A cruise along Tasmania’s east coast reveals a multi-layered story of human history and ancient wilderness.
As we make our way up a rocky track on South Bruny Island, the dark green waters of Adventure Bay sparkle below.
Blue gums, forest flax and native pine crowd the steep hillside and perfume the air as our band of 10 ascends a ridge to a place called Fluted Cape.
Part way through the climb, guide Alana motions for us to rest beneath a towering eucalypt.
“I’d like to teach you all a little mindfulness exercise,” she explains. “Something that will help you connect with nature.”
Strung out in single file, Alana, a discovery ranger with Tasmania Parks and Wildlife, asks us to bow heads, close eyes and take notice of the forest sounds.
“Now think about where those sounds are coming from, how far away they are,” she continues. With eyes closed, the bush suddenly amplifies.
A parrot screeches from high in a tree, something moves across dry bark, a small insect cricks like an unoiled door in the tall grass by our feet.
After a minute we open our eyes and push on, the bush somehow more alive than before.
On reaching Fluted Cape, a colossal dolomite tower rising hundreds of metres from the Tasman Sea, it’s hard to imagine a more serene place. Just down the track, not far from where our vessel Coral Expeditions 1 is anchored, a memorial nods to more tragic times – the bronze relief of Truganini, the last full-blooded Tasmanian aboriginal born on Bruny. After her death in 1876, her ashes were scattered in nearby D’Entrecasteaux Channel.
It’s a reminder of the brutal history of the state’s indigenous people, mercilessly dealt with by European settlers. The same scenario will play out at nearly every place we visit on Coral Expeditions’ seven-day Tasmanian itinerary. A kind of yin and yang: good and bad, idyllic and horrific.
Such is the history of Tasmania’s rugged coastline. For every story of triumph, there is a story of sorrow. For every beautiful vista, a darker past.
Already our journey has been good and bad. A bad day stuck in port for engine repairs, followed by a good first day at sea. Bad weather preventing us from sailing direct from Hobart to the World Heritage south-west wilderness, as planned, has been somewhat countered by a good forecast for the east coast, where we’re now headed.
Two days later we’re anchored in calm waters off Maria Island enjoying a golden afternoon and pre-dinner drinks on one of the ship’s three aft decks.
Life onboard has settled into a pleasant routine of morning excursions on the ship’s tender ‘Explorer’, relaxed onboard lunches, afternoon land explorations and the civilities of an evening gin and tonic before dinner.
The 35-metre twin-hulled catamaran accommodates up to 46 guests. Rooms on the 30-year-old vessel, spruced up with a recent refurb, are cosy and include small but functional amenities, and views to die for.
A mix of retirees and holidaymakers – the youngest 36, the oldest 88 – the majority of my fellow sailors have signed up for one reason: Port Davey, and the surrounding World Heritage Wilderness Area.
Sadly, the hero of Coral Expeditions’ new Tassie itinerary is now officially beyond our reach due to winds of 45 knots and swells of six to eight metres beyond South East Cape.
After initial widespread disappointment at our changed plans, a few days of seasickness have tempered the discontent for many.
Although we’ve experienced swells of just one to two metres, almost half of our number has been cabin-bound at some stage, riding out the worst of it.
Sitting down to a dinner of pan-fried ocean trout with dill beurre blanc and a glass of Freycinet Vineyard pinot noir, captain Nathan Clark tells me it’s not the ship he’s worried about.
“The boat would’ve handled it and been safe in doing so,” he says, referring to his decision to avoid the south-west.
“It’s just that my guests would not have been happy campers.” Based on the past two afternoons I’ve spent tucked up in bed, I’d have to agree.
Highlights from our first three days of sailing have included passing between the colossal ramparts of Cape Pillar and Tasman Island, at the end of the Tasman Peninsula.
We spend a day exploring the white sands and turquoise waters of Freycinet Peninsula’s world-famous Wineglass Bay – apparently named not for its curvy shape but after the red blood that stained its waters during the height of the 19th-century whaling era.
