Mention Tasmania and a million different images - some good, some not so good - will fill your mind so I was excited to finally be boarding a plane in my quest to find out what the real Tasmania was and whether it bore any resemblance to those images. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect of a place with such contrasting history but, as I glanced out of the window as we started our approach to Hobart Airport, I was starting to wonder if we ourselves would become part of history. That runway looked mighty short for such a large plane and, well, I couldn't help but notice there was a lake at one end and the Tasman Sea at the other...
As you're reading this after the event you will, no doubt, have guessed that we made it back down to earth safe and sound (albeit with an almighty thud). After an interminable delay at the baggage carousel I picked up my rental car and headed off to find somewhere to camp for the night. Virgin Blue's tiny baggage allowance meant that I had travelled light and, before I could start thinking of a place to stay, I faced a race against time to buy the camping gear that I needed before the shops closed for the evening. Yes, that's right; unlike most of the mainland, the shops in Tassie actually close up at 6pm.
Freshly armed with food, an esky to put it in and a mat to sleep on, I made my way to the campground on Seven Mile Beach where I enjoyed a breathtaking sunset. Back at my tent I sat down to ponder Tasmania. Since the start of my trip in May I had enjoyed the luxury of (and, on occasion, endured the restrictions of) a daily schedule - or, at the very least, some idea of which route I was to follow - it was something that I had worked out between booking my trip and actually setting off. Unfortunately I had run out of time and figured I'd work it out later but, of course, that never happened and I had arrived in Tassie with absolutely no clue what to do, or where to go, next.
I sat there for a while flicking from my guide book to my map and back again before, like an angel, the owner of the campground popped by on her daily rounds to say hello to new guests and ask if there was anything she could do to help. "As a matter of fact... yes!" A full hour later I waved my lovely host goodbye and opened a bottle of Coopers. I, somewhat belatedly, had a plan. The first stop would be the nearby Port Arthur Historic Site on the Tasman Peninsula (named - like the entire state - after the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman.) I would then do an about turn and head back, passing through Hobart, and start what roughly equated to a very large figure-of-eight. I had just over a week to explore and, already, I was beginning to realise that I needed far longer.
Next morning, having been kept awake much of the night by a Tasmanian Devil in the undergrowth behind my tent, I headed off on the first leg of my latest journey: my drive out to Port Arthur. On my way I stopped off to visit the Tessellated Pavement before crossing over the narrow isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck onto the Tasman Peninsula and very soon spotted the sign announcing my arrival at Port Arthur. My Lonely Planet had warned me that I would find a sombre, haunting atmosphere waiting for me but I didn't really pay it much attention until I turned in to the car park when a cold shiver suddenly shot down up spine. I can't explain it but there was a strong sense of foreboding hanging over the place.
I presumed that the menacing feeling was due to its history as Australia's largest penal station and as I wandered through the interpretive centre - reading stories of the shocking history of transportation and the harsh conditions that awaited the convicts - that feeling was firmly reinforced. With the tragic stories of men shipped to the other side of the world for crimes as serious as stealing a loaf of bread fresh in my mind I headed down the stairs and outside. Awaiting me were the derelict ruins of a small hamlet, set against a backdrop of stark beauty, with a very dark past.
I wandered around taking dozens of photos until I found myself in the waterfront area just after lunch. It was then that I saw something that looked so incongruous that I was compelled to go and investigate. Behind the remains of a small building was a large pool and a simple memorial listing 35 names and the date 28th April 1996. It made little sense - at least to someone from the other side of the world who knew little of the history - but I discovered a small information board titled ‘what happened here?' which outlined the basics. I was stunned and, as I stood there trying to take in the horrors of what had happened there, it became very clear why I'd been feeling so uneasy about the place since the moment I arrived. I wanted to ask more but it didn't feel right so I searched online later and discovered that a deranged gunman - having already killed two people at a nearby property - made his way to the site, calmly parked his car, and went on the rampage. In an attack which mirrored the one in Dunblane the previous month he murdered a total of 35 people and injured a further 37. It remains Australia's deadliest mass killing spree and casts a dark shadow over an area with an already dubious history.
