When we left the island on February 27, 2016, we said we’d be back. We had no idea it would be 5 years and 9 months later.
But life happens … long distance cycling events in preparation for even longer distances, measles, cancer, a trip to Canada, Rowan’s accident in March 2018, and of course, COVID.
Rowan’s accident resulted in a severe traumatic brain injury. At points during the first three weeks, I was told that the extent of Rowan’s brain injury would mean that he might not make it and if he did, he would require permanent care. I was told to start looking for full-care nursing homes. However, Rowan has surprised the medical professionals and has recovered better than expected. He will never fully recover, but he is alive, and he is not in a nursing home.
Since Rowan’s accident, we have been reintroducing things we enjoyed back into our lives to ease ourselves into something that resembles a “normal”. We started cycling again – not the distances we used to do, but a bit. We’ve been organising cycling events to stay connected with the long distance cycling we love. And we have done some travelling around Tasmania.
About a year ago, I started to think about reintroducing camping.
We have not been camping since the weekend of November 25-27, 2016 … five years ago!
First, we had to choose a location. It had to be reasonably close, quiet and low stress. I thought about several options and finally landed on one that might meet the requirements: Maria Island. One of the things I remembered about Maria Island was how peaceful and quiet it was. It is one of the few places on earth where I’ve felt truly comfortable sleeping in a tent.
I ran the idea past Rowan and he liked it. We also liked the idea of bringing our Bike Fridays (folding, off-road touring bicycles) with us so we could do a little cycling on the island. Our enthusiasm increased when we pulled our camping and cycletouring equipment out of storage and reacquainted ourselves with everything. Old friends from numerous cycling tours over the years. For me, it felt natural to load my panniers as I’ve done before. For Rowan, it brought back lots of memories.
We planned to keep it simple. We would drive there in the middle of the day on Friday, take the last ferry to Maria Island, and set up camp. On Saturday, we would cycle as far south as we could go and back. On Sunday, we would pack up camp and explore some of the varied history of Maria Island near the ferry.
Maria Island is located 10 km, from “mainland Tasmania”, as the crow flies, or about 17 km by ferry. It is 20 km long and 115.5-square kilometres (44.6 square miles).
“The present name dates from 1642, when Abel Tasman sighted the island from sea and named it in honour of Maria Van Diemen, the wife of the governor of Batavia.” In the 1820s and 1830s whalers used the island during winter months and there are still whale bones on the island. “By 1825 Maria had become a penal settlement.” But since it was quite easy to escape, it was abandoned in 1832. A decade later it became a probation station for 8 years, but it was abandoned again. Then “Italian entrepreneur, Diego Bernacchi, secured a long-term lease of the island in 1884 and set up a cement works to utilise the island’s limestone deposits.” It was also used for farming. In the 1960s, “several species considered to be under threat, such as Cape Barren geese, Forester kangaroos and Flinders Island wombats, were imported to the island.” Finally, Maria Island was officially declared a national park in 1971.
Darlington, the little settlement on the island, “is the most representative and intact example of a probation station in Australia. Its 14 convict buildings and ruins are preserved in a layout that reflects the key features of the probation system in Van Diemen’s Land. The site has remained relatively unchanged since the convict era.” It was World Heritage Listed in 2010.
Now, the only motor vehicles allowed on Maria Island are one or two national park vehicles. Visitors get around the island on foot or by bicycle. There are several hikes and roads or trails suitable for mountain bikes. Visitors can stay in dorms in the convict buildings or in one of several campgrounds. Visitors must bring everything they need for their stay. They must also take out all their rubbish. There are no shops on the Maria Island and only partially treated water in a couple places. The ferry goes to and from Maria Island 3 times a day most of the year except for peak season when it travels 4 times a day. Once the last ferry has left at 4:15 pm, there are no more ferries till morning. Therefore, visitors do need to be prepared.
Since we were about to be visitors, that meant us. We needed to be prepared!
