An Escapologist in Tasmania – Freycinet Peninsula

It may sound strange coming from a guy that has just written a book about where to go paddling in New South Wales, but my passion has never really been kayaking. It has always been the wonderful, natural places my kayak can take me that have served as my inspiration. Like US naturalist John Burroughs “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order”.

Perhaps more than any other place in Australia, Tasmania offers the nature lover an opportunity to indulge in wilderness therapy. Incredibly, the Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service still manage around 37% of the State. You can imagine my excitement when Geoff Martin from the Manning River Canoe Club rang to say that they were heading down there on a trip that would take in both the east and west coast, and to ask if I would like to join them. I started packing while he was still on the phone!

Day 1 – Coles Bay

Eight months later, after a relaxed three day road trip from Ballina to Port Melbourne and a colourful night time ferry ride across Bass Strait with the Outcasts Motorcycle Club, I rolled into Tassie with seven other intrepid explorers, fired up and ready to start the east coast part of my adventure.

The start to the day was hardly inspirational. Neither my co-driver nor I had taken note of which deck of the ferry the car was located. We combined our powers of reasoning and deduced that we must have been on Level 6. It wasn’t until a loud voice with a reprimanding tone came over the public announcement system demanding that the driver of my car move it immediately that we realised we had got it wrong.

The correct route from the Devonport Ferry Terminal to Coles Bay is still a topic of discussion, with several drivers having different points of view and one GPS prone to chanting “turn around when possible, turn around when possible…” Nevertheless, we all managed to get there in one piece and by the time we had set up camp, the remaining members of our group of eleven men and two women had joined us.

The Freycinet National Park has great facilities at Coles Bay for both caravans and tents. They are positioned at the northern tip of the Freycinet Peninsula making them a perfect place to stay a night and make sure that all is in readiness for your launch. There is also a car park where you can leave your vehicle for as long as you will be away. However, you do need to book well in advance, particularly in summer.

Everything I had been told about Tasmania had given me an image of harsh rugged beauty with a cold climate and unpredictable, sometimes wild, weather. Standing barefoot in the shallow aqua waters of Richardsons Beach, admiring the way the February sun was lighting up the spectacular pink granite outcrops of The Hazards, I couldn’t believe this was the same place. Of course, if I had done a little more research I might have read in Wikipedia that “The east coast is sometimes called the “sun coast” because of its sunny climate.” This was something the pacific gulls basking nearby apparently knew quite well.

We weren’t scheduled to start paddling until the next day, but it would have been criminal not to take advantage of such a beautiful moment so we made an unscheduled lap of the bay. The wildlife here seems completely unconcerned about people. The first of many white-bellied sea-eagles I would see over the next few days watched me nonchalantly from a tree right above my head, and pied oyster catchers didn’t let my proximity disturb their dinner time. They were so close I could have reached out and patted them on the head.

Pied Oyster Catchers

The Hazards are a series of pink granite peaks between Coles Bay and the world famous Wineglass Bay. The dramatic name seems immediately appropriate, but the truth is much less glamorous than you might think. They are named after Captain Richard Hazard, a whaler who operated in this area in the 1820s. His name has also been given to one of the beaches on the peninsula, and a locally brewed ale that I enjoyed with my dinner at the Iluka Tavern later that night.

Day 2 – Cooks Corner

A clear night in a secluded place means a glorious uninterrupted view of the universe, and that is exactly what we were given. It also means there is no cloud cover to blanket the earth and keep it warm, so I was very thankful for my beanie and zero degree sleeping bag.

I wasn’t so happy about the lack of a hot water tap in the shower in the morning, but I decided that since there was no guarantee of fresh water in the campsites we would be using for the next few days, I should make the most of what was available here. The “less than manly” noises coming from my cubicle were adequate warning for others not to follow my lead. On the subject of water, on a trip like this, it is a good idea to take three or four litres for each person for each day you will be away.

Everyone was ready to launch in what seemed like record time. Maybe they had seen Things to try before you die on telly when it rated kayaking Freycinet as number four, or maybe I am just a little slow. I pressed my foot hard on the accelerator so I wouldn’t hold them up. As it turned out, I wasn’t last to leave, even after dropping my camera in the water. Lucky it’s a waterproof Olympus Mju (he said, hoping for some sponsorship).

