The road which follows Tasmania’s east coast is promoted by tourism authorities as the Great Eastern Drive & is a primary destination for many folk. For this reason there are aspects to the east coast that we are finding rather less appealing than pretty much the rest of what we have already experienced in Tassie. Three things essentially, for us, detract from the experience (but may well not do so for others). In comparison to much of the rest of Tassie the country is drier, less ‘wild’ & with the exception of the beaches, less interesting to pass through. Of course it is the beaches which form the real attraction & there are some great beaches indeed. However they are full of people, campgrounds are busy & we are a couple who prefer camping alone, surrounded by nature.
To be fair ‘crowded’ is a relative term, I’m certain that the majority of European visitors must marvel at what they would consider unspoiled & uncrowded beaches ….. it’s all relative.
On the road their are far more tourist vehicles than anything else, a travelling source of income for the few small towns which rely upon the tourist dollars & tolerate the tourists who bring them. Perhaps it’s us, but maybe it’s them ….. somehow we have felt less comfortable & less welcome in the larger of the east coast towns. Tourist information centres seem to want to sell us tours rather than give information. More than once we have sought information but found responses biased toward certain enterprises whilst omitting the info we were asking about. This left us wondering whether some of the folk employed in tourist information centres understand that as the often first point of contact for folk travelling through, that they are ‘ambassadors’ for their area, & that first impressions carry a lot of weight. To be fair we have met some typically (for Tasmania) friendly & helpful folk everywhere we have been, but the ‘official face’ combined with the relatively crowded camping has been a bit of a turn off.
OK, that’s got my ‘East Coast Grumpiness’ out of the way. I needed to say it, but I now want to focus on what has been good – and there is plenty of that to come. 🙂
We stopped briefly in Bicheno to check out the Bicheno blowhole, (a natural waterspout in the granite rocks) & to buy a few supplies. The small motorcycle museum was closed, none of the 4 caravan parks were willing to let us pay for a shower, (& we were unwilling to pay the overnight fee of around $40 just to shower) so we moved on fairly promptly.
We ended up staying the night at a well known & well utilised free camp at the ‘Chain of Lagoons’ conservation area. A woody area behind sand dunes & brackish lagoons, where we were protected from the worst of the winds coming off the ocean. Walking to the surf beach was a bit of a hike & getting sand blasted by the wind was an experience we felt we’d had enough of after around a minute. As a camp spot it was okay for an overnighter but that was about it. The following morning we drove inland, up into higher country via the winding St Mary’s Pass, to the friendly & welcoming town of St Marys. It felt so different to Bicheno. A donation campground, with hot showers (heaven!) & an exceptionally friendly feel.
We had just clocked up sufficient kilometres in Tassie to be needing an oil & filter change. As we pulled into St Marys I noticed that the town’s only servo had an advertising sign up for my preferred brand of oil. We pulled up & I went in to enquire about the cost & possibility of getting the oil & filters changed. As I explained what I wanted, the chap cut across me saying “Mate, I’ll save ya some breath, I won’t be able to fit ya in for at least 3 weeks”. “Oh bollocks” I thought,…… a thought no doubt mirrored by the disappointed look on my face. “Would it be possible for me to borrow some sort of container to dump the old oil into if I were to do the change myself up at the campground?” I asked not particularly hopefully. “Yeah no worries mate” was the unhesitating response, “But it might be just as easy for you to do it here”. I certainly hadn’t expected that! And so after leaving the Tvan at the campground I returned to the servo & did the change myself. I was given a flat clean area of concrete on which to work & as I thanked the chap & walked toward our car to commence work he called out “And don’t make a mess”. I cobbled a reply together about trying my best, but the removal of horizontally mounted oil filters made it difficult to not spill some oil. “Only joking” he called out with a large & friendly grin. “Bastard!” I thought, but he had put me at ease which I appreciated. Work was completed in around the time it took MrsTea to wander around the town’s few shops, marking a few down for further investigation when we would wander around together. As I worked the servo chap offered me tools, rags etc (which I didn’t need) & brought out the oil in large covered jugs just as I needed them, obviously having been keeping an eye on how I was going. When finished I asked for something to clean up the small amount of oil I had spilled & enquired where I should dispose of the used oil now in the receptacle he had provided. “No need” he said “I’ll sort all that out mate”. Cost was the price of the oil used – comparable to what I usually pay. I already had some filters. No charge for use of the premises or to clean up my mess. It’s fair to say that the St Marys servo man revived my flagging faith in others. MrsTea arrived just as I finished up & she could immediately perceive my uplifted mood. We enjoyed our wander around town after that, picking up a bag of juicy Nashi pears from the Chinese shop & some equally welcome cans of Mercury ‘Hard’ cider, for which I have developed a liking, from the pub’s bottle shop. An antique & curio shop had some very interesting stock, none of which we could afford or carry, but it was enjoyable perusing it all, likewise a well stocked wholefood & organic foods supplier & cafe, but we were currently well stocked & needed nothing. Not making a purchase made no difference to the sellers who seemed to enjoy the opportunity to have a bit of a yarn with us & find out a little of our adventures.
