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 my son (Luke) and me are staying on the island. I’ve reserved our spots on the ferry a week in advance (although new and much larger ferry since 2017 means it 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, covering 83km on foot and 8km by bike:
- 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 on Maria Island? 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 Maria Island? 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 (from water tanks) – but its 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 overview of Maria Island walks
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).
Our four-day Maria Island itinerary was designed to see as much of the island as we could – and where possible avoiding carrying our heavy overnight bags:
- Bishop and Clerk (Day 1)
- Darlington to Frenchs Farm where we camp (Day 1)
- Frenchs Farm to Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm (Day 2)
- Evening walk to Encampment Cove (Day 2)
- Frenchs Farm to Darlington via Mt Maria (Day 3)
- Fossil Cliffs and Reservoir Circuit by bike (Day 4)
- A walk around Historic Darlington (Day 4)
In total, we cover about 80km over three days – which is most of 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 and one of Tasmania’s “Top 60 Great Short Walks” (view detailed track notes). The track passes some of the historic building on Maria Island and the site of the “Twelve Apostles”, named after a row of workers’ cottages built during the first industrial era (1888–96).
The scenery gets more interesting after the reaches the grassy plain at the top of the Fossil Cliffs, with the rocky summit of Bishop and Clerk is clearly visible in the distance. The route track follows the cliff edge along Skipping Ridge as it continues to gently ascend, with views back along the coast to the mainland in the distance.
The track soon start ascending more steeply through (mostly) eucalypt forest, before reaching a scree field formed by dolerite rock debris. As the track gains altitude, we start getting views over Mercury Passage to mainland Tasmania.
Near the summit, the rocks become boulders that require a bit of scrambling, before a steep right-hand turn and last push to the summit top of Bishop and Clerk. There are panoramic views from the top, with Cape Boullanger and the Fossil Cliffs to the west, and the east coast of the mainland on the other side of Mercury Passage.
To the north, beyond the jagged dolerite columns, is the Isle des Phoques, and in the far distance Schouten Island and the Freycinet Peninsula.
We make good progress on the way back, taking exactly 3.5 hours for the return trip – and we see our first wombat on the outskirt of Darlington.
Darlington to Frenchs Farm (Day 1)
While we’ve finished the Bishop and Clerk bushwalk, 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. The Coast Road passes Mrs Hunt’s Cottage on the outskirts of Darlington, before reaching Hopground Beach.
After crossing Counsel Creek, we reach the Painted Cliffs, one of the main attractions on Maria Island (the walk from Darlington to the Painted Cliffs is another Tasmanian “Great Short Walk”). 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.
The Coast Road follows the shoreline fairly closely and it’s easy walking with views of the coastline and remote bays and beaches. The track passes Four Mile Beach, the location of the White Gums Camp – a private camp for guests doig the upmarket “Maria Island Walk”.
After Four Mile Beach the Coast Road heads inland, crossing Four Mile Creek, before finally reaching Frenchs Farm. The large Frenchs Farm campground offers many campsite options, and the luxury of a few picnic tables!
Haunted Bay (Day 2)
The second day of our Maria Island bushwalk takes us to the very far southern end of Maria Island via the Isthmus Track. The 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. On the eastern side of the narrow isthmus is Riedle Bay, and to the west is Shoal Bay.
Riedle Bay is the pick of the two – a deserted, crescent-shaped beach with turquoise water and gentle waves.
The Isthmus Track soon reaches the junction with the Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm tracks. We head left towards Haunted Bay, with the track gradually climbing from the end of Riedle Bay up to its highest point of 197m, and then back down to Haunted Bay. Located at southern extremity of Maria Island, Haunted Bay was a whaling site in the 1800s, and home to fairy penguins that live in between the granite rocks.
On the way back to our campsite at Frenches Farm, we take the other track to Robeys Farm.
The track to Robeys Farm (an old vehicular track) crosses the aptly named Stinking Creek, and then the completely dry Robeys Creek, before reaching the Robeys Farm farmhouse. The building is in pretty good condition, having been restored work by the Hobart Walking Club and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Encampment Cove (Day 2)
Not far from Frenchs Farm is the Encampment Cove campground, and taking advantage of the very long days we wander across to Encampment Cove after dinner.
A vehicular trail follows a wide creek to Chinamans Bay, before following the coastline to Encampment Cove. There’s many camping areas along the track, and a large camping area near the water (which has a water tank). The disadvantage of this camping areas is that it’s accessible by boat, and generally much busier than Frenchs Farm.
Mt Maria (Day 3)
We’re up early again today, with another long day ahead of us as we return to Darlington via the Inland Track, climbing Mt Maria (711m) on the way, before a last night at Darlington. A 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 its 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 initially ascends through open eucalypt forest, before a change in the underlying rock changes from dolerite to siltstone after a few kilometres brings more shrubby undergrowth plants. including pink mountain berry, silver banksia and pink heath.
Finally there’s a scree and boulder field, with the route marked by yellow arrows and orange poles,
A short section of forest (Oyster Bay pine, richea, and banksia) is followed by even larger boulders, requiring some serious scrambling!
The Mount Maria summit – the tallest point on Maria Island at 711m asl – is marked by a large trig point and offers sweeping views in most directions.
To the south is McRaes Isthmus separating the north and south parts of Maria Island, and beyond Maria Island is the Tasman Peninsula.
You can also see Darlington and the mainland to the west (below left), and Mount Pedder with its radio tower on the summit to the north (below right).
We return the same way; 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, Maria Island’s main campground, by 4pm, in time to pick up the bicycles we booked a few days ago. I’m ready for a little 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 here 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!
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 as we follow Fossil Cliffs Circuit. After crossing Cape Boullanger and passing the Maria Island airstrip, there’s a view of Bishop and Clerk in the distance.
A short walking-only track leads to the top of the cliffs, where the limestone was quarried, and a rough and steep path takes you down to the base of the cliffs. At low tide you can explore thousands of shellfish fossils embedded in limestone: the Fossil Cliffs are one of the best examples of life 250 million years ago, with the sheer volume of fossils 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, ascending (sometimes steeply) to the top of the Fossil Cliffs.
From the top of the Fossill Cliffs it’s downhill to the junction of the track to Reservoir Dam. The Reservoir Circuit road passed the ruins of the cement works (built around 1889) before ending at Reservoir Dam (constructed by convicts during the first convict period to supply the settlement of Darlington).
We return to Darlington via the other half of the Reservoir Circuit, which is a narrow track (but suitable for bikes) – the loop is best done in a clockwise direction, so you’re descending on the single track.
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
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, the properties were acquired and the island was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary on 1 June 1971, and then 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.
DAY ONE 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) DAY TWO 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) DAY THREE 59.8km Frenchs Farm (campground) 61.2km Junction with Inland Track
67.8km Junction with Mount Maria 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.
|Getting there||Access to Maria Island is via the Encounter Maria ferry from Triabunna|
|Distance||83km circuit by foot (including Bishop & Clerke and Mt Maria)
8km cycle to Fossil Cliffs and Reservoir Dam
|Maps||TasMap MARIA ISLAND NATIONAL PARK (1:50K)
5828 DARLINGTON (1:25K) covers top of Maria Island
5827 RIEDLE (1:25K) covers bottom of Maria Island