Southern Tasmania - art, culture and the wild gateway to Antarctica


Tasmania’s capital city Hobart has rightly earned its place as one of the greatest small cities on earth. Lonely Planet declared it one of the top cities to visit in 2013, and prior to that in 2011 the Sunday Times wrote that “The world is heading for Hobart……” , shortly after the opening of the Museum of Old and New Art - which the writer also hailed as “ the greatest addition to Australia’s cultural landscape since the Sydney Opera House”. Sentiments that have been echoed by the world’s media ever since.

Hobart is a true maritime city, sitting snugly (and these days, probably smugly) in the midst of the world’s southern most wilderness areas, on the banks of the River Derwent . Mount Wellington, the playground for Hobartians, rises behind the city spectacularly, with a summit that climbs almost 1400 metres above sea level and is quite often capped with snow.

As your plane begins its descent, you will wonder where the vast wilderness ends and civilisation begins as your eyes drink in mountain ranges, lakes, rivers and forests stretching to white beaches and the far horizons, until virtually the moment that the plane touches down.

Hobart is undeniably the prettiest capital city in Australia, with a thriving arts scene, an astonishingly good food scene, the weekly Saturday morning Salamanca Markets – a fifty year old attraction – and a laid back buzz that has the air of a summer’s night out all year round, whatever the weather. It is worth noting at this point that Hobart vies for first and second place as the driest state capital in Australia. So that's another myth dispelled with!

Hobart is also an ideal place to put down roots for a few nights. Several extremely worthwhile day trips from the city’s waterfront mean that a number of the state’s southernmost and remote highlights can be experienced with ease if not total decadence by private guide, either by 4WD, by boat or by seaplane, meaning that you don’t necessarily have to make the agonisingly difficult decision of whether to head east or west on your onward journey. This is important, for unless you have a good two or three weeks plus in which to explore Tasmania, it is unlikely that you can do both sides and yet to miss out on either is a huge compromise. Making budgetary allowance for a couple of guided side trips from Hobart will a allow you to plan the rest of your itinerary, save money in the long run, and explore parts that are so often missed out by fellow tourists who find that they have excruciatingly run out of time.

If you are going to make the effort to go to one of the world’s southernmost cities, then do make sure you continue your journey as far down as you can towards Antarctica. Southern Tasmania – the Huon Valley and the Far South - are some of the most beautiful parts of the island and like the far north, almost devoid of visitors. Imagine, in just a couple of hours, travelling through blossom-filled farmland and orchards, the fertile land that gave Tassie its affectionate and rather old fashioned nickname the Apple Isle, into deep forested valleys, filled with huge blankets of mist, tannin stained rivers, some crashing furiously through rapids, others meandering, deep and slow, then into pockets of rainforest, before the road becomes a track and eventually peters out into pristine wilderness: Gondwanaland – as the world existed millions of years ago. If you go far as Cockle Creek or visit the 45 metre high Tahune Airwalk near Geeveston, you will be rewarded by vistas into the remote Hartz Mountains and the even more remote South West National Park, where walkers spend ten days traversing unforgiving mountain ranges and crossing gorges through wildly volatile weather, with nothing for survival but a back pack and a canvas tent for shelter. This is the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area. Almost inaccessible to the public but within a Devil’s screech by earshot are the Weld and Styx Valleys. From here there are recent and highly credible reports of the presence of the Tasmanian Tiger, presumed but still never proven to be extinct (if you are interested in finding out more, buy The Shadow of the Thylacine by Col Bailey who has dedicated much of his life to researching the thylacine’s probable continued existence in Tasmania - see 'further reading'.)

Also south of Hobart, and another good reason to stay in the South for a few more days than you might have planned, are the islands of North and South Bruny which form a national park – the two islands are joined by a narrow Isthmus – and the Tasman Peninsula which is itself joined to the mainland by an even narrower neck. Neither are really sensible to visit as a day trip unless with a private guide, although the uninitiated will, but in doing so they miss out on most of what these wonderful corners of Tassie have to offer. Accommodation is simple but quite plentiful in both.

The Tasman Peninsula is best known for the Port Arthur Historic Site and Coal Mines, the most feared penal colony in Australia, where from 1833 to 1877 repeat offenders were sent to experience the ‘cat o’ nine tails’ flogging and in later years the horrors of psychological torture through isolation punishment in total silence and darkeness.

Today you canexplore the Tasman Peninsula on a new self guided four day walk, The Three Capes, which starts with a boat trip from Port Arthur. You walk from Cape to Cape with extraordinary views, flora and fauna staying in brilliantly designed huts.  Why not finish with a couple of nights in a beautiful little B&B on the beach?

Nothing will prepare you for the juxtaposition of an achingly beautiful setting against the brutality and suffering of men and young boys. It is about 60 miles south of Hobart, but do the thousands of convicts who experienced 'Hell on Earth' the service of staying on this lovely peninsula for a couple of days; with the brilliant nightly historic ghost tour, and the amazing rock formations such as the Devil’s Kitchen and the Tessellated Pavement, and wonderful short and long bushwalks from Cape to Cape to Cape, you won’t regret it.  Crescent Bay is simply stunning,a perfect crescent of white sand backed by dunes, almost always deserted, yet in stark contrast  Shipstern Bluff is regarded as one of the most dangerous surf spots in the world and on all top surfers lists of places to visit before they die.  

Bruny Island is a national park, and like the Tasman Peninsula has the highest seacliffs in the Southern Hemisphere at 300 metres, with dolerite spires shooting in to the sky. Known for its birdlife – all 12 endemics reside here – and its abundant wildlife including its beguilingly short sighted white wallaby, Bruny is wild enough to be exhilarating and small enough not to be too daunting. Accessed by a delightful car ferry from Kettering, it is like entering another world. For more see 'islands of Tasmania'.