Maria Island’s Painted Cliffs & Fossil Cliffs

Tasmania’s coastline is rugged and spectacular, and there are few places to better appreciate this than Maria Island. With unique and fascinating geology, Maria Island is a top destination for the geologist, whether professional or amateur. But not all of us are fascinated by rocks and the almost incomprehensible spans of time that went into making them. Fortunately for us, we do not have to be geologists to appreciate grandeur and be dwarfed by scale; sensations no visitor to Maria Island’s cliffs can escape.

The Painted Cliffs

Just a short half hour amble from Darlington, these picturesque sandstone cliffs are streaked and patterned with iron oxide layers, giving them a fascinating painted appearance. Requiring a low tide and calm seas for access, the tidal pools surrounding them make for excellent snorkelling. Viewed during midday, the cliffs are beautiful and intriguing, but come fully into their own on a sunny afternoon when the evening light strikes the pale sandstone, warming it to rich buttery golden colours and creating a photographer’s paradise.

The Painted Cliffs are made up of Triassic sandstone, when large rivers deposited deep layers of sand across broad flood plains some 200-250 million years ago. This sand was then compressed over time to form the soft rock we see today. The iron oxide patterning was deposited much more recently, within the last 10 million years, when Tasmania was experiencing a monsoonal climate. Extreme rainfall events leached out iron from the dolerite rocks above the sandstone, seeping into the softer rock through natural weaknesses in its layering. This very wet time was then followed by periods of extreme dryness, which drew the water back to the surface, leaving the iron oxide behind to be eroded and exposed by rising sea levels to reveal the patterns we see today.

The Painted Cliffs at Maria Island

The Fossil Cliffs

Perhaps the most visually striking place on the Island, no visit to Maria is complete without walking up to Skipping Ridge and the Fossil Cliffs. Towering over 100m in places and plunging straight into the ocean, cresting that final rise and looking out across the ocean never fails to make the heart skip and the breath catch. Exposed by weathering and erosion, and then a convenient platform cut out by an industrious limestone quarrier in the 1920s, the Fossil Cliffs provide some of the most prolific and best-preserved fossils you will see in Tasmania, if not in the world. Even for someone who is not particularly fascinated by geology or fossils in general, it is impossible to not be struck by wonder when walking over a whole cliff entirely made up of ancient shells.

During the early Permian, some 300 million years ago, when Tasmania was still a part of the supercontinent of Gondwana, an Ice Age developed, with ice sheets and glaciers forming over much of what is now Tasmania, levelling out mountains and gouging deep fjord-like valleys. Shallow seas penetrated far inland across much of Australia, and layers of mudstone and siltstone began to accumulate. In this cold shallow sea, marine life flourished, in particular bivalve molluscs, the most common and well known being trigonia shells. As these animals lived and died, their shells built up and compressed into the limestone layers we see today. In amongst the limestone and fossils, it is possible to see many drop stones, usually rounded and smooth from being tumbled and eroded by flowing water and ice. These are rocks older than the limestone, carried here by glaciers and icebergs and then dropped onto the shallow seafloor as the ice melted, being incorporated into the seabed and grown over by the bivalves.

The Fossil Cliffs played a major role in Maria Island’s much more recent human history, as it was the limestone here that brought Italian entrepreneur Diego Bernacchi back to the island in the early 1920s to open up one of the most sophisticated industrial cement works in the southern hemisphere. Although short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful, it briefly transformed the island into a bustling centre of industry, and also cut out vast areas of the cliffs, making viewing the fossils much easier for contemporary visitors. A combination of poor quality limestone, the abundance of super-hard drop stones that kept damaging crushing machines, remoteness, poor anchorage, and ultimately the Great Depression all led to the collapse of the cement works, but it has left a legacy that continues to fascinate visitors to this day.

The Fossil Cliffs at Maria Island

How to Get There

Take a four day guided Maria Island Walk to visit and learn more about these fascinating geological features. Contact The Maria Island Walk on 03 6234 2999 for more information or book online.