Fools Gold

Most of Tasmania is green. Queenstown is orange. Mining has turned it into a moonscape of bare rock and eroded gullies.

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Mount Lyell mine in Queenstown

Abel Tasman’s was the first European to sight the west coast of Tasmania in 1642. Surprised to see his compass behaving strangely, he made a note in the log that there may be “plentiful mineral wealth hereabouts”.

There was, but not of a colour people expected. Prospectors arrived some 240 years later seeking gold but the quantity extracted did not match the extreme hardships they faced to find it. It was ‘fools gold’.

A few years later some canny metallurgists returned and found copper … lots and lots of copper.

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The ‘Blowhole’ – the first place they found copper

Founded in 1893, the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company became famous as one of the richest copper mines in the world, producing more than a million tonnes in its 100 years of operation. But this came at a cost … blasting away the mountain and polluting the nearby Queen and King Rivers with so much waste that they won’t recover for another 100 years.

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Mount Lyell miners

We stayed at Penghana, a British Victorian red brick that still dominates Queenstown from the top of a small hill. Now a B&B, it was once the mine manager’s private house. He had a special balcony built at the top of the house so he could smoke his pipe in the evening and still watch his precious smelters.

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Penghana

All the settlements on Tasmania’s west coast started out as mining towns. Tullah for lead, Rosebery for zinc and Zeehan for silver. Known as ‘Silver City’, Zeehan had a peak population of over 10,000 with more than 20 pubs. Today there’s one pub and only 728 people.

Strahan was not always the quaint little harbour town we’d so enjoyed. It used to be an extremely busy port taking the ore out to an insatiable world.

How did the ore get from the inland mining towns to the ships at Strahan? With great difficulty. They laboriously built a network of narrow-gauge railways, cutting through rocky mountain ridges and dense rainforest … all by hand. Despite an average speed of just 10kph, the steam engines became a lifeline for these communities.

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The trains stopped working in 1963 when road travel took over. But in 2002 they were restored by a group of enthusiasts as a tourist wilderness experience using the original locomotives. It’s not your average steam train ride and has become so popular that the railway is once again one of the biggest employers in town.

Ironically many of those tourists visit Queenstown specifically to see the haunting orange landscape that is the legacy of a century of open-caste mining.

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Cradle Mountain

In complete contrast, Cradle Mountain is a natural beauty, pure and healthy. On a crisp, sunny day, we were lucky enough to see it in all its glory as we hiked up to Marion’s Lookout (1290m) and across to Ronny Creek.

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Clare definitely made the right decision to get the bus from Strahan to Burnie and really enjoyed a few days morphing into a tourist.

All the locals enjoyed telling Andy what a fool he was not to jump in the car with her!

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The cycling turned out to be even harder than expected. The first day’s ride from Strahan to Tullah was long at 85km and had a nasty sting in it’s tail.

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Strahan to Tullah

The second day was only 56km from Tullah to Cradle Mountain but it was relentlessly uphill. The first 30km, followed the Murchison Highway which meant plenty of logging trucks roaring past at 100km/hour.

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Tullah to Cradle Mountain

Those of you who follow professional cycling will be familiar with commentators dramatically announcing that a rider has “lost his legs!” as he falls behind the others. This is what happened to Andy on this climb as he started to resemble Fabian Aru on a bad day. (Aru is known for his untidy, bobbing riding style and gurning expressions.)

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You don’t say!

The final day’s ride from Cradle Mountain back down to Devonport is normally a spectacular route through rolling hills and forests. But … the weather gods must have decided that one sunny day was enough. They gave us cold, penetrating Irish mizzle instead. So cold in fact, that Andy put on two coats to try and stay warm.

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In the early afternoon the clouds lifted, the rain stopped and this foolish cyclist was rewarded with a golden moment. Seeking hot coffee, he stumbled across the Tasmania Arboretum where he found several platypuses frolicking lazily in a pool.

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There is a platypus in the picture, honest

Fittingly, the final descent wound through a magnificent Eucalyptus forest shrouded in mist. In Australia, we’ve seen thousands of Eucalypts but they’ve never become boring. Papery blue-grey bark peals off in shreds to reveal a changing canvas of smooth white trunks highlighted with patches of yellow or orange.

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Our route around Tasmania (clockwise from Devonport):

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Tasmania: 1,328km (825 miles) over 21 days. 18,774m of climbing.
Australia total: 1,700km (1,055 miles) over 27 days. 21,190m of climbing.
This makes Tasmania as hilly as Chile!

Tasmania definitely lives up to its reputation as a great place for a bike tour. Any tour come to that … by car, by campervan, especially by motorbike. It’s a beautiful and unspoilt island with lots of variety and without huge distances between places. The roads are in good condition with only light traffic and almost all the drivers are considerate to cyclists. Especially the logging trucks in our experience!