I dug out old cycletouring checklists, ordered easy to cook meals to bring with us, and arranged for someone to check in on Rhody. One evening, we unfurled our mattresses and sleeping bags on the living room floor to see if they were still OK. Rhody was fascinated and also very quizzical … what on earth were we doing lying on the living room floor? Rowan picked up a new part for his camp stove so that it was in good working order. We also took a test ride on our Bike Fridays loaded with panniers and bags.
On Friday we drove to Triabunna, parked the car, and checked us and our luggage in. Then we went to a place which was named the best fish and chips place in Tasmania for lunch! Yummo! There is a new ferry company transporting people to and from the island from when we visited almost 6 years ago. To my relief, everything was loaded on board in a process that was much smoother than it had been with the previous ferry company. On the ferry, we found ourselves surrounded by a group of ladies going to a yoga retreat on the island.
An idea started forming in my head … wouldn’t this make a great setting for a mystery novel?! An island with limited access, a group of ladies at a yoga retreat and staying in the convict building dorms, an older couple on their first camping trip in 5 years …
Meanwhile, the 45-minute ferry ride to the island was lovely. The sun was shining, and it was peaceful and relaxing on the water. And observing this group of ladies was interesting as there appeared to be several personalities involved.
Shortly after docking, we all collected our luggage. The yoga ladies piled theirs into the waiting trollies and pulled them up to the Darlington convict settlement to find their rooms. We attached panniers and bags to our Bike Fridays and cycled the short distance to the campground near the water, below the Darlington convict settlement. There were a few tents set up widely spaced apart. We had our choice of sites and chose one that turned out to be quite good – close to the toilets, but not too close. Setting up the tent was interesting as we had not done it for 5 years. Fortunately, it started to come back to us as we progressed.
A mother and son detached themselves from the group of yoga ladies and set up a tent as well. However, we observed that the son stayed there while the mother appeared to join the yoga ladies. The characters in my mystery novel started to flesh out with a mysterious son who seemed to disappear for long periods of time with a book or walking stick in hand.
One of the delightful things about Maria Island is the wildlife. Throughout the campground wombats wander and pademelons hop. Because this visit was in spring, there were also many babies and full pouches. There are also a number of birds including the kookaburra, the Cape Barren geese, crows, magpies, parrots, and black cockatoos. A black crow sat in the tree in front of the picnic table and watched us intently. Our set up process was interrupted several times when I was compelled to go and take photos of the various animals.
Rowan got his chance to use his stoves again as he cooked dinner for us. Our food choices were convenient and reasonably healthy, and his stoves worked very well. We ended the meal with tea and chocolate and then went for a walk to the beach.
From where we camped, we could hear people at the beach, but we could not see them, however the access to the beach was close by. It is a beautiful white sand beach with clear water and would have been lovely to swim in if it hadn’t been very cold. Maybe the next time we go will be warmer.
About 8 pm, a group of about 8 cyclists arrived back at the campground, each greeting us as they rode past. Ah … another element for my mystery story, a group of happy young people with no apparent connection to the yoga ladies. I have the characters, I have the setting, now I need the plot! Where would you go with these characters and setting? Does the chatty, dithering older lady with the yoga ladies inadvertently know something incriminating about someone else? What about the doctor who has joined the yoga group to relax – does she have a medical secret she doesn’t want anyone to know? And the lady with the Mona Lisa smile who won’t talk to anyone – is she here to take a break from life or does that smile hide a dark story? Maybe the leader of the yoga group doesn’t want the larger yoga and vegan community to know that she owns the local meat packing plant! And just who are the woman and young man who won’t leave her side? Is it a lover’s triangle? Does the varied history of the island play a part? Is there a connection to the settlement’s past as a convict/probation station? Or to the Italian entrepreneur, Diego Bernacchi? Perhaps one of the cyclists is an heir! Did the young man who has accompanied his mother to the island find a secret passage under the settlement? And what might it contain?
