Road tripping in Tasmania: part I

Tasmania isn’t a very big island. It’s a little bit smaller than Ireland, but it has an incredible and unique diversity of landscapes. During the two weeks I spent there it sometimes reminded me of Canada, and 2 hours later it looked like Switzerland; sometimes it was similar to the South of France, and suddenly it felt like I was back home in Brittany; and even if it’s different from mainland, it’s also 100% Australian. All these contrasts will make a visit to Tasmania equally unforgettable wether you are a nature lover, a food enthusiast or passionate about history and culture. The best way to visit it is to go on a road trip: it’s so easy to camp in Tassie (the nick name of Tasmania)!

From Devonport (where the ferry from Melbourne lands) to the East Coast, Hobart, Cradle Mountain and back, follow me for two weeks of pure happiness exploring the main attractions of Tasmania, including also my favourite free camping spots around the island. Looking to stay longer? I’ll give you some suggestions about other places I didn’t visit but that you could include to your trip. Let’s go for a scenic drive that you’ll never forget!

Follow this link to read the second part of this article, and see also my pictures of Tasmania, part I here and part II here.

Introduction to Tasmania

Did you know that Tasmania used to be connected to Australia? It became an island “only” 10.000 years ago, at the end of the last glacial period. Nowadays there are two ways to get to Tasmania: by plane, with two main airports located in Hobart and Launceston, or by ferry between Melbourne and Devonport. It takes more or less 9 hours and if you’re lucky you might be able to see dolphins jumping on the waves around the ship during the crossing!

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Goodbye Melb! See you in a few hours Tassie!

Before going to Tasmania, be aware that there is a very severe quarantine for every visitor. All the vehicles will be checked before boarding on the ferry! It is strictly forbidden to carry fresh fruits, vegetables, honey, fish… Find the complete list of what’s accepted of forbidden here. All these rules are made to prevent the spreading of diseases on the island, which is very fragile ecologically speaking. The population of its most iconic inhabitant the Tasmanian Devil for example has been reduced by 70% in the last 30 years because of a contagious facial tumour, and the Tasmanian Tiger (the Thylacine) is extinct since 1936.

While Aboriginal people lived in Tasmania since 40.000 years, the first European to discover the island was the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman as late as 1642. He named it “Van Diemen’s Land” in honour of Anthony Van Diemen (Governor-General of Dutch East Indies) who sent him exploring this part of the world. The name changed to Tasmania in 1856. In the early 19th century, fearing that the French might establish a settlement, the British Governor of New-South Wales (the only European colony in Australia at that time) decided to send an expedition to Tasmania. In 1804 Hobart was created, making it the second oldest city of Australia after Sydney.

Since then, the population of Tasmania grew up to more than 500.000 people. It is now a very popular holiday destination, for Australians as well as for foreign tourists. The best moment to visit it is during the summer, between December and February, ideally at the end of January when the Australian public holidays finish and most families go back to their homes in Melbourne or Sydney. It’s also a good destination during winter with some skiing resorts but I know nothing about them so I won’t talk about it.

If you want to travel all around the island, it will take at least 2 weeks, but a whole month wouldn’t be a waste of time as there are so many beautiful places to enjoy! It’s a paradise for hikers: there are a lot of treks all around the island, and Parks and Wildlife Service of Tasmania made a list of 60 great short walks that you can find here. I’ll signal them with their number when I’ll write about one of those further on. Don’t forget as well that you’ll have to purchase a pass to visit all the (many) National Parks; it’s 24$/day but a more interesting option is the holiday pass that costs 60$ and is valid for 8 weeks. The price is per vehicle.

This article will present you Tasmania starting from Devonport where the ferry arrives. This first part will bring you to the East Coast, Freycinet National Park and the Tasman Peninsula, while the second part is focused on Hobart, the South, Cradle Mountain and the North-West. I hope you’ll enjoy your trip as much as I did!

The North-East

How long to stay:

2 days, one more day if you include Ben Lomond National Park.

What to see:

Tasmania is an island famous for its rich gastronomy, so why not begin your trip with some wine tasting? You’ll find many wineries East of Devonport, close to the Tamar River, and in most of them you could do a free wine tasting. My personal favourite was Oak Holm, a vineyard not so easy to find a bit further off the main road, but such a delicious wine. Just remember, drink or drive but not both at the same time!

