Wombats and Devils on Maria Island

Maria Island offers a unique combination of abundant wildlife, Australian convict and early industrial history and multi-day bushwalking opportunities. A four-day hike takes us to the far southern end of Maria Island as well to the summits of Mt Maria (711m) and Bishop and Clerk (620m), and to the Fossil Cliffs by bike.

This is the only pre-planned walk we have in Tasmania: four nights camping on Maria Island. The whole family heads over from Triabunna on the mid-morning ferry, but only Luke and I are staying on the island. I’ve reserved our spots on the ferry a week in advance (a new and much larger ferry since 2017 means it sometime, but rarely gets booked out). The Maria Island Penitentiary accommodation was totally booked out, although in hindsight I’m happy not to have booked here as it’s way too busy in January for my liking!

A few tips from our four-day adventure:

  • What’s the best time to visit Maria Island? December and January are the busiest months; one of the rangers suggested March/April as being the best time if you want to avoid the crowds. The ferry runs less frequently in winter, but if you want seclusion consider a winter visit!
  • Where to stay? In addition to the campground at Darlington (near the ferry) there’s the Penitentiary – basic bunkhouse-style accommodation, offering 9 rooms with 6 beds and 1 room with 14 beds. You can also camp at Frenchs Farm and Encampment Cove, both about 11-14km from Darlington depending on the route you take. I suspect you could camp anywhere on the mote remote parts of the island – but it’s highly discouraged and other than Robeys Farm there’s very few places with drinkable water.
  • How to get around? Other than walking (or jogging, if you are that way inclined!) you can rent a bike – bookings are highly recommended in Dec/Jan. If you have an overnight pack you’ll probably struggle riding with a heavy pack – and they won’t rent you a bike anyway. (So if you are determined to get to Frenchs Farm or Encampment Cove to camp, hide your backpack when you go and hire your bike!)
  • How available is water? There was plenty of water at Frenchs Farm, Encampment Cove and Robeys Farm in January – but best to check. I was surprised that almost every creek was dry – except Counsel Creek and Four Mile Creek near the top of Mt Maria.


Getting to Maria Island and walk overview

The ferry trip across from Triabunna to Darlington on Maria Island is fairly quick and uneventful (it takes about 45min), and there’s a pretty good range of snacks and drinks on the boat for a last pre-camping meal. (Judging by a couple of badly cracked windows, some crossings must be a lot rougher than ours!)

The ferry docks at Darlington and the luggage is efficiently lifted via a small crane onto the wharf for collection. Near the jerry are some historic structures, such as the cement silos, and the Commissariat Store (which is also the national park visitor centre).

We set off (without our overnight packs) to climb Bishop and Clerk, the second-highest peak on the island. Amy, my daughter, is going to join Luke and I for this walk before catching the last ferry back to the mainland with Mum.

Our itinerary was designed to see as much of the island as we could – and where possible avoid carrying our heavy overnight bags…

In total, we cover about 80km over three days – which is most the marked tracks on the island. On the fourth day we hire a bike to cover the area around Darlington.

Bishop and Clerk (Day 1)

The summit of Bishop and Clerk (620m asl) is a popular day walk: as well as being one of Tasmania’s “Top 60 Great Short Walks”, it’s regarded as one of Tassie’s best day walks. We set-off from opposite the Parks and Wildlife Office, where we leave our big packs, taking the unsealed road that passes behind the old penitentiary.

We also pass the site of the “Twelve Apostles”, named after a row of workers’ cottages built during the first industrial era (1888–96). Soon after we pass the junction with the Reservoir Circuit, as we continue up the Fossil Cliff  Track.

Once the track reaches the grassy plain at the top of the Fossil Cliffs, the scenery gets more interesting. The rocky summit of Bishop and Clerk is clearly visible in the distance as the track follows Skipping Ridge, along the edge of the cliff-top. The dolerite columns that form the top of Bishop and Clerk were named because of the supposed resemblance to a bishop, wearing a mitre, followed by a clergyman. Although even when I squint or turn my head at funny angles, I can’t really see this resemblance!

Looking back down the coast, you can see the mainland in the distance above the towering cliffs. Even better is the fact we’re already gained about 150m in altitude without really trying…


It gets a bit tougher from here, as we leave the open grassy plain, and the track enters the (mostly) eucalypt forest and starts to steadily climb. At the start of the forested section there’s a stand of sheoaks or casuarinas, which were prized as firewood by the early settlers. These are gradually replaced by stringybarks, blue gums and manna or white gum eucalypts.


This part of the walk is pretty boring… we don’t see any wildlife, there are no wildflowers and no view. Just the narrow track heading relentlessly up the ridge…

It gets more interesting when we reach the scree field, formed by dolerite rock debris. There is a rough track that zig-zags up the slope and make it fairly easy to negotiate the sometimes loose stones (the kids decide to ignore the track and walk directly up the hill). Without the tree cover, there are now views over Mercury Passage to mainland Tasmania.

As the trail ascends, the boulders get gradually bigger – and the view keeps improving!


Near the summit, the rocks become boulders, and in a few places we need to use our hands and feet as we scramble up. There’s a false summit where we think we’ve made it, followed by a steep right-hand turn and another 50m before we’re really on top of Bishop and Clerk.

The panoramic view from the top is incredible – and we have the summit to ourselves. Having started the walk relatively late in the day, everyone’s been and gone by the time we get there (we met a few people on their way down).


To the west is Cape Boullanger and the Fossil Cliffs, and the east coast of the mainland on the other side of Mercury Passage.


To the north, beyond the jagged dolerite columns, I can just make out Isle des Phoques, and in the far distance Schouten Island and the Freycinet Peninsula.


After I take a few photos and kids have finished leaping across the rocks at the top, we start our descent, clambering carefully down the large boulders at the top.

We make good progress on the way back, taking exactly 3.5 hours for the return trip – and I see my first wombat on the outskirt of Darlington. Which was quite exciting… by the same time tomorrow, I’m far less excited having seen more wombats in 24 hours than in the previous 24 years!


Darlington to Frenchs Farm (Day 1)

While we’ve finished the Bishop and Clerk walk, Luke and I still need to reach Frenchs Farm, our destination for today. After a short break and refilling of water bottles, we strap on the overnight packs and head down the Coast Road. On the outskirts of the Darlington settlement we pass Mrs Hunt’s Cottage; Mrs Hunt was the one of the last island inhabitants prior to the island being proclaimed a National Park. Grazing in the foreground are two Cape Barren Geese, introduced to Maria Island in 1968.

Our progress is hampered by another wombat sighting, grazing on the inland side of the Coast Road. Not just any wombat, but an adult and child munching together on grass, oblivious to us taking photos. Maria Island is home to about 4,000 wombats and the population has been steadily increasing, to the point where there is a concern it may be unsustainable (“The current status of wombat populations on Maria Island National Park” by Janeane Ingram). The wombats on Maria Island are a subspecies of the common wombat (Vombatus ursinus ursinus) which were once found throughout the Bass Strait islands but are now restricted to Flinders Island, and Maria Island where they were introduced in the 1970s.


It doesn’t take us long to reach Hopground Beach, a beautiful bay that’s better known for the Painted Cliffs at the far end.


We continue down the Coast Road, which crosses Counsel Creek – you can also turn off here and continue along the beach.

We spot some more birdlife here: another Cape Barren Goose, and after we take the short path down to the Painted Cliffs, there’s a pair of pied oystercatchers feeding on the rocky shoreline.

The Painted Cliffs is one of the attractions on Maria Island (and the walk from Darlington to the Painted Cliffs is another Tasmanian “Great Short Walk”). Easily accessed at low tide, the long sandstone outcrop has been weathered over millions of years by groundwater percolating down through the sandstone and leaving traces of iron oxides, which gives the rock formation its unusual pattern.


More recently, sea spray hitting the rock face has dried and in the process formed salt crystals of salt, which have caused the rock to weather in a honeycomb pattern.


We continue down the Coast Road, which follows the coast fairly closely. It’s relatively easy walking and there are nice views of the coastline and remote bays and beaches.

