Saturday 30 November 2019

Maria Island Walk, Day Four - All good, then goodbye

With thanks to Maria Island Walk for this famil
The day began with a bit of wildlife-watching which, on Maria (Mar-I-a!) Island, just means stepping outside the door. I found a scattering of super-cute little pademelons in the garden, including one saluting the sun. Some of them had even cuter little joeys with them. Then came breakfast, which was a very impressive egg en cocotte, and yummy sourdough toast - well done, Sharna. 
Today we were let off the leash, to explore by ourselves, with recommendations. The main one was Fossil Cliff so I ambled off in the sunshine back up to Skippy Ridge to admire the view again - and note, with only moderate bitterness, that Bishop and Clerk, and everywhere else, was clear as a bell today - and then carried on down towards the point.
The cliffs were indeed full of fossils, mostly shells, from the Jurassic period, so I gave them their due and then walked on along this very pleasant circuit. There was a good sprinkling of kangaroos on the airstrip, making a particularly Australian type of hazard to landing. They and the wombats keep the grass amazingly short - there's talk that there's a need to do some culling, for the greater good, which is a shame.
I admired a scattering of picturesque buildings from Bernacchi's era: he tried all sorts of things, from silk to wine to cement, and managed to live very comfortably without being a great success at any of them. It was surprising to find a headstone in the fenced graveyard inscribed in Maori: news to me, four Maori were transported here from New Zealand in 1846 for rebelling against the British colonists. Three of them were later pardoned and sent home, but Hohepa Te Umuroa had by then died of TB. His body was returned to Whanganui in 1989.
The four big cement silos are a real landmark and a very unexpected sight in such a remote place; but the Commissariat Store is a lovely heritage building, now an interesting visitor centre. There's a Coffee Palace that Diego built - now a museum - and convict housing, other houses, and the ranger's station as well as a campsite and bike hire place. It all felt very bustling, after our three days in the bush.
We all met up again by the ruins of the preacher's house, and Sharna popped open a bottle of champers to drink a toast with our lunch of Camembert, salad and freshly-made focaccia - again, well done, Sharna. We sat in the sun, eating and drinking, watching the day-trippers come and go in their boats, and then it was our turn. Sadly I missed the ritual Jumping Off the Jetty which, in the absence of any brave guests, Danny conducted all by himself, and met us, dripping, on the jetty when we came down to board our boat.
And then it was all downhill: the drive back to Hobart to the Maria Island Walk base to empty our backpacks into our suitcases, hear and give little speeches, receive photos and booklets, and then be delivered to our various hotels, on our own again.
It was a really lovely four days and I'm very glad I was invited along. The Maria Island Walk was something I'd had my eye on for ages, and it's very satisfying to be able to tick it off - especially since the whole thing is so well organised, so easy, so sustainable, so much fun. I thoroughly recommend it.

