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Van Diemen's Land, Down Under Down Under

Tasmania, or Van Diemen's Land as it was once known, is the most southerly Australian state. In the Southern Hemisphere, this translates to the most temperate climate, situated as it is in the 'Roaring Forties', near 40 degrees below the equator. As a consequence, the winds that course over this land are some of the cleanest in the world, with little to stop or sully them as they whisk around the globe. In this air, on terrain both rugged and rolling, I took in a wonderful bushwalk on the famed Overland Track, explored remote costal areas where convicts once lurked, and with the help of a car explored the hill laden countryside in the agricultural heart of the island.

I arrived via plane from Melbourne into Hobart, the largest city on the island. Though this port town is a busy port on the southern coast, it is nevertheless still a fairly sleepy town at heart. The pace of life is different in Tasmania relative to the rest of Oz. Once I had arrived, I set about collecting and organizing my trekking gear so that I could hit the back country, of which a staggering proportion of Tasmania is comprised in the form of national parks and world heritage areas. While in Hobart I did manage to catch two movies: Quills and Men of Honor. Quills was good, but extremely dark: Geoffrey Rush did a great job as usual, and Kate Winslett remains as beautiful as ever. Men of Honor was a decent, inspiring movie, but I kept getting distracted by the "Hoo Hah! U.S. Military! Hoo Hah!" nature of the film -- I'd rather a film rely more on the plot as opposed to yanking on the strings of patriotism. I was particularly aware of this since I was screening the movie in another country.

So after a couple of days I caught a bus service that would eventually take me nearly to the trailhead of the Overland Track, a famous walk nestled in the Cradle Mountain/Lake St. Clair National Parks. Before embarking on the trek, I took a detour out to the remote west coast of Tasmania. First I stopped in Queenstown, a town that sprung up to support an old strip mining operation. After seeing the wild beauty of the temperate rain forested region along the way, the desolation surrounding Queenstown was shocking; the signs of mining were everywhere in the surrounding countryside. The town itself surprised me by exhibiting a quaint kind of charm, somewhat similar to what you see in the old mining towns of Colorado. These days they are banking their future on the tourist trade, and are positioning themselves both as a monument and an admonishing reminder of the impact of strip mining. It was while I was in this town that my birthday rolled over Georgia, the state of my birth.

Onward to the coast from Queenstown was the tiny town of Strahan. In one of the most inaccessible places in Tasmania, this town is the only safe anchorage on the west coast, in the Macquarie Harbor. The town was a shipping port for the timber harvested from huon pines and the ore shipped over from Queensland on the Abt Railway. The railway is currently being restored for the tourism industry, and its claim to fame is slopes so steep that it required a specially designed center rail, toothed so that a cog on the engine could help the train negotiate slopes that would otherwise have been too steep with a full load (Abt is the surname of the designer). These days the town relies on fishing and tourism to keep the economy alive.

I signed up for one of the harbor cruises which seem to be one of the major activities in the town. The cruise in a large catamaran was well worth it. Macquarie Harbor is the second largest harbor in Australia, but its only access to the ocean is through Hell's Gates, a narrow passage approximately fifty yards wide. The marvelous layered rocks that meet the ocean here sport shades of yellow, orange, and brown. These colors contrast nicely with the white lighthouses perched at various strategic locations near Hell's Gates. Ironically, the name of the entrance comes not from navigational angst, but rather from convicts destined for the Sarah Island convict settlement: The narrow mouth of this bay was their first sight of their new home, from which most knew they would never return. Most of them were sent to Sarah Island because they were considered incorrigible due to transgressions committed while at other convict settlements. Back then this area was extremely remote, but in order to effect a successful escape, which some did, a boat was required. Sarah Island itself is tiny; we disembarked to personally inspect the ruins of the old settlement and hear tales of intrigue involving escapes and the bustling shipyard that convict labor produced. The history of the settlement was absolutely fascinating.

After Sarah Island, the cruise took us by some fish farms that raised what they call 'ocean trout'. These are rainbow trout that have been raised in the brackish waters of the Macquarie. Rainbow trout apparently taste different when raised in this environment, hence the new name. The pens are huge circular floats with netting suspended from them. Divers periodically maintain the pens, as damage can be caused from many sources, chief of which would be seals. I imagine those seals must feel like a kid in a candy store when they see those huge concentrations of tasty fish.