Our aim was to reach the tip of the Freycinet Peninsula and perhaps beyond. If you would like to trace our progress on a map, there is a free one at www.tassie.org.au/freycinet/. The surprisingly Gallic sounding names of the peninsula and other features of the landscape were given to them by the French explorer Nicholas Baudin who arrived in 1802 to map the coastline. Interestingly, the English explorer Matthew Flinders had already done that, but it was the French names that stuck. I wonder if I could make Rawstorne Peninsula stick. Maybe I should be a little modest and try for one of the smaller landmarks instead?

We set off in a south easterly direction, following the shoreline past Honeymoon Bay and Parsons Cove. Parsons Cove is now home to a small village of privately owned holiday homes inside the national park. It is called The Fisheries in reference to the fact that in 1824 a whale fishery was established on the site.

Soon afterwards we passed the unfortunate scar on the shoreline that is the old granite quarry. According to the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife “it was opened in 1934 by Italian stonemasons who recognised the unique decorative value of Freycinet granite.” It was closed in the 1970s, but before then, material from here was used in “the Commonwealth Bank Head Office and Marine Board buildings in Hobart, as well as New Parliament House in Canberra.”

After rounding Fleurieu Point, the white sand of Hazards Beach stretched out before us and offered itself as the perfect place to stop for morning tea. The landing went without a hitch, but clearly lacking match practice, I managed to get swamped getting back on the water. My camera got soaked again. Did I mention that it’s a waterproof Olympus Mju?

We had considered spending the night in the camping area at the southern end of Hazards Beach but as we got there just after morning tea, it was decided to continue on to Cooks Corner. This seemed a particularly good idea as there are two water tanks there and a Parks Ranger had told us that due to recent rain, at least one of them was half full.

After setting up the tent, I took a look at the map and noticed that there was a short walking track from here to Bryans Beach. The “What to bring” instructions for the trip had told me to bring hiking shoes just in case the weather kept us off the water. I had gone to great lengths to squeeze them into the nose of my boat, so I was determined to use them. I rounded up a small but energetic group for a short excursion. The track was relatively flat and easy, and the view at the end gave us a tantalising taste of where we might be paddling the next day.

Cooks Corner

The Parks & Wildlife Service website stipulates that “Freycinet National Park is a fuel stove only area. Due to the dry coastal vegetation it is very susceptible to fire.” Luckily we all came prepared, and at dinner time a huge variety of camp stoves were ignited. It was something of a bush MasterChef, with several people having spent many hours before the trip preparing and dehydrating magnificent feasts. Unfortunately, my main course of packet dehydrated chana masala followed by freeze dried ice cream saw me eliminated on the first night.

Day 3 – Schouten Island

My work in the kitchen had not improved by the time morning arrived. I somehow managed to double the amount of water required to cook my porridge, making it the worst ever. Even Oliver Twist wouldn’t have asked for more.

Today we planned to paddle to the tip of the peninsula before making a decision as to whether it was safe to make the 1.6 kilometre crossing to Schouten Island in the south. The weather was superb. The lack of clouds was matched by a lack of wind, and if there was ever a day when the crossing would be possible, it was today. Like the Cheshire cat, I am known for my cheesy grin, and this morning it was a permanent fixture. I was in a paddler’s paradise and I launched my boat with the excitement of a child visiting Luna Park for the first time.

Sure enough, as soon as the island came into view, everyone started looking at each other trying to gauge the level of enthusiasm for a crossing. A murmur here and there morphed into quiet statements of confidence before finally erupting into enthusiastic declarations of fact. We’re going to Schouten Island!

As it was a calm day, the swells coming though the passage were only one to two metres high. Even so, I could feel the awesome power of nature as they surged under my kayak. Apparently there are regularly five metre swells here. Now that would really be something to experience. Whilst it was tempting to have a look around while we were there, the weather had been predicted to take a turn for the worse so we didn’t hang around for long. Apart from one small case of seasickness, we made the return trip to the island without incident, and in the process added another new experience to the ever growing list.

On the way back, we followed the shore more closely. Three of us couldn’t resist the urge to go for a dip at Passage Beach before joining the rest at Bryans Beach for lunch. The water was indescribably clear. Fish were darting here and there, and you could see every ripple in the sand below.

Our lunch spot was magical; a place where large weather moulded pieces of pink granite combined to form a small protected bay and casuarina trees gave welcome shade only metres from the water. Off shore, a pod of dolphins made their way south. One kayak went out to greet them and was met with a synchronised swimming display as they circled the boat and came up to have a look before moving on. The decision to head back to camp was a difficult one.