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Postboxes

It is a tough cycling challenge, mainly because of all those hills. Perhaps that’s why we only bumped into 6 other touring cyclists.

The weather is variable at any time of year with plenty of wind and rain. We probably started 2-3 weeks too late in the season for perfect cycling conditions but were lucky with lots of nice days.

We’ve had no injuries, no illness and most surprisingly no mechanicals. Not a single puncture. Andy did spectacularly fall off his bike on a downhill near Hobart, landing in a petrol station forecourt but it was only his pride that was hurt.

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There’s lots of things for a cyclist to love about Australia …. impressive public toilets, great camping and accommodation, quirky community-run museums, incredibly good coffee. And brunches to die for!

In cities, the cafe culture is amongst the best in the world and there’s no tipping culture, as the staff are well paid. It’s all very straightforward and simple.

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In rural Australia the food can be a bit more basic. But it’s the early closing time that catches people out. Last food orders are normally at 7:30 and by 8:30 a typical country pub is deserted. How do Spanish people manage?

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A country pub at 8:30pm

On the flight back home we had a bit of fun by each listing our top five Tassie highlights. We were amazed to find they were identical:

  1. Strahan: wilderness tours, fascinating history
  2. Cradle Mountain: dramatic landscape
  3. Maria Island: wildlife, peace, simplicity
  4. Mona in Hobart: mind-boggling
  5. Riding past the east coast beaches: white sand, gin-clear seas
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Strahan at dawn

Clare was no fool to jump on that bus in Strahan. And she was no fool to suggest we quit cycling to Sydney and come to Tasmania instead.

It’s pure bicycle-touring gold!

Clare and Andy

The Wilderness Road

 The challenge of cycling from Hobart over the mountains to the West Coast is well summed up by ‘Discover Tasmania: A Cycle Touring Guide’, a small leaflet that has become our bible:

“The West Coast is vastly different to the East Coast. It’s rugged, mountainous, beautifully wild and has a temperamental climate. 

The remoteness of this route can be daunting for many and you must be well equipped to tackle the terrain.

The road from Hobart to Strahan is winding and brutally hilly at times. But it’s also beautiful and deserving of the challenge.

The climbs are not insurmountable but the descents are breathtaking!”

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Our route from Hobart to Strahan

Our first bit of ‘temperamental climate’ was the strongest headwind we’ve ever encountered. It became so windy that we were repeatedly blown to a standstill or knocked sideways into the road as we dragged ourselves up the River Derwent. Taking sanctuary in a bus shelter, we seriously considered turning around and sailing back downwind to Hobart.

After much debate and googling of terms like ‘long distance buses’, ‘large taxis’, ‘weather forecast’, we decided to struggle on at least to the small town of New Norfolk where we gratefully came across the Badgers Bike Cafe for a very welcome coffee.

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A bit windy

To his horror, Andy then discovered he’d left our ‘dongle’ 15km back down the road in the bus shelter. This is an important bit of kit … it’s an old mobile phone fitted with an Aussie sim card that we use to ‘hotspot’ to all our devices as a sort of wifi server.

Arrgghhhh … and lots of other expletives!

While Clare happily enjoyed a second cappuccino, Andy found a taxi to take him back to the bus shelter and recover the dongle, still on the bench where he’d left it.

Phew! 

Then on the taxi ride back to New Norfolk, he casually used the dongle to re-check the weather forecast for the 100th time.

Not phew! The opposite of phew! 

The first cold front of winter, full of even fiercer wind and rain stirred up from the Southern Ocean, had spookily sped up and was now going to cross our path much, much, much earlier than we’d expected.

We’d have to ride very fast across the hills to make it to Hamilton before it struck.

Or … we could take a taxi?

Yes … our friendly driver, John, would be very happy to take us to Hamilton. But … his back seats didn’t fold down so he could only fit one small lady-sized bike in his boot. And yes … he was the only taxi in town.

Ten minutes later, before she’d quite realised what was happening, Clare had been bundled into the taxi and driven the 40km to Hamilton. Somewhat surprised at her early arrival and dishevelled state, the elderly B&B owner took pity on her and lit a lovely warm fire.

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Andy though … had no choice but to get back on his bike. 

To start with all was sunny and calm as he climbed into the hills away from the river. He took off his rain jacket, put on his sun glasses and started humming tunelessly on what (surprisingly) seemed like a lovely ride.

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The calm before the storm

Then only 10km away from Hamilton the sky suddenly darkened as the cold front hit, hurling down rain and small piercing hailstones fired horizontally by 60kph winds. This was the same weather system that would later destroy a concrete bridge when it rammed into New Zealand.

