On Flinders: a game of two halves

First half: Ah, but your land is beautiful

A few months ago we visited the Isle of Man, which is overwhelmingly rural and sparsely populated.  Flinders Island is over twice as big, and its population is about 1% that of the Manx-land.  Flinders is very sparsely populated, very rural.

The island setting, the wide-open spaces, the tranquillity and to some extent the landscape are reminiscent of our favourite place in the whole world, Orkney.  We feel strangely at home and at peace here, this tiny island lying all but unknown between the Australian mainland and Tasmania:

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A man could be happy here, an island where motorists greet one another with a friendly wave as their cars pass, as long as he doesn’t crave the bright lights of the city, the hustle and bustle of 21st century living:

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Like Orkney, nowhere on Flinders is far from the sea, and nowhere is more beautiful than the coastline.  This, for example, is Allport Beach:

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Killiecrankie Bay gives its name to the Killiecrankie ‘Diamond’, which in reality is a type of topaz.  The ‘diamonds’ are much sought after and although we don’t find any (we don’t have the time or the energy to look), later in the trip we encounter a guy who has a pocketful thanks to his fossicking endeavours.  Ourselves, we’re happy just to see the magnificent bay:

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Once again, parts of the rocky coastline are coated with red and orange lichen, adding an exotic twist to the landscape.  Julie takes this photo at North East River:

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Some of the places we visit are simply stunning.  This is the white, sandy beach of Palana Bay, with the Sisters Islands in the distance:

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Sawyers Beach is equally beautiful, though here our enjoyment is cut short by swarms of biting flies that send us scurrying back to the safety of the car:

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Beyond its visual beauty, Flinders Island has a darker secret.  The Visit Flinders Island website says:

In 1834 one hundred and thirty-five Tasmanian Aboriginals from the mainland were settled on Flinders Island, where as George Augustus Robinson said they were to be ‘civilised and christianised’.  The settlement was called Wybalenna which means ‘black man’s houses’.  They were forbidden to practise the old ways and were homesick for their lost country.  Many died of respiratory disease, poor food and despair.  In October 1847 the forty seven survivors of this group were transferred to Oyster Cove, near Hobart.

We visit Wybalenna.  All that remains is a restored chapel and a graveyard containing unmarked aboriginal graves along with graves of some of the first European settlers.  In the nearby cemetery, the Young Farmers’ club has erected a plaque to commemorate the death of over 100 Aborigines at Wybalenna:

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Wybalenna is a sobering place.  Throughout our month in Tassie I’ve struggled to make up my mind about the official attitude to the Aboriginals who once called this place home.  Superficially everything is respectful, even a little contrite, honouring a lost race and culture that died at the hands of the White Man.  But I’ve been around the block a few times, I know that you would say this anyway even if you didn’t feel it, the marketing men would want you to clean up your image through a show of political correctness.

I simply don’t know what I think about the Aboriginal issue, but I do know how I feel as I look at the field of unmarked graves and reflect on the fate of the innocent people buried here: I feel sad, so so sad.  Let’s move on.

Second half: A road less travelled

Overnight, the weather breaks.  Greeted by leaden skies, low cloud and rain, we rearrange our itinerary, opting to take a dead-end gravel road to Lackrana Wildlife Sanctuary where, hopefully, we can birdwatch from the car.

We birdwatch our way down the road, deeper into the sanctuary.  In two hours or more we see just one car.  We reach the end of the road and decide to call it a day.  We’ve seen little of interest, the weather is foul and the visibility rotten so we’ll head into Whitemark, the biggest settlement on the island, for a hot drink and something to eat.  I turn the car round and begin the journey back towards town.

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After a few hundred metres Julie tells me to stop.  There’s a flock of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos working their way through the trees to the left.  This has been a bogey bird for us, and now seems like a good opportunity to get a decent photo, particularly as the rain has eased.  I pull off the road and Julie stalks them for about twenty minutes.  She gets views of the flock in flight, but not the shot she was hoping for:

Damp and disappointed Julie gets back in the car, and I prepare to set off.  I turn the key.  Nothing.  I turn it again.  Still nothing.  I take it out, re-insert it, and try again.  Absolutely nothing.  The electrics have failed completely.

This is, to say the least, a bit of a problem.  We are many kilometres up a dead-end gravel road along which no car has passed for a couple of hours.  Nobody lives out here, so we’re on our own.  Also, we have no food and very little drink with us as we weren’t expecting to do anything more adventurous than some casual birding from the car.  We try our UK mobile phone, but inevitably there’s no reception.  And, to add insult to injury, the heavens have opened again.

We have two choices: to stay put and hope that a mad birder will brave the deluge to visit the Lackrana Sanctuary, or to attempt to walk out along the gravel road in the pouring rain until we reach a busier road where maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a vehicle we can flag down.  Reluctantly, we decide to walk out.

