An island off an island off an island, Tasmania’s Maria Island is both remote and accessible; a rare and untrammeled chunk of land where ‘nothing’ really is something. After a year of pandemic-induced lockdowns and anxiety, Oliver Pelling hops on the ferry in search of a remedy.
Of all the places I’ve been, Maria Island is an anomaly. It’s an anomaly because there’s nothing here, which is either the best or the worst thing in the world, depending on how you feel about ‘nothing’.
As it happens, I feel good about nothing. Very good.
‘Nothing’ is subjective, after all. While there’s no permanent population on this 115-square-kilometer island, no shops, no restaurants, no souvenirs and just a single toilet block, all of this nothing means Mother Nature can go about her business unhindered. And business is booming.
“Not bad, is it?” says Ben, as he looks out over Fossil Bay on the island’s northern coast. Ben’s playing it cool. The view across the ocean and up the sheer, ancient cliff face is making my neck hairs stand on end.
Waves tumble into the shore and explode skyward; the truest blues dancing with the deepest greys in their infinite tidal two-step. It’s like somewhere between Jurassic Park and Narnia. Brutally beautiful. And spectacular but also much more than a pedestrian word like ‘spectacular’ could ever hope to capture. We’re going to need something stronger.
“If you don’t have a relationship where nature is your primary provider, and you see nature as your servant, then things begin to erode. You start to lose your place in it all.”
Nature, when it presents like this, isn’t just nice to look at—it makes you feel connected, tuned-in, alive. You can try desperately to explain it, to grasp for words or ideas or references that convey everything that’s happening in your eyes and your mind and your body, but some things—usually natural things—simply escape articulation; leave your senses mangled. As if you just learned how to use them for the very first time.
Not bad, I guess.
There are few places left in the world, I would imagine, that are as accessible as Maria Island National Park (an hour’s drive from Hobart, then a 30-minute ferry from Triabunna), and so un-wrecked and unspoiled by our collective yearning to swap trees for tarmac.
An island off an island off an island, and with a history entirely its own, it feels like a time capsule that’s been plopped in the ocean. And that’s good for both the island itself and anyone who decides to spend some time here—particularly in the wake of our plague year, at a time when we could all do with some nature-induced recalibration.
“We’re going up there next,” says Ben, motioning up a steep hill. “Wait until you see that view.” Luckily, my feet are on the pedals of a HaiBike XDERO Hardsevens (translation: a very good eBike), which means I’m about as concerned about ascending the steepest hill I’ve ever ascended on two wheels as I am about being bitten by a flying turtle.
Ben Rea, who has a bond with the island that stretches back to childhood, started Tasmanian eBike Adventures in 2017 because he wanted to meet and guide like-minded people around the landscapes and into the stories and histories that he holds dear. He’s passionate about using tourism as a force for good, and about preserving Maria Island’s abundant natural resources rather than exploiting them for commercial gain.
As such, Ben runs his adventures on a by-request basis, and only at a cadence that he can square with himself. “I’d be uncomfortable sharing this with anything other than small groups,” he says, as he lays out a small picnic after our climb up Skipping Ridge. Unchecked and unlimited growth is not Ben’s thing, because he knows it can’t co-exist with his desire to protect the places he loves.
Nice bloke, Ben. An adventurer almost by birthright (his father was a waterman, and his mother came from a water-prone family), Ben has spent much of his life traveling, guiding, skiing, diving, mountain biking and sea kayaking. “My view of life has been shaped by nature, and people who love nature,” he says. Warm, welcoming, outdoor-weathered and quick-witted, he feels as much a part of the furniture here as the wombats.
Ben’s ideas on sustainability were forged in large part by a three-month Canadian sea kayaking expedition he embarked on when he was 19. During the course of the trip, he paddled the Gwaii Haanas in southern Haida Gwaii (some 130 kilometers off the coast of British Columbia) and spent an extended period of time with the Indigenous Haida people. “It was an immersion, I met some amazing people,” he recalls. “How the Haida live makes so much sense—everything was in balance. They still had the things that we’ve lost.”
When Ben returned to Gwaii Haanas some 20 years later, and found the community still living in balance with nature, his beliefs were entrenched even further. Now, he wants to spread those same principles through his work not just on Maria Island but across as much of Tasmania, his home, as he can. “If you don’t have a relationship where nature is your primary provider, and you see nature as your servant, then things begin to erode,” he says. “You start to lose your place in it all.”
