Two hundred years after Tasmania was forced into service as a British penal colony, Janet Street-Porter journeys on foot, and of her own free will, to its vast, unspoilt forests and mountains. For the modern traveller, there are plenty of spectacular compensations en route - and at the end of a hard day's hike
What a week! Hiking in pouring rain over exposed rocky ridges, a hilltop picnic of kangaroo steaks in wild pepper sauce, slogging up 90m-high sand dunes and discovering unspoilt rainforest along a disused railway track which culminated in a jaw-dropping, 1m-wide suspension bridge high over a gorge.
Tasmania is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It might be Australia's smallest state (about the size of Ireland, with a population of just over 470,000) but Tassie is like nowhere else on earth. It has weird animals, 10,000-year-old trees, and a guaranteed sense of solitude. And it's the last stop before Antarctica. A quarter of the island consists of 20 National Parks, and almost all of that is designated as World Heritage Sites, so fragile and unique is the environment, ranging from moorland to alpine heath to rocky peaks to pasture. There are more than six different kinds of forest covering 20 per cent of the island, from rainforest to eucalyptus to pine.
This isn't somewhere to go for sophisticated comfort, company, and urban pleasures. Having said that, I did manage to sleep in a converted ballroom, enjoy several bottles of Iced Riesling (a locally produced dessert wine of the highest quality), and stay in a luxurious log cabin in the wilderness with my very own wood-burning stove. Tassie is a place of extremes: the weather can be unpredictable for a start. There are miles and miles of empty, dazzling white sand beaches, but the wind can be deafening. I drove for f miles along totally empty roads, and passed through settlements with no more than one shop. I climbed mountains and saw nothing but 30 miles of forest and lakes at every level. Don't go to Tasmania expecting things to be easy – but its special qualities make it well worth the trip. I decided to spend my time exploring the most popular National Parks at Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair, with a detour to the eastern coast. There are 3,000km of hiking trails, at every level of difficulty, but I'd recommend hiring a car, and keeping your options flexible, unless you want to walk in a group and do one of the many three- to six-day distance hikes, staying in public or private huts.
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