Friday 29 November 2019

Maria Island Walk, Day Three - Sandstone, snake, summit, singing, soap

With thanks to Maria Island Walk for this famil
After a cold night snuggled in my sleeping bag, curled gratefully around a hot water bottle and waking occasionally to the sound of heavy rain on the canvas overhead, it was a sheer delight today to unzip the door to a clearing sky and the smell of waffle batter from the kitchen. Yum!
We set off along yet another of Maria (Mar-I-a!) Island's many lovely white sandy beaches and then climbed up to one of the quarries where the convicts had sweated hewing sandstone, back in the mid-1800s. To be honest, we were all distracted from the grim history here by a generous sprinkling of wombats. Even better, a bit further along, one came trundling onto a bridge we were crossing and walked right up to us (short-sighted, remember). It was only when it was about six inches from Sharna's boot that it realised something was amiss, and scuttled away. 
Then, a bit further along, she stopped us again because what I would have taken for a stick, if I had even noticed it, was actually a tiger snake making its leisurely way across the road. Highly venomous, natch - but no stripes.
Next we walked along the top of a cliff, spotting Tasmanian devil pawprints on the track. They aren't native here, but were introduced in a kind of Ark scenario, because on the mainland their numbers have been dropping because of a horrible contagious facial tumour disease that eventually prevents them from eating. 
They're striking little animals, endemic to Tasmania, and rarely seen not snarling - but we didn't see them at all, since they're nocturnal. Danny said they would probably have been hanging around the camp's barbecue last night if we wanted to try to spot them - but, rain, see above.
The highlight of this morning's walk were the Painted Cliffs. It was a bit of a scramble getting down to them, but well worth it: pleasing curves of coloured sandstone sculpted by the wind and sea, delicate, ephemeral and precious. Beautiful!
The camping part of our trip is over now, and we stopped up on Magistrate's Point overlooking the little settlement of Darlington, tucked into a big blue bay with a jetty and, most notably, assorted penal colony buildings. The island was used to house, and profit from the labour of, convicts for only about seven years, but the buildings are so well preserved that it has World Heritage status. After they went, a colourful Italian entrepreneur called Diego Bernacchi made Maria Island his little empire, and we're staying in his house tonight.
First, though, we had a mountain to climb. After lunch, we set off across more wombat-nibbled grassy slopes to stop at cliff-top Skippy Ridge and gaze up at the spiky 599m peak of Bishop and Clerk - named by some imaginative, or drunk, explorer who thought that's what these dolerite columns looked like. Yes, dolerite. There was an abundance of geological talk today, thanks mainly to the ex-geology lecturer who is one of the guests, but he was easily avoided, for the most part. Certainly, there was lots to look at and enjoy, besides the rocks.
Blue sea, green gum tree forest, currawongs and wombats, the distant mainland, a rocky island... and the peak. We started up it, climbing up and up at first through the woods, and then over a long scree slope of biggish rocks that the Hobart Walking Club had helpfully arranged into a zigzag path with rough steps. Up, up, up, back into the trees, and then, finally, we emerged onto a tumble of huge boulders below the hexagonal dolerite columns (yes, ok, some of that geo-chat rubbed off on me).
It was a bit of a challenging scramble up to the very summit, but Danny was really encouraging and helpful, and only one of us chickened out. From the top, the view was terrific, even if the cloud had thickened a bit. 
The rocks were big and reassuringly flat, so I felt quite comfortable wandering around and peering down at the sheer drop on the other side - though Danny claimed I was giving him heart attacks.
Then we headed back down again and, just as with the Haunted Bay walk on Day One, the track just seemed to go on, and on, and on. I thought we would never get out of the trees. But we did, of course, and were rewarded by a close-up view of a big echidna (monotreme, like a platypus - egg-laying, milk-feeding mammal) burrowing its snout into the soil, and then lots of wombats, some with fat, furry joeys in their backwards-facing pouches (because of not filling them with soil when they're digging their burrows). There were also lots of cute pademelons (like a small wallaby) near the house plus Cape Barren geese, and native hens.
Back at the house - an 1888 wooden villa, elegantly furnished and, most importantly for us, equipped with beds and flushing toilets and hot showers with soap - we got comfortable by the fire in the living room, drinking excellent local wine, eating equally excellent local cheeses, and chatting before a lovely dinner of herb-crusted fish at a polished table under an antique lamp. The chat was relaxed, full of in-jokes (always a good sign) and the lemon dessert was sensational. 

Then we moved back into the living room where Sharna sat by the fire and sang sweetly and unself-consciously as she strummed a guitar, while Danny contorted himself into a series of impressive stretches on the floor. No-one was in a rush to go off to bed, but when we did, it was with real appreciation of the simple home comforts we'd gone without for two whole nights.