There’s also increasing sightings of wildlife as we get into the late afternoon: wombats, Forester (Eastern grey) kangaroos and wallabies (the Tasmanian pademelon and Bennetts wallaby).


With our legs starting to tire, we have a brief stop at the beautiful Four Mile Beach. There’s a small group who are leaving as we arrive; they’ve come from a boat moored a small distance offshore and have brought a dog with them. I’m happy when they rather hastily put their furry friend in their dinghy and motor back to their yacht, leaving just us to admire the beach and turquoise-coloured water.


After Four Mile Beach the Coast Road heads inland, crossing Four Mile Creek. (While the creek looks nice from a distance, it had a lot of algae and didn’t look too tempting as a water source. Had it been clear, flowing water we might have camped here, close to the beach! I discover later that the “Maria Island Walk” has a camp near here, so I wonder if they use water from Four Mile Creek – or water tanks?)


We trudge on, looking forward to reaching our campground. Fortunately the Coast Road is fairly flat, although it’s now a few hundred metres inland from the coast and there’s not much to see. We’re very happy when reach Frenchs Farm just after 7pm. At the top of the campground is a a simple weatherboard house, built during the 1950s when farming was introduced to the island, and later restored. The house is is no longer used – other than collecting rainwater which fills a large water tank (which is fairly full).


Nearby is an old shearing shed and stockyard, which doesn’t hasn’t been restored, but seems in reasonable condition. I don’t notice any smell… but one of the Maria Island ranger suggested you could still detect a faint odour of sheep from the 1940s and 50s.

We find a campsite near the bottom of the main campground, which has the luxury of a picnic table nearby. Wombats are grazing everywhere, and later in the evening one ambles right past our tent. There’s one other tent already set-up, and a couple of hikers that arrive just after us. It’s a huge campground, and behind the (dry) creek there’s another area you could camp if you want total privacy and seclusion.

After eating dinner, we’re treated to a blood-red sky as the sun sets behind the farmhouse and shed – a nice end to a long but rewarding day!


Haunted Bay (Day 2)

We’re up early the next day, as we leave our tent and overnight backpacks at Frenchs Farm, and continue south to the far end of Maria Island on the Isthmus Track.

Not far from Frenchs Farm we cross a wide creek, which isn’t named on any of my maps. It’s the same creek that would flow through the campground just behind my tent, but is totally dry – so I suspect it may be brackish rather than fresh water.


The very sandy track follows the edge of Shoal Bay as it curves towards the narrow McRaes Isthmus, a narrow neck of sand with beaches on either side.

The isthmus is very narrow, and when you see photos of it from above it appears to be only a few metres wide. But the track goes right down the middle, and while we can hear the ocean there no sight of any water. Near the middle there’s an unmarked track that takes us to Riedle Bay to the east (bottom left) and Shoal Bay to the west (bottom right).

Riedle Bay is stunning – a long, crescent-shaped beach with turquoise water and gentle waves – and not a single other person in sight.


Just after this track to the two beaches, the Isthmus Track splits into two: Haunted Bay to the left, and Robeys Farm to the right. We go left towards Haunted Bay, with the track gradually climbing from the end of Riedle Bay up to its highest point of 197m.

There’s a short (1.5km) but steep descent at the end on a narrow bush track, with occcasional glimpses of the bay through the trees.

Located at southern extremity of Maria Island, Haunted Bay is a fascinating spot. It was a whaling site in the 1800s and is home to fairy penguins that live in between the granite rocks (although I don’t see any). The remote bay is surrounded by tall granite cliffs, many of which are covered in bright orange and yellow lichen.


If feels remote and secluded, as we find a spot in the shade for our lunch. Although we’re not quite alone – a tiny fishing boat is bobbing around, at the foot of the cliffs.


We head back the way we came, back to the junction with the Robeys Farm track…

Robeys Farm (Day 2)

We hadn’t really planned on visiting Robeys Farm, but it’s only 11:30am and Luke is keen to try and complete all the walks on Maria Island. So we take turn left towards the old farm. Less than a kilometre from the junction is Stinking Creek. I’m thinking when I see this on the map that it may not be a great spot to refill water bottles. And it doesn’t disappoint. While the surrounding grass looks soft and a lovely deep green colour, the creek is also an almost flourescent green colour, and smells putrid.

It’s about 5km (one-way) from the junction with the Isthmus Track, on what seems to be an old vehicular track. It’s sandy in places, but generally shaded and fairly level.

After we cross Robeys Creek (which is completely dry) and what seems to be now over-grown farmland, we reach the Robeys Farm farmhouse. It looks in pretty good condition from the outside, and considerable restoration work has been done by the Hobart Walking Club and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.


The inside is like stepping back in time. John Vivian (Viv) and Hilda Robey emigrated from South Africa in the 1920s, moving originally to Hobart and then to Maria Island. By 1953 they had secured a total leasehold of 5,570 acres on Maria Island that they called “South End”, which supported 600-700 sheep and up to 40 head of cattle. After Hilda died in Hobart at age 82, Viv also became ill a few years later in August 1965 and was brought off the island in pain (he was found to be suffering from malnutition). He returned to his native South Africa in November after being discharged from hospital, never returning to Maria Island. The hasty and unplanned departure was evident from the table still being set for dinner, and a rice pudding still in the oven.

As I sit on the verandah of Robeys Farm and look out over the harsh landscape, I have to admire the tenacity and spirit of our early settlers. On a practical note, there’s a water tank here which is full, so I refill our water bottles and have a drink before we return.

We get back to the Frenchs Farm around 2:30pm, and have a quiet afternoon resting – and watching some of the wildlife around the campground. With another couple arriving, I’m finding the “main campground” far too busy (there are now four tents). So we move our tent across the dry creekbed to another huge area, which we have to ourselves. Much better.

Encampment Cove (Day 2)

After an early dinner, we wander across to Encampment Cove, the alternate campground that we could have stayed at. It’s a nice evening to be walking, and with sunset not until 8:45pm, it’s still light until almost 10pm.

After a short section through forest, the vehicular trail follows a wide creek  to Chinamans Bay and then goes along the coastline to Encampment Cove. On the other side of the tranquil cove is Shoal Bay with its long sandy beach, and behind it stands Mt Maria.


There’s a number of camping areas along the track, and a large camping area near the water as well as further inland toward the shed (which has a water tank). The disadvantage of this camping areas is that it’s accessible by boat, and one group seemed to have brought a replica of the Taj Mahal. It’s nice be near the water, but Frenchs Farm feels more secluded and I’m happy with out choice to camp here for two nights.

We share the road with a few more wombats and wallabies as we head back to our tent!


It’s been a long day – 35km in total – but we’re glad we managed to visit Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm. If I had to pick one destination, Haunted Bay would be my choice – and having some time here at in the late afternoon or evening would be amazing,


Mt Maria (Day 3)

We’re up early again today – it’s another fairly long day as we head back via the Inland Track and climb Mt Maria (711m), before a last night at Darlington. A last quick check of the map on my phone and we’re off!

It’s only about 1.5km from Frenchs Farm via the Coast Road, before we turn right onto the Inland Track. Although this route is more “undulating” than the Coast Road and gradually ascends by about 150m, it’s still fairly easy walking. It would be (compared to the Coast Road) a lot harder on a bike, due both to it’s hillier nature and the sometimes soft sand.

It only takes us a couple of hours to reach the start of the well sign-posted track up to Mt Maria, where we stash our overnight packs behind a tree. The track up can be loosely divided into three sections… Initially the track ascends through open eucalypt forest, which was burnt regularly in the early farming days resulting in minimal undergrowth (and low plant diversity).

After a few kilometres there is a change from dolerite to siltstone in the underlying rock, caused by a major fault millions of years ago that lifted the eastern side of the island. There are now white peppermint (which grows only on dolerite soils) and more shrubby undergrowth plants, including pink mountain berry, silver banksia and pink heath. A small creek flows down the mountain, which is the start of Four Mile Creek. It’s not always flowing, despite every other creek being bone dry, but this one had a trickle of water and we could refill our water bottles.

Finally there are the scree and boulder fields… It was a result of water freezing, expanding and shattering one of the upright dolemite columns 20,000 years ago, leaving a trail of rock debris down the mountain. Marked by yellow arrows and orange poles, it’s fairly easy walking up the scree – at least on a dry day!


