The ferry frolics in the swell. I close my eyes and drift. My velvet chair and the rolling sea are a lullaby for an exhausted mother. A tangle of blonde hair with windswept cheeks falls into my slumber. “I’m bored. Can we go back to Maria,” my five-year-old daughter huffs. It’s the first time in a week I have seen the mists of melancholy in her blue-eyes.
We are on our way home from a magical five-day family holiday on Maria Island, which lies six kilometres off Tasmania’s east coast. The entire island is a national park, but its tranquil shores harbour a sad past. Like most islands of Tasmania, it is haunted by a colonial occupation and convict heritage.
Last time I visited Maria Island I was a teenager. I remember long days exploring red-bricked ruins, bike riding on marsupial-manicured hilltops, and brilliantly-bruised sunsets. And at night, sleeping in the old Penitentiary building sharing whispers and laughs with my ‘bestie’.
I wonder why it has taken me so long to visit again. Perhaps we are just beginning to discover the magic places for family holidays. Like most things, I learn from others who have been before. And Maria had been on my bucket-list ever since I’d heard stories from families who return every year.
On Maria we share a dorm-room in the Penitentiary with another young family of five. Everything goes smoothly despite coughs, sleepless nights and grazed chins. Our friendship is strong enough. We know many of the families holidaying and we share the load: meals, washing-up, keeping an eye on the children, and stories by the wood-fire before the days first-light.
Children can roam wild on Maria. Free from the constraints of city-living, their grubby faces smile with delight.
Parents divide and climb the twin peaks of Bishop and Clarke, which rise 620 metres from the sea on Maria’s northern tip. I ascend with a motherhood: four women, all of us delighting in a shared adventure. We stand atop towering Dolerite columns: our faces glowing, smiles bursting and legs burning. The view is spectacular. A sun-salty swell lashing Maria’s coast. Freycinet Peninsula, Schouten Island and Isle des Phoques in the hazy distance.
We explore the island on wheels. We are a circus troupe, a menagerie of bikes. One of us rides an e-bike with a chariot pulling children, puffer-jackets and Vegemite sandwiches. We fly our kite on top of an old quarry where deep cuts have exposed 250,000 year-old fossils, paddle in rock-pools and collect starfish. We spot seals and wedge-tail eagles and strip down to our t-shirts in the afternoon sun. I wonder if we are getting sunburnt in the middle of winter? Or perhaps, I am worrying too much, a mother’s prerogative.
We marvel at convict ruins and relics of industries forgotten. But there is a longer more profound history to be found on Maria: the legacy of 40,000 years of aboriginal existence, shell middens the only window into a more balanced past. And there are older times, evident in the geology. The beautiful patterns of the Painted Cliffs created by ancient iron-rich deposits and thousands of years of erosion. A burial-ground of creatures immortalised in rock at the Fossil Cliffs testimony to a mass extinction in the Permian period. Maria is like a magical time-machine for inquisitive little minds. I hope we can look after this place.
In the evenings, we gaze at the stars and imagine mythical creatures. The stars are brighter away from the glow of city lights. And at night, we dream of other Maria dwellers: Tasmanian devils, kangaroos, and the littlest penguin. Maria has become an ark for our most precious endangered animals. Even the wombats on Maria are magical, grazing in the midday sunshine or in the middle of the bike track, not a whisker ruffled. Our youngest, Arthur, chats to a ‘bat’, his arm tucked around its head as he tells it to “eat?”. The wombat politely nudging him out of the way in search of greener-shoots.
The wind began to howl on our last day. And I felt just like Mary Poppins, returning home with the west-wind, the children dreaming of our next magical adventure. If only I was carrying a small handbag like Miss Poppins. Instead we reverse a mammoth logistical operation: food, bikes, paddle boards, bedding, crockery packed in bags and pushed along to the jetty in an up-sized supermarket trolley for portage on the ferry.
At the end of our trip, we share fish ‘n’ chips with friends. The sun sinks and washes the marina in purples and pinks. The children hover and swoop like seagulls. Never still for long, they play chase around the table and spill onto the road. Perhaps they have forgotten how to play safely in the city? Or perhaps we are all still on Maria time. As we round up our free-spirited offspring, I exclaim, “Let’s go back to Maria.” We all laugh. Another Maria Island holiday is brewing.