Maria Island is a unique location where the visitor feels they have left civilization behind and stepped into another world. There are no noisy cars or machinery, just the sound of the wind rustling in the trees and the occasional bird calling to another. The air is clean; the only smells that accost the nose are the perfumes of the plants in the bushland and the salt in the air, blown off the sea which surrounds you. The whole place is a treat for the senses, and an opportunity to experience something civilisation lost more than a century ago.
Where Is it?: East of the township of Triabunna, which is is 84 km north east of Hobart, 49 km south of Swansea, 6 km north east of Orford, on the Tasman Highway. The island is about 20 km in length from north to south and, at its widest, is about 13 km west to east. At its closest point (Point Lesueur), the island lies four kilometres off the east coast of Tasmania. A day trip is just enough time to get the feel of the place, but to explore it in detail you would need much more time.
Not unlike Bruny Island to the south of Hobart, Maria Island takes the form of a figure-eight, its two sections are joined by a tombolo about 3 km long known as McRaes Isthmus. The northern section of the island is significantly larger than the southern, though both parts have quite rugged relief. It is a mountainous island - Mount Maria rises to 710 m and Bishop and Clerk reaches 915 m - which makes it an ideal place for bushwalking. The reward for the effort are its magnificent vistas across eastern Tasmania's picture postcard coastal landscape, which encompasses sweeping bays, rugged cliffs that tumbling into the sea, jagged rocky outcrops and beaches.
There is but one "town" on Maria Island and a peculiar one it is by any standards! It is called Darlington and it lies near the northern tip of the island. Dotted with many wonderful old buildings, this colonial settlement was built as a penal colony. It has no permanent inhabitants these days other than a few park rangers who stay during peak periods. Everyone else on the island - up to several hundred a day during the summer holidays - are tourists who come and go.
Maria island is accessible by ferry, boat or light aircraft. Common dolphins, Australian fur seals and seabirds such as Australasian gannets and shy albatrosses are often seen on the voyage. Visitors can stay for a few hours or a few days. Once on the island, you will find yourself walking or bicycling in friendly natural surroundings, with no cars, no electricity, no shops and no distractions. There is limited accommodation and limited water supply, visitors have to bring their own food and water, sets of clothes for all weather conditions, any other equipment including bicycles (mountain bikes are available for hire from the ferry operator) they may need or want, and bedding if staying overnight.
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Walking, bicycling, swimming, snorkelling, diving, bird watching, wildlife observation and relaxation are the main activities undertaken by visitors. Many people take interest in Maria Island's history, and most of the island's walks include sites of historic interest. The Painted Cliffs and the Fossil Cliffs are two popular walking destinations for day visitors, both on the island's coastline. The Painted Cliffs are sandstone with beautiful patterns formed through staining by iron oxide. The Fossil Cliffs are tall limestone cliffs containing prolific ancient fossils. Longer day walks include tracks that ascend Bishop & Clerk (620 m and Mount Maria (711 m). Mount Maria is a six to seven hour return walk from Darlington while Bishop and Clerk can be completed in about four hours return.
Nearly all roads and tracks on the island are suitable for bicycling. Bicycles and helmets can be rented in Hobart and brought over on the ferry. A bicycle is a must for those who want to see as much of the island as possible on a day trip. Bicycle-riding is not permitted on beaches or on the two mountain tracks.
A vehicular track extends from Darlington twenty kilometres south to Haunted Bay on south Maria Island, with a number of side-tracks and points of interest along the way. Haunted Bay is so named because of the constant calling in the evening of the many fairy penguins that live there. The track south is the usual route for people doing bike rides or multi-day walks. The major campsites outside Darlington are at Frenchs Farm, 11 km from Darlington, and Encampment Cove, a further 2 km away, which is also used by boating visitors. This area is referred to by boaters as Chinamans Bay (Chinamans is the bay just north of Encampment Cove). Both Frenchs Farm and Encampment Cove have rainwater tanks. The Frenchs Farm tank is less likely to run out during summer. Water can be hard to find elsewhere.
