ROGER COX Gallery images

Natural High

Published: The Scotsman (Section: TSMAG) 17 Mar 2007

THE AUSSIES MAKE FUN OF the Tasmanians in much the same way that the English make fun of the Welsh – that is, they reckon they’re all inbred, two-headed, knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers. “Watch out for people with a scar on their shoulder,” they’ll tell you before you board the plane at Melbourne. The scar, of course, is where the second head used to be before the operation.

Like most prejudices, though, the prevailing mainland attitude towards Tasmania is based purely on ignorance. True, some parts of the island still feel pretty isolated – there wasn’t a road linking the west coast fishing town of Straughan to the rest of the state until the 1960s – but Hobart, Tassie’s capital, is as cosmopolitan a city as you’ll find anywhere. The second-oldest European settlement in Australia after Sydney, it is home to a university campus, a burgeoning arts scene and also the Australian Antarctic Division, which makes it the jumping-off point for all Australian expeditions to the big, chilly continent to the south. Oh, and everyone here – and I mean everyone – seems to be an expert on at least one adventure sport, be it kayaking, surfing, mountain biking or rock climbing. As a result, the crowd that gathers for the regular live music nights down by the harbour at Salamanca Square tends to be a mixture of students, elegantly-attired artists and hearty, rugged outdoor types. Think beards, beads and Ugg boots.

The only slightly strange thing about the Tasmanians is that, often, they don’t seem to realise quite how good they’re getting it. Standing by the shore at Park Beach, just a few miles south east of Hobart, I’m psyching myself up for a surf in playful shoulder-to-head-high waves. It’s a Saturday morning, but there are only a couple of other people out. The waves are a wee bit on the mushy side, ruffled by a slight onshore breeze, but there’s hardly a cloud in the sky and the early spring sun is warming my back nicely. If this was the South West of England – or even the South East of Scotland – a setup like this would be absolutely mobbed. Here, though, the locals seem happy to wait for absolutely perfect conditions before bothering to get their hair wet.

“Sometimes it can get really busy,” says Pat Fasnacht, owner of South Coast Surf School and the man who has loaned me a board and wetsuit for the day. “There are some pointbreaks between the airport and South Arm which require a six to eight metre swell, and when they’re on you’ll find people come out of the woodwork.”

On days like this, though, you’d think surfing had only just been invented. For about an hour, my surf guide Josh Iles and I trade fun little righthanders. Then, as the tide shifts and the surf at Park starts to deteriorate, we drive a few minutes down the coast to the Calton Rivermouth. The waves here have less punch, but they peel perfectly for a good 150 metres before fizzling out in the deep-blue water of the channel. The current running into the river is too strong to paddle against, but that’s no problem: we simply wade to the beach after each ride, stroll back to the take-off spot, then paddle out and have another go.

Of course, Tasmania can do extreme surfing too: Shipstern Bluff, a submerged finger of rock that points directly into the Southern Ocean, is easily one of the most terrifying waves in the world. A spot called Remarkables, which Josh and I visit later, is no picnic either, requiring surfers to paddle out through a narrow cave full of churning whitewater in order to reach the break.

And then, of course, there are the sharks. According to Fasnacht, though, there’s no reason to be alarmed.

“You can let it worry you,” he says, “but there’s a lot for them to eat around here, and the things they like to eat usually live a lot further off. There are some really sharky breaks, and when you’re out at dusk it can be a bit nervy, but surfers don’t really worry about ‘em down here. The last person eaten was a diver in the Bass Straight and they were playing in a seal colony – that was about 12 years ago. You’d be really unlucky, that’s what we like to think.”

If you have even a passing interest in adventure sports you should head to Tasmania quickly, now, today, before everybody else beats you to it. As things stand, Australia’s “Natural State” still feels like a bit of a discovery – a largely unspoiled island roughly the same size as Wales (the comparison is purely coincidental), packed full of jaw-dropping scenery, where you can go kayaking, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, surfing, diving, hiking and climbing to your heart’s content and never encounter anything even approaching a crowd. Like most well-kept secrets, though, it’s unlikely to remain a secret for long. Pretty soon, tourists from the northern hemisphere will figure out what Tasmanians have known for years: that, while many of mainland Australia’s best bits have long-since been covered in concrete, Tassie – over a third of which is made up of National Parks – is like a huge, naturally-occurring adventure playground.

