The Best of Australia (and a trip to the museum of sex and death)
01.03.2013 - 07.03.2013 28 °C
My trip to 'Tassie' began badly when I was charged $40 (each way!) for my luggage on my flight to Hobart. Seemingly Virgin Australia have been taking tips from Ryanair. And then I was seated on the plane between two passengers both requiring seatbelt extensions. Fortunately it was just a one our flight.
As I wandered around Hobart that afternoon, the weather was overcast, Mount Wellington loomed gloomily behind the city and I was chilly in my shorts. Tasmania and been described to me as 'a bit like Australia's Wales' and I could see what was meant by that already.
I had wanted to spend a week in Tasmania however I'd struggled for a while pre-arrival to find any affordable, or even reasonably priced activities ($2000 for a six day 'adventure' with tent accommodation sounded fun but outrageously expensive since I'd frequently had five star hotel accommodation for less than that!). Eventually however, after much unsuccessful online research (or at least a few google searches), I'd found a leaflet in Byron Bay of all places and had booked four days of trips plus accommodation for under $500 which, comparatively, seemed like a veritable bargain. There did seem to be a few more options on offer now I was actually in Hobart but I was glad I had things already organised as Hobart, or Slowbart as the locals call it, is relatively uninspiring in itself.
Day one was a trip to Freycinet National Park on the eastern peninsula of Tasmania and some two hundred kilometres from the city, over two hours drive with our guide Jeremy who's overtaking suggested that he may have learned to drive in Thailand. After a bad night's sleep on a wobbly top bunk I got up at 6.45 for a 7.15 am start. We drove, stopping occasionally to the national park, enjoying the scenery along the way. It hadn't rained for a while and the landscape was yellowish but we crossed beautiful lagoon causeways and passed through some amazing countryside en route. When we arrived, after a brief stop to play with wallabies, we hiked to a viewpoint from which we could see Wineglass Bay, a beautiful white sand cove. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately given the heat and the steepness) it was overcast so we chose not to climb down to the beach itself but instead to continue to visit several other beaches in the area. We stopped at Honeymoon Bay en route to Sleepy Beach where we ate lunch before walking to a hidden cave. The entrance to the cave was a thirty centimetre high gap under the rock which we slithered through on our bellies to reach the hollowed out area inside. I was utterly overwhelmed by Tasmania; it as so much like home but with so much more to offer.
After lunch we drove to another bay (past which whales migrate in season) and walked to a lighthouse before ending the day at 'friendly beaches', a long white sand beach where I was one of the few to don a swimsuit and brave the chilly, bracing waters. By this time the sun had finally come out meaning the drive back to Hobart afforded greater views than the journey there.
One of the things I'd enjoyed about Melbourne was not staying in a hostel and for once not having to make new friends. I'd been quite happy having some alone time during the day and catching up with Beth in the evenings. And having my time in Tassie already planned out I was happy to tag along with the tour without really chatting with anyone but Ruben, a Dutch cyclist/snow-board instructor/may other things, was having none of this and repeatedly attempted to engage me in conversation throughout the day in spite of my initial stoney anti-social-ness. And retrospectively I was glad he did as we ended up spending much of my time on the island together. That evening we went in search of dinner together ordering a pizza to share from a grumpy, slow guy who was playing loud metal music in his shop before heading to a bar for a drink.
The next day Ruben and I wandered around the colourful Salamanca Saturday market along with the rest of Hobart. The sun was out from early on and we lay on the grass listening to street performers and turning slowly pink. In the afternoon we both took (separate) busses to Launceston. On my bus I found Linh, a Vietnamese guy living Melbourne, who had been on our trip the previous day as well. As there was only one hostel in Launceston, we were all staying in the same place and Linh and I arrived in the early evening just as Ruben was on his way back to the bus station to meet me. The hostel, Arthouse, was nice enough inside however from the outside bore much resemblance to a 'haunted house' that one might find in a theme park and whilst it was near-ish to the bus station it was on the other side of the river to the 'downtown' area and a fair walk from any food stores.
