Two days ago I had the joy of sharing a day with Rob Pennicott in Tasmania's south west- recently named Australian Tourism Legend. It's easy to know why after spending a few hours in his presence. He loves this place. I thought it was timely to share a little of his story....beginning in his early years....
You can just picture it – a young boy version of Rob Pennicott gazing through his mask in search of sea urchin, abalone or crayfish along the coast of the River Derwent. When most young boys were handed an afterschool apple by Mum, Rob was busily shucking oysters and popping them straight down the hatch. He lived the paddock-to-plate movement before it was on trend.
Some people design their profession or study for years to inform a career path; for others it’s simply innate. Rob loved the water and he loved to fish. Naturally he became a fisherman, but he was one with a difference. Yes it was work, but he was moved to share his office. He’d take friends and family out – soon realising they too were astonished by some of the highest sea cliffs in the southern hemisphere, migrating whales, sea caves, fur seals and the raw beauty of the coastline.
It made sense for Rob to do more. He transformed into a fisherman-come-tour-guide (he’d never leave fishing) and launched his first tourism product – Bruny Island Cruises in 1999. As time passed he excitedly came into Tourism Tasmania, showing off his Antarctic-style head-to-toe ‘smocks’ that he’d dress his guests in to keep them cosy. He knew he was onto something special.
Not everyone thought he was sensible – introducing rigid inflatable boats where his guests had no protection from the wild Southern Ocean seemed a bit nuts. But for Rob, this was the whole idea. He wanted these visitors to feel the sea spray, to taste salt on their lips and feel the rush of wind through their hair. It wasn’t about protection, but about an intimate meeting with his watery playground.
He didn’t stop there. He wanted to do more. Rob not only wanted to show off his backyard in all its rugged glory but he wanted to conserve it for his children and theirs. So as his tourism products developed, so did his drive for sustainability and conservation. No wonder he was one of National Geographic’s Traveler of the Year recipients for 2012 – an award for ‘world-shaking people on innovative missions.’ This man was special.
Fast forward to 2015 and his achievements are beyond what many could conquer across three lifetimes. Rob now has five hopelessly popular experiences on offer across his Pennicott Wilderness Journeys collection – Bruny Island Cruises, Tasman Island Cruises, Bruny Island Traveller, Iron Pot Cruises and his very latest addition, Tasmanian Seafood Seduction. Now, the young boy who scoured rocks to shuck his own oysters is serving them up to travellers from across the world.
What Rob also understood was that the paths he showcased daily were also incredibly fragile. He set up the Pennicott Wilderness Journeys Nature Conservation Fund and works diligently on sustainability, conservation and humanitarian projects. This fund has been responsible for the complete eradication of feral cats from Tasman Island. Rob also hopped in a little yellow boat and travelled for 101 days up the coast of Australia, raising $300,000 toward the eradication of Polio worldwide. He may have stayed in his own neck of the woods, but this man thinks globally.
If you get Rob on your boat, you’ll realise he’s still that young boy at heart. He’ll point out the house he grew up in and where his parents still live. He’ll show you his version of a former cubby house – a cave overlooking his cherished water. He may be all grown up but the story will go on. Sometimes when he heads for the podium, he takes his own flock with him. Young children who smile proudly onstage, looking an awful lot like their salty-haired father who has just walked away with five national golds and two hall of fame inductions. pennicottjourneys.com.au
Words: Alice Hansen
Image: Courtesy of Tourism Tas
Rob Pennicott has his shorts on and Bill Lark has a bottle of Distiller’s Selection whisky tucked under his arm. Pilot Shannon Wells has decided to wear a uniform and Port Arthur’s Kate McCarthy is dressed with an enormous smile. They’re the kind of Tasmanian quartet you’d like to spend the day with- classically local.
What do they have in common? They are a mix of 2014 Qantas Australian Tourism Award winners and home-grown legends. To celebrate, they are getting cosy in the cabin of a Par Avion plane bound for Tasmania’s wild south west. And I’m gratefully wedged in the back for the ride.
Shortly after take-off Shannon steers us toward familiar territory for Rob- the far stretching beaches and dolerite cliffs of Bruny Island. As if on cue, dolphins leap from their watery playground, home to Rob’s first and ever-popular Bruny Island eco-cruise. With a knowing nod, he smiles down on his patch.
