The Edge of the World

Tasmania is the Australia, in miniature, that tourists travel so far to see

RENAISSANCE cartographers portrayed the edge of the known world as an evil, enchanted place, where storms raged and bizarre creatures lurked. Sailors foolhardy enough to venture there were believed to face certain death. Yet resolute explorers pushed the world's edge ever farther back, until the map finally wrapped around the globe. The known world is now the entire world. Almost: adventurous travelers can still capture the feeling of arriving at the edge of terra cognita by visiting Tasmania. Australia itself is remote from almost everywhere else, but Tasmania, a small island state, which dangles like a pendant from the mainland's southeastern tip, is about as far from anywhere as it's possible to go. The island is an enchanted place, but a decidedly hospitable one. It does rain from time to time, but Tasmania has no more storms than most other places. All manner of bizarre creatures lurk in the wilderness, but it's a fainthearted explorer who's afraid of wallabies, wombats, and platypuses. Tasmania has within manageable compass almost everything that attracts travelers to Australia. It's as if the mainland's essence were distilled and concentrated in one compact place. Its coastline is as gorgeous as the Great Barrier Reef; its interior wilderness contains one of the largest stands of virgin temperate rain forest in the world, incomparably rich in wildlife; its historical heritage is fascinating and well preserved; its food and wine are superb. The only thing Australian it lacks is desert.

Tasmania is also amazingly undervisited: the island receives fewer than 75,000 foreign travelers a year (the Empire State Building gets that many visitors in a week), though it's very popular with mainland Australians. You can walk for hours in the national parks and not meet any other two-legged creatures, unless they be wallabies or kangaroos. Travelers planning a trip to Australia this fall for the Olympic Games might consider getting away from the crowds for a week in scenic, salubrious Tasmania. North American fall is the Antipodean spring, a good time to visit. The only time to avoid is Tasmania's damp, cold winter -- our summer months. And the prices will make you think you've traveled back in time twenty years. Sydney is a bargain for Americans, but Tasmania is downright cheap: when you convert your American dollars into Australian ones, they swell in the most pleasing way.

Throughout its history Tassie, as the Australians call it, has attracted a rugged breed of people who have come and stayed. The first wave of Western inhabitants, the convicts transported from Great Britain, came involuntarily; but in modern times the island has held a special appeal for visionaries, explorers drawn to the far end of the earth.

UNTIL the twentieth century Tasmania was almost entirely wilderness, so no one saw much need to create parks. One of the pioneers in the island's national-park movement was an Austrian outdoorsman named Gustav Weindorfer, who bushwalked the mountainous interior, fell in love with the sublime landscape, and never left. In 1912 Weindorfer and his wife, Kate, built a pine chalet next to Dove Lake, at the foot of Cradle Mountain, and the couple lived there for the rest of their lives. Today most visitors to Cradle Mountain National Park stop for a look at Waldheim ("Forest Home"), which is just as rustic as its name, set in the midst of a grove of gnarled pines and myrtle -- all covered with brilliant-green moss.

"Hobbity, isn't it?" said Di Hollister, a guide provided by the Tasmanian government, which was my host on this trip. At first I thought Di was using a strange Australianism (the words are sometimes as odd as the animals Down Under), but she was referring to Tolkien, and the invocation was apt. A mist blanketed the forest that morning, but the thick cover of boughs kept the winding track dry. The dense air was saturated with the emerald sheen of the moss, and I almost did expect to see wee folk darting among the knobby roots of the trees.

When I got to know Di a bit better, she let slip that she had been a member of the state parliament, representing the Green Party. In the 1960s and 1970s environmentalists and bushwalkers like Di came together to oppose a series of industrial projects, including hydroelectric dams and pulp mills, that would have had a devastating effect on the wilderness. The state's Green Party emerged from this coalition, and at one point it held five of the thirty-five parliamentary seats, enabling it to push through strong environmental legislation. Today Tasmania's wilderness enjoys greater legal protection than that of any other state of Australia: 20 percent of its land has World Heritage status, and is therefore in a class with the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon.

Every visitor to Tasmania soon learns that according to international health organizations, the island has the cleanest air and water in the world. Di worked this fact into the conversation five minutes after I met her. The island is also remarkable for some of the things it doesn't have: fruit flies, for example. Houseflies, yes, but no fruit flies. Unlike the mainland, it also lacks foxes (the settlers here weren't exactly the riding-to-hounds set), which is good news for wallabies and other slow-moving marsupials.

There are many ways to see the wilderness in Tasmania, from camping in the wild to staying in Waldheim-style huts or posh lodges, yet even around places of this last kind, the critters are everywhere. When I checked in at Cradle Mountain Lodge, which is adjacent to the park, I found a mother wallaby munching away on the grass beside my cabin, with her little joey peeking out of her pouch. On a short walk to the park entrance we immediately chanced upon a wombat, who looked up calmly, turned his broad rump to us, and scuttled away. "The usual view," Di said.

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