Rob McFarland explores the dramatic scenery of Tasmania's Freycinet Peninsula on a four-day guided hike
"This is the most hectic thing you'll do all week," says Ella, our guide. We follow her up the steep dirt track, squeezing past giant granite boulders and scrambling through bush-choked gullies. The earlier conversation has fallen silent, replaced by laboured breathing and careful concentration as the terrain gets more technical. One last push up and over a rocky ledge and we reach a sloping plateau of pink granite slabs studded with hardy shrubs and trees. Finally, we can turn around and enjoy the majestic view of what will be our playground for the next four days, the dramatic headland of granite and dolerite on the east coast of Tasmania known as the Freycinet Peninsula.
We're on Schouten Island, an uninhabited atoll just south of the peninsula that we reached via a boat transfer from Coles Bay on the mainland. Along the way, we passed two Australian fur seals, backs arched like swimsuit models as they basked on the rocky shoreline. We also saw several white-bellied sea eagles and took way too many photos of a pod of six bottlenose dolphins that frolicked in our wake. It was an immersive introduction to the dizzying array of fauna and flora that thrive within Freycinet National Park.
Since 1992, the Freycinet Experience Walk has taken small groups on guided excursions into this beguiling wilderness. Over the next four days we'll explore the full length of the peninsula on a series of hikes that showcase its extraordinary natural beauty. But right now, our priority is getting down from this 200m-high plateau on Bear Hill. It's a far from graceful descent, a mixture of rock-hopping, awkward scrambles and butt slides, but the reward is a refreshing (some might say bracing) dip in the sparkling 15C waters of Crocketts Bay. "You never regret a swim," smiles Ella.
Much like New Zealand, Tasmania is almost unfairly blessed with an abundance of world-class multi-day hikes (it's home to five of the 12 Great Walks of Australia). But what makes the Freycinet Experience particularly appealing is that the trip operates from a central lodge so you unpack once and only need to carry the bare essentials each day.
We approach the lodge by strolling along the pristine white sands of Friendly Beach on the eastern, ocean-pounded side of the peninsula. Eventually, Ella and fellow guide Clare veer away from the shoreline and lead us to a small, unmarked opening in the bush. After a few minutes of zig-zagging through a dense forest of she-oaks, we emerge into a clearing, where we're greeted by the warm glow of a cosy wooden lodge and the beaming smiles of our two hosts, Dan and Daniel.
Because of its unique position in the heart of the national park, the award-winning eco-lodge is a model of self-sustainability. It is completely off-grid, relying on filtered rainwater, solar power and composting toilets. Often these restrictions mean rustic (cough…uncomfortable) accommodation and basic (cough…zero) facilities. Instead, our home for the next four days is an indulgent haven of roaring log fires, unlimited hot showers, deep clawfoot baths and some of the best food I've ever eaten. Meals and briefings take place in the main lodge while our spacious private bedrooms (complete with goose-filled duvets and Egyptian cotton sheets) are spread across two separate wings, each with its own communal lounge and shared bathrooms.
After showering and unpacking, we reconvene in the main lodge for pre-dinner drinks (a selection of Tasmanian craft beers and wines) and canapes (an extravagant platter of Tassie cheeses), before sitting down at a long, candlelit table for the first in a succession of improbably good meals. Highlights from tonight's feast include panko-crumbed flathead and a vanilla bean panna cotta with summer fruits and macerated basil. It soon becomes clear that our biggest challenge will be expending enough calories to justify the indulgent meals we'll be gorging on each day. Thankfully, tomorrow should give us ample opportunity, because one of the two hikes on offer is a taxing 18km trek via the summit of 580m-high Mount Graham. "It's like today," explains Ella, during the pre-dinner briefing, "but on steroids."
In many ways, Freycinet is like Tasmania on steroids. The compact peninsula contains everything from windswept granite peaks to lush temperate rainforest to miles of white sand beaches. Over the next few days, we experience it all, hiking up and over Mount Graham, following an ancient Indigenous migratory route through a sacred forest and walking barefoot along deserted stretches of unblemished sand.
Along the way, Ella and Clare are an endless source of fascinating facts and stories, frequently pausing to point out an interesting plant or animal that we would otherwise have missed. My favourite is the tiny flying duck orchid, which has evolved to attract male sawflies, temporarily closing around them to ensure they're coated in pollen before releasing them. They encourage us to tune in to the forest's background chatter of bird calls, from the melodious cry of the shrike thrush to the abrasive shriek of the black cockatoo.
At the end of each day, we return to the lodge for hot showers, clean clothes and extravagant amounts of phenomenal food. One day it's local oysters and sparkling wine followed by lamb shanks on polenta; another it's tender eye fillet steak with roasted carrots and homemade apple crumble. All accompanied by a varied selection of superb Tasmanian wines, craft beers and spirits. After dinner people retire to the comfortable fireside sofas to play games, chat or just curl up with a book from the lodge's well-stocked library.
Before the trip, I was convinced that the highlight would be Wineglass Bay, a striking semi-circular cove on the eastern side of the peninsula that is by far its best-known and most Instagrammed feature. We arrive at the bay on the afternoon of day two, following a long, winding descent from the summit of Mount Graham on a track dusted with glinting white quartzite. After a celebratory swim, we stroll barefoot along the fine white sand and then tackle the 1000-step climb to the main lookout. Suddenly, we're plunged into a crowd of tourists all jostling for the perfect selfie with the bay and Mount Graham in the background. After passing a grand total of three other hikers all morning, the contrast is jarring.
As it turns out, the highlight comes the following day. While following a path that was once used for tens of thousands of years by the local Toorernomairremener people, Ella and Clare suggest we complete the last three kilometres back to Friendly Beach in silence. They stagger our departures to ensure we can't see or hear anyone else and for the next 20 minutes we all walk alone, our senses awakened to the fragrant, honey-scented kunzea shrubs and the orchestra of bird and insect calls ricocheting between the gum trees.
When we finally emerge onto the beach, the sun comes out, making the pink granite rocks sparkle and turning the ocean a stunning shade of Tahitian blue. Some of us strip off and race in, laughing and joking as we splash around in the water's icy embrace. Tomorrow, we will start the journey back to Hobart and the real world, but for now, we are kids again – joyous, carefree and blissfully present.
The four-day Freycinet Experience Walk operates between October and April. Rates start at $A2750 and include accommodation, meals, drinks, national park passes and transfers to and from Hobart. Groups are limited to 10 people. freycinet.com.au
Check the latest border restrictions in each state and territory before travelling. For more information visit australia.com