by Dan F. Stapleton
Mainland Australians think of Tasmania as a speck in the ocean, so it can come as a surprise to realise the state is almost as large as Scotland – and much of its terrain is just as dramatic.
On an island covered with national parks, World Heritage Sites and vast private properties, cars can only take you so far. More than one fellow traveller has told me that Tasmania's richest experiences lie far from the tourist trail. To gain a fresh perspective, I decided to plot a trip around Tasmania using light planes and helicopters, stopping along the way at lodges with landing facilities.
Chopper-hopping has taken off in New Zealand, which boasts dozens of helicopter-friendly hotels and a number of tour operators. But on this side of the Tasman, the trend has yet to develop. The helipad at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart isn't even advertised, although guests staying in the venue's accommodation, the Pavilions, are welcome to land there.
Beginning a Tasmanian trip at MONA is always a good idea. Of course, there's the museum's distinctive art collection, not to mention The Source restaurant, which does the best roast potatoes I've tasted. The clincher, though is the accommodation.
The eight free-standing pavilions come highly recommended, each offering oodles of space, a sleek kitchen for plating up the charcuterie that awaits you in the fridge, and a balcony with views of the Derwent River framed by foliage. My one, named Walter in honour of Walter Burley Griffin, the architect who designed Canberra, is comfortable without being self-consciously luxurious. The on-site infinity pool is a welcome inclusion – it's deserted when I visit for an evening dip.
I'm woken early the next day by a phone call from Shannon Wells, managing director of tour and transfer company Par Avion, which is helping facilitate my trip. Weather conditions in the Central Highlands, also known as the Lake Country, are deteriorating, and my onward flight has been brought forward. Twenty minutes later, I'm bundled into a Robinson R44 four-seat chopper at the MONA helipad.
"The weather in Tasmania is incredibly variable," Wells tells me later. "We can have drought conditions on the east coast and torrential rain in the west." The highlands, in particular, are a law unto themselves: the Central Plateau, where I am heading, is surrounded by mountains more than 1500 metres high.
Thrill of the elements
It's 20 degrees and sunny when we depart MONA but by the time we swoop into the Central Plateau an hour later, dark grey cloud has rolled in and there are splashes of rain. Winds buffet the chopper, which is smaller than a car. We touch down at the Thousand Lakes Lodge helipad, a 10-minute drive from the lodge itself, and my on-site host, Jason Wall, ushers me into a toasty 4WD. Outside, it's a brisk five degrees.
Thousand Lakes Lodge, about 120 kilometres north of Hobart, was an Antarctic training facility for government personnel that was decommissioned in the 1990s and sat vacant for two decades before the current owners decided to repurpose it. Jason tells me the lodge, which opened in October last year, is still a work in progress: the chimney doesn't function properly when northerly winds blow and there's uncertainty about visitor numbers over the coming winter.
Nevertheless, the place has an undeniable harm. The refurbished guest rooms are simple but smart, with efficient heating, comfortable beds and gleaming bathrooms, while the living room features artfully worn leather couches and fully stacked bookshelves. I listen to vinyl on an old record player there until the rain subsides, then venture out on an e-bike.
There are more than 3000 lakes in central Tasmania, and scores of them surround the lodge. I ride 22 kilometres on a gravel track – something I would not have achieved without electronic assistance – and gaze at the morphing sky reflected in the water. There are wallabies everywhere and a couple of enormous, grouchy wombats.
The next day, I fly to Swansea, a small town about halfway up Tasmania's east coast, near Freycinet National Park. The land in this part of the state was some of the earliest to be farmed by settlers, and several vast estates remain. They're broken up by swathes of thick forest and some smaller – but not insignificant – peaks. Crossing the mountains that fringe the Central Plateau, there's a fantastic vista of green earth falling away towards the coast. All this spectacle unfolds in 30 minutes, whereas the road trip would have taken several hours.
The chopper touches down a couple of kilometres out of town on the helipad at Piermont. The retreat includes 15 self-contained cottages and six suites, surrounded by orchards and bordered on one side by a beach. The owners are Scandinavian and so is the aesthetic: my cottage is comfortable but minimal, with white-washed walls and a covered timber balcony looking out to sea.
Piermont's snug restaurant is packed with Swansea residents plus weekend visitors from Hobart, and it seems I'm the only mainlander. It feels far removed from the sprawling luxury lodge and tourist magnet, Saffire Freycinet, just up the road.
The magnificent south-west
I depart Piermont at dawn to reach Par Avion's Hobart HQ in time for its Day in the Wilderness light-plane excursion to the Southwest Wilderness. The region, which holds several national parks and covers almost a quarter of the island, is one of the least visited places in Australia. Despite its proximity to Hobart – the Southwest National Park's western border is just 90 kilometres from the city – the area is virtually unknown to tourists.
A helicopter offers quick and easy access to remote or otherwise inaccessible areas of Tasmania.
A helicopter offers quick and easy access to remote or otherwise inaccessible areas of Tasmania. Matt Glastonbury
Only two roads traverse the region, and some parts of the Southwest National Park are 50 kilometres from the nearest vehicular access point. "There aren't going to be any tour buses," Wells tells me as we prepare to take off. "You've typically got the whole national park to yourself, which is pretty extraordinary."
We fly west along the southern coast, past the town of Kettering and rows of enormous cliffs, keeping low to avoid the brooding cloud. The south-west receives rain almost every day of the year, but there's typically sunshine, too. When we land at Melaleuca airstrip, deep within the national park, a glorious rainbow graces the horizon.
The silence in the park is otherworldly. Here are rivers, lakes, forests and hills that are hushed, no matter how hard the wind blows. The marsupials that inhabit this part of the world are largely nocturnal, the birds stoic. For the next several hours, the loudest noise I hear is a scattering of rain.
The author travelled with the assistance of Tourism Tasmania and Par Avion.