A multi-sport tour through Tasmania’s east coast

By Amy Russell 23 November 2016
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Why settle for one mode of transport through Tasmania’s east coast when you can have three? Cycle down terrifyingly steep passes, kayak in pristine Freycinet National Park and hike on the old island jail of Maria.

THE ROAD PASSED beneath me in a blur. Don’t look down, I reminded myself as I gripped the handlebars, my knuckles white with the effort. Another sharp turn approached. Anxious that I’d fail to guide the bike around the bend in time and fly over the steel guardrail and down into the forest, I braked long before it was necessary. The cars behind me voiced their frustration – blaring horns mingled with the call of kookaburras perched high in the surrounding trees.

I pictured the cars queued up behind me like carriages on a freight train and hoped the line didn’t extend as far back as the top of the pass. Too impatient to tail me any longer, a minivan swung out from behind and passed alongside, so close I could easily have lifted my hand and trailed my fingers along the door handle. Not a bad idea, I thought, I wonder if they’d give me a lift?

“Don’t be afraid to go fast,” our guide, 21-year-old Alex “Tommo” Thompson, had said just 10 minutes earlier, as we set off down St Marys Pass. This steep, winding road links the St Marys township with Tasmania’s east coast. Built by convicts in the 1840s, the narrow 6km descent is a favourite with cyclists such as Tommo, who’d assured us this would be the day’s highlight.

Perched on his bike with an ease and grace that belied his age (or could, perhaps, be explained by it), Tommo appeared at my side, as if out of nowhere, as the van disappeared around the bend. Sensing my anxiety at the rapidly steepening gradient and the speed at which I was travelling, he accompanied me on the remaining few kilometres, concealing gentle words of encouragement in snippets of information about the terrain.
“All around us is dry sclerophyll forest,” he explained, gesturing with one hand and only just holding on with the other. “It’s dominated by eucalyptus species and has an understory of low-lying grass and shrubs, rather than the ferns of wet forests.”

This expert distraction technique was the sedative I needed; before long, the final stretch of pass lay ahead. Emboldened, I released my grip on the brakes and let my body relax into the seat – finally, at long last, enjoying the ride.

Guiding lights

Cycling through eastern Tasmania. (Image credit; Amy Russell)

Energy and encouragement radiated from Tommo, as did an obvious devotion to bikes. Tanned and wiry, with a shock of sandy hair, he was the epitome of a mountain biker and admitted to being “obsessed” with the sport. Born on Tassie’s northwest coast, Tommo grew up on – and tumbling off – bikes, and fell in with Tasmanian Expeditions as a 19-year-old when he began working as a guide.

This six-day trip – Cycle, Kayak and Walk Tasmania – was his baby. Asked to help design an itinerary in 2011, he mapped out what was, in his mind, the ultimate multi-sport tour of the east coast. Tommo has been its lead guide ever since.

Our expedition had begun that morning in Launceston when, like a school bus making the rounds, a Tasmanian Expeditions minivan and trailer piled high with bikes collected Jeannie, Sharon, Kate, Emily and me from our respective hotels. It wasn’t until we were making our way out of the city that I realised I was the only one not wearing knicks and a lycra jersey. My four companions, ranging in age from their late 40s to early 60s, were all avid road cyclists. I hadn’t done any proper riding for years. As we drove south along the Midland Highway, I was afraid that, once again, I’d jumped into the deep end of the travel-assignment pool.

Our route took us east through the Fingal Valley, before arriving in Fingal, where our ride began. This particular trip was unique because we had three guides; Tommo was joined by NZ-born Chris Heapy, 58, and trainee Matilda Brown, 18, a Launceston local. The benefit of our “third wheel” was that while one guide drove the van, the others could ride with two groups moving at different speeds.

“What I love about my job is that I’m constantly out in the places I love to be in and I’m getting paid to do it,” Tommo said later, as we relaxed on the porch of our bungalow in the seaside town of Bicheno. After arriving at the end of St Marys Pass, we had chased the rest of the group to Four Mile Beach, struggling against headwinds that carried the sound of the ocean as they roared in our ears. So strong was the drag it felt like we were towing anchors uphill even as we cycled the flat. A quick swim temporarily stilled the shake in my legs before we kitted up again to follow the van the remaining 44km along the Tasman Highway to Bicheno.