We then proceded up the Gordon River and its abundant temperate rain forest, source of the tannins that give the whole harbor its brown tea color. It was up in these forests that the magnificent huon pines were logged for the ships produced on Sarah Island. The story of this logging is a typical one: amazing trees of ancient age, decimated by overharvesting. Some stands of pine do remain, and efforts are underway to restore them, but the results will only be seen far in the future if fires do not clear the way for the encroachment of eucalyptus.

After Strahan I hopped back on the bus, headed for the Overland Track. The Cradle Mountain/Lake St. Clair National Parks are a small region of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. This World Heritage site qualifies for an astonishing seven out of ten qualifiers for WH status. Most WH sites qualify for only one or two of these. Tassies love their wilderness; national parks abound. This particular WH area covers nearly 20% of Tasmania, a generous allotment indeed. I was focused on the Overland Track in the northern region, a trail around fifty miles long that connects Cradle Mountain to Lake St. Clair. Despite being one of the more popular walks in Australia, the terrain is absolutely spectacular -- any regrets over bumping into other trekkers are quickly lost in the beauty of the walk. The rugged peaks and cliffs in the area are fascinating to study. Most of the rock consists of imposing vertical columns that resulted from dolerite intrusions into a sandstone base; this sandstone subsequently weathered away, leaving behind the awe-inspiring pillars of rock. The most significant displays of this rock I found around Cradle Mountain and Pine Valley. The Cradle Mountain vicinity was the most rugged portion of the hike, and included gorgeous views of Cradle Lake and Dove Lake, nestled in their craggy heights. Further south, on what is actually a detour from the Overland Track itself, is Pine Valley. From a base camp in the rain forest I climbed the Acropolis, an amazing outcrop of dolerite. It is aptly named, as the columns look as though they could be the ruined pillars of buildings constructed by some ancient, giant race.

The track traverses several biomes, including the craggy peaks, alpine moors flush with button grass, and dense rain forests. The weather is extremely unpredictable; for two and a half days of my seven day journey I was blasted with icy winds full of hail, sleet, and snow, and the rest of the time was clear and sunny. One of these stormy days was when I climbed Pelion Gap, hoping to make a side trip to Mt. Osso, the highest mountain in Tasmania. Although the pass itself is not too difficult, on this day it was roaring with wind and sleet, and Mt. Osso was chaste the whole day, cloaked in clouds and never revealing her face. I opted to forego the mountain and planned instead to take in Pine Valley and the Acropolis, harboring hopes for clearer weather. The weather did clear (the next day, even) and the Acropolis satisfied my yen for scrambling up huge edifices; in fact, the day was spectacular and I could finally see Mt. Osso from the top.

On an amusing note, I later met up with some crazy blokes from Western Australia who chose to summit Mt. Osso the same day I cleared the pass. They had never seen snow before, and knowing full well that they could not see a damn thing from the peak, they scrambled to the top of Mt. Osso just so they could see snow. See snow they did, over knee deep in the late summer. They were flush with excitement over the experience, and I couldn't help but enjoy the snow vicariously.

The track features abundant wildlife as well, some of which is seen nowhere else in the world but Tasmania. There are Tasmanian devils, stout little marsupial beasts with crushing jaws. It's because of these scavengers that you never see any animal remains, not even bones, because the devils eat it all. There are wombats, tank-like burrowing marsupials that have a curious aspect: they have cube-shaped scat and are fond of leaving thoughtful piles of it on the trail as territorial markers. There are wallabies and pademelons, smaller versions of the kangaroo. There are quolls, little spotted predator marsupials that are also known as 'tiger cats'. Of these, I saw lots of wallabies and pademelons. I briefly spotted a quoll, and only on the bus did I see a wombat lumbering along. Most of the marsupials tend to be nocturnal, so happenstance encounters are rare. There are many more varieties of these mammals, and many unmentioned.

