From Sulphur Creek to Narawntapu National Park and everywhere wild in between, we discover the richness of life scattered across it’s rugged coastline. It’s time to Travel Tasmania.
As darkness falls over Tasmania’s northern coastline, the sing-song of hungry chicks heralds a magical nocturnal commute. Calling from burrows dug deep into the dunes, tiny, noisy penguins — just weeks and months old — wait impatiently for their nightly feed.
I look on, silent and awestruck, as dozens of little penguins tumble out of the surf with belly-loads of fish to share. They waddle right past me, seemingly impervious to my beam of red torchlight, following well-worn, sandy trails. Awkwardly scaling rocky ledges and sliding down too-smooth grassy tufts, the penguins move with the single-minded determination of parenthood, racing to soothe and nourish their hungry chicks.
As the full moon shifts overhead, gently crashing waves unceremoniously dump penguin after penguin onto the sand, each one shaking itself off before embarking on its own ramble back home. When the penguin parade finally slows, I rise from my hiding spot, shake out the pins and needles and retreat to my snug bed for the night. Fortunately, it’s not far away.
Asleep with the penguins
Tucked behind the Sulphur Creek penguin rookery, 36 kilometres west of Devonport at Hall Point, my campervan awaits. I’ve staked out an impossibly scenic slice of beachfront in a small, grassy campground, joining a motley crew of travellers who come to watch the penguins. There’s nothing in the way of facilities here, but its location makes it one of the best camps on the coast of Tasmania, and while I’d be happy to pay for it, it’s completely free.
Flanked by long stretches of white sand beach, this beaut little spot — however incongruous its location — allows me to fall asleep to the sound of penguin chatter on a gentle sea breeze. As I do, I ponder what a privilege it is to encounter these penguins in the wildest of ways. But in the absence of regulated, guided nightly tours, the onus rests on every visitor to remain as unobtrusive as possible.
Respectful penguin watching is simple: just wear dark clothing, find a spot away from the burrows and settle in well before the penguins appear. Keep quiet and still, use a red torch beam and refrain from shining it on the penguins until they are safely ashore, or you risk scaring them back to the sea.
At daybreak, watching the sun rise with a cuppa in hand and my toes dug into the cool sand, I wonder what remains to be discovered on the rugged, northern coastline of Tasmania, and a quest of sorts takes shape to see as many wild things as I possibly can.
Tasmania’s grandest kangaroo
I go looking for wombats. In the crisp evening light, when the sun dips low over Narawntapu National Park, some of Tasmania’s most watchable wildlife begins to stir. The island’s own Forester kangaroo appears — the largest marsupial in Tasmania — and bouncy Bennett’s wallabies join the fun on Springlawn too. I wander aimlessly in the golden light, spooking timid, tiny pademelons foraging behind grassy tufts.
Verdant plains surround Springlawn lagoon, nestled behind sand dunes and a protective wedge of coastal scrub. The grazing macropods colour my end-of-day canvas, and the entire scene couldn’t be more serene, but there’s something missing in this sanctuary.
Narawntapu used to be the go-to place in Tasmania for spotting bare-nosed wombats, a creature distinct from other mainland species. But an outbreak of mange in 2006 changed all that, and a decade later the park’s population had dropped by a whopping 94 per cent. Savaged by a tiny critter called the mange mite that burrows deep into the skin and inflicts a slow, painful and unstoppable death, Narawntapu’s wombats have attracted an onslaught of assistance over the years. Yet despite desperate attempts by scientists, researchers and national park rangers to heal and halt the disease, precious few remain at Narawntapu today.
I set off in search of other wild things, and I don’t have to look far. Narawntapu, if you’ve never heard of it, is a stunning north coast sanctuary, located 30 minutes’ drive east of Devonport. In any other state this park would be far better known, but Tasmania is blessed with such an abundance of pristine natural sites that Narawntapu remains a little bit of a secret.
