At Tasmania’s aptly named Bay of Fires, the sun breaks through under an arching rainbow, bathing us in a feel-good golden light. We push our fully-laden touring bikes to the edge of a blissfully blue bay that sways with great gardens of giant kelp and fall on it, climbing afterwards onto weathered granite slabs to warm ourselves as the sun shifts overhead. Eagles soar, schools of tiny fish wash in and out with the swell, but nothing disturbs us because, miraculously, we have this unbeatable East Coast paradise entirely to ourselves.
we have this unbeatable East Coast paradise entirely to ourselves
Cycle touring is an unlikely way to explore Tassie’s tri-coloured East Coast: the hill climbs are epic, the headwinds unrelenting and the ever-changing weather brings hail, snow, wind and rain in tortuous cycles. Most people sensibly bring a vehicle, but however you travel this pristine stretch of coast, the dramatic seascapes are equally idyllic.
Where else but in Tasmania could you set up camp mere metres from the sea and encounter nesting sea birds, watch wallabies and wombats foraging around your camp chairs as you sip a sundowner, or spot little penguins ambling ashore after dark? Add excellent short walks and a stack of free, beachfront camps and you’ve got a whole lot of reasons to cross Bass Strait.
This ultimate, 500km road trip from Hobart to Launceston the long way detours off the beaten track just a little to discover waterfall walks and lonely seascapes, rejoining the crowds to tick off must-see Freycinet National Park and in between, discovering incredible beachfront freebies for long, carefree stays.
Wielangta Forest Drive
East of Hobart where the Tasman Peninsula lures tourist traffic south, a gloriously lonely 35km-long route detours off the highway, taking sassy off-roaders the back road to Orford. Where the farmhouses end, the Wielangta Forest Drive begins, rumbling you off the bitumen and onto a scenic, little-used road that provides a truly adventurous start to your east coast adventure. We switch on the iPhone and tap into Hema’s Explorer app to get our bearings.
The track’s washed out condition means it’s a tough start with our heavy, over-stocked bikes, so when we reach the top of the last get-off-and-push climb to discover magnificent Marion Bay Lookout, we call it quits for the day. Framing an endless, inaccessible arc of coastline, this stellar lookout buoys our spirits, exciting us about all the bays and beaches yet to come. It may be just a pull-off with nothing but plenty of room to camp, but this quiet high point is all we need. A roaring campfire helps insulate us against the plummeting October temperatures before we hunker down for a howling, high-altitude night.
The weather brings a different scene at dawn and just 6.5km further on, we discover the excellent picnic area at Sandspit Forest Reserve with sweet rainwater, a cosy stone shelter and two mesmerising walking trails. These occupy us for most of the morning – in between steaming mugs of coffee – and when the rain returns with a vengeance, we pitch the tent and spend a glorious afternoon watching splendid fairy wrens flit amongst the moss-covered King ferns. Following a washed-out boardwalk into the rainforest north of camp, we leapfrog across a winding creek and stand beneath arching overhangs, dripping with rainwater. There’s a roaring campfire while we dine and a very quiet, dry night.
Onwards and upwards at dawn, the road climbs past towering blue gums over Snake Ridge and the rain soon turns torrential. The hardy five-year-old on the back of our bike isn’t complaining, but we hunker down roadside to wait it out, playing ‘paper, scissors, rock’ under our tent fly. When we get going again, our free-wheeling downhill run is thrilling, leading us to remote Rheban Beach and hugging the coast to Orford and a couple of free camps at Triabunna. Overlooking Maria Island, Rheban Beach is easily one of the prettiest in the state – a deserted curl of pure white sand on the edge of a bright blue bay – so don’t rush on.
Triabunna to the Friendly Beaches
Back on the bitumen we rejoin the Tasman Highway traffic, putting the Wielangta Forest Drive behind us. I’m surprised that more people don’t discover this exceptional route, which took a pounding in 2016 from storms and flooding rains. Plans are afoot to seal the route, which may well increase its popularity in the future.
As the gateway to Maria Island, plenty of tourists pass through Triabunna, a small fishing and tourist hub with a supermarket and a couple of free places to overnight. The grassy field behind the pub is a convenient spot if you are waiting for a ferry to the island, but if not, push 34km north of town to the gorgeous beachfront camp at Mayfield Bay Coastal Reserve. Here you can stake out a shady camping nook by the sea and take in grand views across Great Oyster Bay to the Freycinet Peninsula. Camping is free (although you can make a donation) and there are fireplaces, toilets, picnic tables and a gorgeous sweep of white sand beach that pushes south past Three Arch Bridge.