It was quite shocking to realise that, not only was I stood on the very site of this horrific crime, but it was a crime of which I had never heard. But then that sums up Tasmania. If Australia is on the other side of the world then Tasmania may as well be on another Planet. Indeed that is largely the attitude of those in Australia itself so what chance was there that we'd have received word back in Europe. If it seemed remote in these days of 24 hour news TV, email and mobile telephones then you just cannot do justice to the idea of spending months on board a disease-ridden ship to reach a destination from which you would never return. All for stealing a loaf of bread to feed your hungry family. The injustice of transportation suddenly hit home even harder. Shortly after I decided that I'd seen enough and left. As I pulled out of the car park my mood lightened and, quite literally, the sun came out. I found the whole place most depressing and even now, a week later, the atmosphere makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
As I headed back towards Hobart I broke my journey by visiting the coastal spectacle of the wonderful Tasman National Park where the high sea cliffs and rock formations finally added something positive to my frame of mind. Soon though I had to head off as, worried that a ranger might arrive to check the car park for vehicles not displaying a valid pass, I was unable to leave my car for more than a few minutes at a time. I had passes for the national parks of Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales but, in Tasmania, you can only buy a pass at an office in the centre of Hobart or from a small number of the parks of which Tasman wasn't one. How clever is that?
I had intended to spend the evening in Hobart but, when I drove into town, I couldn't face it. I am not known for my love of cities and, with my mind heavy from my experiences earlier in the day, I decided that I wanted some peace and quiet to contemplate things and so I found myself heading for the campground in Mount Field National Park instead. Once I'd set up camp I set off up the steep unpaved road to the top of the mountain. The car really wasn't the tool for the job but it bumped and rattled its way right to the top and, more importantly, back down again without breaking itself. There wasn't a whole lot to see up there so I soon returned to the campground and went in search of an evening hike. I am pleased to say Mount Field offered a number of excellent short hikes and I spent the final couple of hours daylight checking out a number of majestic waterfalls.
The following morning I did a couple more hikes and then hopped back in the car and headed off towards the Southwest National Park. The 6,052 square Kilometres of pristine wilderness manages to rival Alaska in terms of stunning scenic beauty but there is one ugly scar: the abomination that is the Gordon Power Scheme. The controversial 1970s scheme comprises a hydro-electric power station and a huge ugly canal linking the two huge artificial lakes of Lake Pedder and Lake Gordon which were created by the construction of a number of dams. There was a huge public outcry when the scheme was unveiled in 1967 but, although the Commonwealth Government offered to fund a less damaging alternative, the Tasmanian Government pressed on regardless; unbelievably removing the protected status and disbanding Lake Pedder National Park. This led to the creation of the modern-day green movement and the formation of the world's first Green Party in 1972 and the party today continues to lobby for the draining of the lakes and reinstatement of the natural environment.
There is just one road leading into the depths of the park - built by the construction crews building the dams - with the rest accessible only on foot, by boat or by float plane. With just half a day to get a feel for the place I obviously didn't have time to be adventurous and decided to head just an hour or two along the road and see what I found. The roadside scenery was astonishing and I couldn't quite bring myself to turn the car around so decided to press on down the lonely highway right the way to the Gordon River Dam at the end of the road.
The impact that the dams have had on the landscape became shockingly apparent as I passed the tiny hamlet of Strathgordon - the town which sprung up to house the construction crews - and reached the shores of Lake Gordon. The water is far lower than it used to be (some reports suggest a difference of 20m) and this revealed a desolate landscape of thousands of dead and twisted trees which had quite literally drowned as the waters rose. Everything was covered in a thick layer of silt and it was quite apparent that the suggestion of draining the water and returning the area to its former glory would have to be a very long term project indeed. Gordon Dam itself was an impressive construction and one, if it hadn't been for the damage that its construction had caused, that could be looked upon with pride by the people of Tasmania as it provides around 40% of the states energy requirements. After a slightly nerve wracking descent along a rickety skeletal walkway to the top of the 140m high structure I decided that I'd seen enough.
