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Tasmania in the Slow Lane

Cycling as Seniors Across One of Australia’s Most Beautiful Islands

Article and photos by Cherie Thiessen

Wineglass Bay, Tasmania, Australia
Iconic photo of beautiful Wineglass Bay in Freycinet National Park.

Cycle touring has always been our favorite mode of travel, and though we may pedal slower now that we are in our 60s, we love the crunch of wheels on gravel and their hum on asphalt. We are especially wild about cycling islands; this was the year for Tasmania.

The company: Step one was finding a small, local company, and Green Island Tours, based in St. Helens, looked ideal. Owner, Manfred Kempeneer, founded the Tasmanian company in 2001: “It’s the first exclusively cycling-focused touring company in Tasmania,” Kempeneer told us. “We pride ourselves on attention to detail, and offer a very personalized service.” Flexibility was also on offer: a variety of accommodation from hostel quality to top end, and a selection of tour choices. Although the guided tours were the most popular, my partner, David, and I wanted a more independent form of travel, but with accommodations organized for us, fully equipped bikes waiting for us, a contact to call if we ran into problems, and a detailed itinerary that would ensure we didn’t miss anything en route. That’s exactly what we got.

Why we cycle: Like turtles, we enjoy trundling in slow motion, engaging all of the senses. We love investigating every roadside stand, smelling every wild bush with blossoms, pulling out binoculars to spy on every new bird, and tasting good food en route. We also like to spend our money locally, and find that when we do that, people seem more eager to chat with us, to offer tips and assistance, and to exchange stories. In slow time, everything mellows; there’s nothing between us and the people whose country we’re visiting.

The Route: We opted to begin at Tasmania’s capital, Hobart, and end at the historic village of Evandale, with days off to explore some of the scenic highlights like Maria Island, Freycinet National Park, and the beaches around St. Helens, and to visit popular attractions like the Bicheno Penguin Colony and nearby East Coast Natureworld.

The total distance would be around 311 miles. Considering that we had two weeks to do it, this didn’t seem too harsh, but we’d been warned about the hills and the headwinds.

The first night: Our small Hobart hotel was a budget option, basic, but clean and centrally located. Gleaming, fully equipped Shogun hybrid bikes awaited us, along with a wonderfully detailed itinerary of our routing, right down to when and where to buy provisions and what to watch for along the route. Inside one waterproof, sturdy saddlebag we were delighted to unearth a bottle of Shiraz.

Richmond: Next day dawned moody, the rain and wind forcing us to dismount and push our bikes over the lofty Tasman Bridge. It was an ominous beginning, but no worries, today we only had 18 miles to cover, cycling northeast to the landmark village of Richmond. We were glad to arrive early as the town offered several historic attractions: Richmond Bridge, Australia’s oldest bridge still in use (1823), St John's Catholic church (1836), also Australia’s oldest, and the Richmond Goal (1820s), the country’s oldest intact jail. Later, in the Barracks, historic buildings renovated into classy accommodations, we pulled out the Shiraz and celebrated our first day of cycling Tasmania.

David at the Barracks in Tasmania
David at our Richmond "Barracks" accommodation after the first day's cycling.

En route to Orford: Day 2 was 35 hilly miles along country roads to the Tasman Sea, an energetic but scenically beautiful trip. The final few miles wound uphill on a skinny road, following the river, which was curtained by blinding rain. We soon splashed into Orford, however, where our spacious accommodations at Seabreeze Holiday Cabins and our friendly host awaited.

Maria Island: The following day, too excited to linger in bed, we hit the pedals, flying four miles along the coast to Triabunna, where the 49-foot ferry to Maria Island was awaiting to take up to 48 passengers across choppy Mercury Passage.

It was a 40-minute trip over to the pier at Darlington, once a busy settlement, but now home to only a few park officials. Only eight of us disembarked this day, at the tail end of a Tasmanian summer.

Maria Island has been a national park since 1972. Ferry Captain John Cole-Cook warned us there were no restaurants or transport on the island; it was bike or boot to all the attractions, which are plentiful: 290-million year old fossil cliffs, pearly gleaming beaches, dramatic sandstone painted cliffs, renovated buildings from the convict days, several now housing displays and museums, a visitor center, and trails winding to vistas and relics of bygone days. We had eight sunny hours to wander the 104 sq. mile island, spot our first wallabies and kookaburra, explore the fossil cliffs, and watch the sunlight play on the spectacular painted cliffs. Rated by the National Geographic Traveler as one of the world’s top 10 islands, this natural paradise was surprisingly deserted. At 5 p.m., exhilarated and pleasantly tired, we cycled back to Orford, the Seabreeze, and our fish and chip dinner.

Maria Island Cliffs
The painted cliffs at Maria Island.

Bicheno Bound: The next few days were blissful. Cycling along the coast with no headwinds, and glorious weather, and with each day’s cycling under 50 miles, was effortless. A welcome stop en route was Freycinet Winery, where after a wine tasting, we purchased glasses of their signature Louis Riesling/Schonburger to have with our picnic lunch. We had two nights in Bicheno, enabling us to visit Freycinet National Park. The first evening finished with a guided visit to nearby Bicheno Penguin Colony, tracking the little Fairy Penguins by moonlight.

