One Lap of Tassie: Two-Up Riding in the Antipodes

Tasmania motorcycle ride
Iridescent, jewel-like beaches, air that is said to be the cleanest in the world and grippy, untrammeled pavement—that’s what you’ll find in Tasmania, a heart-shaped speck of land to the south of the Australian mainland. The view of the aptly named Wineglass Bay is worth the short hike! Photos by the author and Meredith Drake.

I’m accustomed to giving the classic “V” sign to other motorcyclists on the road, and getting similar props in return. In California, at least, it’s a thing. But as we ride around Tasmania, I’m crushed to discover I’m getting no such love. Initially I attributed this to an innate unfriendliness, but that would be in stark contrast to the affable people we meet in every store and café throughout the country. It just didn’t make sense.

Turns out I was using the wrong gesture. Before long I discover the “art of the nod.” To do this right, you subtly dip (not raise) your chin as a rider approaches–not too much, mind you–just enough to be effortlessly cool, like Steve McQueen. In almost every instance, you’ll get a similar salute in return. Even better, unlike in the U.S., “the nod” is agnostic–you’ll get a response no matter the brand of motorbike.

Once I unlocked that particular mystery I went boldly forward, nodding my way across Tassie like a bobblehead. Even my wife Meredith started nodding from the back. Hey mate, how ya goin’?

Tasmania motorcycle ride
In case you were wondering just where in the heck Tasmania is….

At a time when every corner of the globe is facing irrepressible growth, this heart-shaped jewel of the Antipodes remains joyfully stuck in about 1960. It’s full-on “Ozzie and Harriet” here–in the best way possible. You won’t find much cell coverage, or even decent Internet access. Outside of a few kilometers in Hobart and Devonport, there are no major highways to speak of. Sixth gear doesn’t get a lot of use, which is just fine by me.

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What you will find is myriad national parks, incredible white-sand beaches, museums and other cultural attractions. You’ll also find air so clean that bottles of it are sent around the world for analysis. (Prevailing westerly winds arrive here after an uninterrupted journey of more than 12,000 miles across the open ocean.) 

Tasmania motorcycle ride
Amazing scenery, little traffic and grippy roads…a rider’s paradise!

And if it’s a pure motorcycling experience you want, you’ve come to the right place, thanks to remarkable, grippy pavement (“bitumen,” to the locals), unrelenting curves and untrafficked roads. Thousands of motorcyclists know this. There are riders like Meredith and me, riding two-up and doing the brisk-but-not-crazy thing. And there are myriad hard-drinking squids on lightly laden sportbikes, experimenting with speed limits and the disposition of the local constabulary (of which we saw very little). We even saw a group of 20 original, rattling Indians (from Springfield, not Spirit Lake), resplendent with hand shifters and enormous, valanced fenders, making their iconoclastic statement across the byways of Tassie. Good on ya, mates!

Fueled by flat whites (an espresso-based drink similar to a latte), Meredith and I covered a little more than 1,000 miles in 10 days (including two rest days). This trip is a new format for us; we’ve toured together extensively in many countries, on our own bike or as part of a group. But this time we decided on a hybrid, purchasing a bike rental and itinerary from BikeRoundOz, which also chose our route and accommodations. BRO also provided GPS links and a detailed guidance document with road descriptions and local highlights.

Tasmania motorcycle ride
The Bass Strait is a little like the venturi in your carburetor—it averages only 200 feet in depth with constant winds, which means the passage can be rough. Ours was tranquil.

Just in case we thought we were doing something truly unique, on our first day we’re joined by about 150 motorbikes on the 10-hour ferry from Melbourne, on the Australian mainland, to Devonport, Tasmania. I have an inexplicable love of ferries, but this one has a reputation as a real vomit-fest, due to the sometimes-turbulent passage of the shallow, 160-mile-wide Bass Strait. We decide to take the night passage and book a small cabin, which turn out to be good choices. In the end we have rare, flat water and clear skies, and I fall asleep to the gently rolling seas, feeling smug at the notion that a brand-new BMW R 1200 RT awaits below deck.

