There’s a moment during the ascent to Tasmania’s Central Highlands where the outside world metamorphoses into an other-worldly, liminal space. It’s a grey afternoon, and the mist hangs low, braiding itself through the rainbow-ribboned trunks of Tasmanian snow gums.
Though bursting with Australian native life, the Highlands in the depths of winter feel weighted by its isolation and haunted by the spirits of colonialism and ancient custodians’ past.
Where I’m headed isn’t exactly a town or a village, but alone timber building in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area of the Central Plateau, on the edge of the Walls of Jerusalem National Park. The nearest township, a generous description if ever there was one, is Liawenee, 12km away. An ex-hydro village, it’s the coldest permanently inhabited place in Australia.
Its population? Two: a police officer and an Inland Fisheries Services officer. The building is the former Bernacchi Lodge, once an Antarctic training facility designed to prepare South Pole staff for their expeditions. In 2000, the property was handed back to the Tasmanian government and remained vacant until Australian V8 Supercars legend Marcos Ambrose led a redevelopment to turn it into the cosy wilderness stay now known as Thousand Lakes Lodge.
The lodge is a two-hour drive from Hobart, and the journey along the Heritage Highway is a mix of colonial tradition and natural wonder. I’m being led by Under Down Under Tours, a Tasmanian operator that has made a pandemic pivot from big bus tours to private ones, on a variation of its three-day Central Plateau Wilderness Tour. Thirty minutes north of Hobart, we stop at Shene Estate and Distillery in Pontville.
Set in a sandstone Gothic Revival-style stables built-in 1851, Shene is one of Tasmania’s best boutique distilleries for gin and whisky and boasts the first gin in the world to be awarded platinum at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirit Awards two years consecutively. With the outside temperature at 10 degrees, I opt for a tasting flight of Shene’s most-lauded whiskies. Master blenders-in-waiting can sign up for the Serendipity Experience and blend their own bespoke single malt with Shene’s expert guidance.
As we make our way up towards the Central Plateau’s heathlands, the road twists and turns and the odd Bennett’s wallaby pokes its petite face out from behind the scrub. A stark reminder of the fragility of the Tasmanian wilderness meets us halfway.
The ghostly cider gum “graveyard” is a roadside vista of twisted, scorched examples of these trees that are of significant cultural importance to the Palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples), who would make a fermented drink from its sugary, cider-like sap. It’s one of a few species of endangered Tasmanian trees I encounter – most notably, the pencil pine, which dates back to the time of Gondwanaland.
Once bushranger territory, escaped convicts, trappers and snarers would come out here to hide or hunt marsupials for their fur and thylacine for a bounty.
This country belongs to the Big River Nation tribes: the Leenowwenne, Pangerninghe, Braylwunyer, Larmairremener, and Luggermairrernerpairre peoples. The small Palawa nations migrated around these parts, dating back 3000 years ago after the glaciers melted to form the pristine waterways of the region. Damp, cold, and silent lands, the feeling of remoteness is palatable.
This is the first year Thousand Lakes Lodge has opened during the off-season. Surprising, because with large fireplaces, nightly mulled wine, cosy Chesterfields, and enormous windows for watching the weather outside, it seems designed for it. From August to May, anglers come to fish for wild brown trout that dominate the many lagoons.
However, with the waterways closed to allow the fish to breed, the area becomes a peaceful winter wonderland and, if you’re prepared to brave the chill, a place of adventure, relaxation and wild immersion. Not a luxury stay, but not a dinky hideout either – the lodge possesses a low-fi charm, helped by the fact it’s completely off-grid.
There are nine rooms, most of which have soothing views across the heathlands or out to the Ouse River. The main difference between the two types, Explorer and Pioneer, is an en suite (Explorer) or a detached, private bathroom, though some Pioneer rooms also have separate beds.
Meals are pre-ordered from a modest menu of warming local fare, and the bar, stocked with top-shelf Tasmanian wines and spirits, is self-serve. For those venturing out during the day, the staff will happily pack you a picnic of Tasmanian cheeses and other other treats.
Suppose you’re thinking of coming here to spend your days inside – don’t. Even during the wilder weather, the great outdoors beckon. With fishing off the table and many of the roads closed, the off-season is a unique time to explore the lagoons and rocky outcrops by e-bike or foot.
If you’re lucky, you might encounter a quoll, Tasmanian devil, pademelon, echidna, platypus, burrowing crayfish, wedge-tailed eagle or wombat. At the very least, you’ll undoubtedly cross paths with a wallaby – the inquisitive creatures often graze outside the lodge’s windows.
Over the following days, my guide, Karin Beaumont, an artist and marine biologist (and former Antarctica resident, coincidentally), helps plan an itinerary using the lodge’s powerful e-bikes. I borrow some overwear from the communal rack, we pack a picnic, and head to historic Ibbott’s Hut on Lake Ada, a two-hour ride from the lodge. After lunch, we spend the afternoon looking at neon fungi, tracking footprints, dodging wombats on our bikes, and admiring the miniature ecosystems of cushion plants. These large, delicate, ottoman-shaped mounds are not one plant, but a community of species that bond together to shield themselves from the cold.
Karin tells me that the damage from a single footprint laid on a cushion plant can take decades to heal. Then we ride off to Carter Lakes to marvel at the surreal mix of rare pencil pines growing in the water and the geology of the lake’s lunettes, crescent-shaped dunes that form along the coastline. These are the only known high-alpine lunettes in the world.
I mention to Karin that this is the quietest place I’ve ever been. She tells me that a week before, the lake had started to freeze, and the atmosphere was alive with the bell-like sonata of frozen waves.
During the evening, the lodge is a pleasant refuge. Guests are invited to sit by the fire, play a vinyl record, attempt a jigsaw puzzle, craft a decorative fishing fly or curl up with a selection from the in-house library. With some of the cleanest air in the world, the Central Plateau provides an incredible vantage point for the ballet of the Aurora Australis or for viewing the Palawa supernova known as the stingray in the sky.
After a night’s walk looking for devils, I find myself grateful for the lack of Wi-Fi. I exhale harder than I have in years, and despite the muscle aches from the day, feel my shoulders drop to a level that even a five-star spa treatment could never achieve.
Reflecting on my relationship with the world beyond my daily life of screens, the history of the country out here, and the future, I think of the fragile evolution of the cushion plants working together to survive in such extremes Eventually, it’s time to dust off the mud and head home. As we pass through the cider gum graveyard on the return, my phone starts to ping and I shudder.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Tasmania.
This article originally appeared on Escape