Tasmania Honeymoon

Tasmanian Honeymoon In A Van by Michael Johns

Thanks to all the generous contributions to our honeymoon fund by friends and family, Casey and I were able to spend 3 awesome weeks touring Tasmania in a camper van. And we managed to spend every last cent... so thanks again to everyone for your gifts! Here are a handful of photos and some anecdotes from our travels.

Preamble: 3 Days in Hobart

Prior to getting the van, we stayed at an Airbnb in Hobart for 3 nights to take in the sights of the city. We treated ourselves to a fancy 6-course meal, pub food and beer, and a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) via a ferry that used plastic sheep and pink rockets as seats (art). The museum was a highlight of our trip, and if you ever find yourself in Hobart I highly recommend a visit.

Day 1: Hobart to Remarkable Cave

After picking up of Hertz rental van from the Hobart airport, stocking the cupboards with food and drink, and remembering to drive on the left, we set off for the Tasman Peninsula. Our destination was a spot on the southern corner of the peninsula called Remarkable Cave, a cavernous forking cave system carved by the erosional force of waves. From the parking lot, we hiked out to Mount Brown, offering views of a rugged coastline and secluded sandy beaches. We took a side trail down to one such beach in Maingon Bay, a great place for a swim. Later in the afternoon on our hike back, we spotted our first echidna digging for ants along the trail, Australasian gannets patrolling beyond the breakers, and a lone albatross gliding past the shore. We spent our first night in the van under the southern stars in the parking lot of Remarkable Cave, and speculated that the built in mini-fridge was quite possibly the noisiest fridge on the planet.

Day 2: Remarkable Cave to Fortescue Bay

“You can drive on unsealed roads, you just won’t be covered by insurance”. Turns out you can’t get to any of the preferred destinations in Tasmania by only staying on paved surfaces, so despite the lack of coverage by Hertz, after a long drive down a dusty washboard we arrived at the Mill Creek Campground in Fortescue Bay. Surprisingly, our tiny bald tires survived the puncture-threatening rough road (and the many kilometers of future unsealed routes we later took). Fortescue Bay was where I spent a few days hiking on my first visit to Tasmania back in 2011, and is arguably one of the most beautiful spots on the island. I dug up the following passage from my travel notes back then, which I think sums up this part of Tasmania pretty well.

“I’m looking across Fortescue Bay to the cathedrals of rock, reaching vertically 300 meters. The sun’s late afternoon low light, absorbed by the lichen, paints a golden orange on the cliff faces with contrasting black boxy shadows. The wind is high, blowing wave tops into spray, creating miniature rainbows as the water rains down. Dozens of Shy Albatross furrow their brows as they patrol the surface in the wind, while Australasian Gannets, with a flash of white wings dipped in black ink, soar high above. Black Faced Cormorants dawned in elegant tuxedos stand idle by on the rocks around me, their wings outstretched and heated by the suns reseeding rays. Sooty Oystercatchers pierce the exposed limpets and mussels with their fire red bills, while the broad leafy fronds of Bull Kelp dance and slap as they fold in and out with the waves. Somewhere in the distance I hear the muted bark of an Australian Fur Seal, masked by the howling wind and the crash of the boiling surf. The entire scene, the setting sun, the chill in the air, the epic cliffs, and the abundant wildlife, is absolutely beautiful.”

Fortescue is where the Cape Hauy Track begins, a strenuous trail through dense forest that eventually gives way to epic views along steep dolerite cliffs sculpted by erosion into vertical geometric pillars of rock. Waiting until the morning rush of hikers had ended, we traversed the many steps on the 4-hour return trail and found ourselves at the scenic lookout with only a few other lone hikers. Brief refreshing squalls of heavy downpours rolled in as we neared the end of the trail, with thunder booms echoing through the hills behind us. After our hike, we cooled off with a swim in the Tasman Sea, where Casey nearly waded into a huge Smooth Stingray, the largest species of ray in Australia, which I thought was merely a massive clump of detached kelp.