Meanwhile, back in our campsite, I dug out my little sketch book and pencils and sketched the tree in front of the picnic table. Now that I’m finished university and don’t have to spend every evening studying, I’ve started trying my hand at being creative. If nothing else, it’s relaxing.
The sun started to set, the temperature started to drop, and with no TV or computers to keep us occupied, we headed into the tent. Rowan went to sleep, and I got comfy to read a while. As night set in, we could hear the thumping and running of animals outside … wombats and pademelons. I listened for the sound of Tasmanian devils but did not hear them.
I must have been comfortable overnight! I did not expect to sleep a full 11 hours! We have decent camping equipment that still works from our Round the World adventure in 2012, but one of the things I really like about Maria Island is the quietness.
It had rained overnight, and the morning was overcast but with the suggestion that might clear off later, so we had a very relaxed breakfast with no rush to get going. The group of cyclists left on their bicycles. Mom came to check on her son and then they both left. All was quiet and we were surrounded by wombats, pademelons, and birds. Such a beautiful, relaxing way to start the day.
But we did want to cycle as far south as we could go, so we dressed in our cycling kit and got ready to go. During the half hour or so of getting ready, I started to shed the many layers I had put on. It was getting warm!
At last, we were ready and off we went – along the brief flat section next to the beach around the corner, and up the hill. And up and up. While Google calls the route “mostly flat”, I can attest to the fact that it is not! We stopped at the top of the hill to take photos of the beach and “Ruby Hunt’s cottage”. If I were writing a mystery story, this would be a good place for me to take a photo of something I wasn’t meant to see – someone in the trees, a glint in the window of the old cottage.
We continued southward past the Painted Cliffs – we would come back to them later when the tide was lower – along the beach and then slightly inland. The route continued to be undulating and challenging but I was very pleased to see that the road condition had improved dramatically from the last time we were here. Cycling on a well-groomed gravel road with no motor vehicles around was wonderful. I was also thoroughly enjoying being outside and active in nature.
We rounded a corner, and I was slightly surprised to see a couple sitting in the bush on an embankment watching us. I think the surprise was more from the fact that it had been some time since we had seen anyone.
Shortly before McRae’s Isthmus, we arrived at French’s Farm. Between about 1930 and 1960, a family had a farm on Maria Island and raised sheep, as evidenced by the remaining farmhouse and woolshed. It’s a beautiful spot and camping is allowed there. We stopped to have a look around and take some photos.
Our goal was to get as close to the Isthmus as possible, so we continued south again. As we passed the road to Encampment Cove, a few of the cyclist group were gathering. We waved “hello”. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the Crooked Mcguiness Creek Bridge and almost immediately after that bridge, we were into sand. As we were not keen on cycling in fairly thick sand, we decided that was our turn-around point. When we got back to the road to Encampment Cove, the cycling group was together and ready to take on the Isthmus. We chatted a bit and exchanged information about the routes ahead. We told them about the sand, and they told us about muddy trails in the Point Lesueur loop which started at Encampment Cove.
The road between French’s Farm and Encampment Cove was delightfully flat and offered us a view of the Isthmus. So even though we did not set foot on the Isthmus, at least we got to see it. As we cycled, we passed a camp all set up. Camping is allowed at Encampment Cove but given that Encampment Cove is usually accessed by people on foot or on bicycles, this was quite a setup! There was a large 2-room tent, eskies and bins and all sorts. Definitely not things people would have hauled in on foot or by bicycle. There are one or two Parks’ vehicles on the island, but there was no room to park a vehicle in or near the site. But there was a small boat pulled up close by. The island is usually accessed via the ferry but can be accessed by other vessels as well. It sounded like faint music was playing from the site, but no one appeared to be around.
More material for the mystery story rattling around in my head! Suppose someone sailed to this point and set up camp. Suppose the person was carrying on the pretence of fishing but in reality, was involved in smuggling. Suppose there were indeed tunnels under the settlement at Darlington where the goods were kept. Suppose the young man with the book and walking stick read about these underground tunnels in a musty old book he found in a library. Suppose he was walking around the settlement tapping the ground with his stick and looking/listening for evidence of the underground tunnels out of idle curiosity. But imagine his surprise when he finds them!