Freycinet National Park: After ogling Wineglass Bay, probably the most photographed sight in Tasmania, we scrambled down 600 rough steps to its iconic beach, taking a circular route leading back to the trailhead, four baking hours and seven miles later. It was the hottest day we’d had, but relief was always close, coolly lapping the deserted beaches. Back at the park entrance, two wallabies squabbled over an apple while we waited for our bus; no cycling today.

Kempeneer had recommended East Coast Natureworld as the best place to surround oneself with kangaroos, tiger snakes, Tasmanian Devils, Koala bears, and birds. We stopped there early the next day but no lingering for coffee because there were 47 miles still to go. The park impressed us with its humane treatment of animals, its spaciousness and its knowledgeable staff, and was well worth the stop.

Tasmanian Devils
Tasmania Devils in the wonderful East Coast Natureworld attraction.

St. Helens, is the largest town we’ve seen since Hobart. The day was another visual delight as we swooped past ocean vistas, undaunted by the deluge that ambushed us a few miles before town. Pretty soggy by our arrival at 4 p.m., we were not too exhausted to do a little exploring in this popular resort town. Two nights were booked here so we could explore the Bay of Fires area by bike the next day. See www.parks.tas.gov.au for more information. Named one of the world’s hottest destinations in 2009 by the Lonely Planet, it was given its unusual name by Captain Tobias Furneaux in 1773, when he noticed numerous fires along the coast, leading him to erroneously conclude that the country was densely populated.

En route to Tin Dragon Tail Cottages at Branxholm: This was only a 31 mile day, with one killer hill. We never climbed it.

“This can’t keep up”, David had reassured me at breakfast as we watched the rain and wind hurling against the windows, and our sadistic server smirked.

We were saved by a call from Kempeener:

“You can’t cycle in this. Wait for me; I’ll be there in an hour.” I smiled broadly at our server. We’re not wimps, really; but what was waiting for us out there was not pretty. 

We finished our coffee, the van arrived, and the bikes were loaded. “I’ve never seen it so bad,” our rescuer commented as he gripped the wheel and climbed the slick narrow road, coursing with rivulets. The van labored a steep 1,500’ against a punishing headwind and horizontal rains.

Five miles from Branxholm we persuaded Kempeneer to let us out. We wanted to get a little drenched to save our pride when we rolled into our ultra deluxe accommodation at Branxholm.

That night was Nirvana. The cottages, set in an idyllic setting, were gorgeous. Folded between hills, with the river coursing nearby, they offered private outdoor hot tubs with llamas grazing alongside. Our fridge and cupboards were so well stocked with provisions we didn’t even have to go out. Later, we walked to the tiny museum on the property; a tribute to the Chinese miners who once lived and toiled in the tin mines here. Then down to the swollen river to spy on the platypus. Later, we lay in our hot tub, watching lightening flash and feeling like gods.

The End at Evandale: En route to our hostel accommodation at yet another venerable inn, we encountered our first vicious headwind, an assault that knocked us sideways. This was only a 15-mile day, however, and no rain accompanied the gale, so long stretches of walking were no hardship. The longest day, at 50 miles, was saved for our last day. We were pretty fit by then, and although one steep hill presented challenges, the descent was breathtaking and undulated for miles. Elated, we arrived at Evandale by 4 p.m., in time to admire all of the town’s informative statues and absorb some of its history and ambience. Over tea in a popular café, the locals smiled and asked the usual opening questions and we chatted about local politics until it was time to find our accommodation at Greg & Gill’s Place, in a 7-acre pastoral enclave. Gill showed us our cottage, built in 1826, where fresh baked cookies awaited us, along with another well-stocked fridge. To this cornucopia, she added a loaf of hot bread.

Later, over bread, cheese and wine, we marvel at the fun you can have, at any age, when you go back to basics.

For More Information

Tips:

  • Cycling is definitely a great way to see Tasmania, but if you want to see all of Tassie’s attractions, plan on tacking on a week or two at the end of your trek to rent a campervan and get to those really, really challenging places like Cradle Mountain and Dove Lake, and out-of- the-way places like Arthur River and Strahan, with their cruises into environments so pristine you can even drink the tannin-infused river water. Rent from local companies. Small, VW type vans are all you need. You can recoup the costs of rental with cooking your own meals and with free camping.
  • Many stretches of this trip do not have cafes, shops or takeaways, so if doing this trip independently be sure to always carry food and drinks.

Websites:

Airlines

  • Air Canada (Best Canadian carrier, with non stop flights from Vancouver)
  • Qantas Airlines (Flights from USA, also Melbourne to Hobart.)

Tourism sites

Note: We made a point of doing business only with small local companies, hotels, attractions, etc. with Green Island Tours as our ‘agent’. It makes a difference!

Cherie Thiessen writes travel stories from Canada’s West Coast Gulf Islands. A member of the Travel Media Assoc. of Canada and the B.C. Travel Writers’ Assoc., she taught travel writing at the University of Victoria for many years, and lived and taught English abroad in China, Japan, and South Africa. Now in her late 60s, she continues to enjoy cycling, hiking and sailing. See her blog at  www.cthiessen.com.

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