Day 3: Fortescue Bay to Swansea

Waiting for a break in the pouring rain, we explored the Tessellated Pavement on our way out of the Tasman Peninsula, a bench of crisscrossing cracks in the rock that form a natural tile-like texture. Our next major destination would be Maria Island, but we decided to overshoot the ferry terminal a bit to spend a night in a caravan park in Swansea, a humble little town tucked in the northwest corner of Great Oyster Bay. Access to power and water hookups gave us a chance to charge batteries, top off the drinking water, and take a hot shower, while the town provided a few extra groceries and beer. Another little known perk to this holiday park was a five minute walk to a modest short-tailed shearwater colony fringing a golf course built on a nearby headland. We sat post-sunset and pre-sunrise the next morning watching dozens of shearwaters crash land and awkwardly waddle in and out of their earthen burrows; seabirds after all are better adapted to a life at sea. Little blue penguins often accompany shearwater colonies, the chance of seeing them drawing in a handful of other tourists staying in the holiday park, but none were seen. The fact that shearwaters cover the entire Pacific Ocean basin on an annual migration to the Bering Strait and Arctic Ocean made seeing them on land at their breeding colony way more exciting than penguins for us.

Day 4: Swansea to Maria Island (via Ferry from Triabunna)

Wombats are all over Tasmania, but the place were they are most concentrated must be Maria Island. Leaving the van behind in Triabunna, we jumped on a 30-minute ferry out to Maria Island, pronounced by the Aussies with an “h” like Mariah Carey. Clearings from former human occupation makes the historical shore-based whaling settlement of Darlington, where the ferry docks, the perfect habitat for grazers like wombats and pademelons, and an absence of cars and lack of any natural predators means their populations have exploded. We spotted a few upon arrival and evidence of their presence in the form of cubic droppings everywhere, but once sunset neared the grassy slopes began teeming with brown lumps of wombats trundling across the landscape. We also observed quite a few eastern grey (or Forester’s) kangaroo and many Cape Barren geese.

Aside from the abundant wildlife, another major natural attraction on Maria Island are the Painted Cliffs, a short walk north from the campground. The natural canvas of white sandstone was carved by waves and stained red by deposits of iron oxide. We hung around the Painted Cliffs until dusk, in hopes that the orange of sunset would enhance the color of the rock, which it did.

Avoiding the sprawling tent communities of two competing youth groups, we pitched our tent on the edge of the far grassy field near a windy beach. Before heading to bed we spent about an hour spotlighting for Tasmanian devils, which were introduced to Maria Island in 2012 to serve as an insurance population against a prolific contagious nose tumor that is killing off much of the natural population. While we saw many brush-tailed possums, we had no such luck with the devils.

Day 5: Maria Island to Denison Beach

Next on our list of places to see was Wineglass Bay in Freycinet National Park, located east of Swansea on the Freycinet Peninsula. When we arrived, however, we found ourselves adrift among hordes of cars, camper vans, and motor homes. People everywhere. Wineglass Bay has been voted by a few apparently important travel guides as one of the top 10 beaches in the world, and tourists have obviously taken notice. After some deliberation, we decided to leave the crowd behind and keep driving north, and ended up finding Denison Beach, what we thought must be at least one of the top 10 beaches in Tasmania, and best of all, with no one on it. We relaxed in the sun, swam in calm clear blue water, and enjoyed a sunset of fluffy pink clouds. The small dirt parking lot at the entrance to the beach served as our campground for the night, a space we shared with likely another refugee of the Freycinet complex.

Day 6: Denison Beach to Humbug Point

After morning coffee on the beach and one last swim, we continued trekking north en route to a campground at Humbug Point just south the Bay of Fires, a stretch of coastline named by an English navigator in 1773 in reference to a string of beach fires from Aboriginal people. Coincidentally, this area of Tasmania also contains granite boulders coated with vibrant fiery orange lichen. The scrabbling sound of claws on metal woke us up late at night, and we were convinced a gang of brush-tailed possums would soon bust through the mesh of the vent windows and raid out food cupboards. Turns out they didn’t, and we also discovered in the morning that we had left the passenger window down.

