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Maria Island, Tas

A unique location where the visitor feels they have left civilization behind and stepped into another world. There are no noisy cars or machinery, just the sound of the wind rustling in the trees and the occasional bird calling to another. The air is clean; the only smells that accost the nose are the perfumes of the plants in the bushland and the salt in the air, blown off the sea which surrounds you. The whole place is a treat for the senses, and an opportunity to experience something civilisation lost more than a century ago.

The island state of Tasmania is full of places with all the creature comforts one expects while travelling, yet by taking a short drive or boat trip from them, you can be somewhere that feels for all the world like it's a thousand miles from anywhere. Such a place is Maria Island on Tasmania's picturesque east coast. Take the 25-minute journey across the water from the fishing village of Triabunna to Maria Island and suddenly it's as if you have left civilization behind and stepped into another world. The only way to get around is on foot or bicycle; there are no cars, no roads, no towns (except for a few clusters of colonial buildings), no shops, no running water and no one lives there.

So what, to a traveller, is the attraction of a place that has none of the above? For starters, the very fact that it has none of the above. There are no noisy cars or machinery, just the sound of the wind rustling in the trees and the occasional bird calling to another. The air is clean; the only smells that accost the nose are the perfumes of the plants in the bushland and the salt in the air, blown off the sea which surrounds you. The whole place is a treat for the senses, and an opportunity to experience something civilisation lost more than a century ago. It's all about you and nature, and nothing else, except for a few colonial ruins that are a reminder of a failed attempt to bring civilisation to a place that didn't want to be tamed.

Riedle Beach
Bishop and Clerk

Not unlike Bruny Island to the south of Hobart, Maria Island takes the form of a figure-eight, its two sections are joined by a tombolo about 3 km long known as McRaes Isthmus. The northern section of the island is significantly larger than the southern, though both parts have quite rugged relief. It is a mountainous island - Mount Maria rises to 710 m and ‘the Bishop and Clerk’ reaches 915 m - which makes it an ideal place for bushwalking. The reward for the effort are its magnificent vistas across eastern Tasmania's picture postcard coastal landscape, which encompasses sweeping bays, rugged cliffs that tumbling into the sea, jagged rocky outcrops and beaches. Lying four kilometres off the coast at its closest point (Point Lesueur), Maria Island is about 20 km in length from north to south and, at its widest, is about 13 km west to east. A day trip is just enough time to get the feel of the place, but to explore it in detail you would need much more.

There is but one "town" on Maria Island and a peculiar one it is by any standards! It is called Darlington and it lies near the northern tip of the island. Dotted with many wonderful old buildings, this colonial settlement has no permanent inhabitants these days other than a few park rangers who stay during peak periods. Everyone else on the island - up to several hundred a day during the summer holidays - are tourists who come and go.

Maria island is accessible by ferry, boat or light aircraft. Visitors can stay for a few hours or a few days. Once on the island, you will find yourself walking or bicycling in friendly natural surroundings, with no cars, no electricity, no shops and no distractions. There is limited accommodation and limited water supply, visitors have to bring their own food and water, sets of clothes for all weather conditions, any other equipment including bicycles (mountain bikes are available for hire from the ferry operator) they may need or want, and bedding if staying overnight. Activities include short strolls, medium and overnight bushwalks, bicycling, visiting historic and natural features, seeing wildlife at close quarters, birdwatching, boating, kayaking, snorkelling, scuba diving, swimming, fishing, climbing, camping and photography.

Riedle Beach: on the eastern side of the island, Riedle Beach rivals Tasmania's more famous Wineglass Bay in its beauty. But while Wineglass Bay is perpetually busy with tourists, you'll find hardly another soul at this wide sandy 5 km-long beach. Riedle Bay sits on the eastern side of Maria Island's narrow sandy isthmus. There are giant granite rocks at each end of the beach, and a myriad of shells on the shoreline. With a bike, Riedle Beach is a 90-minute cycle ride from Darlington settlement.

Painted Cliffs: Maria Island has sparkling white sandy beaches and a coastal mountain range with lush gullies, but its spectacular limestone and sandstone cliffs are what most visitors to the island recall. The Painted Cliffs are one of nature's masterpieces. Beautifully coloured and patterned sandstone, carved and moulded by the sea, and bordered by rock pools teeming with marine life. Although this sort of rock formation is not uncommon, it is rare in a natural situation for it to be so extensively and beautifully exposed. The wonderful patterns are caused by ground water percolating down through the already formed sandstone and leaving traces of iron oxides, which have stained the rock formation. This probably occurred millions of years ago in a monsoonal climate. More recently, sea spray hitting the rock face has dried, forming crystals of salt. These crystals cause the rock to weather in the honeycomb patterns that you see. Wave action has also created some interesting features. Rock fragments moved around by the water have gradually worn small potholes and notches into the cliff face, eventually resulting in the undercutting of the cliff. This is a continual process and as you walk further along you can see how quite recently the cliff top has collapsed, plunging sandstone blocks and she-oaks down to the sea.

Marine Reserve dive: The reserve is located along the northern shores of the island. Note, fishing is prohibited in the reserve (except recreational fishing, and only then in the area east of Cape Boullanger, the point facing Ile du Nord, near the Fossil Cliffs). Activities at the Reserve include rockpool scrambling, snorkelling and diving. Water temperatures vary 11-20°C with the seasons, and you will see spectacular seaweeds, sponges, anemones, crabs, various invertebrates and fish. Dive tanks can be refilled in Orford.