After the first scree slope, there’s an unexpected oasis of green – a short section of forest
consisting of Oyster Bay pine, richea, and banksia,


Then it’s back to more boulders, which are now larger and at times require hands and feet to climb.

We’re not far from the summit (711m asl), marked by a large trig point and offering sweeping views in most directions… it’s also surprisingly windy at the top, which we’ve been protected from on the way up (and perhaps because of the wind, the often cloud-covered peak is clear).


You can clearly see the narrow isthmus separating the north and south parts of Maria Island to the south, where we walked the previous day. Beyond Maria Island is the Tasman Peninsula, with some of its high cliffs just visible.


To the west is Darlingon (you can just see the jetty) and the Wielangta Forest Reserve on the mainland.


And to the north is Mount Pedder, with its radio tower on the summit, and in the far distance is Schouten Island and Freycinet Peninsula (which are not really recognisable).


We admire the view for a while – it would have been a great lunch spot just below the summit (where it’s protected from the wind), but we left all our food in the overnight backpacks!

Once we re-join the Inland Track it’s only another four kilometres or so back to Darlington, and it’s pretty much all downhill… The track meets Counsel Creek on the way to the coast, which is also flowing and looks pretty clear. I was tempted to camp somewhere along the creek to avoid the inevitable crowds at Darlington, but both sides of the valley along the creek are too steep and scrubby.

Oast House Track

Just as we reach sight of the coast there’s a junction with the Oast House Track, so we take this alternate and slightly hillier route back to Darlington (this route is a lot less busy, which is nice – we only see two other people on the trail).

“An oast or oast house is a building designed for kilning (drying) hops as part of the brewing process” – I learnt something new writing this blog post 🙂 The Maria Island Oast House is one of the oldest in Tasmania, and by 1847 was producing three tonnes of hops per year in its two large brick drying towers.


The Oast House is also near the top of a small hill, so from here it’s all downhill again to Darlington.


As we complete the very last part of our walk along the Coast Track, we encounter an adult wombat with its baby grazing by the grassy bank of Darlington Bay. It’s a nice end to our 3-day walk!


We’re back in Darlington by 4pm, in time to pick up the bicycles we booked a few days ago. I’m ready for a wee nap, but Luke seems to have unlimited energy and insists we ride down to the jetty. And then back to Painted Cliffs. I finally managed to convince him to stop, so we can put up our tent at the Darlington campground! It’s fairly large camping ground with a lot of trees around the river that runs through the middle of it. We find a sheltered spot fairly close to the road, but away from most of the other tents. There are a LOT of tents her in mid-January, and I regret that we couldn’t find a secluded spot by Counsel Creek, just outside Darlington. On the plus side there are basic cooking facilities and running water here. Outside of December/January, it would most likely be a great campground!

Probably attracted by food scraps (although we don’t see anyone feeding the animals), there’s a lot of wildlife in and around the campsites. Two wombats chase each other past our tent, there’s loads of wallabies and a friendly kookaburra keeps an eye on our tent.


A little later, a Tasmanian Devil lopes along the river through the camping ground. We’re warned by the rangers not to leave food (especially meat) or even clothes in areas that the devils can reach. Special bins are available, athough I figure I should be OK hanging our backpacks on a high branch. The only thing I leave out is a pair of my hiking socks, which I remove as I climb into the tent and tucked under the canvas at the front. In the morning, they’re gone. I’m still unsure what concerns me most… that a devil took my socks from a few centimetres away from my face as I slept – or that my pungent socks are lining the den of a poor Tasmanian Devil!


Having erected our tent and eaten dinner, we make one last final excursion by bike down to the jetty, in the hope of catching a nice sunset. Not surprisingly, there’s lots of wildlife out and about.

The sunset doesn’t disappoint, with a long blaze of red along the top of the hills on the mainland. It’s been another fantastic day on Maria Island!


Fossil Cliffs and Reservoir Circuit (Day 4)

We’re up early (again!) to catch the morning light, with a bike ride to Fossil Cliffs, which are not far from Darlington. We ride down past the jetty and cement silos, and the Convict Barn, built in 1846 on a wide gravel road.

The Fossil Cliffs Circuit road ascends very gently, as it crosses Cape Boullanger and passes the Maria Island airstrip. Once we reach the low cliffs on the opposite side of the cape, the summit of Bishop and Clerk comes into view, partly shrouded by clouds.


We dismount and walk down a short track that leads to the top of the cliffs, where there is some interpretative signage. This large rock shelf is where the limestone was quarried, and the remains of the tramline that connected the quarry to the cement works. From here there’s a rough and steep path down to the base of the cliffs.


As it’s low tide (we’ve been fortunate with tides here and at the Painted Cliffs… or maybe it’s good planning…) we can safely explore the thousands of shellfish fossils embedded in limestone. The Fossil Cliffs are considered one of the best examples of life 250 million years ago, with the sheer volume attributed to the cold conditions associated with the polar sea at the time.

The Fossil Cliffs Circuit continues along the top of the cliff-line…


…which is not a lot of fun. It’s uphill – and steep – up to the top of the Fossil Cliffs. I push my bike most of the way. I’m not feeling very fit!


Then it’s downhill again, to the junction of the track to Reservoir Dam. Just after the start of the Reservoir Circuit road are the ruins of the cement works, which were built around 1889.

The relatively flat road ends at Reservoir Dam, which was constructed by convicts during the first convict period (1825-1832) to supply the settlement of Darlington, and has been enlarged a few times since. It’s a tranquil spot, and would be an ideal destination for a picnic lunch or bird-watching at dusk or dawn.


The other half of the Reservoir Circuit is a narrow track (but suitable for bikes), which heads gently downhill back to Darlington.

Historic Darlington (Day 4)

We pack up our tent, hand back our bikes and spend the last few hours on the island looking around Darlington. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much evidence or signage of Aboriginal history on Maria Island, which was frequented by the people of the Tyreddeme band of the Oyster Bay tribe.

In comparison, there’s been considerable work done to preserve and present the fascinating history of European colonisation, which occurred in four periods:

The first convict era (1825–1832)

Lt Peter Murdoch arrived as Commandant in March 1825 with 50 convicts and military escorts. Darlington was a depot for prisoners returned to authorities after having worked for settlers, or convicts guilty of light offences. The settlement ceased on 1 October 1832, due to the success of Port Arthur and ease of escape from Maria Island.

The Commisseriat Store (1825) is the oldest building on the island: it had an office,  provision store and the spirit room downstairs and stores belonging to the Ordinance
Department upstairs.


The second convict era (1842–1850)

While some sheep grazing  and whaling continued on Maria Island over the previous decade, in August 1842 it was Convict Probation Station. Convict tradesmen were sent to the island to prepare the settlement for 400 men. It was proposed in 1850 it was proposed to break up the station and convict numbers declined to virtually zero by the end of the year.

The Visiting Magistrate’s Office was constructed in 1842 as the administrative centre for the Probation Station. Convicts were tried here for minor offences.


The first industrial era (1884–1896)

Italian entrepreneur Diego Bernacchi leased Maria Island for 10 cents per year, with a vision of setting up a wine-making and silk industry. The Maria Island Company commenced in 1887 adding agriculture, cement, timber and fishery to the island’s activities. While the population peaked at around 250 people in the late 1880s, the company went into liquidation in February 1892. A second company formed by Bernacchi also failed, and most of the assets were seized in November 1896.

The Coffee Palace – a name commonly used to describe a type of restaurant – was built by the Maria Island Company in 1888. It had two dining rooms and a lounge at the front of the building, and living quarters at the rear of the house. It’s been restored with period furniture, and in the dining room you can sit at one of the tables and hear recordings that recount life on Maria Island during the industrial eras.

The second industrial era (1920–1930)

Bernacchi had another attempt to develop Maria Island based on a plan to produce cement. Darlington’s population increased to over 150 men, with the National Portland Cement Ltd being formed in 1924. However, the cement was fairly poor quality and the production volumes were too low. In 1930, with the Great Depression underway, the Australian Cement Company took over and operations ceased.