The rain teems down and a cold wind gets up.  Our backs, our legs, our feet all protest painfully, and we’re running out of drink. We understand the term walking on water. The road is alive with froglets celebrating the arrival of wet weather, but we’re too miserable to share their enthusiasm.  At one point a Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo lands in a tree just yards from the road, and appears to laugh as we squelch past.

After several hours and over 7km we at last spot a car approaching us and flag it down.  Never in my life have I been so pleased to see a Volkswagen.  I’m close to tears, the relief is so profound.  The occupants are shocked to encounter us, but come willingly to our rescue.  One of them has a working mobile phone.  We call Rob, and within 40 minutes he’s with us.  He scratches his head, curses under his breath and twiddles under the bonnet, and eventually gets us going.  We limp back to the farm with Rob following close behind, just in case.

Rob is mortified.  “Nothing like this ever happened before,” he says miserably.

In reply I mumble polite disclaimers.  “No worries,” I say, “nobody died.”

The delicate dance continues for a while, soothing declarations are exchanged, reassurances offered.  In due course a bottle of Scotch changes hands, is accepted in the spirit in which it is gifted, and honour is duly satisfied on both sides.

Everything we’ve worn or carried today is sopping wet and needs to be dried out before tomorrow morning’s flight to Melbourne.  Lorraine lights the log stove in our cabin and lends us a clothes horse, and we get started on the job in hand:

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The only way we can get the insides of our shoes dry is with the hair dryer, and I’m forced to dry out my leather wallet and the British £10 notes it contains on a heated towel rail.

As we reflect on the day’s events we recognise things could have turned out a lot worse.  There are definitely some lessons for us to learn, should we ever be crazy enough to contemplate a trip like this again:

  1. Make sure you have a mobile phone that actually works in the place you’re visiting
  2. Carry plenty of food and water in the car, even if you’re planning to spend the day in said car
  3. Do a course in car mechanics.

To be brutally honest, today’s experience has taken the edge off our visit to Flinders and, to some extent, off our Tasmanian adventure as a whole.  It was scary, very scary, I don’t think we’ve ever felt so totally alone as we did on that gravel road, a road less travelled than any we’ve been on since we arrived in Tassie.  On top of that, we’re not particularly fit and once the adrenaline begins to wear off the pain really kicks in, and there isn’t any part of us that doesn’t hurt like hell.

But let’s look on the bright side: we’re still in one piece (just) and tomorrow’s another day.  At least in Melbourne we can be confident that our car won’t break down … we’ll be travelling by hop-on-hop-off bus instead.

[8 December]

Chewing the fat on Flinders

Filling Station Man

Flinders is a friendly place.  There aren’t many people here – the population is less than 1,000 – and the pace of life is relaxed.  The locals are happy to chat, as Rob and Lorraine demonstrated yesterday.

Our car is a Rav 4, supplied by Rob.  It’s the first 4WD I’ve driven, and it seems like a smart move on an island as remote as this.  We call at a filling station and fall into easy conversation with the old guy who takes our money.  He’s been to Britain once, to meet up with distant relatives in Scunthorpe.  I ask what he made of Scunthorpe and he says hurriedly that, if truth be told, the family hails from a rural area a little way out of town.  I nod sympathetically, saying that I’ve heard that lots of people come from Scunthorpe but very few choose to go back.  He doesn’t demur.

After the family reunion, Filling Station Man and his wife had travelled on to Scotland, and were astonished to pass through Killiecrankie.  This came as a bit of shock, he explains, as Killiecrankie is a tiny settlement just a few kilometres up the road, in the north of Flinders.  We take his point.  To drive through Tassie is to drown in a flood of familiar place-names, the names of counties, cities, towns and villages from across the length and breadth of the UK.

Over the past four weeks we’ve passed through, or close to Kettering, Sheffield, Swansea, St Helen’s, Derby, Devonport, Brighton, Bridgewater, Perth, Margate, Melton Mowbray, Somerset, Strathblane and Southport to name but a few.  In so many ways, whether it be the place names, the landscape or even the climate, Tasmania conjures up misty-eyed memories of the Old Country.  Tassie is, I tell myself, like the UK with added wombats, and is therefore a good thing.

We continue to pass the time of day.  Filling Station Man asks where we are heading, and when we say to the north of the island he says to watch out for the remains of the air-raid defences.

“That’s difficult to believe,” I say, “This place is in the middle of nowhere.”

“It’s true,” he replies.  “In 1942, after the fall of Singapore, Australia was thought to be vulnerable.  The theory was that the Japanese might capture Flinders and use it as a base from which to launch air-raids on Melbourne and Hobart.  So the government put up a string of defences to protect us from attack.”

“Really?” I ask, the doubt obvious in my voice.

