Australia – The Red Centre

Uluru catching the light

Uluru catching the light

Most Australian’s I’ve spoken to will recommend Alice Springs and Uluru as a place to visit. It seems to be a destination on everyone’s bucket list, even though most Australian’s I know haven’t quite made it there yet. I don’t know why that is because the red centre of Australia is one of the most fascinating places you will ever see.

Nature, history and indigenous culture collide here to offer a fascinating, enthralling insight into the original Australia, with a breathtaking view that reminds you how huge this island nation really is.

A salt lake in Central Australia

A salt lake in Central Australia

The modern-day Alice Springs was founded in the mid 1800’s when the telegraph line was being constructed across the country. Aboriginal history here dates back many thousands of years, so in this location you get the tales of two Australias.

The stories of indigenous life here are fascinating. Find someone to translate aboriginal art and you will find a new appreciation for it. This is a culture that did not have a written language as such. The pictures told the stories, and the stories were not just decorations. Where to find food, what plants to avoid, where the meeting places were, where the water could be found, all of this information resides in what we might call aboriginal art, transcribed into rock faces many thousands of years ago. Much of today’s aboriginal art (on canvas) uses similar techniques to tell a story.

The roads are very long and very straight here

The roads are very long and very straight here

The story of Modern Australia in ‘The Alice’ is equally fascinating. It’s a story of grit, determination, persistence and perhaps a touch of crazy as well. This town (eventually) called Alice was discovered when John McDouall Stuart led his third and final expedition through a harsh and inhospitable terrain. Shortly after the telegraph came, then gold was discovered close by, then transport came and Alice Springs was the hub.

Today tourism is a large part of Alice Springs. It serves as a starting point for central Australian adventures. The biggest attraction figuratively and literally is Uluru. The photographs do not do this monolith justice. At just under 350 meters high, Uluru is taller than The Chrysler Building in New York, the Eifel Tower in Paris and the Shard in London. But this thing is not just tall. It’s over 3.5 k’s long and nearly 2k’s wide, and when you get close you can see the toll the elements have taken on it. Once covered by an inland sea, you feel like you can see waves carved from constant pressure, there’s a smoothness that comes from standing tall through the beatings of wind and the rain and the sands of time. When you’re physically close to Uluru, you see it’s not just a rectangular shaped rock, you see the cracks and the folds, the plants and the waterhole that all combine to make this a very special place to visit.

Waves carved out of rock

Waves carved out of rock

A waterhole at Uluru

A waterhole at Uluru

Effectively next door is Kata Tjuta, slightly less known than Uluru but still an impressive site in the middle of the desert. 36 sandstone domes spread over 20 odd kilometers make up Kata Tjuta, which is a phrase from the local language meaning ‘many heads’. Something to contemplate while enjoying one of the walking tracks and watching the sun and light dance on the heads is that these sandstone domes are believed to be millions of years old.

Kata Tjuta
These two sites are amazing but the red centre has even more to offer. Around half way between Alice and Uluru in the middle of nowhere is Kings Canyon. What I found particularly stunning is that you really get a sense of how big Australia is here. Stand at the top and as far as the eye can see is land. Flat red and brown land that stretches forever in every direction. You can’t help but feel like a tiny speck in the big scheme of things at Kings Canyon.

Kings CAnyon

Kings CAnyon

Carved from sandstone over millions of years, the geological formations are an impressive site. The 6k Canyon Rim Walk has a fairly taxing start. Some say it’s 500 steps, some say 1000, some say it’s 100 meters. I’m not the fittest person in the world and the beginning of this walk was hard, really hard. There are lots of places to rest though and the once you’re at the top, the view was definitely worth it. Walk around the rim and see the evidence of nature in action. This place is open, uncovered and exposed. You see the folds and cracks in the red rock that are the result of erosion over time. From the top you can walk down into the Garden of Eden, a green watery Oasis in the heart of the Canyon that is a stark contrast to the barren rock above.