Tasmania only has three varieties of snake, all of which are venomous and deadly without treatment. It was a while before I belatedly figured out that Ozzie bushwalkers wear gators on their boots not for snow, like we do in the U.S., but to protect their legs from startled snakes. I had no gators, so I was always on the alert for snakes. They are not particularly aggressive, and only bite if they feel threatened in such situations as getting stepped on or pestered. I was excited because I managed to spot three tiger snakes along the trail, beautiful glossy black specimens. The first one was by far the largest, about as big around as my forearm. During that day I made three side trips to see waterfalls in one of the rain forest sections (the Kia Ora to Windy Ridge segment). The waterfalls themselves were beautiful. The largest, Hartnett Falls, has a trail leading down to the base of the falls that winds through some tight scrub just below the knee. That particular day was one of the first sunny days after the snow and sleet, so my eyes were out like a crab's looking for snakes sunning themselves. On my way back up this trail my eyes snapped onto this huge tiger snake in front of me, adjacent to the trail in a small clearing. Absolutely gorgeous, this snake slowly adjusted itself to get a better look at me, and after satisfying itself that I did not represent a threat, slowly moved off into the tight scrub -- unfortunately further up and closer to the trail in front of me, hidden under the scrub. No thanks. I found some thinner portions of the scrub and bypassed that section of the trail. Really, though, it's the younger snakes that tend to be more aggressive -- they understandably worry more about becoming a meal due to their smaller size. Nevertheless, something primal in us remains that responds to snakes. Despite my awe at the beauty of this snake, and my rational knowledge of how to deal with snakes, the hackles on the back of my neck stood straight up and adrenaline raced through my system when I was the object of this ones calm scrutiny. I eventually saw two more of the beasties, and each sighting was a treat.

The end of the track was dominated by Lake St. Clair, the deepest lake in all of Australia. This large lake was the result of three glaciers converging and gouging out an enormous scar that eventually filled in to become the lake. The rain forests along this region are more dominated by huge tree ferns, in a type of environment that lends itself to expectations of dinosaurs tramping out of the flora. Like New Zealand, there are an abundance of ancient plants that date back to prehistoric times on the Gondwana super-continent. The path is relatively flat along the shore of the lake, and was a fantastic cap on my seven day hike. Conveniently enough, the hike ended on St. Patrick's Day.

Back in Hobart I treated myself to a large steak and proceeded to locate a rowdy Irish Pub in order to enjoy some Guinness and hear some live Celtic music. The next day I wandered around Hobart on a more thorough exploration than I had opportunity for when I arrived in Tasmania. After exploring shops and restaurants, I wandered into a park where there was a 'No G.E.' festival in progress. The 'G.E.' stands for Genetically Engineered foods. The festival was populated by fairly standard issue earth first types, and I had a jolly time eating organic fruit, sitting in the grass, listening to live protest music (lots of tribal influence, of course), and observing the characters in attendance.

Since I had a few more days in Tasmania, I decided to take the plunge and rent my own wheels for some exploration. I hired a car, and adjusted surprisingly well to driving on the left. My experience thus far as a pedestrian and cyclist had given me a head start on 'thinking left'. However, what I found most difficult was staying in the middle of the lane! The steering wheel is on the right hand side of the car, and I had a tendency to drift to where I would normally be in the lane if I were on the left hand side of the car. Reversing the traffic rules was pretty easy; constantly correcting my sense of center was exhausting.

The first place I went was to the Cadbury chocolate factory, with visions of chocolate easter eggs dancing in my head. The tour was informative and interesting -- this factory is one of many Cadbury factories (the largest in the Southern Hemisphere), but unfortunately was not where the eggs are made. Ouch! I was very impressed with the mixing machines, these huge vats with churning apparatus that looks like part of a locomotive assembly. Each batch has to be mixed about eight hours before it heads off to be shaped and molded. I dutifully inspected each stage of the process, but kept getting elbowed out of the way by little old ladies whenever free samples were offered. Don't mess with chocophiles.

After Cadbury I toured the countryside, deliberately taking small roads. Most places in Tassie, if they have roads, are accessible within a day of driving. The countryside is beautiful -- rolling green hills, pastureland, and forest -- I was very much reminded of the hills of England, or dare I say, Ireland. I did have an amusing encounter in the little town of Deloraine involving a Harley gang. I had briefly inspected the main street shops and was sitting in a pastry shop having a coffee. Outside the window, I was observing a leatherclad biker gang called the Ulysses Club (Motto: Grow Old Disgracefully). This gang was fairly typical: middle aged, vaguely surly, unable to completely shake the impression that they all had well paying day jobs. In particular I was watching two of them named Beast and Braveheart (these names I divined from the various patches on their leather goods). Beast was a big fellah with a wild black beard, and Braveheart was tall and lanky. There were about five others, and their ladies. Eventually Beast comes sauntering in and sits with his lady in an adjacent table. After a while, Braveheart knocked on the window and gesticulated some inside joke to Beast, and they both laughed, after which Braveheart returned to observing the street traffic. Beast noticed me idly watching, and said in a friendly way "Don't smile at that one, mate, or he'll be on ya." I laughed, and said "Yeah, he looks pretty vicious." At this point, Beast and his lady looked at each other and laughed, then he told me meaningfully "I didn't mean that way." After a brief pause, I got the gist and laughed "Ah!" Beast smiled and said with a nod "You got me now, mate..." Braveheart, unaware of the joke that had been made at his expense, continued to idly watch the traffic outside the window as we laughed.

