COURTESY BOB JONES
Bob Jones took time out to sample Tasmania's best-selling beer, Cascade.
A devil of a time awaits in Tasmania
The animal of cartoon fame isn't the only wildlife worth seeing on this Pacific island
A couple of things you need to know right off the top about Tasmania: It seems to have been made for people over 50 who appreciate natural beauty without glass high-rises, amusement parks and gewgaw stores. People who can savor the joys of a two-person camper van and a glass of Pinot Noir while watching a mountain sunset.
If You Go ...
Exchange Rate: $1 AUD equals about .80 U.S. cents
Visa: Required; issued with ticket at Outrigger Travel Honolulu
Temperature: 70 to 80 degrees in summer (December and January), but temperatures can dip to 60 and lower than 50 some nights. Windy most days.
Dinner cost: About $12 to $15 for appetizers, $15 to $35 for main courses. Tipping is 10 to 15 percent.
Cautions: Left-side road driving, random DUI checks, speed and red light cameras, animals often appear suddenly on roads.
And, the Tasmanian Devil is more than just that whirling, gibberish-talking, tree-and-rock-eating antagonist of Bugs Bunny in the Warner Bros. cartoons.
The real McCoy exists throughout Tasmania and there's a good chance you'll run over one if you drive at night. (Cars and vans all have heavy "kangaroo bumpers" in case you hit one.)
More about the devils later. Right now, I know many of you are asking "Where is Tasmania?" I'll tell you. Also how to get there from here and how to see the best of it.
Tassie, in the local lingo, is an island state (like us) 144 ocean miles south of Mother Australia.
It was settled by Aborigines about 35,000 years ago when there was still a land bridge to the mainland. Later Europeans would kill many of the 4,000 Aborigines and resettle others on smaller islands where they died of malnutrition, disease and hopelessness.
Tasmania is a wild, windy, wonderful place 180 miles long and 190 wide that sits astride the Roaring Forties, the harsh winds at 40 degrees south latitude.
Even in their midsummer, December and January, you might experience what locals call "four seasons in one day." Eighty-degree temperatures can suddenly dip into the 50s, making it necessary for Hawaii travelers to pack some cold weather gear.
You can circle Tasmania's paved parts on about three tanks or gasoline or diesel, and there's no better way to do this than in a camper van. It's your hotel room, bedroom, kitchen and eating nook, freeing you from a must-be-someplace schedule. We used Devil Campervans out of Hobart, a new company offering price-competitive rentals. It costs about $80 a day for a two-person van. Upgraded campers are equipped with a refrigerator, propane stove, sinks, linens, cooking utensils and cutlery, water tank, table and TV.
Caravan parks charge about $20 a night for a powered site with water. All have clean amenities including toilets, showers and laundry facilities.
It takes about two weeks to properly explore Tasmania's 19 national parks, walk its highland trails, take a river cruise and hang out with the locals.
We skipped the east coast because we figured Hawaii folks don't need to see beaches, and the Huon Valley because of our time limit.
We did the dramatic Tasman Peninsula, the high forests of Mt. Field and Cradle Mountain, the mining country around Queenstown, Christmas Eve in Launceston, and Christmas Day in the Melton Mowbray village pub and a revolving restaurant in Hobart.
In between, we consorted with the marsupials -- kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, quols, possums and Tasmanian Devils. We dined on fresh oysters, giant prawns, mussels, salmon, ocean trout and rump of lamb.
We found the people to be "bonzer" (great), with a few "dags" (socially unacceptables), the roads sparsely traveled but drivers going "flat out" (very fast) on curving roads, no "mozzies" (mosquitos), the "piss" (beer) unfailingly good and the wines among the world's best -- especially the Pinot Noir. Tasmania rates as "a little ripper" (an extremely good thing.)
COURTESY BOB JONES
You can walk over the suspension bridge on the Tamar River gorge in Launceston or take a long chair lift for $8.
