Thursday 25 February 2010

for to face Van Diemen's land....

We don’t actually see Tasmania until we are about 10m above the runway. Tassie has a reputation for being very British, and it appears that this extends to the weather, which – compared to Sydney if not to Nottingham – is distinctly cool, cloudy and drizzly. As is often the case in Australia, we are greeted at the airport by the cutest beagle. Quarantine laws are strict, and although Hobart does not receive any international flights, there are still restrictions on taking fruit and vegetables between states. The beagle dutifully sniffs everyone as they walk past him, and then walks along the luggage belt, snuffling each bag as it comes past him. I don’t know how effective he is, but he’s certainly a nice welcome to the state.

Hobart is only a short drive away from the airport, but even without the weather, there is definitely something British about the place. The landscape doesn’t look exactly English, but – if you ignore all of those alien gum trees – there’s something about the brown-tinged low mountains that reminds me of Wales or Scotland. Hobart itself doesn’t seem all that impressive: it’s not on the Southern Ocean itself, but is rather nestled into the Estuary of the Derwent River. For all that it’s a town that is all about its maritime history, the port itself doesn’t seem all that impressive, consisting as it does of what look a lot like a load of rundown warehouses. There’s a thriving little strip around Salamanca that has a number of bars and restaurants, and there are one or two old buildings about the place, but otherwise it’s not really anything much to write home about.... even if it is nice enough.

We spend a couple of nights in Hobart, and frankly that’s enough to get a feel for the place: we pick up the hire car, we have a look at the maritime museum, we eat some delicious flathead, calamari and chips at a place called “Fish Frenzy”, and we check out the Tasmanian Museum. Apart from having an obsession with stuffed animals, this last has a really interesting exhibition on Tasmania’s aboriginal history. Although Australia as a whole doesn’t have a great track record with the natives, Tasmania’s record is especially poor – essentially the aborigines here were systematically exterminated when they proved unable (or unwilling) to assimilate with the white settlers. The exhibition tried to show the aboriginal way of life and also to apologise for their treatment by the European settlers (Tasmania was the first Australian state to formally apologise for this, although Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised on behalf of the nation upon his election a couple of years ago.) I read a fantastic book called “The English Passenger” that dealt with the issue of the aborigines in Tasmania, and I was quite moved by the exhibition. The next room along features various stuffed examples of the indigenous wildlife – first and most obviously featuring the Tasmanian Tiger, hunted to extinction by the early 1930s. It’s a sad story, for sure, and it is upsetting watching the old video footage of a captive tiger pacing up and down its cage, knowing that none are left.... but when two ladies walked past us, and one said to the other, standing right next to the aboriginal exhibition, “oh, the extinction of the tiger is the greatest tragedy to ever happen to this island”... it was hard not to be astonished at the crassness of the statement. The extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger *is* sad, but the extermination of the aboriginal inhabitants of the islands is surely worth a mention, no?

 We left Hobart early on the Saturday morning to head down to Port Arthur, a hundred or so kilometres down the Tasman peninsular. Port Arthur is where those convicts who reoffended after transportation were sent, and it had a fearsome reputation and is supposed to be an incredibly atmospheric site. To be honest, although I found the setting stunningly beautiful and the site well presented, it wasn’t until we got to the “other” prison that I found it especially atmospheric. The main prison had a well-earned reputation for brutality, and prisoners who were sent here knew they were in for a hard time: leg irons, hard labour... the works. It’s interesting to read about the people sent here, and how some of them went on to lead productive lives elsewhere in Australia; how some escaped and were quickly recaught as the hostile environment took its toll.... many prisoners died here, some as young as nine years old... and it’s hard not to feel something when cruising around the Isle of the Dead where they were all buried. The general impression, though, is of a relatively enlightened environment where successive prison governors worked hard to make sure that the prisoners were treated as fairly as possible and given every chance to return to society. It was no picnic, for sure, but neither was it entirely without merit. The “other” prison is something else entirely though. As the nineteenth century wore on, prison reformers campaigned hard against the brutality of the traditional prison system. It was far better, they said, to work on the mind of the prisoner rather than to inflict punishment on his body. The chilling result is a prison where people were kept entirely in solitary confinement; where they had to wear a mask whenever they stepped outside their cell; where they had a completely isolated exercise yard where they would get to smell the fresh air for an hour a day, but would but unable to see another living soul; where the prison guards would wear slippers so that they would not make a sound as they walked up and down the prison block.... now that’s chilling, and it’s an atmosphere you can still feel as you look at the cells, as you walk in the exercise yards and as you look at the chapel (where prisoners would be forced to listen to the parson whilst enclosed in individual booths were they could only see the pulpit and nothing else.  Poor souls). The intentions of the reformers were good, I think, but the result was far more punishing to a prisoner’s wellbeing than all the beatings and leg irons of the older prison. Port Arthur is a fascinating place. Not the finest hour of the British colony in Australia, that’s for sure.

