“Lonnie” to the locals, Launceston is the second city (behind Hobart) of Australia’s most southern state, Tasmania. This tiny triangle of land, sometimes rudely omitted from maps of the island continent, has a much cooler climate than the mainland and packs an incredible diversity of visitor entertainment into its borders.
Launceston sits toward Tasmania’s northeastern corner, at the end of the Tamar River, a tidal inlet from Bass Strait. Draw a 100-kilometre radius around the city, and you encompass such varied attractions as the Bay of Fires, the Freycinet Peninsula and Wineglass Bay, Cradle Mountain and the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, Devonport, and the quaintly named town of Penguin (no prizes for guessing what you’ll see there).
If you have never donned a pair of walking boots, these names might sound unfamiliar, but to outdoor enthusiasts the area is a rightly revered Mecca. Thanks to a burgeoning collection of high-quality retreats and steadily improving visitor access (not least to protect the pristine environment from its own growing popularity), it is also now possible to enjoy many of these places of natural beauty without tramping miles from a vehicle… unless you want to.
With just a long weekend in Launceston, our springtime visit was carefully planned: a different activity for each day from a city hotel base. Although you can make your way around Tasmania on public transport – or a bicycle – we hired a car to drive the 150km to Cradle Mountain.
My husband had hiked on Cradle Mountain during his university days and warned us of an entrance sign that spelled out the statistical rarity of seeing the distinctive craggy peak in clear skies. Whatever the odds, when we arrived there was not a cloud in the sky – and nor had there been on his first visit. The sign had gone, so perhaps the famous southeast Australian drought of the past ten years has increased the chances of visitors enjoying the National Park in the same sort of blissful weather that we encountered.
Purchase your National Parks Pass as you enter the park – there is a Visitors’ Centre selling maps and outdoor equipment, and you can choose to take a free shuttle bus further into the park. With a pass, however, provided the park is not full, you can drive on through to Dove Lake, a glacial lake at the bottom of the mountain.
A number of the park’s best walks lead off from here; we chose to climb to Marion’s Lookout, a four-hour return walk described as “challenging and only worthwhile in fine weather”.
With winter snow still on the ground, we were ankle deep in white at times and found much of the track more akin to a creek. The views were well worth the effort, however, and from the Lookout we were able to choose an alternative route back to the car park – longer, and taking in Crater Lake and the Cradle Valley Boardwalk, but drier and flatter.
A tamer option from the car park is to circumnavigate the picturesque lake; the more adventurous have a multitude of options, from longer day-trails to overnight stays in remote hikers’ huts, or can even set off on the seven-day Lake St Clair Track – though this takes considerable planning.
After completing our walk we enjoyed lunch at the famous Cradle Mountain Lodge, where you could also choose to stay – it is a historic property, but has since been joined by a number of other accommodation options within and close to the park.
The short pre-summer day saw us return to Launceston after dark. Although there are many promising places to eat in the town, we had difficulty making a Saturday-night reservation – if there is somewhere in particular you want to try, it would certainly be worth planning ahead. We resorted to a rather upmarket French restaurant, and took the precaution of pre-booking the popular Jailhouse Grill for the following night.
Riding the Ladder
Having planned an active weekend, we were up early again on Sunday, to be collected by Ian from Mountain Bike Tasmania – a business he runs alongside his interest in the local Mountain Designs outdoor equipment store.
We have experience on long-distance road bike tours, but opted for a simplified version of the company’s Ben Lomond mountain bike descent to be sure the children did not spend more time off their seats than on them. Ian, however, brought along his two young boys, who evidently did not need the tamer route – growing up in the Launceston district had perfectly prepared them for their chosen sport of competitive mountain biking.
Just a forty-five minute drive from town, we stopped to equip ourselves with bicycles in the nearly deserted Ben Lomond ski village (which now gets skiable snow only two or three days a year). Ruthlessly, this starting point means you are barely in the saddle before you tackle Jacob’s Ladder, a hair-raising zigzag gravel road, which we took gingerly before admiring the fearlessness of the pre-teen boys. Apparently, a famous local competition actually sees riders cycle up the Ladder – definitely one for low gear.
For the next four hours we explored the lower Ben Lomond area, then followed around 20km of forestry trails back to the sealed road, where we were met by the company minibus with its multiple bike-carrying contraption. We guests were a little saddle-sore, but bore remarkably few grazes – it was an excellent introduction to the sport, though we are a way off tackling any of Mountain Bike Tasmania’s more challenging tours.
In researching a visit to Launceston, I came across the multi-award-winning Hollybank Treetops Adventure, which promised to fit well into our active weekend. Certainly the children were thrilled at the idea, though my husband and I did have some last-minute reservations – had I remembered that he hated heights when I made this booking?
Hollybank is about half an hour up the Tamar Valley from Launceston; you can drive yourself or use the company’s reasonably priced hotel collection service. Canopy tours operate every hour or so, depending on demand, and each accommodates up to 14 people, so while pre-booking is a good idea, especially for peak times, you may well find space at short notice. The tours continue in almost all weather conditions, though it may be best not to think about how far a tall tree moves in high winds if your day proves blowy!
Hollybank’s canopy tour starts with a full safety briefing – studded with amusing interjections from the guides who are clearly perfectly comfortable with the idea of flying through the air 40 metres above ground hooked on by a karabiner. (Insert nervous giggles.)
Each guest then dons a full harness; small guests are provided with a sandbag to give them added weight to cover the longer cable spans, while the very smallest guests (which included our nine-year-old) are required to fly with an adult.
After a ground-based practice run, our group walked through the forest to the canopy tour starting point. The unique design of the Hollybank zip-line system means that each guest is permanently attached by pulley to the high-wire, even when crossing “cloud stations”, which are strong islands that encircle carefully selected base trees.
The third of the six cloud stations is the highest point on the tour: a nerve-wracking 50 metres above the ground. Between the stations you are moving too fast to really consider your height, though it is worth making a conscious decision to relax and enjoy every moment of the flight. Just when you think you are gaining some confidence, however, the guides stop you for a photo shoot – midway between two cloud stations, and, with encouragement, preferably hanging upside down.
Each canopy tour lasts three-to-four hours including the safety briefing. Understandably, you are asked to remove all loose paraphernalia before you fly, including cameras. It is a shame not to be able to capture your unusual forest perspective, but the rules are there for the safety of anyone enjoying the forest trails below.
Hollybank welcomes “guests from age three to over 80”. Octogenarians have flown the route, the company’s injury record is almost unblemished, and we all lived to tell the tale. Thankfully, however, the forest is immune to the effects of colourful language.
With just an afternoon left before heading home, we made a last-minute decision to research the home of one of our favourite Australian sparkling wines. Ninth Island, as it turned out, belongs to Kreglinger Wine Estates, and has its cellar door in the Tamar Valley. It was only sensible to visit the place, and our adventurous weekend in Tasmania was well concluded with a delicious local-produce lunch at the vineyard restaurant. Sadly, even after a couple of glasses we could not conjure up a Tasmanian tiger in order to secure ourselves the $1.25 million reward offered for “conclusive proof of existence”.
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