That 10km took Andy well over two hours, mainly because he spent most of it sheltering in trees. However, it gave him plenty of time to contemplate an important rule of bicycle touring … don’t ever get delayed by losing your dongle!

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Fish and chips by the harbour in Hobart

Hobart had turned out to be a very pleasant place for a city-break especially as our son Chris flew over from Melbourne to join us. We poked around the impressive Salamanca market, enjoyed fresh fish and chips on the harbourside and hired a car to visit the haunting ruins of Port Arthur, a penal colony set up for repeat offenders.

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Port Arthur
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One of the convicts at Port Arthur

Best of all we went to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art.

Mona was set up by self-made gambling billionaire, David Walsh, as a ‘subversive, adult Disneyland’. It’s provocative, compelling, disturbing, shocking, enticing. We found ourselves drawn in by each exhibit with increasing curiosity. All three of us agreed … it’s worth coming to Hobart just to see Mona.

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Fat Car
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Human Art – he meditates there all day
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Not sure we’d have got far on this bike?

After a restful night in Hamilton we rode uphill to Tarraleah in much better weather and then onto Lake St Clair, the deepest glacial lake in Australia.

We slept in an old school that served the children of workers building a massive hydro-electric project in Tarraleah. Built in the 1930’s the village once boasted 100 houses, a police station, a town hall, shops, a church, a golf course and a school.

Hydro-electricity was and is vital for Tasmania not only for power but also for the identity and confidence of the state. But once the construction workers left, Tarraleah became a ghost town and was almost reclaimed by the bush until another entrepreneur rescued it and turned it into an activity centre and hotel.

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The hotel in a school
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Hydro-electric pipes

Good friends from Sydney suggested Pumphouse Point at Lake St Clair, an even more unusual hotel converted from a water pumping station built at the end of a pier.

Our friends were right, it was a lovely treat.

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The hotel in a pumphouse

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It might have felt to us that we’d been riding through wilderness for several days but the actual ‘Wilderness Road’ started at Lake St Clair and took us across the vast Franklin Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.

We left early to try and get to Queenstown before the arrival of heavy downpours forecast for the afternoon.

Riding across this world heritage area genuinely felt like a wilderness experience. There were no shops, no cafes, no petrol stations … just some of the most magnificent scenery we’ve ever cycled through. 

It was remote, raw and wild. And brutally hilly at times.

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Along the Wilderness Road

We crossed the ‘Great Divide’ halfway along the 85km ride, moving from the relatively dry eastern side to the much wetter west.

Weather systems from the southern ocean deposit over 2m of rainfall a year on the west coast, creating perfect conditions for thick temperate rain forest. Many of these ancient trees are only found in Tasmania … Huon Pine, Leatherwood, Celery Top, Whitey Wood, Sassafras, King Billy Pine.

The downpours predictably arrived and we got completely drenched just 5km away from Queenstown. It was like the taps being turned on.

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Brewing up before the downpour

A last breathtaking descent the following day took us down to the remote town of Strahan on the banks of MacQuarie Harbour, six times bigger than Sydney Harbour.

One of the reasons tourists come to Strahan is to take an extraordinary boat trip across to the narrow ‘Hells Gates’ harbour entrance and then up the Gordon River deep into the rain forest.

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Hells Gates

The boat tour also stops at Sarah Island.

On this tiny strip of land, seemingly at the end of the earth, around 500 of the worst offending convicts endured the toughest conditions imaginable combined with a brutal regime of hard labour and vicious punishments.

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Sarah Island

They had to build a wooden fence wall to stop the ‘Roaring Forties’ blowing the whole place away.

They had no fresh water, it had to be shipped in, so was heavily rationed.

The convicts had little shelter. Many slept where they worked.

Much of that work was sawing huge tree trunks to make ships. The saw was operated by two men, a ‘top dog’ sawing down and an ‘underdog’ sawing up. The underdogs were often waste deep in sea water and wore a hood to prevent the sawdust falling in their eyes.

The prisoners successfully protested that no underdog should have to work if the water was less than 8°C. Which means that 9°C was OK!

This put our minor inconveniences with the west coast weather somewhat in perspective.

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The old penitentiary on Sarah Island

Sarah Island only operated as a penal colony for 9 years until Port Arthur was built. Remarkably in the last 5 years a more enlightened regime persuaded these hardened men to manufacture 96 boats, known throughout Australia for their quality. All built from local Huon Pine which is prized for both it’s buoyancy and natural waterproofing. 

This included several large ships, the last of which was unsurprisingly pinched by the ten convicts left behind on the island to finish it. They escaped by sailing all the way across the Pacific to Chile.