You’ll find this 1845 convict-built creation just upstream of the creek crossing, a short stroll from camp. It’s stunning design and workmanship is matched by another nearby curiosity – the 1840s Spiky Bridge – that will pull your attention off the road south of Swansea. What appeals most about Swansea’s stunning streetscape of historical houses is the town’s über friendly, surprisingly fascinating museum and the fact that you can stock up on supplies before pushing onto Freycinet.
While friendly, the holiday park caters poorly to cold, rained-upon cyclists and the alternative – pitching a tent in the undulating carpark of the unfriendly backpackers – doesn’t rate a mention. With Freycinet’s Friendly Beaches luring us 47km up the road, we stock up and ride.
Freycinet National Park
Of all Tasmania’s alluring seascapes, none magnetises travellers like Freycinet’s famous Wineglass Bay: a scene dominated by rugged pink granite peaks and arced by a ribbon of impossibly white quartz sand. Regularly rated one of the world’s most photogenic bays, Wineglass Bay is a simply stunning sight, but hike beyond the lookout and you’ll discover tannin-hued lakes and Aboriginal shell middens, top snorkelling sites and rock pools and a bewitching sunset spot at the Friendly Beaches.
After a big day on the bikes, we stake out a cosy camp tucked into the coastal heath and head for the sea, strolling slowly towards the distant Cape Tourville Lighthouse and picking through great piles of cowrie shells trapped against tessellated rock pavements. We climb into the dunes to watch a humpback whale diving just beyond the breakers, and at sunset, snap off photos of fiery lichen-covered boulders that seem to tumble away into an impossibly translucent sea.
We climb into the dunes to watch a humpback whale diving just beyond the breakers
You could spend a lot of time seeking out wombats (as we did) in Tasmania, only to discover they are ready and waiting at this rustic free camp, sharing the twilight hours with unshakable Bennett’s wallabies and pademelons. Only a lack of drinking water and the long ride ahead of us eventually moves us on from the Friendly Beaches, bound for Chain of Lagoons and an unexpected birdwatching experience.
Cool Coastal Camps
This expansive, shady beach reserve will be forever memorable as the first place I’ve ever encountered Tassie’s tiny nesting seabirds: in this case a pair of red capped plovers tending two miniature speckled eggs in an unlikely nest scraped into the sand. Higher on the dunes amongst thick tufts of spinifex, pied oystercatchers followed suit, luring walkers away whenever they ventured too close to the nest’s secret location.
Stretching for seven kilometres, Lagoons Beach is a massively spacious fishing and free camping destination, and as we explored we spotted little penguin tracks leading into the dunes. You can stay for up to four weeks but a couple of nights are enough for us, even with the donation of extra drinking water from a friendly neighbour. The Bay of Fires lures us on, 56km north, but in between there is a day of unrelenting headwinds and unnerving traffic that seriously tests my commitment to the ride (saved only by hot chips and some time-out seaside in the über nostalgic town of Scamander).
A cool, car-free bike path paves our ride into St Helens, another gorgeous Tasmanian town on a clear, calm inlet where we tick off everything on our shopping list. I squeeze a few too-heavy treats into my bike panniers and discover that nothing soothes traffic-weary nerves quite like a deserted beach and a bottle of red wine.
Rivaling Freycinet’s Friendly Beaches, the Bay of Fires’ pristine stretch of golden granite, white sand beaches and arcing, impossibly blue bays may well be the best free camping area on the island. With a tempting choice of eight idyllic (and totally free) campgrounds, this destination is just about impossible to move on from and if we hadn’t run out of drinking water, we might still be there now.
The secluded, roomy camps at Jeanneret Beach lure us first, and after stashing our bikes in a wind-protected nook, we shake off our shoes and amble down to the beach. Over a sculpted granite headland, we climb to Swimcart Beach and beachcomb slowly north, filling our pockets with glistening shells. It turns out to be a quiet choice, far from the caravanners staking our more roomy spots at popular Cosy Corner.
The next day we ride north and halfway down the enormous hill to Taylors Beach, spot a secret curl of sand so appealing that we turn around and push back up the hill just so that we can spend a night there. Our camp on the headland overlooking shimmering Sloop Lagoon is just big enough for our compact tent. Down in the bay we dare each other into the chilly sea and draw life-size mazes on the sand for our daughter to navigate.