We arrived at Encampment Cove, and it was another lovely spot. We would have liked to continue on and explore the convict cell walls and ruins that once made up the Long Point Probation Station at Point Lesueur, but as advised by the cycling group, the trail was quite muddy. So, we decided the exploration would have to take place on another, drier trip. We started back.
Past the well-developed campsite with the music playing and no one around. Past the views of the Isthmus. Past French’s Farm. Past the couple who were watching the path from the bush but were now walking with heavy backpacks. Up and down and up and down the hills. Those hills were a bit of a challenge! I stopped to take photos more frequently.
We had ridden past the Painted Cliffs on the way out and I was looking forward to seeing them on the way back. Last time we were here, we saw them at high tide, so we didn’t get a very good look. But this time it was low tide, and they were beautiful!
At the top of the last hill, I looked to the left and saw what looked like a large kangaroo. Tasmania doesn’t really have kangaroos. We’ve got wallabies, pademelons, bettongs, and potoroos but they’re all a lot smaller than kangaroos. However, I did recall hearing that there might be larger kangaroos of some sort on Maria Island. We didn’t see one the last time we were here, but over there, it really looked like there was a large kangaroo. Rowan didn’t see it because he was too busy climbing the hill.
Fortunately, the last part of the route was the downhill past the convict settlement and back into the campground. We were tired!
After a bit of a rest, Rowan boiled water to make a pre-dinner snack and cups of coffee. Then, when we had a bit more energy, dinner was on its way.
The group of cyclists returned to the campground, and all said “hi” to us before heading into the ocean for a quick (and very cold) dip. The couple hiking on the road arrived at the campground and set up their tents. The mom checked on her son.
Meanwhile, it was like we were in a nature show. A kookaburra sat in the tree in front of the picnic table (the one I sketched). It would periodically “fall” out of the tree to catch something it spotted moving on the ground. Then it would fly around a little and back into the tree to repeat the process. Wombat moms and their babies walked around grazing. A pademelon with a joey in her pouch let the little joey out to hop about. It was so cute hopping here and there while mom looked on.
Did you know that pademelons growl? I found that out the night before when two were playing together, chasing each other around and one growled at the other, or maybe they both growled.
On this night, there was a scuffle and a growl behind us. A pademelon hopped quickly past our picnic table. We turned to see what was happening, expecting another pademelon, but it was a wombat! The wombat ran after the pademelon … yes, wombats can run quickly … past the picnic table, around the tree in front of the picnic table, and straight for us under the picnic table!! We hastily moved our legs out of the way as it roared through!
The couple who had just set up their tent were sitting at their picnic table and saw the whole thing. As the wombat raced under our bench, the man called out, “You must have forgotten your wombat repellent!”
But that wasn’t the end of the wildlife excitement. I had gotten up to take some more photos of pademelons and wombats when I looked up and called Rowan over. There was the large kangaroo! I had been telling him about it and that I had seen it on the top of the hill, and there it was. It hopped a little then might have spotted us and stood right up! Definitely a large kangaroo! I found out later that Forester kangaroos were introduced to Maria Island. Forester kangaroos are the largest marsupial in Tasmania, and the second largest in the world. Adult males, which this one was, can reach over 60 kg and stand 2 metres tall. This one looked like it was well on its way to 2 metres tall. We kept our distance, and as soon as I had taken a couple photos, we moved away.
And still the in-person wildlife show was not over! We took our dishes over to the camp sink to wash them and as we got close to the campsite again, I saw that the crow. Remember the crow who had been watching us from the tree in front of the picnic table the night before? It had Rowan’s breakfast (contained in a Ziploc bag) on the ground. It had grabbed the bag but dropped it when it saw us coming back. As I got closer, it grabbed the bag again and was about to fly off. I ran forward and yelped at it, and it dropped the bag again but didn’t back off. I dove for the bag, while flapping my arms at the crow, grabbed the bag and handed it off to Rowan. The crow flew a little distance but kept its eye on us.
