Tasmania’s wild West Coast is brimming with natural beauty, adventure and a lot of artistic flair.
The sea breeze whips through my hair and the descending sun slowly turns the sky a pastel pink. I’m on a speedboat travelling away from Tasmania’s seaside town of Strahan, which is fast becoming a series of dots in the distance. As the boat slices through the choppy water, my entertaining guide Suz regales me with facts and anecdotes about the region.
“You’ll notice that the water is a brown colour, like Coke or tea,” she says. I look down and take in the murky brown of the water. “That’s because the button grass, which grows in the catchment area, releases tannins into the water.” I feel a sense of relief that the brown isn’t on account of pollution, which I realise I’ve become accustomed to back on the mainland. “And the composition of the water is fairly unusual,” she continues, “in that it’s freshwater on top and saltwater underneath.” More than a little baffled, I silently mull over these facts.
But before long, my meditations on nature’s mysteries have been replaced by imaginings of fairy penguins — their upright chests protruding with pride — after all, they’re what I’ve come to see. We dock at the wharf on Bonnet Island, an isolated speck bounded by craggy rocks, and as water laps noisily against the boat we clamber ashore.
Suz leads us up a winding dirt path fringed by small shrubs and coastal flowers to a lookout from which looms a historic lighthouse. Blinking at regular intervals and illuminating the entrance to the immense Macquarie Harbour, the lighthouse is powered by solar and battery. However, when it was constructed in 1891, it ran on kerosene and was operated by an ill-fated lighthouse keeper who lived on the tiny island, often bringing his equally ill-fated family with him. Suz tells us stories about these unfortunate souls, one of whom lost his wife and two children in a shipwreck, and another who nearly burnt down the lighthouse in a kerosene fire.
The sun has now fully set, prompting us to grab our torches and search for our little feathered friends. Wandering up through the scrub we spy a stout, diminutive fairy penguin. Very aware that he’s on display, this tiny creature preens himself and scratches at the earth, every so often glancing at us humans as if unsure what to make of us. Having watched him for some time we head back to the boat, which whisks us back to Strahan under a night sky speckled with glittery stars.
Just over two hours from Burnie, Strahan, Tasmania is well worth the drive. In addition to the Bonnet Island trip, there are all kinds of things to see and do in Tasmania. A Gordon River cruise takes you towards Cape Sorell, where you can breathe in the purest air in the world before you glide past stands of Huon pines in the UNESCO Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The cruise also visits Sarah Island, Australia’s oldest penal colony, where some of our nation’s most notorious convicts were incarcerated.
If you’re after a bit of rest and relaxation, there’s no more idyllic place to have a tipple than at Strahan Village’s View 42° Restaurant & Bar. Overlooking majestic Macquarie Harbour, its outdoor seating provides the perfect vantage point to watch ships docking at the wharf and the mountains silhouetted on the horizon. And after a big day of exploration, and maybe a few too many wines, why not stay the night at one of Strahan Village Hotel’s rooms or cottages? Snuggle into your king-size bed and know that when you open your curtains in the morning, Macquarie Harbour will be glimmering back at you. Hot tip: head down to The Coffee Shack for your morning caffeine hit — you won’t be disappointed.
After you’ve finished exploring Strahan it’s time to hit the road. From harbour town to mountain peaks, the next destination is Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park. While you can drive there in just over two hours, if you have a 4WD take a detour to Ocean Beach. This windy stretch of sand extends a whopping 32 kilometres and, as it’s deemed a public road, you’re free to hit speeds of up to 80 kilometres an hour.
Once you’ve had your speed fix, it’s back to the meandering roads that weave through open moorland en route to the National Park. Driving through this part of the world, with mountain vistas surrounding you on all sides, you’ll really feel you’ve gone back to nature. And if this excites you, just wait and see what the National Park has in store.
Arguably one of Australia’s most untainted pockets of wilderness, Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park is made up of ancient rainforests where waterfalls cascade, open plains where conifers and beech trees reach for the sun, and tranquil, glassy lakes.
One of the most popular walks leaving from the northern end of the National Park is the Overland Track, a five- to six-day hike from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair. Appealing though that is, I opt for a decidedly shorter hike to Marions Lookout. Just less than three hours return, this hike starts at Ronny Creek and takes you through flat plains covered in buttongrass, where I am lucky enough to spot a wombat. Ascending through a rainforest of mossy alpine trees I notice the landscape around me has transformed, and as I climb higher — up towards the rugged peak of Marions Lookout — it continues to change, becoming much more gravelly and scrubby.
The plateau is sparse, revealing the jagged rock underfoot, but more engrossing is the uninterrupted view of Cradle Mountain. I gaze at the dolerite peaks of the craggy mountain and in that moment, I can’t help feeling very small. The other side of the lookout provides an equally breathtaking view over the perfectly still Dove Lake — like a mirror, it reflects the mountains surrounding it. I breathe deeply and take a mental snapshot of my surroundings before embarking on the steep descent.
Worn out and still under a spell, I get an early night at the Cradle Mountain Hotel before bringing my road trip full circle, back in Burnie. A port town, Burnie is renowned as a creative town brimming with local artisans, and what better place to encounter them than at its dedicated Meet the Makers workshop and exhibition space?
Walking into the building I’m immediately struck by its energised atmosphere; a woman is handcrafting baskets from different coloured ropes while genially giving a young girl some instructions on how to fashion her own basket; there’s a stall for tasting some of Tasmania’s artisan cheeses (make sure you try the Tasmanian Heritage Triple Cream Brie); and a range of colourful textiles, glassworks and jewellery made by onsite artists adorns the gift shop.
I book myself into a papermaking workshop and before long am discussing plants, fibres, pulp and sealants. By the time I leave half an hour later, I feel incredibly accomplished having made my very own piece of denim paper embellished with an emu watermark.
Of course, this little souvenir is not the only thing I take home with me from Tasmania’s west coast. The feeling of the sea breeze in my hair, the spectacle of a fairy penguin preening himself and the breathtaking views from the top of Marions Lookout will be coming with me as well. Oh, and my boyfriend, I guess he can come too.
The writer was a guest of RACT (Royal Automobile Club of Tasmania) and Tourism Tasmania.
How to get there
Rex Airlines flies directly from Melbourne to Burnie seven days a week.