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Unpredictable, serendipitous Tasmania

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Only toward dawn did the sea begin to calm. I rose from my berth and glanced out the window. The setting moon cast a broad light on the rolling waters of the Bass Strait, and in the distance, the lights of Tasmania began to dot the darkness.

We had been traveling since Sunday. My wife, Margie, and I had left a rainy Los Angeles, exchanged winter for summer, overnighted in Melbourne and were two hours away from a landfall that we had been anticipating for almost a year. It was Thursday morning, and it seemed right that getting here had taken so long.

Tasmania, this triangle of land 250 miles off Australia's southern coast and no bigger than Southern California, has long been thought of as the world's end. Jonathan Swift shipwrecked Gulliver northwest of here. England transported its convicts to these shores, and when we mentioned our plans to others, they often confused the island with the East African country of Tanzania, if they knew where it was at all.

Far away, however, is never far enough. Uncertain how to plan a trip to a place few knew, we consulted the official website for visitors and were overwhelmed by seasonal discounts, eco-adventures and wine country excursions. Is this what the end of the world had come to?

We knew enough about Tasmania -- its rugged beauty, its dark history -- to want to step beyond the familiar. We believe travel is best if it is a riddle, a destination that poses a question whose answer can be revealed only in time. The farther the journey, the greater the challenge, the more significant the reward.

So we decided to leave the bargains and the easy persuasions behind. We decided to head straight into the back country. Our plan was ambitious: hike 50 miles in 10 days among the island's peaks and rain forests in the west and along its wave-tossed coast in the east. We wanted to see Tasmania in an unmediated light. We wanted to see whether it was possible to make the world large again.

As the ferry slowed in its approach to the dock at Devonport, dawn breaking over the island, I felt both excited and nervous. Trips like these require a leap of faith, and for a brief moment I wondered whether perhaps I had leapt too far.

A notorious past

Quamby Estate, our lodging for the first night, was as elegant a place as we had ever stayed, so it surprised us when Dylan Hunt, son of the owner, offered to show us the convict quarters. We would soon realize that nothing in Tasmania is ever quite what it seems.

We had booked with a company called Anthology, which owns the country-house-turned-resort and uses it as a staging ground for its guided hikes. Ours was something of a blind date arranged largely on the basis of a seductive website and the courtesy of their e-mails. So far we were not disappointed.

A cab took us up the driveway overhung with elms. Dylan met us at the fountain and helped carry our bags to the second floor. The sun poured through a gable, blindingly white, and cast our room in the welcoming hue.

To stay amid such elegance is a privilege we don't often indulge, and I must have felt guilty when I asked about the convicts. In the early decades of the 19th century when Quamby was built, Tasmania was called Van Diemen's Land, and nearly half the felons transported to Australia ended up in this farthest-flung corner of the British Empire.

Imagine "Deadwood" set on Alcatraz, and you'll get a sense of life in those early days. Once the "transportation," as exile to Australia and Van Diemen's Land became known, ended, Tasmania became Tasmania, and its citizens went from feeling shame over this chapter of their past -- when the "rellies" arrived with chains on their ankles -- to accepting it as their heritage.

Dylan led the way down the narrow steps into the cellar. Margie held back. Recent renovations had overlooked this dark little room. Loose boards covered a dirt floor; a mouse ran for cover. There were alcoves along one wall, perhaps places to sleep. The bricks were dirty and marred.

The man who built Quamby was a benevolent overseer, or so we were told, an Irishman sentenced for a political crime who was eventually pardoned and given this property, which would encompass 30,000 acres. Quamby, a word appropriated from the native people meaning "a place to camp, settle down and rest," is smaller today, with a nine-hole golf course and tennis court.

At dinner -- a nice porterhouse and a Pinot Noir -- we gazed across the countryside in the twilight and for a moment forgot where we were. On the way from the ferry, we had passed through villages with tall steepled churches, tearooms, village squares and Georgian homes and by pastures filled with sheep and Holsteins separated by neat hedgerows and tidy stone walls.

More English than England, novelist Anthony Trollope wrote when he visited here more than a century ago, and the scene, though picturesque, filled us with a wistful melancholy. So far from home, so deep their fealty to the crown, the early settlers tried to shape this country into something they might recognize -- even if it meant waging war against the Aborigines and tearing down the forests.

Yet the island still spoke its mind, perhaps a little like the smoke monster in "Lost." The sun, the moon and the tides were the same, but there were still trees that shed bark, not leaves; strange animals that roamed at night; and a wilderness too encompassing to destroy.