Thursday 28 November 2019

Maria Island Walk, Day Two - Wombat day

With thanks to Maria Island Walk for this famil
So very Australia! I woke to sunshine slanting through gum trees, the mournful cawing of ravens, and kookaburras chortling. On a pre-breakfast stroll to the beach, where bolder people than me might have had a dip, the sand was white, the sea turquoise, the sky blue and the day clearly going to be gorgeous. All that was needed was breakfast with perfect scrambled egg, crusty toast and fruity spreads. Tick.
Even better, it was 5-beach day, so we began in bare feet on the soft and squeaky silica sand, gawping at the clear, clear blue sea lapping in. Of course, we were the only people around, since Maria Island (Mar-I-a!) has only rangers as its permanent residents, and they and the campers and day-trippers focus on the other end of the island, at Darlington.
We, as promised, saw more animals than people today, mostly wombats I'm happy to say, since they are so very cute and cuddly - but, no touching! There was one nibbling at the lawn surrounding Frenchman's Farm, an old farmhouse where we had morning tea. It was quite unconcerned about our presence (they do have very poor eyesight). Sharna was emphatic that, despite their stumpy little legs, they can run faster than Usain Bolt over a short distance.
We wandered happily in the sunshine along a quiet road, past tannin-stained wetlands, and along several more beaches to the satisfyingly-named Probation Station at Point Lesueur. It's a row of 36 tumbledown hand-made brick cells - from one of which erupted a startled wombat - where convicts were housed back in 1845 when they were brought to the island to work in agriculture. The views were lovely, across the bay, but when the doors were shut on the prisoners they would have seen none of it.
Lunch was taken under a row of old macrocarpas nearby and the conversation got pretty deep, about colonisation, and then lightened with bets taken for the day's total of wombats. We all kept it low, and were startled when Danny blurted out "Eighteen!" at the end, and then suspicious about his inside knowledge.
Another beach came next, with intriguing glossy octopus eggs, pretty shells, and seabirds, and more swims by the men doing the beach challenge. Honestly, the Tasman from this side, I can't get over it - so blue, so clear, so gorgeous! It's only the chilly temperature that gives it away as the same stretch of water that rages in, grey and uninviting, along our West Coast.
We counted up our wombats as we went - frequently fooled by rocks and bushes - and as the total crept up slowly, we silently mocked Danny for his foolish bravado. Then we got to *cough* Wombat Point (actually Bloodstone Point, but informally renamed for what became obvious reasons), and saw not one or two, but eight wombats busily trimming the already-short grass. Cute to see, of course, but it meant we were all wrong and Danny was dead right. Funny, that.
The final stretch of track wound through an open forest of gum trees and bracken where, walking in front, I spotted a kangaroo. That brought us finally to White Gums Camp. It's the same arrangement as before, but in an even better setting, which we fully appreciated as we sat on the deck with a cup of tea and some wickedly rich brownies.

I had my one and only swim today, staying in longer than the others to make up for its singularity, and then nipping back up to camp for a hot shower. It's really quite remarkable, how comforting and effective a single bucket of hot water can be - and the pulley system that enables it is very satisfying to operate.
We had a barbecued dinner with miso soup and salads, and a yummy dessert - with all the wine, naturally - and topics of discussion included terrorism, religion and horror movies. Sharna and Danny described our two options for tomorrow, very obviously not selling highest peak Mt Maria with its iconic view, in favour of more accessible Bishop and Clerk. Even though we felt a bit judged by that, we went along with their recommendation. They are so good at their job - as well as being interested, interesting, efficient and cheerful - that it would have been foolish not to.

We went early to bed clutching hot-water bottles in cuddly covers, and snuggled down in the peace and comfort of our tents to gird our loins for the 599m ascent tomorrow.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Maria Island Walk, Day One - beaches, bruschetta and Brexit