This is brought to life each evening in a pantomime called ‘The Ship That Never Was’, now Australia’s longest running play.

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A dodgy cast member

Five days of cycling across the Great Divide from Hobart to Strahan took us 366km with 5271m of climbing. Now we find ourselves back down at sea level. To get to Devonport we’ll need to do it all over again, this time via Cradle Mountain.

Clare has decided that this is a thankless task and that Strahan makes a perfect end-point to her Tasmanian bike tour.

To her delight, she’s discovered a daily bus service from Strahan to Burnie on the north coast. There she’s planning to rent a car for a few days and enjoy becoming Andy’s support team.

In total she’s cycled over 1500km and climbed more than 17,000m.

Sometimes enough is enough!

This means that Clare has completed a ‘journey’ by travelling A to B from Devonport to Strahan. If Andy makes it back to Devonport he will merely have ridden a ‘round trip’!

Clare and Andy

Leaving ordinary life behind

 

Leave ordinary life behind … that’s what they ask you to do when you land at Maria Island. And it’s an easy thing to do.

Maria Island is a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s a carefree, car-free haven for walking, biking, camping and watching wildlife with not a single shop, cafe or ice-cream kiosk in sight.

We loved leaving ordinary life behind so much that we decided to camp on for a second night … stretching out the pasta, chicken, cereal and red wine that we’d brought with us.

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A wombat, yes … but can you spot the kangaroo?

We loved watching wallabies, wombats and the strange looking Cape Barren geese grazing around our tent as we cooked. And we absolutely loved stumbling across a herd of over 50 kangaroos quietly grazing on a headland against the setting sun.

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Cape Barren goose

We heard (but didn’t see) Tasmanian devils shrieking at night. It was fortunate that they weren’t too close as the rangers had told us to cover up our bike saddles so little devils couldn’t eat them. 

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The bins are devil protectors

The island has a colourful human history too. It endured two brief periods as a penal colony for reoffenders but was closed in favour of the more secure Port Arthur after repeated escapes.

An ill-fated attempt by a colourful Italian entrepreneur called Diego Bernacchi to develop industry, agriculture and tourism didn’t last either. His large cement works once supported over 500 people with hotels, shops and a tramline. It never came close to break-even and collapsed in the 1930’s Great Depression.

This has left an eclectic mix of ruined buildings on the island.

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A small museum vividly brings to life the experiences of the people who lived there, incarcerated and free. One diarist was William Smith O’Brien, an Irish MP and leader of the Young Irish movement that fought against the potato famine and other injustices. He was imprisoned here in 1849, before being sent to Port Arthur and eventually pardoned some 7 years later.

As well as describing a failed escape attempt on a whaling boat he laments at being cast so far away from his loved ones. So far that he was on a small island, off the coast of an island which was itself off the coast of Australia.

We could sense his isolation.

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These were our last few nights camping as we’re sending our stuff back to Melbourne before we head to the colder mountains in the west.

Camping on Maria Island has made buying and carrying all that gear worthwhile. The tent is a great design and the sleeping bags are warm and cosy. But the air mattresses are seriously embarrassing in the stillness of the night. They squeak so loudly whenever we roll over or so much as move a muscle.

As a man of a certain age, Andy is forced to go to the loo once or twice a night. Not known for his agility, this becomes quite a performance especially with the noisy mattresses. It’s no wonder the devils stayed away from us!

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Painted Cliffs

Fortunately on clear moonless nights the stars have added to his relief. The night sky seems so much more intense down here … especially the Southern Cross and the wide sweep of the Milky Way, a pearly rainbow from one horizon to the other. 

We recently learnt the reason for this. In the southern hemisphere you look down into the centre of the Milky Way, whereas in the north, you’re looking out to it’s edge.

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Saying goodbye to Maria Island on the early ferry, we headed south across country to the small village of Dunalley. This turned into one of those cycling days that are more than we bargained for.

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We were warned!

It was actually over 50km of cycling on ’ripio’ gravel roads! And the road went uphill! And it rained! And Clare got stung by a wasp (presumably one that had followed us expecting yet more honeydew)! 

But … she stayed impressively cheerful as you can see from these pictures, just very relieved to be back on firm, black tarmac.

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Clare at the beginning of the ‘ripio’
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Clare at the end of the ‘ripio’

The wildlife surprised us yet again. We turned a corner and disturbed a large flock of bright green and red parrots who launched themselves up into the sky in a colourful, noisy, irritable carnival. Later it happened again, this time with scores of white cockatoos swirling in front of us like confetti.

