Dark Mofo or no: a local's guide to thrilling winter breaks in Tasmania

Just because Tasmania’s biggest festival has been called off, doesn’t mean your trip should be – there’s still plenty of art, great food and spectacle

So. Dark Mofo is cancelled. The risks associated with Covid-19 are too high, and David Walsh has decided to pull the plug on the 2020 festival with the aim of keeping it alive in future years.

It is probably just as well. As anyone who has been to Dark Mofo’s adult-only Night Mass event will know, the requirement for social distancing and keeping your bodily fluids under control wouldn’t really be in the spirit of things.

Festivals have long been used to break up the long, dark Tasmanian winter. After Walsh released his statement yesterday – an exemplar of transparency, intelligence and wry humour – both the Festival of Voices and Huon Valley Midwinter festival responded with announcements that they are planning to go ahead with their respective events.

Huon Valley Midwinter Festival, Tasmania
Huon Valley Midwinter Festival, Tasmania. Photograph: Mia Glastonbury/Tourism Tasmania

But even if things change between now and June and the full calendar of events ends up cancelled, that’s no reason not to visit Tasmania this winter. It may even be the ultimate destination for minimising your contact with other people: book an eco-cabin on South Bruny and you could easily spend a week here without seeing a soul.

Lighthouse Bay in South Bruny National Park, Tasmania
Lighthouse Bay in South Bruny National Park, Tasmania. Photograph: Mia Glastonbury/Tourism Tasmania

Besides, all the things that make Dark Mofo so special – innovative contemporary art, delicious seasonal food and the chance to explore a genuinely spectacular part of Australia – can still be found if you dig a little deeper.

Back in 2016, Mike Parr’s Dark Mofo performance Asylum [Entry by Mirror Only] took place at Willow Court – a decommissioned asylum for the criminally insane in New Norfolk. That venue, a 35-minute drive from Hobart, has now been transformed into the award-winning Agrarian Kitchen Eatery, where waitstaff laughingly admit that they’re still finding mirrors hidden around the grounds almost four years on. Celebrating local, seasonal produce, Rodney Dunn’s restaurant serves up some of the best food in the state; their fried sourdough potato cakes are legendary, as is the housemade bread ice cream.

Stillwater restaurant sitting on the edge of a lake in Launceston
Stillwater restaurant in Launceston. Photograph: Mia Glastonbury/Tourism Tasmania

Other food options that are in themselves worth a trip across Bass Strait include: Stillwater in Launceston, where an upcoming partnership with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra will see the restaurant host a series of intimate events combining live music with a three-course meal and matching wines; Sonny in Hobart, which unlike popular sister restaurant Templo is walk-in only (you might find that you have to squeeze right into the galley kitchen for your raspberry gin and gouda fingers, but gosh is it worth it); and the unexpectedly excellent Masaaki’s Sushi in Geeveston, soon to re-open after a year’s hiatus.

The original Masaaki’s was a cult spot, opened by Masaaki Koyama in 2009 after he moved to Tasmania from Osaka. TV chef and seafood specialist Rick Stein once described it as taking sushi to a whole new level. The new premises in a converted church will be open Friday to Sunday, serving takeout only. With customers willing to queue for up to two hours, make sure you get there early.

Giant pear sculptures sit under trees in an orchard on Birch's Bay sculpture trail
Birch’s Bay sculpture trial, Tasmania. Photograph: Mia Glastonbury/Tourism Tasmania

Over the last few years, a highlight of Dark Mofo has been the outdoor art installations that invite visitors to engage with site-specific works. A worthwhile alternative this winter would be a visit to Birch’s Bay sculpture park, about 45 minutes south of Hobart. The 1.5km sculpture trail winds through orchards and bush tracks, and that’s open year-round, while an annual exhibition runs from Easter until the end of July. While you’re in the area, pop into the nearby Hartshorn Distillery for a taste of their award-winning sheep’s whey vodka.

At Mona itself, Tasmanian artist Sally Rees is exhibiting a new body of work centred around the “crone”. Consisting of animated portraits – a series of videos transformed with hand-painted animations – that call to each other in the dark, the exhibit is a challenge to the perceived invisibility of ageing women in contemporary culture. In the first week of August, Rees will mark her 50th birthday with a walk from the summit of kunanyi/Mount Wellington down to the exhibit at the museum, joined along the way by many of the most important “crones” from her own life.

A Tasmanian devil in the snow at Devils at Cradle sanctuary in Tasmania
A Tasmanian devil in the snow at Devils at Cradle sanctuary in Tasmania. Photograph: Mia Glastonbury/Tourism Tasmania

Beyond that, there are numerous other experiences that are unique to the Tasmanian winter. Ben Lomond and Mount Field have both got decent skifields; Devils at Cradle is a world class conservation facility at Cradle Mountain, two and a half hours west of Launceston, where you can watch Tassie devils playing in the snow.

If you want to stay close to Hobart, Mount Wellington is a mere half an hour away, and perfect for snowball fights by day. For a natural light show, chase the aurora at South Arm Peninsula, around 40 minutes south of the city. Or warm up with a generous dram of Tasmanian whisky: Lark Cellar Door, Shene Estate and Nonesuch Distillery are all within easy reach of the city.

People playing in the snow on kunanyi/Mt Wellington
People playing in the snow on kunanyi/Mt Wellington Richard Lopez. Photograph: Mia Glastonbury/Tourism Tasmania

There’s no doubt that Hobart will feel different this winter, with no ogoh-ogoh burning ceremony, no winter feast, and no light installations. Social media has been awash with comments from people lamenting what Dark Mofo’s cancellation will mean for small businesses in Tasmania who rely on interstate and international visitors in these quieter months.

But it has been equally busy with people making alternative plans. More than a few defiant locals have already declared that they don’t need David Walsh’s permission to strip off at the winter solstice for a chilly dip in the Derwent.

If you’re coming to Tasmania this winter – and you absolutely should – then you know what to bring. A puffer jacket, a pair of Uggs, and a multipack of hand-warmers. Perhaps, though, you should also bring your bathers and a beach towel. You never know. Just in case.

Ruth Dawkins

The GuardianTramp

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