Southern Tasmania: Highlights, by Peter Mitchell

Posted on October 6, 2012


Southern Tasmania: Highlights

by Peter Mitchell

The wind was cold, but the sea was a deep blue as we headed into cave formations in the rocks. Our guide gave us a detailed explanation about the rock formations. However, most on board seemed more taken with the thrills of being on a fast boat picking its way through deep grottoes in the rocks.

We were off the southern coast of Tasmania, on our way to Tasman Island. This was part of a short trip to Tasmania, what I have decided to call a “Southern Tassie Taster”. I consider this an ideal way to experience southern Tasmania in a long weekend.

First, one should arrive in time to get to Salamanca Place markets on Saturday.  The markets are known Australia-wide, so no more need be said here, other than you should hope it’s not 38 degrees there on the visit, as it was for us! We were told that was the hottest Hobart day in 17 years, so you’d be unlucky to experience the same heat as us. Still, the stallholders were not fussed and put on a great show of colour and variety.

Salamanca Place Market

Getting around Hobart is easy, but by foot is best.  Be aware that it is a quite hilly place, on the banks of the Derwent.  Many of its streets are quite steep, particularly through Sandy Bay.

Next on the list is the new must-visit place in Tasmania, and one that should be on a must-visit list for international visitors to our shores as well. This is the Museum of Old and New Art, known already as MONA.  Only a year old at our visit, it is on the outskirts of Hobart.   To get there you go to Glenorchy, a fairly unremarkable suburb of Hobart; unremarkable that is, apart from the glorious Derwent River that borders it and provides a stunning backdrop for MONA. You can arrive by taxi, bus or car, or get a (very picturesque) ferry from the city.   There is accommodation on site, of  a well-appointed kind.  MONA was built by David Walsh, a local man who made a fortune in gambling. He has decided to share his wealth with fellow Tasmanians and visitors, by constructing a very large gallery to house his eclectic but valuable collection of artworks.  I would have to say there is not so much “old” art as there is “new” there, but most visitors will not be fazed by that.

Entrance sandstone wall, MONA

The building is worth a visit all on its own. The Museum, accommodation and residence (Walsh lives there) still leave plenty of room on the site to enjoy the river. To get in, you cross a tennis court partly covered by a couple of unique sculptures.  Entrance is free for Tasmanians, not much for visitors,and concessions apply. There are lots of staff and you get iPods to act as guides. The building has been cut down into the banks of the river.  As you go deeper into the sandstone, it gets cooler and cooler.  It was still 38 degrees when we visited, but it must have been one of the nicest places in Hobart to be in the cool bowels of MONA.  The building feels timeless and oddly reverential. None of our hundreds of fellow-visitors would have been conscious of the fierce hot wind that was blowing outside the museum.  Inside it was cool and cathedral-like, although the buzz of the visitors was more like a Notre Dame on a summer’s day than Sydney’s St Mary’s.

Wim Delvoye, Mixer

A lot has been written about the more confronting exhibits, but we found there was much for every taste, and it was easy to avoid the more challenging .  Amongst the outstanding pieces on display the day of our visit were Wim Delvoye’s mixture.  His carved wood concrete mixer with roses is intricate and provoking.  The largest single display, apart from the building itself, is Sydney Nolan’s Snake: 1620 sheets of prints to make a serpent, in a space built specially for it, 46 metres in length, curved, and 9 metres in height.  Artifact by Gregory Barsamian allows the viewer to look inside a head, while strobe lights create the impression of moving hands, objects and heads. It is a clever combination of art and science (commissioned).  Daniel Crooks’ On Perspective and Motion IIportrays central Sydney, via seven cameras strapped to a rotating wheelchair – one gets an impression of warped time and movement, accompanied by distorting music.  Exhibits change regulalrly. Do not miss MONA.

Richmond convict-built bridge, 1823

From Hobart, I suggest you make your way down to Port Arthur.  If you have your own transport, I recommend you do as we did and go via the historic and much-photographed village of Richmond. Then on to Port Arthur. It is less than two hours from Hobart, but I advise that you stay over so you can fit in the next two experiences on my list.

Let’s start with the Port Arthur site itself.

Port Arthur Penitentiary main buildings

The day we visited Port Arthur was one of those days with low clouds hanging and no wind.  The sort of day when sounds carry over long distances.  The place is at once peaceful and foreboding.  That sense of foreboding is for two reasons. Unfortunately the place now has two histories: one, of the prisoners suffering 200 years ago at the end of the world, and now, of the 35 visitors themselves killed in 1996 in by a lone gunman.  I have to say that, while I was very conscious of the first period in its history, never more so than when visiting the very large and famous church there, I also found myself thinking about the second episode in its dark history.

Port Arthur: church

On a day such as that, when sounds carry so easily, it was hard to avoid wondering what the sounds of continued gunfire must have done to visitors.  While this was a place of violence in its first history, it had ironically become almost the last place where one might have expected such a travesty.  And yet it did happen.

The second trip I can recommend is to take a “cruise” with Robert Pennicott and family’s Tasman Island Cruises.  Their 3-hour Wilderness cruise in very fast boat is a prize-winning tourism attraction. Depending on the weather, you will see fur seals, dolphins, whales, seabirds and even Great Whites. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the geology and geography of the whole area, and he made it all fun to learn about this wild and beautiful coastline.  We came away thinking we had learnt much about a unique part of the country.  All passengers are provided with ponchos, which do a great job of protecting you from wind and sea spray, but be aware it is colder at sea than on land, so you should dress warmly. Some of the more macho people on our trip were clearly regretting the decision to dress in thongs and shorts.

Deepsea caves on Tasman island cruis

We travelled in a 12.5 metre purpose-built and powerful Naiad yellow inflatable boat, designed to cruise in all weathers, every day of the year.  Despite some roughish weather, we easily got right into caves under the cliffs, for an unforgettable experience.  We saw unusual rock formations, colonies of fur seals (hold your nose when the boat approaches a seal colony!), and lots of sea birds.

Cliffs on Tasmania’s south east coast.

The Candlestick, on Tasman Island cruise

On our trip, we got down to Tasman Island.  We were fortunate to have on board a former engineer, who had visited the remote lighthouse frequently.  He was able to describe living conditions there, and how supplies were hauled up the seemingly inaccessible cliffs to the families servicing the lighthouse there at the bottom of the state.

This is a great way to plan a long weekend in Southern Tasmania. By flying in and out of Hobart, and perhaps hiring a car for three days, you can get the maximum out of your stay, and have some memorable photos for your collection. There are great places to stay at Hobart and Port Arthur, and the eating in Hobart is great, especially seafood.