A walk on the wild side

Tasmania is home to miles of deserted beach, crashing surf and some of the rarest plants on earth. Janet Street-Porter takes a walking tour around the island's Bay of Fires

Behind my head stretched the white line of a deserted beach, bordered on one side by endless dunes, on the other by large breakers crashing in from a turquoise sea. Definitely the best view I've ever woken up to. Even more pleasingly, the room I was sleeping in was calming and clean; tall, elegant and lined in wood with a row of steel pegs for my clothes. It was more like something from the
Hip Hotels handbook than a walker's refuge.

Behind my head stretched the white line of a deserted beach, bordered on one side by endless dunes, on the other by large breakers crashing in from a turquoise sea. Definitely the best view I've ever woken up to. Even more pleasingly, the room I was sleeping in was calming and clean; tall, elegant and lined in wood with a row of steel pegs for my clothes. It was more like something from the Hip Hotels handbook than a walker's refuge.

The lodge is situated high on a rocky promontory overlooking pristine wilderness. But better still, it is an extraordinary piece of eco-friendly design, conceived by an award-winning architect who loved this bit of paradise so much that he decided to buy a chunk of it. The Bay of Fires in north-west Tasmania is certainly a long way to go for isolation - but once you've got there, you enter an environment where all outside distractions vanish.

Tasmania is home to some of the rarest plants in the world, and 40 per cent of it is a World Heritage Wilderness area. This is where the BBC filmed Walking with Dinosaurs. It is roughly the size of Eire, but with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, and you can drive for hours on a main road and not pass another car. I'd already walked the spectacular Cradle Mountain track a couple of years ago, and earlier this year I decided to explore some of Tasmania's unspoilt coastline.

Ken Latona is the architect who owns the uninhabited Bay of Fires, around which I was to complete a four-day walk. He designed and built the huts himself, and the walk starts from his Georgian mansion outside the pretty Victorian town of Launceston. Overlooking the Tamar river, Launceston is Australia's third oldest city and well worth spending a few days in - the hillsides are packed with grand Victorian villas, lovingly preserved and protected, and many have been turned into trendy hotels and B&Bs. I was staying at Hatherley House, in a huge room filled with paintings and stylish antiques.

The flight from the UK is a long one, with a connection from Sydney to Launceston. I'd decided to knock my jet lag on the head with 48 hours of local sightseeing before I got down to the serious coastal walking. The first morning was spent exploring the Cataract Gorge, where the Victorians created a series of gardens and walks around the river. There's a bandstand, a tea house and many shady pathways overlooking the falls, as well as a large swimming-pool and a chairlift from one side of the gorge to the other; a sign proclaims that at 308m this is the longest span of any chairlift in the world. The views of the rocky gorge upstream are excellent. The attendants were bronzed, super-fit pensioners in shorts and straw hats. I walked back along the other side of the gorge and into the town centre, where Art Deco shop-fronts have been preserved and now house boutiques and cafés. After a trip to admire the landscape paintings by local artist Philip Wolfhagen in a museum by the docks, and delicious oysters in the Stillwater restaurant overlooking the river, I succumbed to exhaustion and crashed out.

The next morning I drove up the western bank of the Tamar, heading north through wine country to lunch at the restaurant in the Strathlynn vineyard, approached through an avenue of 100-year-old trees. Tasmania has a growing reputation as a foodie destination, and here the locally grown grilled vegetables, home-made bread and roast guinea fowl were first-rate. Continuing north I drove downriver to the coast and Low Head, where the Tamar meets the Bass Strait. A lighthouse, former convict settlement and pilot station are housed in a group of single-storey whitewashed cottages with red tin roofs set around a village green. One is a fascinating maritime museum while others are being restored as places to stay. It was hard to believe that this peaceful spot was a popular resort in the 1950s, when 5,000 people would turn up at weekends to watch surfing competitions. After tea in a charming café I sat on the pier and watched the fishermen. Back in Launceston I drove into town after a quick shower for a huge plate of fish and chips at Hallams café in the harbour, where I was surrounded by local yachties.

I had been told that I had to carry everything for the four-day walk, so got up at 6.30am and spent half an hour "editing" my wardrobe. Out at Pleasant Banks, Ken Latona's home on the South Esk river, I met my companions for the trip over breakfast (I was rather dreading this, being a solitary walker as a matter of choice). The red-stone mansion has stables, a dressage ring at the rear and a view over endless paddocks, and is decorated with modern art and elegant furniture. A nervous group - my fellow walkers - sat around a large pine table. My rucksack was so stuffed that I couldn't force my packed lunch in, and had to quickly befriend Nick the guide to carry it for me.