A sadder feature of this road was that there was even more roadkill than usual, in various states of decay … small kangaroos, wallabies, possums and (just once) a snake. It made for a pretty stinky ride!

Roadkill is much more noticeable on Tasmanian roads than on the ‘mainland’, but the locals tell us that this also proves the populations are healthy.

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Another feature of country roads are the house numbers. Anyone fancy living at number 29762? The next house a few kilometres down the road might be 25640. This seems confusing until you discover that a new number is allocated every 10 metres.

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This house is therefore 297.6km from the end of the road in Hobart … a handy way of measuring our progress.

At the end of this particular gravel road was a welcome B&B in a lovely old colonial house. We’ve noticed a few interesting touches that seem to be particular to Tasmania B&B’s … heating lamps in the bathroom ceilings, washing machines and a complimentary decanter of sherry and port to “help you sleep”.

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From Dunalley we rode along the coast to Richmond, a pretty town famous for being the site of Australia’s oldest bridge (convict built of course). Then onto Hobart where our son Chris has joined us for a few days rest and recreation.

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Richmond bridge

Next up is the challenge of the mountainous, wet n’wild West Coast and the road up to Cradle Mountain, the highest point on our circuit.

The weather has turned and there’s a storm on the horizon. Winter is coming!

It doesn’t look like life for the next two weeks will be ordinary at all.

Clare and Andy

Many roads to paradise

Tasmania is a gem … Clare was right! It’s a simply stunning island to cycle around.

As David, our B&B host in Launceston said … “your first few days in the North East will take you through some of the most spectacular scenery on the island. No … some of the most spectacular scenery in Australia. After that it just gets better and better!”

He was not wrong.

The ever changing cinematic view from our handlebars has been both varied and delightful.

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We rolled off the ferry in Devonport at 6am on a misty Friday morning and were relieved to find a bakery serving coffee and huge Aussie croissants. Three hours later and slightly over-caffeinated we decided we couldn’t put off climbing onto our bikes any longer. 

Within a few minutes we were out into big open farmland and wide horizons, the road gently undulating as we headed towards the hills in the distance.

img_0393As most of the heavy traffic takes the highway through the centre of the island, there were very few trucks (hooray!) Some even slowed down a little to pass us.

These roads are for locals and for tourists, which means lots of caravans and motorhomes. It’s ideal motorcycling country and there are large groups of bikers touring the island, all zooming past with a throaty roar and a cheery wave.

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The road then took us down the Tamar valley to Launceston through the heart of Tasmanian wine country, famous for its Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

At Scottsdale we picked up the old North East Railway, now a cycling trail that winds its way gently up to Billycock Hill, 342m above sea level. Sweeping bends never exceed the 2.8% the maximum gradient for a steam train as the trail climbs through a beautiful eucalyptus forest.

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The North East Rail Trail

Later that same day we climbed again to Weldborough. This time more steeply through rich, verdant rain forest thick with tree ferns and knarled, ancient trees.

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Up through the rain forest

After a wet but fun evening with a group of bikers in the Weldborough Tavern, we descended through cattle country until we reached the coast at St Helens. From there it was mile after mile of beautiful coast road, punctuated by small climbs across granite headlands, then down to deserted white sand beaches each lapped by a gin-clear sea.

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Small fishing communities break up this coast offering a good choice of places to stay. But it’s a coast that will forever stay sea-salted and under-developed as it’s protected by a crystal clear, but very cold sea.

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After a week and 400km of pedalling, we reached the jewel in the crown … the unspoilt peninsula of Freycinet National Park at Coles Bay. Here we were lucky enough to find a camping spot at Richardson’s beach (so popular they’re allocated by a ballot in the school holidays) where we threw off our sweaty cycling gear, ran down some private steps to a picture perfect oval beach and plunged into the water.

Then gasped … and quickly ran back out again!

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Camping at Richardson’s Beach
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Wineglass Bay in Freycinet National Park

The cycling has been quite challenging. Anyone who says the East Coast of Tasmania is flat is not telling the whole story!

The land folds itself down to the sea, creating all those pretty bays and headlands but this means that the roads either roll up or roll down again. It’s a good thing as each small hill enhances the view. But it also means a four hour ride feels like four hours of interval training.

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Clare interval training to music

Not all our camping has been as pleasant as Richardson’s beach. At Weldborough it rained hard all night. Then in Swansea we came into much closer contact with nature than we’d bargained for.

We camped in a field under a lonely tree and returned from our harbour-side fish supper to find a brushtail possum hanging upside and feasting on it’s lower branches, just inches from our tent.  It stayed there munching for several hours … and was not a quiet eater.

During the night we noticed a spattering noise, like the sound of gentle rain. This was confusing as it was a dry clear night … but, in the morning our tent was covered in water droplets. We thought it must be dew and left the tent to dry in the sun.