Paddle’s up

Paddling in Freycinet National Park. (Image credit: Amy Russell)

After a night of interrupted sleep thanks to the burn of lactic acid in my muscles, I was secretly relieved when we traded bikes for kayaks and a morning paddle in Freycinet National Park. This jagged arm of coastline – essentially two eroded blocks of granite linked by a sand isthmus – is off Tassie’s east coast and accessed just beyond the Coles Bay township, about 40km, or a half-hour drive, from Bicheno.

The sky was a vivid blue and the rippling sea that lapped Muirs Beach was clear, save for the reflection of wispy, white clouds. The beach was bathed in golden morning light. From the shore, the craggy granite peaks of the Hazard Range looked fairly innocuous but, as we paddled along the curve of the coast with two kayak guides from Freycinet Adventures, the rocks took on a distinctive pink hue, a result of a mineral called orthoclase, a type of feldspar.

As the wind intensified and we struggled to propel our paddles through the choppy water, our little convoy sought shelter at a beach. Crumbly Scotch Finger biscuits were quickly devoured and steaming mugs of black tea warmed frigid hands. I shimmied up onto a slippery mound of rocks for the view of the peninsula, which began forming a staggering 400 million years ago as rock drifted, collided and accumulated layers, many of which were eventually swept away.

After our kayak and a picnic lunch by the water’s edge, we drove further into the park and abandoned the bikes in favour of a hike. The midday sun warmed our backs and dried our hair as we hurried after Tommo during the 45-minute hike to Wineglass Bay’s lookout.
The view at the top of the steep path was one we’d all seen before, albeit only in photographs and postcards. The arc of Wineglass Bay – a curve so neat it could have been created by a giant spoon – is a hallmark of the Apple Isle. It’s often assumed the bay was named for its shape, which, at a stretch, could be likened to the lip of a glass. But Tommo told us it was actually the result of a violent past. The beach was the carving ground for whalers in the early 1800s. Apparently, they harpooned whales in open water then dragged the carcasses back to the sand, staining the ocean a bloody, red-wine red.

Hiking. (Image credit: Amy Russell)

After admiring the view, our group divided so that Kate and Sharon, the stronger cyclists, could ride back to Bicheno with Chris. The rest of us continued on over the range, downhill to the bay. The 1.5km track wound through bushland that obscured our view of the ocean, so the grand unveiling at the bottom, as the path widened and fell upon the beach, was all the more spectacular.

A relentless wind stirred clouds of sand that stung our skin as we stripped off and hurried into the ocean. I dived down deep to touch the sea floor before flipping around to watch the waves rush over my head. The water was so clear I could see the sky through the surface.

The infamous weather

Drizzly days, right, are a common occurrence in Tassie, no matter the season – wet weather gear is, therefore, a necessity for any multi-day cycle trip. (Image credit: Amy Russell)

The weather took a turn for the worse overnight. Grey skies hid the sun as we loaded into the van and left Bicheno for Swansea, about 44km south-west. The rain began to fall almost as soon as we’d kitted up and set off from the top of Cherry Tree Hill on our bikes. Conscious of the wet, slippery road, I kept to the back of the group as we pedalled single file along Glen Gala Road.

Distracted by the moody setting of vast, empty yellow paddocks contrasting against an angry sky, I lost sight of the pack until I rounded a bend and saw their high-vis vests. We made it 4km out of Swansea before the rain soaked us through and we abandoned the ride to climb back into the van. We changed into dry clothes and feasted on hot pies and coffee at the Bark Mill Bakery as we waited for the rain to subside. The water kept falling and puddles began to form in the car park before we admitted defeat and drove the remaining 33km to Gumleaves Bush Holidays. Set within about 160ha of bushland, our self-contained cabins, each with its own wood heater, were a welcome refuge from the summer storm.

The rain eased in the afternoon and we were able to explore. We climbed onto ropes that were strung up like spider webs between tall gum trees and waited quietly at the boundary of the deer park to catch a glimpse of caramel hide through the thick bush. Chris offered a botanical lesson as he led us through the forest and I tried to pay attention while mosquitos bit through my thermal layers. In the late afternoon, we lapped the outskirts of the resort on our bikes. The rocky boundary road dipped and turned like a roller-coaster and we raised clouds of dirt and dust as we came skidding down the hills.