It’s no accident that Aussie Formula One driver Mark Webber holds his annual charity fundraiser, the Mark Webber Challenge, in Tasmania. A multi-discipline adventure race contested by super-fit teams of four, the 2006 event started in Launceston in the north, finished in Hobart in the south and covered roughly 600km of spectacular terrain along the way. The 12 teams faced gruelling bushwalking sections through the stunning Walls of Jerusalem National Park, a whitewater rafting stage on the Mersey River (much prettier than its UK namesake), a mountain bike slog through muddy-like-the-Western Front rainforest tracks and plenty more besides.

You’d have to be a serious athlete to complete the Challenge in six days – even British Olympic rower James Cracknell (the guy who lost half his backside while rowing across the Atlantic with Ben Fogle) seemed to be struggling at times – but there’s nothing to stop you enjoying all the same activities at a more leisurely pace.

The mountain biking in Tasmania is outstanding. Hook up with the folks at Island Cycle Tours, based in Hobart, and take your pick from challenging rainforest routes such as those around Montezuma Falls (Tassie’s highest waterfall), mellow coastal tracks around Ocean Beach near Straughan or, if speed is your thing, breakneck descents from Mount Wellington – the 1,271 metre peak which stands sentinel over Tassie’s capital city.

Bruny Island, meanwhile, situated just to the south of Hobart, is a magnet for watersports enthusiasts. Ian Balmer and Kim Brodlieb of Roaring 40s Ocean Kayaking offer an impressive range of services and bags of infectious enthusiasm to go with it. Beginners can get a reasonably priced basic skills lesson in the sheltered waterways of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel near to Roaring 40s’ Kettering base, but there are also three-day, five-day and seven-day camping trips for the more adventurous, not to mention classes and clinics on everything from navigation to Eskimo rolling.

While you’re on Bruny, you’d be a big galah not to take a cruise with Bruny Island Charters, who do a three-hour, 50km tour of the island that starts in Adventure Bay, and a full-day tour starting in Hobart. With their fleet of custom-built 44ft eco-cruisers, these guys can get nail-bitingly close to giant sea stacks, seal colonies and blowholes, even when there’s a meaty swell running. Which there often is. The southern tip of Bruny is exposed to the full force of the Southern Ocean, so don’t think those seatbelts in the front seats are there for show.

If you’re not much of an adrenalin junkie, no worries: just go hiking. Pretty much everywhere’s a good place to go for a walk in Tassie, but the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, a huge swathe of land in the western half of the island, is probably the best place to start. Even the frailest of us could complete the jaw-droppingly beautiful circuit of Dove Lake, backed by the imposing bulk of Cradle Mountain, in a couple of hours; if you’re after something a little more challenging, though, head east a bit to the Walls of Jerusalem National Park and you’ll be happier than a possum up a gum tree. The Walls are a series of high, craggy hills on the western side of Tasmania’s central plateau and give the whole area a real Land that Time Forgot aura.

If the thought of lugging all your camping gear halfway around the world is a little off-putting, Tasmanian Expeditions of Launceston is there to take the hassle out of it for you. They offer a range of guided treks throughout the island, and they’ll provide you with tents, sleeping bags and the rest. They’ll also be able to clue you up about the best times and places to hang out with the local wildlife. After all, a trip to Tassie wouldn’t be a trip to Tassie without at least one close encounter of the wallaby kind.

Factfile Tasmania

How to get there

Flights from Edinburgh to Hobart are available from GBP 994. Tel: 08457 747767 or visit www.qantas.co.uk

You can book a wide range of Tasmania’s adventure activities through STA Travel, such as the ten-day Tassie All Over Tour, from GBP 620 per person excluding flights. Tel: 0871 230 0040 or visit www.statravel.co.uk

WHERE TO STAY

Rooms at the Cradle Mountain Chateau start at Aus186 (GBP 75). Visit www.puretasmania.com.au

Rooms at the Henry Jones Art Hotel in Hobart start at Aus250 (GBP 100). Visit www.thehenryjones.com

AND THERE’S MORE

For South Coast Surf School, visit www.southcoastsurfschool.com.au For more information on the Mark Webber Challenge, visit www.markwebberchallenge.com

For Island Cycle Tours, visit www.islandcycletours.com For Roaring 40s Ocean Kayaking, visit www.roaring40skayaking.com.au For Bruny Island Charters, visit www.brunycharters.com.au For Tasmanian Expeditions, visit www.tas-ex.com

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