That evening we walked the grounds and watched lightning in the west streak across the night sky, illuminating the piles of clouds that had built up over the mountains. We slept restlessly to the sounds of the wind, the distant storm and owls calling through the trees.

Mud and majesty

The first thing you need to know about bush-walking is not to be afraid of the mud, and there is plenty of mud on the Overland Track. We hit it on the second day.

Twenty-four hours earlier, after breakfast and introductions, Anthology had shuttled us -- 10 strangers and two guides -- to the trailhead. Stretching almost 50 miles from the island's most iconic peak to Australia's deepest lake, the Overland Track crosses the Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park and is one of the premier hiking circuits in the Southern Hemisphere.

We shouldered our backpacks and covered 7 1/2 miles, stopping in early evening at one of the six huts Anthology owns in the park. The sun had been bright and clear and hot. We slathered ourselves with sunscreen and drank from the cold streams that cut across the trail, but that night the clouds poured in, nothing more than a mild storm front from the Southern Ocean.

They say you can experience four seasons in one day in western Tasmania, and we weren't far off. The next morning we were hit with a pelting mist. Gusts of wind blew us sideways, and less than two hours out, we faced a broad puddle of water, no duckboard, no stones, no branches.

To not sink in would mean stepping onto the heath, widening the trail and committing an egregious faux pas in the realm of responsible bush-walking. Those with hiking poles fathomed the depths, those without followed; we all ended up with wet boots and gaiters.

But like the blisters we taped each morning, the tree roots we tripped over in the afternoon or the last mile at the end of each long day, the discomforts of the trail disappeared amid the vistas and tableaux: tall dolerite peaks jutting over forested valleys and alpine plateaus, ancient forests unfolding in carpets of imperial green.

"This is paradise," Margie announced as we approached Lake Windermere, wandering through flowering tea trees, silver-barked eucalyptuses and lichen-mottled granite.

Postcard writers often search for familiar equations for what they see, but here our imaginations were soon taxed. The pandani plant, we decided, looks like a yucca, the columns of stone like Devil's Postpile, and the call of the yellow wattle bird like a belch, but how would we explain the echidna, the wallaby, the platypus, the wombat, pademelon, quoll and devil, animals whose names alone made it clear we weren't in Kansas anymore.

Our days fell into a simple rhythm, destinations less significant than the walking itself, and as we grew familiar with the nuances of the trail, we became a freight train moving in single file, pausing to photograph a flower, savor some chocolate, marvel at the quiet in the heart of the rain forest.

Side trips became our diversions, a chance for some to explore an abandoned copper mine, a series of waterfalls and, on one sun-brightened afternoon, Mt. Ossa, the highest peak on the island. At 5,295 feet, Ossa is about as high as Mt. Wilson, but with 1,640 feet of gain in a mile and a quarter, almost three times as steep as Mt. Whitney.

But we were game. Vertigo be damned, we carved through talus and threaded the Gates of Mordor, two spires of stone, and from the summit we breathed deeply of our accomplishment, stunned by the sight of the Du Cane Range to the south rising and falling in a succession of valleys, glacier-carved more than 10,000 years ago.

That late afternoon we raced the twilight in our descent, eager for the hot shower and warm meal that had become the staple at the end of each day. With nearly four miles ahead, the pace was brisk, lightened in the end only by a rousing rendition of the national anthem.

Australians all let us rejoice,

For we are young and free,

We've golden soil and wealth,

Our home is girt by sea . . .

In the distance we heard a reply, Margie and the others with "O, why are we waiting . . . " -- it's a pub song sung to the tune of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" -- " . . . slowly de-hy-draa-ting. . . . "

The Anthology huts are a triumph of practicality and plywood, two-story designs with a combined living room and kitchen, a room for showers and toilets, and bedrooms upstairs. The design invites familiarity, and 12 strangers soon become 12 friends.

Over breakfasts -- typically porridge, cereal, homemade bread and canned fruit -- and dinners -- a rotation of pizza, lentil salad, sausages, risotto -- we learned about the son who was married in the park, about a plan to ride the route of the Tour de France, rock climbing, water management, music education, and we debated Tasmania's future.

Dinner was over, and there was still a little wine. We had already dished about Nicole Kidman and our favorite Aussie movies. The plan for a new pulp mill, perhaps the most contentious issue in Tasmania today, was on the table, and it was easy to argue against. This trip, if anything, proved how easily the ecosystems of this island can be compromised.

