Maria Island

MARIA ISLAND

Maria Island, with its superb coastal scenery, accessible wildlife and haunting colonial ruins, is an ideal east coast Tassie getaway for a few days of photographic exploration

Consider what’s on offer here.  You’ve got at least two modest mountain peaks to climb, there’s plenty of colonial ruins for you and the kids to explore, the beaches are clean and often deserted, and in the mornings and around dusk, the native wildlife comes out to feed and play right before your eyes.

From Triabunna near Orford, a ferry runs once or twice a day, depositing passengers at a jetty next to the 1825 Commissariat Store in Darlington, a now-abandoned town.  Park rangers will provide you with a map and information on all the attractions. 

Darlington

The large weatherboard structure dominating Darlington dates from 1888 and was built by Italian entrepreneur Diego Bernacchi.  The Coffee Palace has served as a tourist hotel, a boarding house, and even lodgings for cement company officials.

Most of Darlington’s other structures are a great deal older than the Coffee Palace.  There’s a long penitentiary building which once housed up to 400 prisoners during the years 1842-50 when the island was a convict settlement for “lesser” offenders like Irish political rebel William Smith O’Brien.  Today, with a booking and a small payment, you can spend the night there.   If the penitentiary is full or you’d prefer your own tent, try the campground just 100 metres away.

Just a 25 minute walk from the town is Fossil Cliffs, ancient seashells embedded millions of years ago in the rock.  Use a wide angle lens here to appreciate the ocean and cliff together.  There’s also quite a startling blowhole that hardly anyone seems to know about.  Sit on the headland just above the cliffs and relax with a picnic, savouring the awe-inspiring view of the small mountain called Bishop and Clerk rising from the blue of the Tasman Sea.

One lovely midweek morning, I set out to climb Bishop and Clerk.  The track wound through attractive dry forest, with various birds including a pair of the rare 40-spotted pardalotes guiding me along the path.  Gradually the track got steeper and at the end there was a bit of rock-scrambling and cairn-spotting, but the views from here were well worth the modest exertion.  At my age, I’m no Edmund Hillary, so surely you’ll make it to the top, too.

There is an even higher summit, the 711 metre peak of Mt Maria in the island’s centre.  If you are fit and very confident, give it a go.  To be honest, I didn’t.

On the other side of Maria Island, just a half hour walk southwest from Darlington, the Painted Cliffs provides a colourful display of sandstone eroded by wind and water to reveal their multi-striped layers.

Painted Cliffs

 

Close-up photography is the go here. Sheltered cosy little beaches can be found near by. Friends and I shared a picnic next to Howells Point and over a period of at least two hours we never saw another soul. If you decide to spend a few days here, you’ll want to trek to some of the island’s virtually secret attractions.

Well to the south (allow at least three hours each way) is the very basic campground at Frenchs Farm, 11 kilometres from Darlington, and Encampment Cove, a further two kilometres away, which is also used by boating visitors. Both Frenchs Farm and Encampment Cove have rainwater tanks. The Frenchs Farm tank is less likely to run out during summer; water can be hard to find elsewhere.

From Encampment Cove it is less than a two kilometre walk to the ruins of Maria Island’s second convict station at Point Lesueur on the island’s west coast (also known as Long Point). The ruins of Point Lesueur are a must-see stop if you are camping in the island’s centre.  Set against an impossibly lovely coast, the crumbling rock structures remind us of the island’s dark past.

Soldiers Beach and Bloodstone Beach on the western side of the island are also well worth a look, as are Shoal Bay and Riedle Bay, the beaches either side of McRaes Isthmus. Below that is the very seldom-visited bottom end of Maria Island, where if you see footprints in the sand, they are almost certainly yours. To get there you will have to pass Stinking Creek, which, by the way, smelled just fine the morning I walked alongside it.

Some friends from Hobart solved the distance problem by bringing over trail bicycles, thus cutting the travel time in half.  Many of the roads on Maria Island are suitable for mountain biking and it is an ideal way to explore the full length of the island. Since there are no cars on Maria, it is an excellent environment for families with children to explore by bike. Just remember that cycling is allowed on formed roads only.

Maria Island (named by Abel Tasman in 1642 for the wife of a Dutch governor) boasts a superb range of marsupials, birds, plants and marine life.  Tasmania’s only kangaroo, the Forester, thrives here, sharing the paddocks with Bennetts wallabies, possums, pademelons and Cape Barren geese. You won’t even need a telephoto lens here – the animals come amazingly close to you. 

Maria Island Geese

 If the underwater world is more to your liking, there’s a reserve not far from Darlington, a tribute to the special nature of the marine life to be found here, including visiting seals and whales. While there is no fishing permitted in most of this reserve, wading, snorkelling and scuba diving allow you to experience marine life close up.

For all its undeniable natural beauty, Maria Island has led a very functional life over the centuries.  Aboriginal people used it to gather shellfish and to hunt for wallabies.  Sealers wreaked havoc and Diego Bernacchi tried to make it into a giant winery, then a cement works.  Today, though, that’s all in the past.  Maria Island protects lovely and often scarce animal, bird and plant species, all the while serving as a relaxing and inspiring haven for its thousands of yearly visitors.  Just as we did, include yourself in that number soon.

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WHEN TO GO:  Located on Tassie’s sunny east coast, the island really is a year-round destination.  I strongly prefer the warm settled days of mid-autumn or the freshness of late spring.  Mid-winter nights can be rather chilly and in summer you might actually have to share it with other visitors.

Luxury four-day guided walks are available.