Friday 13 November 2015

Marvellous Maria 1: A Sweet Spot

I’m part of a chain of passengers passing luggage off the Maria Island ferry. I might note how apt it is using a chain-gang to get this job done, given the island is a former convict settlement. But I’m too busy chatting with the man next to me. I’ve discovered he’s a first-time visitor from Melbourne. So, like an over-enthusiastic travel agent, I’m busy selling the wonders of Maria Island.

Interested in wildlife? This place has it in abundance: kangaroos, wombats, devils, rare birds … (and on I go) … Like history? How many other places can you stay in a convict prison – in comfort – while learning all about everything from Aboriginal history to convicts and rogue industrialists … (but wait, there’s more) … Fancy a walk? Where do I start? (He’s probably wondering when I’ll finish!)

I can’t resist going on to mention the island’s amazing geology; its wonderfully untouched beaches; its stunning variety of vegetation. If only I’d be quiet for a moment, he might possibly experience the special serenity of this traffic-free island.

Okay, I don’t work for national parks any more, but it seems there’s no stopping this rusted-on fan from enthusing about Tasmania’s wonderful wilds. And marvellous Maria (pronounced like Mariah Carey’s first name), is one of our great national parks.

I eventually remind myself I’m not at work, and release the captive Melburnian. Our group wanders up to the Penitentiary, where we’ve booked a double dorm room. We claim bunks, unpack our bags, set up our cooking gear (there’s no power in the “Pen”) and make ourselves a cuppa. Then to the serious business: we settle on the verandah and let the quiet seep into us.

Fan-tailed and pallid cuckoos call; wombats stroll by; the sun shines; and in the distance waves whisper on the sands of Darlington Beach. Not for the first time on the trip I find myself believing the hype about this place. Thomas Lempriere, a convict era clerk of the Commissariat Store, called it “one of the sweetest spots in Van Diemen’s Land.” As we recline on the verandah, I wonder if even some of the convicts might have recognised they had it (relatively) better than those elsewhere.

Later in the afternoon we discover that Tim has never been to the top of Bishop and Clerk. So four of us head towards the 620m mountain “just for a look”. But I know two things: firstly that Tim will be determined to get to the top, and secondly that neither Mike nor I will bother this time, given that we climbed it last visit. Stefan’s attitude isn’t yet clear, though we suspect he’ll carry on with Tim.

[Walkers above Fossil Cliffs, with Bishop & Clerk behind] 
The walk first winds through beautifully open grassland, alongside high cliffs with vast views over the sea towards Freycinet National Park. Mike and I are cajoled into walking on “just to the top of the next rise”and then “just to the beginning of the steep bit”. The walk is so stunning, the vistas so grand, the birdlife so prolific, that it’s no trial to succumb. But eventually we divide into two groups, Tim and Stefan for the top, Mike and I for an amble back via another route.

The two of us, both keen birders, are immediately rewarded with a sighting of some swift parrots. Small, swift, green and endangered only begins to describe these lovely birds. The clearing of the forests on which they depend, particularly blue gum forests, is a major reason for their decline. So it’s a privilege to hear their high pitched tinkling call before they sweep off – swiftly – deeper into the forest.

[A wedge-tailed eagle soars overhead] 
No sooner have they gone than we’re visited by a curious wedge-tailed eagle. It circles a few times, before flying off at speed, pursued by a raven. Forest ravens are not small birds, having a wingspan in excess of one metre. Yet this one looks both small and brave up against our largest bird of prey, with its nearly three metre wingspan.

On our way back we stop to observe a common wombat: an animal seemingly at the opposite end of the speed spectrum from a parrot or an eagle. Yet I’ve heard that these rotund marsupials – dubbed the bulldozers of the bush – can, if threatened, run at close to human sprinting speed. To put that in perspective, a wombat can run at up to 40kmh; Usain Bolt can reach 45kmh.

[A common wombat, not running anywhere] 
We’re back at the Penitentiary and have been tucking into wine and cheese for some time before Tim and Stefan stagger back. They’ve made the top of Bishop and Clerk, ‘though the clouds have covered the peak and obscured all but glimpses of the amazing views. We raise a glass to them both, part commiseration, part congratulation. Better luck tomorrow?

[Relaxing in the sun near the convict-era chapel] 
Mountain tops, cliffs, wildlife and a place to relax together: and that’s just our first afternoon. This truly is a sweet spot!

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