After coffee and home-made bread, a tedious three-hour coach journey took us through farmland and pristine forest, finally leaving what passes for civilisation in Tasmania behind. The last farm, Icana, seemed to go on for miles. Passing black cows (whose milk is used to make feta cheese) in luxuriant green pasture we took a dirt road and entered the start of the national park.

Unlike mainland Australia, Tasmania protects kangaroos, and we saw a group of eight about 100m away. On reaching a deserted beach, the bus stopped - this was to be our starting point. I lifted up my pack and groaned. My "editing" should have been even more ruthless. The first few steps in the sand were quite a struggle, but over the next hour I gradually adjusted. My eyes slowly began to cope with the intense bright light and my skin, once slathered with sun block, was not too scoured by the extremely brisk wind. Our group walked slowly along Stumpy's Bay, pretty spread out, with a guide at the front and the rear.

Piles of kelp gave off a strong smell and my feet crunched over a carpet of white shells, while terns, gulls, plovers and oystercatchers swooped and squawked overhead. After an hour of negotiating sandy bays and rocky headlands we stopped at Boulder Point by a large Aborigine midden, a heap of discarded shells left after their contents had been eaten. Back at Ken's we'd filled our lunch boxes, and I was already beginning to regret my decision to give up carbs - there's something seriously unfulfilling about a lunch of ham and salad when you've hours of walking ahead. The wind was extremely chilly even though the sun was bright, so the stop was brief. Some people already had red patches on their ears where they had missed with the sun block.

Rocks in the Bass Straits on our left were eroded into fantastic shapes by the sea and wind, forming exotic columns rising from the waves. The noise of the wind and the continuous pounding of the surf obliterated extraneous thoughts and soon wiped my mind clean. We crossed a dry river bed and then the long expanse of Cod Bay, taking a path through the bush over small rocky outcrops. At the end of the bay we turned inland to Forrester Beach Camp, our overnight stop. We'd walked for four hours in all, but the sand and wind had been quite tiring. The hut was constructed from canvas stretched over a plywood frame, with three cabins on each side and a large deck for communal eating and lounging at one end. A short distance* away were long-drop toilets. I carried a bowl of hot water to the wash room, and soon felt much better, putting on every single piece of warm clothing as the sun set and the temperature began to fall at around 6.30pm.

Supper was preceded by wine, olives and cheese, as we sat around and got to know each other. I immediately took to Paul, a gossipy banker from Sydney, who was decked out in designer labels and was a first-time walker. After a huge meal of barbecued steak, sausages, courgettes and salad, washed down with several bottles of Pinot Noir, I retired to bed at 9pm. I slept fitfully, and was not too pleased to be woken up at 7.15am. Why do guides insist on waking everyone up so early, when we're supposed to be on holiday enjoying ourselves?

I slightly disgraced myself at breakfast with a spot of swearing; I am definitely not good at being a jolly camper before 9am. I was irritated to be kept waiting on the beach while the guides cleared up - but once we started walking along Purdon Bay I soon perked up. A detour to the low-lying grassland behind the beach was a chance to inspect the "marsupial lawns", patches of vegetation that form where the winter rains collect. I wandered through them, identifying various desiccated bits of animal poo from kangaroos and wallabies, which all congregate to feed here. The beach was long and extremely beautiful, with a deep river crossing two-thirds of the way down. I took my shorts off and waded through, the water reaching my thighs as I held my pack above my head. A couple of basic wooden shacks at the end of the beach near Picnic Rocks were owned by people who held leases before the national park was created. When the leases expire the cabins will be removed, returning the land back to wilderness.

After a short walk along a dirt road, our group rejoined the beach. By now I was walking alone in front, thoroughly enjoying the silence while the others chatted away a hundred or so yards behind me. It was like putting my brain in a long rinse cycle and I was becoming more relaxed by the hour. On the headland the Eddystone Point lighthouse, long abandoned, was surrounded by two-dozen dead mutton birds, killed when they careered into the building. No one seemed to know why they had committed this sad act of hara-kiri after completing a flight hundreds of miles from New Zealand. Now they'd be supper for the Tasmanian devils, cat-like carnivores who were lurking in the surrounding bush. Only their wings would be left by the end of the week.

