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Tasmania: land of the devils
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Visiting Tasmania
Highfield | Sarah Island | Maria Island | Tasmania Wilderness World Heritage Area
Courtesy of the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service

Tasmania has hundreds of square miles of national parks, reserves, and marine reserves, and they are among the most beautiful environments in the world. With the guidance of the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, we provide information for some highlights here -- Highfield, Sarah Island, Maria Island, and the Tasmania Wilderness World Heritage Area. For more information about these and other places, visit the official Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service web site.

Highfield House Highfield

Highfield House can be regarded as the "birthplace" of European settlement in Tasmania's northwest. Built from 1832 to 1835 as a residence for Edward Curr, chief agent of the Van Diemen's Land Company, the house represents an important part of Tasmanian historic heritage. The history of the northwest region of Tasmania is inextricably bound up with the story of the Van Diemen's Land Company; indeed, there are very few places in the region that have been unmarked by its presence.

In 1982, the Tasmanian Government acquired the Highfield property with funds from the National Estate and has carried out extensive restoration works. The Highfield Historic Site is open for public inspection seven days a week during summer, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays during winter.

Getting There
Highfield Historic Site is located near the northwest coastal town of Stanley. From the Bass Highway (A1), take the turnoff into Stanley and follow the scenic route (Greenhills Rd) along the foreshore. This road winds up the hill to Highfield. There are signs along the route indicating the way to Highfield.

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Tourists at the Penitentiary Sarah Island

The Sarah Island Historic Site is Tasmania's oldest convict settlement, operating from 1822 to 1833. Located on the rugged west coast and separated from the settled east by a vast tract of mountainous wilderness, Sarah Island was proposed by Lt. Governor Sorell as a "place of banishment and security for the worst description of convicts" and as such, developed the reputation as one of the severest of the penal settlements established during the history of transportation.

However, the island was also a successful center of industry. Pining and shipbuilding were among the trades carried out by the convicts. Indeed, in its day, Sarah Island was the largest shipbuilding yard in Australia.

Getting There
Sarah Island is accessible via cruise boats, which operate on Macquarie Harbour out of the west coast village of Strahan. There are several cruises every day of the year. These cruises also continue up the lower reaches of the beautiful Gordon River, and often take in the narrow entrance to Macquarie Harbour, known as Hells Gates. Yachts can also be chartered to reach the island.

Strahan is reached via the B24 from Queenstown. If you are coming from the north along the Murchison Highway, turn right on the B27 to Zeehan and follow the road for 46 kilometers through to Strahan.

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Maria Island, looking towards the painted cliffs Maria Island

Maria Island National Park Marine Reserve protects a representative range of the marine habitats found on Tasmania's East Coast. These include the spectacular underwater seascapes of Fossil Bay and the Ile du Nord, forests of string kelp, sea-grass beds and unusual sandstone reefs. The different habitats are home to a diverse range of plant, invertebrate and fish communities.

There are a number of shipwrecks around Maria Island. In 1924, the steamship Seymour sank near Darlington in a storm. Remains are sometimes washed ashore as ghostly reminders of Maria's maritime and industrial history. Maria Island is a fabulous place for snorkelling, scuba diving, birdwatching, beach walking and rockpool rambling.

The story of Maria Island is dominated by the sea, from the rise and fall of the sea that created the island and left a legacy of sea creatures fossilized in its cliffs, to the history of its human occupation. As you cross to the island, you follow in the wake of Aboriginal tribes who for thousands of years, made regular canoe crossings to the island they knew as TOARRA-MARRA-MONAH.

The present name dates from 1642, when Abel Tasman sighted it from the sea and named it in honor of Maria Van Diemen, the wife of the governor of Batavia. The Mercury Passage is named after an English vessel whose crew landed on the island in July 1789, and met with Aborigines living there. In 1802, a French expedition led by captain Baudin explored and charted the island extensively. Many features of the island still bear French names. The English settlement of Van Diemens Land a year later was hastened by this interest shown by the French.

By 1825, Maria had become a penal settlement. Just as quickly, convicts were making their escape across the water. One unlucky group drifted across the channel on a raft only to walk ashore into the arms of two lost police constables! The island was soon infamous for the number of escapes, and was known among convicts as a place of ease. By 1832, the convict settlement was abandoned in favor of Port Arthur. From 1842, it was used as a convict probation station, but by 1850, this mainly agricultural station was also abandoned.

Abundant Wildlife
You will also soon notice the special nature of the wildlife on this island. In the last 25 years, Maria has become a kind of Noah's Ark, as a number of threatened species have been introduced here in a bid to build their numbers. The very things that made the island a convict settlement now make it an ideal refuge for plant and animal species that are elsewhere under threat. So alongside native pademelons, which occurred on the island naturally, are Forester kangaroos and Bennett's wallabies, which have been introduced to the island. Cape Barren geese and swamphens have also been introduced.

The rare 40-spotted pardalote is a famous local bird found here in good numbers, along with the white gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) that is essential to its survival. Some of the waters around Maria Island are a Marine Reserve. This recognizes the special nature of the marine life to be found here, including visiting seals and whales. While there is no fishing in most of this reserve, wading, snorkelling and scuba diving offer the rewards of experiencing marine life at close quarters. Some of the fish are as readily observed as the wildlife around Darlington.