After checking in the three of us wandered across the river to explore the town. We didn't make it far. As we approached the city park, we encountered several people carrying folding chairs and picnic hampers. So we followed them. And in the park that evening the Tasmania Symphony Orchestra were giving a free concert. We rushed to Coles and then the bottle shop to prepare our own budget picnic of ham and cheese rolls, tomatoes, crisps and humours and a few bottles of cider. It was a civilised affair with most locals drinking wine from glasses and eating food from wicker hampers (whilst our food came from a carrier bag and our cider from glass bottles) - one couple had even brought a table bedecked with a white cloth. It was an enjoyable evening with various songs from musicals thrown in as well as the classics.
The main reason we were in Launceston was to visit Cradle Mountain however when we were picked up by our guide the following morning it soon became apparent that we were still a long way from the Cradle Mountain national park. Our guide, a retired local, neglected to introduce himself so we spent the day referring to him as 'our old guy'. As we drove along deserted highways low mists hung in the valleys across fields and, cold and a little grouchy from the early start, Ruben tucked my coat around me and I tried to sleep.
We stopped en route at a town called Sheffield and were slightly baffled as to why our old guy gave us 30 minutes to explore. I highly doubt that Sheffield, TAS, is ever the most enthralling of locations but at 8.30 am on a Sunday we seemed to be the only people on the streets. Fortunately, shortly before nine, a coffee shop opened and I was able to obtain a caffeine fix ensuring that I was slightly better company for the rest of the morning.
I'd read in a recently obtained copy of Lonely Planet's guide to Australia that, in Cradle Valley 'it rains on average seven days out if ten, the sun shines all day only one day in ten and it snows 54 days a year'. Despite the early morning chill and mists, by the time we approached the park there was not a cloud in sight and I began to think that we may actually be granted one of those elusive sunny days.
We were in luck as the weather held out with clear blue skies and temperatures in the mid-high twenties. After a brief stop at a visitor centre to look at a model of Cradle Mountain and its surrounding peaks we arrived at the Dove Lake car park where we were given the option of a gentle three hour walk around the lake or a steep ascent up to Marion's viewpoint from which we could look out over cradle mountain (which we could see perfectly well from the car park as well). The boys wanted to walk the steep track so I agreed to go with them and actually the whole group took this option as well.
It wasn't a difficult walk to the top but we stopped a few times in the shade for a drink and a short break from the sun. We also passed several people lugging large backpacks carrying clothes, provisions and camping equipment for the next six days - they were beginning the famous Overland Track, apparently Australia's most famous walk. The only other (non-australian) person I knew of who'd visited Tasmania was my Uncle Trefor and I imagined he'd trekked the Overland Track on his trip.
I was impressed at how 'user friendly' the national park and its mountains were - just like everywhere I'd been in Australia so far actually, there seemed to be a big emphasis on making it easy for people to enjoy the natural landscapes. All of the paths were extremely clearly signposted with estimated times taken to reach each location, each carpark had several suggested walking routes of varying lengths and difficulties, there were several picnic shelters and facilities around as well as a free (and frequent) shuttle bus from the main visitor centre to all the main starting points and all walkers were requested to register for each walk at the start in a guest book.
Once at the top we admired the view of Cradle Mountain itself, still clearly visible thanks to the weather, whilst eating our lunch (a continuation the previous evening's picnic minus the cider) before descending via a different route. We stopped for a paddle and to drink water from the river all the while looking out for wombats - our old guy told us that they could sometimes be seen in the lower regions but, despite seeing several square shaped wombat poos, the poo-ers themselves were clearly hiding from the heat.