An island afoot

The shores of Wine Glass Bay. (Image credit: Amy Russell)

The next morning, after driving 23km south, our van sat like an empty shell in the car park of Triabunna marina. We’d dragged all our gear down to the water’s edge, tucked our food for the next two days on Maria Island inside big plastic bins, and locked the bikes in the trailer. The Spirit of Maria swayed gently in the water, sending tiny ripples out into a calm sea as it waited to ferry us across the Mercury Passage.

This day looked nothing like the one before. In true Tasmanian style, we went to bed in winter and woke up in summer. “Four seasons in a day,” Matilda reminded us on the half-hour boat ride to the 115.5sq.km island national park.

Declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1971, Maria was an island jail for convicts from as early as the 1820s. Visitors can camp or stay in Darlington – what remains of a mid-19th century agricultural settlement in the north – and explore the island on foot.

We set out that afternoon to climb Bishop and Clerk (620m), the second-highest summit on the island. Blue ocean met clear sky at the horizon and a breeze tickled the yellow grass as we admired the panorama from the island’s cemetery. The unassuming plot of 16 unmarked graves penned by a picket fence is thought to be the family members of Diego Bernacchi – an Italian entrepreneur who ran several businesses on the island in the late 1880s – and some well-behaved convicts.

Continuing on around the point, we climbed two steep hills and found the start of a thick sclerophyll forest. An opening yawned at us through the trees. The track gradually steepened and we trekked for another hour before the forest ended and we came upon a zigzagging path of broken rock. Arms outstretched for balance, we gingerly picked our way over the scree before squeezing between and over boulders as big as fridges to reach the summit. The view of Wineglass Bay and Schouten Island to the north, and the mainland to the west, was well worth the climb.

That night we slept in Darlington’s old penitentiary. It housed convicts from 1830 and has basic bunks, tables and chairs. A raised concrete porch links the 10 rooms. Although wind whistled in through cracks in the windows and mosquitoes danced about my head, it wasn’t long before I drifted off to sleep.

As we made our return journey along the Coastal Track, Tommo discovered a scat dropped by Maria’s newest resident, the Tasmanian devil. Fifteen healthy, tumour-free devils were released on Maria in November 2012 and the rangers have asked visitors help to document their movements. We left the scat, but made a note of its location before moving on.
We made it to the Painted Cliffs at Hopground Beach in the early afternoon. The rock face, streaked like marble cake, glowed amber in the afternoon sun. The sea was as flat and clear as a mirror. After a quick swim, we walked the remaining few kilometres back to Darlington, our clothes clinging to our damp and sandy skin.

The last ride

Cycling around the bend, I slowed right down, as much to admire the view as to ease my way around the corner. Hobart city and the Derwent Valley lay far below. I could see the hook of the Tasman Peninsula and the endless blue of the Southern Ocean. Our six-day tour was near its end – we’d left Maria by ferry that morning and this 21km descent of Mt Wellington (1270m) was the final leg. As the road dipped and turned, narrowed and then splayed, I could again hear the cars banking up behind me. We stopped every 10 minutes or so to let them pass. This ride is popular with tourists and you can even join a guided day tour just to experience it. After a few heart-stopping switchbacks, I found my groove on the bike; although the hills were steeper and the ride much longer, the descent felt easier than St Marys. On the long stretches of straight, steep road I barely even touched my brakes.

Tommo was anxious to know if I’d enjoyed the final descent when, at the ride’s end, the group rendezvoused at the Cascade Brewery. I couldn’t tell you who was more excited when I replied, honestly, “Do we have time to do that again?”

The essentials

What you need: Bikes, helmets, waterproof jackets and pants, sleeping-bags and sleeping-bag liners are provided. The beauty of the ever-present support van is that if you’re ever lagging or in need of a breather, you can opt out for a few kilometres. Pack appropriate cycle clothing (knicks and synthetic tops), hiking boots and trekking clothes, and sandals and swimwear for the kayak leg. All your food and water is catered for, but you will be reaching into your own pocket if you’d like a glass (or two) of Tassie pinot. You can bring your own bike, but you must let Tas Ex know the model/specifications in advance. Tas Ex does provide Avanti Explorer3 hybrid bikes.

Getting there: The trip begins in Launceston and ends in Hobart; Virgin, Jetstar and Qantas fly to and from these cities daily. The initial trip pick-up and final drop off at your hotel is included in the cost of the trip.

More information: www.tasmanianexpeditions.com.au