Paul Fleming slows down and immerses himself in the history, nature and stories of the stunning Derwent Valley.
Although this isn’t my first time touring the Derwent Valley and up into Tasmania’s highlands, this is the first time I have taken the chance to slow down, take some deep soul-fuelling breaths and spend a few nights immersing myself in the history, nature and stories of the region.
I set my alarm and rise early, as today I’ll be catching the first warming rays of the sun from the top of kunanyi / Mount Wellington.
The towering dolerite beauty looms large over the city with an inescapable presence. As the cool air swirls around me, I find myself smiling – how lucky the people of Hobart are to have a place of such rugged beauty quite literally in their backyards. The twilight glow intensifies and pastel colours enliven the air, breathing life onto the jagged lichen-covered boulders beside me. The first fingers of sunlight kiss my cheeks, a free and gentle facial courtesy of Mother Nature. And now I’m hungry, and in need of coffee.
A scrumptious breakfast with incredible views at the Signal Station Brasserie on Mt Nelson fill me up for today’s adventures. Scott and the team have lovingly refurbished the head signalman’s cottage. Gin-cured salmon? Go on, try it. You’ve earned it after that early start, I tell myself. With a full belly I wander over to the 1811 signal station and wrap my head around how for 158 years this was a key communications hub during Tasmania’s early European settlement. As I read about using flags and semaphore systems to relay messages, I pause for a moment to upload a sunrise snap to my Instagram. The massive leap in technology isn’t lost on me.
Driving through Battery Point on my way to the docks is a step back in time. Where once colourful characters would congregate and solicit fear – or favour, depending on your inclinations – now there are charming abodes, with gardens lovingly crafted to within an inch of perfection. Cafes are nestled throughout the village, lying in wait to lure you in with sweet smells of freshly baked morsels.
I continue on to the floating, translucent, Brooke Street Pier on the waterfront. This new hub of harbour activities, eateries and marketplace is where I get my first introduction to the next destination – Mona, the Museum of Old and New Art.
While Mona is just a short drive from Hobart, the 25 minute ferry ride gives you the best introduction to this bizarre, spectacular, incredible private museum. Step inside and amongst the darkly eclectic, yet wildly mesmerising, collection – your senses will be overwhelmed (or invigorated, challenged, tantalised – it depends on what you’re viewing!). Did I mention the onsite brew house and winery, cafe and restaurants? Perfect, really, as I’m not in a rush to leave.
Tonight, I decide to head just a little further up the river to the historic town of New Norfolk. Just out of town is Stanton Bed and Breakfast, where a welcoming afternoon tea is gratefully offered with views over their cottage garden. Today has been a big day – sunrise seems so long ago – and the pillows are calling my name.
After yesterday’s bright and early start, this morning I am looking forward to sleeping in. But not for too long, as hosts Lisa and Garth, offer a fresh hot breakfast – the promise of coffee and bacon are teasing my senses. Stanton isn’t a grandly opulent manor, but rather a warm and welcoming family farmhouse.
Today, I can’t decide what I want to see – heritage or wilderness. So, both it will be.
New Norfolk is the bustling centre of commerce and services for the predominantly rural Derwent Valley. Poking my head into the countless vintage and antique stores, I get the feeling that residents are keen lovers of the past. This isn’t surprising, given the past is so tangible, especially at Willow Court. Now closed to patients, this 1820s asylum is one of the nation’s oldest and offers a glimpse into life within its walls. It is now home to some impressive antique dealerships, a cafe and accommodation. As I sip a coffee and nibble on a fresh scone with local jam at Patchwork Cafe in the old chapel, I read that the hospital only closed in 2000 – that’s fresh history, still being written.
The reflections on the slow flowing Derwent River catch my eye. A ripple gets me excited – could it be a platypus? There are plenty here they tell me. Near Plenty – yes, that’s the regions name – I call into the Salmon Ponds. The 1864 heritage hatchery set amongst old English gardens is where the first brown and rainbow trout were raised – until then, a cast line into any rivers in Australia or New Zealand would have come up trout-less. Staring at the still waters, dappled light trickling through the oaks and willows lining the banks, I have my doubts. Within seconds of scattering some feed, the calm surface erupts in a feeding frenzy worthy of the Jaws franchise, fins flapping, mouths gaping and snapping, and just as quick, normality returns.
Picking up lunch from the Possum Shed at Westerway, I’m feeling adventurous and decide to head for the hills, and the wilderness beyond. Just a few minutes later I cross into the magnificent Southwest National Park, part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The road bends and weaves its way through stunning forests before breaking out into open rolling plains of button grass. The towering peaks in the distance have that soft pastel look, as though they were painted.
I can’t resist driving to the end of the road – which ends abruptly at the towering Gordon Dam. At 140m high and almost 200m wide, it is one of the largest arched dams in the country. I feel giddy wandering across the top of the wall, the wind now swirling around me and down into the steep gorge below. I glance a sign for Aardvark Adventures, and their “world’s highest commercial abseil’ tour. People willingly step off this dam, backwards? What a rush that would be.
