Unpredictable, serendipitous Tasmania
Only toward dawn did the sea begin to calm. I rose from my berth and glanced out the window. The setting moon cast a broad light on the rolling waters of the Bass Strait, and in the distance, the lights of Tasmania began to dot the darkness.

We had been traveling since Sunday. My wife, Margie, and I had left a rainy Los Angeles, exchanged winter for summer, overnighted in Melbourne and were two hours away from a landfall that we had been anticipating for almost a year. It was Thursday morning, and it seemed right that getting here had taken so long.

Tasmania, this triangle of land 250 miles off Australia's southern coast and no bigger than Southern California, has long been thought of as the world's end. Jonathan Swift shipwrecked Gulliver northwest of here. England transported its convicts to these shores, and when we mentioned our plans to others, they often confused the island with the East African country of Tanzania, if they knew where it was at all.

Far away, however, is never far enough. Uncertain how to plan a trip to a place few knew, we consulted the official website for visitors and were overwhelmed by seasonal discounts, eco-adventures and wine country excursions. Is this what the end of the world had come to?

We knew enough about Tasmania -- its rugged beauty, its dark history -- to want to step beyond the familiar. We believe travel is best if it is a riddle, a destination that poses a question whose answer can be revealed only in time. The farther the journey, the greater the challenge, the more significant the reward.

So we decided to leave the bargains and the easy persuasions behind. We decided to head straight into the back country. Our plan was ambitious: hike 50 miles in 10 days among the island's peaks and rain forests in the west and along its wave-tossed coast in the east. We wanted to see Tasmania in an unmediated light. We wanted to see whether it was possible to make the world large again.

As the ferry slowed in its approach to the dock at Devonport, dawn breaking over the island, I felt both excited and nervous. Trips like these require a leap of faith, and for a brief moment I wondered whether perhaps I had leapt too far.

A notorious past

Quamby Estate, our lodging for the first night, was as elegant a place as we had ever stayed, so it surprised us when Dylan Hunt, son of the owner, offered to show us the convict quarters. We would soon realize that nothing in Tasmania is ever quite what it seems.

We had booked with a company called Anthology, which owns the country-house-turned-resort and uses it as a staging ground for its guided hikes. Ours was something of a blind date arranged largely on the basis of a seductive website and the courtesy of their e-mails. So far we were not disappointed.

A cab took us up the driveway overhung with elms. Dylan met us at the fountain and helped carry our bags to the second floor. The sun poured through a gable, blindingly white, and cast our room in the welcoming hue.

To stay amid such elegance is a privilege we don't often indulge, and I must have felt guilty when I asked about the convicts. In the early decades of the 19th century when Quamby was built, Tasmania was called Van Diemen's Land, and nearly half the felons transported to Australia ended up in this farthest-flung corner of the British Empire.

Imagine "Deadwood" set on Alcatraz, and you'll get a sense of life in those early days. Once the "transportation," as exile to Australia and Van Diemen's Land became known, ended, Tasmania became Tasmania, and its citizens went from feeling shame over this chapter of their past -- when the "rellies" arrived with chains on their ankles -- to accepting it as their heritage.

Dylan led the way down the narrow steps into the cellar. Margie held back. Recent renovations had overlooked this dark little room. Loose boards covered a dirt floor; a mouse ran for cover. There were alcoves along one wall, perhaps places to sleep. The bricks were dirty and marred.

The man who built Quamby was a benevolent overseer, or so we were told, an Irishman sentenced for a political crime who was eventually pardoned and given this property, which would encompass 30,000 acres. Quamby, a word appropriated from the native people meaning "a place to camp, settle down and rest," is smaller today, with a nine-hole golf course and tennis court.

At dinner -- a nice porterhouse and a Pinot Noir -- we gazed across the countryside in the twilight and for a moment forgot where we were. On the way from the ferry, we had passed through villages with tall steepled churches, tearooms, village squares and Georgian homes and by pastures filled with sheep and Holsteins separated by neat hedgerows and tidy stone walls.

More English than England, novelist Anthony Trollope wrote when he visited here more than a century ago, and the scene, though picturesque, filled us with a wistful melancholy. So far from home, so deep their fealty to the crown, the early settlers tried to shape this country into something they might recognize -- even if it meant waging war against the Aborigines and tearing down the forests.

Yet the island still spoke its mind, perhaps a little like the smoke monster in "Lost." The sun, the moon and the tides were the same, but there were still trees that shed bark, not leaves; strange animals that roamed at night; and a wilderness too encompassing to destroy.

That evening we walked the grounds and watched lightning in the west streak across the night sky, illuminating the piles of clouds that had built up over the mountains. We slept restlessly to the sounds of the wind, the distant storm and owls calling through the trees.