Flights to Tasmania via Sydney (Hawaiian, Qantas, Jet Star, American, United, Air New Zealand, Air Canada) tend to arrive around 11 a.m.
You'll need some familiarization with your camper van at the airport site, so it's a bit late to tackle the capital city of Hobart.
I suggest you spend the first night getting familiar with your pop-top van, stove and dining-to-sleeping conversion at the nearby 7-Mile-Beach caravan park, or head down the
A-9 highway to Port Arthur at the southern tip of the Tasman Peninsula. Summer darkness isn't until almost 9 p.m. so there's plenty of time to get to the lovely Port Arthur Caravan Park with 90 minutes driving plus stops.
The first stop should be in Sorell, which has a Kailua/early American vibe with three picturesque 1800s churches. The Wild Chili Pepper is perfect for a late lunch -- ask for the squash soup.
This is where you'll want to provision your van's kitchen, too. Port Arthur has only a convenience store. Sorell has a Woolworth supermarket with amazing produce and fish. Right at the entrance is a specialty meat-cuts store. Alcohol isn't sold in markets but in pubs and "bottle shops." Stock up on beer and Tasmanian wines when you find one.
Your other "must" stop en route south is at the Waterfront Cafe at Dunaley. It's an old barracuda-canning factory turned house, cafe and collectibles store.
Have a cashew burger and iced coffee (which always comes with ice cream in Tasmania) on the old-wood deck over the water.
Port Arthur is the preserved convict settlement from the 1800s for 12,500 prisoners of Mother England. I'm sure it was a hellhole then but it's a photographer's dream today with restored buildings and ruins, manicured grounds, walking tours, a boat ride and many unforgettable moments. You need at least four hours to see it and eat at Felons Restaurant. The prison was closed in 1877 when it became too expensive to maintain.
On your way out of the Tasman Peninsula, take the B-37 loop road and stop at the Tasmanian Devil Park in Tarrana, where a few are being raised in captivity while scientists study a jaw disease that has been affecting them.
At the park, you can watch them gorge on dead possum. You also can feed and pet tame kangaroos in a large bush-country setting. It was a highlight of our trip.
COURTESY BOB JONES
Tasmanian Devils eat the meat, bone, fur and claws of their prey, leaving not a scrap of evidence of the kill.
The High Country
From Hobart, take the B-52 roadway northwest to Mt. Field National Park. Drive carefully. Tassies do 65 miles an hour on roads we'd say warrant 40.
Mt. Field Park is a wonderful setup with good signage, a campground for vans, many easy walks and some hard ones.
You can get to gorgeous Russell Falls in 20 minutes. The smell of the air is intoxicating. It's worth a day. Provision en route in New Norfolk because the park village store at Westerway mainly stocks chips and sodas.
The A-10 takes you from Mt. Field onto a high plateau through farm country in the direction of Queenstown.
It's too much of a drive for one day. The overnight choices are Tarraleah and Bronte Park. We chose the first. It was my wife's least favorite stop. It's a boating-fishing resort village and nobody lives there but staff for the village owner, the Tarraleah Holding Co. There's a grassy caravan park, a convenience store, a hydroelectric plant, an overpriced restaurant, and the gloomy Highlander Arms pub with gloomy food. It had run out of napkins, toothpicks and rice the evening we ate there.
Queenstown & Strahan
The A-10 winds downhill for many miles into Queenstown, whose hills are scarred by strip mining.
It reminded me of old Colorado mining towns. It has a hodgepodge town museum, some mines you can visit (nickel, copper and gold) and a local cafe called JJs. The grueling road and seedy town are the price you must pay to get to the popular resort town of Strahan, at the far west reach of the A-10 highway.
Strahan will remind you of Lahaina. It's been cutesied up with 1800s building fronts and pubs.
People come here to do Tasmania's best river cruises. Strahan Caravan Park was one of the most customer-friendly of our trip. It also sold Jack Daniels. There's a good town supermarket for provisions.