A hearty steak, a refreshing cider and a soft bed at Pedder Wilderness Lodge are waiting for me as the setting sun runs its golden fingers across the top of the jagged mountain peaks across the lake. Just two hours west of Hobart, and I’m centre stage of a glorious wilderness performance.
Waking up to the call of the mountain parrots, I plan to make the most of the day – not that I plan to do a lot. Today I’ll take it easy, cruise around and soak in as much of this wild place as I can. There is much to contemplate out here, too. While the scenery is stunning – the mountains leave me breathless and the lakes are inspiringly beautiful – I’m acutely aware that the lakes were manmade in the name of industrial progress of the late sixties for hydro-electricity. It was a loss of the original Lake Pedder that helped spawn Australia’s conservation movement, and spending even a short time here you can’t help but feel the power of the place. It’s an issue that still divides locals, but the stories are worth hearing. I find myself at the southern end of the lake, at Scotts Peak. There’s no one else around, my only company a wedge tail eagle, soaring on the winds coming off the lake.
The canopy thickens and the greens get more vibrant as I shuffle towards Russell Falls. These are easily the most popular falls in the State. Mount Field National Park is also home to an alpine playground of tarns, lakes, pandani and boulder fields, yet it’s the falls people mostly come to see. I feel the cool mist caress my cheek, causing a shiver that’s both refreshing and invigorating. The falls are mesmerising, grand and perfect guilt-free time-wasters.
If you follow the steps up the hill you’ll come to another, perhaps more enchanting cascade; the intriguingly named Horseshoe Falls. I depart with a coffee from Waterfalls Café and continue my journey.
I find my gaze wandering to each humble convict-built sandstone cottage dominating the streetscape of Hamilton. At the end of the main street I pop into the Kingdom Gallery at Glen Clyde House, an 1840s coaching inn now home to works by over thirty artists. The distinctive and permeating aroma of Huon pine, an endemic Tasmanian tree, takes over my senses as I explore the works in glass, textiles, paper and pottery.
A scenic detour from Hamilton, and I find myself in whisky heaven at Nant Distillery near Bothwell. Today has been delightfully easy. Throwing pebbles into mountain-hugged lakes, racing leaves in forest streams and marvelling at the handiwork of talented locals. Just over an hour later, and I’m on the alpine central plateau region of Tassie.
It’s late in the day, yet Karen, manager of Pumphouse Point, greets me with a wide smile and welcoming drink in the guest reception. She then ushers me to the golf buggy to whisk me to my room – what sort of place is this!
The sun is shining again today, and exploration is the goal.
By daylight the full experience of Pumphouse Point is plain to see. A dis-used 1920s hydro pumping station is the centrepiece of the restored property – although the centre in this case is out on Lake St Clair. Twelve rooms are in the Pumphouse, the art deco jewel accessed via a 250 metre water flume. You can walk, ride a bike or hail a buggy. I opt to walk, and am pleased that I do.
Just outside the heavy wooden front doors, I look over the side into the snow-melt fed waters. A trout swims by, seemingly at peace. But then a ripple catches my eye. Not wanting to be fooled again by phantom platypus, I remind myself that this is Australia’s deepest lake, hardly the perfect home for an egg-laying mammal. Yet, there it is, plain as the bill on a duck – a platypus swimming in front on me. A moment of pure magic. And where is my camera? In my room – I was, after all, just walking to breakfast in the dining room. Excitedly, I tell my hosts what I’d seen. “Yes, there’s a lot of them. They live in the bay across from the Pumphouse” comes the reply.
I hop onto one of the courtesy mountain bikes to explore the property. Taking different trails results in different views of the Pumphouse – who would have thought that a building on a lake could be so captivating. At the end of the last trail, I stumble across a weir – which signals the start of the Derwent River. If I dropped a leaf here, 239km later it would arrive in Hobart. Nearby, I spot some dinghies. You can collect a paddle and lifejacket from reception and explore the lake. There’s something extra special about Pumphouse, too; there’s no room service for food. None. Instead, every room comes fully stocked with its own larder, filled to the brim with smoked meats, artisan breads, cheese and fruit pastes, plus muesli and hearty snacks. Ask at reception for a cooler bag, and you can pack your own picnic to enjoy anywhere you like.
With my self-picked picnic, I wander around to Cynthia Bay, the hub of walks and activities for the southern end of the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park. There are many walks that culminate here, but I chose to start off easy with the walk to Watersmeet. The easy grade (it’s an old gravel road) stroll is about 45 minutes return, and takes you to where the Hugel and Cuvier Rivers meet.
Checking out of Pumphouse Point, I thank Karen and the team for such a wonderful stay in a very unique property. I start extolling the beauty of the region – the waterfalls, the charming towns, the history and even the city of Hobart and its booming arts and culture scene.
She nods, knowingly.
I’m not the first to be smitten by the contrasting beauty of the Derwent Valley and its charms.