From here, we get a taste of the remoteness to come as we forge out over South East Cape. My mind wanders as the headset delivers news, “this is the final post….to the east is New Zealand, the west Argentina and to the south, Antarctica – you can’t travel further south in the country.”
For the next 15 minutes I’m literally in the lap of the poor passenger beside my right, as temperate rainforest and rugged cliffs plunge into the ocean below. The further south we head though, the more barren and Jurassic-like the landscape becomes. Rainforest is replaced with tea-tree and button grass plains as we thunder through the Iron Bound ranges.
I can’t be sure if it’s because he has national tourism legends aboard (yes, Rob was named Australian Tourism Legend and Bill was just inducted into the Whisky Hall of Fame in London) or because he’s a gold medal winner, but Shannon treats us to a special detour over the Maatsuyker Islands. We fly low past a lighthouse manned by volunteers, on an island so windswept that despite productive intentions, resident chickens were once blown off to sea.
We then hop on what feels like the freeway to Bathurst Harbour, cruising low through Bathurst Narrows toward a harbour triple the size of Sydney Harbour. With Mount Rugby towering to our left as our welcoming party, we land at ‘Melaleuca International.’
Shannon then transforms from pilot to boat captain as we carve our way up the Melaleuca Inlet until we find what appears to be a secret staircase. We are ushered in to Par Avion’s standing camp where Bill generously cracks open the wooden box where his prized 46 per cent whisky is resting.
Lunch is served on Balmoral Beach, where we literally beach ourselves onto white quartz pebbles. A short wander across to the other side reveals an enchanting little cove- the type usually reserved for fairy-tale weddings. Equally magic is the appearance of Tassie smoked salmon, 42 Degree South wines, soft Wicked Cheese Company brie and lunch packs on our return. Few would know that 15 years before, Bill had come to this camp as a surveyor, back before his whisky days. It is unlikely whisky could taste better than in the rugged wilds of south west Tasmania, poured by the grandfather of Australian whisky. Might I add, poured into takeaway coffee cups.
We slip back into the boat and are whisked away to more secret spots. Shannon can’t hide his enthusiasm - the breathtakingly still conditions mean he can take us to further reaches. We just sit silently entranced by the mirror reflections on tannin-stained waters. Pulled from my trance, Rob bellows, “stop the boat, I know those people.” In a Tasmanian moment, in a place that feels on the world’s edge Rob has stumbled across an employee paddling a kayak….we offer them a dram and continue on our way.
Heading back to the ‘international airport’ I’m not sure if the slower pace is everyone’s unconscious knowledge that one day is not enough. But in South West style, there is one more treat in store. Above the clouds, as if a gift from the Qantas Awards Gods, appears Federation Peak glowing like Shannon has never seen before. And trust me, he’s done this run a few times. It’s a fitting finish to a day spent with two of Tassie’s tourism legends and a cabin full of Tasmanian smiles.
Rob was right when he whispered through the silence, “look at this place. It’s as though the world has forgotten it.” Part of me hopes it’ll always stay our little Tasmanian secret - a place where Bill might get busy with the purest water on the planet and whip up a new recipe- his method forever held in the south west silence.
Words and images: Alice Hansen (and Michael Graham Freeman where images credited)
NW Coast Tripping
The Great Ocean Road is incredibly special. Even the apostles would agree on that. But as a little Tasmanian being taught we were once connected to the mainland, I became a firm believer we must have the cookie-cutter equivalent. It may not possess the spectacular features, nor the helipads or marketing budget – but to me it’s the undiscovered, unhurried little sister.
I must qualify that I grew up in these parts, but this morning as I watched a Spirit-load of visitors roll off the ferry and straight to Hobart, I decided to take the less well-worn path – from Devonport out west. And perhaps this little roadie might inspire others to hug Bass Strait from Devonport to Marrawah- a surfing mecca where the roaring forties deliver the cleanest air on the planet. Next stop is South America. But first things first before leaving the port- a coffee from delightful Leigh at The Harbourmaster Café...one can guess it's former harbourmaster's history, later a rowing club on Devonport's Mersey River.