Tasmania motorcycle ride
The 10-hour ferry from Melbourne routinely carries dozens of motorbikes, and the boarding procession provides a great view of Aussie moto culture.

Once on land, we stop at the Glengarry Bush Maze for a little walkabout. The proprietor, Lou, has a few words of warning before we head into the bush. He proceeds, with perfect calm, to tell us all about the many deadly species in Tasmania, including “jack jumpers,” fiery orange ants that leap from the undergrowth and jab you repeatedly with poisonous venom. Then there are the black tiger snakes. “We see ’em here on occasion,” says Lou, remembering a recent sighting at the bathroom we just used. “If one bites you,” he adds casually, “you have about 15 minutes to live.” Uh, anything else we should know about? “Not really,” says Lou, the master of understatement. “Just don’t let a mossie [mosquito] bite you. They carry a disease, Ross River fever, that makes you lethargic…for the rest of your life.”

Tasmania motorcycle ride
On the first day, outside of Devonport, we stop at the Glengarry Bush Maze for a little walkabout. The maze itself was less entertaining than the proprietor, Lou, whose friendly nature and wry sense of humor was typical of Tassie residents.

Fortunately, Lou’s inelegant introduction doesn’t dissuade us from a near-perfect first day. That evening, we ride a few miles north of our hotel in St. Helens to the Lichen restaurant on Binalong Bay, which forms the southern end of the poetically named Bay of Fires. The latter is so named because of Aboriginal fires that were seen by early explorers, but the name is also attributed to the combination of luminescent waters, white-as-snow sand and fiery orange lichen that dots the rocks here. Indeed, Meredith and I agree that it’s Binalong time since we’ve seen a beach this beautiful (sorry).

Tasmania motorcycle ride
Take your pick: the Bay of Fires is so named either because of Aboriginal fires that were seen by early explorers, or a fiery orange lichen that dots the rocks. Either way, it’s worth a visit.

It can be hard to pinpoint the quintessential Tassie environment. The island is a rich mix of jagged peaks, volcanoes, rainforests and broad river valleys that change seemingly every mile. As we head south from the Freycinet Peninsula, the road hugs the shore, with myriad tiny bays dotted with fishing boats. Moving inland, the untrafficked roads look more like an African savannah. Eucalyptus trees, with their tufted tops, dot the landscape. Just as quickly, we’re in nearly impenetrable greenery, the enormous ferns and Huon pines creating a little Hobbiton. But if there is one iconic feature of Tassie it must be the iridescent, jewel-like bays and beaches that are seemingly around every bend, begging for immersion. The sand is like talc, a bleached white that softens just slightly underfoot, leaving a perfect imprint on a perfect day.

Tasmania motorcycle ride
The essential Tassie landscape: eucalyptus trees, with their tufted tops.

But for all its beauty, Tasmania has a dark side to its past. Pry into the history of many of the older buildings, and you’ll discover they were built by convict labor from Britain in the 19th century. Of all the convict sites, perhaps the most famous is Port Arthur, now a National Historic Site. It sits at the tip of the Tasman Peninsula, on the edge of a large national park. To get there, we traverse Eaglehawk Neck, a narrow isthmus that served as an ideal barrier during the prison’s heyday, from 1830 to 1853.

Tasmania motorcycle ride
Signs everywhere warn of the nightly carnage—Tasmania is said to have more roadkill per mile than anywhere on earth.

Admission to Port Arthur includes a boat ride and guided tour. We forgo the latter in order to wander around the 100-acre property and its 30 buildings. Some are just ruins, while others have been meticulously renovated with period furnishings. As we wander the grounds, we find it difficult to imagine the hardship that was endured here. Though once considered the pinnacle of rehabilitation practices, the prison meted out punishment that was in almost all cases wildly disproportionate to the crime—sometimes as inconsequential as stealing a loaf of bread. Despite this history, the Port Arthur grounds and small harbor are magnificent, forming a wonderful and ironic contrast to its dark history. A brief detour to the nearby Remarkable Cave is also a must-do. It’s just a few miles to this network of sandstone passageways, capped by a beautiful overlook. 