Day 7: Humbug Point to Stump’s Bay

We spent the morning at Eddystone Lighthouse on the north end of the Bay of Fires, where we enjoyed the endless white sand beach for a bit and attempted to body surf the small wind waves. By mid afternoon, after driving past long stretches of cow pasture and farms, we arrived at Stumpy’s Bay, the furthest north we would travel on this trip. Wallabies frequented our camper van.

Day 8: Stumpy’s Bay to Narawntapu

Leaving the east coast behind, we set off on our second longest leg, passing through small towns and farmland to Narawntapu National Park, considered the Serengeti of Tasmania. The campgrounds contained warm coin-operated showers, which were nice. We hiked out of Bakers Beach to kill time, a densely vegetated walk where blotchy patterns of leaves from crown shyness of the trees blocked out a grey overcast sky. The north coast of Tassie had a cold, lonely bleakness to it, but then again it may have just been the wind and grey skies. Living up to its reputation, by late afternoon the fields of Narawntapu were peppered with Forester’s kangaroos and Bennett’s wallabies. If we squinted we could almost envision herds of gazelles grazing across the Serengeti. The rumbling of a passing lightning storm shook us awake in the middle of the night, soaking my boots that had been visited by a wallaby earlier in the day.

Day 9: Narawntapu to Cradle Mountain

One might say the north coast of Tasmania defines the urban sprawl, and while it was nice to see this side of the state, we were ready to get back to the wilderness.  With a refueling and water stop in the town of Burnie, we headed south towards the interior. After waffling on where to stay for the night, we managed to snag the last campsite at Cradle Mountain. Despite similar hordes of people that scared us away from Freycinet, Dove Lake backdropped by the bowl-like silhouette of Cradle Mountain is an iconic scene we didn’t want to miss. We circumnavigated the lake early to beat the crowd, along one of the most well maintained trails I’ve ever been on. A heavy mist made the multi-colored zebra patterns of the tree bark and rich green leaves really pop. Among the wildlife sighted was an echidna foraging dangerously close to the road, and a wombat seeking shelter from the mist under the boardwalk trail.

Day 10: Cradle Mountain to Mountain Valley Reserve

We really wanted to catch a glimpse of a Tasmania devil in the wild, so after some research Casey stumbled upon the Mountain Valley Nature Reserve, which boasts a near guaranteed chance of seeing them right outside your cabin window. It turns out they do this by putting chicken on the lawn off the front porch of each cabin, but we won’t get into that here. So we booked one of the six cabins and parked the van for two nights. Devils are only active at night, and with a nearly full moon, we would have to stay up pretty late in order to see them. Casey made it to 2AM the first night, and although we were very excited to see our first spot-tailed quolls, no devils showed up. The next morning our neighbors said they saw a single devil at 2:30AM, so perhaps we had just missed them. So the second night, we stayed up as long as we could. Again, we were visited by a different quoll and a possum, and just before I was about to call it a night, a devil appeared from behind a nearby bush. The encounter was brief, and it didn’t like to stay in the light of our porch for very long, but we managed to finally see a Tasmanian devil in the wild. As a bonus, we saw several platypus in a nearby river and even got a private tour of a glow worm grotto at a limestone cave on the property. The lack of sleep was worth it, but we were pretty tired by the end of our stay here.

Day 12: Mountain Valley to The Neck (Bruny Island)

A traveling day. Desperate to return to the coast, we made a beeline for Bruny Island. A little over 6-hours later, we picked a spot to camp for the night at The Neck.

Day 13: The Neck to Jetty Beach (Bruny Island)

A major draw to visiting Bruny Island was the chance of spotting little blue penguins from an observation platform at The Neck, a narrow strip of sand bounded by ocean. It turns out there is a massive short-tailed shearwater colony there too, with thousands of burrows covering the entire sand dune. The smell of seabirds was ever present. So after waiting for dark, a slow trickle of a few shearwaters flying in from the east erupted into a sky thick with several thousand birds. It was amazing. They were crash landing all over the place, their silhouettes visible with the diminishing twilight. A group of high schoolers showed up with red lights, which helped illuminate the scene. I was pretty happy to see these kids were so interested in observing such a relatively unknown seabird. As the shearwaters began to find their burrows and quiet down, 5 little blue penguins appeared from the beach, and slowly made their way to their respective homes.