An overnight decision saw us head back to forests prior to more of the east coast. It was a great decision resulting in a night at what for us was one of the best ‘public’ camp spots we have stayed in. First we visited Evercreech forest reserve where the world’s tallest white gums are still living among their smaller ‘mates’. The tallest is over 93 metres. Driving again on dirt roads with no other traffic & being surrounded by forest I commented to MrsTea that it almost felt like we had come back ‘home’. She looked at me & smiled, & told me that she had just been thinking exactly the same thing!
More bush tracks took us to Mathinna Falls.
Our route continued seemingly ever upward, over a mountain range, down the other side and through the charmingly named rural community of Upper Blessington, to the Ben Lomond National park.
This (Ben Lomond NP) was our destination, having seen some dramatic photos online of a section of steep winding switchback road up the side of a mountain to the highest public road in Tasmania (at over 1500 metres), and thence to the Alpine Ski Village at the top of Ben Lomond. The Parks & Wildlife department provide a lovely forest campground, complete with a shelter for bad weather and most surprisingly …. flushing toilets. The shelter wasn’t needed, despite forecasts for wintry weather. Fortunately for us the forecasts were incorrect & it would be fair to say that we enjoyed the best weather we’ve had in Tassie up there. No wind, completely still, & clear skies.
We drove up Jacobs Ladder, after unhitching the Tvan at the campground (advice was that the very tight hairpins made towing anything ‘not advisable’ as well as no vehicles longer than 7 metres allowed. 7 metre vehicles required the drivers to have a specific ‘Alpine Licence’). I think we could have made it up with the Tvan if we’d had to, in low range, BUT could have been in trouble if we’d met any vehicles coming down, particularly as downward vehicles strangely have right of way.
Views from the top were breathtaking, and exploring the currently closed ski resort was made more interesting by the high population of extra furry wallabies. Obviously some buildings were locked, but otherwise there were no restrictions on where we could go.
Back at the campground we spent an pleasant evening with a couple of young men from Bairnsdale, just arrived in Tasmania that day on the ferry, to attend a wedding down in Hobart in a few days time. Nice young fellas who impressed us simply by their choice of making this place their first night. Equally impressive was the appearance of two very playful & seemingly inquisitive Quolls. Hard to tell who were the entertainers & who were the audience as they ducked & weaved around our the perimeter of our camp.
From the National Park we took a cross country, cross mountains route following a variety of forest tracks, mainly logging tracks, through both plantation & regrowth forests. Occasionally finding ourselves uncertain as to precisely where we were but eventually found our way out, back to the coast & the town of St Helens, where we made the mistake of visiting the Tourist Information place I made reference to earlier. St Helens proudly boasts it has the best free camps in Tasmania, along the Bay of Fires. There is no doubt that the camps are good, but in conjunction with the misinformation given (in what certainly seemed an attempt to direct us to tours we were not interested in), claiming ‘ownership’ of the camps rubbed me up the wrong way. The Shire has nothing to do with the provision of the camps, these are provided by the Parks & Wildlife Department. However St Helens is the ‘gateway’ to these parks & as such does extremely well out of the many folk who use them. They do provide a water tap for folk to fill up from (no water supplies at the camps) & a dump point for those who use their portable toilets at camps where there are no facilities (although most do have ‘long drop’ toilets). Despite my irritation with St Helens, we spent several hundred dollars in town in readiness for what we thought would be up to a couple of weeks away from towns. Food, some fishing gear & fuel. I expected that after staying in the Bay of Fires we would continue northward around the coast. My expectations fuelled by the Tourist mis-Information. In fact there is no through road & we later had to return to St Helens, before continuing northward.
