Touring the Tamar
14 December 2010
We started our tour of Tamar Valley from Launceston, where the South and North Esk Rivers empty into the River Tamar. We soon stopped at Freelands Lookout to get our bearings and the views to the north-west showcased the Tamar bisecting the valley. It was a stunning preview.
Taking the West Tamar Highway (A7), our first stop was Tamar Island Wetlands. A donations honesty box was provided at the gate to a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk.
The reedy lagoon area is home to numerous birds and other wetlands wildlife. Swan families paraded their young – cygnets covered in downy plumage. Visitors beckoned us, excited to have spotted two green and gold frogs, endemic to Tamar Island, but elsewhere on the endangered species list. An information sign recorded birds that visit the area and a blackboard listed recent sightings. Bird ‘twitchers’ are inclined to linger longer at this attraction. Grindelwald Swiss Village came next.
This replica Swiss Village provided quality accommodation, souvenirs, arts and crafts, a bakery, chocolate shop, restaurant and pro golf shop. A meticulously maintained 18-hole mini-golf course seemed popular and visitors are welcome at the nine-hole golf course, with clubs for hire at the Pro Shop. Many folk are content to simply stroll around the lake feeding ducks, trout and swans.
We stopped at Brady’s Lookout, a scenic stop further up the A7. This vantage point provides broad views of the Tamar and its valley, which is why bushranger Mathew Brady found the point so useful. A history of Brady’s exploits is shown on an information board. With clean facilities and free barbecues, these days Brady’s Lookout is a pleasant stopover for travellers.
An impressive number of wineries dot the Tamar Winery Route. Parking was tight in some – they are very popular – but we were lucky at Rotherhythe Vineyard. Although offering a limited range, their cabinet sauvignon was just what the doctor ordered (in a manner of speaking).
At Beaconsfield we stopped outside the remarkable Gold and Heritage Centre. The drama of 2006 had etched the image of the poppet head in our minds. Souvenirs and regular tours are available from the new complex, built to explain the history of Grubb Mine and Tamar Valley, with interactive displays. In the Mine Safety segment, visitors may crawl through a tunnel and view a replica of the cage that miners Brant Webb and Todd Russell were trapped underground in April 2006.
We passed up on that one – we’ve never been accused of being brave! Besides, we wanted to spend time browsing in nearby Gem and Stone Creations, where faceted stones and opals, gemstone carvings and gifts glittered on all sides. It would have been an ideal place to compose a Christmas wish list.
Instead, we attended to a more mundane matter – finding a black water dump point. A local told us there was a point at the sports ground complex and also advised that free overnight camping was permissible there for self-contained rigs. Further north, friendly staff at the Exeter Information Centre told us of other local places where overnight stays were permitted. The Tamar was certainly proving to be RV-friendly territory.
Nearing Beauty Point, we came across the picturesque setting for its Yacht Club and the Australian Maritime College. With plenty of daylight remaining, we headed for Greens Beach. Several people were swimming and one family was cooking up a barbecue sufficient to feed a multitude. We settled for fish and chips from the local takeaway and, while they were being cooked, took a short drive into Narawntapu National Park.
Instead of using a local free camp, we chose to enjoy all mod cons at waterfront Beauty Point Caravan Park. Thick hedges between sites were a nice feature, providing both privacy and shelter from any wind.
Next morning, bright-eyed and bushytailed, we waited in line for the first tour of Beauty Point’s Seahorse World. Flash photography was not permitted and getting photos of undulating seahorses proved a challenge. Still, a one-hour tour of this fascinating aquarium revealed how the shy creatures propagate and how – unusually – the males keep the eggs in their pouches and expel the babies when they hatch, ready to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, ladies in the group thought this system was ideal!
Seahorse World is more than a tourist attraction; it is the world’s first seahorse research facility and breeding farm, raising stock for aquariums worldwide.
At our next port of call, we were surprised to find that neighbouring Platypus House also starred echidnas. The guide explained that platypus and echidna are ‘country cousins’, both being monotremes (egg-laying mammals). After outlining platypus biology, our guide led us to a viewing chamber where platypus could be seen diving for food and anchoring themselves to underwater structures.
In the well-lit area, flash photography was allowed because it did not cause discomfort to the platypus. The lighting also helped everyone gain closeups of the unique creatures as they caught food underwater (with their eyes closed) and surfaced to eat.
Not the least nervous of their audience, the platypuses performed spontaneous acrobatics then lay on their backs at the pool edge, scratching their stomachs!
Endearing echidnas took little notice of visitors as they lapped into a porridge-looking meal with incredibly long tongues flashing out like mini stock whips. After emptying the food bowl, the echidnas dispersed and one started to climb into a baby stroller. The youngster gurgled happily, but his mother was visibly relieved when the guide gently moved the inquisitive echidna elsewhere.
It was time to check out Tamar Valley’s eastern side. We backtracked about 10km on the A7 and crossed magnificent Batman Bridge. Completed in 1968, with a span of 206m and nearly 100m high, this was Australia’s first cable-stayed truss bridge and was named after John Batman (the early Australian pioneer, not the caped crusader!).
The eastern bank is a popular RV camp. With shade, toilets, a good view and its strategic sightseeing location, RVs visit throughout the year. The eastern approach to the bridge was ablaze with wildflowers to further showcase the magnificent bridge.