“I know it for a fact,” he replies “because my father helped build them.”

We shake our heads thoughtfully.  Looking around us the story seems so improbable, yet it’s plainly true.  I can see it in Filling Station Man’s eyes, which shine brightly at the thought that once, long, long ago, his family here on Flinders had a walk-on part in a conflict that turned the world upside down.

Hydro Man

A couple of hours later we are in the north of Flinders, parked up by the beach.  Like so many stretches of shoreline in Tasmania it is both completely deserted and stunningly beautiful, and we wander off to explore.  A few minutes later I glance behind me and in the distance see a guy standing by our car.

Immediately my 21st century urban paranoia kicks in … someone’s standing next to my car, why doesn’t he stand somewhere else, he must be planning to break in and nick it, or maybe he wants the radio or the wheels, I’m going to keep my eyes on him the thieving bastard.  I scurry back, masking my anxiety with phoney nonchalance.

“G’day,” he says as I approach.  He smiles warmly, drawing deeply on his cigarette.

“Er .. oh … hi,” I stutter, thrown off-balance by his friendly charm.  Where the hell’s his crowbar, I wonder to myself.

“Grand day,” he says, “we’re due some good weather after the last few months.”

“Yes, we’ve heard it’s been rough,” I reply, sheepish now.  It’s evident that this guy has no agenda beyond a leisurely fag break.

“Where are you from?” he asks.  It’s a familiar question.  Almost without exception the Aussies we’ve met have been friendly and have asked about home, how long are we staying, do we like it here and so on.  When we say we’re from the UK he says he’s never been, though he’s visiting Donegal next year to meet up with an old friend.

“My son’s been to the UK though.  Had his camera stolen when he fell asleep on a train from Edinburgh to London.”  I feel suitably ashamed for having doubted this guy’s intentions when the welcome we have received in Oz has been so warm while his son was treated so badly back home.

We chat amiably in the hot sun.  He’s 68, and is doing contract work as a lineman for the hydro.  He earns $76 an hour but has to pay his taxes and insurances out of that.  It seems generous, no wonder everything’s so expensive if a lineman for the hydro earns that much.  But good luck to him I think to myself, it must be tough to earn a living here on Flinders.  “Also,” Hydro Man adds, “I run sheep and cattle on my property, and we’ve got some holidays lets too.  And three months a year I go off shearing sheep.”

There’s a pattern emerging here, which we’ve already seen in Rob and various other people we’ve met.  On Flinders people don’t just have a job, they have multiple jobs, they do a bit of this and that, here and there, and if they’re flexible and hardworking there’s a decent living to be made.

“Have you got a garden?” he asks suddenly, apropos of nothing in particular.

“Yes,” I say, “about 75 square metres out the back.  What about you?”

“Yep, we’ve got a small garden,” Hydro Man replies, “About two-and-a-half acres.”

It’s a different world you know, out here on Flinders Island.

[7 December]

Rob the Builder

Today we leave mainland Tasmania, taking a short flight from Launceston Airport to Flinders Island.  Over the past 30 days we’ve driven 4,269km and it seems like we’ve explored every corner of Tassie; it’s surpassed our expectations and we are sorry to leave.  Flinders, however, is off the beaten track, even by Tasmanian standards, and offers us a chance to chill before the mayhem of Melbourne and the horrors of the flight back to the UK.

We know we’re in for an experience when the guy at check-in tells us our hand-luggage is too heavy.  We re-pack, shifting stuff into suitcases until the weight meets the airline’s rules.  But we needn’t have bothered; when we try to take it on the plane the captain says it’s too big, and will have to go in the hold anyway.  As we clamber on board we take his point.  It’s a 19 seater, and we’re packed in like sardines.  I never thought I’d be dreaming wistfully of the creature comforts in a British Airways economy class cabin, but plainly we’re playing by different rules here in outback Oz:

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In Flinders we are staying in a self-contained cabin on a farm, with great views of Franklin Sound beyond the trees:

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Free-range guinea pigs and partridges roam the farmyard, kept in line by Jess, an eager and friendly sheep dog.  This seems like our sort of place:

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Our genial hosts, Rob and Lorraine, are in the habit of treating new arrivals to a barbecue in an outbuilding that Rob has built himself from salvaged materials.  As well as running cattle and sheep on his smallholding Rob is a builder by trade, plainly a skilled and versatile one.  He points to various bits of the building, explaining proudly where they’ve been sourced.  As the barbecue gets going some bats are flushed out of the roof space, circling madly for a few seconds before exiting via a convenient gap in the eaves.

Rob puts a vinyl record of Abba’s Greatest Hits on to an ancient turntable, and we’re ready to rumble.  We talk about the death of Andrew Sachs a few days ago.  We say we are amazed that it was mentioned on Australian radio news, and Lorraine explains that Fawlty Towers is massively popular over here.  She and Rob both enjoy British TV comedy, and can’t get the hang of US sitcoms.  We share their sentiments.