Every time that I start to feel a connection with Tasmania something pops up which leaves a sour taste in the mouth. First it was the horrors of Port Arthur, then the damage caused (to both nature and trust in the political process) by the construction of the Gordon Dam and then, as I made my way back towards the main highway, I stopped at a lonely tent camp whose inhabitants were protesting the imminent logging of a magnificent old growth forest in the name of wood chips. Yes, that's right; wood chips. Tasmania has a legacy of destroying its old growth forests to supply a seemingly insatiable desire for wood chips and the fact that these trees were in the middle of a national park, like the Gordon Power Scheme before it, wasn't seen as a problem. It made me feel quite sick.
I was just telling myself that I had to ignore these things if I was going to enjoy my last days in Australia when, as I approached the Lake St Clair entrance for the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, the driver of the car in front of me, spotting a Tasmanian Devil crossing the road, swerved towards it, tossing the defenceless critter two metres in the air as he hit it. I stopped and took the animal to the park ranger's house in the park but it was obvious that he was dead on arrival. Very sad and unnecessary - I wish that I'd got the licence plate number as he sped off.
In an attempt to cheer myself up I headed out to do a hike as the sun set and ended up doing three! It was very therapeutic and managed to take my mind off all the negativity for a couple of hours. I didn't sleep well and was awake early the next morning. I hadn't planned to do any more hiking but, when I called at the visitor centre, the ranger that I had met the previous evening talked me into a 15km hike. There wasn't much of a reward at the end but the walk itself was a bit of a workout and, having been a couple of weeks since I had any real exercise, it felt good to be physically tired again. It is not so long before I will be back in England again and I really hope that I get a job that leaves me physically rather than mentally tired at the end of the day - there'll be no sleepless nights then!
The drive to the northern section of the park - the famed and much photographed Cradle Mountain - took me out through the spectacular mountain scenery of Franklin Gordon Wild Rivers National Park and along some challenging driving roads which saw the contents of the back seat being thrown from left to right and back again. It was fun whilst it lasted but soon I was arriving in the small town of Queenstown. And then, predictably, Tasmania let itself down once again as I rounded a corner and the town came into sight, along with the huge open cast mine which had, quite literally, removed two huge mountains from the landscape and replaced them with something akin to the surface of the moon.
Thankfully the area between Queenstown and Cradle Mountain was largely untouched (save a small dam or two) and, had it not been for the intense rain (oh, yes, I haven't mentioned the depressing Tasmanian weather at this time of the year, have I?), I would have got some awesome photos. By the time I reached the northern section of the snappily titled Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park the weather had cleared and, inspired by the return of the sunshine, I took the long drive out to Lake Dove. After the obligatory photos I set off on a hike but, shortly after signing the walker registration book, the weather turned foul again and I gave up on the idea and headed back to the campground instead.
Having paid for a campground I didn't expect to be sleeping in the car but, having abandoned my flooded tent in a huge downpour just after midnight, that is exactly where I spent the rest of the night. I wasn't in the mood to undertake a 2 hour hike in the pouring rain the next morning so took the opportunity to try and make up some of the time I had fallen behind. I headed north to Wynard and stopped in the local visitor centre where I was told that the weather was set for the next three or four days. Whilst I was pleased that they were finally getting the rain that they'd been so desperate for, it was definitely bad news for me. In a bad frame of mind I headed west to the Rocky Cape National Park where, thanks to the low thick cloud, I could see precisely nothing and I decided instead to make a detour to the Narawntapu National Park. The only good thing about this sixty kilometre detour was the fun I had along the slick access road where I amused myself with the goal of getting mud on the roof of the car as I drove. Oh, and the rain miraculously stopped.