On top of Kings Canyon

On top of Kings Canyon

These are just three of the spectacular sites this area has to offer. From natural wonders to indigenous education to historic stories of modern Australia, a visit to the red centre is deserving of a place on the bucket lists of all travellers.

Pania

 

 

 

Tasmania – The Wild West Coast

Strahan at Night

Strahan at Night

Everyone told me Tasmania was beautiful, and they were right. For a small island it’s certainly a place that packs a lot of punch. The scenery is like nothing else I’ve seen in Australia. Tasmania has a rugged scenic beauty, with sea shores that stare into the harsh southern ocean, bush and scrub that have been beaten and battered by the elements and a world heritage wilderness that can seem like you stepped into a land that time forgot.

Driving from Hobart in the south to Strahan in the West, the Derwent Valley shows off its pretty farmland with rolling hills. As you start to climb, the road becomes winding and the bush closes in around you which means you get surprised by what’s around the next corner.

Waterfalls on the way to Strahan

Waterfalls on the way to Strahan

At the top the images you see are stark but beautiful. The scrub type bush is short and compact and seem roughened by elements, but all the bushes huddled together create a flow for your eye to follow and you can’t help but admire it.

I then came across the Wall in the Wilderness. It’s a 100 metre long sculpture work in progress that chronicles the history of the Tasmanian Highlands. The sculptor is Greg Duncan and this wall is extraordinary. It was impressed upon me at every given opportunity that photos were not permitted though, so you will have to go to Google or in fact go to the Wall to find out more.

On the descent to Strahan I pass through Queenstown, with stark barren hills that make you think you’re driving through something poisonous. This area has been abused by man, stripped of trees and copper and gold and poisoned with the fumes of ‘progress’. When you know you’re driving to somewhere famous for its natural beauty, Queenstown is a reminder that the environment should be treated with care.

From Sarah Island

From Sarah Island

Strahan itself is a pretty seaside village where the locals are friendly and everyone has a story. The stars of this town are Huon Pine and the Tasmanian Wilderness. I took a tour up the Gordon River and every part of the journey was impressive. You start in the Macquarie Harbour, which is six times the size of Sydney harbor, and then you journey through what’s known as Hells Gates to get a taste of the famous Southern Ocean. As you enter the Gordon River, everything slows down… literally. The boat almost drifts to ensure the wake is not harming the environment. Here the smell of the air is different, the light is different, even the swish and the lapping of the water seems different. As you stare out into this world heritage listed wilderness in awe of its beauty, the busyness of your mind calms down and you appreciate how special the natural gift you’re being presented with is.

The Gordon River - no filter required

The Gordon River – no filter required

At Heritage Landing, a boardwalk guides you into the silence of the rainforest. Not just any rainforest though, the largest tract of temperate rainforest surviving on earth. With that thought in your head, you view your surroundings with higher regard. You notice the colours, the sounds and the smell and you hang off every word from your guide. Even if trees aren’t really your thing, you can’t help but be impressed by a 2000 year old Huon Pine.

The Gordon River

The Gordon River

The boat ride back to Strahan has one more stop at Sarah Island. This is another of Tasmania’s penal colonies. Where the very worst offenders, and the escapees from other prisons were sent. A tiny island surrounded by wilderness was an incredibly harsh incarceration for those unlucky enough to be sent there. The goodness for us travellers though, is that the actors who tell you the stories do so with great passion and the remains on the island really help bring the stories to life.

Sarah Island

Sarah Island

From winding roads to wild wilderness, Tasmania’s west coast is well worth a visit.

Pania

Tasmania – Port Arthur

Picture of Port Arthur

Port Arthur

Before I went to Tasmania the one place that was definitely on my list was Port Arthur. With a history that is as famous and renowned in Australia as the Tower of London in England or Alcatraz in the USA, this is a must see place.

