Maria Island, a former penal colony off the coast of Tasmania, is a place like few others. With its spectacular Painted Cliffs, Maria Island National Park is a unique blend of pristine deserted beaches, forests, mountains, native wildlife freely roaming around, rich history, and island tranquillity.
Maria Island in Tasmania
After a catamaran ferry ride across the Mercury Passage from Triabunna, watching our bags being hauled off the boat makes us feel like we are going on an expedition. And we are in a way. We have just landed on Maria island, the former penal colony and convict probation station. With its deserted beaches, rugged cliffs, craggy mountain peaks rising up from the Tasman Sea, and remarkable diversity of the native wildlife, from the first sight the island conveys the feeling of isolation, adventure and discovery.
I heard about the untouched beauty and wilderness of Maria Island, with emphasis on wilderness. Arriving in Darlington, the main settlement on the island, I am surprised to see a few buildings. But they turn out to be the only buildings on the island.
Campsite found, tents pitched, we set off to explore the island, starting from Darlington with its historic buildings and ruins. But before discovering Darlington’s rich past, we discover Maria Island’s rich present – its stunning wildlife. Barely having started our walk, we come across two stocky wombats moving slowly on their stubby legs and snuffling along the path. I remember reading that when threatened, they can reach the speed up to 40 km an hour, an equivalent to an Olympic sprinter. Hard to believe but it’s a fact.
A few seconds later, we hear a mellifluous honking sound – a few Cape Barren geese are grazing on the grass nearby. These large birds, pale ash-grey with rounded black spots, pink legs, black feet and bright green-yellow beaks,are unique to Australia. In the 1950s the Cape Barren geese were perilously close to extinction, but today they seem to outnumber tourists, at least on Maria Island. Apparently, they mate for life, so unsurprisingly, we always see them in pairs.
Wallabies. You cannot go anywhere without spotting these cute hopping marsupials.
Accompanied by a variety of native animals and birds, we arrive in Darlington. For such a small place, Darlington has a rich history of development, from convict settlements to attempts to establish industry.
After becoming in 1825 a convict site for guilty of light offences, the convict settlements on Maria Island were later abandoned in favour of Port Arthur due to numerous escape attempts. From 1842 until 1850, Maria Island was used as a convict probation station and in 1972 it was declared a National Park.
In the late 19th century, Maria Island attracted interest of the Italian businessman, Diego Bernacchi, who saw a potential of the island in wine-making and silk production, and moved to Maria island. Later, cement works, timber and fishery were added to his business transforming Darlington into a thriving hub. Cement works, with the limestone obtained from the nearby fossil cliffs, were a success, same as Maria Island wine.
Diego Bernacchi also renamed the place as San Diego, which quickly became a booming town. But the Great Depression hit Tasmania, and after the demise of the cement works, San Diego reverted to a quiet farming town, its name reverting to Darlington.
While scattered whale bones remind of Maria’s Island maritime history, the abandoned but restored buildings are a reminder of Diego Bernacchi’s ambitions. Not only has he tried to convert Darlington into industrial hub, but he also tried to develop the island as a popular tourist destination by building tourist infrastructure. Today, many buildings have been converted into museums and accommodation for tourists and rangers from the Parks and Wildlife Service.
While walking towards the shoreline with its Fossil Cliffs, a strong wind abates. But as often happens in Tasmania, by the time we reach the cliffs, the wind eases making it possible to walk to the edge of the cliffs, with expansive views of Freycinet Peninsula and Schouten Island.
The Fossil Cliffs were used as a limestone quarry for a number of years during Bernacchi’s attempts to build a cement industry on Maria Island. Today, the place is a geologist’s paradise revealing secrets of life from millions of years ago.
The rocks with fossilised animals are everywhere, as far as the eyes can see, with some specimen extremely well preserved.
But the Fossil Cliffs are not only the testimony of the geological past of Maria Island. The cliffs are a great place to see the waves hammering into the rocks and throwing up spray, especially on a stormy day. I wish I had my tripod with me and could stay until sunset to take a few shots. But this time, the photography wasn’t the best, but the time spent with my friends was.
We still have enough daylight left and we set off to explore the Painted Cliffs by walking along the beach towards the south. Here, there are even more wombats than on our way to the Fossil Cliffs. Further down, we spot an eagle, a possum and a few pademelons bustling about. Soon, we share our walk with some friendly wallabies and kangaroos cheerfully hopping around. I don’t think I have ever seen as much Australian wild animals in one place.
Maria Island is teeming with Australian icons. Many endangered species from all around Australia have been brought to the island and set loose. It’s probably the best place in Tasmania, if not in the whole Australia, to get up close and personal with wildlife.