Bryans Beach

As the day came to an end, someone found a plank of wood just over a metre long. That was all the encouragement needed to get a cricket match underway. Taking in the relaxed scene, with long shadows cast by the setting sun, and The Hazards in the background, I thought it would make a great, quintessentially Australian, painting. Then the streakers arrived. After all, what self respecting game of cricket is complete without them? The two ladies in our crew, and incidentally wives of the streakers, had up until this point bravely managed to counterbalance the testosterone in the group, but the heightened atmosphere of a one day match was simply too much for them to handle.

I retired early that night and lay in bed appreciating the absence of mobile phones, computers, televisions, and “civilisation” in general. My mobile is on the Virgin network and I had no coverage for the whole time I was on the Freycinet Peninsula. Without a hint of irony, I fell asleep saying “Thank you Virgin”.

Day 4 – Wineglass Bay

Sadly, the Tasmanian Devil isn’t common in the Freycinet National Park any more, due to the devastating facial tumour disease. However, there are still quite a few brush tailed possums. We know, because some of them had visited us during the night. Despite the midnight shooing efforts of several campers, they had managed to get into a rubbish bag that was stowed up a tree and spread its contents around the site. In the morning I replaced the bag and used some string to hang it out of their reach, hoping that they wouldn’t just see it as a swing. I had successfully hung my food from a tree for the previous two nights, so I was pretty confident it would work.

The kayaks stayed in dry dock today, and we laced up the boots for a walk to the peak of Mount Graham, 580 metres above sea level. The promised amazing view of Wineglass Bay from the top is what spurred us all on, but it was also fantastic to get a better a look at all the native vegetation, particularly the vast areas of white wildflowers on the crests of ridges. It was also remarkable to think that the indigenous Pydairrerme people lived here in harmony with the environment for 30,000 years before the arrival of Europeans.

It took about three hours to reach the top, and it was worth every step. The view was stunning. Even our mascot Mr Grumpy seemed impressed. After pausing for a while to take it all in, someone suggested that we continue on to Wineglass Bay and then return to camp via Hazards Beach. I didn’t need to be asked twice.

Mount Graham

The seven of us that took on the challenge did not get off to a great start, struggling to find the track and stumbling three times in the first five minutes, but fortunately there weren’t any injuries. After rising to the next ridge we looked back to see the others still on Mount Graham. We let them know via a complex series of cooees that all was ok.

Wineglass Bay has been rated as one of the top ten beaches in the world by Outside Magazine in the US. It has also been graced with a visit from the Queen, who alighted from the royal yacht here for a BBQ. We were more than happy to arrive, take off the shoes, and soak our feet for a while. Thankfully, the skinny dip that had been threatened never eventuated. There had already been more than enough nudity for one trip.

The name Wineglass Bay is interestingly not attributed to its shape. It came about because whalers active in this area used to drag the carcasses back to the beach to butcher them. The blood that drained out stained the water a colour not unlike red wine. I prefer the shape theory.

Nine hours after we departed that morning we strode, walked, limped back into Cooks Corner. Some were definitely feeling it more than others. I dove straight into the cooling waters of Great Oyster Bay, and soaked there for a while. Either I’m a finely tuned athlete or they have magical healing powers.

Day 5 – Hobart

After three nights camped at Cooks Corner, it was time to pack the tents away and make our way back to Coles Bay. We were off in record time. Never had I seen so many grown men so keen to do the laundry. Sure, we only had one day before meeting in Strahan for the Gordon River leg of our adventure, and we hadn’t seen a washing machine since leaving home but this was decidedly metrosexual behaviour. Luckily, I have quite a few items of merino clothing. Unlike synthetic materials, wool doesn’t get stinky for several days. That’s really handy when you need to pack light and can’t wash your clothes on a regular basis.

Hazards Beach

A beer, a milkshake, and a couple of spinach & fetta rolls were a winning combination for my lunch. The Hazards Ale keg was empty though, and that was a major disappointment. Most others went for the supposedly famous scallop pies. As a vegetarian they sound pretty weird to me, but I was assured by the meat eaters that they are delicious.

The same cold shower that was hell on the first morning was heaven now. In the midday warmth, a cold shower is very refreshing and I was grateful to be able to rinse off the salt water before driving to Hobart. Our Gordon River tour guide, Chris Blackaby, had kindly agreed to let a few of us stay the night there on his boat.

Geoff and I met up with newbie Dave and talked about the trip so far over a couple of cold Moo Brews, before retiring to our bunks to dream about what we might see in the wilderness of the west coast.

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