Two hundred years after Tasmania was forced into service as a British penal colony, Janet Street-Porter journeys on foot, and of her own free will, to its vast, unspoilt forests and mountains. For the modern traveller, there are plenty of spectacular compensations en route - and at the end of a hard day's hike

What a week! Hiking in pouring rain over exposed rocky ridges, a hilltop picnic of kangaroo steaks in wild pepper sauce, slogging up 90m-high sand dunes and discovering unspoilt rainforest along a disused railway track which culminated in a jaw-dropping, 1m-wide suspension bridge high over a gorge.

What a week! Hiking in pouring rain over exposed rocky ridges, a hilltop picnic of kangaroo steaks in wild pepper sauce, slogging up 90m-high sand dunes and discovering unspoilt rainforest along a disused railway track which culminated in a jaw-dropping, 1m-wide suspension bridge high over a gorge.

Tasmania is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It might be Australia's smallest state (about the size of Ireland, with a population of just over 470,000) but Tassie is like nowhere else on earth. It has weird animals, 10,000-year-old trees, and a guaranteed sense of solitude. And it's the last stop before Antarctica. A quarter of the island consists of 20 National Parks, and almost all of that is designated as World Heritage Sites, so fragile and unique is the environment, ranging from moorland to alpine heath to rocky peaks to pasture. There are more than six different kinds of forest covering 20 per cent of the island, from rainforest to eucalyptus to pine.

This isn't somewhere to go for sophisticated comfort, company, and urban pleasures. Having said that, I did manage to sleep in a converted ballroom, enjoy several bottles of Iced Riesling (a locally produced dessert wine of the highest quality), and stay in a luxurious log cabin in the wilderness with my very own wood-burning stove. Tassie is a place of extremes: the weather can be unpredictable for a start. There are miles and miles of empty, dazzling white sand beaches, but the wind can be deafening. I drove for f miles along totally empty roads, and passed through settlements with no more than one shop. I climbed mountains and saw nothing but 30 miles of forest and lakes at every level. Don't go to Tasmania expecting things to be easy – but its special qualities make it well worth the trip. I decided to spend my time exploring the most popular National Parks at Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair, with a detour to the eastern coast. There are 3,000km of hiking trails, at every level of difficulty, but I'd recommend hiring a car, and keeping your options flexible, unless you want to walk in a group and do one of the many three- to six-day distance hikes, staying in public or private huts.

Settled by Aborigines more than 40,000 years ago, Tasmania was originally part of an ancient supercontinent called Gondwana. It split from mainland Australia during the Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago. Some of the Huon pines in Tassie are estimated to be 10,000 years old, the oldest trees left on earth. The white gum trees are the world's highest, at over 90m. The tall trees, glacial lakes and mountain ranges of the wetter and cooler west give way to rolling grasslands in the east. The impenetrable forests and deep gorges are home to many unique birds and animals: the Tasmanian devil, the Quoll (both flesh-eating marsupials) and tiger cats. The Tasmanian Hen is a flightless bird, a shy thing poles apart from the aggressive Black Currawong, a nasty, black, screeching bird that swoops at you every time you get out a sandwich. And of course there are wombats, Tasmanian wallabies and brush-tailed possums, protected here, unlike in New Zealand where they have become a tree-eating pest.

Separated from Australia by the treacherous Bass Strait, Tasmania was discovered by Abel Tasman in 1642, and became a British penal colony in 1803. During this shameful episode in our colonial history, 12,500 convicts passed through the settlement of Port Arthur in the east, housed in appalling conditions and treated extremely cruelly. Grand Georgian and early Victorian buildings remain in Hobart and Launceston as memorials to this colonial past. Throughout the 19th century there was extensive mining of minerals and tin, especially around the Queenstown area, creating a lunar landscape which is totally at odds with the rest of verdant and forested Tasmania. The other legacy of the mining era is a whole series of disused railways, some of which are being restored as tourist attractions, and others left untouched to form beautiful walking trails through the most spectacular gorges and valleys.

