Camping in the World Heritage Forests of Tasmania, Australia
Tasmanian devil at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, Tasmania. Photo by Joe McNally/Tourism Australia

The pristine World Heritage forests of Tasmania are perfect for introducing kids to the wonders of wilderness camping.

The moment occurs at Cradle Mountain, a beautiful and wild spot in northern Tasmania. On the front porch of our little cabin, I am face to face with a small furry muzzle. The rest of the animal is a small dark furry kangaroo-like creature, known as a Pademelon. I look at Mrs. Pademelon. She looks back at me. A little head emerges from her pouch. My baby’s head swivels around to stare at Pademelon Joey from my own frontal nylon pouch. Suddenly mummy marsupial and I completely understand each other; a timeless moment of astounding interspecies connection.

Why sister, you can’t wait until junior hops away on his own either eh? Mothers unite!

Australia’s Rare Tranquility

Wilderness has become a scarce, sacred and precious resource. To have Tasmania’s vast expanse of wild forest, lakes, rivers and mountains off the southern coast of Australia to explore is a blessing. We take the opportunity to show our children an environment we don’t usually have a chance to discover. One of the most extraordinary wilderness spots on the island is Cradle Mountain.

A shuttle bus takes you to a series of lakes including Dove Lake (the start of a six day hike, which we were not undertaking this time), where we absorb the hauntingly beautiful landscape. Standing by a glassy lake cut into the rugged landscape and mirroring a sky flecked with the promise of stormy drama, I cannot fathom that there is any other existence. Something about the Cradle Mountain region — its sheer remoteness, wild alien vegetation and both bitter and beautiful colors of greens, blues and browns under a huge bubble of steely blue sky — pushes away all other places and realities.

The only reality becomes the lakes, alpine and rainforest vegetation and wildlife including wallabies (small kangaroo), Tasmanian Devils (a lively black snub-nosed animal with serrated teeth) and possums. Mists rising from pools and wrapping around peaks complete the otherworldly feel. Somewhere out there Frodo and his companions are searching for the ring. I almost regret not planning to hike the Overland Track, for somewhere on its 65-kilometer walk through this UNESCO World Heritage Area I might have been able to find the Ring companions and join their quest. Always did have a few questions to ask old Gandalf…

We had arrived at Cradle Mountain via the west coast of Tasmania. Basing ourselves at Strahan, we discover a range of activities taking us into the magnificent wilderness clothing this part of the island. “We need to travel at a slow pace so the backwash doesn’t disturb the banks of the river,” explains the Captain, as the World Heritage Cruises (+61 (0)3 6471 7174) boat slows to a snail pace. It doesn’t matter. The slowness allows us to stand on the boat and drink in the extraordinary sight of a clear mighty river wandering though thick undisturbed forests, watched by a wheeling bird of prey.

The Gordon River flows through the western wilderness of Tasmania eventually joining with the Franklin River to make pristine wilderness accessible by boat. We stop for a short walk through cool, moist forests of Myrtle Beech and Huon Pine tangling with over 100 other species of plant life. The smell of fresh, rich, vibrant death, which here also means rebirth, sinks sweetly into places of mind, body and spirit largely untouched by other experiences.

The kids love the forest floor with its many different plants and bits of debris from the living and the dead and I feel grateful to bring them here to experience the rich presence of nature away from the sterility of our concrete city. We eat a buffet lunch with great appetite back on board, reflecting on the tangle of wild things.

 

West Coast Wilderness By Rail & River

Opposite the little town of Strahan perched on the edge of a great bay, is a small train station. From here, you board an historic diesel train and journey on a railway track cut through the wilderness by hand, on the West Coast Wilderness Railway (+61 3 6225 7075). The only thing spoiling this journey chugging through spectacular wilderness are the dark wasted banks of the dead King River, a legacy of toxic waste from upriver mining. “This,” assures our guide, is “about to be dealt with. There are plans for revegetation…now that the mine has stopped pouring its tailings into the rivers.

The rest of trip made up for it: part historic fantasy (diesel and steam trains), part engineering wonder (rack and pinion railing up incredibly steep gradients) and part wilderness exploration (ferns, trees, mosses and flowers). Halfway, we stop for lunch by a restored railway siding and watch as our diesel leaves to return back to Strahan. We board a steam train and with the engine puffing and steaming over 40 bridges, allowing us to peer down steep banks into dramatic gorges and emerald green fern gullies. On arrival in Queenstown we take a bus back to Strahan. The green of the forest still flashes behind our eyes and the rich, fresh smell of a wild ecosystem still lining our nostrils.

A previous visit to Tasmania had introduced me to this great wilderness by plunging me headfirst into a river – literally. One of the great experiences of Tasmania is to raft the Franklin River (888/464-8735 toll free in the USA). Only after this experience did I realize why the usually conservative laid-back Aussies had dusted off their gumboots and risen to fight an unprecedented battle during the early 1980’s. The Franklin had been threatened with damming and the people of Australia mobilized to fight the state government and protect the river and the wilderness it flowed through. They won, and the Franklin is now the last major undammed river in Tasmania. I was glad, for the river and the wilderness are breathtaking.