Built in 1920, the massive concrete silos used to store cement are among the first things you see when arriving at Maria Island.


Since the 1930s, properties were acquired and the island was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary on 1 June 1971, and proclaimed a National Park on 14 June 1972.

Somewhat reluctantly, we board the 11:15am ferry back to the mainland. It’s been an incredible four days. Despite the crowds around Darlington, for the majority of our walk we’ve seen very few people and experienced a sense of isolation that’s not easy to find in the January school holidays! And we’ve seen more wildlife than just about any other walk I’ve done.

 0.0km Maria Island ferry wharf (Darlington)
 0.6km Ranger Station / PWS office at Darlington
 1.7km Junction with Reservoir Circuit Track
 2.6km Track reaches Fossil Cliffs (Skipping Ridge)
 6.9km Bishop and Clerk summit
12.6km Return to Ranger Station at Darlington
15.2km Painted Cliffs
19.2km Four Mile Beach
24.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
24.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
29.3km Junction of Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm tracks
35.6km Haunted Bay
41.6km Back at Junction of Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm tracks
46.3km Robeys Farm
55.4km Frenchs Farm (campground)
57.6km Encampment Cove (campground)
59.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
59.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
67.8km Junction with Inland Track
72.6km Mt Maria summit
77.4km Junction with Inland Track 
80.7km Junction with Oast House Track
82.7km Darlington (Ranger Station / PWS office)
DAY FOUR (by bike)
0.0km Darlington campground
2.6km Fossil Cliffs
4.1km Start of Reservoir Circuit
5.4km Reservoir Dam
7.8km Darlington campground
Distance as measured by GPS, and not the official track lengths.
Location Access via Encounter Maria ferry from Triabunna
Distance 83km circuit (including Bishop & Clerke and Mt Maria)
8km cycle to Fossil Cliffs and Reservoir Dam
Grade Moderate.
All tracks well sign-posted and well-maintained.
Season/s All year. Gets pretty busy in January. Mar/Apr a good time.
Map TASMAP Maria Island National Park 1:50K
5828 Darlingon 1:25,000 (covers top of Maria Island)
5827 Riedle 1:25,000 (covers bottom of Maria Island)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.


Gorges, waterfalls and peaks of Tivoli

Tivoli (or Tibur in ancient Roman times) is home to a number of historic sites, including Villa Gregoriana (a complex of paths, waterfalls and grottoes) and is also the starting point for a walk up into the surrounding hills.

I’ve got a “free day” in Rome before the rest of the family arrives (they’ve already been in Europe for over a week)… a Google search for the best walks around Rome leads me to Tivoli. It’s less than an hour away, and seems to offer the opportunity for some short walks, as well as Villa Gregoriana with its waterfalls and grottoes. (There’s also Villa D’Este and Villa Adriana, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, which I don’t have time to visit.)

Villa Gregoriana

I make my way from the station to the famous Villa Gregoriana, about a 10-minute walk away. After disastrous floods in 1826 which destroyed almost all the homes in the oldest part of Tivoli, there was a public competition find way to deviate the course of the Aniene river and prevent future floods. The project was authorised and financed by Pope Gregory XVI. Following the diversion of the river the Villa Gregoriana park was created using the old river bed of the Aniene.


The best project for diverting the river was judged to be that of Clemente Folchi, who proposed a digging a tunnel through Monte Catillo. A short diversion from the main path through Villa Gregoriana leads to the exit of the twin 300-metre tunnels, known as the Cunicoli Gregoriani (Gregorian Tunnels). They vary from 10 metres in width at the entrance to 7.20m at the exit.

The massive project to divert the river moved the course of the Aniene, and shifted the falling point of the water away from the residential area. Even during a relatively dry period, the flow of water is pretty impressive.


Slightly further down the main route are the remains the Villa of the Roman patrician Manlius Vopiscus. The villa was built in limestone, and the ruins that can be seen formed the foundations of the residence. A flood in 105BC destroyed part of the town, and swept away the villa.

As the main path descends into the valley, there’s a view of the lower falls. Perched above the river is the acropolis of ancient Tibur, located on an isolated rock opposite the waterfalls. Built in the 1st century AD, the site had two temples perched on the edge of the precipice.


Another side path leads to a viewpoint overlooking the Great Waterfall; along the path are small caves and grottoes that are common in the porous travertine limestone.

There are a views of the river from along the narrow path. It looks very placid (the green colour being from the limestone) and it’s hard to imagine how the Aniene vally was referred to as the “valley of hell”, before the river was diverted.

It’s an impressive view of the artificial waterfall as the river emerges from the two tunnels from the viewpoint, with the water falling 105m into the valley below.


After this diversion to the waterfall lookout, the main path descends to the Ponte Lupo clearing, at the base of the falls. Prior to the river’s diversion, the Ariene river formed a small lake here.


Below the Ponte Lupo clearing, a natural bridge is formed when the river goes underground and into a tunnel. Called the “Mermaid’s Grotto” by the Swiss landscape artist Louis Ducron (at the end of the 18th century), the underground passage is thought to have been formed in the huge flood of 105AD.


The path then climbs up the opposite of the valley, splitting into two routes. The more scenic option starts with a tunnel carved into the cliff, with side openings offering views of the underlying chasm  (Miollis tunnel). A very short diversion to the Nymphaeum viewpoint, an artificial cave looking out over valley below.

Another diversion leads to Neptune’s Grotto, carved out by the river centuries ago.

Due to the unusual geological composition of non-compact travertine (also known as calcareous tufa), which is highly porous, the grotto has many stalagmite-like formations.

Re-tracing my steps, I backtrack to see what the alternate route to the top is like – it’s much less impressive, but boasts views over the Aniene Valley. Directly opposed is the convent of Sant’ Antonio (thought to be built on the ruins of the Villa of Horace), and you can just make out a train that’s coming into Tivoli from Rome.


The route finishes at the Temple of Vesta and Tiburnus. There are ten surviving Corinthian columns of the Temple of Vesta, which includes a frieze at the top with festoons and bucrania. In the distance, above the town, I can see a large cross on a hill which is my next destination…


Monte Catillo

From the temples at the exit of Villa Gregoriana, I walk back through the town, in the vague direction of the large cross on top of the hill…   After following the main road (Via Quintilio Vaso) uphill for a few hundred metres, there’s a steep and narrow road (Don Strada Nello Del Raso) that heads past of a block of units. It seems promising, so I can continue upwards, with some nice views of the town.

A little further there’s a foot-track off the road, and even some signage that would help if I actually knew where I was heading… I continue with a bit more confidence, as I do have a map that shows a “330” trail, which corresponds with the sign at the start of the trail.

Even from the start of trail, there’s some nice views of Tivoli and the Temple of Vesta below.

While the views are great and I’m clearly on a path that’s going somewhere, what’s a bit perplexing is that I seem to be heading past Monte Catillo and its prominent cross, and there’s no been no obvious turn-off to the rocky peak (I’ve also seen references to the cross being on Monte Della Croce, which is just below Monte Catillo).


I continue along the track… what I don’t expect to find in what seems to be the middle of nowhere is a soccer field!

I’m now well above the cross, so I veer off the marked route and head directly towards it, down the ridge. It’s a bit rocky but it’s not difficult walking and takes about 15min to reach the base of the cross. There’s panoramic views over Tivoli, with the railway station on the left and historic town directly ahead.


I can see the track I’ve been on snaking up the hill – but there’s no plaque or information about why such a large cross has been put here.

There’s no obvious track down from here (I thought maybe I’d missed the track to the peak), but it’s pretty easy to find a route back down to the main track. There does seem to be a side-track up to the cross, but it’s not obvious and not sign-posted.

I’ve still got a bit of time, so I re-trace my steps up the hill, past the soccer field and onwards… As the trail rises, there’s increasingly expansive views over Tivoli and beyond.


The track swings to the north, and after being fairly exposed it enters a forest consisting of cork oaks. There’s a few side-trails here, but the main one continues up and over Monte Giorgio. As you climb further up there’s a view to the east of the village of Bivio San Polo below and Castel Madama in the distance.


The track passes a gate as it keeps heading up the ridge, and about 500m after the gate I seem to be at about the the highest point, with the track now continuing north along the ridge.

