That long, sweeping descent comes only after you’ve slogged up to the top of the hill. Push into that gale for a day and it may eventually become a helpful tailwind. For every idiot driver who almost squeezes you off the road, there are many courteous ones who overtake slowly, giving you wobble room and a ‘good-on-yer-mate’ wave.
Cycling the wild east coast of Tasmania certainly brings its share of both challenges and joys.
I confess to being a little apprehensive when Oscar from Tasmanian Expeditions drops me off in Scottsdale, an hour’s drive east of Launceston. ‘The traffic should thin out once you pass Derby,’ he assures me. The bike he’s brought for me looks sturdy, with knobbly tyres that should grip any road. But riding any unfamiliar bike will be a bit unsteady at first, the wind is gusty and there are too many trucks speeding down the narrow highway for my liking.
This is a self-guided trip, so I tell myself I can take my time. It’s only (gulp!) 60km to Weldborough and I have most of the day to do it. I wait till Oscar has driven away before easing myself into the saddle.
I’m slow, with bulging panniers and slightly bulging backside. I wonder vaguely whether a logging truck will clean me up from behind. When the first few miss me by several metres, I realise the road is wide enough for both them and me. In most places.
A couple of hours pedaling over rolling hills bring me into ‘Trail of the Tin Dragon’ territory, where I can take a break. Branxholm and Derby are unprepossessing little villages, making the most of their history. A small museum in Derby tells me an interesting tale of the 19th century Tin Rush, with many Chinese miners spilling over from the goldfields of Victoria, briefly turning the area into a minor El Dorado.
From Derby the road winds up into forest of eucalyptus and myrtle. There are indeed fewer vehicles on the road here, so I can concentrate on legs and lungs. It’s a stiff, steady climb to the top of Billycock Hill. Tassie’s own Tour de France rider Richie Porte would find it a mere bump; for me, it’s an achievement to reach its mighty 394m summit.
Historic Weldborough Hotel is my first night stop. It boasts that it serves beer from every one of Tasmania’s microbreweries. While I start working my way through the stockpile, friendly host Mark prepares excellent Tasmanian salmon for my dinner. My legs are telling me I’ve earned it.
Next morning I’m off at the crack of dawn. Though my destination, St Helens, is only a few hours’ ride away, I want to have time for a 23km detour to St Columba’s Falls. It’s a good decision. I can take or leave most waterfalls (I feel the same about firework displays and cathedrals) but the road up through the Pyengana Valley is one of the best of the trip, the creek and forest surrounding the falls are magical, and the return journey is downhill – with a tailwind.
From St Helens the highway flattens out as it follows the coast southwards. Unfortunately what’s flat and straight for me is also flat and straight for motor traffic. Trucks sometimes flash past at disconcerting speed, leaving me buffeted by the vortex. I’m relieved to arrive in Bicheno, the most attractive town I’ve visited so far, and my self-contained cabin in Bicheno by the Bay Holiday Park is positively luxurious.
With winds reaching gale force overnight, I consider bailing. I could sit out the storm for a day or I could put the bike in the trailer behind a local bus.
Luckily, by morning the wind has abated and I feel fine to ride on. Coles Bay Road branches off from the Tasman Highway; it’s less busy, with a wider shoulder for cycling. I have little trouble on the 26km stretch, and arrive with time and energy for a few hours’ walking.
Freycinet National Park is as beautiful as any in the country. Wineglass Bay is one of Australia’s most photographed beaches, for good reason. Its perfect shape, white sand and dark blue water are brilliant when viewed from the top of the Hazards Range.
A local dog-walker engages me in conversation. ‘Off to Swansea next eh? Ooh, I ride a bike myself, but I wouldn’t trust myself on Devil’s Corner…worst bit of the coast road, that is…’ So with white knuckles I steel myself for the next stage.
It is indeed a tough climb, with many a blind corner. I see no shame in dropping down to the second lowest gear, then the lowest, then…okay, getting off and wheeling the bike up the steep bit.
From Swansea it’s a doddle to roll on to Triabunna, gateway to the famed nature reserve and former penal colony of Maria Island. I deserve a couple of quiet nights, camping, hiking and occasionally pedaling – with not a logging truck to be seen.
Meanwhile, here’s a suggestion, dear Tasmanian roads authority people…
You have something very good here that could be truly wonderful. Some work on the cycling infrastructure could make the East Coast route one of the great rides, to rival New Zealand’s famous Otago Rail Trail and Europe’s classic routes. It could bring cycle tourists from around the world, just as the Overland Track attracts the world’s hikers to Cradle Mountain.
What is needed, though, is some improvement to the safety of the road. Widening the shoulder of the Tasman Highway by even a metre on some stretches would make a huge difference. Widen the shoulder by two metres, clear it of debris now and then and you’re entitled to call it a bike lane. Better still, how about developing the old convict road I’ve heard runs along the coast into a dedicated cycling/walking route?
Already the East Coast route is a great ride for fit, confident cyclists. I’ve survived it and I’ve earned some fun. I have 360km of bragging rights, impressive scenery photos to show family and friends, and I’m entitled to a couple more of those microbrewery beers, possibly in macroglasses.
Getting there: Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin run regular flights into Launceston and out of Hobart from Sydney and Melbourne.
Cycling there: Tasmanian Expeditions’ 8-day East Coast Self-Guided Cycle costs $1250. Includes bike hire with helmet and panniers, baggage transfer from Launceston to Hobart, all accommodation, boat trip to camp on Maria Island and bus from Triabunna to Hobart. Shorter and more extended versions of the trip are also offered. See tasmanianexpeditions.com.au or call 1300 666 856.
Richard Tulloch was the guest of Tourism Tasmania and Tasmanian Expeditions.
Other East Coast Adventures
If the fun on the bike still leaves you wanting more, there are many other outdoor adventures on offer in the area (none of them tested by this blogger – yet.)
1. Mountain bike trails: The hills around Derby have numerous off-road MTB trails of all degrees of difficulty. See ridebluederby.com.au
2. Game fishing: Most coastal towns offer fishing charters, but St Helens claims to be the state’s game fishing capital. Several tour companies operate from here. See rockycarosifishing.com or breamfishing.com.au
3. Penguin parade: A group of fairy penguins comes ashore to burrows in Bicheno each evening. See bichenopenguintours.com.au
4. Spot Tasmanian Devils: Since the facial tumour disease outbreak, devil numbers have dropped alarmingly. To learn more about them and watch them in action see devilsinthedark.com.au
5. Kayaking: Coles Bay is the starting point for sea kayak tours around the Freycinet Peninsula. See freycinetadventures.com.au
First published, Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age, January 2016.