What if they opened a fabulous new tourist facility in Tasmania and virtually nobody came?
That happened mid-last year at one of the state’s most popular natural attractions, the wild and dramatic Cradle Mountain, when the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service officially opened the geometrically dramatic new visitor centre.
Cumulus Studio’s “honeyed cave” is the new gateway to the often-harsh north-west alpine destination, and opened just over a week after the state’s June COVID-19 lockdown ended. It combines orientation centre, coach transit and commercial services, and is a statement start to the grand $86.8 million plan that will eventually add a lot more amenity to the mountain’s creature comforts.
With Tasmanians blinking as they emerged into the light, allowed to go walking and camping again while interstate and international visitors were unable to cross Bass Strait, the island’s 19 parks were soon filled by locals enthusiastic about rediscovering their bounty of natural places.
Visitor numbers at the glacially sculpted Cradle Mountain – the start of the world-famous multi-day Overland Track walk – plunged 23 per cent from the usual tallies in the first six months of the lockout.
But as soon as the clamps came off, tourism operators reported a surge of returnees. “In fact,” says a Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service spokesperson, “over the winter and summer school holidays, many parks experienced their highest visitation so far in the recovery.”
One who appreciated the non-peak times “of relatively few visitors” – at least compared to the all-time high of 2017/18 – was Tasmanian native Emily Cooper, who targeted a mountain she “hadn’t been to in a decade”.
“Desperately keen to spend time in a beautiful part of the world where we could do some day-bushwalks”, she and her partner found the “hiker’s paradise” of Cradle Mountain fulfilled their needs perfectly.
Ms Cooper said she was impressed with the visitor centre but hadn’t realised it was so freshly minted.
That’s possibly a compliment to the designers who made the building as a stylised interpretation of the craggy landscape that moving rivers of ice were shaping 200 million years ago.
Cumulus wanted the rain canopy – which is apparently grey but proves to be translucent when the interiors are illuminated at night – to take shape “as if it had been carved from rock”.
Studio director Peter Walker explained that the elongated building “expresses the dual characteristics of the environment that can be harsh and raw”, with warm, woody and multiply faceted interiors “that feature Tasmanian timbers”.
In 2015 it was Cumulus that developed the visionary master plan that will ultimately see the wholesale redevelopment of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park from what it was only a few years ago – as unimaginative as an old scout camp set beside a weather-blasted car park.
Another part of the project the studio is responsible for, and that is currently in development, is the Dove Lake Shelter at the destination point of one of the most popular day walks at Cradle Mountain. Indeed, the six-kilometre circuit is one of Tasmania’s most popular hikes.
“It will be a no-frills, basic shelter with no heating and with an external concrete surface,” Mr Walker said. “It will be quite different to the [Cradle Mountain] visitor centre”.
Also inspired by the landform and expected to open by early spring, the Dove Lake Shelter will have an elliptic form “that takes its inspiration from the shale moraines left at the point where glaciers retreat”.
Still a reasonably young practice but with four offices (two in Tasmania and one each in Melbourne and Adelaide) Cumulus has had a big impact on the island’s innovative design culture, like so many Tasmanian-trained or -based architectural firms.
How does this happen so often? Mr Walker reckons “Tassie punches above its weight because we have a good sense of our context and because we work in a natural environment of bush and spectacular scenery that we’re never more than 30 minutes away from.
“We’ve also got a can-do attitude and a real inventiveness to the making”.
Tasmania Parks and Wildlife says that, even while international visitors are not in the picture, it is busily preparing more attractions for when they do return.
“Along with the opening of the Cradle Mountain Gateway, Parks and Wildlife has undertaken a number of other major projects to improve the visitor experience.
“This includes a second lookout at Wineglass Bay, a new shelter at Ben Lomond National Park, repairing and rebuilding 117 kilometres of track and road destroyed in the 2018/19 bushfires, and continuing works of the Freycinet masterplan”.
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