Tasmania motorcycle ride
For all its beauty, Tassie has a dark past. Port Arthur, now a stunning National Historic Site, housed British convict labor in the early 19th century. Prisoners served life sentences in darkened rooms, and were prohibited from speaking—in some instances, for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread.

The clear skies continue as we leave the Tasman Peninsula for the island’s largest city, Hobart. As we drop down the long arch of the Tasman Bridge, we see cruise ships, sailboats, water taxis and guide boats of every kind plying the waterfront, which is also dotted with cafés and gelato spots. We amble along the famed Salamanca Market and find a hidden stair to the cloistered neighborhood of Battery Point, with its historic houses fraught with lacy ironwork that’s reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans.

Tasmania motorcycle ride
Hobart, the capital, is host to numerous museums, cultural sites and some of the best food in all of Tassie. A day ride up 4,170-foot Mt. Wellington is not to be missed—unless the weather turns angry, which it often does.

The waterfront is also the departure point for the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). This thought-provoking, rusting steel museum is accessed by a crazy, camouflaged boat with life-size ceramic sheep on the deck that serve as chairs. It was founded in 2011 by an eccentric genius, David Walsh, who made his fortune gambling. The exhibits include a live, tattooed man staring into space for hours on end; an enormous pool of used motor oil that looks deceptively like a solid surface (until you smell it); two skeletons copulating; and, well, pretty much anything you can imagine. The founder calls it a “subversive adult Disneyland,” and it’s worth the trip, if for no other reason than to bend your mind a bit.

Tasmania motorcycle ride
The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is accessed by high-speed ferry from downtown Hobart—the eccentric plaything of an eccentric man, who made his fortune gambling.

Usually there is a day on every trip where I go off on a solitary hoon. But today, to my pleasure and surprise, Meredith spontaneously decides to accompany me for a day ride up Mount Wellington. She doesn’t regret it. The 4,170-foot peak is notorious for angry weather, and is often covered in snow. But on this day, it provides a spectacular view all the way to the Tasman Peninsula and the wine country to the north.

Tasmania motorcycle ride
Logging and mining trucks are plentiful—when Down Under, remember to keep left!

Our final stop of the trip is Strahan, a beautiful but lonely outpost on Macquarie Harbor. It’s also a tourist destination—small cruise ships leave in a great exodus each morning, heading to the famed Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, virtually emptying the town until their return in the evening. So by staying home, we have the town to ourselves for the day, hiking to Hogarth Falls through the rainforest and visiting the historic train station just around the bay. We also take a gravel road to Ocean Beach, an 18-mile stretch of uninterrupted white sand. As we look out to sea, we take a moment to ponder the next land mass to the south: Antarctica!

Tasmania motorcycle ride
This short dirt road outside Strahan leads to Ocean Beach, an 18-mile stretch of uninterrupted white sand.

On our way back to the ferry, and the end of our trip, we visit Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park. It’s the middle of a motorcycle travel day, and we manage to do a one-way hike, using a park shuttle, to four lakes and a waterfall. How cool is that?

Tasmania motorcycle ride
The Weldborough Hotel, near Scottsdale, is a historic site that opened in 1876. This building is unused but across the street you’ll find pub fare, microbrews, lodging and a campground popular with mountain bikers.

The roads back to Devonport, through Wilmot, are some of the best of the trip, traversing beautiful farms that remind us of our former home in Vermont. As we settle into our little onboard cabin amidst the rolling waves, we ponder how poetic it is that you could “do a lap” of this famous island in the span of 10 days. Maybe it’s the great riding, or the famously clean air, but I could swear I’m breathing easier….

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