Dinner was over, and there was still a little wine. We had already dished about Nicole Kidman and our favorite Aussie movies. The plan for a new pulp mill, perhaps the most contentious issue in Tasmania today, was on the table, and it was easy to argue against. This trip, if anything, proved how easily the ecosystems of this island can be compromised.

The guides stayed quiet, then one guest who was born in Tasmania offered a different perspective. The mill may not be the answer, she said, but a diversified economy is.

Tasmania has long been Australia's neglected stepchild and for years paid the price with high rates of unemployment, divorce, dependency on welfare, an unskilled workforce, obesity and suicide.

"Tasmania," she argued, "cannot become merely an environmental museum."

Afterward, I stepped out on the deck of the hut. An upside-down Orion peered down upon me, and the Southern Cross was slowly rising. Draw a line from two of its stars, and you will find your way to true celestial south.

Fires of controversy

Cricket dominated the headlines -- Australia in a critical contest against Pakistan -- so it might have been easy to miss the news. The British travel magazine Wanderlust had just put the Bay of Fires on its list of the world's most threatened tourist sites.

The announcement was scandalous. Just a year earlier, Lonely Planet had pulled out all the stops to praise these secluded beaches on Tasmania's east coast as among the 10 best destinations, and here we were, after a day of rest in Launceston, heading with a new group of hikers into the controversy, albeit on the recommended and less traveled route.

More than 200 years ago, an English navigator named the region for the pyres set burning by the Aborigines along the coast. Trouwerner was their name for this island, their home for nearly 40,000 years. Estimates put their population between 5,000 and 6,000, and in less than one generation upon the arrival of the English, they were killed off or removed.

Today these crescents of sand are empty. We walked slowly across them. To the left was the ocean, a thousand shades of blue, and to the right, bluffs held tight by marran grass and coastal heath. The vault of the sky, cut by slivers of clouds, arched overhead.

Our first evening was spent in a tent camp nestled in the dunes, six steel-frame and canvas rooms large enough for two twin beds. For dinner, our guides prepared salmon, and afterward Margie and I headed down the beach and climbed a bluff above the quiet surf and sat in the settling twilight.

A lighthouse in the distance sent out its beacon, and silver gulls surrounded us, diving, stalling, swooping -- white-black, white-black wing flaps -- after moths that rose from the heath.

The next day, we became experts in spindrift and wrack lines, deciphering the mysteries of sea foam, wandering among the jetsam of bull kelp and jellyfish, exploring the hieroglyphic trails of birds and animals left in the dry inland sand. We took off our boots and scuffed our feet along the squeaky, hard-packed sand. By late afternoon, nearly 8 miles later, a sharp onshore wind blew white caps into the surf. Shadows of fog and cloud whisked across our paths.

Built on a bluff overlooking Abbotsbury Beach, set in a forest of long-needled she-oak trees, the Bay of Fires Lodge is nothing less than a mirage as stunning as its setting and far removed from the southern part of the bay where Wanderlust had focused its concern.

Wind-burned and sun-blasted, we climbed the steps, found the showers and fell into the embrace of this wood and glass pavilion. Dinner that night was rocket lettuce, corn and pecorino salad, braised wallaby and beef meatballs with roasted capsicum sauce, potatoes with lemon and thyme sauce, dressed greens and a raspberry and vanilla bean panna cotta with macerated strawberries.

Exhausted, we slept to the sound of the waves drifting through our room's open louvers.

Shored up

On our final day, we slipped down to the beach to celebrate a birthday. The Champagne was slightly warm, but that hardly mattered. Once again strangers had become friends.

The sun sparkled off the water. Some of us decided to go swimming. Lost in the aquamarine water, I stood waist deep and, not 50 feet away, saw a dark shadow move beneath the waves. I didn't know whether to swim or to run.

But nothing in Tasmania is ever exactly as it seems, and a black dorsal fin broke the surface and disappeared, a bottlenose dolphin, then a pod, lingering for a moment just beyond the break.

Later on the shore, I lay in the sand and stared into the blue sky. For nearly two weeks we had wandered Tasmania's mountains, rain forests and beaches, and with each step we had fallen back in time. Fifty years, 200 years, 180 million years, the evidence of creation and discovery surrounded us. We were exhausted and exhilarated.

"In Tasmania," said the man we had interrupted two days before as he and his son gutted fish in front of their summer shack, "we wake up in the morning and see which way the wind is blowing, and we just follow it. Everyone has a preconceived notion of where they need to go and where they need to be; here in Tassie, we just follow the wind."

I didn't know it then, but that morning on the beach, staring into the sky, I had the answer to the riddle Tasmania posed.


latimes.com /tasmania

More adventure

Go online for additional photos of the hike through Tasmania.