We arrived back to Launceston (after a rather extended stop at a cheese factory en route while we were held up by a silent French member of the group who spent forever eating all the cheeses (presumably in an effort to reassure himself that they could not possibly be as good as those from France)) in the early evening. but our days exertions were not over yet. Lonely Planet surprisingly listed more than a few 'things to do' in Launceston however only one had been recommended to us; the Cataract Gorge. Just a short walk from the city (which felt like a long walk given how much we'd walked already that day) we found the near-vertical cliffs of the gorge and, having missed the sign that read 'for hikers only', we forced our tired legs to climb yet more steps up over the cliffs. Once over the other side we reached First Basin where there was a ounce suspension bridge across the river, a swimming pool as well as people still swimming in the river itself and a park with several viewpoints. Having crossed the suspension bridge we found a path back to the city that was fortunately was flat.
As the boys went to the supermarket for food, I set about the more important task of seeking out red wine (annoyingly not available in supermarkets in Australia). Being a Sunday apparently meant that the bottle shop closed early and so I found myself wandering aimlessly (but still hoping to find wine) around the eerily empty town as it began to get dark. As much as I was enjoying Tasmania, in terms of evening entertainment, the place seemed rather dull.
We left early the next morning, Ruben and I again taking separate busses back to Hobart, mine departing just thirty minutes after his, and agreeing to meet back at the hostel. Hobart seemed much livelier on a Monday morning, more worthy of its 'capital' title and it was another beautifully sunny and clear day. My first stop in town was coffee followed closely by the supermarket - I'd missed both dinner the night before and breakfast and was feeling decidedly grouchy.
I've always liked going to supermarkets abroad for some reason (in fact I very much enjoy going to the supermarket at home too). I once spent an entertaining few minutes watching Japanese tourists in Italy fight over supermarket own brand chocolate and coffee, Canadian ones sold crap cheese and were always a mathematical challenge attempting to calculate prices including tax, in India supermarkets do not exist, (I never found one in America either but that's just because no one understood me as I didn't say 'grocery store'), in Germany I'd spend ages choosing hams and cheeses and cheap wines, in Croatia they sold amazing muesli yogurts and in France the supermarkets were just amazing full stop. In Australia they were just expensive. And whilst randomly standing in the meat aisle I found myself in front of the sausages and missing 'tapas breakfasts' cooked by my dad. I've never felt homesick whilst abroad ever, I don't know what homesick feels like but it was funny how being somewhere more like home than anywhere I'd been so far made me feel so far away.
After lunch I found Ruben and together we tried to find the botanical gardens. Lost, we asked directions from a friendly old man who walked us part of the way and when we eventually found them we passed a few lazy hours not looking at plants and lazing in the sun. That evening Ruben cooked kangaroo steaks with rice, mushrooms and 'capsicum'. I have no idea what the tradition accompaniment to kangaroo meat is but his strange Dutch concoction worked surprisingly well and we learned that kangaroos are not only very cute but also quite yummy.
Tuesday morning I woke up early again for another day out. The day began with an amazing breakfast of a pumpkin and cheese pastry roll then we continued driving to Mt Field and walking through various types of forest and past several small waterfalls. It was another hot day but under the canopy of such all (and apparently very very old) trees it was chilly. We also came across a few pademelons and several wallabies along the way. After seeming so much road kill on the way there (apparently 500,000 mammals are killed each year on Tasmania's roads - that's one per human inhabitant!) it was good to see some native animals alive and well!
After lunch at the top of the mountain we continued to a local vineyard where we tasted a few local wines. Most were from that vineyard but they also had some from a neighbouring one as well which (embarrassingly) were much better. And feeling sleepy from the heat and the wine our next stop was an animal sanctuary where the first thing we saw, to my great excitement, were three baby wombats - it's official... wombats are the highlight of the animal kingdom. While one of the staff gave a talk on Tasmanian devils and attempted, without success, to coach one of them out of his hole by dangling a dead chick in front of the opening, I wandered off on my own. There were several kangaroos bouncing around and after chilling with one who was lying alone it he shade for a while, I wandered over to a larger group and was lucky enough to see some baby joeys peeking out of their mothers pouches and a devil doing energetic laps around a tree (surprising for a nocturnal animal) whilst his friend lay passed out in the shade.
