Sunday 3 May 2015

Freycinet Experiences 1: Schouten Island

There are moments on the drive between Hobart and Coles Bay in which the whole length of the Freycinet Peninsula is laid out before you. On a fine, clear morning we stop at Spiky Beach to take it all in, along with some morning tea.

Across the blue waters of Great Oyster Bay – a broad inundated gulf between the east coast and the outlying peninsula – we gaze out at what could be a cross-section model of our next four days’ walking terrain. To the south is fist-shaped Schouten Island, itself a small study of the whole rumpled granitic peninsula to its north. Eric shows us where we will be walking, naming hills and beaches, mountains and bays that we’ll soon be seeing close up.

[Aboard the Naturaliste in Coles Bay] 
Within the hour mini-bus driver Gil delivers us to the Coles Bay jetty, where we meet Shep, the coxswain of the Naturaliste. Once we’re aboard he speeds us expertly down the bay towards Schouten Island. We cruise beneath the granite peaks known as The Hazards, then round Fleurieu Point before pausing alongside Refuge Island. Shep points out a white-bellied sea eagle perched atop the low island.

As we near Schouten Island he detours through Schouten Passage, an often rough stretch of water separating the island from the rest of the peninsula. The wide, wild Tasman Sea funnels through the passage to meet Great Oyster Bay. These are rich waters for anyone interested in fish, and we’re soon among plunging gannets, wheeling albatrosses and playful seals. It’s also a place frequented by whales. We turn around next to Slaughterhouse Bay, where southern right whales were once butchered.

[An albatross in Schouten Passage] 
In these more peaceful times, whales can again be seen here, especially during winter and spring. The calmer waters of Great Oyster Bay have always made an ideal nursery and creche for whales pausing on their migratory journey north. I once joined a park ranger as he monitored a mother and calf passing through Schouten Passage. He was supposed to make sure no boats got too close to the whales, but we both knew it was really a work “jolly”.

We land at Crocketts Bay on Schouten in time for lunch. But first Eric has to plunge in for a swim. Two others join him, ‘though the rest of us are dubious about his claim that the water is warm. We’re keener on the post-lunch amble up nearby Bear Hill. But before that we let the island’s extraordinary tranquility seep in. Wavelets lap and shush on the sandy shore; birds call or lollop past; the sun glimmers off the water. We’ve all come from busy places, and welcome this chance to tune in to island time.

[Eric jumps ashore on Schouten Island] 
While most of us set off for Bear Hill, Jodi joins Shep on a fishing trip in the Naturaliste. Our dinner seems to be at stake, and there’s banter between Jodi and Eric. Apparently it’ll be baked beans for all of us if Jodi isn’t successful in the flathead hunt. As with Eric’s estimation of water temperatures, we suspect this isn’t to be taken too seriously.

Bear Hill is bare indeed, so we puzzle at the spelling. There’s not time to reach the very top (mustn’t let the baked beans spoil!) But we do have a good drink stop on a wide slab of granite high above the waters. We breathe in the expansive views and try to make out the Naturaliste, but it’s not until we’re on our way back that we see and hear it returning across the bay.

[Views from Bear Hill, Schouten Island] 
The boat and we walkers arrive back at our beach almost simultaneously. Jodi is smiling broadly from the deck, and calling out “23!” Apparently we will be eating fish tonight after all.

Shep gets us back to the jetty in good time, and we’re soon back aboard Gil’s mini-bus. Hearing about Jodi’s haul he’s keen for his cut of the fish, and “little red hen” type banter is soon being exchanged between the guides and the driver. It seems settled by the time Gil is delivering us to the Friendly Beaches. Jodi takes us through a rough track to the beach, explaining that it’s a 15-20 minutes walk to the lodge. The walk will help us “come into the place” appropriately.

[Nearing the lodge on the Friendly Beaches] 
And again the place does its work on us. The wide empty strand and its brilliant white sand soothe us, and we chat amiably as we wander up the beach. Soon Jodi is guiding us up an indistinct track through the vegetation-covered dunes, and a few minutes later we (just) make out the lodge. It sits discretely within its bushy setting, its wooden structure blending in beautifully.

[What lodge? The Friendly Beaches Lodge is well hidden]
The first thing I notice is the tall candles lighting up the dining table just next to the entrance deck. Almost as glowing are the smiles of Hannah and Daniel, our lodge hosts and chefs. Wafts of wood smoke blend with the smell of cooking as we’re welcomed into this special place. We’re all smiles: this looks like being a special four days.

[Dinner in the lodge, and it's not baked beans!]
[* I walked the Freycinet Peninsula as a guest of The Freycinet Experience Walk]

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