I ate my lunch and reflected on the mental state of the mutton bird, before a two-hour afternoon stroll along the white sand of Abbotsbury Beach. At the end were a series of delightful rocky inlets piled high with millions of pi pi (cockle) shells eaten by the huge number of sea birds and washed up during the winter storms. These peaceful little coves with their small patches of tough grass were top spots to sunbathe and rest out of the wind. Bayley Rock looked exactly like a turtle peeking out of its shell, and beyond it, up on Bayley Hummock, was the Bay of Fires lodge, an elegant wooden structure with two soaring roofs.

It was a steep scramble up the dunes at the back of the beach to reach the large deck with spectacular views up and down the coast. A long internal corridor had sleeping rooms along one side and a vast living space - I could easily have lived here. At one end were large comfy sofas and at the other was a long communal wooden table and an open-plan kitchen. We were given a brief lesson in how to pump the water for a shower, but unfortunately I didn't pay enough attention and had to emerge semi-naked to do a bit more pumping halfway through.

By now our group had bonded, and while some people fished off the rocks below I sunk a couple of glasses of wine with Paul, Marcus (a stockbroker), Richard (a retired engineer), and Lester and Veronica, two Chinese Canadians in their late twenties (who worked in IT). Supper was a delicious helping of trevalla, a local fish baked whole with herbs and vegetables. I managed to stay awake until 10pm.

The back of my legs were horribly sunburnt, and as I had chucked out my mirror, tweezers and comb on weight grounds, god knows what I looked like. At 7am there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the gorgeous stillness was pierced only by the hideous sound of Nick, our guide, on the didgeridoo. A breakfast of fruit, cereal and savoury pancakes of feta cheese, mushrooms, spinach and avocado was served on the deck.

I loaded up my lunch box with ham, cheese, quiche and salad. I had opted to walk while the others went kayaking, and I left them in the bush behind the lodge, spending a pleasurable morning following trails in and around the towering white sand dunes bordering the wide expanses of beach. It was cloudy but very humid as I lay back on a mini marsupial lawn behind a rocky outcrop, demolished my lunch and laboriously completed my walk diary. Then, as the sun gradually burnt off the cloud, I slathered on factor 30 and slowly walked along the beach to meet the rest of the group. The tide was high and the sand so soft I began to feel like an extra from Tenko. Eventually I braved the surf and threw myself in. I splashed about in the waves and returned refreshed to the lodge for tea. After a supper of roast chicken our group played a loud and aggressive game of Articulate - I managed to turn the quiet and unassuming Canadians into fearsome competitors.

On the last day, my trip was made totally perfect by catching four respectably sized salmon on the rocks below the lodge. I borrowed a rod and spent a blissful hour casting in the huge surf and was soon rewarded with a series of hits on the line, hauling in my prizes to cheers from the group lounging on the deck high above. At 12.30 we picked up our rucksacks for a very pleasant hour-long stroll along bush tracks through the forest to a large clearing where we ate lunch perched on logs. From there it was just a short walk to the start of a dirt track where our coach was waiting to take us back to civilisation. Three hours later we were back at Pleasant Banks swopping addresses and taking snaps. Please Ken, can I live in your fabulous lodge?

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines (0870 608 8886; www.singaporeair.co.uk) and Qantas (0845 774 7767; www.qantas.com.au) fly to Launceston via Melbourne from about £750 return. Within Australia, Virgin Blue (00 61 393 737 900; www.virginblue.com.au) operates daily flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Launceston and from Melbourne to Hobart. Jetstar (00 61 383 414901; www.jetstar.com.au) also operates flights from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Launceston and Hobart.

Trailfinders (020-7938 3939; www.trailfinders.co.uk) offers flights with Korean Airlines from London Heathrow to Sydney from £559 return and to Melbourne from £670 return.

STAYING THERE

Janet Street-Porter's four-day walk in and around the Bay of Fires

was arranged by Tailor Made Travel (0845 456 8050; www.tailor-made.co.uk). Prices are from £741 per person based on travel between 15 October 2004 and mid-April 2005. The cost includes transfers from Launceston, accommodation (with one night in cabins at Forrester Beach Camp and the next three nights at the lodge), all meals, all park entry fees and guides.

Hatherley House (00 61 3 6334 7727; www.hatherleyhouse.com.au) at 43 High Street in Launceston offers suites - complete with ottomans, antiques and Tasmanian art works - from A$250 (£95) per night, including breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Bay of Fires Lodge and Cradle Mountain Lodge (00 61 3 6391 9339; www.bayoffires.com.au). Launceston Travel Centre (00 61 3 6336 3133). Australian Tourist Commission brochure request line (0870 556 1434). Tasmanian Tourist Board ( www.discovertasmania.com).

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