The tricky subject of mutton birds raises its head.  Driving us back from the airport Lorraine had told us about the menu for the barbecue, including mutton birds.  These are better known as Short-tailed Shearwaters; they are common birds in Tasmania, and are regarded around these parts as a culinary delicacy.  I politely declined, explaining that we are birders and came to Tassie to watch the local wildlife rather than to eat it.  No offence was intended, but we appear to have scored an own goal.

Rob makes the case for eating mutton birds, and he too scores an own goal: they’re very common, he says, and we’ll probably like them as they taste like minke whale.  We are truly sorry if we have offended two decent people who are giving up their evening to cook us a barbecue.  We are not criticising their customs or way of life, but we have principles and must stick to them if we are to be true to ourselves.  An awkward silence descends across the proceedings.

By unspoken agreement everyone quickly moves on, determined to make the most of an evening without mutton birds.  Lorraine cooks well, and we tuck in eagerly to her home-made sausages and pesto, washed down with Rob’s excellent home brew.  Julie doesn’t much care for lamb, but Lorraine serves some which is sourced from the dorper sheep Rob has raised on the farm and she is won over.

Soon we are swapping travellers’ tales.  Rob and Lorraine prove to be the best-travelled Aussies we’ve met, and are frequent visitors to Europe.  They know Orkney and Shetland well, as do we, though they prefer the latter while we could easily spend the rest of our lives on the former.  They even know Holt in Norfolk, which Julie and I visit most years.  How many Brits, let alone Tasmanians, can claim to know Holt?

The evening draws to an amiable close; the guinea pigs are safely tucked up in bed for the night, and we need to follow their example.  Flinders is surprisingly large – more than twice the size of the Isle of Man – and we have just two days to explore it so tomorrow we’ll need to make an early start.

[6 December]

It makes you sick

We’re staying at a luxurious eco-lodge on the Freycinet Peninsula.  The view from the property is spectacular: tasmania-freycinet-lodge-view-2016-1

And we are at one with the wildlife living here, including this lizard who calls our bedroom home: tasmania-freycinet-lizard-in-the-bedroom-2016-3

The Freycinet Peninsula is another of Tassie’s coastal gems, with breath-taking views around nearly every corner, such as here at Honeymoon Bay:tasmania-freycinet-honeymoon-bay-2016-2

But there’s no time to spare, we’re off on another cruise.  Today the boat’s much bigger than on our trip to Maria Island, a catamaran in fact.  This is no bad thing as, despite the brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies, the sea’s rockin’ and rollin’.

We set off towards Wineglass Bay.  The catamaran is comfortable, verging on the luxurious, and we settle back to enjoy the scenic coastline of the Freycinet Peninsula: tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-2016-53

However the sea begins to take its toll, and pretty soon sickness is rampant amongst the assembled passengers.  The crew are attentive, brilliant in fact, circulating endlessly amongst the sufferers offering sympathy, advice, ginger tablets and, when all that fails, a discrete paper bag.

We sail on, admiring dramatic cliffs painted in vibrant shades of orange and pink: tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-2016-23

As with so much of our Tassie experience, the weather is everything.  On a grey, wet, windy day this trip would be a miserable mistake.  Today, with the sun beating down from a cloudless sky and the ocean molten cobalt, it’s magical:tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-2016-26

The sea doesn’t seem too bad to us and we prove immune to its sly mischief.  For us the experience is exhilarating: the warmth of sun, the wind tugging at our hair, the choppy challenge of the waves:Tasmania, Wineglass Bay cruise, 2016 (42).JPG

Around us, however, others are less resilient.  Some of our fellow passengers are turning a whiter shade of pale, others as green as the grass back home, and in private corners embarrassed chunder monkeys are compelled to review the morning’s breakfast.  We shrug it off, and enjoy views of the majestic Shy Albatross wheeling above the waves:tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-2016-51

At another point, we pull close to the shoreline to inspect a White-bellied Sea Eagle sitting atop its massive nest.  These birds mate for life and return to the same nest every year, simply building an extension to previous years’ efforts.  The results are hugely spectacular:tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-white-bellied-sea-eagle-2016-3

Finally we reach our destination, Wineglass Bay, where we drop anchor in its sheltered waters to eat lunch.  The food showcases the best of Tasmanian produce.  It’s attractively presented in bento-boxes, though many of our fellow travellers are too ill to be seduced by its undoubted charms.  Julie and I, however, tuck in ravenously: tasmania-wineglass-bay-bento-box-lunch-2016-1

As we eat we take in the view.  Wineglass Bay has a reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.  It certainly looks the part today: tasmania-wineglass-bay-cruise-wineglass-bay-2016-11

And what a romantic name, someone says, conjuring up comforting images of happy hours spent in the company of loved ones on an intriguingly curved stretch of pristine coast.  As if the observation has been overheard the PA system clicks on and the guy who’s been doing commentary during the journey pipes up again.

