Walking Maria Island

Forget the spa treatment. A long walk with a bunch of great friends has to be the ultimate way to rejuvinate the mind and body. And it doesn’t get much more perfect than a guided walk on Maria Island.

Shoal Bay
All set to get walking at Shoal Bay

Maria Island, off Tasmania’s east coast is just 20 km from end to end – a jewel of pristine white beaches and rugged dolerite columns. Yet, the tiny island has been home to Aboriginal people, whalers, convicts, entrepreneurs and farmers. Each population has left its mark and taking a guided walk on Maria is like ambling along a timeline of Australia’s history, with gourmet meals and homemade biscuits for sustenance along the way.

Darlington
The historic settlement of Darlington

Our  walk begins in the sheltered cove of Shoal Bay where European explorers first came ashore. Dutchman, Abel Tasman sighted the island in 1642, naming it after the wife of Anthony Van Diemen, the Governor General of the Dutch East India Company. But it was more than 150 years later that French and English explorers landed on Maria Island and noticed the large populations of seals and whales.

By 1825 Maria Island had marked another milestone. An English convict station was established at the northern end of the island. The convict settlement was closed down permanently in 1850, and Maria Island was opened up to farmers. Several intrepid families took up the challenge. Flamboyant entrepreneur, Diego Bernacchi also spotted an opportunity to turn the windswept island into an Australian Riviera, with vineyards, orchards and tourist facilities. However the Depression proved too much for business, and Bernacchi’s company went under. Maria was abandoned and eventually turned into a National Park in 1971.

Since then the island’s isolation has worked in favour of the wildlife, giving it a reputation as a modern-day Noah’s Ark. Several threatened species, including Cape Barren geese, Tasmanian native hens, Forester kangaroos and Flinders Island wombats have been successfully imported. The Tasmanian Devil could be next. Devil numbers on mainland Tasmania have been decimated by the spread of facial tumours and researchers are assessing the possibility that Maria might be the place to save them.

Haunted Bay
Heading for Haunted Bay

It is fairy penguins that we’re out to find on the first day of our four-day walk. We leave the sandy isthmus, where we came ashore, and head through the unspoiled Eucalypt forest to the southern end of the island. High above the lichen-covered cliffs of Haunted Bay we find what we are looking for. A handful of fluffy chicks are tucked away in their respective nests. By nightfall the bay will echo with their plaintive calls as their parents return from the ocean with food. But for now they are doing their best to hide from the outside world.

Our camp for the night, a cluster of permanent tents, is even more discreet – secreted away behind the dunes of beautiful Riedle Bay. It is here that we realize that our two young guides are not only extremely knowledgeable, and a lot stronger than they look, they are also fantastic cooks. From out of their backpacks they assemble an array of local cheeses and fruit to accompany our afternoon drinks. Then comes a three course meal that begins with a goat’s cheese and herb bruschetta, progresses to a scallop risotto and finishes with a summer pudding, all washed down with delicious Tasmanian wines.

Darlington, Maria Island
Darlington, Maria Island

The following morning we are served tea in our sleeping bags – further eroding the chances of making a smooth reentry into normal life, when the walk is over.  Then it’s a leisurely breakfast (three courses, naturally) before we have to swing on our backpacks for the 13 km walk to our next bush camp. It’s mostly a gentle coastal walk. The challenge is to swim at each of the five beaches that we pass. Despite our guides’ assurances that the water is a “comfortable 17 degrees”, I find it a very cold 17 degrees and only manage a quick dip at the first two.

During the day we pass the brick remains of a convict probation station on a particularly windy hilltop at Point Lesueur. Up to 600 prisoners were held on the island in drafty, cramped cells. Nowadays the wombats have the place to themselves. A handsome Flinders Island variety eyes us suspiciously as we traipse across a grassy clearing. It looks so cute, I’m tempted to pop it in my backpack and take it home. But we are warned that wombats charge when provoked and their teeth can inflict a nasty wound. We leave the wombats to their grazing and head off to our next secluded camp among the White gums, to pursue some grazing of our own – featuring barbequed quail with couscous salad.

The next day we face a rainy start to the day, but the weather clears just as we arrive in the historic heart of the island, Darlington. In the bright sunshine, the former penal settlement has completely lost any menace that it once had. The approach to the Heritage-listed site is lined with magnificent Macrocarpa Pines, pairs of Cape Barren geese promenade across the fields where convicts once toiled and even the prison cells look inviting. The remains of Diego Bernacchi’s enterprises dot the hills in an artistic kind of way. His cottage, where we will be spending the night, has been immaculately restored and the garden planted with lavender. The scene is positively bucolic.

Maria Island
Mt Bishop and Clerk

The clear weather also reveals our destination for the afternoon – the dolerite columns of Bishop and Clerk, a majestic peak that rises 630 metres above the town. The trek to the summit is the only really testing part of our whole walk. It begins pleasantly enough with a grassy incline, the views across the fossil-strewn cliffs making up for any hardship. Dark shapes in the sea below us, that may, or may not be seals, provide another diversion as the track gets steeper. But when we are faced with a daunting scree slope, there are murmurs of protest from our group. The groans get louder as we plod up the relentless rocky terrain. When we finally scramble over the last of the boulders, we are met with a spectacular view – the old penal settlement lies below us and the Freycinet Peninsular, Wineglass Bay and the Hazards stretch out on the far side of the bay.

Mt Bishop and Clerk
Enjoying the breeze on the summit of Mt Bishop and Clerk

From the summit of Bishop and Clerk, it’s easy to see why Diego Bernacchi once dreamed of turning Maria Island into a Mediterranean paradise, but the island is uniquely Australian and that’s what makes it so unforgettable.

Julie’s travel stories are featured in the  Australian Good Food &  Travel Guide.

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