The guides stayed quiet, then one guest who was born in Tasmania offered a different perspective. The mill may not be the answer, she said, but a diversified economy is.

Tasmania has long been Australia's neglected stepchild and for years paid the price with high rates of unemployment, divorce, dependency on welfare, an unskilled workforce, obesity and suicide.

"Tasmania," she argued, "cannot become merely an environmental museum."

Afterward, I stepped out on the deck of the hut. An upside-down Orion peered down upon me, and the Southern Cross was slowly rising. Draw a line from two of its stars, and you will find your way to true celestial south.

Fires of controversy

Cricket dominated the headlines -- Australia in a critical contest against Pakistan -- so it might have been easy to miss the news. The British travel magazine Wanderlust had just put the Bay of Fires on its list of the world's most threatened tourist sites.

The announcement was scandalous. Just a year earlier, Lonely Planet had pulled out all the stops to praise these secluded beaches on Tasmania's east coast as among the 10 best destinations, and here we were, after a day of rest in Launceston, heading with a new group of hikers into the controversy, albeit on the recommended and less traveled route.

More than 200 years ago, an English navigator named the region for the pyres set burning by the Aborigines along the coast. Trouwerner was their name for this island, their home for nearly 40,000 years. Estimates put their population between 5,000 and 6,000, and in less than one generation upon the arrival of the English, they were killed off or removed.

Today these crescents of sand are empty. We walked slowly across them. To the left was the ocean, a thousand shades of blue, and to the right, bluffs held tight by marran grass and coastal heath. The vault of the sky, cut by slivers of clouds, arched overhead.

Our first evening was spent in a tent camp nestled in the dunes, six steel-frame and canvas rooms large enough for two twin beds. For dinner, our guides prepared salmon, and afterward Margie and I headed down the beach and climbed a bluff above the quiet surf and sat in the settling twilight.

A lighthouse in the distance sent out its beacon, and silver gulls surrounded us, diving, stalling, swooping -- white-black, white-black wing flaps -- after moths that rose from the heath.

The next day, we became experts in spindrift and wrack lines, deciphering the mysteries of sea foam, wandering among the jetsam of bull kelp and jellyfish, exploring the hieroglyphic trails of birds and animals left in the dry inland sand. We took off our boots and scuffed our feet along the squeaky, hard-packed sand. By late afternoon, nearly 8 miles later, a sharp onshore wind blew white caps into the surf. Shadows of fog and cloud whisked across our paths.

Built on a bluff overlooking Abbotsbury Beach, set in a forest of long-needled she-oak trees, the Bay of Fires Lodge is nothing less than a mirage as stunning as its setting and far removed from the southern part of the bay where Wanderlust had focused its concern.

Wind-burned and sun-blasted, we climbed the steps, found the showers and fell into the embrace of this wood and glass pavilion. Dinner that night was rocket lettuce, corn and pecorino salad, braised wallaby and beef meatballs with roasted capsicum sauce, potatoes with lemon and thyme sauce, dressed greens and a raspberry and vanilla bean panna cotta with macerated strawberries.

Exhausted, we slept to the sound of the waves drifting through our room's open louvers.

Shored up

On our final day, we slipped down to the beach to celebrate a birthday. The Champagne was slightly warm, but that hardly mattered. Once again strangers had become friends.

The sun sparkled off the water. Some of us decided to go swimming. Lost in the aquamarine water, I stood waist deep and, not 50 feet away, saw a dark shadow move beneath the waves. I didn't know whether to swim or to run.

But nothing in Tasmania is ever exactly as it seems, and a black dorsal fin broke the surface and disappeared, a bottlenose dolphin, then a pod, lingering for a moment just beyond the break.

Later on the shore, I lay in the sand and stared into the blue sky. For nearly two weeks we had wandered Tasmania's mountains, rain forests and beaches, and with each step we had fallen back in time. Fifty years, 200 years, 180 million years, the evidence of creation and discovery surrounded us. We were exhausted and exhilarated.

"In Tasmania," said the man we had interrupted two days before as he and his son gutted fish in front of their summer shack, "we wake up in the morning and see which way the wind is blowing, and we just follow it. Everyone has a preconceived notion of where they need to go and where they need to be; here in Tassie, we just follow the wind."

I didn't know it then, but that morning on the beach, staring into the sky, I had the answer to the riddle Tasmania posed.

thomas.curwen@latimes.com

latimes.com /tasmania More adventure Go online for additional photos of the hike through Tasmania.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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