“And in case you’re wondering where it gets its name, Wineglass Bay has nothing to do with its shape or even with the local wine industry.  It dates back to the whaling days.  The dead whales were hauled in to be processed at whaling stations dotted all around the bay.  So many whales were butchered here that the sea in the bay would be turned wine-red by the blood.”

Now there’s something to really make you sick.

 [5 December]

The talk over breakfast

We are staying in The French House, a B&B in St Helen’s.  It sounds exotic, perhaps suggesting a link back to the French explorers who helped map the Tasmanian coast in the late 18th century.  However the truth is more mundane: the house was built by a local Frenchman in the 1980s, who is said to have modelled it on his parents’ home in the South of France.  To be honest, it doesn’t look especially French to me, but a reproduction of the famous painting by Jacques-Louis David of Napoleon Crossing the Alps hangs in the stairwell to remind visitors of its cultural heritage.  Whatever, it’s decent accommodation set in thirty acres of lush gardens and bushland; we’ll be comfortable here:

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We take breakfast at a table in the huge kitchen.  On one wall is a painting featuring a Superb Fairy Wren and a Kookaburra, both birds we’ve become familiar with over recent weeks.  The mantelpiece is decked out with various cat ornaments and there is a framed photo of a dog, presumably a much loved family pet.  The atmosphere is homely and welcoming, the way good B&Bs should be.

There are no other guests so we have our hosts Jan and John to ourselves over breakfast, chatting amiably about this and that.  Jan’s an Essex girl, originally from Chingford, but you’d never know: to me she sounds totally Aussie, no trace of the estuary in her vowels.  But then, she’s been here since the 1980s; this is her home now, no regrets about the move other than the distance when family duties call back in the UK.

John’s a born and bred Aussie, and worked for many years in local government.  We compare notes, talking cuts and pensions and bureaucracy.  One day he decided he’d had enough, got out and built another life for himself.  The best thing he ever did, he suggests … other than marrying Jan, that is.

We talk prices … isn’t Tassie expensive, we say.  Yes, Jan and Jon agree, more expensive than mainland Australia.  They explain that one of the problems is the size of the population – there are so few people in Tassie that there’s insufficient competition to drive prices down.  And lack of competition makes some locals complacent, they add; Tasmania would be even better if only folk tried a bit harder.  What Launceston really needs is a decent pizza restaurant, Jan says.  Anyone with a bit of skill and imagination could clean up.  But it won’t be them; the French House is their fulfilment, they’re going nowhere.

The breakfast is great; the full English and poached peaches.  Poached peaches!  My god they’re good.  I’ve never had poached peaches for breakfast before today, but now Julie’s retired maybe I should start dropping hints?

For a while we talk tech.  The French House is a little way outside St Helen’s, and the superfast hardwired broadband will never reach it.  The government is proposing a wireless solution for the more remote parts of the country such as this – I suspect that actually means just about all of Australia.  The contrast between huge, underpopulated Australia and tiny, crammed-to-the gunnels Britain could hardly be more stark.

Inevitably the conversation turns to American politics, as so many conversations have over the last three weeks.  The words spoken may vary, but the not the sentiment.  Always, more in bemusement than either sorrow or anger, the message is the same.  Donald Trump?  Really?

We move on, talking travel, comparing notes on where we’ve been, and where we’d like to go.  John goes to a display cabinet in the corner, pulls out a delicate porcelain model of a Tasmanian Devil.  “Last time we were in the UK we took a trip north; got this from the Crown Derby factory shop,” he says proudly.

“So did we,” we respond, smiling.  Jan adds that after their purchase they drove into the Peak District to check out Chatsworth House.  There are times when I am blown away by the realities of international travel in the modern world.  Here we are, on the other side of the planet, talking to people we’ve never met before about places they’ve visited that Julie and I could drive to from our home in 40 minutes or so.  It’s a small world.

Finally we have to move on.  We have a tight schedule, places to go, things to see; and breakfast has taken a bit longer than planned.  But it doesn’t matter, travel is more than just an accumulation of the places one visits and photographs.  It’s also about the people one meets along the way, about listening to their stories to better understand one’s own.  Jan and John are lovely, interesting people running a great B&B and I’m glad that, albeit very briefly, our paths have crossed.

And anyway, only a fool would be in a hurry when there are poached peaches for breakfast.