In the age of overtourism and a pandemic-triggered global re-thinking of how we might all travel more responsibly moving forward, Maria Island has a lot going for it. Nature? Tick. Wildlife? Tick. No roads, resorts, hotels or cocktail bar happy hours? Big tick.
As such, the people who visit Maria do so because they want to experience it in its natural state. There is no other motivation or reason to come here. The island even has its very own pledge, which encourages visitors to do their bit to keep it “wild and pristine”. It includes the line: “Wombats, when you trundle past me I pledge I will not chase you with my selfie stick … I pledge to let you stay wild.”
“There’s a lot of power in the metaphor of an island …. now, everyone’s looking at us and going: ‘how do I reconnect with that?’”
But while the human footprint here feels non-existent (there has been some land clearing, wildlife culls and introduction of wildlife, but there is no permanent population, save for a handful of park rangers), the island has, like so much of Tasmania, a dramatic—and very human—backstory.
Stepping off the ferry at Darlington (which ping-pongs between Triabunna multiple times a day), we pass the old Commissariat Store—now a small visitor center—before coming across the ‘most intact example of a convict probation station anywhere in Australia’. You know that scene in Westworld, when the protagonists arrive at Sweetwater for the first time and can’t quite believe their eyes? Darlington feels a bit like that (minus the costumed robots).
The convicts were here on two occasions: 1825-1832 and 1842-1851. Before them, sealers and whalers plied their savage craft and, before them, the Puthikwilayti Aboriginal people of the Oyster Bay tribe were the owners of the land. “We didn’t inherit this land,” says Ben, pouring me a tar-black coffee from his plunger as we take in the view from Skipping Ridge. “We stole it. I think one of the biggest challenges for us now is how we bring the community to be custodians of the place.”
In 1884, an entrepreneurial Italian by the name of Diego Bernacchi moved to Darlington and set up a range of businesses, including a cement works and a vineyard. At its peak, Darlington had a population of as many as 500 and was even renamed ‘San Diego’ for a hot minute.
But then the Depression and the financial crisis hit, and Bernacchi fell ill, shuffling off his mortal coil at the age of 72. “It’s a place of successive boom and bust cycles,” explains Ben. “It has lots of layers, lots of stories.” The island was eventually declared a National Park in 1972, and soon became a hit with hikers, cyclers, campers, scuba divers and nature-lovers of all types and tastes. It has a large wombat population and is home to Cape Barren geese, Tasmanian devils, kangaroos, wallabies, native hens and some 125 bird species (including the endangered swift parrot).
Ben currently offers two eBike adventures: one on Maria Island and another in nearby Bangor (on the mainland), both of which run for a full day, though he’s exploring options for multi-day trips. Rather than working from a set itinerary, he tailors each experience to suit his guests, and spends the day talking with them about whatever it is they want to talk about (as opposed to reading off a script). In the real world, this means that you don’t feel like you’re on a guided tour at all; rather a brief adventure with an old mate.
With the eBikes making light work of tricky terrain and near-vertical ascents, Ben takes us through the ancient forests of the island’s interior, talking to us the whole time about what we’re seeing, where we’re going, his connection to the island and his ideas for how tourism can be used for good here.
Ben grew up in Spring Bay, just west of Maria Island (on the mainland), in a house that was actually built and lived in by Diego Bernacchi himself. “I’m just trying to empower people to help protect it,” he says at one point. “It’s my backyard. It’s where my dad’s ashes are. It feels like home.”
After a good six hours of riding, listening and feeling our way over, through and across Maria Island, our jaunt with Ben concludes at Chinaman’s Bay, a beach I suspect has been showered in more superlatives than most other beaches in Australia. While we saw several other travelers riding around on non-electric mountain bikes, the extra power of the eBikes enabled us to cover more ground more quickly without wrecking ourselves. They’re also—and this is important—fun as hell to take downhill.
After a year of pandemic-induced anxiety, lockdowns, isolation and abundant screen time, our time on Maria Island feels like a remedy to it all. And while the pandemic still rages around the world, Maria remains untouched by it. Didn’t get the memo.
But beyond even the pandemic, this place—far from the shadow of the skyscraper, the rumble of industry, and the relentless churn of our working lives—is a stark reminder of everything that we have yet to restore and rebalance. “There’s a lot of power in the metaphor of an island,” says Ben. “Growing up in Tasmania, we were made to believe that everything else was over the border, that we had to leave Tasmania if we wanted opportunities. But now, everyone’s looking at us and going: ‘how do I reconnect with that?’”
The writer traveled as a guest of Tasmanian eBike Adventures.