We almost missed Zeehan town at a crossroad north of Strahan. That would have been a shame.
They've restored much of the old mining town. It's great for photographs and it has a truly first-class mining museum with mine tunnel. Don't miss this one.
Cradle Mountain Park at over 5,000 feet is Tasmania's most visited. It also has the most unpredictable weather, so you need at least two days there to increase your chances of sunshine.
It has walks for people of all abilities, through all manner of high country flora. You might even run into the thought-to-be-extinct Tasmanian Tiger!
The campground ($40 a night) has very private sites and the store sells wine (obviously important to me). There's also a lodge with a full-service restaurant and wood fireplaces.
The 132/141 roadways lead you east from Cradle Mountain to Sheffield. Make this an early lunch stop. Sheffield was founded by Kentish Scot farmers. Farming has become tough, so the town has reached out to tourists by painting murals of the settlers on the town's exterior walls. The Scone Shoppe puts its waitresses in plaid costumes of the old days. There are collectibles shops and a town bagpiper.
Launceston in the north is Tasmania's second largest city. It's only raison d'etre seems to be its Tamar River gorge. The city built huge parks along it. You can walk across on a suspension bridge or glide across on a long chair lift for $8.
We had our best Tasmanian dinner in Launceston at the Mud Bar. The best eatery is said to be Fee & Me but it was closed when we got there. We had no disappointment whatever at the Mud Bar and I give it five stars.
Hobart was closed on Christmas Day but I believe this town would be worth a day's visit. It's old, pretty and centered on a large harbor made by the Derwent River entering the ocean. The Wrest Point Revolving Restaurant had very good food at a very high price but gave us 360-degree views of the city and Mt. Wellington at sunset.
We turned in our camper van and luxuriated at a two-floor apartment-room at the Somerset-on-the-Pier hotel. Our bodies deserved some pampering as yachts bobbed on their moorings outside our living room window. Worth every cent of the $230.
Devils devour their prey, but they don't spin
Yes, there really are Tasmanian Devils. No, they are not just a Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes character usually referred to as The Taz. And no, they don't spin like a whirlwind. They do howl and growl.
I've been visiting them in Tasmania so I know.
They're the world's largest carnivorous marsupial, an animal that carries its young in a body pouch. They are mostly black and the size of a small dog, but much more muscular, with, possibly, the world's most powerful jaws. They're able to eat the meat, bones, fur, organs, teeth and claws of their prey before lapping up the blood spilled on the ground.
Luckily for us, they don't think of live humans as prey. But should you die alone on some Tasmanian trail, detectives are not likely to find any trace of your remains.
Devils once roamed over all of Australia. The theory is that wild dingos forced them south when Tasmania was still appended to the mainland.
Europeans who arrived in Tasmania hunted and nearly wiped out the Devils until they were deemed a protected species in 1941.
The earliest settlers only heard them because the Devils are mainly nocturnal. The people heard their awful yells (like a very loud sheep and goat vocalizing together), then would find some sheep missing without a trace of bone or fur or blood.
"Must be devils," was their verdict.
Today, a disease that causes tumors on the face and mouth has been sweeping through the species.
Their numbers are dwindling so some are being kept in conservation parks for medical research.
As for the Warner Bros. connection, cartoonists had never actually seen a Devil before concocting the Bugs Bunny nemesis. The cartoon animal, in all his angry whirling-dervish glory, was strictly an invention of the imagination. But the company copyrighted the names Taz and Tasmanian Devil. The surviving studio owners are so protective of that copyright that it's been hard for the governments of Australia and Tasmania to use the image and name of their own native creature to promote tourism.
To see a short movie about the Devils and listen to their sounds, go to www.dpiw.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/WebPages/BHAN-53598S?open
Bob Jones is a MidWeek columnist who does occasional travel stories for the Star-Bulletin.