My eventual goal was up on the north coast of the island, and I detoured to a little town called Mole Creek because I had heard there was a leatherwood honey factory there. Upon reaching the town, nestled in gorgeous rolling hills, I discovered that the factory would be extracting honey the next day, the "first time in a fortnight" as the lady told me (fortnight, or two weeks, is not considered an archaic term in Oz). So I continued along to the north coast, and worked my way west to the Nut. The Nut, or Circular Head as it is known officially, is a huge outcrop that juts out into the Bass Strait, connected to the main island by a narrow isthmus. The formation is the 12.5 million year old remnants of volcanic activity and forms the base on which Port Stanley resides. This was the first headquarters of the Van Diemen Land Company, which was charged by England to develop the island back in colonial days. The small town still serves as a port, mostly for fishermen, these days. Early the next morning I climbed up the Nut and explored the views of the Bass Strait and surrounding countryside. There were great views of the port, and plenty of lore regarding the history of the region and the number of shipwrecks from the early days.

After climbing the Nut I began to head back to Mole Creek so I could check out the honey factory. Along the way I stopped at Fossil Bluff in the small town of Wynard. This obscure area was the site where they found the oldest marsupial fossil in all of Australia. The bluff was comprised of three layers, all clearly visible where the bluff faced the pounding waves. The bottom layer is dark claystone produced from the tillite left behind when a glacier dumped its contents directly into the sea around 500 million years ago. The middle layer, the thickest, is colorful layers of sandstone deposited from an inland sea some 22 million years ago. This sandstone is chocka blocka full of shells and evidence of marine life back in those days; it also happens to be the layer where the marsupial fossils were found. The topmost layer is basalt deposited from the volcanic activity over by the Nut around 13 million years ago. The bluff is most easily accessed at low tide, but with some scrambling and a careful eye out for rogue waves, I was able to explore a large portion. The surface of the sandstone was amazing; easily eroded by waves, it looked as though someone had attacked those colorful bands of rock with a giant ice cream scoop.

After the bluff I stopped at a cheese factory. Up until this point I had not been very impressed with the available types of cheese in Australia. Gladly, this factory had plenty of delicious variety, including a credible feta. In fact, all of the cheese in Tasmania seemed better than the rest of Oz. After the cheese I made it back to Mole Creek, where the honey extraction was going strong. They were nice enough to give me a personal tour of the place, and each employee described their job to me. I had no idea this was how you extract honey, at least on a commercial basis. First, the bee hives in those little white houses have these rectangular wooden slats in them which form a frame for the honeycomb. These slats are warmed and excess wax is removed from them, including a scraping that takes the caps off the cells of honey. Then the slats are radially placed in a big centrifuge, which whirls around and slings the honey free of the comb. The honey gets pumped away for packaging, and the slats go back into the hives where the bees reuse the now empty honeycombs. Leatherwood honey, this factory's specialty, is a delicacy only made in Tassie. Leatherwood trees are one of those varieties left over from prehistoric times, and they are found nowhere else in the world. The honey is light amber in color, and to me at least, had delicious notes of jasmine and lavender in the flavor. The manager gave me the contact information for their U.S. distributer, and I look forward to making a mead from this tasty honey. After the honey factory I decided to head over to the East Coast in hopes of seeing the famous Wineglass Bay. Along the way I stopped at another cheese factory and a couple of wineries (one of which had an olive grove as well). I drove through rain and more gorgeous national forests to the little town of Swansea on Oyster Bay.