Launceston sits astride the Tamar river, a grid of Victorian shopfronts and genteel villas. My bed and breakfast was Hatherley House, a grand 1830s home lovingly restored as nine luxury suites. My bedroom was once the ballroom, and overlooked the beautiful landscaped gardens at the rear. I spent the first day with Craig William, once a forest ranger, now a guide running tours of the northeast Tasmanian bush in his four-wheel drive. Soon farmland gave way to forest, and we were in the heart of the Evercreech white gum reserve, where I took a short trail through the world's tallest examples of the variety, standing a majestic 91m.

Craig pointed out more varieties of trees than I could ever remember, from beech myrtles to sassafras, musk and stringy gum. Our next forest was at the Tombstone Creek reserve, with untouched acres of giant mountain ash. Many of the farms in the area were for sale, and in spite of having more craftspeople and artists per capita than mainland Australia, the sparse population of Tasmania is actually declining. I could have picked up a rustic wooden homestead and 10 acres of land out in the backwater near Scottsdale for £50,000. A muddy track took us to the top of a windswept hill, with Craig leaping out of the car and pulling fallen trees off our route every hundred yards of so. I could see for miles over unspoilt forest to the northern coast. f

Then it was time for a late lunch of kangaroo in pepperberry sauce and freshly caught local trout. Good job I'm not a vegetarian, and by the way, kangaroo tastes like venison. Simply delicious. I'd picked some pepperberries at the side of the trail and found they were unbelievably spicy. A few hours later I was tucking into another feast with wine-maker Andrew Pirie at the Stillwater restaurant in Launceston – local oysters washed down with crisp, dry white wine, and Andrew's Iced Riesling to end the meal.

Next day I set off for Cradle Mountain with Jim Stock and Margie Jenkin as my guides. Margie had just spent six months in Antarctica on a scientific expedition, so she was more than qualified to put up with my moaning about the rain and wind during the next few days. (A mine of information about the landscape as well as plants and wildlife, Margie was also an object of enormous curiosity for me: how could anyone live in a tiny tent with two men for all that time? I called it "hostage syndrome".) A two-hour drive took us into the Cradle Mountain National Park and the start of the Overland trail, the most popular trail in Tasmania.

The park was created in 1922, after a long campaign by Gustav Weindorfer, an Austrian who emigrated to Tasmania in 1899, and spent his honeymoon on the top of Mount Roland in a tent. A keen botanist, he loved the area around Cradle Mountain so much he bought some land and built a small wooden cabin, Waldheim, in 1912. Even the cast-iron bath was carried in through dense forest. When his wife died in 1916, Gustav carried on living in this isolated spot until his death in 1932. The cabin, near the entrance to the park, has been restored and is a touching monument to one man's passion for this wild place. We ate lunch outside it, and started our trek following the creek up to Marion's lookout, a pretty steep climb up hundreds of steps, with an amazing view on all sides. There were lakes at different levels and the spine of Cradle Mountain rising up majestically in front of us, capped with snow.

It was a brilliantly sunny day, and the trail took us up and then over moorland and packed snow (several feet deep in places) where poles marked our route. Following the western flank of the mountain we headed due south with the stark outline of Barn Bluff rising up ahead. A steep drop down to Waterfall valley brought us to the public rest hut after five hours of walking. There were 10 men already there, so we decided to camp at another smaller hut further on, which was cold, but at least more private. Next day it was pouring with rain, and we climbed back out of the valley, heading round the other side of the mountain via Lake Rodway and an exciting climb up to the base of Little Horn high above Dove Lake.