We finished our tour of Bruny Island with two flights of beer from the Bruny Island brewing company (which were all delicious), a visit to the lighthouse at the south end, and camping at Jetty Beach for the night.

Day 14: Jetty Beach to Cockle Creek

For our final night in the van, we felt it would only be fitting to camp at Cockle Creek, the farthest south you can drive in Tasmania. Although the guidebooks stated this place was off the beaten path, most of the desirable parking spots for camper vans were taken, but we managed to find some space. The beach here was amazing, and we spent our final full day drinking beer in the sun on the sand. 

South of a Sunburnt Country by Michael Johns

Using a gridded sea surface temperature dataset from NOAA, and a handy orthographic projection of Earth centered on the South Pole, you can see Tasmania hovering just above a cold ring of water wrapping around the frozen continent of Antarctica. Although a part of the sunburnt country of Australia, Tasmania’s southern position and proximity to this cooler band of ocean temperatures gives the island a more temperate climate. February in the Southern Hemisphere means shorter days and cooler nights, marking the beginning of a transition to fall. Cooler temps and rain couldn’t come soon enough, as the whole of Australia has been hit with the one of the most extreme heat waves on record, with bush fires sparked by lightning strikes raging across much of Tasmania. These heat waves may become the new norm for this and many other parts of the world, as global average temperatures begin to creep up from a long-term baseline. While not as pronounced as places like the Arctic, records indicate sea and air temperatures are slowly on the rise for this unique southern island of Australia.

Graphics created in R with packages ggplot2 and touched up in Photoshop. SST data are interpolated high resolution average daily values for January 30th, 2019. I tested out a cool new package put out by the BBC graphics team on the temperature anomaly plot, which allows you to apply the graphing styles they use for publications. Check out the link HERE.

Where Are the People? by Michael Johns

Aside from a major city and a handful of townships, Tasmania is mostly an island of rugged landscapes and remote wilderness. There are roughly 522,000 people currently living on this island state of Australia, nearly half of whom reside in the greater Hobart region; Tasmania’s only city center. The heat maps above depict the spatial distribution and densities of people across the island. Each circle represents a 0.05 x 0.05 degree pixel within a larger spatial grid, colored by the total number and density of people within each pixel. Rather than using a raster or contours to display the population data, I went with a simple grid of points using the package ggplot2 in R, which I think gives it a retro “Lite-brite” look. If you never had one as a kid then you missed out. Hobart glows red hot, followed by the town Launceston (called “Launy” by the Aussies) and the northern coastline. We will be flying into Hobart and exploring the city for a few days, before heading out in a camper van rental to check out some of the darker corners of these maps.

Population data used to create the maps above can be found at the following link: http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/data/set/gpw-v4-admin-unit-center-points-population-estimates-rev10/data-download

Rather messy but mostly functional R code used to make maps can be downloaded HERE.

Waiting for Australia by Michael Johns

Casey and I still have 5 weeks to go before our belated honeymoon to Tasmania, and already I’m dreaming up cool ways to display data from our trip. So far I have plans for comparing our heart rates in response to different situations using data collected from our Fitbits, tracking the routes we take during our 3-week road trip around the island, and summarizing the different species of plants and animals encountered along the way. To kick things off, I’ve put together a map showing the 8 different flights required to complete a roundtrip ticket from Fairbanks Alaska to Hobart Tasmania. Aside from some text, airplane vector art, and a custom legend (designed to look like a passport stamp) which I added in Photoshop, all of the features of the plot were assembled in R using the ggplot2 package. The coord_map( ) function in ggplot created a spherical projection of the earth, and the white stipples you see on the continents depicts light pollution data, highlighting the city centers. Not counting layover times, it will take us nearly 46 hours to complete the journey.