The Bay of Fires, named I believe after the orange/red algae which colours the granite outcrops along the beaches are beautiful. (EDIT – since publishing this ost I have been told that the Bay of Fires name was given by early sailor explorers after they saw aboriginal land management/farming fires on the shores from their ships). On a sunny day the boulders are offset by aquamarine waters & extensive white sands. Some shallow & calm intimate bays, some thundering surf beaches. The site most recommended to us was one named Swimcart Beach, primarily because of the sites it has right on the beachfront. We had mixed weather on the Bay of Fires, but on the day we arrived it was cool & grey, with a fair wind blowing in off the sea. For those in motorhomes & caravans sitting up on the beachfront, inside and out of the wind, those sites would have been a very attractive proposition, but for us in half van/half tent & cooking outside it simply wasn’t an option. The far more sheltered sites behind the dunes were much more appealing. As it was however we didn’t stay at Swimcart, instead we took our time checking out most of the sites. We had a night on Humbug Point at the Dora Point campground – overlooking the bay across to St Helens, & moved on the next day to the Cosy Corner North campground where we set up home for several more days. Catching a good sized salmon on the first day was good, but wasn’t to be repeated. Nevertheless we relaxed, walked, clambered over boulders etc as well as trying to catch more fish when the tides & wind allowed. Here I was fishing off rocks, constantly aware of incoming waves, along with my fellow fishermen. Occasionally a large wave would be big enough to wash the unwary into the ‘washing machine churn’ of white water & kelp below us. It was a serious business & the fishermen all looked out for each other. We all looked at each other in horror when two young blokes with wet suits & snorkels arrived & one of them deliberately got himself down into the water. In moments he was struggling to get back out & thankfully managed it within a few minutes, looking rather shaken up. I don’t suppose he’d try something like that again! He was lucky I reckon. I had not a shred of doubt that if I were in that swirling foaming morass, rising & falling a couple of metres against the rocks with every wave, that I’d never get out alive.
Stories had been heard as we travelled up the coast to the Bay of Fires of one of the campgrounds having been taken over by a bunch of naked hippies. Disappointing that we didn’t find them…… at least not until it was too late & when we did the few remaining were all clothed anyway! 🙂 Turned out that their had been some sort of ‘Lunar Festival’ which had lasted several weeks, held at the one campground we had not checked out before settling on Cosy Corner….. Sloop Reef campground – probably the smallest, most sheltered & most intimate of them all, & certainly the one we would choose on any further visit. Suitable for smaller campervans & camper trailers, no facilities, & with a fairly steep & rutted entrance …. so not for everyone. But it was lovely, & we were super impressed by how clean the place had been left. We undertand that those attending the festival paid $5 each per night which covered water supply & rubbish collection. Shame we missed it.
By the time we were back in St Helens we were well in need of a shower, & utilised the rather unique pay shower in St Helen’s small industrial area at a car washdown facility. No building as such, just a road side coin in the slot pressure washer, & two shower cubicles. They were very good. Oh yes and there is one business in St Helens which deserves a plug…. The small Chinese owned fast food joint next to the large supermarket has a great selection of gluten free options (cakes & savouries) and also bakes gluten free bread in small batches every day. Anyone who follows a gluten free diet knows that most gluten free bread is like powdery polystyrene to eat, most commercial offerings are appalling. What they bake here is really good, *really* good, the best I’ve had. Aside from the few loaves on their shelf (multigrain, white & cheese & bacon) they also bake to order. Hoeing into one of the two cheese & bacon loves we bought I felt like a child in a lolly shop…yummo! And at twice the size of most commercial loaves for a similar price they were also good value. I imagine someone in the family who have the business must eat gluten free. It is hard to understand why, when it is possible to make a product like this that there are no commercial offerings which come close. Any commercial baker who could manage this would make a killing!
And so onward & northward to what we consider to be the East Coast’s jewel in the crown. The Mount William National Park. We had mistakenly believed this to be a 4wd access park, but not so. Access is by dirt road, most of which was in excellent condition, easily traversed in 2wd cars. On the way we investigated the free Policeman’s Point campground, a great location at a river mouth for those who have been lucky enough to find one of the prime estuary side spots vacant. We were not so lucky & the sites set back in the scrub were less appealing, so we continued on to another of what we can describe as one of our Tassie favourites, Deep Creek campground. This has everything that the Bay of Fires campgrounds have …… and more. Much nicer & prettier surrounds in the campground, similar beaches and (and for us it was a big and) far fewer people. In fact on our first night we had the place to ourselves (excluding the midnight possum visitor on top of the van). Second night wasn’t quite the same as we had a bunch of young abalone & crayfish divers partying until midnight, not raucous or rowdy, just loud music, heavy bass & flashing lights. Lovely spot though, just wish they’d taken themselves to the opposite end of the campground to us, instead of right next to us. Thoughtless rather than any mal-intent. Enough however to see us move on a day earlier than we had first planned.
