In Tasmania, a hike through Australian history
Fiona McIntosh gets a fresh take on the past while on a trek through Tasmania with an Aboriginal guide
Are these strictly necessary, I ask our guide Hank as I hold up a pair of thick, black-nylon gaiters dripping with Velcro straps.
"Well," says Hank, wearily. "There are three kinds of snake in Tasmania and all of them are deadly."
So, I’ll be wearing the gaiters, then.
We are about to set off on an extraordinary four-day walk through some of the most beautiful and remote wilderness in Australia, and I am the only member of our team clueless enough to be wearing shorts. The gaiters will protect my bare legs from ankle to knee, or what Hank unreassuringly calls: "the snake-strike zone".
I am the only Australian-born member of our group of seven. The rest are hearty, eco-conscious Americans, yet embarrassingly I am the one who is the most ill-prepared. But that’s what living in London for the past three decades does to you. It makes you soft and blase about this beautiful and savage country.
"Down here in Tassie we have tiger, white-lipped and copperhead," explains Hank as nonchalantly as if he were listing ice-cream flavours rather than varieties of venomous snake. "They won’t come after you, but if you step on one, you’ll soon know about it."
For the next four days and three nights our little group will be (gingerly) trekking through the wild and verdant north-east corner of Tasmania – the island state at the bottom of Australia.
Led by our Aboriginal guides Hank, Carleeta and Jacob, we’ll cross scrubby, coastal heathland full of banksia, eucalypt and flowering tea tree. We’ll spot wallabies and forester kangaroos, sunbathing lizards and a wombat so docile he sits like a dustbin by our doorway.
But what we won’t see are any roads (you can only get here on foot) or any other people. Not a single soul. Zero. Nada. It’s as if we’ve been dropped into the bush after the apocalypse. For me, this is a particularly reflective journey because over the next four days I learn more about indigenous Australia than I did during 12 years of school education. This is not something I’m proud of, it is just that’s the way it was for schoolchildren in the 1970s when we were spoon-fed a government-approved version of Australian history. Or should I say, white Australian history.
Coming to terms with the past
Our lessons began with the arrival of the First Fleet from Portsmouth in 1788, bringing with it a rag bag of petty thieves, government officials and free men. We learned about the brutality and starvation of the convicts and the early farmers who battled to run sheep on the unforgiving, drought-stricken land. Aboriginals were nothing more than a footnote in that history and after the arrival of the ‘White Man’, we were told they simply ‘died out’.
The truth is, of course, far more bloodthirsty and shameful and nowhere was this more evident than in Tasmania. We have since learned that Aboriginals didn’t simply ‘die out’; they were eradicated so quickly and violently that some historians have described the war against the Tasmanian Aboriginals as genocide. Those who managed to survive, mainly women, were shipped off to missions and later had their children removed from their care in what was either a misguided act of welfare or a deliberate attempt to disengage them from their families and ethnicity.
This later became known as the ‘Stolen Generations’ and in 1997 the Tasmanian government was the first in Australia to apologise and offer compensation for the terrible damage inflicted on its indigenous people.
Hank and his young proteges Jake and Carleeta, who grew up in one of the former missions on Cape Barren Island in Bass Strait, are all descendants of the original Tasmanian Aboriginals. They tell us stories about their joy at being reunited with lost aunts, uncles and cousins in a way that is remarkably full of warmth, rather than recrimination.
Now the Wukalina Walk gives them an opportunity to share the oral history passed down by their elders, in a tangible and meaningful way.
Unlike some of the better known Tasmanian treks, such as the Overland and the Three Capes, the Wukalina Walk was never meant to be an endurance test with pub bragging rights. It is a project set up by the Aboriginal Land Council of Australia to educate us about the Palawa people and their protected homeland, to help us connect with nature and learn about the cultural practices, bush medicines, foods and legends that shaped the world’s oldest living culture.
While early European settlers would have looked at this salty scrubland with despair, Hank’s saw a food store and chemist full of possibility. He shows us how to make a botanical soap by plucking the seed pods from a coastal wattle and rubbing it between his hands with water until it foams: "This will even get rid of the smell of fish.
Walking along the beach he stops to pick up a clump of seaweed. "I’ve tried eating many different types of seaweed and to be honest, they all taste bad, but they are an incredibly rich source of iodine. When those white settlers arrived with cysts on their necks, they only needed to eat a handful of this stuff and they’d have been right."