 On the way out of the Tasman Peninsular, we stopped off at a Tasmanian Devil sanctuary. Although once widespread, the Tasmanian Devil is now unique to Tasmania and is under serious threat of extinction from a contagious facial tumour that has ravaged the population over the last decade. At current rates of decline, they could be entirely extinct in between 10-15 years time. It’s a sobering thought, and one that makes the sight of one of these magnificent marsupials all the more poignant. You’re probably familiar with the Warner Brothers cartoon character, but he does the real thing no justice at all: they’re a touch smelly, but they’re also incredibly cute, even as they crunch on the bones of a raw chicken... Also in the sanctuary, I get a good look at another animal that is under threat and is now only really found in Tasmania: the Eastern Quoll. They’re sometimes called the Native Cat, but really they look like a kind of stoat or weasel, with reddish brown fur speckled with white spots. As with the Devil, they may crunch on the bones of other animals, but they’re also incredibly cute as they wash the gore off their snouts by licking their paws and rubbing them across their faces and ears. I’m a sucker, but I definitely like Quolls. I miss my cat!

Heading up the East Coast, after a short detour on one of the island’s many unsealed roads, we spend the night in a distinctly chintzy bed & breakfast in Orford.... like many places in Australia, when it claims to be historic, it means it might be about 100 years old. It’s nice enough, but the teddy bear on the bed should tell you all you really need to know about the place. It’s raining when we get up, but we head on up the East Coast towards the Freycinet National Park and Wineglass Bay. This is one of the “must see” stops in Tasmania, and it’s certainly well worth the fairly strenuous hike through the rain to get to the viewing point and then down to the beach itself. You might think that this was named because of the shape of the beach, but apparently the place (may have) got its name from a time when whales were so plentiful that you could hunt them from bases on the island rather than having to chase them out into the Southern Ocean. This bay was a processing centre for the Southern Right Whales that were caught (so called because they were the “right” whale to kill...not from the whale's perspective, eh?.). So many were dragged here to be processed that the water in the bay was the colour of burgundy wine from all the blood.... nice story, huh? Nice viewpoint,anyway.

After serendipitous stops in the pleasant seaside town of Bicheno (penguins! blowhole!) and the lovely historic old town of Ross, we head on to the Cradle Mountain national park. This is Tasmania’s big draw, and the one place that everybody visiting the place is likely to visit. As school holidays here are now over, we seem to have chosen a good time to arrive, and although many of the hotels are busy, we often have many of the trails to ourselves. We spend a couple of days here, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

As well as the plentiful wildlife we see during our walks, we also choose to go on a night time wildlife drive, and in all we see wallabies, pademellons (a small Tasmanian wallaby), echidnas, wombats, bush-tailed possums... and even a Tasmanian Devil. It’s a lovely spot.

From Cradle Mountain, we head up towards Launceston (rather upsettingly pronounced by the locals of Lon-cess-ton). It’s the second largest “city” in Tasmania, but we found that even here, the biggest pubs on the busiest street were starting to shut up shop at about 9pm on a weeknight..... we were staying at a backpacker’s hostel, but elected to eat out at the city’s finest restaurant – Stillwater – more fool us. On seeing a menu full of jus and foams, we should have trusted our instincts and left, but instead we stayed to enjoy an overpriced menu of appallingly low quality food. We made our feelings known and had the price of our bottle of mineral water knocked off the bill and were shown the door....honestly, it was terrible. Lonely Planet should be as ashamed of themselves for recommending the place as the restaurant should be for serving that muck at those prices. Needless to say, it was full of people determined to convince themselves that this was indeed the meal of a lifetime. Pah. You live and learn, right?

For a town full of kids in muscle cars, crappy restaurants and pubs that shut ludicrously early, I have to say that Launceston actually grew on me... particularly when we headed up to the park at Cataract Gorge at the top of town. This is an especially Victorian affair, where the bush has been tamed by the addition of a swimming lake, some walking paths and a scenic chairlift, but actually it was lovely, and clearly an excellent spot to bunk off work on a sunny afternoon and have a swim. From there, it was on to the airport and out to Melbourne.

On the whole, I found Tasmania to be an absolutely lovely spot: it’s clearly Australian, but it’s got a slightly more temperate climate and is on a much more manageable scale. It *does* look quite English in places, especially in flatter land of the midlands (where each town has a thing - Sheffield's was murals, and every house seemed to have a different mural, including one very brightly coloured homage to the Wizard of Oz.  I have a feeling that the small town owners might be horrified to learn that their innocent mural had *other* connotations....). Here the cultivated pastures filled with sheep and cattle, but for the wall-to-wall sky, could easily be somewhere in the UK. It’s a landscape that is at once familiar and alien. That said, we were only there for something like six days and only covered 850km and a relatively small portion of the island. Even here, I was conscious that there was so much more to see... we actually bumped into a retired couple in Orford who had so far spent three-and-a-half years travelling around Australia and were planning to spend the next twelve months in Tasmania alone. With that in mind, how much can you really see in six days? Still, I really liked what I did see.... how often can you say that you’ve seen Penguins in the wild, nevermind a Tasmanian Devil.... and I think I need to come back here again and have a proper look around.

For the record though, I much prefer Hobart’s Cascade beer over Launceston’s Boags. Just personal preference, I suppose, but I sampled both extensively and this was more informed conclusion... neither, it must be said, as good as a Cooper’s Pale Ale, but that’s a story for the South Australian section of the trip.....

Bit of a long post... sorry about that.  Loads of stuff to write about, and only annoyingly flakey wireless connections to load it up on....... I've still left loads of stuff out too, but I'm one day into my PADI course in Cairns, and I'm about to spend three days diving from a boat on the Great Barrier Reef, so the rest will have to wait until another day, eh?

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