But I am looking for devils. The island is known as the best place to sight a Tasmanian devil in the wild. Threatened to extinction by a severe facial tumour, in 2012, Tasmanian devils were released on Maria Island in the attempt to grow a disease-free population. Now, they are freely roaming around the island. But when we are roaming around, they are the only creatures we haven’t seen.
Arriving to the Painted Cliff, surprisingly, there are no other people in sight. It’s a low tide, and we are able to get around the headland of the Painted Cliffs with its swirling patterns. Forgetting about the waves, which can come any time, we get right down in front of the sandstone cliffs to see their unique geological features up close.
Painted Cliffs bear well their name, which comes from their distinctive patterns – red, orange and yellow bands and rings. Iron oxides contained in water seeping into the rocks combined with eroding action of wind and waves for millions of years created these particular patterns in the soft sandstone.
We stay at the Painted Cliffs until the light begins to gently fade and return back to our campsite when darkness is about to set in. It’s our first and unfortunately last night under the stars on Maria Island. As we get closer to our tents, we see a possum busy with munching something. Something definitely from our tent.
We spent only one night here dividing our time between Maria Island and Bruny Island. Bruny Island was great but Maria Island was special. There is something really unique and wild about Maria Island that made me fall in love with the place. The place I won’t soon forget. I already see myself returning to the island and exploring the Haunted Bay and its deserted beaches, wild ocean of the Isthmus, and staying overnight at French’s Farm and Encampment Cove.
Location: Maria Island is situated off the East Coast of Tasmania, an island off Australia’s south coast.
How to get to Maria Island: Maria Island is accessed by ferry (30 min), which operates between the town of Triabunna and Darlington, the main settlement on Maria Island. Triabunna is located about 90 km from Hobart (1h30min drive). You will find information on ferry bookings and timetable on Encounter Maria Island website. Maria Island is a car-free Island National Park. Important: We highly recommend securing your ferry booking as early as possible if you are traveling in high season.
For public transportation to Triabunna, you can check www.rome2rio.com, shuttle bus East Coast Cruises and Tassielink. Triabunna is located on the Great Eastern Drive stretching from the Bay of Fires to Orford, 220km along Tasmania’s coastline.
Best time to visit Maria Island: Any time. Ferries used to operate between Triabunna and Maria Island from October to April but since April 2017, there is a new year-round ferry service.
Fees and permits: You will need to pay a National park entry fee to visit Maria Island National Park available online on Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife website.
Penitentiary: Located in the north of Maria Island, the historic Penitentiary at Darlington, which originally housed convicts, provides basic, dormitory-style accommodation with bunk beds and mattresses. There are wood heaters but no electricity and running water in the rooms. Water is available from rainwater tanks. But basic cooking facilities are available in the Mess Hall. Gas operated hot showers are available in the amenities block near the Camping area (availability depends on water level). You need to bring bedding, headlamps, cooking utensils and cutlery, and food (there are no shops on Maria Island). Advanced bookings are required.
Campsite in Darlington, near the beach. There is a barbecue shelter, camp kitchen and toilets with hot showers (availability depends on water level). You can also use the Penitentiary Mess Hall for cooking. Water is available from rainwater tanks. You have to pay camping fees but bookings are not required.
There are also camping areas at French’s Farm and Encampment Cove, about 3-4 hours walk away. There are composting toilets but limited water supply from rainwater tanks. You need to bring fuel stoves for cooking. There are no camping fees and bookings are not required.
To transport your gear from the wharf to Penitentiary or campsite in Darlington (about 1 km), trolleys are available at the wharf.
Walking: There are many walks on Maria Island that you can find on the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife website. If you don’t like roughing up, you can come to Maria Island with The Maria Island Walk. They offer a luxury four-day guided walk with accommodation in their exclusive wilderness camps and candlelit gourmet dinners.
Cycling: Biking is very popular on Maria Island. You can bring your own bike with the ferry or hire a bike on Maria Island (bookings are recommended). You can find information on cycling on the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife website. You must clean your bike free of mud before coming to Maria Island to help reduce the spread of Phytophthora, a deadly fungus killing native plants.
Bird and animal watching: Maria Island is famous for its endemic birds and animals (wombats, wallabies, kangaroos, pademelons, and Cape Barren geese) roaming freely on the island.
Snorkelling and diving: If you are brave enough to swim in cold Tasmanian waters, Maria Island is one of the finest marine reserves in Tasmania. You will need to bring your own equipment.
Cruising: You can also explore Maria Island on a scenic cruise to the Painted Cliffs, Fossil Cliffs, Riedle Bay, and Ile des Phoques seal colony. Information on cruises can be found on East Coast Cruises website.