Just as we noticed that the droplets were hardening into a kind of resin the wasps arrived. Ten … twenty … forty … all greedily feasting on these lumps of nectar that now covered the entire tent.

Was it sap from the tree?

No … it turns out the tree was infested by aphids and this was honeydew … the sugary, sticky liquid that aphids excrete as they chew the leaves.

To wasps it is the milk of paradise and they were having a party!

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Two of many feasting wasps
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Trying to shake the wasps off

We’re not sure whether Samuel Coleridge was referring to wasps or not in his famous poem, Kubla Khan, but it feels like he might have been …

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
Their flashing eyes, their floating hair!
Weave a circle round them thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For they on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Kubla Khan by Samuel Coleridge (slightly modified)

We didn’t stop to weave any circles. We just stuffed the tent in its bag and pedalled out of there as fast as we could.

When we got the tent out the next day, to soak away the honeydew in warm water, half a dozen wasps fell out. All alive, they were now miles from home but they had such a satisfied expression on their faces … we knew they didn’t care.

Clare and Andy

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Aussie humour is alive and well!

Around and round and up and down we go again

Thanks to you we’ve twisted and are now safely in Tasmania. Phew!

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I loved all your comments, many thanks for your support. Much to my surprise the vote was almost unanimous, with just one (male) exception! I can’t agree more that we should get away from those long roads and huge trucks. It was also great to hear about the highlights of Tasmania from those of you who have already been here.

Let’s twist again
Like you did last summer
Yeah, let’s twist again
Like you did last year
Well, around and round and up and down
We go again
Come on baby make me know you love me so again
Chubby Checker

By the time we boarded the ferry Andy was genuinely excited about going to Tasmania and our new adventure ahead.

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We’ve been arguing about what constitutes a journey. The English Oxford Dictionary says it’s ‘travelling from one place to another’ and this is Andy’s argument too … you have to go from A to B.

But in my opinion it’s just as valid to go ‘around and round’ from A to A. If you lay out a piece of string along our route through Tasmania it looks like a circle. But if you pull that string tight it becomes a straight line which makes it a journey!

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We’ll be going clockwise

What have I let myself in for? Tasmania is actually a much bigger challenge than Melbourne to Sydney. Mountains dominate the western side of the island but there are some serious hills in the North East too.

Lots of ‘up and down to go again’!

I honestly don’t think Andy realised how difficult it was going to be. He kept telling me that Tasmania was “only about the same size as Wales”. I was so confident it was bigger that I made a bet with him … and even upped the stakes.

It turns out TASMANIA IS OVER 3 TIMES BIGGER THAN WALES!

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Last day in Melbourne

What turned out to be our warm-up ride out of Melbourne and back again took us 380km with over 4000m of climbing. And due to the bush fires we never did make it to Wilsons Promontory so took an inland route instead.

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We reached the point of no return in a tiny village called Koonwarra, which lies on the 72km Victoria Southern Rail cycling trail. If we’d turned right down the trail we’d have gone to Sydney. Left to go back to Melbourne.

Thankfully it had one of the nicest cafes we’ve ever cycled past so at least we had good coffee to help make the decision.

We turned left and were soon heading west along this quiet and delightful trail.

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The Southern Rail cycle track

Sadly, it didn’t last!

In his efforts to avoid the main highway, Andy took us cross-country on some quieter country roads that he’d spotted on ViewRanger. Some of these were nice but others turned out to be the dreaded gravel ripio, built for the remote Victorian faming community. It was a nasty reminder of some parts of Chile.

They were so corrugated that at one point both Andy’s panniers crashed off the back of his bike as he careered over some bumps too quickly.

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While he was picking them up, a lovely local lady in a big 4×4 stopped to ask me “what on earth we were doing there?”  She’d never seen anyone trying to ride a bike on these roads before.

In contrast to the searing temperatures of a few days earlier, the weather that day was decidedly cool and very windy.

Storms blew up out of nowhere. One minute, we were happily cycling along. A few seconds later we’re sheltering in a hedge from gale force winds and scarily large hail stones. The storms passed quickly but did not add to the fun in any way.

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They were big hailstones, honest

During our tour of Victoria, I’d noticed that so many places are named after English towns. We’ve been to Brighton, Sandringham, Cheltenham, Hampton, Hastings and Shoreham to name but a few. Phillip Island must have originally been settled by folk from the Isle of Wight … Cowes, Rhyll and Ventnor.

Now we’re in Tasmania, I’m looking forward to visiting Launceston, Exeter, Derby, St Helens and Swansea.