Rearing gorges, mighty in their remote isolation, funnelled clear water through rugged forest offering a seemingly crazy explosion of life and death in twisting and twirling wildness. Trees, vines, plants, mosses, wildlife and moisture overwhelmed me. Cool breezes constantly brought rich fertile scents previously unknown to us civilized folk as we precariously camped on rock ledges by the swirling waters, so as not to disturb the soil of the river banks. The rare experience of being in such a pristine natural landscape for an extended length of time was enough to foster a profound appreciation of the irreplaceable nature of ancient wilderness. That has stayed with me until now, when during a second visit my appreciation is refreshed.

Amazing Mazes of Fun!

Now leaving Cradle Mountain we are effectively leaving the wilderness and heading to an establishment created for young ones. At Tasmazia (+61 (0) 3 6491 1934) in the Promised Land is the village of Lower Crackpot (seriously), and this is where I lose my toddler who disappears round a corner and vanishes from view…in the largest hedge maze in the world. When the fruit of your loins calls to you with a note of frantic surprise, there is only one response. “Coming, darling,” and like a good general in battle you do what must be done with great care and forethought. You plunge into the battlefield to save your favorite little lost soldier without preparation or planning. Tasmania gets a lot of sun and rain. Meaning lots of plant growth. Meaning a hedge grows tall and thick. Meaning I couldn’t see beyond, or above, the constant tunnels of green I was in.

Tasmazia is a labor of love by its two owners. Lord and Lady Crackpot (alias Brian and Laura Inder), who built a maze that consists of a number of ‘rooms’ each presenting up to five ‘doors’. You choose which ‘door’ to go through in the quest to get to the other side of the maze. If that sounds confusing, iimagine a hassled mother attempting to find the right ‘door’ while imagining all sorts of dastardly events involving her offspring. Where is a pair of electric shears when you need one?

I tear round leafy corners and stop short at too many dead ends while the little soldier’s calls (not so desperate now I come to think of it, it was just a mother’s overactive imagination after all) turn into cooings of wonder. “The Three Bear’s House,” comes the almost indistinct warbling. “Don’t eat the porridge,” I shout in a desperate turnaround of motherly conditioning. “Don’t lay down on any bed,” I mutter, feeling like a hypocrite. For goodness sake, eating porridge and going to sleep are the two actions I am forever trying to impress upon the little fellow. Now I had stumbled upon the answer. Plant a maze, take a cut lunch and a tent and spend every second day pruning the walls.

I understand Trent’s warblings of wonder when I finally reach him. In the middle of the maze I stop short myself in wonder. Here is the Three Bear’s House in wonderful detail. Trent stands at a window of the two-storey Tudor house, built to half scale, peering in wonder at the furniture. “Look Mummy, look!,” he cries, “There’s the bears.” I peer in through a leadlight window expecting to see three little toy bears and almost leap back in surprise. Papa bear is the same size as me. Wouldn’t want to meet him in one of the back alleys of the maze.

Within the giant maze are other mazes such as the “The Cage” made of timber; the “Balance Maze,” a small maze one walks on, the “Confusion Maze,” another hedge maze and the “Hexagonal Maze,” a six-sided hedge challenge.

 

Mini Village & Big Village

Next to the mazes is a village. But not just any village – this one contains miniature buildings made of brick and concrete. True to the layouts of the most interesting towns in the world, it has a ‘sleazy’ end graced with such establishments as the Dirty Shame Saloon and Wild Jo’s Disco, an industrial section with Lolly Works and Soap Factory, and a commercial center with the usual post office, shops and police station.

What is not usual is the twist on names, such as Bent & Robbew who probably do all too well as investment advisers, and the strange angle of some of the buildings like the upside down building or the one that has a woodchop taken out of it. With such attention to details, skill and imagination, the Lord and Lady are not as crackpot as their name suggests.

Our last day in Tasmania is spent visiting Launceston, a busy town on the banks of the Derwent River on the northern coast. Among the many things to do here is ride the Tasmanian Chairlifts over Cataract Gorge (+61 (0)3 6331 5915), a unique natural formation of cliffs, rocks and trees with the blue waters of the South Esk River flowing through the channel. On the northern side a Victorian garden has been created from exotic plants and ferns.

We finally leave the island on the Spirit of Tasmania, a ferry taking us to the mainland of Australia and away from this island of surprises, of freshly minted wilderness and calm, relaxed people, of history and heritage. We love it and anyway I promised the pademelon I will be back to discuss the trials of guiding teenagers when both our joeys have grown out of the pouches.

So the next time you are in Australia, don’t forget the island down under Down Under. A jewel in the crown.

Details, Details

Getting to Tasmania is not as hard as it sounds. From the USA, families can fly to the Australian cities of Melbourne or Sydney and take a connecting domestic flight to Hobart, or overnight ferry to the north coast, where buses, shuttles and car hire is available.

There are several choices of ferry. The Spirit of Tasmania (+61 (0) 3 6421 7333) runs ferries from Melbourne to Devonport on the north coast of Tasmania. If you’re touring the continent and prefer to fly in, Qantas Airlines (888/256-1775 toll free within USA) can provide flight schedules.

Family welcoming accommodations abound. We enjoyed the Cosy Cabins, located at Cradle Mountain, P.O. Box 10, Wilmot, Tasmania (0)3 6492 1395.

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