In these unprecedented times, I’m doing what us city slickers do when we find a piece of paradise that is: (1) uncrowded, (2) unknown, so most probably (3) undervalued. I google houses for sale as I turn away from the view that inspired the search – a gorgeous bay sweeping its way to infinity, fringed by blue sea as a couple walk towards the horizon.
The air is so fresh I can feel the last gasp of city carbon dioxide swirling through my puckered-up lungs (this is the purest air on Earth, what I’m inhaling hasn’t touched land since South America 14,000 kilometres west). Luck! There’s a two-bedroom cottage down the road; needs a bit of a work – a renovator’s dream, they say (of course). When can I move?
I’d been warned last night at the pub about this sort of thing. “We don’t mind tourists coming down,” a farmer in a check shirt told me over a schooner of local lager. “But why do you all think you have to come and live here?” Yes, in these crazy times, us city folk don’t simply seek solace on our holidays; we buy a piece of it, so we can own it forever.
Though who can blame us? Where I’m standing now feels a billion miles from anywhere (and from anything that might possibly be locked down due to a COVID-19 outbreak), yet I’m about three hours’ drive north-west of Launceston. Much has been made of Hobart and its nearby escapes, but Launceston’s northern attractions remain right under the radar. How? Who knows… just don’t wait too long.
Technically, I’m following part of the Northern Forage trail, with a slight deviation. But if there is a trail here, I feel like I’m the only one who knows about it. This beach – and I’m sorry but I can’t reveal the name of it, except to say you’ll find it just west of the town of Marrawah – is near the north-western tip of the Apple Isle. But for all its serenity – you’ll only share it with cows – don’t rush to get here.
As soon as I hit the road out of Launceston time stands fairly close to still. There’s even a river called Meander, and an ambulance moving slower than I am, even with its siren wailing. The first place I stop at is Penguin. It’s fairly typical for towns up this end of the state – it’s stunning, set by the sea and no-one has heard of it. I stop for a latte in a cafe on a sleepy main street. Out back, there are tables metres above the ocean, where – you guessed it – penguins live. There are walking trails beside heritage homes hidden by flower gardens with whopping big verandas looking over Bass Strait. I’d stay a night to soak up the vibe, but the road’s calling me.
Tasmanians think any drive over two hours is an unnecessary slog, but us mainlanders don’t flinch at these sorts of distances and west of Penguin, you’ll find Tasmania’s version of the Great Ocean Road – though this one’s got no-one on it (save the odd farmer on his tractor). Tiny hamlets emerge, each turn-off takes me to an almost identical outpost where Victorian-era homes are built beside the water, and there’s always a cafe with a great view.
There are tiny islets just off-shore that I’d love to explore by boat – did you know 334 islands make up the archipelago of Tasmania? Former Tasmanian premier Jim Bacon calls them: “the last truly unspoiled natural attraction in the world”. On this cloudless autumn day, they look like mirages.
After two hours and 40 minutes, I pull into Stanley – it’ll be my base for my west coast adventures. It’s the sort of town that doesn’t belong in 2021. It’s full of preserved colonial buildings now operating as cafes, shops and accommodation – when Hollywood came to town to film a period movie (The Light Between Oceans) they barely had to change a thing on its streetscape.
I stay in one of the town’s oldest properties – a 172-year-old former pub that has been restored into a guesthouse called The Ship Inn. From my suite, I can smell the kelp in the ocean, which dazzles me with its shocking blueness. In the evenings, I join the inn owners with a glass of wine in hand as we wander the streets greeting neighbours before dinner at the Tasmanian Wine and Food speak-easy bar. Proprietor Michael Pine – on my visit donned in tweed, with waistcoast and tie and a moustache waxed till it shines – has assembled the quirkiest collections imaginable, from velvet furniture (even in the bathroom) to bookshelves full of rare 19th-century books.
Stanley is a pretty town, surrounded by green, rolling hills and dwarfed by The Nut, a 150-metre-high volcanic plug rising straight out of the ocean. You can reach the top on a five-minute chairlift ride. Seals sunbake on Stanley’s wide beaches and, at dusk, little penguins scramble to shore for the night.
From Stanley it’s easy to access Tasmania’s West Coast and its Tarkine Rainforest. Part of a 477,000-hectare patch of temperate rainforest that’s the second-largest on the planet, it’s home to some of the oldest flora on Earth. While you can catch car-carrying punts across rivers to deeper wildernesses, you can also do an easy loop from Stanley along (mostly) paved road where few cars go. It’s not even an hour’s drive from Stanley to the coast.
The landscape gets wild around here – there are mountain ranges falling into the ocean, wild rivers, moorlands and a rugged coastline dotted with tiny settlements where eccentric fishermen live off the grid in old shacks by the sea, sans electricity or town water.
And there are tiny towns like Arthur River where I take a boat ride along one of the last truly wild rivers in Australia, past thick forest alive with giant myrtles, sassafras and celery top pines. At a look-out called End Of The World, I nearly step on a deadly copperhead snake; round these parts, you’d hope there’s a helicopter handy somewhere.
I don’t see a single car in a day’s driving; just a flotilla of excited men in inflatable kayaks floating down rapids on the prettiest river I’ve seen, below a towering bridge where I stop mid-way. In the evenings I return to Stanley for its old-world charm, but each day I spend longer out here in these empty stretches of Tasmania. You can venture further into the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area, one of the world’s last great wildernesses, with a 4WD.
But for now, I’m happy knowing all this is three hours’ drive from Launceston. That way, when I buy my cottage at the beach I won’t name, I’ll still be part of the world I’m happy to leave behind.
Take me there
Fly: You can fly direct to Launceston from Melbourne or Sydney with Jetstar or Virgin.
Drive: Rental cars area available from Launceston Airport (all major rental companies operate). Driving is easy – there are few routes to choose between.
Stay: Ship Inn Stanley offers heritage rooms overlooking a quiet bay, within walking distance of the heart of town, from $250 per night.
Explore more: westcoasttas.com.au