Clare

 

Clare is often right and she certainly was this time! Already I’m loving Tasmania and looking forward to exploring this fascinating island.

Thanks for helping me see that it’s more important to relax and have fun than to complete a journey!

Andy

Stick or Twist?

We have a mutiny on our saddles.

True … it’s not quite on the scale of Fletcher Christians Mutiny-on-the-Bounty, but it is a mutiny just the same.

After months of researching the route from Melbourne to Sydney, of downloading vast numbers of maps from ViewRanger, of checking how many climbs, how many kilometres each day … Clare has suggested we might cycle 1200km (750 miles) around Tasmania instead.

And we’ve even cycled towards Sydney for a couple of days!

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Credit: Discovery Holiday Parks

Like many people before her, Clare was inspired by a boat. It was the sight of The Spirit of Tasmania ferry chugging out of Melbourne harbour that got her thinking …

  1. It’s a bloody long way to Sydney … and she’s not training for an Ironman.
  2. People telling us that Tasmania is their favourite part of Australia.
  3. Andy’s near miss with a ‘road-train’ truck.

The road-train incident was genuinely scary. On a narrow country road, one of these massive beasts passed within a few inches of Andy at extremely high speed, causing him to wobble dangerously in it’s wake. 

Had the driver bothered to look at the angry cyclist in his rear view mirror, it’s fair to say he would have had no doubt about how Andy felt.

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A ‘Double’ Road Train.  Credit: Scott Bourne

Cycling in Australia seems to be more challenging than other countries we’ve toured through. 

Cities are brilliant with loads of dedicated cycling lanes. But outside the cities there’s often only one busy main road between distant towns. There isn’t the network of quiet country roads that cyclists love.

On our travels, we’ve found the Irish to be the most patient drivers with cyclists. So far I’m afraid we’ve found Australians to be amongst the least tolerant, often seeing no need to slow down or deviate even slightly. 

This is particularly true of truck drivers … they ‘own the road’ and they know it. To be fair, they don’t pass many foolhardy touring cyclists on their long, dull journeys. 

But it seems that snakes and spiders are not our biggest danger after all.

It’s the truck drivers!

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Riding out of Melbourne was beautiful, gliding around Port Phillip Bay on a lovely coastal cycle path. It was easily the hottest day we’ve ever experienced on a bike, peaking at over 40°C (104°F). We both drank more than 6 litres of water but still didn’t need to pee for 24 hours. When we stopped for lunch we just wanted to rub ourselves down with towels and ice cubes.

After 70km of sweaty peddling, we were very happy to board the small, local ferry across to Phillip Island and cool down in the gentle sea breeze.

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On the ferry to Phillip Island

Phillip Island is home to the nightly Penguin Parade. Hundreds of Little Penguins, just one foot tall, commute back to their burrows at dusk after a busy day fishing. It was delightful to see these cute little creatures tumbling out of the sea and waddling back to their mates.

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Little Penguins   Credit: Phillip Island Nature Parks

As we rode along the coast the next day, we began to appreciate how big and  dry Australia is. We noticed a huge cloud forming inland. It turned out this was caused by a number of bushfires merging together. They are often started by lightening strikes from the dry storms (no rain) that build up in the intense heat.

It’s an increasing and dangerous problem across Australia.

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Credit: The Guardian

One such lightening strike had hit Wilson’s Promontory National Park, one of the most spectacular parts of the Victorian coastline and a highly anticipated highlight on our ride to Sydney. 

The resulting bushfire meant that 300 campers had to be evacuated. It’s serious enough to keep the park closed for two weeks but we’re glad to say that the fire looks like it will be controlled before it causes to much damage to this pristine wilderness.

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Sunset across the estuary at Inverloch

Instead, we stayed an extra night at a lovely campsite in Inverloch, just metres from a beautiful, empty beach that led out to a wide estuary.

The camping has been great. The equipment is working well and we’re relishing the outdoor life that we miss when we only stay in hotels or B&B’s.

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Camping just behind the sand dunes

Because of the bushfire, we’re now no longer going to Wilsons Promontory. But where are we going? Sydney or Tasmania?

Here are Clare’s arguments for a tour around Tasmania:

  • It’s one of the great cycling destinations … lots of people cycle around Tasmania and very few cycle from Melbourne to Sydney (there must be a reason for that!)
  • The scenery is stunning
  • We’ve never been there
  • We’ll have two trips on an iconic ferry
  • It’s great for camping
  • It won’t be as hot and sweaty for cycling
  • There are less long, dull roads
  • There are less big trucks
  • There are less snakes and spiders
  • The bushfire on Wilsons Promontory was a bad omen

And here are Andy’s arguments for cycling to Sydney:

  • It’s the original plan
  • It’s a proper journey (not a circle)
  • It might be a bit cold in Tasmania

What do you think we should do? Should we stick or twist?