With thanks to Maria Island Walk for this famil
It was a rough night, worrying about my suitcase and spending half an hour on hold on the helpline at 2am vainly attempting to check up on its progress; and the morning didn't begin well either, with a one hour session of on-hold music at 5am that I eventually had to give up on. But things did get better, eventually. The Maria Island Walk people picked me up dead on time, it turned out there would be only five in the group - two Canadians, two Brits, and me - which meant I would get a tent to myself, plus our guides, Sharna and Danny, who are young, cheerful, funny, friendly and efficient. 
After a welcome at the base and a briefing, the others put all their gear into the supplied backpacks, and I woefully dropped into mine the meagre Target substitute items I bought yesterday, along with the hotel-supplied toothbrush, and hoped like hell that my suitcase would be at the airport when we called in there on our way to Triabunna and the boat to Maria Island. And, dear reader, it was! Immense, huge, blissful relief, plus delight that I could immediately stop being the needy person in the group.
Enjoyment began. Pleasant drive, interesting commentary, some cheerful group bonding, and then a short buzz across a blue sea to Maria Island, a National Park nature sanctuary with an interesting history and "teeming" (that's the promise) with wildlife. We waded ashore at Shoal Bay onto the first of many beautiful beaches we are going to visit. Before we moved off, however, Danny gave us our first serious talk about the three big threats to our enjoyment and safety, in this order: blisters, snakes and ants. And NEVER touch the wildlife! Noted.
We ate our yummy lunchtime sarnie in the shade of a she-oak grove and then walked to Beach Camp, plonked into the bush right in the middle of the narrow isthmus between the two halves of the island - which clearly wanted to be two islands, but couldn't quite pull it off (pun intended). It was lovely: all seriously eco and sustainable, but comfortable verging on luxurious too. Big kitchen/dining room tent, deck with seating, our wooden-floored tents at pleasing distances from each other, reached by narrow boardwalks winding through the bracken, and, also at decent distances, composting toilets and soap-free bucket showers. Good fun! Even better, Sharna gave us the run of the kitchen and, more importantly, the fridge which was well-stocked with bottles. Very reassuring, comfort-wise.
We had to earn that, though. Over afternoon tea (very delicious cake) we chose as a group the 9km return walk to Haunted Bay, and set off up a long hill through the eucalypt forest, stopping often for information and once to spot an echidna in the bushes. We got a bit excited to see it, quaint monotreme that it is, but Sharna smiled, knowing we had a heap more wildlife coming up. She was properly enthusiastic though about the big granite boulders we climbed down to at the end of the track. Haunted Bay was once a big whaling operation but now it's empty and peaceful, notable for the striking orange, mustard, green and black lichen that grows on the weather-sculpted rocks - beautiful, arty, and a measure of the cleanness of the air. Our enjoyment was slightly muted by the over-enthusiasm of the geology lecturer who is one of the guests, and who went on a bit, but really, even despite the grey sky, it was a lovely sight.
You know how it's always quicker, coming back from somewhere? Familiar territory, all that? Well, not on Maria Island. My goodness, that trail did go on. Everybody noticed it, even with the distraction of our first wombat. It was as though we were in another dimension, and it was with huge relief that we finally got back to the arrow on the track that Sharna had made out of branches so we didn't overshoot. But there we met Danny, who pulled us away saying, "I've got a bit of a thing going on on the beach" so we had to follow him. And were glad we did: little table, cheese platter, smoked mussels, grapes, biscuits, wine and beer! Plus a wallaby on the sand, a bit further down the beach. Perfect.
Later there were more drinks plus, inevitably, Trump and Brexit, but also some good stories, including one from the Canadians about the couple who played with the "tame" bear at Whistler and even sat their child on its back! Dinner was unhurried and delicious and ended with a magnificent deconstructed berry pavlova that was so good, I let the Aussies off the usual who-invented-it thing.
Tomorrow we do a 14km walk to our next camp, including five beaches which we were challenged to swim at each - er, not me thanks, Tasmania is level with the South Island, and it's not officially summer yet - and then we headed to bed, for a cosy night of rain on the canvas roof, kookaburras squawking, waves breaking, anonymous creatures scuffling, and wind in the trees. And no suitcase worries! Bliss.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Bad start to a good trip

SO dumb! You'd think that, professed professional travel writer that I am, I would know the rules and breeze through the airport procedures without a hiccup. Well, I did, actually - but my stupidity caught up with me on the plane. A flight attendant leaned over, interrupting my my happy bingeing of excellent Aussie comedy 'No Activity' and said, "There was an issue with your suitcase and it had to be left behind. Go to the Qantas baggage desk when you get to Hobart." 

Eventually, to my utter shame, I remembered that I'd put a small power pack in my suitcase instead of my carry-on. Idiot. Yes, I did tick that No lithium box at check-in. No, it didn't remind me of what I'd done, because I was on autopilot and not paying proper attention. Dimwit. But you'll be pleased to hear that I paid for it, literally and metaphorically.

I was on my way to Tasmania, to do a four-day walk on Maria (that's Mar-I-a) Island just up the coast from Hobart. We would be off-grid for most of the time, so that's why I brought the power pack. And I was leaving early next morning for the walk, so that meant that, instead of spending what remained of the afternoon re-acquainting myself with the many delights of that lovely little city, I had to bustle, all-of-a-jangle, along to Target and Kathmandu to buy substitutes for the essentials I would need for the hike, just in case my corrected suitcase didn't make it to Hobart in time. What a waste of time and money! 