When we leave Sloop Lagoon, stocked up with fresh rainwater from a friendly local, it’s to reach the faraway camp at Policemans Point, an idyllic, windswept spot at the mouth of Ansons Bay. Taking the gravel Fire Road ensures a bumpy, hilly ride, but the lack of traffic washes over us like a wave of relief and we spend a happy, chatty few hours riding and pushing and stopping to brew coffee with the freshest water scooped straight from a stream.
Mt William’s Wild Sanctuary
The ride to Policemans Point turns out to be one of our best, but overnight the rain begins in earnest and stays with us for three testing days. We ride it in, cook in it, pack our bikes in it and eventually, after pushing through a finger-numbing downpour that batters us without reprieve, we abandon our plans to reach Mt William National Park and retreat to Gladstone, arriving sodden, cold and hungry. The girls at the general store usher us inside and within minutes we are munching on a mound of hot, crispy chips while our clothes drip puddles onto the floor.
A local man arrives with an invitation of hot showers and a drying room, and his small son brings chocolates for our daughter, “for cycling energy” he says
We stake out the town’s picnic shelter, pitching our tent on the concrete slab, our clothes strung out overhead. A local man arrives with an invitation of hot showers and a drying room, and his small son brings chocolates for our daughter, “for cycling energy” he says. The friendliness of it all is restoring beyond belief and later, over cold beers in a cosy pub, we put Mount William back on our itinerary.
Occupying the best of Tassie’s remote northeast corner, this coastal sanctuary of heathlands and plains harbours Forester kangaroos, pademelons, echidnas, Tassie devils and stubbornly elusive wombats. Years ago this was one of the best places in the state to spot wombats grazing during daylight hours, but recent mange mite attacks have decimated wombat numbers.
That doesn’t make a stay at Stumpys Bay any less enjoyable. The beaches are incredible and utterly deserted, and for travellers able to carry fishing rods, boats and dive gear, sea adventures get much more exciting. From the 216-metre summit of Mt William we take in views north of the Bass Strait islands and encounter pademelons and tiny birds’ nests in the heathlands along the shore.
The Loop to Launceston
Back in Gladstone, the 60km ride to Bridport is a relaxed, albeit windy affair on gravel roads that eventually turn smooth, lulling our daughter to sleep on the back of the bike. Feeling suddenly incongruous in a sea of fresh-dressed Launceston weekenders, we push our bikes to the town’s massive beachfront van park, pitch the tent and luxuriate under hot showers. There’s a playground and a lots of fresh food and wine to indulge in, and time out for our daughter, reading books on a snugly couch in the local library.
We toy with the idea of enduring the night ferry for an adventure on faraway Flinders Island, but 12 hours in a small boat on a bumpy sea doesn’t seem fair to our hardy little preschooler, so we eventually mount up for our final two-day ride to Launceston. To escape the now busy stream of semis and trucks, we detour onto back roads and beam through a happy ride to a little free camp at Lilydale Falls.
This lush forested spot has long been a favourite amongst thrifty travellers, but we find it especially enjoyable as cyclists. We push our bikes beyond the barricade that separates the travellers’ car park from the grassy picnic area and pitch our tent. Our daughter makes a beeline for the playground, a lovely local guy we’ve met on our day’s ride brings us organic eggs, and we stroll hand-in-hand up the gorge to dangle our feet beneath Lilydale Falls.
The next morning when we pack our bikes for the last time and hit the road to Launceston, its no surprise that our smiles are dashed by the city-bound traffic that gets faster and more furious, shuddering and shaking our bikes and forcing us to teeter on a very slender verge. Reaching Launceston marks a real milestone and there’s a thrilling moment as my odometer inches past 500km en route. But reaching the city limits is bittersweet, as all endings are, especially after an adventure as exceptional as this one.
This trip from Hobart to Launceston via Wielangta Forest Drive, Mt William National Park and Bridport covers around 500km. We recommend the top free camps at Mayfield Bay, Friendly Beaches (Freycinet National Park), Lagoons Beach, Bay of Fires and Ben Lomond National Park. For long-stay Tassie travellers, a national parks holiday pass provides good value at $60/vehicle, valid for eight weeks (www.parks.tas.gov.au). Visit Tasmania from November to April for the best chance of warm temperatures and clear skies. Tap into 30 minutes of free, daily Wi-Fi at 50 locations around the state (freewifi.tas.gov.au)