“Wombaaaaat!!” I announced, with a face-shattering grin. “One, two, three…seven…eight… wombats everywhere!” I could not have been more stoked and excited to see not just one of these elusive, furry, dumpy, waddling little animals, but dozens of them. Oh, happy day! When we walked around Cradle Mountain earlier in the year, I had been on constant wombat watch and other walkers, greeting us as they passed, would add, “Seen any wombats?”, to which we could only give a disappointed, “Nope.” But now, my wombat drought had officially broken.
As we continue in our efforts to see more of our own wee island, we set off towards the East Coast, for a short stay in Orford, which would be our base for exploring part of Maria Island. Our weather curse, which Steve is convinced he passed on to an unsuspecting member of the public during one of our sheltering-from-the-storm moments in Cardiff last year, seemed to have continued to keep its distance because we drove down in pouring rain, ended up leaving in pouring rain, but the two days we had for exploring were absolutely magic.
With a glorious, sunny morning at our disposal, we packed a pannier each, loaded the bikes onto their rack and drove into Triabunna, to the ferry that would take us across to Maria Island. The whole of the island is a national park and the only way to get there is by ferry. There are no cars, no shops or services, so everything you need for a trip has to be taken with you. We joined the other travellers heading across the water on the short 30 minute crossing to the island, some loaded with packs, obviously intending to camp, others just day trippers like us, some also with bikes. On the other side we strolled down the jetty, mounted our two wheeled steeds, pedalled off and immediately saw our first wombat, within fifty metres of the jetty. You little ripper!
A two minute ride and we were in Darlington, the original penal settlement that operated on the island. The Puthikwilayti people were the First Australians who lived on the island and following the arrival of the British, it operated as a penal settlement from 1825, where reoffending convicts were sent for hard labour. It then became a Probation Station in 1842, operating on a model of reform and rehabilitation, although there was still hard labour involved! What’s so interesting about the place, is the fact that the history of that time is everywhere. There’s really nothing modern on the island, other than the toilet blocks. Instead, what you see are the original buildings, or ruins of buildings, from years past. Darlington is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Darlington Square are original buildings such as the Superintendent’s Quarters, the Penitentiary, Mess Hall, Coffee Palace, Convict Administration Offices, Chapel and various cottages. Sitting lower down, beside the jetty, is the Commissariat Store that was built in 1825 and housed all the stores and supplies for the island. As well as the intact buildings, are the remains and ruins of others, such as the isolation cells.
Life was tough on the island and it was certainly no picnic if you were a convict sent there. It still amazes, the treatment and punishments for the most trifling of offences and there are stories all about the place of convict life. One such convict was Isaac Willis, a labourer from Lancashire, who was only 17 when he was sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (as colonial Tasmania was then known) for “pick-pocketing and having a mould for making false coins”. In 1845 he found himself in Darlington, where he was then sentenced to two months hard labour for “using improper language and interrupting a watchman in the execution of his duties” and then later that year he was charged with misconduct for “running down hill with a truck (cart)…wilfully injuring a government hut by breaking the roof.” He was then sent off Maria Island (obviously to give the overseers a break from these most egregious felonies of bad language and messing about with a cart!) and spent 18 months hard labour in chains. Like I said, no picnic! What must have made it even harder, was the surroundings and in fact, William O’Brien, one of Maria Island’s most notable convict residents who was transported there for inciting rebellion in Ireland, commented on his arrival, “…to find gaol in one of the loveliest spots formed by the hand of Nature in one of her loneliest solitudes creates a revulsion of feeling I cannot describe.” The place would have been a scene of such contrasts…spectacular scenery and landscape, beautiful open spaces, white sand and turquoise water, yet still a prison and a harsh one at that.