Most travellers arrive with beds on board, parking their campers and caravans at Springlawn camping area, plugging into powered sites and relishing the hot showers on offer. Walking trails lead to lofty lookouts and a bird hide over the lagoon, and there are campgrounds for horseriders and solitude seekers, and one of the best visitor centres on the island. Because it’s located close to Devonport and the string of luxury cottages and bed & breakfasts that hug the Tamar River’s amazing waterfront, Narawntapu National Park is within easy reach of day trippers too.
I park my camper on the edge of the sea, and wake early to beachcomb around Bakers Point, scouting treasures washed up on the night’s tide and watching white-bellied sea eagles gliding overhead. Anglers lining the water’s edge don beanies to ward off the blustery dawn chill, but by midday they are swimming, and I’ve join bare-legged hikers on the trail to Archers Knob.
More than a park to simply observe wild things, Narawntapu is a place to wander with them. For those with day-long stamina, the 21km Coastal Traverse leads you through a part of the park where few others tread, guaranteeing rare encounters that are all your own. From Springlawn Beach, paddlers can push deep up the inlet at Port Sorell, to circumnavigate Rabbit Island and spot prolific birdlife that stakes out the estuaries.
After a full day on my feet I retreat to Bakers Point, a basic, beachy camping area with soothing sea views. Later, as my toasty campfire burns and stars appear, big, bushy possums emerge on the edge of my camp, crashing about in the bushes and maintaining a raucous conversation.
I fall asleep still wondering about wombats, and in the morning, start driving east.
Fifty years ago in the remote northeastern corner of Tasmania, the Forester kangaroo was facing unprecedented peril. To halt its slide towards a very likely extinction, a sizeable chunk of the roo’s once-expansive range was set aside as Mount William National Park.
Over time on this windy sweep of rugged coastline, the Forester kangaroo began to flourish. But the park provided unexpected sanctuary to other animals too: wombats, echidnas and Bennetts wallabies, rare wedge-tailed eagles, eastern quolls and, for a long time, the Tasmanian devil. It’s an astonishingly diverse line-up to encounter in any one place, and birders will relish the chance to spot more than 100 coastal species.
But the park’s location — a long way from bright city lights — keeps the crowds at bay. Those who do visit arrive with plenty of supplies, to spend time fishing or diving, to launch a boat and, at day’s end, don wind jackets and head torches to spotlight on the edge of Mount William’s expertly groomed “lawns”.
Stretching from Musselroe Bay to Eddystone Point lighthouse where the famous Bay of Fires begins, Mount William National Park protects 18,000 hectares of coastal heath and remote, curling bays. Hidden on its shores are extensive Indigenous shell middens and artefact sites that few people chance upon, clustered as we are, in six big, coastal camps.
I set up camp at Stumpys Bay and set out to climb wukalina, the 216m-high Mount William after which the park is named. It’s an easy, hour-long endeavour that winds beneath black gums and banksias, and it elevates me high above a tricoloured, distinctly East Coast landscape where orange lichen-covered headlands stud crystalline sweeps of sand on the edge of a rolling, turquoise sea of Tasmania.
In a cosy pocket of she-oaks on the edge of a tannin-hued stream, I share my campsite with Bennetts wallabies and cheeky brushtail possums that shadow me to steal my crumbs. While I wait impatiently for the grazers to emerge on the plains, I follow quoll tracks along the beach and wonder if the day might warm up enough to tempt me into the sea.
I’m not a seasoned birder but I do have a favourite, and this particular bird favours wukalina too. The short-tailed shearwater (also known as the mutton bird) is one of the world’s greatest migrators, arriving from Siberia and Alaska each September to spend summer in Tasmania and reunite with its lifelong mate. For a romantic like me, this “mating for life” business elevates the shearwater above so many other earthly creatures, and it’s here, in Mount William National Park, that they so often make landfall after journeys in excess of 15,000 kilometres.
In the late afternoon I take a scenic tour of the park, following the aptly named Forester Kangaroo Drive to discover them already feeding. As the light fades wombats appear too, darting from their burrows to scurry across the lawns, pausing, silhouetted in the moonlight. The wombats don’t appear in numbers I’ve seen in decades past, but glimpsing them at all seems a miracle and I’m grateful.
