Road trips through unexplored locales have always tickled our fancy at The Starfish.
Hence it was with an abiding spirit of discovery, we recently set off from Bicheno to Launceston on a loop around northern-east Tasmania.
The quickest way to get from Bich (on Tassie’s central east coast) to Lonnie is to cut west to the Midland Highway and then up into the historic northern city.
But we had new places to see and time on our hands so, starting early, sallied forth up the coast on the Tasman Highway (A3) toward St Helens. The highway here, wending through some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in Australia, is always a joy to drive.
Pulling up at St Helens, a quaint and quiet fishing and tourism town, we darted into St Helens Books Café for morning tea, where several visits had soundly confirmed its grand claim to sell the best scones in Tasmania.
We gobbled down a couple of these baked beauties (with strawberry jam and cream, of course), sucked down a few beakers of Joe and continued on a little diversion up to the Bay of Fires for a squiz.
This beautiful crescent of coast, stretching about 25 kms from Binalong Bay to Point Eddystone, was so named in 1773 by Captain Tobias Furneaux aboard the Adventure,when he and his crew saw the campfires of indigenous people on the beaches.
The pure white sands are dotted with ancient granite outcrops covered in brilliant orange lichen, which looks striking against the dazzling blue waters of the Pacific.
We had a quick plunge at Cosy Corner Beach (a bracing yet slightly startling act, even in February, in the nippy southern seas) and were soon on our way again.
Back on the Tasman Highway we passed through enchanting wooded and rural landscapes at Goshen and Gould’s Country (the latter named after the renowned ornithologist and artist), then pulled into the renowned Pyengana Dairy Company to sample its celebrated wares.
There had been a lot of rain in eastern Tassie over summer, so the pastures were lush and emerald green, and the cows seemingly over the moon.
Milking is a casual affair at Pyengana. The moo-moos dawdle in at their own leisure, udders replete, get milked, and then meander back out into the paddocks, relieved. The milk is creamy and the resultant cheeses superb, no doubt assisted by the happy bovine workplace agreements at Pyengana. No-stress cheese is the best cheese.
Once this delightful dairy is behind us, the road swings north and climbs into higher country. We hugged the Waratah Creek Forest Reserve, passing through the former trader outpost of Weldborough (population 25), where we spotted weekend hikers and bikers enjoying the sun, a drink and lunch in the garden at the old tavern.
A bit further along we pulled up at the Weldborough Pass Rainforest Walk, a charming short walk through the ferns and trees of the Frome Forest Reserve.
It seems this sylvan oasis is a powerful lure for alternative lifestylers (the fragrance of patchouli oil wafted on the mountain air), nature lovers and scientists, whom we found in various incarnations of euphoria scattered through the verdant undergrowth.
“Stop!” cried an hirsute boffin training his macro camera on a small hole in the leaf-litter. “See that tiny portal in the ground? It is the realm of the endangered freshwater burrowing crayfish. Be careful where you plonk down ya clodhoppers, Sonny Jim; Engaeus yabbimunna might be at home.”
Thereafter we adopted a novel, slow motion minefield perambulation technique to avoid crustacean crushing.
Back on the road, we stopped in Derby briefly and found ourselves completely surround by swarms of energetic mountain bikers.
Derby once boasted some of the richest tin deposits on earth and a mining community of 3000 boomed there until a dam burst in heavy rains in 1929, killing 14 town residents. The industry never fully recovered, and operations closed for good in 1948.
But the local terrain is brilliant for mountain biking and the new industry has exploded over the last five years. In 2015 a network of mountain bike trails opened in the wooded hills surrounding Derby. The trails are called Blue Derby and stretch out to the Blue Tier area.
The town is now recognised as Australia’s off-road treadlie Mecca.
Still rolling through rural and reserve terrain, we passed several smaller towns dotting the Tasman Highway, took a sharp left at the larger farming town of Scottsdale and headed southwest.
We made sure to stop for a look back at the country we’d come through at the Sideling Lookout, which is situated high on a range and has a sweeping eastern vista. Then it was down the other side of the range for the run into Lonnie.
We were staying at Waratah on York, a large converted manor house with views across the city and the Tamar.
Having earlier studied the road map for directions, I pulled off Brisbane Street and into Weymouth Street, only to be confronted by a climb not unlike the northwest face of Annapurna. The map didn’t indicate a vertical gradient.