Somewhat adventurously I decided I had plenty of time to press on and make it all the way out to Coles Bay in Freycinet National Park. Reality suggests that this was far further than any sane person would drive in a single day but, after the disappointing and frustrating day I had endured, I was fired up (and the two cans of Red Bull helped too). I arrived shortly before sunset and, initially, it looked like my depressing day would continue when I found there was no room on the campground. Not quite sure what to do other than backtrack 40km to the small town of Biceno I followed a sign towards the charmingly named Friendly Beaches where, after sitting on the rocky beach watching the sun come down, I decided I would spend the night there. Two nights in the car is not usually my idea of a good time but a more beautiful or secluded place you could not hope to find. It was majestic.
The following day was a revelation - I woke from a comfortable nights sleep to be greeted with a sight that I'd not seen for a while: the sun was out! Things got better when I stopped in a bakery for breakfast and unexpectedly found myself reconnected to the outside world (at the cost of $5) when I discovered they had an internet kiosk. But I hadn't come to Freycinet to use the internet - I had come to hike the renowned Wineglass Bay Trail and I hurriedly replied to a couple of emails and set off. The stories of a seriously tough-going trail were a little wide of the mark and, although it offered a thorough work-out, it was something that everyone who visits should at least attempt. The trail offered some fantastic scenery which couldn't fail to lift even the most deflated spirit whilst the reward at the end was utterly breathtaking and worth any hardship in getting there. I would have to say that it was in the top five of my favourite destinations in the whole of my trip.
The drive up the coast on the Tasman Highway was enjoyable and the opportunity to stop in the small towns along the way proved fun. Realising that I was now back on schedule I decided to end the day early by checking myself into a cabin overlooking George's Bay outside the small town of St Helens. After two days sleeping in my car this was unheard of luxury and, after a hot shower, I moved the TV outside and sat for some time in the sun watching New Zealand giving Australia a pasting in the cricket. Could life get any better? Well, yes, it could. Whilst I would normally be somewhat irritated by the trading of the sun for heavy rain clouds I will forgive the weather gods this time as I decided to head out to give up on the cricket and explore the nearby Bay of Fires instead. The decision proved to be inspired as the area was deserted and I was able to enjoy the spectacle of the large electrical storm on my own. When the lightening moved off I sat on the white sand beach and watched as huge rainbows appeared in the sky before returning to my cabin to down a couple of Jim Beam and Cokes. A perfect end to a perfect day.
After another night of poor sleep - this time it was the incessant pounding of the night-long torrential downpour on the tin roof of the cabin - I headed off, as planned, towards the Mount William National Park. As I headed through the town of St Helens I stopped at the visitor centre to seek advice on the route I was planning to take and was advised that it would be fine despite the continuing torrential rain outside. Initially the road was fine but, around halfway down the seventy kilometres of unpaved road leading to the park, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the guy at the visitor centre was either insane or having a laugh at my expense. It is fair to say that I do enjoy a bit of a lark behind the wheel but, as the rain continued and the car started sliding left and right on the ice-like surface, my mind started to race with how I could explain to the rental car company how I came to be parked backwards in the scenery. When I started having to ford raging torrents of water as they flowed over the top of bridges I decided that I needed to get the hell out of the park - quickly - with big 4wds sliding around as they headed towards me it was obvious that it wasn't the place to be in a lightweight fwd saloon.
Somehow I made it off of the forest roads in one piece and when I reached the town of Scottsdale and rejoined the tarmac I celebrated my survival by stopping for lunch at a local bakery. When they asked where I had come from and I told them about my route through the National Park they shook their head and refused to believe that I had made it through in a front wheel drive car until I pointed to the mud covered car outside. Then they just shook their head some more. I couldn't disagree with them - it had been sheer lunacy.
The road from Scottsdale to Launceston was fantastic fun and I wished that I'd been driving a Lotus rather than my dreadful rental car but Launceston itself, I was sad to discover, was a bit of a dive. There was nothing much of any interest there and I would have pressed on towards Hobart had it not been for the fact that I would be visiting the nearby Symmons Plains Raceway the following morning. I checked myself in to a cheap caravan site on the outskirts of town - the caravan being a far cry from the luxury cabin of the previous evening - and, having explored the local area on foot, settled in to watch the TV until it was time to sleep.
