Walking holiday

Tasmania’s Maria Island was once a penal colony, but walking here today is not punishing. Leo Schofield pulls on his hiking boots and discovers a peaceful place rich in natural beauty.

They’re known collectively as the Great Walks of Tasmania. Some are world-famous – Cradle Mountain, the Bay of Fires, the Freycinet Peninsula. Others have long been popular with avid bush-walkers – the Tarkine rainforest, the Walls of Jerusalem, the South Coast track. Less well known is the Maria Island Walk, a unique four-day, three-night amble around one of the most ravishing of the many small islands left dotted in the seas off Tasmania’s coastline when this little triangle of land detached itself from Gondwana millions of years ago.

Evidence exists that the Tyreddeme Aboriginal people of Oyster Bay regularly visited and some lived here seasonally or permanently. In 1642, the Dutch put Maria on the map, literally, when the explorer Abel Tasman christened it Maria Island in honour of the wife of his boss back in Batavia, Anthony Van Diemen.

A century and a half later, in 1802, the French expedition led by Nicolas Baudin sailed around the island and attached French names to assorted bays and points. Baudin actually made contact with the Aboriginal people and recorded their way of life. Less sympathetic to the native population were the whalers and sealers who arrived about the same time as the French and whose activities stained the tourmaline waters of the island’s beautiful bays with the blood of slaughtered mammals.


Then came the British. With their unerring knack for transforming places of great natural beauty into vicious penal colonies, they established a settlement at the northern end of Maria, a hub of pain and despair. It proved to be an infelicitous choice: prisoners were able to escape by boat to the mainland, and as a result, the prison was relocated to the equally beautiful but more impregnable Port Arthur, to the south.

Farming followed, as did a doomed attempt to establish commercial industry in the latter part of the 19th century. Eventually the shutters came down, no more farming leases were renewed and Maria Island sank back into a slumber.

In 1972 the Tasmanian government resumed all of the island’s freehold land and declared it a national park. Since then it has become a kind of latter-day Noah’s Ark, and the entire island is now protected. Endangered species are shipped to Maria to go forth and multiply, an order they have obligingly obeyed. Fifty years ago the beautiful pale grey Cape Barren goose was in danger of extinction. It remains so on the mainland but here on Maria, undisturbed by natural and human predators, they wander freely, in quite a proprietorial fashion, all over the island. Forester kangaroos, similarly threatened, bound happily through the bush in their adopted home, along with Bennetts wallabies, wombats, brush-tailed and ring-tailed possums, echidnas, bandicoots and pademelons.

Then there are the birds: the pelagic species such as mighty sea eagles, numerous types of albatross, plus singular rarities like the tiny jewel-like forty-spotted pardalote, Australia’s rarest bird. It’s a mere mite of a thing that darts through the underbrush in search of its preferred foods – insects and manna, the sap of the white eucalypt. You’ll need luck and binoculars to spot it, but most visitors do.

Given this abundance of wildlife, Maria Island’s remarkable history and heart-stopping beauty, it was only a matter of time before some bright soul came up with the idea of a guided walk. Enter Hobart engineer Ian Johnstone.

In 2002, Johnstone, a keen bushwalker and camper and a frequent visitor to the island, dreamed up the idea of an exclusive guided walk (limited to just eight people at any one time) with accommodation somewhat less rugged than DIY camping.

“I had a career as a civil engineer around Australia and overseas for nearly 20 years and was inspired by the quality experiences that I encountered in Africa, Australia and New Zealand. So when I was sent to Tasmania to work in the early 1990s I fell in love with Tasmania and decided to move into tourism,” says Johnstone.

“I first went to Maria in the mid 1990s and was enchanted by the place – I subsequently took my wife there on our first weekend away together. It has a real presence about it with the history, hundred-year-old avenue of trees, abundant wildlife and tranquility. It is an easy place with which to fall in love.”

Given that the walk has already carried off a slew of eco-tourism awards (including the gong for Best Eco Adventure at Gourmet Traveller‘s 2010 Travel Awards), it’s no surprise to find that it’s a beautifully organised experience.

Muster on the first day is at 8am sharp at headquarters in Hobart. Participants are given a cuppa, introduced to the two guides who accompany each party, and briefed on the daily drill. Packs are inspected and superfluous items mercilessly eliminated. Some walkers have been known to arrive with travelling irons and inflatable coat-hangers in their haversacks, but given the absence of electricity and wardrobes in the huts on the island, such metropolitan folderol is clearly unnecessary baggage.

A bus awaits to take walkers to Triabunna where they are conveyed by motor launch to the landing spot opposite. Maria has an hourglass shape, the north and south land masses connected by a narrow isthmus barely 50 metres wide. Most landings are on the western side, but if the sea is sufficiently calm, an indulgent boatman will head north and land on the eastern shore, the detour proving sensational views of the Valhallan cliffs at the top of the island.

A Zodiac takes you to the beach, the starting point for the walk. From there, it’s onwards to Camp One, four simple arched shelters enclosed by canvas and connected to one other and the central cooking and eating area via a series of discreet boardwalks.

Some may refer to this kind of excursion as glamping, but in truth, it’s still at some remove from serious glamour. Yes, you are joined by guides who do the heavy lifting and prepare your meals, but you must still do the walking, hump a pack and, if you’re seriously fit, eager and adventurous, scale either Mount Maria or Bishop and Clark, the two seriously high mountains at the end of the walk.

But for the most part, the walk is relatively easy, along superb white beaches with sand as fine a pumice and air that’s as sharp as a cut. On a warm day the temptation to shuck off the pack, lose the boots and plunge into the water is almost irresistible.

One of the guides walks ahead so that by the time the group rolls into camp on the first night, the cork has been pulled on some splendid local wine, canapés prepared and dinner is well under way. Few bush camps could offer food as good as that these amateur cooks manage to conjure up.

The second day is the longest walk, some 13 kilometres, but again, it’s relatively easy and another terrific dinner awaits.

By day three, the group has the hang of it and strides briskly into Darlington, once site of the penal station. Here we enjoy a hot shower, a celebratory farewell dinner and a warm bed in an historic late 19th century house, one of the many heritage structures that remain to remind us of the island’s fascinating past.

You could undertake this trip alone or as a couple, but the optimum method of sharing the experience is with a group of friends or family. Age, it seems, is no barrier. The youngest person to ever complete the walk was five and the oldest 82. At any stage of one’s life, it remains an unforgettable and uniquely Australian experience. Uniquely Tasmanian, too.

The Maria Island Walk experience is available from October until April and costs $2150 per person, all-inclusive.

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