Maria Island: Dream destination

By Dominic O'Grady 24 March 2010
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From the land of hope for early settlers to a traveller’s haven where beauty abounds, Maria Island is truly a Tasmanian treasure.

THE CLIMB TO THE TOP of Mount Bishop and Clerk, the highest point on Tasmania’s Maria Island, is said to reward intrepid travellers with panoramic views over the top of the island’s eucalypt forests and out across the Pacific Ocean. To the west, we’re told, lies the Freycinet Peninsula; to the south, over the distant horizon, lies the icy landscapes of Antarctica.

We take it on trust. Because the peak we’ve conquered today is a cloud-covered triumph. We hear the ocean and the wind, we can even smell its Antarctic purity, but we can see not much further than arm’s length. That’s enough, though, to peer warily over the edge of the peak and see the beginnings of a sheer drop that leads to oblivion.

A few steps back from the edge sits the climb’s other reward: a stash of chocolate and extra water that our guide Ben has lugged with him from the morning’s departure point, Bernacchi House, once home to an enterprising 19th century Italian settler, Diego Bernacchi, who was convinced Maria Island could sustain a vineyard and winery. A worthwhile dream, to be sure, but it proved unsustainable.

Bernacchi House provides a warm welcome for participants in the three-night, four-day Maria Island Walk. Having spent the previous two nights camping out, guests arrive at Bernacchi House to be greeted by an open fire in the hearth, cheese and wine on the verandah at sunset, a sumptuous dinner, and a blissfully warm shower. A deep and restful sleep follows as surely as night follows day.

Not that the previous nights’ camping out involved much hardship. In fact, the tents we slept in were more like up-market huts, complete with polished timber floors, raised (if narrow) beds and screened windows. Each of these huts are positioned discreetly among the gum trees, connected via boardwalks to the dining hut, where we feasted like bush royalty.

A COPY OF THE MENU souvenired after our first night on Maria Island reminds me of just how well we ate: Shitake mushroom soup, followed by grilled quail with a spiced couscous and an eggplant ratatouille, then chocolate mud cake with a berry coulis and cream. The wine list was no less impressive: Frogmore Creek Chardonnay and/or Bream Creek Pinot Noir – both of them award-winning Tasmanian wines that were so good I subsequently bought a dozen for the cellar.

Wildlife abounds on Maria Island. Kangaroos, wombats and wallabies are everywhere, making Maria Island a great destination for travellers keen to experience Australian fauna in its natural state. The island is also home for the elusive 40-spotted pardalote, a very shy bird endemic to the region and much loved by amateur and professional bird spotters. A colony of fairy penguins also call the island home, and these can be spotted on a night walk from Bernacchi House.

Walking on Maria Island gives us time to be part of this natural environment, rather than merely look at it. We amble along deserted beaches, wander through paddocks where pug-nosed wombats graze unconcernedly, and we take time to enjoy phenomenon such as the magnificently patterned Painted Cliffs.

Embracing the prevailing weather conditions is part of the experience, and although the postcard views largely eluded us, the overcast skies and occasional drizzle added a moodiness that was both melancholic and atmospheric.

We learnt to pay attention to the detail rather than the big picture. We marvelled at the intensity of orange lichen against the grey-blue watermarks of a Tasmanian gum; we photographed fossilised sea creatures, reading a million years of history as we ran our fingers over the fossil’s Braille-like impressions; and we listened out for the call of the elusive 40-spotted pardalote.

MARIA ISLAND HAS HEARTBREAKING tales aplenty. It used to be penal colony, and its museum in the small settlement of Darlington includes copies of newspaper reports alerting Tasmania’s free settlers to the details of yet another convict breakout. The escapees ranged in age from 17 to 21 years old — young Irish and English men who advised family back home that they, too, should get themselves transported to Tasmania because despite the bleak conditions, the new lives that could be built on the other side of the world were infinitely better than the ones they’d left behind.

The crumbling remains of convict cells at Point Lesueur and the ochre pits of the island’s long-gone original occupants, the Tyreddeme Aboriginal people, point to two sad chapters in Maria Island’s history. So too does the grandly-named Coffee Palace in the now abandoned settlement of Darlington.

Like Bernacchi House, the Coffee Palace carried the hopes and dreams of white settlers who hoped to make a life on the island. But it all came to nought. Protected by Maria Island’s status as a national park, Cape Barren Geese now wander freely through the courtyards and across the roads where Bernacchi and his peers once trod, and where the Tyreddeme must have walked before these settlers came and went.

The guided four day Maria Island Walk is a quirky blend of history and nature, food and wine, luxury and adventure. It leaves a small footprint, thanks to the eco-friendliness of the base camps at Casuarina Beach and White Gums and the mindfulness of our guides who ensure we leave nothing behind but footprints. At the end of each season, both camps are dismantled and the island is left to winter alone.

Getting to Maria Island Walk is an adventure in itself. On the day of departure, we’re collected from our hotel in Hobart and kitted out with a backpack, waterproof jacket, a head torch, a silk sleeping sheet and a packed lunch. Then there’s a short drive to the seaside town of Triabunna, where we board a charter boat and cruise across the Mercury Passage to Maria Island. The boat weighs anchor a few metres offshore and we clamber into a dinghy for final leg of the journey. It’s a special beginning to an experience none of us wants to end.  

This is an edited version of an article first published for Tourism Australia.

Dominic O’Grady is a journalist based in the Blue Mountains and Sydney. His writing has been published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Bulletin, and he is the author of Out Around Sydney published by Thomas Cooke.