Again driving north-west, but this time on the East Tamar Highway (A8), we headed for George Town, Australia’s third oldest European settlement (1804) behind only Sydney (1778) and Hobart (1803). Although, in 1825, it missed out to Launceston on being proclaimed the capital of Northern Van Dieman’s Land, George Town retained its importance as a port, convict station and farming centre. In 1835 John Batman sailed from this port to found the future city of Melbourne.
Helpful staff at George Town’s Information Centre suggested places to sleep, eat and sightsee. We first visited historic Pier Hotel, where excellent meals were available at reasonable prices. However, we decided to forgo the chef’s special for a picnic on Tamar Esplanade.
Only 10km north we visited historic Low Heads maritime complex, Australia’s oldest pilot station to operate continuously from its original location (1805). The vital pilot boats and lights still operate today, but the days of semaphore flag signals between Low Heads and Launceston were overtaken by radio a century ago.
In Pilots Row (1835), volunteers staff a museum holding precious maritime memorabilia, including whaling, diving and communications equipment, scrimshaw and graphic details of inshore shipwrecks. For an in-depth feel of the 1890s, refurbished accommodation is available in homes that once accommodated pilot station staff.
Equally important throughout the years was Low Head Lighthouse. Visitors may walk around the lighthouse for expansive coastal views and a cliff walk reveals many penguin burrows.
There were two good reasons for staying overnight at Low Head Caravan Park. One was that this park raises the bar for cleanliness and superb facilities to new heights.
The second was that the park is a perfect base for joining Shirley Nelson’s nightly Low Head Penguin Tours.
These tours, low key but high on intimacy, allow visitors to experience fairy penguins from unbelievable proximity. Shirley set the rules, “Stay very still and quiet and don’t use flash photography”. The rewards were huge. Penguins waddled right past people seated on a rock and even stumbled over some children’s feet.
Backtracking down the A8, we called in at popular Hillwood Strawberry Farm. What makes this farm so appealing is that customers can choose to pick their own strawberries and pay by weight. From our observations, customers sampled a good percentage of what they picked. Perhaps the proprietors should weigh the customers! A range of jams, vinegars, locally made cheeses and wines made from fruit produced on the farm were available for purchase. Apart from fresh strawberries, we also purchased the yummiest strawberry jam.
Continuing south-east, curiosity led us to a new local attraction, Hollybank Treetops Adventure. We’ve enjoyed treetop walks in most states, surely Treetops Adventure must be a similar experience of moving through the upper canopy? Wrong! This one had no walkways with handrails, merely wire ropes, pulleys and harnesses umpteen metres above ground level and platforms from which participants launched into space. People of all ages were having the thrill of a lifetime. Excitement was written on every face. We chickened out – it’s something we’re good at.
We camped overnight in an enchanting bush camp among tall timbers – Tassie is just full of wonderful natural settings. Next morning we woke to the peaceful beauty that only the Australian bush can provide.
Our tour of the Tamar had been a thoroughly satisfying experience of Australian fauna, fruit, wine, history and novel experiences. So much so, we’ll probably do it all again some time.
May’s route: Take the West Tamar Highway to Tamar Island, Grindelwald, Tamar Winery Trail, Beaconsfield, Beauty Point and Greens Beach. To the east: cross Batman Bridge, take the East Tamar Highway to George Town and Low Heads.
LAUNCESTON INFORMATION CENTRE
12–16 St John St, Launceston, TAS 7250
Freecall: 1800 651 827
TAMAR VISITOR CENTRE
Main Rd, Exeter, TAS 7275
Freecall: 1800 637 989
GEORGE TOWN VISITORS INFORMATION CENTRE
Main Road, George Town, TAS 7253
(03) 6382 1700
Beaconsfield Sports Ground, for self-contained rigs. Black water dump point on site.
Eastern bank of the River Tamar, beside Batman Bridge. Shade, toilets and good views. For self-contained rigs, camp amongst trees outside Hollybank Treetops Adventure gate.
BEAUTY POINT TOURIST PARK
36 West Arm Rd, Beauty Point, TAS 7270
(03) 6383 4536
LOW HEAD TOURIST PARK
136 Low Head Road, Low Head, TAS 7253
(03) 6382 1573
- Swim in Cataract Gorge, Launceston.
- Have a barbecue at Greens Beach.
- Grab a map from the Information Centre and enjoy George Town’s historic walk.
- Take a leisurely walk around Low Heads historic maritime complex and admire the Low Heads lighthouse.
- Indulge in a few little ‘taste tests’ during PYO time at Hillwood Strawberry Farm – a practice accepted by the good-natured owners.
Inspection Head Wharf
200 Flinders St Beauty Point, Tasmania 7270
(03) 6383 4884
Open from 9:30am
Regular tours throughout the day
Inspection Head Wharf
200 Flinders Street Beauty Point, Tasmania 7270
Closed Christmas Day
(03) 6383 4111
THE BEACONSFIELD MINE AND HERITAGE CENTRE
Beaconsfield, Tasmania, 7270
(03) 6383 1473
TAMAR ISLAND WETLANDS RESERVE
West Tamar Highway
HILLWOOD STRAWBERRY FARM
105 Hillwood Rd,
Hillwood, TAS 7252
(watch for sign to west on East Tamar Hwy, 4km south of Batman Bridge.)
Oct to Feb, PYO strawberries, raspberries and cherries. Free local cheese tastings.
(03) 6394 8180