Elated after a long night watching the wombats, I decide to forgo sleep and set out early for Eddystone Point Lighthouse, which studs the park’s far southern boundary. This remarkable spire of pink granite basks in the glow of each rising sun, standing guard over the most easterly point of Tasmania.
The rugged reefs at its feet attract hardy Tasmanian divers and anglers, and if you brave a wintertime visit, you’ll find its historical lighthouse grounds blooming with hundreds of sunny daffodils. Even travellers drawn to Tasmania’s rich tapestry of historical sites rarely reach this spot, which preserves the serenity, especially at dawn.
Potoroos and pygmy possums
Leaving the coast behind me, I loop back through Launceston to a surprising patch of World Heritage-listed wilderness at the base of Liffey Falls. Dr Bob Brown saved this pristine patch of riparian rainforest and sclerophyll forest by outbidding loggers at auction and gifting the land to Bush Heritage Australia.
Today, Liffey River Reserve protects an astonishing habitat for endangered and vulnerable animals: Tasmanian devils, Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagles, spotted-tail quolls, platypuses, eastern bettongs and barred bandicoots, pygmy possums and potoroos too.
It also safeguards traditional Indigenous meeting places where the neighbouring Big River, North and North Midlands tribes once gathered.
Just downstream of Liffey Falls at the base of Drys Bluff’s imposing northern cliff, shards of stone tools used by the Pallitorre band of the North tribe have been discovered in sandstone rock shelters.
From Pages Creek, a wild walking trail loops into the reserve, following a pathway carpeted with bracken and moss past towering king ferns dripping with dew.
I tackle this 90-minute ramble to breathe in the forest, magnificent stands of 300-year-old myrtle trees, sassafras and blackwood trees, and on higher, drier ground, brown stringybarks and manna gums.
Conveniently for campers, just outside the reserve, Lower Liffey Campground provides the barest of facilities and charges no fees. Upstream, within easy reach of campsites, the Liffey River tumbles over a trio of fern-fringed waterfalls. An easy hour-long walk is all it takes to find myself floating and soaking in these bubbling, deep pools, watching tiny birds flit beneath the dense forest canopy.
I spend a night in camp, which is popular for its price tag, and return to the reserve to wander alone at dawn. Here I see more birds and animals than I do people, which is exactly what I’d hoped for, because while much of this reserve remains utterly inaccessible, I’m glad for the sanctuary it provides wild things instead.
For all their apparent wildness, landscapes in Tasmania are fragile places. This last frontier harbours the last native populations of so many at-risk animals — Tasmanian devils, eastern quolls, rufous-bellied pademelons and eastern bettongs — and with them reside our hopes for saving them from extinction.
Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, Catherine Lawson and David Bristow run wildtravelstory.com, an information hub for inspiring travel far off the beaten track. Their latest book, 100 Things to See in Tropical North Queensland, is available at exploringedenbooks.com.
The best escape routes in Tasmania
• Go: Drive 36km west of Devonport to Sulphur Creek’s Hall Point (free camping, no dogs).
• Visit: November to March.
• Stay: Madsen Boutique Hotel (from $200/night).
• Pack: A red-light torch.
• Contact: discoverburnie.net.
Narawntapu National Park
• Go: Drive the B71 for 30 minutes east of Devonport, following the C740 to the national park.
• Stay: Stargazers Luxury Cottage (two nights from $507); powered national park campsites cost $16 per couple.
• Pack: A SUP or kayak, binoculars, hiking shoes.
• Contact: parks.tas.gov.au.
Wukalina/Mount William National Park
• Go: Drive 17km from Gladstone (via the C843 and C845).
• Stay: Bay of Fires Bush Retreat (from $198/night); unpowered national park campsites cost from $13/couple.
• Pack: Hiking shoes and binoculars.
• Contact: parks.tas.gov.au.
Liffey River Reserve
• Go: Take the Bass Highway west of Launceston, turn off at Carrick and take the signposted turns to Bracknell and Liffey River.
• Stay: Free camp at the Lower Liffey picnic area (tables and firepits).
• Pack: Hiking shoes and swimmers.
• Contact: bushheritage.org.au.