“A dozen wattlebirds for breakfast”: not a conservationist’s ideal but back in 1840s Tasmania, they and other creatures were useful food supplements.
Kangaroo brains mixed with flour and salt then fried in emu fat (“slippery bob”), roast bandicoot, echidna and slowly stewed wombat were common foods for early European Australians.
Thankfully, these no longer feature on Tasmanian menus. But in the 1840s, writer and painter Louisa Ann Meredith found many of Tasmania’s native creatures were “a valuable asset to the country bill of fare”.
Louisa, husband George and their small child arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1840, setting up home near Swansea on the east coast.
She had been a writer and painter in England and her first book, Poems, was published in London in 1835 with her own illustrations.
Once in Tasmania she continued her writing and painting, inspired by the region’s translucent waters, long clean beaches, birds and plants.
As this area was loved by Louisa, so it is by me, significant in my childhood as a special summer holiday place, as it still is and still the same today.
Part of the modern enjoyment of Tasmania’s east coast is food. The freshest, tastiest seafood eaten on the day it’s caught, with surprisingly inventive restaurants serving modern and tasty dishes.
The oysters are especially good: try them at St Helens, Bicheno and Coles Bay, although they are no longer the bargain-priced sixpence a bushel Louisa paid at Swansea more than 150 years ago.
But even on the way to the east coast from Launceston there are plenty of decent nosheries. The Leaning Church Vineyard at Lalla serves not only great wines but also delectable all-day platters of Tasmanian goodies — cheeses, particularly the delicious Ashgrove wasabi cheese, rhubarb relish and pates, smoked salmon and lime aioli, fruit, tiny quiches, dips and breads.
However, on our trip it was still early so we drove on to Derby for morning tea.
We’ve eaten there at Berries Cafe before and enjoyed the quiches and soups. This time it was a feast of homemade scones and jam with rich thick cream and slices of cake — delectable.
Derby oozes mining history and sits right on the edge of the old open-cut Briseis tin mine. In the late 1800s it was one of the richest tin ore exporters in the southern hemisphere, with workers drawn from many parts, including China.
Tourists can follow the Trail of the Tin Dragon to see Chinese graves and an old ceremonial oven.
Further along the Tasman Highway is Weldborough, once home to a joss house (Chinese temple), now in the Launceston museum.
Weldborough Pass is one of the most beautiful and winding roads in Tasmania.
It deserves a leisurely drive to enjoy fully the wildly extravagant mass of ferns that edge the road. The hairpin bends positively overflow with them, a cascade of soft green fronds.
Behind these feathery ferns tall myrtles — some more than 300 years old — sassafras and blackwood trees stand sentinel.
There’s a short fairytale walk into the forest where tree ferns arch the pathway edged by huge lichen-covered tree trunks and all around the high crystal notes of wrens.
Louisa wrote that not even in her most fantastical imaginings had she pictured anything so exquisitely beautiful.
We spent so long enjoying ferny Weldborough that the timing was perfect for lunch at the Holy Cow Cafe at Pyengana.
The cafe’s Moo burgers are superb as are their beef and Tasmanian pepperberry pies, crisp pastry filled with melting tender beef and the sparky spiciness of the berries.
We left well supplied. A delicious wedge of their cloth-wrapped cheddar, manufactured since 1895, and a bag of generously sized rich and crunchy chocolate, ironically named Cowpat cookies — yum.
And then St Helens on the wide expanse of St George’s Bay. It’s perfect for fishing and boating. Like so many places in Tasmania, the food here can be a lucky dip. Fortunately We ate at the Blue Shed — what a find. Built out over the Bay, there’s the delightful feeling of being on the water without any ill effects of movement. I had the most delicious salt and pepper squid ever; my mouth waters at the thought.
North of St Helen’s is the A-list Tasmanian destination, Bay of Fires. It was named in 1773 by English explorer Captain Tobias Furneaux when he saw the smoke and flickering flames from the Kunnara Kuna tribe’s fires.
This area is still of great cultural significance to Tasmania’s Aboriginal community.
Louisa wrote that red lichen clothed the rocks so completely that it appeared to be their natural colour, and that is still the impression today. In the many rock pools you can enjoy the remembered childish sensuousness of having your fingers gently pressed by anemones closing their soft tentacles.
The ice-bright beaches (which Louisa describes as “white as driven snow”) are still secluded, the sand so fine you can slide your feet and make it squeak.
On those isolated beaches my parents would embarrass the youthful me by stripping off all their clothes and bounding into the “pure intense blue sea”. I bet Louisa never did that.
We’d collect delicate, empty sea urchins, mottled cowries with their ribbed “teeth”, Chinese fingernails and golden conch shells. And, like Louisa and her family, we’d fish for crayfish that abounded in the giant kelp forests.
She wrote: “A string with a piece of raw meat, or even a bit of red rag, is a sufficient decoy to bring the cray-fish (sic) to the surface, when they must be seized by hand and pulled out.”
Standing high on great rounded granite rocks we did the same, lowering the baited line into forests of waving kelp. Eventually there’d be a small tug, we’d gently haul up a cray and throw it into the waiting pot of boiling water. Eaten with crusty bread and homemade butter to the sound and smell of the sea — heaven.
This is still a rich fishing area where crayfish, fat salmon, juicy flathead, tender flounder, sweet whiting and even a fearsome saw-toothed barracuda can be caught from the rocks, shore or boat. Make sure you have the special licence from the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment first, though.
The intrepid Louisa would have loved the freedom of today’s visitors, of being able to scuba dive or snorkel in the “perfectly translucent” sea, among giant granite boulders, gutters, tunnels and great kelp forests. You may even be lucky enough to see the rare and beguiling weedy sea dragons.
Louisa, looking down from a boat, could clearly see “a whole world of strange and exquisite things. We gazed upon broad-leaved trees of sea-weed, their strong roots clasping rocks some fathoms below, and their stems ascending through the clear water to within a foot of the surface.”
The road south has tantalising glimpses of white beaches and the sapphire waters of the Tasman Sea on one side and bush, farms and vineyards on the other.
And just out of Swansea beside the road is the strange Spiky Bridge built by convicts in 1843. The rock “spikes” were to stop cattle falling off.
If you fancy either a short or long walk, the Douglas-Apsley National Park near Bicheno is ideal. It’s a place of rugged river gorges, waterfalls, tall stands of eucalypts, tranquil pools and pockets of rainforest.
The road after Bicheno has glorious views over Moulting Lagoon to the pink granite rampart of the Hazards, named by an American whaler, Captain Richard Hazard.
Louisa wrote of sailing out to the “long craggy peaks” and coming to a lovely bay, probably Wine Glass Bay, sheltered on all sides, its beach “dazzlingly white”.
We lunched at the restored Swansea Bark Mill Museum, the only one in Australia. It is fully working and shows how local black wattle, once the main ingredient used in tanning, was crushed and then exported all over the world.
Louisa and her family eventually moved south to Orford, the final destination on our east coast trip.
Orford sits on the Prosser River and has glorious views across the Tasman Sea to the sheer blue cliffs of Maria Island National Park, a World Heritage site. Orford is popular for Hobart weekenders, great for fishing, snorkelling and diving, and perfect for lazing, enjoying local wines and food, particularly fresh fish.
Here we regretfully said goodbye to the east coast, sad to leave the holiday shack’s simple pleasures. Sipping local wine on our veranda, watching pied oyster catchers strut along the sandy shore of the river below; honeyeaters, robins, and wrens – which Louisa said were perfect little dots of birds – in the fuchsias and roses entangled in the balustrade.
All of us enjoying own taste of the east coast.