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Tasmania World Heritage Area Tasmania Wilderness World Heritage Area

The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area offers a wide variety of recreational opportunities ranging from extended walks through to half-hour strolls. Arguably, the best wild river rafting in Australia occurs on the Franklin River, while the many lakes in the WHA provide world-class angling.

Bushwalking (Overnight)
Want to go bushwalking? There are over 1,000 kilometers of bushwalking tracks and routes in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (WHA). Over 20,000 bushwalker visits occur in the WHA every year. The area includes some of Australia's best known long distance walking tracks, like the Overland (five days), Frenchman's Cap (three days) and the South Coast (seven days) tracks. These are particularly popular over summer. Less-used tracks are also becoming more popular.

When walking, please remember to follow the minimal impact bushwalking code. The Parks and Wildlife Service has developed a Walking Track Management Strategy for the WHA to minimize walker impacts on this fragile environment.

World heritage map, detail Bushwalking (Daywalks)
Not everyone wants to take a backpack and camp overnight. The vast majority of walkers in the WHA are daywalkers after a less arduous experience. Shorter trips ranging from 10 minutes to full day walks are located at major visitor service points such as Cradle Mountain, Lake St. Clair, Hartz Mountains, and the Franklin River Nature trail. Signs along many of these walks introduce visitors to the vegetation, landforms, animals or history of the area.

A number of campsites in and around the WHA allow camping for modest overnight fees. On some popular walks such as the Overland Track, huts are available to the public. However, it is always wise to carry a tent when walking in the WHA in case of mishap or if a hut is full.

After walking, fishing is the second biggest recreational use of the WHA. The Central Plateau area has been a famous trout fishery for over 100 years. The area is known as the land of a thousand lakes and has many alpine tarns formed by glacial action some 8,000 to 20,000 years ago. Major lakes in the area are stocked with trout by the Inland Fisheries Commission. Lake Pedder in the Southwest National Park, Lake St. Clair, Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon River are also popular trout fishing areas.

Cruises on Macquarie Harbour and the Lower Gordon River attract around 100,000 people each year. These trips form the mainstay of the economy of the small port of Strahan, an idyllic village, which is known as the western gateway to the WHA. The wild and remote natural harbors of Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour in Southwest National Park are popular with sailors and the occasional intrepid sea kayaker.

Rafting and Kayaking
Rafting and kayaking in the WHA mainly occurs on the Franklin river. The full trip down the river is a magnificent 12-day wilderness rafting experience through some of the most spectacular scenery in Australia.

The proposal to dam the river for hydro-electric power was a pivotal conservation issue for Australia in the early 1980s. In 1981, the area was protected in the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, and was given World Heritage status in 1982.

Flying over the WHA is a spectacular way to see the wilderness, and has limited impact on the environment. Flights occur into Southwest National Park, by float plane into the upper reaches of the Gordon River, and around Cradle Mountain. The Parks and Wildlife Service liaises with aircraft operators to determine flight paths that reduce the impact of aircraft noise for recreationalists on the ground.

The World Heritage Area contains some of Australia's deepest, longest and best-decorated caves. Numerous other caves occur in the WHA, some containing archaeological sites of great significance that date back over 30,000 years. Due to the fragility of these environments and the potential dangers of exploration, access to many caves requires a permit and is limited to speleological club members. Marakoopa Cave, which is open to the public, attracts nearly 25,000 visitors each year. Regular guided tours are available over well-constructed paths within the cave.

Hunting of wallabies, rabbits and ducks is allowed in some small, specified zones within the WHA where hunting occurred before World Heritage listing. The effects of hunting on wildlife are carefully monitored. A hunting license and permit from the Parks and Wildlife Service is required.

Recreational Vehicles
As over two thirds of the WHA is managed as wilderness there are few recreational vehicle tracks. However, the track to Adamsfield is a popular adventurous RV route and other short scenic routes, such as the route to Bird River are regularly used. Some tracks are closed seasonally or can be difficult under certain conditions -- check with the local ranger station if you are planning a trip. Permits from the ranger are required for some tracks.

Roads and Sightseeing
The Lake and Lyell Highways traverse the WHA for 16 and 59 kilometers respectively, and provide an excellent way to visit the WHA. Short interpreted walks and picnic facilities are available at several points along the Lyell Highway -- an excellent way to experience the Wild Rivers National Park. The Gordon River and Scotts Peak roads into Southwest National Park also offer spectacular views of the rugged mountains of the WHA.

Mountain Biking and Bike Riding
Bikes are allowed only on roads open to motorized vehicles, not walking tracks. Bicycle touring on the Lyell and Lake highways through the WHA is popular.

Horseriding is limited in the WHA to the Central Plateau Conservation Area and two small areas in Cradle Mountain, Lake St. Clair National Park. You need to be an experienced rider with a horse used to travelling in rough country. Some areas require permits and have number limits. Ask ranger staff for details.

Nature Study
The WHA offers an excellent opportunity to observe firsthand the natural environment. Take the time to investigate closely the wide range of plants, invertebrates, birds and mammals, and their tracks and traces. For scientists, the region provides a rare chance to investigate the processes of nature across a variety of undisturbed ecosystems. Indeed, part of the WHA is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve -- a region of the Earth's surface that provides a benchmark against which environmental changes can be monitored.

Whether at the end of a long day's walking, or in the comfort of a wilderness lodge, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area provides the perfect environment to simply relax. For many people, the value of the WHA lies in the inspirational setting in which they can unwind from the pressures of an increasingly hurried and artificial world.

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