Tasmanian Road Trip Part 2: No Penguins in Penguin

Surreal Christmas in the seaside town of Penguin, Tasmania

Scenic coastal roads that curve around green hills with great views over the deep blue sea. Quirky coastal towns and cities that don’t see too many visitors. This is the north coast of Tasmania. I think it is one of Australia’s most under rated road trips.

An unusual toilet sign in a small country town. Brought back memories of Little Britain in Little Australia – “but I’m a “lady”…!

North coast Tasmania is an interesting mix of small seaside villages, abundant farmlands and economically important industrial cities that are in the process of re-inventing themselves. I think this area is a great place to explore on a road trip as it is not as busy as other coastal roads on mainland Australia and it doesn’t have the fame of other parts of Tasmania like Cradle Mountain or Coles Bay. It’s just a great region to relax and explore. During a week long roadtrip at the height of summer, we began our journey in the city of Launceston, travelling 225 kilometres west, along the Bass Strait coastline to the small town of Stanley. Along the journey, there is variety of scenery and landscapes – its a great place to explore for seasoned travellers, who want to see local places. In many places, it’s a Great Ocean Road without the hype.

Poppy plantations: Tasmania is the largest grower of poppy plants which find their way into prescription drugs for the pharmaceutical industry throughout the world.

We followed National Highway 1 out of Launcestion, which is an honorary extension of the same highway that follows the coastline of mainland Australia, even though there is no bridge between Tasmania and the mainland. Go figure! You drive through through fertile farmlands where almost everything is grown or raised. Tasmania is known for it’s clean environment, so vineyards and sheep farms are plentiful. It’s also interesting to see vast poppy fields, which are secured with tall barbed wire fencing – these crops are cultivated throughout Tasmania for legal narcotics in the pharmaceutical industry throughout the world. Quite a good money spinner for an isolated island at the bottom of the world. After travelling for about 100km we arrived at the city of Devonport, a large port on the (other) Mersey River. It’s a small but busy city of 23,000 people, mainly known for it’s ferry connection to Melbourne on the mainland. A large ferry carrying mainland visitors and their cars arrives each day from mainland Australia – it’s the only sea link for most people between Tasmania and the rest of Australia – a 10 hour trip across the Bass Strait.

Seriously large seagulls on the north coast of Tasmania – much larger than their mainland Australian cousins.

Devonport is quite pleasant to drive through, as it has hilly streets, narrow roads and old houses. And slightly stressful as everyone seemed to be in a rush. We found a great little fish and chip shop in a light industrial area. It was really busy with locals and visitors. The seafood was delicious and fresh. Atmosphere is basic industrial with no hipster additives. Great for lunch.

Penguin, Tasmania. Calm beaches and a relaxed asmosphere.

We then followed the highway west towards Ulverstone, before arriving in the seaside village with the rather pleasant name of Penguin. Rather confusingly, penguins don’t waddle out of the Bass Strait at Penguin – false advertising I think, especially given that penguins do nest in other towns along the north Tasmanian coastline.

Context is everything: this is a butcher shop in the town of Penguin. Not a shop where you can buy penguin meat.

While staying overnight, we found that Penguin is a peaceful seaside town of about 4,000 people with a wide variety of accommodation options. In 1861, the town was first settled, as settlers began cutting down the forests for timber. The gold rush on the other side of Bass Strait in Melbourne was driving huge demand for raw materials and Penguin had a good port. Nowadays, Penguin has a compact high street opposite the beach, which is pleasantly free of over development. It’s a particularly beautiful place for a morning walk with a picture postcard church on the sea, clear air and cute houses.

An idyllic wood built Uniting Church by the calm waters of Bass Strait in Penguin, Tasmania.

After getting over the initial disappointment of not being able to see penguins in Penguin, a little bit of research revealed a penguin rookery in the nearby city of Burnie – an easy 20 minute drive along the highway which has a scenic undulating coastline. As the penguins only arrive from the sea in the late evening, we got a great dinner at a Thai restaurant in the city centre before making our way to the coastline as the cool evening breeze made its presence felt. Burnie is a real city of contrasts, as we were amazed by the resilience of the local penguin colony when we arrived on the beach. The local volunteers and local council regulations have ensured the survival of these penguins with a fairly harsh looking urban environment.

Heavy industry and a penguin colony survive side by side in the city of Burnie in northern Tasmania.

Burnie has heavy industry and a large port area, but the coastline has been protected in a manner that has preserved a penguin colony. In summer, the penguins put on a great show as they arrive from the sea, climbing up to their nests to feed their young chicks. The walkways along the coastline have been skillfully designed so visitors can walk along slightly elevated walkways, while the penguins march underneath you to their nests. All of this happens in within an urban setting along a railway line with amber street lights. It was quite surreal to see urban life and wild penguins co-existing together.

An adolscent penguin chick waits patiently for its parents to arrive back to shore. Right in the middle of urban Burnie on the coastline of Tasmania.

Thankfully, flash photography is not permitted in the penguin colony, as this is really harmful to these wonderful creatures. Fairy penguins are the smallest penguins in the world, living along the southern coast of Australia – particularly in Victoria and Tasmania. They lead a very industrious seasonal life, laying eggs in spring (September), then raising chicks in summer (January). They swim far out to sea in the cool waters of Bass Strait. Every evening in summer, they swim back to shore along the towns and cities on the north coast of Tasmania to feed their hungry offspring. Local volunteers in Burnie guided us around the penguin colony on the warm summer evening – it was a great way to share our enthusiasm for the resilience and wonder of the natural world.

Fairy penguins walking back to their nests along the railway line that hugs the coastline of northern Tasmania in Burnie. No trains ply along the line in the evening.

To sum it up, the northern coastline’s contrasting grittiness and beauty makes for interesting road trip.

Useful links and tips

Little Penguin Observation Centre in Burnie – update details on when and where to see that penguins.

Penguins in Tasmania – ABC news story on where penguins can be seen throughout Tasmania.

Penguin township in Tasmania – summary overview of the history and things to see in the town of Penguin.

Other great blogs on this part of the world

Penguin Tasmania

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