Hiking Tasmania's Freycinet Peninsula
Friday, September 24, 2010; 2:37 PM
"I first came here carried around in my mum's belly," said Jess Fuller-Smith. "Then carried in a backpack. It's the first place I took a bush walk with my friends, without my parents. And we used to come on family holidays."
Jess and I were sitting on the deck of Friendly Beaches Lodge in Freycinet National Park on a cool November morning. A gentle drizzle was falling, barely penetrating the canopy of native pines, banksia and wattle. Behind us, the kitchen was alive with the sounds of food prep: a heady brunch of roasted veggie tarts, fresh bread and tomatoes with locally crafted goat cheese and olive oil, various pizzas, tea and coffee, and freshly made walnut brownies. In the distance, scarcely audible, the Tasman Sea crashed against the coast of the Freycinet Peninsula, which curves off the eastern edge of Tasmania, Australia, like a question mark, dotted by Schouten Island, the park's southernmost point.
I'd never heard of Freycinet - to say nothing of cubic wombat poo - before my visit to Australia. But over the past three days, I'd hiked just under 20 miles with Jess, two other guides and five guests over orange-lichen-stained granite, through dense bush land and across deserted beaches with sand that squeaked underfoot. I'd peered over vertiginous cliffs to watch rock climbers tempt gravity, hopped from a fishing boat onto a gravel beach and swum in Wineglass Bay, a superlative-inspiring, U-shaped beach off ice-blue waters with a gentle froth of surf.
After each day, we returned to the lodge for mammoth feasts of locally sourced cuisine, eating by candlelight before retiring in front of the massive fireplace for hours-long conversations and, eventually, a blissful night's sleep. Jess's lifelong obsession with Freycinet wasn't merely justified. It was prescient.
That's the rub about life-list traveling. It might get you to Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat and the Grand Canyon and all the other must-see hot spots. But en route, you sometimes feel as if you've bypassed that mythical road less traveled.
Freycinet National Park offers one such path. The 65-square-mile park - the oldest in Tasmania - may be modest compared with Australia's banner attractions, such as the monolithic Uluru (a.k.a. Ayers Rock) in the Red Center or the Great Barrier Reef lining the country's eastern coast. But Tasmania has always flown beneath the radar. Even in Australia, this island just below the mainland's southeastern tip inspires the same stereotypes that the uninformed bestow upon Tennessee or West Virginia. But that backwater rep can't obscure the legion of outdoor adventures available in Australia's smallest state.
The park itself is an easy 21/2 hours from Hobart. About half an hour into the 76-mile drive, with the road paralleling the rugged coast of Great Oyster Bay, the expanse of the Freycinet Peninsula comes into view.
When I was there, the park silhouette stood out in dense relief against an overcast sky: two massive knuckles of rock separated by a narrow isthmus of sugary sand. The northernmost section, the Hazards, carved a jagged line across the gray sky, while mounts Graham and Freycinet - the tallest peaks in the park, dominating the lower section - jutted defiantly out of the clouds.
Granite anchors almost the entire peninsula, with patches of black mica and white quartz and massive deposits of feldspar colored a creamy-pink by the iron oxide impurities in the rock. Orange lichen completes the earth-tone tapestry. Visible from the water are dry eucalyptus forests with towering white gums, Oyster Bay pine, banksia, wild orchids and wattle. A menagerie of wildlife resides within, including possums, wombats, wallabies, echidnas - an Aussie take on the porcupine - and more than 130 bird species.
Of course, knowing about Freycinet - that it was named in 1802 by French explorer Nicolas Baudin after his navigator, Louis de Freycinet, for instance - is one thing. To really find that path less traveled, you have to hook up with Freycinet Experience Walk.
Founded in 1992, the outfit was the brainchild of former town planner Joan Masterman, a sustainable-tourism pioneer who founded the first hut-based guided walk along Tasmania's Overland Track, one of the world's most revered multi-day treks. But rather than staggering huts across Freycinet, scarring indigenous flora and fauna in the process, Masterman decided to structure the walk around the centrally located Friendly Beaches Lodge.
The secluded main building is nestled on 300 acres of bush land, roughly 100 yards from the beach. An obscured path leads from the sand to an expansive main porch, where an wall-sized sliding-glass door leads to the main eating area. To the left is a lounge, anchored by a massive fireplace of faded red brick. Off the lounge, another wall-length sliding-glass door leads to a second porch. Follow the three steps leading off the lounge, and you find the library, a cozy room filled with books on Aboriginal and contemporary art, nature and history. A corrugated-tin roof crowns the building, sounding a steady tap-tap during a drizzle and a thunderous drumbeat during a rain storm.