That was enough excitement for one day. We packed things up and as the sun went down, retired to the tent. Rowan went right to sleep, and I read a while. Relaxing!
And thinking about the mystery story forming itself in my mind. It occurred to me that when we came across the cycling group, they weren’t that far ahead of us, yet they left quite some time before us. What had they been up to? Yes, OK, they did stop at the Painted Cliffs on the way out and back and they did the muddy loop we didn’t do, but in the interest of this mystery story I’m creating, let’s assume that there was a mysterious time gap. What were they up to down near Encampment Cove, near that well-set-up campsite? Were they collecting and transporting the smuggled goods to a different location, like the underground tunnels? And why were the couple in the campsite across the path sitting and watching the road when we cycled past? Were they agents?
Again, I slept 11 hours. I can hardly believe the tent was so comfortable!
This was our last day on the island. Once again, we had a long, relaxed breakfast, and decided to take our time packing up camp before going to explore the Darlington Convict Settlement. It did take a while, we’re a little bit out of practice, but we got it done. Everything was back in the panniers and bags and on the bicycles.
As we were leaving, we chatted with the couple and found out they actually live near us! That’s Tasmania for you!
We decided to walk over to the settlement. Rowan wasn’t that keen on cycling – the day before had worn him out. The last time we visited Maria Island we spent quite a bit of time looking at the buildings. This time we didn’t have as much time for it, but it brought back memories! Many of the buildings were much the same as they had been. It’s definitely worth having a look around and reading some of the information.
The yoga ladies were packing to go. The leader and her immediate entourage were cleaning up in the kitchen. The doctor was chatting with another lady on the veranda of the accommodation. The lady with the Mona-Lisa smile who wouldn’t talk to anyone was sipping a cup of hot tea a little further down on the veranda, quietly, with the same Mona-Lisa smile. But someone was missing. Where was the chatty, dithering older lady? My mystery story leapt to mind again. Had she stumbled onto something she shouldn’t have? Did she discover that the yoga ladies were part of the smuggling ring and were the ones taking the goods off the island? Was she … removed?
And what happened to the mom and son? They had packed up their tent, but they didn’t appear to be around. Had they made the discovery of the underground tunnels and the goods they contained? Had they also been … removed?
It was about time for our ferry, so we hopped on the bicycles and coasted down to the dock, loaded our panniers into the bin, and waited to be admitted to the ferry. Of course, I took more photos. The water there is so pretty.
There weren’t many on board on the way back. Evidently the yoga ladies were taking the last ferry of the day. The couple we met were on board as well as two Parks people. Were they going back to the mainland to report their findings?
The ferry trip back was lovely and relaxing like it had been on the way out but too soon we had arrived in Triabunna. We celebrated an excellent weekend by visiting the place which was named the best fish and chips place in Tasmania for lunch! Yummo!
And as we were eating, the last piece of the puzzle dropped into place. If you’ve followed it, my mystery story had the chain of how smuggled goods were transported across Maria Island and onto the mainland. From the person who stayed in the campsite at Encampment Cove, up to the Darlington settlement with the group of cyclists and into the underground tunnels where the goods were retrieved by the yoga ladies and taken onto the ferry and back to Triabunna and possibly further on. But how did the goods get there in the first place? As we ate our fish and chips, a small plane circled overhead and made its way out to Maria Island … to make a drop.
Of course, my mystery story is all a bit of fun and to my knowledge there are no underground tunnels and no smuggling.
We had a great time on Maria Island and the people we met along the way were lovely. The scenery was beautiful, and wildlife was fascinating. We can hardly wait to go back! It was an excellent break from day-to-day life for us. Plus, the whole process of camping was so good for Rowan as his camping memories returned and were reinforced.