In the 1800’s convicts were transported from England to Port Arthur mostly for what would be petty crimes today, and they were put to work in incredibly harsh conditions. The price paid for stealing a loaf of bread was severe.

Port Arthur Ruins

Port Arthur Ruins

Port Arthur is at the end of an island on the other side of the world that is isn’t easy to get to and is very hard to escape from, with only one very narrow land route in and out. Many tried but few escaped from here.

Port Arthur Ruins

Port Arthur Ruins

As I drove that very narrow road to the one place I really wanted to visit, I started to think about the impact it would have on me. The day before I’d been to Richmond Gaol which was thought-provoking but gloomy. Did I want to go to another site that would leave me melancholic and sad? Fortunately I didn’t let my ‘What if’s’ take over and I arrived at Port Arthur around 10am. I thought I’d be there for a couple of hours’ tops then visit another local site. After all, how much could you see at an old prison? As it turns out, quite a lot! Tip number 1 for Port Arthur – Allow yourself a plenty of time.

Tower at Port Arthur

Tower at Port Arthur

What I hadn’t thought about was that a prison doesn’t only have prisoners but also staff. Back in the 1800’s they were also imported from across the sea. Some came with spouses and families and they needed accommodating as well. When I entered the site, I was quite pleasantly surprised to see something that looked more like an English country estate than a prison.

Port Arthur Grounds.  This does not look like a prison.

Port Arthur Grounds. This does not look like a prison.

The grounds are expansive, you see the remains of an impressive church built of stone, you see English country gardens that the wives and children of senior staff would stroll around and you see the remains of some quite striking buildings. Port Arthur doesn’t LOOK as foreboding as Richmond at all, in fact I thought it could be quite a nice place for a holiday house… if I could ever afford one.

English Country Garden at Port Arthur

English Country Garden at Port Arthur

The stories that go with Port Arthur aren’t as pretty as the site itself, but this attraction is very well set up to inform tourists without bringing you down. You start with a guided tour that gives you a basic overview of the site and information on what life was like for prisoners and staff. The interactive centre gives you an insight of what it was like for particular people and that adds another element of interest to your experience and after a good few hours of exploring you have an appreciation of what life was like all those years ago.

Church at Port Arthur

Church at Port Arthur

Port Arthur has another more recent history that is tragic and sombre and commemorated well on the site. The Port Arthur Massacre in 1996 has been Australia’s deadliest. 35 people were killed and more injured on April 28th 1996. When something that grievous happens in a community as small as Port Arthur, practically everyone is affected and for that reason at Port Arthur itself, you’re requested not to ask staff about that day. Instead the memorial garden gives visitors both information and a place to remember and reflect.

There is a reason Port Arthur is so popular with tourists and that is that it’s so very well set up to cater for us. It doesn’t shy away from the grimness and its history, but it delivers the facts in a very digestible manner. It is definitely worth a visit.

Pania

Tasmania – The Scenic Route

Oyster Bay Swansea Tasmania

Oyster Bay Swansea Tasmania

A main highway in Tasmania is much the same as a main highway in any country. If you want your trip to get interesting, if you want to see bridges with history, beautiful scenery and gaols that housed convicts in the 1800’s, you’ve got to take the scenic route. So that’s what I did.

After a night in Swansea I was sent off by my Bed and Breakfast hosts with an itinerary of places to see. Swansea is not unlike small town New Zealand (where I’m from) with wide streets, weatherboard homes and friendly locals. The walking tour around gives you an insight into whaling and convict history of the area, and highlights the colonial architecture that I didn’t notice at first.

Church in Swansea Tasmania

Church in Swansea Tasmania

A few k’s south of the town, if you have your eyes peeled, you’ll find the Spiky Bridge, built by convicts in the 1840’s. The ‘spikes’ and the ‘built by convicts’ make you want to stop and see what it’s all about. The fact that it’s well built and quite interesting makes you want to stay a while and think about how difficult it would have been to build way back then. Then you’ll wonder about the spikes… Some say it was to keep cows from falling off the edge, some say the convicts did it to get their boss in trouble. You can choose which story to believe.