It is ridiculously steep and one felt that the poor Camry Hybrid may well tumble end over end back down the road into City Park, a mangled wreck.
Slowly, and with the engine roaring furiously, we inched up to the hotel at the summit, and there spotted the manageress dash out and cry, “Pull in here, quickly!”
Wheels spinning and sump grinding we eventually found our spot in the car park.
“You’re supposed to come in from the top road; it’s a one way street,” she said, a mite belatedly.
Then it was up another flight of stairs to the office for check in, and a further staircase up to our room, although ‘aerie’ my well be a better descriptor for our lofty lodgings.
We were keen to stretch the pins after the drive so took a walk downtown for a bite of dinner.
Settled by Europeans in March 1806, Launceston is one of Australia’s oldest cities and it has many historic buildings. Like numerous other places in Australia, it was named after a town in the United Kingdom – in this case, Launceston, Cornwall.
Also like many other cities in Australia, development over the last few centuries has been a tad ad hoc, and the new stuff can sometimes clash with the beautiful Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian facades. The town has a population of close to 88,000 and is second in size only to Hobart.
Of course, the first inhabitants of the area of Launceston were largely nomadic indigenous Tasmanians, believed to have been part of the North Midlands Tribe.
Lonnie is a charming city to explore on foot and we made many a sortie of discovery seeing the sights.
That night we ended up in a vegan Thai restaurant, primarily because everywhere else was full of Friday night patrons and revellers.
This repast was somewhat noteworthy due to the peculiar dishes we ordered. There was “meat” and “seafood” in our bowls, but they were entirely fashioned from vegan substances like tofu. The prawns were perfect replicas of plump tigers (even down to the pale pink stripes) and the beef also was globules of flavoured veggie goo. Got to say, they weren’t half bad and perfectly vegan, to boot.
Later we took a stroll down at the pretty waterfront before climbing back up the hill to Waratah on York and bed.
The next morning we headed off to see Cataract Gorge, which sits in the city limits. This spectacular dolerite geological attraction is a great draw for visitors and makes for a wonderful loop walk from the west side of town.
A pathway called the King’s Bridge-Cataract Walk, originally built by volunteers in the 1890s, runs along the north bank of the waterway. The original tollhouse at which pedestrians had to pay to enter the walk can still be seen near King’s Bridge on the northern edge of the gorge.
We took the steep cliff-side Zig Zag Reserve trail on the south shore into the park, which in hindsight was the most gruelling way. Many a panting, perspiring and chest clutching pedestrian was seen leaning against rocks and trees on the trail. (It turns out we could have driven the car to within 50m of our destination, but why ruin a gruelling and unnecessary walk?)
We availed ourselves of the famous chairlift, run by a man with an uncanny resemblance to erstwhile WA Premier, Colin Barnett. Could Colin be doing a bit of moonlighting in the Apple Isle?
“Was this Barnett bloke Labor?” enquired the lift operator, once we pointed out the similarity. We replied in the negative.
“Forget it then, I’m not him.” And boing! He catapulted us out onto the cables high above the lake.
The locals are particularly proud of their chairlift, primarily because it has the longest single-span in the world at 308 metres. Built in 1972, this modern wonder has a total span of 457 metres.
We took it across the lake, walked back around across the Alexandra Suspension Bridge, and then took it back over again (‘Barnett’ thought he had gotten rid of us). This is an aerial dangle well worth taking for the best views of the gorge and surrounds.
Like so many old Australian towns, the early settlers wished to turn their antipodean home into a little Britain and Cataract Gorge didn’t escape the treatment. The northern side, named the Cliff Grounds, is a landscaped Victorian garden containing ferns, exotic plants and peacocks. However in more recent times the truly Australian nature of the bushland and terrain has been better appreciated and promoted.
Popping out of the gorge we passed the Penny Royal amusement park with its famous windmill, fab for families, and moseyed into a little gem of a Latin American café on Paterson Street called Tio Rico, where we hooked into the enchiladas and tacos with gusto.
Right across the adjacent Royal Park we toured the impressive Queen Victoria Art Gallery.
Established in 1891, the facility includes fine exhibitions of colonial art, contemporary craft and design, Tasmania history and natural sciences, specifically a zoologycollection. There is also a special exhibition of a full Chinese temple that was used by 19th-century Chinese tin miners (remember Derby?), a working planetarium, and displays related to Launceston’s industrial environment and railway workshops.