I turn back as the track starts to descend slightly, as I have a train back to Rome I need to catch. I enjoy one final vista of Tivoli and the surrounding countryside before re-tracing my steps.


It looked like a longer circuit would be very feasible, and I discover later a useful blog post which describes a longer circuit, including the route I’ve taken.

Location Tivoli is easily reached by train from Roma Termini (central station). Villa Gregoriana is  450min walk from the railway station and the start of Route 330 is 800m from the station.
Distance Approx 11km (Villa Gregoriana and the Monte Catillo walk)
Grade Moderate (approx 500m total ascent)
Season/s All year (may be snow on Monte Catillo in winter)
Maps Free map “Riserva naturale Monte Catillo” (1:100K) – I got this from Villa Gregoriana
GPS Route Google Maps GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources RomeTheSecondTime blog has a useful post describing a circular route from Tivoli

Storhaugen (Lyngenfjord)

Stunning views over Lyngenfjord and Lyngsfjellan (the Lyngen Alps) on this steep ascent of Storhaugen.

Arriving at our Lyngen accommodating in the early afternoon (we were staying at Spåkenes Sjøbuer in Rotsund), our host suggested this hike – and very helpfully gave me a lift to the starting point.

The intent was to hike up to the 1,142m Storhaugen summit and return via the ruins of a coastal fort from World War II  (although a navigation error meant I didn’t quite reach my planned destination). The walk starts not much above sea level, and there’s a signpost at the parking area for both Storhaugen (4.4km) and Dalberget (2.2km), although Dalberget is not shown on any topographical maps. I set off through the forest, with the trail climbing very gently.

After about 5o0m, the path reaches the Storelva River and gets steeper from here as it follows the river through the forest. There are already spectacular views from here over Lyngenfjord below and the snow-covered Lyngen Alps beyond.


The path is easy to follow as it winds up the hill, and after 2km the path rises above the tree line and crosses the Storelva River on a sturdy timber bridge.

Another 200m, just beyond the bridge, and I reach Dalberget. There’s a large cairn and a logbook. The path also stops here.


I don’t have a map, so I continue in a southerly direction and up a steep ridge. At times there is a defined path, but it abruptly stops as the ridge gets increasingly steep and more of a scramble than a hike.

The view from the ridge as the sun is setting is magnificent.


I get to about 655m elevation before giving up; the ridge is too steep to continue. The summit is clearly not this way, and I head back down to Dalberget. (Looking at the topographical map afterwards, Storhaugen is to the north, on the other side of the broad valley from the ridge that I’m on.)

Heading back down the track, just after I re-cross the river I see a track that leads directly up to the ridge (the junction is at 69.74018, 20.55199). I follow this for a few hundred metres and this definitely seems to be the correct route to the summit; unfortunately with the sun setting I don’t have time for a second “summit attempt”!

On the way back, I take an old 4WD track that leads to Spåkenes fort.  Situated on the hill Storbakken, the highest point of Spåkenes, the fort was built in 1941 by the German army, using Soviet prisoners of war and German prisoners (Germany had occupied Norway the previous year, with 2,000–3,000 soldiers arriving in Djupvik on 28 August 1940).

The fort consisted of four bunker complexes, each of which included a gun, ammunition bunker, trench, and infantry bunker. All remain fairly intact, except for one of the bunkers that suffered extensive damage in a post-occupation explosion (below right).

From an ammunition bunker (below), the guns had a range of up to 23km and were capable of hitting a ship travelling off Lyngstuva, the furthest tip of the Lyngen peninsula (Source: Wikipedia).


From here, I head down the hill and back to my accommodation at Spåkenes Sjøbuer, about 1km away on the coast. It was a great walk and great views, despite missing the critical turn-off to the summit track!

Location Turn off the E6 towards the Djupvik cemetery (there is signpost on the E6 pointing to “Kirkegård”. Follow this for about 200m to a parking area (69.745919, 20.510063)
Distance 11.2km (610 total ascent) as walked.
Storhaugen is 8.8km return (1100m ascent).
Grade Moderate/Hard
Season/s June-October for hiking. Skiing in winter.
Map  Topographical maps on-line at GotTur.no
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Walk 24 in Guide Hiking/Vandre Lyngenford (PDF, 10MB)
Map showing Storhaugen / Dalberget hiking route and elevation profile

A Week in Svalbard

The Svalbard islands are located in the Arctic Ocean halfway between Norway and the North Pole, accessible by plane from Oslo or Tromsø. We spent a week in Svalbard in September – if you’re thinking about going, I’d highly recommend it! In hindsight mid September was a great time for a first visit.

Depending, of course, on personal preference and fitness, the “must do” activities for me were: hiking (Trollsteinen for its combination of views and a glacier crossing, and either Hiorthfjellet which combines kayaking and hiking in one long day, or the 1,053m Nordenskioldfjellet, the highest peak near Longyearben) and the boat trip to Pyramiden (which includes a glacier-stop and the abandoned mining of Pyramiden). The Better Moments “Catch of the Day” cruise was also fantastic. Allow at least a week…

What was intended as a summary of our week has ended up being more of an travel essay! So I’ve broken it down into sections and added some navigation:


About Svalbard

Svalbard is a group of islands (archipelago), located north of the Norwegian mainland in the Barents Sea. The largest settlement is Longyearbyen, which is where the airport is located. Svalbard is the largest wilderness area in Europe, and lays claim to some of the northernmost settlements in the world:

  • Ny-Ålesund (78°55’N) – the northernmost functional settlement and home to the northernmost post office (accessible by boat tour from June-September)
  • Pyramiden (78°39’N) – an almost-abandoned ghost town, a hotel was re-established in 2013. Accessible by boat, it’s the #2 northermost (populated and accessible) town – and well worth a visit!
  • Longyearben (78°12’N) – northernmost settlement with a permanent population of over 1,000. You’ll be staying here (unless you’re doing an overnight trekking tour from here 🙂

With no roads between Longyearbyen and the other settlements, travel is by boat in summer (May-October) and snowmobile in winter (Feb-May). More than 60% of the archipelago is covered by ice, with winter temperatures dropping as low as -30 degrees Celsius.

Historically, Svalbard played a role during the whaling years in the 17th century when summer whaling stations were established on the west coast. There are still many traces of the whale slaughter along the coastline. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Svalbard became a base for polar exploration and research; this continues today with a number of large technical research facilities (including the EISCAT atmospheric radar telescopes and the SVALSAT array of antenna-studded “golf balls” visible from most of the boat cruises). Coal mining started in the 1900s in response to demand for resources from Europe, with multiple countries staking claims across Svalbard; Longyearben was established in 1906 as a mining settlement by John Munro Longyear, an American. Mining continued throughout the the 1900s, except during WWII, with Longyearben becoming the focal point for Norwegian mining. While mining has now almost completely ceased (there’s just Mine 7 in Longyearben and Svea Nord in Sveagruva still operating), many abandoned mines and even “ghost towns” (like Pyramiden and Grumant) remain.

When to go

Being well above the Arctic circle there’s polar winter (no sun) from November to February and polar summer (24 hour sun) from May to August. In mid September, when we visited, the days were still fairly long with sunrise around 6am and sunset at 8pm. It stayed light for many hours after sunset, and never got completely dark with a red glow on the horizon lasting until almost midnight. But the days got shorter very quickly: sunset was at 8:30pm when we arrived and 7:30pm a week later when we left.

Each season offers different activities – so it’s difficult to answer this! Our mid-September was dictated partly by the Australian school holidays. It meant we could still do all the water-based activities (boat trips) as well most land activities, such as hiking. While almost all “summer” activities were still being offered, the town was not crowded and most trips were not full. In hindsight, we were very happy with what we were able to do in a week!

We were a little too early to see the aurora (northern lights) in Svalbard, which are seen from October to March – but it’s not the best place to go for the lights, and we were fortunate to see them on multiple nights further south. We did see a polar bear, with May-September one of the best time for polar-bear spotting!

