Angela Saurine finds herself immersed in wildlife, history and scenery on Tasmania’s Maria Island Walk. 

A wombat slowly waddles up to the doorway of the old convict cell and reverses towards it. As I watch on bemusedly, it begins to scratch its bottom against the bricks, before shuffling on its way. I turn my attention back to the view. The row of decrepit cells at Point Lesieur on Maria Island looks out over dry grassland towards the turquoise waters of Booming Bay, with the rolling green hills of mainland Tasmania in the distance. It would have been a tantalising sight for the prisoners who were once incarcerated here. Looking at the tiny jail cells – barely big enough for a single bed – I can empathise with their desire for freedom. 

Chosen because of the surrounding farmland, Long Point Probation Station was an independent outpost of the Darlington Probation Station, which was the main hub of the island in the mid-1800s. At its peak it was home to more than 300 convicts, who cultivated wheat, hay, potatoes, turnips, barley and flax, before the station was abandoned because of the lack of water and poor quality of the buildings. 

While Port Arthur is well known for its convict ruins, Maria Island also abounds in heritage sites – not to mention beautiful scenery and wildlife. We are exploring it on the three-day Maria Island Walk, with trekking company Life’s an Adventure. It’s a 1.5-hour drive north of Hobart to the town of Triabunna, where the ferry to Darlington departs. Along the way our guides, Craig Fardell and Danny Robinson, keep us entertained with interesting stories about Tasmania’s history. 

When we pass through the town of Sorell, Danny recounts the tale of “gentleman bushranger” Matthew Brady, who was kind of like Australia’s version of Robin Hood. In 1825, the charismatic prison escapee, who refused to rob from women or the poor, and his gang raided the town and imprisoned its soldiers in their own jail. He was eventually caught by a bounty hunter and hung – much to the despair of the women who had fallen under his spell. 

I didn’t realise it at the time, but passing signs for Bust-Me-Gall Hill and Break-Me-Neck-Hill turns out to be an indication of what lies ahead. 

The first day of the trek is also the most challenging, involving an 11-kilometre return hike to the top of the towering dolomite columns known as Bishop and Clerk, about 620 metres above sea level. When Craig points them out, I stop in my tracks. It’s hard to believe that I am going to be standing there in a few hours’ time. 

“Maybe it looks worse than it is,” my friend Sonya says. “I hope so!” I reply.

Butterflies flit back and forth on the path in front of us, and Forester kangaroos hop around in between the Tasmanian bluegum trees and pink and yellow wildflowers beside the track. At one point, we even spot an echidna, further validating Craig’s comparison of Maria Island to an open-range zoo. Born and raised in Newcastle, Craig describes himself as a “climate refugee”, who moved to Tasmania three years ago after many trips to the southern isle. 

After two years of lockdowns and border closures, it feels fantastic to be in the great outdoors in another state with a group of like-minded adventurous women. We make our way up the slope known as Skipping Ridge, before stopping to eat lunch on a fallen log. 

After resuming our journey, Craig pauses to point out “bush tucker” – native food used as sustenance by Aborigines. They include small but sweet native cherries and drooping sheoak, which we find has a sour taste. After making our way along the zig-zag path up a scree slope, we scramble up rocks to reach the summit, with the help of our ever-patient guides. Our efforts are rewarded with views towards the Freycinet Peninsula, which is home to the stretch of white sand at Wineglass Bay, which regularly appears on lists of the world’s best beaches.

Craig is armed with a satellite phone, personal locator beacon and first aid kit, which comes in handy when one member of our party trips on a rock and falls. She is quickly patched up and after a few minutes of dizziness we are back on our way. 

Upon arrival back at Darlington, we are treated to a platter of cheese and Tasmanian wines on the verandah of the former penitentiary where we spend the night. We partake in a dinner of salmon, broccolini and Asian salad in the mess hall, before retiring to our dorm-style accommodation. 

Besides a couple of National Parks and Wildlife Service staff, the Darlington precinct isn’t home to any permanent residents. But Cape Barron geese and wombats happily meander amongst the cluster of repurposed buildings, seemingly unperturbed by tourists pointing mobile phone cameras at them. At night, Tasmanian devils are often spotted around the precinct, and have even been known to get into tents in the nearby campsite in the early hours. But, exhausted from the day’s walk, I am tucked up in my bunk, fast asleep by the time the sun has gone down.  

The next morning Danny, who deals with logistics, takes our luggage via boat to the campsite at Encampment Cove, where we will meet that afternoon. We take the 16-kilometre inland route south, passing a lone house on the hillside known as Ruby Hunter’s Cottage, which was once home to a psychiatric nurse who operated the island’s first radio transmitter in the mid 1900s.

In the early 1800s, before becoming a convict site, Maria Island was inhabited by sealers and whalers. Dutch explorer Abel Tasman named the island after the wife of Anthony Van Diemen, who was governor-general of the Dutch South-East Indies Company. A little further on, we stop to explore the dilapidated Oast House, which was built during the convict prohibition era in the 1880s to dry hops to make beer. 

Craig points out stringybark trees, used by Aborigines to carve dug-out canoes they used to row to the mainland and to build the roofs of dome-shaped huts where they sheltered from the elements. We also pass the hollows of burnt-out tree trunks – the remnants of long ago bushfires – and spot pademelons in the bushes. We also keep our eye out for endangered forty-spotted pardalotes, which can only be seen in a few colonies in Tasmania’s south-east corner, but they remain elusive. 

Arriving at our campsite late in the afternoon to find our tent set up with two fold-up chairs out the front and our bags at the entrance is a welcome sight. Danny fills a tub with water and places it in the shower tent he’s erected nearby for us to take turns having a wash. As I peel off my socks and soak my aching feet in the warm water, kookaburras riot in the gumtrees above, protesting my presence. Afterwards, sitting in the shade chatting to my newfound friends as we indulge in more cheese and wine and watch yet another wombat roam nearby is one of the highlights of the trip. This is what I love about small-group adventure tours – and what I have missed about travel. 

I start the third and final day, which involves a 13-kilometre return trek to Darlington, with a blister the size of Mt Maria on my little toe. But the scenery along the coastal route provides some distraction from the pain. After passing Booming Bay, we stop for lunch at the strikingly beautiful Four Mile Beach, arriving at the Painted Cliffs early in the afternoon. We clamber over the sandstone formations, carved and moulded by the sea, admiring the coloured patterns that Mother Nature has created. While there’s sadly not enough time for a dip before returning to Darlington before our ferry back to the mainland departs, I am content just to remove my hiking boots and stand in the powdery sand and soak my feet in the ocean at the most enticing beach of the journey. As I look down at the water lapping over them, I feel a strong sense of accomplishment. I may not have done it with style, but at least I did it. 

Take me there

Tour: Life’s an Adventure’s three-day Maria Island Walk starts from $1849. All accommodation, meals and ground transport are included. 

Fly: Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Airlines fly to Hobart.

Stay: As the point of departure and return for the tour, the Hotel Grand Chancellor, Hobart is convenient. Rooms start from about $205 per night.

When: Tours run from September until May.

Explore more: lifesanadventure.com.au

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