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AWD off-road adventure on Tasmania's East Coast

  • By Tom White
  • 27 June 2019
  • 16 min read
  • 2 Two day trip
    An unconventional journey to experience the best of Tasmania.
  • Light
    Dry weather gravel roads and formed trails with no obstacles, very shallow water crossings.
  • 2 Two day trip
    An unconventional journey to experience the best of Tasmania.
  • Light
    Dry weather gravel roads and formed trails with no obstacles, very shallow water crossings.

To many a mainlander, Tasmania is still a mystery.

Maybe you’ve been to one or both of the larger two cities, Hobart and Launceston, or perhaps you've even travelled between them on the 200km-long Midland Highway – but there’s much more to the island than its metro centres. The true Tassie experience is tucked away, off the beaten track, where hidden trails and stunning vistas are nestled where national parks meet sprawling fields, and both roll into the ocean.

Our two-day trip took us from the Island state’s capital, Hobart, to its second-biggest city, Launceston via the picturesque Coles Bay along the eastern coast.

It’s an awesome way to experience the sheer biodiversity Australia has to offer in just a few hours per day – without travelling too far from a major city.

Kicking off at the shores of Hobart’s historic waterfront district, our hosts for the journey, Subaru, provided a choice of Forester, XV and Outback models for our drive.

Our itinerary for day one takes us from the heart of Hobart to Coles Bay on the Freycinet peninsula. Our itinerary for day one takes us from the heart of Hobart to Coles Bay on the Freycinet peninsula.

Subaru made note of the fact that in Tasmania, the brand is number one, at least in terms of private sales. The reasons for this would soon become evident, as the island’s varied road conditions play right into the hands of the all-wheel drive brand, much in the same way that it does in New Zealand, with its similar climate and conditions. Primarily, the abundance of unsealed roads has people hopping into a Subaru as a more rugged choice over more road-suited competitors.

Subaru is a popular choice thanks to Tasmania's many unsealed roads. Subaru is a popular choice thanks to Tasmania's many unsealed roads.

After a scramble into our assigned vehicles, and a mosey through a once-in-a-blue-moon Hobart traffic jam, we cruised over the iconic Tasman Bridge – a 15-minute drive took us into the countryside and to our first stop.

This region of Tasmania – the Southern Wine Trail – is known for its cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varieties, and we were greeted by staff at Frogmore Creek Wines whose picturesque estate in the Coal Valley backs far down a hill, for a vista that prominently features the Mount Pleasant Observatory in the distance.

The early morning was no time for wine, but we were introduced to one of the island’s eccentricities – an obsession with scones and jam.

The morning was no time for wine tasting, but Tasmania's Southern Wine Trail offers plenty of valley vistas. The morning was no time for wine tasting, but Tasmania's Southern Wine Trail offers plenty of valley vistas.

The Coal Valley stretches from Cambridge in the south (next-door to Hobart International Airport) to Richmond in the north. We continued north, and once we’d reached Richmond, we crossed its bridge (fun fact: the oldest stone-span bridge in Australia) and headed east toward the coast.

The bridge was one of many convict-era artefacts dotted along our trail and could easily make for tour-worthy distractions should you re-create this trip on your own. However, we still had 200km or so to cover to get to our destination for the day, so we pushed on.

Things became much more interesting about 30 minutes later, when we departed the sealed-road system and ventured beyond, onto a series of off-road trails. 

Our surroundings instantly changed from a mix of craggy sheep infested hills a-la-Scotland, then into the depths of ferniferous forest. The rough trails could easily have been a dirt-rally stage anywhere in the world. 

These were well chosen by our hosts at Subaru, as our all-wheel drive wagons handle the unsealed terrain with ease.

Tasmania's unsealed roads range from very well graded to surprisingly craggy. Tasmania's unsealed roads range from very well graded to surprisingly craggy.

Before we knew it, we’d broken clear of the forest and were suddenly greeted by a series of beachfront farms reminiscent of New South Wales' south coast.

The views here, along Tasmania’s eastern extremities, are also quite like those in New Zealand’s South Island, perhaps with a little less varied topography, and an Aussie twist in the flora that adorns the sides of the hills.

Arriving at the edge of Freycinet National Park, we checked into our cabins then took a cruise of Wineglass Bay, a popular tourist choice.

For those more adventurous, the peninsula also offers waterfront camping (which require booking and I’m sure are booked out most of the time), as well as walking trails of the 65 square kilometre Freycinet peninsula, which extends to the south.

You could easily plan an entire week-long trip around the Freycinet National Park. You could easily plan an entire week-long trip around the Freycinet National Park.

The area connects to the mainland via Dolphin Sands Beach, and the seafood – from oysters to fish – came heavily recommended.

When I opened the door to my cabin I was greeted by a foraging wallaby, that seemed unfazed by my presence, a benefit, perhaps of the Freycinet lodge being located on an otherwise-untouched strip of national park.

