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Monday 3 March 2014

How a fat, sweaty bloke survived (and thrived) on the Maria Island Walk

Truth be told, I'm not much of a camping kind of guy. I like my comforts. Composting toilets, tents, mosquito nets and rocks that need to be climbed are not usually on my agenda.

The four-day Maria Island Walk, an internationally acclaimed guided walk off the east coast of Tasmania, loomed as something of a challenge, then, even if it is billed as a gourmet experience.

Small groups – a maximum of 10 guests and two guides – enjoy a combination of wilderness, heritage and Tasmanian food and wine.

Along the way you'll encounter wombats, pademelons, all manner of bird life including Cape Barren geese, kangaroos and maybe even a Tasmanian devil or two. Dolphins and migrating whales are sometimes spotted from the largely deserted beaches.

The Maria Island Walk is billed as “a gentle and relaxing journey” through one of Australia’s most beautiful and tranquil national parks and has been described as “one of the world's great walks”. I found it less than relaxing (you are carrying heavy backpacks, after all) – but it was certainly exhilarating.

The guides are chosen for their knowledge of Maria Island, including the birds, native plants and animals. They’ve studied the history and stories and can also cook, pour a wine and are infinitely patient with slow, sweating walkers. Our pair - Sarah and Jessie – were both charming and frighteningly capable.

A bus ride from Hobart to Triabunna is followed by a short boat crossing of Mercury Passage (quite calm in both directions) to remote Shoal Bay beach where we were dumped with a cheery “see you in four days”. It was noticeable that ours were the only footprints in the sand.

After a short walk we arrived at Casuarina Beach camp with its tented village tucked away in the bush. Welcome to an eco-friendly, minimal intervention world of no electricity and no hot water – although the ocean makes for a pretty fine swimming pool and it is lovely to watch the stars emerge as the sun sets.

Post-walk, our group savoured local wines, beers and a dinner of tomato bruschetta, followed by local scallops with soba noodles, shiitake mushrooms, wakame and oyster sauce. It was restaurant quality – as was virtually every meal on the trip. That was no mean feat given cooking facilities are rudimentary, to say the least.

The next day temperatures soared to 35 degrees – and it was the longest day on the road. Except the road comprised delightful bush tracks and gorgeous deserted beaches before a final couple of kilometres that really strained the muscles.

The third day takes in a “gentle” inland track to Hopgrounds Beach and the Painted Cliffs (below) – dramatically formed by crashing waves. There is also an option to climb Mount Maria and take in the 360-degree views – if the weather is kind.

Maria Island pre-dates Port Arthur as a convict settlement and was also home to short-lived silk-making and cement manufacturing ventures that were part of a bold but failed vision of an ambitious Italian entrepreneur, Diego Bernacchi.

On the final night, walkers stay in Bernacchi's gracious old home – which has toilets, showers, comfortable beds and a full-equipped kitchen. They can then explore the remains of colonial Darlington on their final morning.

The facts: Maria Island Walks operate from October to the end of April and the price is $2,300 per person inclusive. Walkers are advised to equip themselves with walking boots and warm clothing but backpacks, sleeping bags and bedding are provided. Phone (03) 6234 2999.

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