Launceston prides itself on the preservation of some fine colonial buildings and these include various churches, the Town Hall, Post Office, several beautiful hotels, the Customs House, banks, Albert Hall, Macquarie House and many others. All are within walking distance of each other and are well worth a squiz if you are an architectural history buff. Set walking tours are available from the tourist information centres.
Interesting fact: Macquarie House was where an expedition set off from in 1835 to found Melbourne. Tassie was very much ahead of the mainland in the early days of nation building.
Having built up quite the appetite with the day’s activities, that evening we popped into La Cantina Italian on George Street for home-made pasta, pizza and a few drops of Chianti. A great find.
Sunday morning broke sun-splashed and warm so we took a stroll around the pretty City Park below the hotel. Lonnie has some superb green spaces, most dating back to Georgian and Victorian times, and a number of the trees in them are of the same age.
We visited the impressive John Hart Conservatory in the park and also stumbled upon the Japanese Macaque Exhibit – rather a curious find in an Australian city park, but the resident monkeys seemed happy in their large enclosure far from Nippon, grooming, pestering one another and signalling the humans for a spare banana or peanut.
Our time in Lonnie was running down, so we did a little shopping downtown, packed our bags and headed out of town on the return journey.
This time we cut down the Midland Highway (A1) to check out the Sunday market at historic Evandale, a colourful event that brings diverse produce and arts and crafts from far and wide.
Evandale was teeming with visitors on market morning and we whiled away a couple of hours around the stalls and in the main hall. Who can resist a country market – in this case, a very large one? We picked up enough supplies for the rest of our stay down in Bicheno.
Coffee and the obligatory scallop pie was the order of the day at the quaint Ingelside Bakery Café. We also toddled into a few antique and second hand stores (a very common right across the Apple Isle) and were soon on the road again, heading south.
Perhaps we should have gone back to the Midland Highway, but we decided on a more bucolic path, Nile Road, which soon turned to dirt and the rental car rattled raucously over interminable corrugations through the Hans Heysen-ish country until the macadam returned at Cleveland.
We slipped through Campbell Town, renowned for its single line of red bricks in the pavement featuring the names of convicts. The Convict Brick Trail commemorates the nearly 200,000 convicts who were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868. Approximately 80% of Tasmanians descend from convicts to this day, but never fear, your purse remains relatively safe.
Early afternoon tea was planned at the historic hamlet of Ross, famous for its Georgian bridge and colonial buildings, and what the town claims to be the best vanilla slices in the galaxy.
The slices are bloody good, and savvy folk travel great distances to sit outside Ross Bakery with a cuppa, forking down these puff pastry and custard dainties.
We walked down to the Tasmanian Wool Centre at the other end of town. This is an informative museum and shop and features some really outstanding wool products for the chaps and ladies. The region supplies its super fine wool around the world and has a long-standing supply contract with Italian label Zegna.
More antique store forays and it was back on the road to Campbell Town, then out on the Lake Leake Highway (B34), bound for the east coast, completing our loop.
We decided to check out the remote Wye River Conservation Area and Lake Leake, which is about seven kilometres off the highway down an unsealed road.
Passing a sign that frothed about the joys of fishing and hunting, we arrived at the lake and spotted a band of rather rough looking fellows milling about on the jetty. They looked like extras from Deliverance, and didn’t seem overly merry to see us. Hark! A banjo twang…the squeal of a feral swine.
Our wheels spun and Lake Leake disappeared in a cloud of dust as we hightailed it out of there, lest we become the hunted. There are certain places on this earth that should be left to certain kinds of people. Lake Leake on a hot Sunday arvo is often one such place.
It is a lovely, meandering drive over the range and down to the east coast, where we again picked up the A3 north of Swansea.
This area has always been excellent farming terrain and in recent decades has earned a reputation for first class cool climate wineries. Some of the best are Milton, Spring Vale, Gala, Craige Knowe, Devils Corner and Freycinet.
The views out over the Great Oyster Bay and the Freycinet National Park from Devils Corner must vie for the most spectacular from any winery in Australia – and their wines too are mighty impressive.
With the sun setting we rolled back into Bicheno. It has been a fun weekend trip on the road less travelled, a route we can highly recommend if you are wishing to see some of the lesser-known parts of the good old Apple Isle.