Personally, if I go back – and I hope I’ll have the opportunity to one day – I’d go in March/April for a completely different experience, with snow-shoe hiking and dog-sledding. For our my first trip to this area, early autumn was perfect, as it meant we could do many different activities and cover a fair bit of ground. (I’ve seen trip reports by visitors who couldn’t get to places like Pyramiden by boat in May, due to ice.)

There’s a good summary of Svalbard by season on the Spitsbergen-Svalbard travel web site.

How long? I was a little skeptical about spending a week there (my wife was in charge of our 3-week Norway itinerary), but in hindsight it almost wasn’t long enough… there are a huge amount of activities on offer, and it is really is a magical place. Financially, a week is about right as it gets expensive doing tours every day (which you more or less have to do, although you can spend a day wandering around the town). Money aside, I’d recommend a full week, but I don’t think you’d get bored staying longer, and it would give you the option of picking the best days for hiking or kayaking which are less fun in damp weather.

Getting there

Svalbard’s about three hours flight from Oslo or 1:40min from Tromsø, flying to Longyearben with SAS or Norwegian Air (we flew in from Oslo on Norwegian and out with SAS to Tromsø). Both airlines were comfortable & efficient, although Norwegian Air is the “low cost airline” of the two – while all our bags were collectively well under our combined weight allowance, one bag was 2kg over the 20kg per-item limit. There was no way we were checking in until we’d re-distributed the weight between bags.

As Svalbard is not part of the Schengen Area, flights to Longyearben are treated like international flights and there are passports checks. Going out it was a pretty quick process at Oslo, but on the trip back it was a fairly slow process on our arrival at Tromsø, especially for non-EU passports.

Getting around

From the airport, we caught the Svalbard Busservice to our hotel – the bus meets each flight and no booking is required. You can also take a taxi. Or you can hire a car from the airport – but with 46km of roads in total and the requirement of a rifle outside the town limits (see below), this isn’t a particularly attractive option.

Within Longyearben, you can walk everywhere – or hire a bicycle. The museum and gallery, church, waterfront area (good for evening photography) and Nyben about 1.2km to the south are accessible by foot.  About a kilometre out of town is the old cemetery, which has a fascinating history:  it was discovered that bodies buried in Longyearbyen were perfectly preserved by permafrost – and that bodies never decompose. Scientists have been able to extract tissue from some of the bodies buried here that contained intact traces of the influenza virus, in an attempt to learn why the 1918 flu was so virulent and prevent any occurrence in future. (The cemetery hasn’t been used since  the 1940s, and in fact it’s now illegal to die in Svalbard!)

The main obstacle to getting around is the polar bear… leaving the town limits (marked with signs bearing the picture of a polar bear) requires that you carry a firearm. So, unless you have special permission from the Governor of Svalbard or a Norwegian/European weapon licence, you need to join a tour group or have an armed tour guide with you to explore outside the town.

Food, Accommodation – and When to Book

We stayed at Svalbard Hotell, which had recently been refurbished and is near the centre of town. We were very happy with the hotel for our family of 4 – was clean, fairly spacious and close to everything. We generally got take-away which was the cheapest option: the Svalbar Pub was about 100m away, and had great burgers, pizza and other fine dining 🙂 For lunch the Fruene Kaffe Og Vinbar (cafe) in the middle of town had a great range of food, as well as locally-made chocolates and other touristy gifts. It’s always busy, so get there early if you can.

There’s a supermarket in the middle of town, and shopping here seemed no more expensive that the rest of Norway. In fact, soft drinks and beer are MUCH cheaper in Svalbard than mainland Norway, as taxes are lower.

Directly opposite the hotel is the Svalbard Turistinformasjon (information office), and the hotel itself – which is part of the Svalbard Adventure Group – has a booking desk. From our experience (at least in the “shoulder season”):

  • accommodation was not a problem – we booked months ahead, but had no problems getting a room for the four of us. Restaurants could be booked the day before or in the morning.
  • smaller cruises like the Better Moments “Catch of the Day” trip should be booked as much in advance as possible – they tend to get full and have a fixed capacity
  • hiking trips and less popular tours are better booked once you have an idea of the weather – the risk is that it won’t go ahead if there’s not enough people. When booking, check if the operator has enough participants to go ahead. If not, be flexible with your itinerary. With a couple of tour operators, booking just me + 1 or 2 kids was enough for them to go ahead, but I always checked.


Svalbard has a relatively mild climate compared to other areas at the same latitude. In Longyearbyen, the average temperature ranges from -14°C in winter to 6°C in summer. During our week in mid-September, it was around 6-7 degrees during the day – most of the time were comfortable walking around with a parka and long pants.

On a few occasions it got a lot colder, especially in the evening – or if the weather gets nasty. You shouldn’t need any really hard-core winter wear though, and you can get good quality gear in one of two outdoor equipment shops if you need warmer clothes. If you have them bring hiking boots, as well as sneakers for “around town”.

September is one of the wettest months, but it’s all relative – the median (monthly) rain fall in September is 20mm, versus around 10mm in the driest months (April-June). We had a few days that were a bit grey with some light rain – but in some ways this enhanced the landscape. The changing weather created some fantastic light, especially on the boat trips – and glaciers appear bluer on overcast days. I’d avoid any mountain hikes on days of poor weather – for the obvious reason that you won’t get any views if the summit is in the clouds!

Land Activities

There are a number of land-based activities available in September, from strenuous hikes to tours requiring minimal effort. We tried to fit in as much as we could in one week!

Photography tour – we did a fantastic Lens & Perspective photography tour on the day we arrived, with Spitzbergen Adventures. It was an almost-private tour by minivan, combining many attractions and scenic spots with advice on getting the best photos. While the itinerary may vary a little depending on the light, we stopped at a husky farm to see the friendly dogs, went up to the EISCAT Svalbard radar dishes near the end of Adventdalen (the Advent valley) for views over Longyear valley and visited the ruins of a downed WWII fighter jet. View Google Photo Album

There is also a daily “Longyearben in a Nutshell” tour which covers most of these attractions; if you can, doing a photography tour instead will give you a better opportunity to get some great photos. Otherwise the Longyearben in a Nutshell would be a good tour to do on arrival, to orient yourself and see all the main sights around the village.

All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) tourwe did this at the very end of our trip, with Svalbard Adventure Group. While it was great fun (for the kids and adults), it covered pretty much the same ground as our photography tour. After some basic training on driving the ATVs, we set off down the Advent valley and up past the Svalbard radar dishes, before returning via a husky farm (a different one to the photography tour). View Google Photo Album

Dog sledding on wheels – we didn’t book this, as it would have covered more or less the same route as the photography and ATV tours. However, while it seemed to us a little “wrong” to be pulled on a sled with wheels, at one of the husky farms they explained that they initially developed the sleds as a way to keep the dogs exercised in summer. And then later discovered they could also charge tourists for the pleasure…

What you can’t do in September is dog-sledding on snow and snowmobiling. We also didn’t go and visit the Global Seed Vault, which is near the airport – you can’t enter the vault, so we didn’t see the attraction of doing a tour just to look at the outside of the building. You can catch a taxi to see the building, which is between the town and the airport.


There are many hikes offered by different companies, from a few hours to full days. All of them cover quite different terrain, and (at least in my case) quite different weather conditions.

Trollsteinen – my first Svalbard hike, booked through Spitsbergen Travel. With the weather overcast but not raining, we cross the Lars glacier (you get micro-spikes to put over your hiking shoes) and then up a steep ridge to the rocky summit, at 850m altitude (see full trip report). Around five hours of hiking.

Nordenskioldfjellet – I had booked the “Arctic Challenge” with Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions, which combined kayaking with an ascent of Hiorthfjellet on the other side of Adventfjord. Poor weather and choppy seas meant a change of plan, and we tackled the 1,053m Nordenskioldfjellet peak instead. It was the toughest of the hikes I did due to the gale-force, arctic winds that ended our summit aspirations at 780m altitude after about two hours of walking (see full trip report). At least it gave us some time for kayaking in the afternoon…

Plateaufjellet – also known as “Plateau Mountain”, this peak is above Longyearben and can be done in the evening (offered daily by Spitsbergen Outdoor Activities). I did this with my 8-year-old son in less then two hours, and while it’s only about 380m high you get great twilight views of Longyearben town and Adventfjord (see full trip report).