[2 December]

“We call it a goat track”

Along with the documentation for our trip Susie from Tasmanian Odyssey sent us a booklet of 60 Great Short Walks in Tasmania, and we’ve been working our way through some of them since we arrived.  Today is a travelling day – we stayed the night in the evocatively named Beauty Point and will be heading east all day to end up at St Helen’s.  On the way we plan to do another two Great Short Walks, both to waterfalls.  But first we’ll call in at Lillydale Falls, which aren’t mentioned in the booklet.

tasmania-lilydale-falls-2016-9Things start well.  Lillydale Falls are fairly easy to get to.  We park in a decent car park and walk upriver for a few minutes, surrounded by ferns and eucalypts to an attractive cascade waterfall.  White water tumbles over a series of rock ledges and past a fallen tree trunk that has been swept downriver in a flood and is now wedged hard against the falls.  All very peaceful, very beautiful.

Then things start to go downhill, or to be more accurate, uphill.  The next falls we are to visit are the Ralph Falls.  The most direct route is a gravel road through the mountains.  It looks OK on the map, so we decide to go for it.

Generally speaking the quality of the roads in Tassie is very good.  There have obviously been a few problems over the winter during the unprecedented floods that affected, in particular, the north of the island, and in various places we’ve driven through we’ve seen gangs of roadworkers making good the damage.  But the tarmac roads are mostly excellent, and to date the gravel roads (or “unsealed” as they tend to be called here) have impressed us too.

A lot of Tassie’s minor roads are unsealed, but they’re in good nick.  We’ve visited all 50 US states over a period of about 20 years and during that time have driven on a lot of gravel roads, and Tasmanian unsealed roads compare well with most of them.  So we’re confident that the road to Ralph Falls won’t cause us any difficulties … after all, if it’s unusually challenging the state government would put up a sign to warn unwary drivers before they did anything silly.  Wouldn’t it?

The road to Ralph Falls heads deep into the mountains.  It’s steep and winding.  The road surface is rougher than any unsealed road I’ve driven in Tassie, with hefty rocks rubbing shoulders with impressively gaping potholes.  The road narrows, and I realise I’ll be in trouble if I meet a car coming towards us as passing places are few and far between.  But there are no cars coming down, the road is entirely deserted but for us and our valiant Toyota Camry.  Strange, I think to myself, what do they know that I don’t?

I become increasingly concerned that the Camry might not make it.  After all it’s only a regular sedan, low slung and just asking to have its suspension knackered or sump knocked out by one of these randomly distributed rocks and potholes.

The road narrows further, and we wind around the side of the mountain.  On Julie’s side there’s a sheer drop.  No crash barriers, of course.  If I lose control and go over the edge we’re gonna die, no question.  I grip the steering wheel more tightly and rehearse my favourite Anglo-Saxon phrases.  It dawns on us that maybe we shouldn’t be doing this, but there’s nowhere to turn around, and anyway it’s bound to flatten out soon.  Isn’t it?

But it doesn’t.  We’re still climbing.  We’re going very slowly now, in marked contrast to my heartbeat which is racing wildly.  We continue to debate the relative merits of going on versus those of trying to turn around and going back down.  The phrase “buggered if we do, buggered if we don’t” offers itself up for consideration, and we agree that it just about sums up our situation.

But finally, just when I’m about to surrender to the panic that I’ve been trying so hard to control, the road opens out and to the left is a modest parking area.  We’ve made it to Ralph Falls.

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There’s still the small matter of the Short Walk before we get to see the cause of all our misery so we trek steeply downhill through the myrtle rainforest, reflecting as we go that what goes down must go up and it’s going to be bloody painful when it does.  Then, at last, we turn a corner and spot the falls, a streaming ribbon of water plunging off the rock face.  At over 90 metres Ralph Falls is Tasmania’s highest single drop waterfall, and is an impressive sight:

And so it’s on to our third waterfall, the St Columba Falls.   I note with satisfaction that we don’t have to drive back down the road we’ve just ascended, and am quietly confident that, in the words of the song, things can only get better.  Silly boy.

The road is just as rough, the rocks and potholes just as unforgiving.  And just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse we turn the corner and are confronted by a scene of muddy devastation.  The forest in front of us is being logged, and the logging track is about to become one with the road we are driving. Thanks to the logging trucks our road is covered with deep slippery mud, which serves to conceal the rocks and potholes without eliminating the danger they pose to our wretched Camry.

Logging trucks – could these be our nemesis?  I’ve ranted about logging ever since I’ve been in Tassie, and am under no illusions that your average logger thinks he’s the dog’s bollocks.  Most drivers of logging trucks think they’re invincible, and let’s face it when the opposition is a Toyota Camry there’s no bloody competition.  These roads aren’t big enough for the two of us: if I meet a logging truck there’s only going to be one winner and it won’t be me.

So here’s my dilemma – I desperately want to be off this road, which suggests I should drive the like the wind until I am.  On the other hand, putting the pedal to the metal increases the chance that I’ll write off the car and bring our trip (and possibly our very existence) to a premature end.