Day two would see us scaling the coast, then through the alpine heights of Ben Lomond National Park before doubling back to Launceston. Day two would see us scaling the coast, then through the alpine heights of Ben Lomond National Park before doubling back to Launceston.

The lack of fencing or infrastructure designed to protect wildlife in Tasmania means many of the island’s critters reach untimely ends on the road system, and speed limits in many of the national parks are limited to 50km/h between dusk and dawn to help combat this issue. It’s worth factoring in these limits, and the added risk of travelling at night, into your trip itinerary.

We took a brief early-morning detour to the nearby cliff-top lighthouse. We took a brief early-morning detour to the nearby cliff-top lighthouse.

After a very quick meal we were ushered back into the Subarus and, after a short detour to visit the peninsula’s lighthouse, we were back on the road.

Our route cut northward of Coles Bay, toward the lazy coastal town of Bicheno and along the fine strip of freeway between Douglas-Apsley National Park and the ocean.

The views, even out of the car, were stunning. The views, even out of the car, were stunning.

It was difficult to keep your eyes off the untouched waterfront and on the road – the morning lustre of a low sun lasts a long time this far down the longitude scale at the height of winter.

From there we took a turn left and headed inland for more scones at our next stop at the town of Fingal. This place, surrounded by foothills and countryside, could easily have been any outback Australian country town, with rusted garages and aged patina on its colonial architecture. Only, it was less than an hour from the coast.

The aged patina of Fingal was echoed along many of the towns we passed through along the east coast. The aged patina of Fingal was echoed along many of the towns we passed through along the east coast.

The next step was to head northwest, for an ascent into Ben Lomond National Park, at which point we deviated from the road system for an off-road climb toward the famed Jacob’s Ladder. The ‘ladder’ is a narrow trail made up of stepped hairpin turns that scale a snow-dusted rocky outcrop. Its purpose is to connect the rest of Tasmania to the remote ski lodge at its peak. At the top the temperature measures minus two, and snow peppered our mud-encrusted cars.

It took a moment to realise that just over an hour prior, we were looking out to the ocean at a beachside carpark. 

These cloud-topped and snow-peppered peaks were at total odds to the coastal outlooks just an hour or so prior. These cloud-topped and snow-peppered peaks were at total odds to the coastal outlooks just an hour or so prior.

The purpose of our journey was to do a U-Turn at the top and utilise Subaru’s X-Mode Hill Descent Control on the way down.

The system automatically handles braking provided you remain below 40km/h on descents. While the peak was only partially frosted, the steep bends were a good place to test exactly how much extra confidence the system grants. As a bonus, if you accidentally tip the speedo over 40km/h, it will automatically re-activate the system when you reduce your speed again. No need to come to a halt and re-activate it.

Descent Control is a welcome technology when you're staring off of a sheer drop. Descent Control is a welcome technology when you're staring off of a sheer drop.

We descended out of the national park and into scenery that can only be described as mirroring British countryside: farmland set over rolling hills, separated only by shrubs and low fences. 

The sparse population here makes these roads near empty, and the lack of speed limit signs for kilometres on end was a refreshing departure from the mainland's speed-obsessed attitude. For the record, Tasmania is generally 100km/h outside of towns, 50km/h inside of towns and 80km/h on dirt trails unless otherwise signed.

Tasmania has an 80km/h blanket speed-limit on its unsealed roads. Tasmania has an 80km/h blanket speed-limit on its unsealed roads.

Our afternoon stop was Ingleside Bakery Café, set amongst a town so quaint you’d think you’d been transported to the green expanses of rural Britain, for – you guessed it – more scones.

We then went onwards north, past Launceston Airport and into the city itself, to our final destination at the night special stage of Subaru Rally Tasmania.

It was a fitting and deliberate finale for our Subarus, which had driven 272km of varied trails during the day, on and off-road, snowy and warm. They sat proudly in the car park with an inch-thick layer of dust and mud coating their sides.

This Forester gets a well-deserved five-minute rest in Launceston. This Forester gets a well-deserved five-minute rest in Launceston.

While your journey might not end in such a poetic manner, this two-day Hobart-to-Launceston trip is possible to do with any all-wheel drive car, and even cheaply as there are plenty of camping opportunities available along the route.

Mainlanders could even bring their own vehicle via the Spirit of Tasmania (from $600-$700 return for two adults and a car) and do this trip in reverse from Launceston to Hobart. 

Our trip ended with a dirt stage of Subaru Rally Tasmania, but the island is becoming known for other great events to hang your trip on. Our trip ended with a dirt stage of Subaru Rally Tasmania, but the island is becoming known for other great events to hang your trip on.

Other inclusions worth considering along this trail during winter include skiing at the top of Ben Lomond National Park and you could easily spend more than one day exploring either Freycinet National Park or the Southern Wine Trail.

This trip is only a sample of what the island has to offer for approachable off-road driving – a surprising variety of climates and lifestyles – but, no matter which way you do it, expect a lot of scones.

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