Darlington Historic Settlement: Historic displays are set up in the Commissariat Store, Mess Hall, William Smith O'Brien's Cottage and Coffee Palace. They document the island's history, its convicts and later settlers, and interpret the ruins and restored heritage. Animals and birds are often seen among the open woodlands and clearings around Darlington. A walk up the hill leads to the convict built reservoir and the old limestone quarries. Historic Guided Tours are available by arrangement with Park staff.

Suggested Walks

  • Walk to Fossil Cliffs north of Darlington (1-2 hours), taking a circuit including the old quarries.
  • Walk to the Painted Cliffs south of Darlington (2 hours), preferably at low tide, with afternoon sun to highlight the colours.
  • Take the track to climb steeply up to Bishop & Clerk (4-5 hours), or Mt. Maria (5-6 hours) for lofty views.
  • For 2-3 days or more: walk (or cycle - mountain bike recommended) from Darlington and stay at campsite at either French's Farm or Encampment Cove. From here you can do side trips to Mt. Maria (5-6 hours), Haunted Bay (3-4 hours), or visit the Point Lesueur historic ruins in a loop walk to include Bloodstone Point (1-3 hours). Swim at either Chinamans Bay or the ocean beach at Riedle Bay. Explore the granite rocks at the end of Riedle Bay beach at low tide. Return to Darlington by the alternative track.
Early morning mist across Maria Island
Darlington ruins

A Brief History

Before the colonial era, the Oyster Bay tribe of Aborigines journeyed regularly to the island they knew as Toarra-Marra-Monah and much evidence of their presence remains. They travelled across the waters of Mercury Passage to collect colourful stones from the cliffs at Bloodstone Point, from which they extracted colouring to put on their hair. They also used to collect shellfish for food and the reeds on the island to make their canoes. 

The island was named on 4th December 1642 by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who also named Schouten Island to the north. Tasman was the first European to travel these waters and is honoured by the state of Tasmania having been named by him. The island was named for Maria van Diemen (nee van Aelst), wife of Anthony van Diemen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia) who had instigated Tasman's voyage of discovery. For many years it was asserted that Tasman had fallen in love with a daughter of Antonio Van Diemen and had named the island after her, but Van Diemen had no daughters. Tasmanians pronounce the name "MA-RYE-UH", as did the early British settlers, but the original pronunciation was "MA-REE-UH".

The day before Tasman came across Maria Island on his journey up the coast, he had taken formal possession of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) for the Dutch by sending his ship's carpenter Pieter Jacobsz to swim through the surf of North Bay just north of the Forestier Peninsula. He took with him a pole with the Dutch East India Company's emblem carved into it, and the Prince of Holland's flag, which he planted on the beach. The strait between Maria Island and the east coast of mainland Tasmania is called Mercury Passage and was named Captain J. H. Cox's after his vessel, the brig Mercury, which anchored in the strait in 1789.

For two periods during the first half of the 1800s, the island hosted British convict settlements. Fifty convicts, most having committed only petty crimes, and some soldiers arrived in 1825. They established the settlement of Darlington, erecting brick and stone buildings and setting up sawmilling, blacksmithing, tanning, brick-making and cloth-making. There were never more than one hundred and sixty convicts on Maria Island during this time.  

The settlement was closed in 1832 when Port Arthur was established and all prisoners were transferred there. Between 1832 and 1842, whaling, smuggling and some grazing continued to take place on the island. In 1842 Maria Island became a convict settlement again. This time it was for convicts on probation - ones who had nearly finished their sentence. Darlington was re-opened and by 1844 there were over 600 convicts on the island. They built more buildings and spent their days fishing or tending crops and sheep. Among those held during this period was the Irish nationalist leader William Smith O'Brien, exiled for his part in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. His cottage still exists in the former penal colony. Young was transferred to New Norfolk on the Derwent River upstream of Hobart in 1850 when the island's convict era came to an end.

In 1884 an Italian businessman called Diego Bernacchi was allowed to rent the island cheaply from the government as long as he started a wine and silk industry. He did, and by 1887 he had also established farms, timber getting, commercial fishing and a cement factory, using limestone deposits quarried at the Fossil Cliffs for the raw material. He renovated the old convict buildings and built a resort style hotel and a coffee palace. There was a school on the island and many people living there. Bernacchi even changed the name of Darlington to San Diego, after himself. Unfortunately he went broke in 1891 and left the island but many stayed, maintaining the farms, timber cutting and fishing industries that were prospering. 

Darlington and the remains of Diego Bernacchi's cement works

At the height of its fortunes in the early 20th century, Darlington had many residents and several hotels. In 1924 Diego Bernacchi returned and opened a new cement works, but within a few months it was already having financial problems and the future of the 500 people living on the island looked grim. In 1930 the company was closed down and most of the people on the island left. For a period of 40 years, the island was dominated by farming. The Robey, French, Howells, McCraig and McCulloch families ran sheep and cattle on the island during this period.

In 1965 the State resumed all of the island's freehold land and Maria Island became an animal sanctuary. In 1972 it was taken over by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and established as Maria Island National Park. The Park was extended in 1991 to include a portion of the surrounding sea. It has been used for wildlife rescue operations and a number of species were introduced to the island like Cape Barren geese, Forester kangaroos and emus.

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Where Is It?: Tasmania: South