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But Dame Fortune must be looking down kindly on us today.  Logging trucks are notable only by their absence (drivers on a tea break, maybe?) and we make it down through the forest to a road junction without incident, although my nerves are in tatters.  Minutes later we pull up at the St Columba Falls car park, and take the Short Walk to see them.

Like Ralph Falls the drop of St Columba Falls is around 90 metres, but in a cascade rather than a single drop.  It’s difficult to capture the full extent of the cascade in a single photo, so this picture possibly doesn’t do them complete justice:

Amazingly there are two other visitors to the St Columba Falls, though they’ve approached from the other (much more sensible) direction.  One of them takes a photo of us:

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We reciprocate   Her camera takes real film; we haven’t seen one of these for years.  We ask why she doesn’t go digital, and she explains she likes the excitement of opening the pack of developed photos, not knowing until that moment what they’ll look like, whether they’ll be any good.  I mutter some pleasantries but am secretly thinking that if Julie still took traditional photos we’d be bankrupt by now … wombats can do that to a photographer, you know

So, our Short Walks completed and the three waterfalls digitally recorded for posterity we wend our weary way slowly towards St Helen’s where we’ll be staying in a B&B for the next two nights.  When we get there one of the owners, Jan, asks about our journey and we tell her the route we‘ve taken and the pain it’s caused us.  In carefully measured tones she says “Yes, I’ve heard it’s a bit rustic up there.”  She keeps her expression neutral, giving nothing away, the undoubted mistress of understatement.

John, her husband, is less circumspect.  “Around here we call it a goat track,” he chuckles.

Well I guess that sums it up nicely.

[1 December]

Deep in the heart of Tassie

Preston falls.jpgMountain Valley is very, very remote. It does however have some spectacular scenery.  We take a short drive to Preston Falls, a slender waterfall 25 metres high.  It should be tranquil here, but as we begin descending the steps to the viewing platform another car pulls up and four girls burst out, shattering the calm.  None of them looks old enough to drive, but presumably one of them must be.  They are under-dressed and over-excited, shrieking and giggling as they make their way down to the falls, taking selfies and generally messing around.  I’ve no idea where they’ve come from but dearly wish they’d go back there.

Of course I’m being unreasonable, they are merely young and boisterous, and I guess I was like that once too … though I struggle to remember it. But I resent their presence, intruding on the peace I had hoped to find here, and am even more put out because the experience is unfamiliar: generally speaking the places we have visited to date on this trip to Tassie have been deserted.  So we quickly take our photos and move on, heading for Leven Canyon.  At the canyon we take a circular hike, first trudging uphill through the rain to the lookout point 275 metres above the river. The view is spectacular:

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From here its downhill all the way, 697 steps in total, until we reach a second lookout point. Our knees, hips, feet and lower backs protest mightily as we make the descent, and the only comfort is that it would be even worse if we’d done the circular route in the other direction and had to climb the 697 steps instead.

Having enjoyed the view it’s time to head back to the car, uphill of course. The information for walkers describes this as an easy walk for all ages, but I quickly suspect a misprint.  Our aches and pains return, but we are comforted by the fact that the route takes us through the Fern Walk where grand old tree-ferns up to 5 metres tall and 150 years old line the path:
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One of the things we have enjoyed most about walking in the Tasmanian forests has been the tree-ferns.  They seem so exotic (which they are, to British eyes at least) and so tropical (which plainly they are not.)  The unruly girls at Preston Falls, the pain in our limbs and the persistent rain are quickly forgotten as we immerse ourselves in the riot of delicate green foliage of the Leven Canyon Fern Walk, deep in the heart of Tassie.

[24 November]

The trouble with twitchers

We are staying at Mountain Valley Cabins, hidden deep in the mountains of north central Tasmania. This is a hotspot for serious wildlife enthusiasts because it’s one of the few places in Tassie where you are likely to see a wild Tasmanian Devil.  Tonight there are six of us here, all Brits, but sadly the other four are twitchers, and they spend an hour over dinner comparing notes on the rare birds they’ve seen over the years, how much they’ve paid to travel to the far flung corners of the world where these unfortunate specimens can be found and how much they’ve suffered in the process.

How unutterably depressing! When friends and acquaintances refer to us as twitchers, Julie and I will correct them sternly.  Twitchers, it seems to me, care little for the bird itself, but are obsessed by the chase.  For them it’s all about the quarry.  Once a particular species has been seen and ticked off in the appropriate book or list they quickly lose interest and move on to the next challenge.  It’s as if by seeing the bird it becomes their property, theirs to log and then ignore as they immediately consign it to history in favour of the next target.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see a rarity, to get the chance to study in the flesh a bird that most birders have only read about. But it gives me just as much pleasure to spend a quiet hour watching an everyday bird, like a starling in the UK or a Superb Fairy Wren here in Tassie, to marvel at its existence and enjoy its antics as it goes about the everyday business of living.