Onboard, chef Andrew Baumgartner has served up mostly exceptional fare, with buffet breakfasts and lunches, and set-menu dinners with offerings such as confit duck maryland with orange sauce and venison loin with port jus and chive linguine.
Led by impeccable purser Nate Ziegler, the dining crew has been exceptionally attentive. Our guest lecturer, marine biologist Terry Done, and discovery ranger Alana Gregory, have complemented expedition leader Denis McDowall with their lectures and knowledge.
Day four provides the highlight of our east coast itinerary. Named in 1642 by the Dutchman Abel Tasman after the wife of then Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, Anthony van Diemen, Maria Island is rich in geological, natural, convict, free settler and indigenous history and offers a snapshot of everything great about this coast.
As we make our way from the jetty, past grand sandstone buildings, to the UNESCO-listed former penal colony of Darlington – in operation between 1825 and 1851 – we take in the dramatic beauty of the landscape, towered over by the imposing twin peaks of Bishop and Clerk.
The place’s melancholy feel is perhaps best summed up by its most famous resident, Irishman William Smith O’Brien. A member of the 1848 Irish uprising against the English, O’Brien spent his time here in a quaint cottage next to the penitentiary, a long white-washed building now converted to camp-style accommodation.
A diary in the commandant’s house includes an entry by O’Brien which reads: “To find a 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.”
Later, walking the rolling plain, which extends from Shoal Bay to Long Point on the island’s western shore, the ground appears to move as wallabies, wombats and Cape Barren geese wander en masse.
“This place is like a Noah’s ark,” Alana says, explaining how the island’s remote setting is ideal for breeding programs for Tasmanian devils and other threatened mainland species.
The following day, our second last at sea, we cruise south along the coast towards the Tasman Peninsula, and our last stop, Port Arthur.
The weather is calm and salty air whips at our clothes out on deck. Pods of dolphins periodically attack our bow, exploding through dark blue waters to the sound of cheers onboard.
At Pirates Bay we hear about a line of savage dogs once chained across the isthmus separating the Tasman and Forestier peninsulas. At Fortescue Bay we spot Australian fur seals and a death-defying rock climber on a towering pillar, one of the Lanterns seastacks.
The Dutch, French and English all explored this coast during the 17th and 18th centuries. Names like Tasman, D’Entrecasteaux and Bligh reflect the multi-national European exploration history of the region.
The aboriginal history is not so apparent. To know, for example, that Maria Island’s Bishop and Clerk mountains were once a revered place of the local Tyreddeme people, takes some research.
This is one of the key shortfalls of the trip and CE1’s onboard knowledge: while geology lessons inform us of tectonic movements hundreds of millions of years ago, rarely do our human history lessons extend beyond the past 300 years.
On the morning of our last day, Captain Clark stands on the bridge, windscreen wipers going flat out, as a drenching squall descends on Port Arthur. What moments ago was a clear view across to the sandstone ruins of Australia’s most famous penal colony is now just a misty haze.
As the rain falls, I ask the captain for his thoughts on the hit and miss nature of the company’s first season of Tasmanian cruising. Only five of CE1’s eight southern journeys have made it to the famed south-west wilderness.
His response sums up the journey’s up and down (literally), yin and yang nature.
“Those rough conditions, which can cause some guests to become seasick along the way, and sometimes mean we can’t go to certain locations, are also what make this environment what it is,” says Captain Clark.
“That harshness, the coldness, and the winds coming from the Antarctic, they’re the same conditions that make the environment down here so stunning.”
The Details: Coral Expeditions Tasmania cruise
The cruise: Departing from and returning to Hobart, fares for Coral Expeditions’ seven-day Tasmanian itinerary start from $4490 per person twin-share, inclusive of all meals, shore excursions, Captain’s welcome, farewell drinks and parks fees.