With a dose of history to set the scene, we took off to pedal about and enjoy the dazzling day and see what the island had to offer further afield. With no cars, we happily pedalled about, either along the gravel roads, or at times bumping through the bush or squelching through some mud, passing others either biking or walking. More wombats waddled and grazed, which continued to be a fabulous sight. Tasmania used to be full of wombats and in the national park near where we live, you could once go there and almost trip over a wombat with every step. In recent years though, a disease that afflicts only the wombats, has wiped out 90% of the population, so it’s rare and very special to see one now. On Maria Island though, perfectly isolated and with no predators, the wombats are healthy and safe and blissfully unfazed by human visitors. As well as the wombats, we saw a few Cape Barren Geese, which were also endangered at one stage, but are now growing in numbers again. On Maria Island there’s a “two metre rule”, meaning visitors are to stay two metres away from any wildlife. The wombats aren’t fussed about that though. When Steve stopped at a distance from a wombat for me to take a photo, the wombat simply waddled towards him and strolled right underneath the bike, behind the front wheel and continued on its way. That bike was in its path and it was heading somewhere, so just kept right on going regardless!
We headed out towards the Painted Cliffs, named for the colours and swirls that naturally form within the layers of sandstone. They sat above the beach of pristine white sand and bluest of blue water and we left the bikes to walk along the rocks and look out at the very speccy, sparkling water that would have suited a postcard from any tropical location (if you didn’t factor in the water temperature of course!)
Back on the bikes and a tootle along the road, we saw a suitable log that would make a good dining area, so we stopped for a spot of lunch, taking in the view.
We headed back towards Darlington, passing more ruins or historic cottages, before turning off to make our way up towards the Fossil Cliffs. This took some off-roading and navigating through some mud on account of all the rain that had fallen before our arrival. This mud continued to tempt tyres with the “stick and tip” technique, that would see tyres stuck in the mud before plonking the unsuspecting rider (a.k.a. Me) into said surrounding mire. “GO!, GO!, GO!,” I cheered on my little bike, as I pushed the pedals and willed my unpredictable balance to keep me upright, “you’ve had tougher bogs than this!” With no one around to hear me sounding like a complete plonker, my verbal encouragement saw the little bike take me safely through the squelch and we headed towards the open grassland towards the cliffs and the…hill.
Getting to the Fossil Cliffs meant getting ourselves up to the top of those cliffs, which meant huffing up a grassy hillside of the 15% gradient variety, on the scale of steepness. The gears cranked down, the breath turned to huffing, but the wheels continued to turn and I made it to the top. I turned to look for Steve, who on the final push to the top had decided to do just that…push, so he walked alongside the bike, pushing it up the doozy of an incline and we could finally stop and take in the view, with yet more wombats waddling about the clifftop.
Of course the downward journey took the usual form of Steve haring at daredevil pace down the green hillside and me…brake…brake…cruise…brake…BRAAAAKE…as I edged down in my usual, painfully slow, scaredy-cat fashion.
We passed by the convict barn, full of a collection of old machinery and tools, then we stopped at the small cemetery perched on the hill. More interesting stories lay there. We saw the grave of Thomas Adkins and his wife Rosa from Warwickshire in England. They settled on Maria Island in 1890 and Thomas was the Works Manager of the first cement works, before dying in an accident that same year. Rosa, helped by her seven children, remained on the island and became a pastoralist and ran a boarding house. She lived to be 94 years old and was the last person to be buried on the island, in 1942, lying beside Thomas. There was also a headstone with names that were clearly Maori and we discovered that seven Maori men were also transported as convicts from New Zealand to Maria Island. We’d no idea that New Zealand sent her convicts to our shores too, but it did indeed happen between 1843-1853. It turned out that these Maori men weren’t so much convicts as warriors who had been imprisoned for fighting the British. They were shipped off to Van Diemen’s Land across the Tasman and found themselves on Maria Island and there they remain.
We made our way back to the jetty to await the ferry for the return journey. We had spent a full day pedalling about and I had accumulated a photo collection of wombats to rival my photographic gallery of squirrels! I could easily have spent more time and we only explored part of the north end of the island, so we think we will return again on a future day and camp on the island, so we can continue to explore further afield. It was great to do it on the bikes too, so we could get around with ease and see more in the time we had and it’s a top place to ride. I declared Maria Island to be one of my all time favourite places in Tassie. Beautiful scenery, sweeping landscapes, the clearest and bluest water, wildlife in abundance and peace and tranquility at every turn. Another little piece of paradise, some more moments of magic. It may have taken me forty years to get there again, after my none too enjoyable Grade 4 camp experience, but it won’t be that long again. It has been a reminder once again, of what our own patch has to offer, so explore we shall! Onward!