Today, Darlington Probation Station is a World Heritage-listed site and the old penitentiary buildings are used as a bunkhouse for national park hikers and mountain bikers.
In the 1880s it was an island of dreams for charismatic, Quixotic Italian businessman Diego Bernacchi, who’s Maria Island Company took on various business ventures including the making of silk, wine and cement. He even changed the name of Darlington to San Diego, but ultimately his dreams died.
On the track to Robey’s Farm we sample native cherries, so small you would have to collect a million to make a meal. Fortunately, the regional food at the beach camps is more substantial – Ashgrove cheese, wallaby and duck sausages, quail, Huon salmon, lamb, wine from Cape Bernier, Bream Creek and Springvale and Cascade Pale Ale.
At Robey’s Farm, the clutter of rusting kitchen utensils and farm equipment forms the backdrop for a love story which blossomed in Europe during World War I and ended in pristine isolation on the other side of the world.
Its owner was John Vivian (Viv) Robey, a soldier in the South African Army, wounded in action on July 14, 1916, at Delville Wood during the horrific Battle of the Somme. He was buried alive in the mud by an artillery bombardment.
Recovering in the Walton-on-Thames Military Hospital, he fell in love and married his nurse, English socialite Hilda Saunders, on March 10, 1920. They were both middle-aged when they arrived in Hobart in 1923, Viv was 35 and Hilda, 41.
They took up 5570 acres of marginal farming land on Maria Island in 1924, called it South End, and worked it side-by-side for the next 40 years. It was a hard life – they ran up to 700 sheep, 40 cattle and cut and sold wattle bark and oak for firewood.
Viv left the island only four times in 42 years, once when Hilda was taken to Hobart in poor health, where she died on October 25, 1964, at the age of 82.
Pining for Hilda, Viv returned to the farm, but in August, 1965, he was taken off the island suffering from malnutrition. He never returned, leaving the farmhouse with the table still set for dinner, complete with linen tablecloth and ivory-handled cutlery and a rice pudding in the oven. Viv lived another 15 years, dying at the age of 92.
In the book, Viv and Hilda meeting the Robeys of Maria Island, author Kathy Gatenby talks of her father’s work on the island as it evolved into a wildlife reserve, making regular trips south to set traps for feral cats.
The problem was partly due to Hilda’s love of cats. When Viv was taken from the island, Hilda’s cats were left behind. They interbred, creating genetically twisted “monsters”.
“After a decade of interbreeding these wild animals bore little resemblance to the cute and friendly companions so adored by Hilda,” wrote Gatenby. “Some had small scraggly bodies with large, hideous heads, while others were large-bodied with small grotesque heads. When trapped these creatures would scream and spit and threaten to rip my father to shreds.”
The walk on the second day to White Gums Camp is in sunshine along flat beaches in a light morning breeze, up McRae’s Isthmus, around Chinamans Bay, out to the crumbling convict cells at Point Lesueur, along the wide arc of Booming Bay to Soldier’s, then Four Mile Beach. The only sign of humanity is a lone yacht slowly making its way down Mercury Passage.
There is a choice of climbing to the 711-metre summit of Mt Maria for a 360-degree view of the island or forging on to Darlington to drop our backpacks at the night’s accommodation, Bernacchi House, before taking the 12km return hike to the twin peaks of Bishop and Clerk.
On the walk into Darlington we pass the Painted Cliffs, a striking rock formation of surprising colours relentlessly being worn away by the sea.
The comforts of Bernacchi House include a continuous hot shower, good beds and a final gourmet meal served in a colonial-era dining room after oysters and wine served as entrée in a lounge filled with antique furniture and memorabilia, including a set of convicts’ iron manacles.
Rising 700 metres above sea level, the Bishop and Clerk track challenges the puffing unfit. Scrambling up a scree slope, we are watched from above by a wedge-tailed eagle riding on the air pushed upward by the peaks.
On a sunny afternoon, the climb is rewarded with a view back in time, across Mercury Passage to Van Diemen’s Land, and to Darlington below, where the sun once shone less kindly on the bent backs of convicts at hard labour.
John Vivian (Viv) Robey & Hilda Saunders from the book – Viv and Hilda meeting the Robeys of Maria Island
Bishop and Clerk summit – by Maria Island Walk
All other photos by Vincent Ross – All Rights Reserved