From Encampment Cove it is only a little more than a kilometre's walk to the ruins of Maria Island's second (probation-era) convict station at Point Lesueur on the island s west coast (also known as Long Point). Soldiers Beach and Bloodstone Beach on the western side of the island are also well worth the effort that it takes to reach them, as are Shoal Bay and Riedle Bay, the beaches either side of McRaes Isthmus.
In 2007 a disused coastal trader, the Troy D, was scuttled outside the marine section of the national park, 1.7 km west-southwest of the Painted Cliffs, with the intention of creating a dive wreck.
On the eastern side of the island, Riedle Beach rivals Tasmania's more famous Wineglass Bay in its beauty. But while Wineglass Bay is perpetually busy with tourists, you'll find hardly another soul at this wide sandy 5 km-long beach. Riedle Bay sits on the eastern side of Maria Island's narrow sandy isthmus. There are giant granite rocks at each end of the beach, and a myriad of shells on the shoreline. With a bike, Riedle Beach is a 90-minute cycle ride from Darlington settlement.
Maria Island has sparkling white sandy beaches and a coastal mountain range with lush gullies, but its spectacular limestone and sandstone cliffs are what most visitors to the island recall. The Painted Cliffs are one of nature's masterpieces. Beautifully coloured and patterned sandstone, carved and moulded by the sea, and bordered by rock pools teeming with marine life. Although this sort of rock formation is not uncommon, it is rare in a natural situation for it to be so extensively and beautifully exposed. The wonderful patterns are caused by ground water percolating down through the already formed sandstone and leaving traces of iron oxides, which have stained the rock formation. This probably occurred millions of years ago in a monsoonal climate.
More recently, sea spray hitting the rock face has dried, forming crystals of salt. These crystals cause the rock to weather in the honeycomb patterns that you see. Wave action has also created some interesting features. Rock fragments moved around by the water have gradually worn small potholes and notches into the cliff face, eventually resulting in the undercutting of the cliff. This is a continual process and as you walk further along you can see how quite recently the cliff top has collapsed, plunging sandstone blocks and she-oaks down to the sea.
The reserve is located along the northern shores of the island. Note, fishing is prohibited in the reserve (except recreational fishing, and only then in the area east of Cape Boullanger, the point facing Ile du Nord, near the Fossil Cliffs). Activities at the Reserve include rockpool scrambling, snorkelling and diving. Water temperatures vary 11-20 degrees C with the seasons, and you will see spectacular seaweeds, sponges, anemones, crabs, various invertebrates and fish. Dive tanks can be refilled in Orford.
Darlington Precinct, offers a glimpse into our convict past and the probation system that was unique to Tasmania. The thirteen intact structures that remain are set amongst a relatively unchanged landscape, and uniquely demonstrating the philosophy behind the probation system. Darlington first opened as a penal settlement in 1825. An island, its good anchorage, accessible foreshore, fresh water and shelter made it an ideal location for a place of secondary punishment for convicts who committed offences in the colony. Those who committed more serious crimes were sent to the notorious Macquarie Harbour. The penal settlement was closed in 1832 and the prisoners moved to the recently established prison at Port Arthur and the land given over to pastoral leases.
With the introduction of the probation system, Darlington was re-opened as a probation station in 1842. Along with the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, it was one of the first of a group of such stations to be established. Some buildings from the original convict period were re-used for the probation station and a major building program was initiated.
Of at the 78 probation stations established throughout Tasmania, Darlington remains the most outstanding representative example. The intactness of the buildings and structures within the precinct and their relationship with each other uniquely demonstrates the philosophy behind the probation system. Situated on Maria Island off the east coast of Tasmania, Darlington lies within the Maria Island National Park.
Historic displays are set up in the Commissariat Store, Mess Hall, William Smith O'Brien's Cottage and Coffee Palace. They document the island's history, its convicts and later settlers, and interpret the ruins and restored heritage. Animals and birds are often seen among the open woodlands and clearings around Darlington. A walk up the hill leads to the convict built reservoir and the old limestone quarries. Historic Guided Tours are available by arrangement with Park staff.
