Monday, 18 March 2013

Tasmania Bike & Hike Summary

I had little idea what to expect from Tasmania, or Tassie, as it’s know to the locals. I chose to go there because the climate suited what time I had available rather than any other reason. I had read a few online reports and the, not-very-accurate, Lonely Planet guide to Cycling Australia but other than that knew little. 

Freycinet National Park

My last long cycling tour had been way back in 2006 and I’ve changed a lot since then. I’ve spent much more time in wilderness and high mountain areas and wasn't at all sure that a mainly road cycling tour would still be for me. It turned out it wasn't, but that isn't a reflection on Tassie but rather my own preferences. The bits I enjoyed most were the off-road or unsealed sections and this is what I will concentrate on for future trips. Fortunately it’s possible to cover considerable distances off-road in Tassie.

Typical unsealed Tassie road - Cockle Creek

Getting to Tassie from Europe/USA is easy with regular flights into all the major mainland Australian airports.  Tasmania can then be reached by a connecting flight, or by ferry from Melbourne into Devonport, which is in the north of the Island. If like me you are flying long-haul then it makes sense to fly south into Hobart as it really adds little, or nothing, to the overall cost of your flight (£1150 from Manchester, UK). A ferry would have cost a further $150-600 as a passenger only, depending on if you want a cabin or not, and what type. There is nowhere specific at Hobart airport to assemble your bike but just outside, over the road, is an undercover area which houses the car-park pay machines. Next to that is some benches (not covered) and between these 2 places you should be able to build your bike in peace. From the airport it’s possible to cycle directly into the city centre along a mixture of back roads and cycle paths. After more than 40 hrs of travel I took a taxi ($55), which took around 15mins. I wouldn’t recommend cycling down the obvious main road into Hobart, even though it is legal to do so. It’s a very fast and busy road and your chance of survival wouldn’t be high - take the back roads. Accommodation is plentiful in the capital city but I’ve never found city centre hotels to be very accommodating for the needs of a cyclist and chose to stay in cabins around 10km from the centre. The advantage of this is that I can assemble my bike and come and go in peace. I throughly recommend where I stayed and found the staff to be extremely helpful. From here you can join a  traffic free cycle path which will take you directly into the harbour area of Hobart. 

Hobart Intercity Cycleway

Unfortunately Hobart doesn't have any secure cycle parking available for day-to-day use so you will have to leave your bike locked to a cycle stand. I did this without problem but Hobart is the first major modern city I’ve found that doesn't take cycle security seriously. I spent 3 days in Hobart and it has everything you will need to get ready for your tour including many supermarkets, outdoor gear and cycle stores as well as all the other joys of a modern city. It is also culturally and visually a delightful place and as someone who is not a fan of cities I don't say that lightly. The harbour area is particularly magnificent and you really should set aside a day or two for Hobart.

Hobart Harbour

My route was to be a mixture of Giro Tasmania and Lonely Planet’s Cycling Australia, all mixed together with my own ideas. I would question if the writer of the Lonely Planet guide had actually cycled the route he recommended and it was also out of date. Overall it is still a useful guide that had plenty of information on camping, towns and facilities. You can also download it to your phone so no need to carry a heavy paper book. Giro Tasmania is a good route if all you want is a sealed road tour but the best way is to do what I did and mix and match. I  took gravel, or dirt roads, rather than the recommended sealed whenever possible and I enjoyed those sections so much more. My route also evolved as I went along, if I saw something that looked more interesting then I took it. I also had to make changes because of a number of bush-fires that broke out due to the dry weather. For a detailed view of my route (also downloadable in gpx or kml format) then see my Social Hiking page. The highlights of Tasmania for me are, all the east coast, Tasman NP, Port Arthur, Fortescue Bay, Maria Island NP, Freycinet NP, Walls of Jerusalem NP, Cradle Mountain NP, The Tarkine Wilderness (explorer road), Lake St Clair NP, Hobart, Bruny Island and Cockle Creek. I could go on and frankly it's all good! I had intended to do much more hiking than I actually did and in the end only managed 4 or 5 day hikes. I was never totally happy leaving my loaded bike in the middle of nowhere while I went off hiking so in the end decided to concentrate on the cycling. 

Planned route yellow (left), actual route red taken (right)

Tassie has 19 national parks and I recommend you visit as many of them as possible. You will need a permit which will cost $30 for an 8 week cycling/hiking pass. The only time I was asked to produce my permit was when booking campsites in National Park offices but you really should have one. Some 20% of Tassie is classed as wilderness and also as a World Heritage Site. I never really got that feeling of being in real wilderness like I have in North America but that could have been down to my means of travel. It’s just harder to get really remote on a bike than it is when hiking. The west is certainly a lot more wild than east and cycling the Explorer road through the Tarkine Wilderness was the standout highlight of the trip for me. That was despite it being one of the few really wet sections I had.

Tarkine Wilderness from the Explorer Road

The climate was just about perfect for cycling during the time I was there (Dec/Jan). I had warm, dry and sunny days for the full 2 months. I can only remember 2 really wet days though I had a few showers on a number of others. The east of the island is driest and water can be scarce in the summer while the west receives much more. Temperatures were normally in the low to mid 20’s celsius but at one point it hit an all-time record for Tasmania of 41.3 celsius. That day I found an air conditioned motel and took the afternoon off - way too hot for cycling up mountains! 

Painted Rocks - Maria Island NP

These temperatures and reduced rainfall did cause some major bush-fires which meant I had to significantly change my route. This was barely an inconvenience compared to the destruction it caused but be prepared, stay flexible and keep an eye out for fires. I found an excellent app for the iPhone that was indispensable for keeping track of bush fires and recommend that you spend the $0.99 on it.

