enormous slow-combustion fireplace, designed by Ambrose, which came in by crane and took nine people to move into place.
Thousand Lakes Lodge takes its name from the virtual sea of lakes and tarns that surround it, though in reality the name is an underestimation. There are said to be some 3000 lakes across the Central Plateau and the lodge sits at the edge of what’s known as the Nineteen Lagoons (though technically, they’re lakes).
“There are 19 of the best fishing lakes in the world within about a 20-minute walk of the lodge,” enthuses fishing guide Peter Hayes. “Trout like cold environments and tough conditions – and Tasmania has tough conditions.”
But today we’re going a little further afield. Peter and I are heading to Penstock Lagoon, about an hour’s drive away. Small and sheltered, it’s one of Tasmania’s most popular fly-fishing lakes.
Trout were introduced to Tasmania in the 1860s and today the lakes in the Central Highlands are considered to be among the world’s great fisheries. On a shore lined with golden reeds and under the gaze of a pair of white-bellied sea eagles, I’m taught to cast by the former Australian fly-fishing champion and two-time World Casting Championships medallist.
It’s my first time fishing for trout – casting out line, inching it back in and being outsmarted by some of the planet’s most cautious and crafty fish. “Unlike the rest of the world, Tassie’s highland lakes aren’t stocked from hatcheries,” explains Peter. “They’re caught wild and transferred here so these fish are wild animals. They’re seriously hard to fish. They want to stay alive.”
And they do. My dinner tonight will be chicken – far from a hardship, with food at the lodge prepared by gourmet deli Wursthaus Kitchen in Launceston. Even more impressive is the bar and larder. For grazing, there are cheeses, cold cuts and smoked meats and trout, with cooling craft beers selected by Launceston’s Saint John Craft Beer Bar and warming whiskies from nearby Nant Estate and Belgrove distilleries. The wine selection is headlined by premium Tasmanian labels.
Another activity on offer is riding the lodge’s electric-assisted “fat bikes” (so called because the tyres are twice the width of those on a mountain bike). Vehicle tracks vein across the plateau as far as Lake Ada, about 11 kilometres away.
One afternoon, I join guide Silas Horsley on a ride around the Nineteen Lagoons. As we travel, a headwind blows from the south but the ebikes cut through it almost without effort – the push of a button and the wind is powerless. Out here, it’s a true water world: tarns to the left, tarns to the right and the road at times like a levee between them. As we pull up at Lake Ada, the snow-covered peaks of the Walls of Jerusalem National Park glint on the horizon, less than 20 kilometres away.
Silas pulls out a key and we walk to an old fishing shack on the lakeshore. The grounds are scattered with Tasmanian devil scat but inside it’s like the finest city retro store: there’s an old couch, ceramic teacups, a kerosene heater and a calendar from 1971 hanging on the wall. The lodge plans to transform the hut into a base for guided walks, though for now there are enticing options for self-exploration through the track-free wilderness.
The low scrub is scribbled with wombat paths, which I follow at times, walking towards the low summits of the rocky outcrops. One evening, I find the wombats themselves as I wander among a metropolis of burrows beside the banks of the Ouse River, metres from the lodge.
On my final morning, I walk to Double Lagoon, tracing the edge of Lake Augusta before entering an almost prairie-like tract of land that barely supports a shrub. Like Thousand Lakes Lodge, the name Double Lagoon is a misnomer: the two large lakes are actually surrounded by dozens of smaller pools.
As I head back to the lodge, the sensation is again one of emptiness; I feel tiny in this vast and colourful Tasmanian Nullarbor. In the distance, I make out an incongruous dot – the lodge. It’s so remote, so isolated and, as a cold southerly continues to blow over the Central Plateau, so welcoming.
Before you go home
A slice of Scotland
The tartan street signs in Bothwell, at the foot of the Central Plateau, attest to the town’s Scottish origins, as does Ratho Farm, home to Australia’s oldest golf course. Pay homage to the sport at The Australasian Golf Museum and toast it at Nant Estate whisky distillery, which has a cellar door, guided tours and the Atrium restaurant.
Hit the Walls
Visible from the road into Thousand Lakes Lodge, the Walls of Jerusalem National Park mountains are just as spectacular as those around Cradle Mountain, with barely a hint of the tourist fuss. The only way in is on foot; following trails from the east or west, you’ll encounter peaks with biblical names such as Mount Jerusalem, Solomons Throne, The Temple and King Davids Peak, which form a kind of enclosure. Within the “walls” are beautiful alpine lakes and ancient pencil-pine forests.
Located north of the lodge, as the Highland Lakes Road descends from the Central Plateau, Liffey Falls is the quintessential Tasmanian waterfall. Spilling through rainforest, the Liffey River fans down a series of staircase-like rocks in a mystical scene. There are two walking tracks to get there – the shortest (about 45 minutes return) is one of the Parks & Wildlife Service’s 60 Great Short Walks.
Need to know
Thousand Lakes Lodge is about a 90-minute drive from Launceston and two hours from Hobart. Standard rooms start at $265 per night; two- and three-course dinners are $55 and $66 respectively.
QantasLink flies to Launceston from Melbourne, with additional connections.
SEE ALSO: A Weekend on Tasmania's East Coast
Photography credit: Adam Gibson