From there it’s just a stone’s throw to George Town, the second oldest settlement of Tasmania and third oldest city in Australia since it was created shortly after Hobart in 1804. Low Head at the end of the road will provide you a nice view from the lighthouse, and you might even see some penguins hiding around the place if you look carefully.

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For the second day, head East and stop first at the St Columba Fall (Great Short Walk 49); with its 90m it’s one of the tallest of Tasmania. The few hours’ drive until the coast will give you a good overlook about how diverse this island is: you’ll cross alternatively alpine-looking hills, vast prairies and even some ancient rainforest.

On the North-East coast you’ll find the beautiful Bay of Fires. Unless what is commonly thought, its name doesn’t come from the red colour of the lichen on the rocks, but from the fires that Aboriginal people used to light close to the shore and that the first European explorers saw from their ships while they were sailing in these waters.

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Where to stay:

Halfway between George Town and Launceston is Lilydale, where you can find a very nice free campsite. It features a sheltered BBQ area, toilets, even a fireplace and two nice little waterfalls just 10 minutes’ walk. And if you’re lucky you might get a sunset as impressive as the one below!

There are several basic campsites along the Bay of Fires just above Binalong Bay, all free, but also all very popular. During the high season it might be hard to find a spot but if you’re lucky you might get one directly next to the coast, fall asleep with the sound of the waves and wake up to admire the sunrise… Not too bad isn’t it?

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Binnalong Bay in the early morning

Do you have more time?

East of Launceston, Ben Lomond National Park is a plateau around 1300m in height, with a peak at 1572m (Legges Tor, second highest point of Tasmania). Find more information here.

The East coast and Freycinet National Park

How long to stay:

2 days, more if you do the Freycinet Peninsula Circuit, up to a week if you also include Maria Island.

What to see:

20180122_140701Heading South from the Bay of Fire, it will be a very scenic road until the first of the main Tasmanian highlights, Freycinet National Park. Take your time to enjoy the drive! On your way make sure to stop at Bicheno to see the very impressive blowholes. Even on a quiet sunny day when I was there the water was projected very high! Just before you can also spend some time on the beach and walk to Diamond Island, which is linked to mainland at low tide. Don’t try to walk there during high tide as it could be really dangerous:  a couple of tourists drowned here a few years ago!

If you stay in this area you will also very likely see penguins in the evening. Make sure to wake up early though because you don’t want to be too late at Freycinet National Park. It’s very popular and there aren’t so many parking spots! It’s in this park that you’ll find the famous Wineglass Bay, so perfectly naturally shaped that it looks almost like a glass of wine from the sky.

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You can hike to the bay via a beautiful lookout in about 1.5 hours return (Great Short Walk 55), but I’ll advise you to do the Hazards Beach Circuit (4 hours return, Great Short Walk 56). There are less people on the other side of the track, the beaches aren’t less beautiful and you might see some cute wildlife on the way. More difficult with some rock climbing and very steep sections, you can also try to hike to the summit of Mt Amos: I didn’t do it myself but I’ve seen pictures taken by friends of mine (here’s one on their instagram account) and it’s probably the most stunning view of Wineglass Bay that you can get.

Still in the National Park, don’t miss also Honeymoon Bay and the lighthouse. The scenery from both is fantastic.

Finally, the East coast between Freycinet and Orford is also really beautiful; another scenic drive in the direction of the Tasman Peninsula.

Where to stay:

I can’t recommend any place to stay on the East Coast: along with the friends I was travelling with I got invited by a family from Hobart to stay in the backyard of the house they were renting during their holidays in Bicheno! But there are plenty of free campsites close to Freycinet National Park, a good option if you want to be the first person on the beach at Wineglass Bay without waking up too early.

Do you have more time?

If you want to stay longer in the Freycinet National Park, take 2 or 3 days to do the 30 kilometre Freycinet Peninsula Circuit; more information here.

Just before Orford, sail to Maria Island via the ferry in Triabunna; only for pedestrians and cyclists as cars aren’t allowed on this island, which is also a National Park. There you’ll be able to visit the World Heritage Listed Darlington Probation Station and you’ll spot a very rich wildlife. Three of the 60 Great Short Walks (numbers 58, 59 and 60) can be found on Maria Island. More details here.

The Tasman Peninsula

How long to stay:

3 days to have enough time to explore it without rushing, 4 more days if you have enough money to do the Three Capes Track.