A memorable steep decent through lunar volcanic rocks took us past Lake Wilks and then a walk through the forest back to our car and a short drive to the luxurious Cradle Mountain Lodge. My very own log cabin had a wood-burning stove and was at tropical temperature. Soaked to the skin and covered in mud, I drank the welcoming bottle of wine, ate some smoked salmon snacks and dozed off in the circular spa bath. Later I chucked all my filthy clothes in, turned the whirlpool on for a minute, and dried the lot draped over every bit of furniture. Bliss. The Lodge was like being in the Wild West, with huge leather sofas and an open fire in the residents' lounge. This is my kind of walking, a day of wetness followed by a decent bottle of wine and a king-sized bed. Sod camping for more than is absolutely necessary.

Driving east next day I took a three-and-a-half-hour walk through a rainforest of giant ferns, sassafras and leatherwood trees, following the path of the old North East Dundas Tramway, which operated between 1898 and 1932 linking local mines. Silent, except for birdsong, and utterly isolated, the route took me to Montezuma Falls, at over 100m, one of the highest in Tasmania. The Park Authority have just opened a spine-chilling steel suspension bridge over the gorge below. It is one person wide and thrillingly mobile. I held my breath and slowly crossed it, wishing I had time to complete the whole length of the trail to Melba Flats, another 15km. (You could easily do this by getting a driver to pick you up at the end.) That night I stayed in the fishing village of Strahan on the banks of the Macquarie Harbour, at Risby Cove. My room was in a converted boatshed overlooking a tranquil lagoon with armies of ducks and geese paddling about outside my balcony.

Next morning we decided on a spot of beach walking, exploring the giant Henty Dunes, further up the coast. Slogging up 30m banks of sand is tiring but the views from the top were fantastic – miles and miles of beach and the rounded shapes of the dunes as far as the eye could see. Lunch in a café in Strahan was followed by a trip round the excellent visitor centre, which painstakingly explained the rich history of this eastern part of Tasmania, once a penal colony and for many years one of the richest mining areas in Australia. Driving through the lunar landscape of Queenstown we visited the Abt railway, now restored at a cost of £7.3m as a tourist attraction. It takes two hours to travel the 21 miles west to Strahan, on the route opened in 1895 to carry minerals from the mountains around Queenstown to the west coast, through Huon pine forests and deep gorges.

Further east we rejoined the southern end of the Overland trail at beautiful Lake St Clair, staying in log cabins near Derwent Bridge. I took a boat north to the end of the Lake and walked the trail around its edge, surrounded by peaks on every side. Another trail took me up to Shadow Lake, climbing up a creek and then through a forested plateau. Derwent Bridge, like Cradle Mountain Lodge, is a great base for several days' walking, and there are plenty of maps detailing how long each one will take, from one to eight hours. There's also a shop where you can stock up on basic supplies. My trip ended with a three-hour drive back to Hobart and a couple of hours spent in the Saturday market on Salamanca Place near the docks, where warehouses are being converted into studios selling work by local artists and craftsmen.

I bought a beautiful black and gold glass necklace, a really stylish piece of work, for just £35. A good job my kitbag was full of muddy hiking gear otherwise I would have bought a couple of great small wooden tables too. A huge plate of delicious eggs Benedict in the bustling Retro café and a quick trip around Battery Point, the hilltop covered in lovingly restored historic cottages, and I was ready to catch the plane back to Melbourne.

The trouble with Tassie is that the moment you leave it, you immediately want to go back. I just think of this as my start trip. There are thousands of miles of trails and beaches just waiting for me to explore. E

How to get there

Janet Street-Porter's trip to Tasmania was organised with Tailor Made Travel. An 18-day self-drive holiday to Tasmania and Victoria, based on twin-share travel in March 2003, costs from £1,980 per person.

The price includes return international and internal flights with Qantas, plus airport taxes, 17 nights' accommodation on a predominantly room-only basis (ie nine days in Melbourne and 10 days in Tasmania), and 17 days' car hire. For more information call 01386 712050 or visit www.tailor-made.co.uk.

To find out more about visiting Melbourne, go to www.visitmelbourne.com. There is more information about travelling to Tasmania at www.discovertasmania.com

Comments