A PARADISE FOR PRISONERS AND DEVILS?

Maria reflections

If every day could be like this, I’d almost be content to stay for the term of my natural life.

Many of the first white residents could wait to get off Maria Island.

Convicts transported here in 1825 built Aboriginal-style canoes, begged or bribed whaling ships to give them a ride or tried their luck on the swim across the strait to mainland Tasmania, a few kilometres away. To see the island now, you wonder where they’d rather have been.

Maria Island is about 20 kilometres long, most of it covered with beautiful forest, with the steep ridge of Mt Maria sticking up in its centre. It’s almost two islands, joined in the middle by a narrow isthmus. Around its perimeter are white sand beaches, towering cliffs and photogenic rock formations.

It was long known to, and visited by, Aboriginal people, then named by Abel Tasman in honour of the wife of one of his Dutch East India Company sponsors.

The penal settlement finally closed in 1851, and attempts to farm it, turn it into a vineyard and quarry its limestone for cement all fizzled out over the succeeding decades. Now it’s a national park, attracting hikers, mountain-bikers and campers. The only vehicles are a few 4x4s driven by National Parks staff.

It’s all a bit primitive – no shops, no wifi, no bitumen roads, just tent sites and a few cells to sleep in. ‘It’s paradise out here,’ one of the rangers tells me. I’m hoping Heavenly Paradise won’t have coin meters on the hot showers, but as earthly paradises go, this is one of the better ones I’ve visited.

Ruins of the former solitary cells

While parts of the old penitentiary have been converted to comfortable, basic accommodation for visitors, the ruins on the solitary confinement cells remind us that life wasn’t all beer and skittles for the convicts.

Convict Barn - Maria Island

This barn was built by convicts in 1844, though I suspect the carts date from a much later era.

The old cement works, Maria Island

The remains of the cement works, originally opened in the late 19th century.

Counsel Creek, Maria Island

Counsel Creek on a still, clear morning.

Bishop and Clark, Maria Island's highest point

The Fossil Cliffs, and the rocky outcrop known as Bishop and Clerk. It’s a stiff climb to the top. Yes, I have tried it.

Painted Cliffs, Maria Island

The Painted Cliffs – not big, but colourful, and a must-see for every visitor.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much Australian fauna in one place as on Maria Island. Kangaroos, wallabies and wombats graze unconcerned on the slopes around the campsites. Since 2012, 28 Tasmanian devils have been introduced to the island, as a quarantine measure. Devil populations throughout the state have been drastically reduced by a deadly facial tumour disease. The disease-free population on Maria Island is thriving, fortunately, with numbers building to around 90 now.

Cape Barren Geese - Maria Island

Cape Barren geese. They’ve been introduced to the island and are common around the Darlington campground now.

Pademelon with joey, Maria Island

A Tasmanian pademelon mother and her joey.

Kangaroos and wombat grazing

At dusk, the grassy slopes are dotted with grazing kangaroos and wombats.

Wombat, Maria Island

They’re tame enough to let you get very close, though visitors are rightly warned not to feed or attempt to touch the wildlife.

Maria Island sunset

And so another Tasmanian day draws to a close.

Trip notes:

Getting there: Maria Island is east of Hobart, about a 90-minute drive by car or Tassielink bus to Triabunna. From there the Maria Island Ferry leaves a couple of times a day, more frequently in the summer holiday months.

Staying there: Bookings for campsites can be made at the Triabunna Visitor Centre or see parks.tas.gov.au
Tasmanian Expeditions runs four-day walking tours on Maria Island, and also includes two nights camping on the island as part of their East Coast Cycle – the trip road-tested by your correspondent.

The writer was the guest of Tourism Tasmania and Tasmanian Expeditions.

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Filed under Cycle touring, Cycling, Hiking, Travel-Australia, Uncategorized

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