The wilderness: a romantic tableau of untouched ruggedness pined after by outdoor enthusiasts all over the world. Yet, on a planet as overpopulated as ours, wilderness, in its truest form, is becoming harder and harder to find. There are now very few undisturbed natural areas that humans have not touched or developed, in at least one form or another — be it by the construction of roads, the creation of waste bins, or simply the tracing of hiking trails. In Tasmania, however, Australia’s most southerly state, you may actually be able to find such wilderness.
Over 40 percent of Tassie’s land has been granted conservation status by the government, with many regions of this sprawl completely inaccessible unless you embark on multiple-day hikes with permission from the national parks system. It is an ideal solution for those with plenty of time, a lot of stamina, and, of course, funds. But for those less inclined to tackle such difficult and remote walks, Tasmania offers many other “close to wilderness” experiences.
Bruny Island is one of them. Located just an hour from the Australian state’s capital, Hobart, Bruny Island (pronounced Broo-nee) is one of the most beautifully preserved and naturally rugged islands in Tasmania. Locals and foreign tourists flock here, especially in the Australian summer, to enjoy its cool sea breeze and a taste of authentic, rural island life.
However, I was curious, and maybe a bit skeptical — how could a place so close to a capital city with a population of 225,000 retain the authentic remoteness that everyone in Hobart swore it has?
Intrigued by this question and attracted to the island’s promised remoteness, I decided to book a day trip to Bruny and explore the mysterious place for myself.
As I sat on a tour bus atop a packed-out ferry, a guide filled the passengers in on the history of Bruny Island, which, like mainland Australia’s, is terribly sad. Though the island was first populated by nearly 20,000 Aboriginal people, it was soon overtaken by European colonists who carried out various atrocities against those who had lived on the island for centuries. Within 70 years of colonial settlement, Bruny’s Aboriginal population was reduced to only 300, and within a century of the island’s colonization, none of the Aboriginal population remained. Now, Bruny is populated by only 800 permanent residents and a handful of tourists who stay in Airbnbs, cabins, shacks, and campsites.
After this history lesson, the ferry reached the shore. From the dock, our bus (along with many others), made its way toward the first stop — Bruny Lookout, which is the most iconic viewpoint associated with the island. After climbing multiple steep steps, we reached a platform at the top that offered sweeping 360-degree views of the expanse.
Despite it being no earlier than 9 a.m., crowds swarmed the area. As a result, the viewpoint sightline was largely obscured — an especially challenging obstacle when attempting to take photos. Through a brief clearing, I was able to see Bruny’s spectacularly wild, coastal landscape. To one side, the sea reflected an aquamarine color, trimmed with a beautiful white spray and a glimpse of pristine sands. To the other, a darker, calmer water filled the curved bay. The slim, sandy bank in between the two was strewn with random patches of low-lying grasses and shrubs that house communities of snakes — as its multiple signs suggest. I was taken by another infestation, though: the litter, which appeared to remain unaddressed.
Our second destination was Cape Bruny Lighthouse. Perched high on top of a hill and surrounded by columned cliffs not dissimilar to the rocks at Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway, there sits a lone, white lighthouse. Although it was a beautifully sunny day with only a few wispy clouds in sight, it wasn’t difficult to imagine how the perilous crashing sea and dramatic sky would look here in a storm.
However, it was from here that the idyllic image of Bruny Island began to turn yet again. It was now late morning, and the island was getting even busier, the roads becoming packed with 4x4s, tour buses, and campers.
Our guide mentioned that tourism on the island has gone up 30 percent each year for the past three years and that it shows no signs of stopping. We asked how the permanent residents felt about it. “Not happy,” retorted our guide. “What was once a dirt track is now a smooth road where people can drive fast — this will likely kill the island’s wildlife, such as the penguins.” That’s when I realized that by simply being there, I was contributing to the unwelcome changes shaping the landscape and, furthermore, the permanent residents’ idyllic way of life.
The day continued with various stops to small artisan food businesses and local farms, including a berry orchard, a winery, a cheese-and-beer factory, a chocolate shop, and an oyster farm that had a rather ingenious setup called an oyster drive-thru.
Each of the businesses was packed with tourists who were busy stocking up on souvenirs and produce to take back with them to the mainland. Although it didn’t feel intentional on the part of the tour company, I became aware of the fact that we were being carted around to buy things, which seemed slightly ridiculous. What part of this tourist honey-pot was “remote” living? Or, more to the point: What part of it served as a good example of Tasmanian “wilderness”?
Just as fast roads with speeding vehicles have imperiled Bruny’s penguins, tourism itself threatens the wildness of the island. While strolling along the beach for a few minutes, I picked up multiple pieces of litter. My initial wonder about the island’s remote offerings quickly turned to annoyance.
Trash and recycling bins are not frequently provided on Bruny as they necessitate collections and concerns about the potential disturbance this could cause to wildlife and their diets (should they decide to raid said bins). But the absence of these containers have resulted in a sparse spreading of litter on the beaches and in the bush.
Bins are not the only environmental issue faced by growing tourism on Bruny Island, though. Recently, visitors who complained about the inaccessibility of the island’s 12 public toilets were told to use dog-poo bags in lieu of facilities.
As stunning as the beaches and coastlines are here, to appreciate Bruny in all of its unspoiled beauty is to look with super-powered tunnel vision into its bushland. You’ll need to be blind to the busloads of tourists at the sides of the roads snapping pictures, and to the masses of weatherboard houses, presumably Airbnbs or holiday lets, with stunning floor-to-ceiling windows that stick out like sore thumbs.
Although my day trip was both enjoyable and educational, I found that Bruny Island is slightly misrepresented and doesn’t quite come close to the “wilderness experience” many are seeking, promised, or sold. Bruny is indeed beautiful, but it is a place that is visibly struggling under the weight of its high visitor count.
So, what can we do about it? Stop visiting? Should the government stop building infrastructure? Perhaps cap the number of daily visitors? The plethora of questions that this tourism dilemma raises are endless, and they’re not so easy to answer either. But one thing is for sure: something needs to be done about the damage currently being inflicted on Bruny, and fast.
If you’re looking for true Tasmanian wilderness, options seem to be limited. The first solution is to venture off into the depths of the national parks yourself (with a responsible accommodation and waste-disposal plan in tow, of course). Alternately, consider joining a national park’s limited group tour, such as the Three Capes hike, which only allows 48 walkers into the area each day. And, finally, if money is no object, you could look into renting a private island (such as Satellite Island), though the guarantee of having the landscape to yourself costs a hefty $1,800 (AUD) per night.
If you decide to pursue any of these alternative experiences, the most important factors to remember are mindfulness and minimizing your environmental impact. The human effects on minimally populated places can sometimes ripple harder and farther than on places with urbanized infrastructure. If we do not start taking responsibility for our actions, the consequences will soon slip quietly out of control, like Bruny, under the very nose of local and national authorities.