The late sun was gilding all the pretty fishing boats in the harbour, and the lovely heritage buildings, and the bronze statue to the 13,000 women who were transported as convicts to Tasmania for crimes ranging from stealing a turnip to murdering her own child, but it was all lost on me. I spent half an hour on hold on the helpline, and it didn't help me to learn that there were 'weather events' in both Sydney and Brisbane that had grounded half the planes and led to huge backlogs everywhere, including on this very helpline. I was trying to fix several mistakes the Qantas clerk had made in my lost luggage file, and that wasn't helping either. What a terrible start!

Sunday 24 November 2019

Depends on the backyard, I guess...

With thanks to Goldie Estate and Bikes & Barbers for this famil
We all know that chestnut about seeing your own backyard first before heading away on your travels - and it is true, if only so you can talk knowledgeably to curious strangers about your home. So embarrassing to be caught out on gaps and mistakes, believe me. What you don't always think about though is that that backyard can be almost literal. It is if you live on Waiheke Island, anyway. 
I've lived here permanently for five years now, and was a frequent visitor long before that, so I assumed I was pretty familiar with the place. Turns out, not. It's so easy to get into a routine, following the same routes, going to the same places when, just off your regular road, there are all sorts of little pleasures that you are passing by.
So I was very pleased to be offered a famil today that involved picking up an e-bike just up the hill from the ferry, and skimming on it along roads familiar and not, to places familiar and not, the highlight of which was a picnic at Goldie Estate. This vineyard is the oldest on the island (this is New Zealand, not France - we're talking 1978 - but much learning, experimenting and developing has taken place over those forty years) so they know how to turn out a very nice drop.
Bikes and Barbers, on the other hand, is a quite new business on the island, but already doing really well - today they had about 100 people buzzing around the island on their bikes and electric motor scooters. Regular 😃 readers will remember that I've e-biked before, in Auckland and Wellington, and loved it. I maintain that one single e-bike ride will convert absolutely anybody. Today was no different, even if there was a bit of a hiccup in Franco not sending us off with the bikes that boss Chris had set aside for us, so one of them ran out of battery just before the picnic (no matter: it was replaced while we lounged on the grass with our glasses of sparkling rosĂ©).
It's so much fun, to whizz up a hill with no effort! And Waiheke has serious hills, believe me. So we (Firstborn and partner) skimmed along, remarkably fast for a bicycle but still slow enough, and exposed enough, to notice things like neat gardens, bird song, beach views, roosters and enviable houses. We took side roads, knowing that it would cost us nothing but time; we whizzed excitingly downhill - my record, people, was a thrilling 43km/h (26mph for you ark-dwellers) - and we stopped wherever anything caught our eye, which was often.
Though we really hadn't earned it, we got to Goldie ready for our picnic, which was given to us in a traditional wicker basket along with our wine and a couple of rugs. We set off up the hill through the vines to sit on the grass underneath a big old pohutukawa just coming into bloom. Tui were busy with the red flowers, the sea in Putiki Bay below was turquoise, all around were neat rows of vines, the picnic (vegetarian - salads, cheeses, crunchy bread, chocolate balls) was just lovely, and the only bad thing about it all was that it was hard to find somewhere secure to plonk our glasses on the sloping grass, and my glass tipped over once and I'm still regretting the loss of that crisp, sparkling rosĂ©. 
Afterwards, we wound our way slowly back towards Oneroa around the bays, on tracks sometimes, along quiet suburban roads, past lovely houses, the marae, an old shipwreck, a bit of beach where dotterels are nesting, and met other cyclists and walkers, all of them in the same good mood that we were. We explored roads I'd never been down before, with spectacular views over the Gulf to the  city and other islands, the sea sparkled, the boats bobbed, the sun roasted us a bit, and we took brief shelter from it at Cable Bay vineyard for another glass before - pretty reluctantly, I can tell you - heading back to surrender the bikes.
It was a perfect way to spend a day on Waiheke and I feel very satisfied that I now know the island better than I did before. Why, it was so pleasant, I think even an off-islander might enjoy it!


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