Clare and Andy

Goodbye Galway Girls & Danny Boys

The Irish have a great talent for making a lot out of a little.

As we drove to Rosslare to catch our ferry back home, we couldn’t help but smile at a sign announcing ‘President Obama’s Ancestral Village’. This is Moneygall where a young man called Falmouth Kearney lived before he emigrated to the United States in 1850. He was Obama’s maternal great-great-great-grandfather.

Now this might seem like a distant connection to you and me but for Moneygall it’s enough for a visitor centre called the Barack Obama Plaza and the preservation of a terraced house as his ancestral home.

We found a similar story when we stayed in New Ross on our first night in Ireland. Birthplace of John F Kennedy’s great-grandfather, it now boasts a Kennedy homestead, Kennedy museum, Kennedy arboretum, Kennedy summer school and Kennedy hotel.

As far as we know, there isn’t a Trump visitor centre in Ireland yet … just an ostentatious golf course and luxury hotel that took us a long time to cycle past.

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Kinvara

During our last two days on the Wild Atlantic Way, we cycled from Doolin to Galway, staying overnight in the lovely small town of Kinvara.

This took us through the Burren, one of the finest examples of a glacio-karst landscape in the world. Huge limestone sheets have been eroded by glaciers and then by rainwater which gets into any cracks and crevices.

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Limestone pavements

The effect is dramatic. Limestone pavements with perfect parallel lines sit beneath smooth hills that are strewn with so many rocks that they appear from a distance to be sugar coated with snow.

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A light covering of snow in August? 

The name Burren comes from the Gaelic Boíreann which simply means a rocky place. Many years ago, farmers cleared all the rocks from the fields, piling them into a striking mosaic of dry stone walls.

The walls go right down to sea, sometimes running across vast limestone pavements. Cattle were brought down onto the flat rocks for winterage, as they held onto the summer heat for longer encouraging the grass in the crevices to keep growing.

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Galway turned out to be a vibrant city with a lively centre full of small shops, restaurants and music bars, all buzzing with people chatting away in Gaelic. So much so that it’s often referred to as the bilingual capital of Ireland.

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There were lots of amusing shop signs, including a trading notice outside this jewellers…

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And a special offer from this café…

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To our surprise, the highlight of our visit to Galway was an extraordinary show that’s been entertaining tourists for the last fourteen summers.

Trad on the Prom is an evening of traditional Gaellic music and dance presented by some of the creators of big, famous shows such as Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. Despite taking place in the unlikely surroundings of a leisure centre sports hall, it was magical and captivating as the quality of the musicians and dancers was so high. Indeed, many of them were world champions.

Trad on the Prom
Credit: Trad on the Prom

As we caught the train back to Ennis to pick up our car, we added up the distance we’d cycled on the Wild Atlantic Way.

It came to 961km cycling and 438km driving*.

This means we did fulfil our carbiking promise to cycle more than we drove. But we missed our 1000km target … defeated by the weather on the Dingle.

Southern Route Full

So how was our first experience of carbiking?

There are lots of good things:

  • It’s really easy to get to the place you plan to cycle from. You don’t have cram your bikes onto public transport.
  • It’s more versatile. You can take a detour, stay in different places or get to a remote restaurant.
  • You can miss out those parts of the route with lots of main roads or boring scenery.
  • If you need to, you can check out a mountain pass in the car before you ride over it.
  • You can drive on rainy days.
  • For day rides, the panniers can stay in the car.
  • It means you can bring loads more stuff such as heavy camping gear, a box of food or even that all important hairdryer!

And a few less good things:

  • You always have to get back to your car, which can mean cycling in a circle.
  • The comfort of the car makes it feel less adventurous, less of a journey.
  • It makes it too easy to bring loads more stuff!

We thought it worked out surprisingly well especially as there were so many peninsulas to loop round on this trip. We’d definitely recommend it.

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Now … we’ve heard some people say that the Wild Atlantic Way is one example of the Irish making-a-lot-out-of-a-little.

It is a clever way of joining all the small roads together and claiming that it’s the longest coastal touring route in the world’.

But … the southern half is so beautiful, so varied and, yes, so wild that we think it’s actually making-a-lot-out-of-a-lot!

Now we can’t wait to return and explore the northern half from Galway to Malin Head.

Clare and Andy


Southern Half of the Wild Atlantic Way: Kinsale to Galway
By bike: 961km, 11825m climbed
By car: 438km*

* If we cycled and drove along the same roads, we only counted the cycling distance.
* We didn’t include driving to Ireland and back.
* Which is not cheating!