Yet as we walk and talk, stopping to taste lemon myrtle, a natural antiseptic and anti-inflammatory bush medicine, or hack the sap out of a grass tree (it makes a sweetly fragrant fire starter), this doesn’t feel like ‘an education’, more like a slow-burn immersion.
You are barely aware of how much distance you are covering. As someone who is only moderately fit, the walking required is less challenging than I’d feared – day one demands an 11km (seven mile) scramble up a rocky path to the top of Wukalina (a hill rather than a mountain) and then a gentle walk across flat, virgin bushland to the sea. Day three is the toughest, requiring a 17km wind-blasted walk along the coast to Larapuna, or Bay of Fires, with its hulking pink quartz boulders, white sand and water so blue it looks like it’s been ready-filtered on Instagram.
Luxe amid wilderness
It was also a fabulous relief to see that, after staggering into camp on day one, foot sore and muddy, there was nothing basic about our accommodation. The eco camp was designed by the award-winning Hobart architectural practice Taylor & Hinds, and we all had our own char-black wooden cabins with proper mattresses, duvets, kangaroo skins for added cosiness and, most importantly, zip-up bug nets to deter any uninvited nocturnal visitors.
The showers were not your usual bucket-on-a-string camping variety, either, but brass rainfall numbers that ran as hot as you like and made you well up with relief after a long walk.
In the evening we all met for drinks in the open, domed seating area designed to look like a traditional krakani lumi camp, to gorge ourselves on scallops barbecued in their shells, kangaroo and mutton bird (gamey and slick with omega-3 oils). Sitting by the fire-pit, looking up at the Southern Cross, we could hear the surf and the rustle of wallabies in the bush and knew we were the only humans for miles.
On day two, we rested between our long walks at the camp. Hank and Carleeta took us to the beach to swim and showed us a midden, a sacred meeting point where their ancestors would hunt and fish and collect abalone and cuttlefish. Later that day we spent hours with Carleeta absorbed in punching holes into pearlescent warrener shells to string into traditional necklaces.
Hank also showed us how to whittle a traditional spear, all the while deploying his dry sense of Australian humour, particularly when it came to talking about his brother Ian: "Or as we call him, Never Never, because he’s never never around, never never does anything, and never never raises a sweat."
But Hank’s amusing banter can’t hide his Wikipedia-esque knowledge of every plant and animal in this extraordinary landscape. It is little wonder that the Wukalina Walk is being held up by the Australian Tourist Board as the gold standard in the growing area of indigenous tourism, as more experienced travellers look for authentic, cultural experiences beyond the standard itinerary of sea and outback.
A taste of authenticity
Aboriginal-owned and operated tours are proliferating in the Northern Territory and in Western Australia. If you are short on time, you can also book Aboriginal guided walks in the Melbourne and the Sydney Botanical Gardens. At the excellent Peninsula Hot Springs outside Melbourne, a three-hour bush medicine-and-tucker trek with First Australian guide Lionel Lauch ends with a relaxing meditational smoking ceremony as you listen to the waves crashing against the rocks beneath you. And at the Maruku Arts Centre at Uluru, you can book a guide from one of the local Anangu communities for a bush tucker walk around the base of the rock and learn about creation stories and dot paintings.
These experiences not only give you a sense of the many different Aboriginal communities before the arrival of white settlers, but an understanding of how profoundly the indigenous people were connected to the natural world. Instead of fighting against the land, plundering the water table for irrigation and stripping back indigenous vegetation in order to plant crops, they worked with the natural habitat and the seasons.
As temperatures and bushfires increase in Australia and climate change deniers openly pontificate on the country’s news channels, you wonder why we aren’t listening more carefully to the people who understand this land better than anyone else.
To start planning your Australian trip for when restrictions ease, visit australia.com.
The four-day Wukalina Walk (wukalinawalk.com.au) leaves Launceston each Sunday from late September to the end of April. It costs from $2,695 per person based on two sharing.
Peninsula Hot Springs (peninsulahotsprings.com); Indigenous Walk and Guided Meditation with Living Culture and Lionel Lauch (livingculture.org.au); Aboriginal Guided Walk Melbourne Botanical Gardens (firstname.lastname@example.org).
All holidays abroad are currently subject to restrictions.