Tass Fires App - coloured blobs indicate fires

Most areas even if not affected by the bush-fires had fire bans in force. It's worth noting that the only stoves that were allowed to be used in these areas were gas. Think twice before bringing any other type of stove to Tasmania in summer. 

Maria Island - Encampment Cove

Tassie has a reputation for tough cycling and many hills. It is a hilly country but I found it easier cycling than New Zealand. There were few major mountain climbs on my route but it was rarely ever flat. Undulating would describe it well. An average cycling day would consist of many smaller hills which soon add up and could be very tiring by the end of the day. I ended up climbing 94544m over the 3019km route. I cycled my Rohloff equipped Thorn Raven Adventure Tour and it laughed off anything I could throw at it. Not a light bike but tough and reliable it never needed any maintenance. Luggage was carried by Revelate Designs frame bags rather than panniers and I found them excellent. Handling was much improved over my standard 2 pannier system.

One of the few really big climbs in Tassie from 0-1210m in a morning - Central Plateau

Scenically Tassie is a gem. I cycled over 1500km of unspoiled, and nearly always deserted, coastline followed by around the same inland. Rugged coastline, high mountains, temperate rain forests, unusual wildlife, Tasmania has something for everyone. Do it justice and allow much longer than the normal couple of weeks that most cycle tourers do or you will miss so much. 6-8 weeks is about perfect. Given the choice I always used off-road, or unsealed, roads and this took me right off the beaten touring track. I only saw a handful of other cyclists and most of those were in the east, and on sealed roads. Traffic was also much quieter on unsealed sections but do keep an eye out for logging trucks which will not slow down or even move over for you. Fortunately logging is a dying trade in Tassie.

Typical deserted beach - this one is Lime Bay

Sealed roads are generally quieter than you will find in Europe and much quieter than on my last tour around New Zealand. Driving standards are average but read that as low rather than good! I don’t enjoy cycling of busy roads without a good shoulder and it was this that has encouraged me to look at long off-road cycling tours next. Tassie is not particularly busy though and if you enjoy road cycling then it would be an excellent choice for your next tour.

Typical sealed road - fairly quiet but often no shoulder for cycling

Tassie has a really good network of campsites which vary from free to very expensive luxury sites. I rarely wild-camped as whenever I found the perfect spot there would usually be a no camping or private keep-out sign. In the more remote areas (normally west) it was possible to wild-camp without problem. A good compromise is to use some of the no-thrills park run campsites which usually have basic toilet and cold water facilities but nothing else. These are often run on an honesty basis and cost around $6-13/night. The good thing about these sites was the locations. They were often in the best spots. Unfortunately they could attract the wrong crowd and on 2 occasions the police ended up getting called to parties that got out of hand. Out of peak season and during the week these sites are perfect. I would keep away at weekends or busy holiday times though. 

National Park Campsite - Fortescue Bay

Commercial sites are of an excellent standard with all having kitchen facilities, showers and washing machines as a minimum. Most also had cabins for rent for around $100/night . Camping cost around $10-$30/night and the price didn't often reflect either the location or facilities. Some of the best campsites were the cheapest. 

Comercial campsite - Snug

A number of towns also have free designated camping areas with minimal facilities which are very handy but not normally shown on maps. I found this useful in finding them though there is also a book (not used).

Supplies were easily sourced on most days. Many small towns and villages still have a local grocery store and the larger towns all have supermarkets. Prices can be high in the smaller shops and a lot were up for sale. Only in a couple of areas did I need to carry more than a days food and even then I carried a maximum of 4. 

For touring maps I used the freely available digital opencyclemap running on my iPhone through an app called MotionX-GPS. I chose MotionX because it allowed me to download maps for the whole of Tasmania in one go rather than limiting how many tiles can be downloaded like most others apps do. MotionX worked perfectly during the tour and it made navigation on the bike much easier than it would have been just using paper maps. The opencyclemaps were high quality and always accurate which was excellent given that they are free. I also had Runkeeper and Cyclemeter apps running in the background to record the days route. Runkeeper is an on-line service that uploads the route to its servers so makes a good backup option should the worst happen. Cyclemeter is an excellent bike computer that records just about everything about the ride including a very useful route profile. I recommend all these apps and will be using them again on future rides. The iPhone was powered using a generator built into the front wheel so could be kept running for the full tour without worrying about power. In addition I took a paper overview map of the entire Island that showed most roads, tracks and campsites. This was really useful as a backup and invaluable when it came to dodging around the bush fires. I would always carry a paper backup map like this on any tour. I bought a local sim card for my unlocked phone for $29.95 on arrival. That came with a ample data and call allowance (including international calls). Do not pay roaming charges! Optus has a reputation for poor coverage in Tassie but they have upgraded their network recently and I found it to be quite good. 

From left to right - Motion X, Cyclemeter, Runkeeper

Anybody interested in wildlife will be thrilled by the variety of interesting species here. I had many encounters with Wallabies, Wombats, Sea Eagles, Penguins, Seals, Parrots and countless others that I had no idea what they were. The highlight for me was a brief glimpse of a Platypus. Unfortunately the famous Tasmanian Devil eluded me though I did see one in a wildlife park but I don’t really count that. Unfortunately a lot of this wildlife ends up  getting squished on the roads and the stench of rotting flesh will always remain with me.



Sea Eagle

Helpful Magpie!

Overall this was an excellent cycle tour that I would throughly recommend. While I found that I wasn't enjoying cycling on sealed roads as much as I thought I would this wasn't down to Tasmania but my preferences. Normally there was an unsealed alternative but if I came again I would consider cycling the tough off road Tasmanian Trail.  Whatever you decide do give Tassie as much time as you can afford and you will not regret it. I have fond memories and would love to return sometime in the future.

Route with photo's can be found on Social Hiking
Original photo's can be found on flickr