Fossil hike – another short short walk, that starts at the of the end of the Longyear valley and goes up to the foot of the Longyear glacier (with Svalbard Adventure Group). Good fun for the kids- it’s hard not to find a fossil – and gives you a sense of the Svalbard landscape with views down the Longyear valley (see full trip report).

A map of the Longyear area, below, shows the hiking and ATV tour route. The Hiorthfjellet hike (not shown) is on the opposite of the fjord; almost all the other walks start near Longyearben or at the top of the Longyear valley (near Nyben). Sarkofagen, which I didn’t do, is between the two biggest glaciers below (between Nordenskioldfjellet on the left and Trollsteinen to the right).

Map showing “land activities”- yellow are hikes & blue ATV/photography tour

Boat trips

If you’re not on foot, a boat is the other way to get around in summer & autumn, and the only way to reach the other settlements in Svalbard.

Catch of the Day cruise – offered by “Better Moments”, the Catch of the Day cruise is on a small, enclosed rib boat with a maximum of 12 passengers. The itinerary changes based on the weather and sea conditions, and what wildlife has been spotted in previous days. The crew (of two) were passionate about what they do, and very knowledgeable… On our evening trip we set off across Isfjorden to get close to the Bore glacier (Borebreen), and then back past the abandoned Russian mining town of Grumant. View Google Photo Album.

Fjord-cruise to Pyramiden – A few operators offer this itinerary, which combines a fairly long journey up Isfjord and into Billefjord to the (almost) abandoned town of Pyramiden, with a stop at the Nordenskiöld glacier. We went with Henningsen Transport & Guiding on the MS Billefjord, leaving at 8:30am for the 11-hour round trip.

The journey out was interesting, with constantly changing light conditions making for some great photos. (And there was plenty of time for drooling over the camera lenses that people had with them – there was some very serious Canon and Nikon gear, with a few $10K+ lenses on board!)

We were then treated to an impromptu emergency evacuation training exercise, with the coast guard helicopter hovering over the upper deck of the MS Billefjord. A succession of people were lowered onto our boat, and then winched back up to the chopper.

As we neared the Nordenskiöld glacier, we spotted a polar bear – the only one we saw on our trip (and we met may people who hadn’t seen any). That was pretty cool, as weren’t too optimistic about our chances of seeing these elusive creatures.

Just after lunch we reach the Nordenskiöld glacier, which is enormous,: the overcast weather brings out the blue colour. And how better than to enjoy the sight than with a glass of Scotch over some chunks of glacial ice (although the plastic cups did bring the tone down a little!).

The final stop is at the Soviet town of Pyramiden, where we spend about two hours with a charming Russian guide, Sasha, exploring the abandoned buildings. It’s an amazing place – I’ve written a separate blog post covering our fascinating walk through the town of Pyramiden.

Better Moments private charter – we booked a full day charter with Better Moments, as my wife was very keen to visit Ny-Ålesund (we missed the last commercial trip by a few days). Unfortunately, due to choppy seas this wasn’t possible – while the trip to Ny-Ålesund looks like it follows a sheltered fjord, the crew explained that due to prevailing winds it would have been an uncomfortable three hour journey each way.

Instead, we headed to Isfjord Radio, a remote radio station that was originally an important telecommunications link between the Norwegian mainland and Svalbard and is now run as as tourist accommodation. After a “tea and biscuit” break in what is now a boutique hotel, we walked around the base, stopping to see some reindeers being skinned and prepared for winter and climbing an old radio mast for views over Isfjord.

From here we crossed the fjord, stopping to look at the Harriet glacier and admiring the rugged coastline, with occasional “trappers huts” that are privately owned and used mostly in summer. (We also spotted a lone reindeer, grazing near the shore.)

We saw many, many northern fulmars, especially near land… they nest in numerous bird cliffs along the coast, and have a salt gland that above their nasal passage that helps desalinate their bodies. You can sometimes see the excretion of a high saline solution from their noses!

Next stop was the Von Post glacier, which is about 15km long and teeming with bird life as we approach. Another overcast day (but no rain) again makes the compressed glacial ice look very blue!

Nearing the end of our long day, we leave the Von Post glacier (Von Postbreen) and head back to Longyearben.


We didn’t get to Ny-Ålesund, but in our 240km over about 8 hours, we visited Isfjord Radio, saw two glaciers and got some great commentary about the Svalbard landscape and wildlife. It’s a pretty expensive option (being a private charter), but does mean you can tailor the day to cover what would otherwise involve at least two separate tours.

Kayaking trip – while kayaking trips can be booked as a separate activity by different tour operators, I booked the “Arctic Challenge”, with the plan of crossing the Adventfjord by kayak, and then climbing Hiorthfjellet on the other side. As the weather prevented this, we hiked a different mountain in the morning, and then went kayaking in the afternoon.

We set off from Longyearben, after getting into our sealed “kayaking suits” (the water is pretty cold, so these are to ensure you survive a capsizing!) and getting some instructions on how to kayak. If you’ve kayaked before, it’s all pretty straightforward! If not, you’ll still be OK – one couple found it a little hard-going (and may have needed relationship therapy after the trip), but the rest of us had no problems. On the other side of Adventfjorden (photo, below right) is our original destination of Hiorthfjellet, covered in low cloud.

We were all in two-man (or two-people?) kayaks, except for one single kayak (due to an uneven number in our group) as we set out, following the coast south-west, toward the airport. After about an hour, we stopped on the gravelly beach near Renseverket, a derelict coal processing plant. Here we walked for a while along the coast, with the snow-covered mountains of Oscar II Land in the distance, across Isfjorden.

After our half our or so stroll along the coast, we head back… not quite what was planned – but we did get a hike and an enjoyable few hours kayaking!


The map below (from Google) shows the three boat cruises we did; Ny-Ålesund is at the very top left of the map (unfortunately, we didn’t get there).

Map showing our three Svalbard boat trips


More Information

For general information on Svalbard, the Visit Norway has some information, but the most comprehensive (and “official”) site is Visit Svalbard.

To help work out when to go and how much sunlight you’ll have (outside the polar summer), try Time and Date, which gives you sunrise/sunset as well as twilight times for any date. There’s also sunrisesunset.info which does the same thing (enter Longyearben as the location).

To book activities, we found the best site to be Visit Svalbard, where you can enter a date and see a list of all activities from all the tour operators (“Book Activities” on the left-hand panel), including prices and the number of spots left (you can book online from here, although once I was in Svalbard I would visit a booking office or call the company to see if there were enough people for the activity to be going ahead).

Some of the tour companies we used that offer trips from Longyearben – all of which we were very happy with:

  • Better Moments – lots of land and water activities; their “Catch of the Day” trips on an enclosed rib-boat are fantastic (book early) and we also did a private charter.
  • Henningsen Transport and Guiding – cruises to Barentsburg and Pyramiden (they operate fairly large boats); we used them for our Pyramiden day trip.
  • Spitzbergen Adventures – all-year, land-based activities, including overnight hikes (which I’d love to do next trip) and bespoke (tailored) hiking trips. They are also offer the Lens & Perspective photography tour, which I’d highly recommend, and I did the Trollstein day-hike with them (which is also offered by other companies).
  • Spitsbergen Outdoor Activities – range of activities; we booked the evening hike up Plateau Mountain with them, which they ran even though it was just myself and one child on the trip.
  • Svalbard Adventure Group (also known as Svalbard Booking) – also has a booking desk inside Svalbard Hotell, which is part of the same group, and offers a broad range of land and sea activities throughout the year. I did their “fossil hike” with the kids, which we all enjoyed (one of the easiest hikes you can do)
  • Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions – offer some more “challenging” winter and summer activities. I booked the “Hiortfjellet – an Arctic challenge – kayak and mountain hike” with them, which was the toughest single-day hike on offer (although due to weather we ended up doing something different).

A full list of all activity providers is on the Visit Svalbard site.

If you’re into GPS mapping or just want an alternative to Google Maps for looking at where to go or where you’ve been, TopoSvalbard provides a free, on-line and interactive topographical map. You can even enter coordinates from your iPhone or GPS device to see exactly where you were.