We ended the day at Mt Wellington that stands at 1270m behind Hobart city. It's actually the 42nd highest mountain on the island but still high by UK standards and affords outstanding views over the city, surrounding areas, sea, islands and peninsulas. The was a road to the very top of the mountain (built by convicts over 30 years according to our guide and built during the Great Depression according to Lonely Planet - I'm not sure if the two stories are compatible). The presence of the road took Australia's accessibility of countryside to the extreme and, in my opinion a little too far, and the mountain top was scattered with old people and tourists in inappropriate mountain wear all of whom would have never made it up without their coaches. The weather was perfect still, it was hot even at that altitude (normally ten degrees lower than the city) and it felt like we could see forever.
Wednesday's trip was to Port Arthur, a former convict colony and one of Tasmania's most famous visitor destinations. Travelling out down the Tasman peninsula we drove through huge amounts of burnt bushland - whilst the east coast of Australia had spent their summer being flooded, Tasmania had been experiencing raging bush fires and we passed vast areas of blackened trees, burned landscape and tents and temporary accommodation set up where there had formerly been homes.
We also drove through Doo town, a small town where the houses had names like Doo Little, Didgerie Doo, Doo Me, Sheil Do and Do F#@k All.
Arriving at Port Arthur I found that I was the youngest person there by at least a generation. It was a stunning spot (quite in contrast with the lives of many of its original inhabitants) with a small harbour in a bay with old buildings (at least by Australian standards) rising up the hills around the water containing exhibitions about the site, experimentation with the prison system (including a system of complete silence and isolation pioneered by Jeremy Bentham, founder of my university), reconstructions of cells as well as soldiers and commanders quarters and a rebuilt version of the old church that had stood on the site. Whilst it was interesting enough, I've visited quite a few former prisons around the world and could have retrospectively skipped Port Arthur.
By the end of the day I felt as though I'd seen a lot of what Tasmania had to offer but there was still plenty more to do. There was one place I still wanted to visit having heard about it from an old American woman from Montana called Dolly who I'd met on a trip - this was Mona, the Museum of Old and New Art, or as one article I'd read referred to it, 'The Museum of Sex and Death'. I had a flight late in the day the following day so planned to make the short journey out to the museum as early as possible. So after what felt like a veritable lie in, i woke up shortly after 7am, packed my bags, bought a coffee and attempted to take out some money. But Natwest had seemingly blocked my card again. Unable to locate an international phone to call them and vent my caffeine fuelled anger, Ruben offered to lend me some money but I was eventually (and surprisingly) able to make a withdrawal on a maxed out credit card. Worried that I would miss the boat to Mona I rushed to the port and, feeling hassled, managed to make it on time. The ferry ride to the museum took thirty minutes with a commentary giving information about the harbour and the sights along the way pointed out.
Mona was founded by a renowned (rich) eccentric and professional gambler named David Walsh, who was on site the day that I visited. And the experience is as much about the museum itself as it is about the art, som of which is questionable. There are no signs on the exhibits but you're given an iPhone (which despite owning one myself I struggled to use and I wondered how the older visitors (most of them) were getting along) that can determine your location and give information about the various works. On the device was a button labeled Art Wank with a doodle of a penis that when pressed gave information about each work. There were also articles, points for discussion and various media clips available for most pieces. Dolly had said that she couldn't understand why many people were so shocked and offended by the museum... I wasn't sure what they got up to in Montana or what sorts of museums they had there however I'd say that a museum containing a 'poo machine' and a 'wall of vaginas' was quite likely to shock and offend in fact it probably intended to. And by the time I left Tasmania that afternoon to return to Melbourne I felt it had been a well rounded trip; hiking, history and a little 'culture'.