This walk is on Maria Island and can be enjoyed as part of a day or overnight visit to the island. The Painted Cliffs are best visited at or around low tide to allow safe access around the rock platform adjacent to the cliffs. Visitors can return via the Oast House where hop kilns were built sometime before 1845.
The cliff exposure in the Fossil Bay area is recognised as the best example of lower Permian strata in Tasmania, if not the world. The dark grey rock containing the fossils consists of alternating beds of fossil-rich limestone and siltstone that is estimated to be about 16 metres thick. On the lower rock shelf you can see a variety of fossils including sea fans, coral-like creatures, scallop shells and sea lilies.
At the northern end of Maria Island, stand the twin peaks of Bishop and Clerk. These towering dolerite columns were named because of the resemblance to a bishop, wearing a mitre, being followed by a clergyman. This walk takes you from grasslands along the edge of the Fossil Cliffs, through open forest and tall woodland, and then to rocky slopes and boulders to reach the summit. It is a medium grade walk with the last part scrambling over boulders.
Maria Island has a rich history. Before the colonial era, Aboriginal people of the Tyreddeme band of the Oyster Bay tribe journeyed regularly to the island and much evidence of their presence remains, particularly around the bays on either side of the island's isthmus. The island was named in 1642 by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman after Maria van Diemen (née van Aelst), wife of Anthony van Diemen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in Batavia. The island was known as Maria's Isle in the early 19th century.
In the early years of the 19th century, American whalers and sealers began establishing bases along the east coast of Tasmania, from which they conducted their activites. They pronounced the name of the island the American way - "mar-eye-a" - rather than 'mar-ee-a', which is the way Maria van Diemen herself would have pronouced it, not to mention the British colonists who would later settle here. For some inexplicable reason, the American pronounciation has stuck, and try as one might, it is impossible to convince the locals that they are not pronouncing the name of the island incorrectly.
In 1802 the French expedition led by Nicolas Baudin encountered the Aboriginal people of Maria Island, as did the whalers of the early 19th century. René Maugé, the zoologist on Baudin's expedition, was buried on Point Maugé on south Maria Island. The strait between Maria Island and the east coast of mainland Tasmania is called Mercury Passage and was named after the ship HMS Mercury, commanded by John Henry Cox, who charted the area in 1789.
For two periods during the first half of the 19th century, Maria Island hosted convict settlements. The island's first convict era was between 1825 and 1832 and its second - the probation station era - between 1842 and 1851. Among those held during the second era was the Irish nationalist leader William Smith O'Brien, exiled for his part in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. His cottage still exists in the nearby former penal colony Port Arthur to where he was deported after his time on Maria Island. He was later transferred to New Norfolk on the Derwent River upstream of Hobart.
Three structures from the first convict era remain in the Darlington area: the Commissariat Store built in 1825 and presently used as the park's reception and visitor centre; the convict penitentiary, completed in 1828 and now used to accommodate visitors rather than detain them; and the convict-built dam on Bernacchis Creek, which still provides Darlington's water.
From the 1880s, the Italian entrepreneur Diego Bernacchi set up island enterprises including silk and wine production and a cement factory, quarrying limestone deposits at the Fossil Cliffs for the raw material. At the height of its fortunes in the early 20th century, Darlington had hundreds of residents and several hotels. By 1929 all of these ventures had failed for a number of reasons including the Great Depression, poor quality limestone and competition from mainland producers, who were not burdened with high costs of transportation.
For a period of 40 years until the late 1960s the island was dominated by farming. The South Island was farmed by John Robey, a South African, with his wife Hilda. Robeys Farm is located on the west side of the south island, and although essentially complete in a "just walked away" fashion as late as the early 1980s, the location has since been extensively vandalized, and the farmhouse further damaged by weather and neglect by the Parks and Wildlife Service.