Enjoy your trip… while I can’t say I’m a “Svalbard expert” having only been for a week, I’m very happy to answer any questions from our experience visiting this amazing place, from a tourist perspective!

Fossil Hunting in Svalbard

Fun morning hike looking for fossils at the foot of the Longyearbreen glacier, to the south of Longyearben.

Determined to make the most of our five days in Svalbard, I booked this fossil hunting expedition with the kids towards the end of our stay.

We set-off from the end of the road (Vei 100) at the top of Longyearben town, led by our excellent guide Fridrik from Svalbard Adventure Group. Our first challenge: getting across the Longyearelva (Longyear River), which is is fed by the Longyearbreen and Larsbreen glaciers.

Having accomplished that task, we continue up the Longyear valley, passing the remains of some of the first mining sites. (A key industry in Svalbard since Norway won sovereignty over the archipelago in 1925, coal mining still takes place but the government is looking at ceasing operations in the one remaining mine.)

After following an old mining road for a short distance, the track gets steeper as it climbs up through the moraine, with views of Longyearben town below. Nearing the foot of the glacier Longyearbreen (around 78.19181, 15.53111), we stop to admire the views, enjoy a hot chocolate (the kids give Fridrik’s hot chocolate five stars) and fill in the log book.

Now comes the fun part of looking for fossils… Fridrik shows us where to look, and explains that the fossils in this area are 40-60 million years old, and are plant rather than animal fossils. With some vigorous use of the fossicking hammer, we quickly find some great specimens to take back with us!


The weather is deteriorating a little, so we head back down – we could have continued another 100m or so to the foot of the  Longyearbreen glacier. We head back down, taking a slightly different path. Fridrik goes well beyond the call of duty, carrying and swinging the kids across the river at the bottom: they somehow manage to finish with mostly dry shoes and claim this is the best walk ever!

It’s overcast but not raining, so having reached the road and our starting point we decide to walk back to our accommodation (the Svalbard Hotell). We make a slight detour via the Svalbard cemetery, which was established in 1918 when eleven people were killed by the Spanish flu. Two years later, 26 men were killed in a coal dust explosion in Mine 1.

The cemetery hasn’t been used since  the 1940s, and in fact it’s now illegal to die in Svalbard. It was discovered that the bodies buried in Longyearbyen were perfectly preserved by permafrost – and that bodies never decompose. Scientists were able to extract tissue from some of the bodies buried here that contained intact traces of the influenza virus, in an attempt to learn why the 1918 flu was so virulent and prevent any occurrence in future. This is documented in a fascinating book “Hunting the 1918 Flu” by Kirsty Duncan.


It’a sobering thought that we may be standing a few metres above one of the world’s most deadly viruses!

Location Guided trip starts at end of Vei 100 (78.20049, 15.58463) near Spitsbergen Guesthouse.
Distance 8km round-trip including walk back to Longyearben town.
Grade Moderate (river crossings, uneven track). 140m total ascent
Season/s June-September
Map Topographical maps on-line at TopoSvalbard
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Svalbard Adventure Group fossil hike
Photos Google Photos album
Map showing route of Svalbard Adventure Group “fossil hike” and elevation. Source: TopoSvalbard

Ghost town of Pyramiden

A fascinating trip back in time, walking around the (almost) abandoned Soviet town of Pyramiden, in the archipelago of Svalbard.

Pyramiden, a Russian settlement and coal-mining community on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, was founded by Sweden in 1910 and sold to to the Soviet Union in 1927. It was effectively abandoned in 1998, a couple of years after the crash of a charter flight from Longyearben that was taking 130 workers and their families to the mining town. In the last ten years there’s been a very small permanent population of up to 30 people, supporting a niche (and seemingly growing) tourism industry.

Half the fun is getting there… by snowmobile in winter (taking 7½ hours to cover the 220km return trip) and by boat from June to October. We went on the MS Billefjord with Henningsen Transport & Guiding  (with some glacier and polar-bear spotting en-route).

After disembarking at Pyramiden, we’re welcomed by Sasha, our multi-lingual, friendly and very entertaining Russian guide for the next couple of hours. Sasha explains there are currently three staff working in Pyramiden, and a couple of hotel guests.

While it’s illegal to enter buildings unaccompanied and Trust Arcticugol (the current owner) is supporting the development of tourism, the town feels neglected and the interior of many buildings is run-down. Conversely, the exterior of most buildings is well-preserved, with a prediction that the very low rate of decay due to the frigid climate means the major buildings will still be visible in 500 years (Source: A Soviet Ghost Town in the Arctic Circle, Pyramiden Stands Alone in Smithsonian magazine).

The backdrop to Pyramiden is one of the old mines; by the time the mine was closed, there were 32 openings and 60km of mine tunnels. Despite the extensive mining operations, the remoteness of the site and difficult access (with ice blocking the fjord for six months of the year by boat) meant that the mine was never actually profitable.


One of the first building we stop at is the barn or “animal farm”:  Pyramiden’s agriculture was based on the Soviet collective farming principle, and included a vegetable greenhouse and an animal farm. The animal farm held dairy cattle, pigs, hens and a single horse – for many years a production surplus meant that eggs were exported to Longyearbyen (in 1975 110,000 eggs were produced!).

The hospital building is well-preserved (it had 20 beds and a pharmacy), and many of the buildings around the “main square” at the top of the town are in good condition. Many new buildings were constructed in the late 1940s, including the hospital, a large recreation centre and large cafeteria. These are largely designed in a “Soviet block-style fashion”, with rounded edges to deflect the winter winds.

At the top, or far end, of Pyramiden is a statue of Lenin – the world’s northernmost statue of the communist revolutionary— that looks down on Pyramiden’s main square. The main square is grassed, which is not what you’d expect in the middle of the Arctic… as the natural soil isn’t capable of supporting much vegetation, the Soviets imported Ukrainian soil. The result is a massive artificial lawn, which would also be the northernmost lawn in the world!

Behind Lenin is the Cultural Palace, which we’re able to explore the inside of. It’s an impressive building – and a little eerie to wander around in, since there’s no power to light the interior rooms and corridors. The centre included a library, a weight-lifting room, auditorium/move theatre and basketball court; most of the rooms are still furnished. and feel as if the occupants stepped outside for a moment – and never returned.

The large auditorium has the northernmost grand piano on the stage (a Red Oktober). In the projector room above, alongside the two old projectors, hundreds of old film reels lie strewn across the floor.


On the the other side of the town square is the swimming pool, named after Yuri Gagarin (the first man to orbit the Earth). Pyramiden’s heated indoor pool was the best in Svalbard: “The kids from Longyearbyen used to go there to use the swimming pool. It was quite impressive in its day.” [Smithsonian magazine]

Our next (and nearly last) stop is the canteen and dining hall, near the centre of town. An enormous and intact mosaic forms the backdrop to the large dining room on the second story, where everyone ate.

On the bottom floor, the industrial cooking equipment capable of meeting the needs of up to 900 people, lies abandoned.

Nearby is the “Madhouse” or The Crazy House, where families were accommodated. (Sasha explains there separate buildings depending on marital status, with “London” for the single men and “Paris” for any unmarried women who lived in Pyramiden). It’s now home to thousands of seagulls which nest in the windows, their young having been born a few months earlier. The boxes that sit in each  window are refrigerators – square, tin boxes that keep food cold.



Next to the abandoned apartment block is a playground, looking rather incongruous in the desolate landscape.


The last stop is the former Tulip (or Tulpan) Hotel, which housed short-term workers. It’s now operating as a hotel in the summer months, with a bar, post office, souvenir shop and a small museum.


We only had two hours in the town, but I could have spent many more hours wandering around… although if you’re staying overnight it’s not possible to go anywhere without a rifle (or a guide armed with a rifle)!

Location Approx 8hr trip by boat (June-September) or snowmobile (Feb/March-May) from Longyearben
Distance About 2km
Grade Super Easy
Season/s Accessible March-September
Resources Svalbard: Spitsbergen travel guide (book)
Persistent Memories: Pyramiden – a Soviet Mining Town in the High Arctic (book)
Photos Google Photos album
Map of Pyramiden