It was then that I experienced something that I never expected to experience: I found myself looking forward to going home. The more I thought about it the more it made sense. I had been away from home for a long time and, although I had loved (almost) every minute of it, I was growing tired of being constantly on the move and having to find a place to stay every night. I wanted normality. Maybe that was why I'd been so down on Tasmania until that point? I decided to try and find a new outlook on things the next morning but, when I woke, the first thing I thought was ‘oooh, one month today and I'll be on that plane home.' It wasn't a good start!
The raceday was enjoyable and the local people, as I had found everywhere, were welcoming and friendly. I thoroughly enjoyed my day there and was starting to think that I was over my enthusiasm for home before I made my way to my pre-booked accommodation in Richmond but, having arrived to discover it was a self-contained apartment with all the conveniences of home, well, you can imagine..!
My final day in Tasmania was largely uneventful with a lie-in followed by a slow drive back to Hobart. I crossed the Derwent River over the impressive Tasman Bridge which, on the night of 5th January 1975, had been the scene of yet another Tasmanian Disaster. The bulk carrier Lake Illawarra collided with the bridge, bringing down two piers and 127m of roadway: killing 12 people and cutting the city in two. 30% of the population lived on the Eastern Shores but relied on the bridge to get to the schools, hospitals, cinemas, restaurants and employment which lay, almost exclusively, on the other side of the river: without the bridge they were completely isolated. Ferries were hurriedly bought to the area and pressed into service but, for the two years that the bridge was being rebuilt, this meant a 90-minute increase in journey time from one side of the city to the other. Resentment on the Eastern Shores grew and an ‘us and them' mentality developed which, sadly, endures to varying degrees to this day.
My final stop before I headed back to the airport for my flight back to Sydney was the impressive Mount Wellington which looms over the Central Business District. Known previously as Table Mountain (due to it's similarity in appearance to Table Mountain in Cape Town), Mount Wellington plays a significant part in determining Hobart's weather and enjoys a weather system all of it's own at its summit. I have never experienced anything quite as changeable as the weather up there - something I thought a fitting metaphor for my experience of Tasmania as a whole.
Tasmania has long been the butt of jokes from those on the mainland as a result of its isolation and its convict history but, with typical ‘Tassie' resilience, they have turned it on its head and built a huge tourism industry. It is an island that has it all: vast, uninhabited areas of wilderness, bountiful wildlife and the laid-back charm of the locals. With the fight against the Lake Pedder hydroelectric scheme it was also the birthplace of Green Politics so it only natural that it should be so revered by those who enjoy the outdoors.
Of course that is all tempered with a grim history: the arrival of the Europeans in the early 1800s saw savage wars rage between the Aborigines and the British. In 1828 martial law was declared and Aboriginal tribes were systematically murdered, incarcerated or ejected from the island by white settlers. Others died of unheard of diseases carried by the European colonists and, by 1872; the entire Tasmanian Aboriginal community had been displaced or destroyed. If that wasn't shocking enough in itself, then there is the small matter of convict transportation. In the 1850s every second islander was a convict and both Hobart and Launceston festered with disease, prostitution and drunken lawlessness.
Tasmania has everything going for it but, for some reason, I just couldn't fall in love with the place. In the end I wasn't overly sad to be leaving Tasmania and heading off on the next leg of my adventure. For an island with so much natural beauty it was hard to see the scars that we have inflicted on it over the years. But that boils down to its seemingly infinite supply of natural resources which have been ravaged in the name of logging, mining and general profit making. In a lot of ways Tasmania reminded me of Alaska but I desperately hope that the Americans learn from the mistakes that have been made in Tasmania.
Don't get me wrong... Tasmania has a huge amount going for it in every regard but I just couldn't see beyond the abomination that was Lake Pedder and the shameful mining legacy of Queenstown. Thankfully some lessons are being slowly learned and over 1.4 million hectares of Tasmania (something like 20% of its land area) has now been designated as national parks. I find it incredibly sad that this is the only way to keep our greed under control.
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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