What to see:

If you’re coming from Freycinet National Park, be aware that after Orford the coastal road isn’t sealed anymore and becomes a gravel road, that a local described me as “pretty rough”. If you want to keep on the main road you’ll have to drive through Sorell then follow the signs to the Tasman Peninsula. It was the part of Tasmania I liked most, and it will ravish both hikers and people interested in History.

Once you’re on the Peninsula, just before arriving at the narrow isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck , turn left to admire the stunning view over Pirates Bay from Tasman lookout.

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The view over the Tasman Peninsula from the Tasman lookout.

A bit further down, stop at Tesselated Pavement. Here a very rare type of erosion created geometrical shapes, forming a perfectly regular pattern. It looks like it has been built by man, but it’s actually 100% natural! I don’t really remember how it happened so I won’t try to explain it, some signs there will do it way better than me. Keep in mind that it’s only visible during low tide.

Just after you’ve crossed the Eaglehawk Neck, turn left on Blowhole Road. You’ll be spoilt with things to see in this direction: the extraordinary Tasman Arch and the huge cliffs of Devil’s Kitchen on one side, a blowhole and a nice lookout on the other… Pretty amazing, and it’s only the beginning of the Tasman Peninsula!

Further South, another natural wonder is Remarkable Cave. From there you’ll have a nice lookout over Cape Raoul, the southernmost point of the Tasman Peninsula (see below), while a small pathway will lead you to a viewing platform facing the entrance of the cave. What you can’t see from there is that it branches in two towards the ocean; you can walk inside at low tide but be careful as waves can rush into these tunnels very quickly.

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The 4 to 5 hour hike (almost 15kms return, Great Short Walk 6) to get to Cape Raoul was my personal favourite of Tasmania and definitely one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done. To get to the beginning of the track, you’ll have to drive about 10kms of gravel road but in excellent condition and suitable for any kind of vehicles. The first 2 kilometers of the walk are under the shade of a nice forest, until you suddenly reach a platform with an exceptional view.

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One of the most beautiful views of Tasmania: Cape Raoul lookout.

The path follows the coast for most of the next 5kms with more lookouts on the way until you reach Cape Raoul. Right in front of you, admire the huge rock columns falling into the ocean. A breathtaking sight!

The track ends a bit further with a lookout over the sea lion colony living here. As the viewing platform is very high above the ocean it’s not so easy to see them at first, but you’ll hear them quite well!

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After all these natural wonders, take also some time to learn more about the first European settlement in Tasmania. If that’s a topic that interests you, the visit of Port Arthur Historic Site is a must. From the 1830’s to the 1860’s, hundreds of convicts were sent to this penal station, and only a few returned home. The best way to learn about harsh life during this era is to follow a guided tour, included in the entry price (39$ for an adult) before walking around by yourself between the dozens of very well preserved ruins. A top class visit!

On the North-West extremity of the Peninsula, you can also see what’s left from former coal mines where convicts worked in very hard conditions. There’s less to visit than in Port Arthur, but it’s free here! Follow the Great Short Walk 2 to explore the whole site.

From there it’s only one and a half hour drive until Hobart… read about this city in the second part of this article, coming soon!

Where to stay:

I always stayed in free campsites in Tasmania, with just one exception: the Raoul Bay Retreat, located directly next to the car park where the Cape Raoul hike starts. Pretty convenient if you want to do it in the morning or if you don’t want to drive further in the evening isn’t it? And it comes with a great feature: a sauna! Ideal to recover after the hike and definitely worth the 10$ per person per night.

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Do you have more time?

Recently opened (by the end of 2015), the Three Capes Track is a brand new luxurious hike. Why luxurious? Because it costs not less than 495$ and you need to book it in advance as only 48 people are allowed at the same time. For that price you’ll get an entrance to Port Arthur historic site where a boat will pick you up for a little cruise and drop you at the beginning of the 46km track. It’s supposed to be done in 4 days with 3 high comfort huts on the way. A bus service (also included in the price) will bring you back to Port Arthur. It’s very expensive but the experience must be unforgettable… Find out the details here.

A free option is to hike only to the magnificent Cape Pillar, starting from Fortescue Bay. It’s a 30km trek that could be done in 2 days, 22km on the first and 8km on the second. Read about it here.

That’s all for this first part! Find the second half of this 2 week road trip here, including among other things the beautiful far South Tasmania or the iconic Cradle Mountain. Thanks for reading and enjoy Tassie!

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