Up to Stumpys Bay. Here there are 4 campgrounds numbered 1 to 4. We stayed at No.4, also known as Boulder Rocks. Another exquisite location, again all to ourselves accessed by a parks road named Forester Drive. This winds through a mix of thick scrub & ‘manicured lawns’, areas of open grassland home to a large population of Forester Kangaroos, a Tasmanian sub species of mainland Australia’s Eastern Greys. I guess the dirt road must put many folk of getting up there, although it beats me as to why. Several of the camp grounds had caravans & large campervans in them, as well as folk with sedans & tents. None of the camp grounds had more than a few sites used so plenty of space & privacy for all. Perhaps it’s the $13 a night self registration fee which puts a lot of ‘freecampers’ off? The weather here was kind & we experienced a stunning east coast sunset.
We had now reached the north east tip of Tasmania. From Stumpy’s we drove around the area, mainly cleared country used for mixed farming, but with wild pockets along the coastal fringes. Down to Gladstone & then back up to first Mussleroe Bay & then to Little Musselroe Bay. Neither had camp spots which appealed so intead we turned southwar to Scottsdale via Derby, Branxholme, Ringarooma & Legerwood. These were towns recommended to us as having reasons for stopping & wandering. Unfortunately the weather was terrible, pouring with rain, not conducive to stopping and exploring . We did spend a little time in Legerwood peeking out from under an umbrella at the trees planted back in 1919 as memorials to fallen villagers in the first world war. When the trees were pronounced as unsafe in need of felling about 17 years ago, the village’s residents were heartbroken that their memorial trees would be lost. They came together as a community & paid a chainsaw artist to carve a new memorial out of the remaining stumps. These now form quite a tourist attraction. As a work of art we didn’t feel the sculptures were that great, but we loved the story of ‘community’ behind their existence.
Onward in the now bucketing rain to Scottsdale, arriving there to find it dry, but the small camp provided by the town, was by this time of day jam packed like a sardine can. It was doubful that we could fit in, & if we could it would be a a very sloping site with just a couple of feet between us & our neighbours each side. We retraced our steps to the small township of Branxholme, set up in the now once again bucketing rain …. a first for us. We’ve camped in rain but never had to actually set up whilst getting soaked to the skin. I don’t recommend it! Including the awning in our set up & then cooking outside in what had turned into quite a chilly night wasn’t going to happen. We piked out & went to the pub for dinner! They had a log fire burning. 🙂 A great little free campground for an in-town one. Grassy sites next to a river. All weather shelter with free electric BBQ’s, toilets & sinks, a laundry & a block of several new coin-slot hot showers.
Morning was dry & the many puddles had seeped away into the sandy soil. The road next to the campground took us north, past the pub, into the forest along a variety of tracks until we met up with the ‘Old Waterhouse Road’, another dirt road taking us up to the ‘Waterhouse area’, more conservation land along the coast (now the north coast) with what we had been told were some more beautiful campgrounds. We explored all of them eventually settling on one at Casuarina Beach where I am sitting writing this on our second (or is it the third?) day here. No phone signal, so this will be posted in the next few days. This place is yet another little slice of heaven. We are alone & have an entire beach just to ourselves just a few steps from our sheltered camp. Skies have been blue, we are woken each morning by birds which after all this time in Tasmania I have been able to get a good enough look at to identify them. Their sound is reminiscent of the pheasants I used to hear as a child back in the UK, & we have heard them many times around Tassie. Turns out they are nothing like a pheasant whatsoever, are a species only found in Tasmania ….. the Yellow Wattlebird. Unlike it’s mainland relative, the Red Wattlebird, it has orange/yellow wattles on the side of it’s face, much longer than it’s Red cousin, & a yellow belly. Although plentiful it also seems relatively shy at least as far as having it’s photo taken goes, rarely coming out from the shadows of the trees. Below is the best photo I could manage – & that has been ‘doctored’ to make it light enough to see the bird. Good to solve the mystery though. Fantastic sunrise this morning.
That’s what it’s all about!.