While seeing the terrain of Tasmania seems like hard work, PHILIP GAME says it doesn’t need to be that way.

Hiking in Tasmania used to mean picking at survival rations, staggering under enormous rucksacks and enduring sodden sleeping bags … it felt better when you stopped. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Local outfitters have set up cosy camps, engaging enthusiastic guides to conjure up three-course meals, served with local wines. In unaccustomed luxury we enjoyed four delightful days of beach-combing and bracing swims on Maria Island, off Tasmania’s east coast.

Even for Tasmanians, islanders themselves, Maria Island (pronounced ‘Maraiyah’) retains a rare mystique. Lost Aboriginal tribes, convict desperados, reclusive sheep farmers and a charismatic Italian entrepreneur lived off the land with varying degrees of success. Today, unspoilt forests and virgin beaches await visitors.

Darlington, the penal settlement founded in 1825, pre-dating the notorious Port Arthur, later became the focus of ill-fated attempts to establish a range of industries on the island. The village is now inhabited only by Parks Tasmania staff.

At the port of Triabunna Nev, a weather-beaten local skipper sets course in his knockabout launch towards a lonely, bush-fringed beach on the sandy isthmus which joins Maria’s two halves. Wading ashore at Shoal Bay we share that exquisite sense of arriving somewhere truly remote. Around the next headland lies the lonely grave of a French explorer buried in 1802. A well-camouflaged camp nestles among the casuarinas, canvas-topped cabins linked by wooden walkways to a mess hut and a composting toilet.

A sandy track climbs gradually into the tall timbers. We glimpse a furtive tiger snake, step around wombat droppings and hear the chorus of kookaburras. At Haunted Bay on the southern coast the stillness is disturbed only by waves slapping against the huge cheeks of rubbly pink granite, carpeted with tangerine and olive lichen.

Haunting in a different sense are the scattered farmhouses, abandoned by struggling sheep farmers in decades gone by. South African-born John Frobey dressed up for dinner, even after the death of his wife Hilda left him all alone. Taken ill and evacuated in 1965, Frobey left a rice pudding that still stands on the stove.

Back at camp there is time before dinner for a dip in the foaming breakers which have rolled clear across the Tasman. The water is bitingly cold, but the beach is unblemished quartz, and it’s all ours.

The next day we follow the shoreline north to reach French’s Farm, another homestead now sheltering walking parties rather than pioneer pastoralists. Along the sheltered beaches lie the shell middens built up by the Oyster Bay tribe of Tasmanian Aborigines, who hosted inter-tribal gatherings here – ‘corroborees’ – at which girls of marriageable age were exchanged.

At Point Lesueur, also known as Long Point, crumbling walls of handmade brick are the legacy of a second penal settlement. The Darlington penitentiary closed in 1832 but a decade later, British authorities set up the probation system utilising prison farms. Forester kangaroos and the smaller Bennetts wallabies bound in and out of tussock grass. These Tasmanian species were introduced to guard against attrition of their numbers on the mainland. Cape Barren geese and native hens also waddle about.

The second night’s camp nestles in white-trunked gums above the pristine sands of Soldiers Beach. Venturing down for a dip, I notice a cast-off kitchen cabinet nestled in the crystal-clear shallows … but to my astonishment it morphs into a diamond of pewter sharkskin trailing a twitching tail, a metre-wide eagle ray which moves off smartly.

Continuing north on the third day, we filter through stands of tall stringybark, manna and blue gum. Rich, damp earthen aromas linger amid the mists.

Skies lighten as we descend towards Darlington on the north-western corner of Maria, lingering for lunch at the Painted Cliffs. Under a china-blue sky, the Tasmanian mainland spreads across the horizon.

An avenue of venerable cypress pines leads down into a sheltered cove and the village where Diego Bernacchi once received colonial dignitaries with fairy lights and banquet dinners, regaling them with schemes for wine and silk production and later a cement works. Bernacchi’s 1888 timber Coffee Palace and the 1825 red brick Commissariat Store among others, have been partially restored.

Jelly snakes sustain three of us on the steady climb up the flanks of the Bishop and Clerk, twin crags towering above Maria’s northern tip. Falling away below are the Fossil Cliffs, in places a solid mass of ancient life-forms encrusted together like an impossibly-rich pudding.

Above a precipitous jumble of dolerite boulders, the vegetation becomes stunted, subalpine even: clinging moss, native pepper bush, cheeseberry. We scramble over the last jumbled tors to reach the highest point – 630 metres. Through the swirling mists appear glimpses of the Freycinet Peninsula and at intervals the entire Tasmanian east coast.

Bernacchi House, reserved for our use on this last night, offers a taste of Victorian-era luxury. No more sleeping bags, not even bunk beds, but an exquisite four-poster.

• For more information on the Maria Island Walk, see www.mariaislandwalk.com.au. For information on Tasmanian national parks, see www.parks.tas.gov.au or www.discovertasmania.com.

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