Spikes on the Spiky Bridge Tasmania

Spikes on the Spiky Bridge Tasmania

Spiky Bridge Tasmania

Spiky Bridge Tasmania

The next stop on the way to Hobart was Richmond, another town with a detailed convict history. Richmond Gaol pre-dates the more famous Port Arthur penal colony by nearly 10 years. It’s quite easy to romanticise convict history in Australia, without really meaning to. It’s not that you’re being disrespectful, but you tend not to think about specifics when you talk about it. A visit to Richmond Gaol will bring you crashing down to earth with a giant thud. The Flogging Yard is stark, the only other outside area for prisoners is barren but for a single almond tree, I suspect grown by accident over design.

Richmond Gaol Tasmania

Richmond Gaol Tasmania

Most rooms are dank and musty and they spark your imagination into visualising what life must have been like here. And then you see the solitary confinement cells. Stepping into one of these incredibly tiny cells that are pitch black with the doors closed for just a minute, gives you an incredible sense of isolation… and convicts could sometimes be locked in them for a month. Richmond Goal is definitely worth a visit just make sure you know it’s not one of those uplifting tourist attractions before you go.

Close the door and this solitary confinement cell is pitch black

Close the door and this solitary confinement cell is pitch black

Richmond has another piece of convict history that isn’t quite so grim. Richmond Bridge is the oldest bridge that’s still in use in Australia. Built by convicts housed in Richmond Goal in the 1820’s, the arched sandstone bridge spanning the Coal River, was heritage listed in 2005. The grounds around the bridge are a great place for a picnic or to stretch your legs before you hit that scenic country road and head to Hobart.

Richmond Bridge Tasmania

Richmond Bridge Tasmania

Tasmania – Wineglass Bay

I had great expectations for Tasmania. Everyone who’s been to or lived there has great things to say about The Apple Isle. Everyone told me I’d love it… and they were right. Everyone said it was beautiful… and they were right. Everyone said the roads were terrible… and they’re obviously not from my hometown.

As I drove out of the Launceston airport, I had some trepidation about what I might encounter ahead, but I needn’t have worried, the multi lane state highway 1 that leads towards Hobart was anything but scary. The distraction here is not narrow roads and crazy drivers, it’s gorgeous scenery that makes you want to stop often and take photos… and when you’re on holiday why not do that?

Even the cows are scenic here

Even the cows are scenic here

Destination One was Freycinet National Park, a great spot for hiking, bird watching, and camping. I’d heard about the famous Wineglass Bay and as it had ‘wine’ in the title, I thought it was a must see place. I was right. This is a park that offers something for every type of tourist. If you want to get really involved and stay for a week, trekking all over the place, you can. If you’re short on time and you just want to see something wonderful, you can do that too.

Oyster Bay

A view of Oyster Bay as you walk to the Wineglass Bay Lookout

The walk from the information centre to the Wineglass Bay lookout is 30-45 minutes, depending on how often you stop to admire the scenery. It is uphill, but it’s not super strenuous, and you can take your time, you don’t need to race to the top… but when you get there, you’ll be glad you made the effort.

A place to rest

A place to rest on the journey to the Wineglass Bay Lookout

Wineglass Bay is beautiful. You see the calmness of the bay and a white sand beach protected by rugged Tasmanian bush. It’s easy to feel a little like you’ve stumbled across a secret and you can’t help but wonder how this place was found at all, all those years ago.

Wineglass Bay

Wineglass Bay

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From here I had a relatively short drive to Swansea to a B&B for the night. It was just on dusk as I was leaving the national park, which is when you need to be particularly vigilant. It’s not the road that’s scary it’s the traffic. That rugged Tasmanian bush houses rugged Tasmanian wildlife, that comes out at dusk. This is when you need your wits about you.

Tasmania lesson number 1: Think about what time you’re driving.

Pania