Travel: Tasmania, Australia

Tasmania is home to some of the toughest endurance challenges in the world. Picture: Tourism Tasmania & Octagon Australia
Tasmania is home to some of the toughest endurance challenges in the world. Picture: Tourism Tasmania & Octagon Australia
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YOU don’t have to take part in a gruelling charity event to explore this beautiful island, writes Christopher Marshall

WHILE the bushfires which devastated parts of the state earlier this year may have brought Tasmania to our attention, the island has been a destination on the British radar ever since being established as a penal colony in the 19th century.

Now attracting international visitors for an altogether different form of punishment, “Tassie” is home to the annual Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge, named after the Australian Formula 1 driver who set it up to test individuals to their limits, and to raise money for charity.

A gruelling race across some of the most dramatic scenery the country has to offer, the event, held every December, welcomes teams from Europe and Asia as well as Australia and New Zealand.

After steeling myself for a week of running, cycling and kayaking, however, I arrived in the city of Launceston in the north of the island to the happy discovery that my planned itinerary and that of the 230-mile event would diverge enough to allow for a rather more sedate stay.

Tasmania’s second largest city with a population of 68,000, Launceston was my base for the beginning of the challenge, which would see competitors dash across the city before whitewater rafting down the stunning Cataract Gorge.

Arriving a day before the start of the event on a turbulent flight from Melbourne, my one-hour crossing of the Bass Strait marked the end of an epic air journey which saw me leave Glasgow around 24 hours earlier.

Sitting at the confluence of the North and South Esk rivers, Launceston began to be developed in the early 19th century, and retains many of its pretty Victorian and Georgian buildings today.

After a quick coffee at a cafe in town, my guide Rob and I headed for Barnbougle Dunes, one of Australia’s top public-access golf courses.

Based on a Scottish links course – its originator had the idea while working as a caddie at the Old Course in St Andrews – Barnbougle sits on a gorgeous strip of coast, with some fantastic holes. Despite its similarities to a Scottish course, there were enough wallabies, blue-tongued lizards and patches of “snakey”–looking rough to remind us this was Australia and not Fife.

Opened in 2004, Barnbougle has since been joined by a second course, the Lost Farm. Following a quick nine holes in the morning and a lunch at a nearby winery, it was time to meet up with the Webber Challenge at Country Club Tasmania in Launceston. After the relaxed surroundings of Barnbougle, the sight of super-fit competitors lining up their kayaks and preparing their mountain bikes for action came as a bit of a shock.

The challenge, which has grown in popularity since its inaugural outing in 2003, sees competitors run, cycle and paddle across the island.

While journalists from other newspapers had competed in previous years, I was delighted to learn that mine would be more of a watching brief, allowing me to break off from the 5am starts and race meetings to explore what else the island has to offer.

Roughly the same size as Ireland or Sri Lanka, the entire population of Tasmania is just 500,000, making it one of the most sparsely populated places on earth. And while much of the scenery, not to mention place names, will remind Scots of home, the empty beaches of the Freycinet peninsula are like nothing which can be found in the UK.

Webber, who finished sixth in the 2012 F1 season, has become one of Tasmania’s biggest fans after deciding more or less on a whim to use the state as the challenge’s home.

“We were brainstorming back in the UK one night about where we would hold the challenge,” he said. “It needed to be somewhere remote, and it needed to be somewhere rugged. It was a no-brainer. I had raced here in 1994, but I had no affinity with the place back then.

“For people back in the UK, it’s maybe not what they expect of Australia. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s not the Outback.”

Such is his commitment to the event, Webber flew from the final race of the season in Brazil to his home in the UK and then on to Tasmania in the space of just a few days.

“This is not a 5k fun run,” he added. “It is a real commitment. Could the event go ahead without me? Yes, it could. But it’s important for me to come down here and show my face.”

Breaking away from the challenge once more, I headed for the Freycinet peninsula, home to some of the state’s most beautiful beaches.

Taking its name not from its shape, but from the bloody whaling industry which is said to have once turned its waters red, Wine Glass Bay is an idyllic stretch of coast made all the more special by the slightly challenging trek needed to reach it.

Meeting up with the challenge once more, I spent the remainder of my trip in the Tasmanian capital of Hobart, which was founded as a penal colony in 1804 and is the second oldest city in Australia after Sydney.

Hobart has enjoyed a tourism boom in recent years due to the creation of MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), an eccentric collection of oddities housed in a subterranean bunker on the outskirts of town.

Voted number seven in Lonely Planet’s top ten cities in the world to visit in 2013, Hobart’s regeneration is perhaps best seen at the waterfront, where locals meet in bars and restaurants.

I stayed at the stylish Henry Jones Art Hotel, which was converted from a former jam factory. Just a few streets away lies Ethos, a great little restaurant serving local Tasmanian produce with a stylish modern interpretation.

Among the dishes on the $65 tasting menu was wallaby served with puy lentils and colourful flowers picked from the garden. Other highlights included Tasmanian blue cheese and seared squid, all washed down with white ale from the local Van Diemen’s microbrewery.

Feeling guilty after my tour of the island’s restaurants and wineries, while everyone else was running or kayaking, I travelled to the top of Mount Wellington, overlooking Hobart, for the final stage of the race.

Rising to more than 4,000ft, Mt Wellington provided a bracing start, with competitors mountain biking, running and kayaking back to the finish line in the city centre.

After seeing the competitors cross the finish line, I had one last treat in store before heading for home – a visit to the fantastic Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary.

Tasmania’s icon and the island’s best known inhabitant, the Tasmanian devil is currently under siege from a devastating cancer which has seen numbers in the wild shrink dramatically since the 1990s. The devil facial tumour disease, which is thought could be linked to pesticides used by farmers, causes tumours, which eventually form in the mouth, causing the animal to die of starvation.

Now officially categorised as endangered, huge efforts are being put into maintaining healthy populations of devils, not least at Bonorong, where the animals can be seen alongside friendly kangaroos, quolls and wombats.

Following my return from Tasmania, parts of the island were ravaged by bush fires, with record temperatures causing many people to flee their homes.

Now more than ever, this beautiful island would welcome some Scottish visitors. I may even join you if I can get myself fit enough for the Webber Challenge 2013.

THE FACTS

Austravel (0800 988 4834, www.austravel.com) has a 15-day motorhome holiday in Tasmania from £1,595 per person. The price includes return flights from Glasgow to Hobart with Emirates and 14 nights’ Apollo Motorhome hire. Based on departures in November 2013. A room at the Henry Jones Art Hotel costs from £98 per person per night (through Austravel) www.thehenryjones.com; for further information on Tasmania, see www.discovertasmania.co.uk; for more information on the Mark Webber Challenge visit www.markweb berchallenge.com