En route to the edge of the world, our first stop is Table Cape, formed some 13.3 million years before we rolled up to the lighthouse. Fire and ice are to blame for the rich landscape of the cape, awash with tulips in the springtime so vivid the bulbs are even sold to Holland. Middens and fish traps speak of early Aboriginal inhabitants and fast forwarding to the 1900s, a school sat perched on the cape; children’s favourite pastime? Rolling large rocks off the cape, listening to them tumble 300 feet down to the sea below.
As we drive along the cape’s soil-stained roads, we see a bike and excited farm dog up ahead, a man pedalling in a well-worn blazer. He must be 80 or so, and waves us happily on. Apparently on Table Cape this is how you move your flock from one paddock to another. Those overtaken by Table Cape's beauty who feel compelled to stay, booked the Winged House. Who doesn't like sinking deep into a Japanese bath overlooking Bass Strait?
A few minutes up the Bass Highway and it’s time to indicate again. The Bombay sapphire waters of Boat Harbour peek through the gums. This local holiday favourite is sprinkled with shacks and less than 200 permanent residents. For decades it’s been a well-kept secret, happened upon by lucky tourists but mostly these cobalt waters and squeaky white sands are reserved for those in the know- hidden down a hillside.
Dip a toe in and you’ll be fully aware you’re not in the Whitsundays – perhaps today why more people are kayaking and atop paddle boards than beneath a snorkel. It is a warm Easter Monday though, and chocolate-filled kids are thrashing through the shallows. I prefer to pop into Harvest and Cater, a café nudging the sand, for a cool drink. Come on a Sunday and you might find yourself kicking up sandy heels to the weekly jazz sessions.
Further along this glorious coast (the journey is equally transfixing as the stops), appears another curious looking volcanic plug rising from the coastline. Referred to as the Nut, I have fond childhood memories of chairlift rides to the top. Told not to look down, wide-eyed I’d watch the town grow small below nervously dangling legs. Today we settle for a picnic down near the fisherman’s wharf.
Back at town level, there are no surprises why Hollywood transformed Stanley for a recent blockbuster- the streetscape appears trapped in time with all the trimmings of a colonial postcard including the cottage of Tasmania’s only Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, born in Stanley back in 1879. For a small donation you can walk the hallways of a man the country coined ‘honest Joe.’
At the top end of the main street stylishly sits Providore 24. Better fitting for a capital city, the intimate store brims with Tassie produce, regional artists, the island’s finest Pinot, the latest women’s fashion (clearly influenced by the good taste of owner Patricia) and crusty fresh breads. Eleven years on, Max and Patricia Reid continue to welcome visitors into their providore with the charisma of a couple who opened last week.
After cheerful chats, we are on our way again, bound for Marrawah but clearly slipping into North West time, meaning we’re not getting anywhere fast. We venture up to Highfield House, where I’m told the ghost tour is chilling, but today we settle for daylight snaps of the 1834 convict barrack ruins.
Highfield House is considered the birthplace of European Settlement in Tasmania’s northwest, where in 1826, Europeans sailed ‘beyond the ramparts of the unknown’ to north west Tasmania. This place of impenetrable rainforest they appropriately termed ‘wretched country.’ Establishing the Van Diemen’s Land Company, these Europeans forged ahead under chief agent Edward Curr where at its height, 73 convicts lived at the barracks to assist on Highfield.
It’s easy to get swept up in the history, but I’m reminded I’m with a surfer and a windsurfer- two crazies itching for the wild seas of Marrawah. No more stops until we reach Green Point Beach. Like a farmer’s placid rollercoaster, we dip and curve and climb through rolling hills of bright green. Languid cows raise heads in unison and return to lush desserts. Not much goes on in these parts.
On final descent to the beach, the view stretches out before us. The sun is dipping, the coastline rugged and raw. If it weren’t for the distant wind farm, this scene looks untouched by the hand of man. Surfers huddle around a well-travelled camper, which looks decidedly permanent. A couple sit with a bottle of wine watching the sun sink. And my two companions strip off and suit up in neoprene. Before I know it….they are 30 metres out….leaving me with the Mersey Valley cheese and crackers. The classic close to a North West day.
Words and images: Alice Hansen
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