At the edge of the world in Tasmania

At the edge of the world in Tasmania

An ideal island called Tasmania

Cradle Mountain reflecting on the waters of Dove Lake, Tasmania

As soon as our guard-cum-concierge Katrina waved the green flag and the driver, Bob, tooted the whistle and pushed the lever down, clouds of steam hissed out from the green locomotive. Strong and agile at 80 years, Glasgow-built Mount Lyell No 5 then hauled its two gleaming red carriages out from Queenstown Station for a scenic tour of west coast Tasmanian wilderness.

While sampling a glass of local bubbly, I kept my eyes glued to the window, not to miss any of the passing nature’s magnificence — gushing rivers, deep gorges, majestic rainforests and exotic birdlife.

Choo-choo goes the train

Claimed as the world’s steepest steam-fuelled railway, it started its journey in 1896 as the lifeline of a copper mine in remote Queenstown. Its construction in a rugged terrain with some of the world’s steepest grades was not easy. The task was accomplished by using an inventive rack and pinion track technique that’s still in use. Unfortunately, after 67 years of successful freight runs between the mine and foreshore at Strahan, located around 40 km away, the miners abandoned its operation. Thus, a way of life in the region ended.

The popular steam engine train, Mount Lyell No.5
The popular steam-engine train, Mount Lyell No.5

The whistle toot was heard again in 2014, when the journey was resumed on the same route as West Coast Wilderness Railway, a touristy venture, to bring alive the region’s history and offer its guests a deep immersion into a unique cool-temperate terrain, only accessible by this extraordinary rail odyssey. Rightly, it’s a must-try experience for all visitors to Tasmania in down under, though not the only one when exploring the magical land enveloped by the sea like the rest of Australia.

Reflective beauty

Adventuring through Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park is equally exhilarating. This park encompasses 1,671-metre-high Mount Ossa, Tasmania’s highest peak, and 200-metre-deep Lake St Clair, the deepest freshwater body in down under. But the crown jewel of this UNESCO World Heritage-listed spot is Cradle Mountain. Photographers from around the world travel here to capture its reflections in the still waters of Dove Lake.

Cruising along the coastline of Bruny Island can’t be ignored either. This exciting boat ride through the swelling waves of Southern Ocean grants a close encounter with Australia’s tallest sea cliffs, towering crags, blowholes and deep-sea caves. Keep your eyes peeled here for the abundant sea life such as seals, dolphins, migrating whales and seabirds.

Seals in Bruny Island, Hobart
Seals in Bruny Island, Tasmania

Nature, unquestionably, is Tasmania’s dominant drawcard. Packed in an area measuring almost one-third of Karnataka, the contrasts of the landscape in every twist and turn here are a discovery. There are mountain ranges, wild rivers, sprawling lakes, glaciated peaks and dense rainforests with leatherwood trees thousands of years old. Parts of the coastline are crowned with sandy beaches, too, some of which are world-famous for surfing.

And the countryside is spectacular right throughout the entire island, with its endless rolling hills and meadows reminding one of rural England. It may not be possible to capture all of nature’s magic in one go here, but experiences like cruising on the Gordon River, circuiting Wineglass Bay, waiting for penguins at Bicheno, and feeding Tasmanian devils (planet’s largest living carnivorous marsupial) at Devils@Cradle Sanctuary generally find a spot in most Tasmania itineraries.

With a dark past

The history of Tasmania is no less invigorating. Long before James Cook discovered Australia, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman set his foot here in 1642 and named it Van Diemen’s Land. After the British established Australia as a penal colony in 1788, this island became the second venue to house colonial convicts. In 1824, it became a British colony, and in 1856, it got its name changed to Tasmania. In 1901, it joined Australia as a state during the Federation formation. There are several locations throughout the state that bring alive this exhilarating history, from maritime adventures and industrial developments to brutal convict life.

The state capital Hobart, Australia’s second oldest city after Sydney, boasts of beautifully maintained and restored examples of history in every turn. Spread over seven hills between Derwent river and Mount Wellington, the 1804-born city’s magnificent waterfront is still as vibrant as it was during the time of whaling and sealing in the early 19th century, the only difference today is the presence of more tourist ferries and ocean liners than fishing boats and freighters.

While buildings such as Town Hall, Parliament House, St David’s Cathedral and Theatre Royal reveal the architectural magnificence of the colonial period, Salamanca Place brings alive the history of trade and commerce every Saturday when the site becomes a busy marketplace with over 300 shops selling almost everything from traditional crafts and works of emerging artists, vintage finds and fresh produce to old books, new releases, antique objects, photos and curios.

Parliament House, Hobart
Cradle Mountain reflecting on the waters of Dove Lake, Tasmania

Not all of Tasmania’s history is glorious, the darker sides are exposed when you visit former penal settlements like the one at Port Arthur, located about an hour-and-a-half away from Hobart on the scenic Tasman Peninsula. Between 1833 and 1877, it was dubbed as ‘Hell on Earth’ when over 12,000 British convicts lived there under the constant threat of extremely harsh punitive treatments. Guided tours are available that take visitors through the beautifully restored sandstone buildings and grounds here that are filled with compelling stories of convicts and guards.

The Australian national anthem says, “Our land abounds in nature’s gifts of beauty rich and rare.” It’s very befitting for Tasmania and when poignant history is added to this mix, the Tasmanian experience becomes something unique and different from the rest of mainland Australia.