Twitchers, it seems to me, are doomed to a life of unhappiness: they have never seen enough birds, or the right birds, to bring them satisfaction. Julie and I, however, live in the moment, enjoying the starling or the sea eagle or whatever else comes our way, taking our pleasures in the wonders of nature and evolution.  This to me is what birding should be about, not pursuing a quarry species to the ends of the Earth and then all but forgetting it once it is seen.  There’s a book in here somewhere, Zen and the Art of Birding Contentment perhaps?  My next project, maybe?

[23 November]

Horsing around in Port Arthur

We spend the day at Port Arthur. It is the site of Tasmania’s most well known and significant penal station which operated between 1830 and 1876, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It is also Tasmania’s busiest tourist attraction.  Big groups follow guides around the site for introductory tours.  Ours tells an anecdote: recently, he says, a woman visiting Port Arthur from Ireland was angry, very angry in fact, that the British had transported one of her ancestors to Australia for seven years, and he had ended up at Port Arthur, all for stealing a length of rope.  Too harsh, she protested, too harsh.  So, our guide tells us, staff looked into the records on her behalf, and yes her ancestor had indeed been transported for stealing a length of rope.  However, attached to one end of it had been a racehorse …

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The story gets a good laugh. It sounds apocryphal rather than strictly true, but illustrates the point that nothing is as straightforward as it seems at first glance.  Applying this lesson to Port Arthur we can say that, despite its reputation, it was not a place of unthinking brutality.  Yes, there was brutality by the bucketful but it was far from thoughtless, and it evolved and changed over time in response to external pressures.  In particular, flogging was abandoned in favour of more subtle forms of control based on English prison reformer Jeremy Bentham’s notion of using psychological methods rather than brute force.

In the Separate Prison there was no physical punishment. Each prisoner was confined to his cell, alone, for 23 hours each day where he was required to work.  The cells are arranged in long corridors, at the centre of which sat a guard at a desk.

tasmania-tasman-peninsula-port-arthur-53For one hour the prisoner was allowed to exercise, also alone.  Speaking was forbidden, not only between prisoners but also between prisoners and guards who had to communicate in sign language.  All prisoners also had to attend church, but each had his own private box pew which was so designed that he could see the preacher but not the convict standing next to him.  The photograph above shows the view from the pulpit: the preacher could see all the convicts but they could see only him:

Thus, through these psychological methods, was it intended to break the spirit and the resistance of the convicts.

The most famous view of the Port Arthur site is this one, showing the Penitentiary at the front right, which was converted from a flour mill in 1857 to enable Port Arthur to absorb more convicts. The bottom two floors comprised 136 single cells for “prisoners of bad character,” while the top floor could accommodate 480 better behaved prisoners in a dormitory with bunk beds.

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The Port Arthur site succeeds as a tourist attraction in part because it recognises that the real story is not about the buildings, whether they be in ruins or still intact, but about the people who lived there: hearing something of their stories is a key part of the overall visitor experience.

It is also possible to consult a database of the names of convicts to search for one’s own ancestors.  Julie and I both do this eagerly but draw a blank, in Julie’s case no doubt because she comes from a law abiding family, whereas I suspect my lot were simply smart enough to get away with stuff.

Port Arthur is a fascinating place to visit. British students studying nineteenth century history tend to think of transportation as being the end of the story.  However from the Australian perspective this is simply the start of a different, but equally compelling tale.

[16 November]

Reflections of a Platypus Man

We are greeted at our B&B in Geeveston, south-east Tasmania, by Glen, a jovial incomer from Queensland.  In deference to the Brisbane blood coursing through his veins he wears shorts, despite the chilly weather.  Involuntarily I shiver on his behalf.

Next to a log stove in Glen’s sitting room lies a cat, black and white and evidently content with his lot.  Julie bends down to fuss him, offers her hand.  He sniffs at it, then turns his head away disdainfully.

“He’s a man’s cat,” explains Glen apologetically.

If truth be told, I rather suspect that for the most part he’s his own cat.  It is the way with cats, I think.

We chat with Glen for a while.  He’s talkative and friendly.  Then he looks me in the eye and says “I hear from Susie that you’re a Platypus Man.”

I’ve been called many things in my life, though few of them are repeatable in polite company.  But never a Platypus Man.  I roll the words around in my mind, testing them out.  The description has a certain ring to it, sounding enigmatic, intriguing even, but in essence positive.  In fact it would work as an epitaph: “He was a singular human being, though in the nicest possible way a bit of an oddball.  I guess you could say he was a Platypus Man.”

There are worse ways to be remembered.

[11 November]