Driving Tasmania

If you live on Australian mainland, there's a drive that you probably haven't done - Tasmania.

By Julian Edgar

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Many people who holiday in Tasmania choose to fly there and hire a car or campervan, but there’s another option – take your own car. The Spirit of Tasmania vessels ply back and forth from Tasmania to the mainland, and these ships can take both you and your car.

So what’s the experience like of a one week sail / drive around Tasmania? We decided to find out.

The ship

The ferry (or ferries – there are two) are no small vessels. With a displacement of just over 29,000 tonnes and with a length of 194 metres, there’s plenty of room. And with an average speed on the trip of 27 knots, the ships also don’t hang around. Average travel time is about 10 hours, with the ships leaving Melbourne and Devonport at 7.30 pm daily and arriving at the destination at about 6 the next morning.

As the journey is largely completed in darkness overnight, many people choose to book a sleeper cabin – something that as a family of three, we did. The cost of the return journey for two adults and a 7 year old, plus a Skoda Roomster, was AUD$1210.

At Melbourne we arrived bright and early, expecting to be able to load the car and then spend some time exploring the ship.

Bad move.

While it’s stated that check-in commences 2.5 hours prior to departure, arriving this early means you sit in your car for literally hours, stuck in a queue of vehicles boarding the vessel. On the way back we’d learned from our mistake and got to the ship about 90 minutes before departure. In this case, embarkation was speedy and straightforward, taking about 20 minutes.

Not stated anywhere that we saw, but enforced on departure, is a ban on fruit and vegetables, methylated spirits (eg for camping stoves) and bottled gas.

Also existing is a ban on alcohol being taken on board – in our case, we had a few bottles of wine and we were permitted to leave these in the car. (The reason for this ban became clear when we priced the wine at the bars on board….)

The vehicles are loaded on ‘garage decks’, being placed very close to each other. In fact, if you have a car where the paintwork has cost you a lot, you probably wouldn’t want to board this ship.

People squeezing past vehicles, often while carry backpacks and the like, mean that scratches are almost inevitable. There is not sufficient room for people to open doors without at times hitting other cars - we saw a woman casually hit the car next to her – the only alternative would have been for her to climb over from the passenger side... and she was too overweight to be able to do that.

The other odd aspect is that it appears that the cars are not secured into place – on both our trips the seas were very calm but you wonder at what point they get out tie-down straps.

The cabin was small but comfortable and the facilities on the ship (bars, cafes, gaming venue, big-screen TVs in public areas) were also fine. No wi-fi web access is offered.

The tour

If you’re used to driving on the Australian mainland, Tasmania is a small place with good roads. That means that if you have a week or ten days, there’s a lot you can see.

We started with a dawn walk around Devonport – a lovely area on a clear winter’s day.

Our drive then started - from Devonport to Burnie, and from there to the beautiful conservation area of Cradle Mountain.

We camped at Cradle Mountain, with access from the camping ground to the upper level carpark by a ferry bus service. To access the Cradle Mountain walks requires payment; we bought a $60 pass that allowed us entry to all the Tasmanian national parks for two months. However, while access to parks requires such a pass, we noted that the vast majority of short-term visitors don’t buy a pass – and apparently no-one checks whether they have one or not!

The walk around Dove Lake on Cradle Mountain was pretty - but to my mind, not as good as it is often cracked up to be.

That afternoon we took the Roomster through Rosebery and Zeehan, stopping for the night at a cabin at Strahan. (During the trip we both camped and cabin’ed – the choice being made on whim.)

The next day we drove to Queenstown and then through the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. There are stops along the road allowing you to do some short walks within the wilderness – the Nelson Falls were superb.

That night we camped at the Mt Field National Park, the next day doing the Big Trees walk – again, rather wonderful.

From there it was a short drive (in Tassie they’re all short drives!) to New Norfolk (another cabin) and then the next day into Hobart. Rather than stay in Hobart, we cabin’ed it at Seven Mile Beach.

Port Arthur is only (another) short drive away.

I last visited this important historical site a few decades ago; since then they’ve built a large visitors’ centre – and decided that they should charge mega-bucks for entry. For our family of three, the minimum entrance charge was a jaw-dropping $80! That included a guided tour and a ferry ride around the harbour – but these weren’t options; you had to pay for them whether you wanted them or not.

I reckon a site like this, that so strongly reflects Australia’s history, should be accessible to all for only a nominal charge.

We then drove up the east coast, camping that night in the Mayfield Bay Conservation Area – the free camping area being adjacent to (another) beautiful beach.

From there it was across to Launceston, staying north of that city in a motel at George Town.

In Launceston we visited the National Automobile Museum of Tasmania, an excellent small museum with an eclectic range of historically significant cars and bikes.

And from there it was back to the ship.

The driving

The driving aspect of the holiday (a total of 2600 kilometres - this includes the drive to Melbourne from near Canberra) was straightforward. Of note is that the advisory speed signs on corners on west coast roads are much less conservative than such signs elsewhere, and that there are a lot of tightening-radius corners in Tasmania!

Some roads are a bit narrow for the traffic – especially logging trucks – you’ll find on them, but in general the roads are very good.

The Roomster turned-in fuel economy of 5 – 6 litres/100km for the entire trip – and that despite the oftentimes hilly terrain and while carrying a big load.

Conclusion

Want to go for a driving holiday that’s achievable in a week, in a place of great cultural interest and natural beauty?  Take the ship and enjoy the holiday…

The holiday was paid for at normal commercial rates.

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