Swansea was very quiet when I arrived. I took an evening stroll along the beaches of Oyster Bay, admiring the waves and scenery, despite the drizzle. I was nearly alone in the hostel, except for two older Australian ladies who were touring Tasmania. I chatted with them most of the night, and one conversation of note involved the railway hobby of one of their husbands. Apparently they travel to rail enthusiast conventions all over the world. One example was when the famous locomotive The Flying Scotsman came to tour in Australia -- competition was fierce, but they got tickets and rode around on this train with a couple thousand like-minded enthusiasts for three weeks, thrilled at the opportunity. At other times they travel around to various rail conventions, which have several notable characteristics:

  • Whichever hotel is closest to the (depot, rail station, rail museum), no matter how trashy or nice, is the hotel where the attendants stay.
  • If the hotel is actually adjacent to the (depot, rail station, rail museum), this is a bonus.
  • If you can look out the window and see trains, this is a bonus.
  • If there are no shops nearby to keep wives occupied on credit cards, this is an extreme bonus.
  • If there are workshops, bonus.
  • If there is a buffet, bonus.

One of the most striking aspects of these rail enthusiasts is their taxonomy. According to my source, there are at least four major breeds of rail enthusiast, not necessarily mutually exclusive:
  • The trainspotters. This variety endeavors to spot numbers of trains, much like bird watching but with more complexity (the same number at as many stations as possible, the frequency of certain numbers, or similar games with time periods such as spotting numbers within three months, etc).
  • Those that record 'track talk'. This variety dangles microphones outside of trains in motion, as close to the track as they are allowed, in order to record the sound of a particular train on the tracks for their archives. Nobody present is allowed to speak, cough, fart, make any noise whatsoever when these recording sessions are in progress. Serious business here, folks.
  • Those that record 'stack talk'. Similar to the track talkers, this variety records the sound of the engine exhaust as it belches forth from the stacks. The rules pertaining to recording sessions apply as well.
  • The restorationists. This more understandable variety was the hobby of the husband in question. They are extremely interested in the process of taking an abandoned hulk of metal and restoring it as a functional locomotive. Sometimes they specialize, say on boilers.

Now I was aware of the restorationists, and is what I considered to be a fairly normal hobby. The others strike me as a bit obsessive about their particular passion, however, those archives could some day prove valuable. The whole existence of this subculture amazed me.

The next day was extremely foggy and overcast, but I headed out to Wineglass Bay as planned, in Freycinet National Park. This area is full of huge bluffs and peaks comprised of strikingly pink granite. Hiking over the pass to the bay I passed through huge boulder fields and could see the surrounding cliffs even though the wider views were obscured by fog. When I approached the bay, I descended below the fog and found a beautiful sight: Wineglass Bay, spectacular, rolling waves on coarse sand about the consistency of petrified cous-cous and slightly pink due to the surrounding granite. I spent a couple of hours on the bay, relaxing. Despite the overcast day, it was well worth it.

Afterwards I headed back towards Hobart, stopping at a couple more wineries along the way. I wanted to reach a place in New Norfolk called the Oast House. Supposedly there was a hops museum there, and I was excited to see such a thing. Unfortunately, it was closed, though it was a beautiful old house to see. Back to Hobart I went, for my last night in Tasmania. The local theater was showing Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, so I checked it out and was highly impressed. It's a wonderful interpretation of Homer's The Odyssey, and Clooney was fantastic in a comedic role. It was interesting to note that the implied dieties responsible for the deus ex machina that tormented Odysseus (or in this case they gave Clooney the Roman name Ulysses) were reversed in this case: water (Poseidon) was his saviour, and fire (technically Hephaestus, but I think they had Hades in mind) his constant torment. And in a delicious twist, the wonderful soundtrack features the main song, a blues/bluegrass summary of the plight of Odysseus...Brilliant! I mean, if anyone gots the blues, you know Odysseus gots them.

So I returned to Melbourne and lingered for a few days. Melbourne is a wonderful cosmopolitan city that really likes its food. Good, tasty, great food. I wandered around, reading, eating, relaxing and juggling in parks, and visiting museums. At the Melbourne Museum, I was mostly impressed with the blue whale skeleton they had prepared from a large carcass that washed up on the beach. The process of cleaning the bones was impressive enough, but standing under the skeleton you get an overpowering sense of how enormous these creatures are. While in Melbourne, I arranged to meet up with Paul Fenwick, a fellow programmer responsible for the Finance::Quote module that complements my Finance::QuoteHist module. He and I had adjacent articles in The Perl Journal, and together our articles were featured on the cover of that magazine. He, his girlfriend, and I met for beers followed by Indian food. Later on I got to inspect their house, where they grow all sorts of things in their garden and maintain a great variety of fruit trees in the back yard. It was a great night of conversation, and even though I'd never actually seen him before it was nice to see a familiar face.

Then I was off to the great Northern Territory the next day. Stay tuned for more on that land of extremes.

Random Hah: Seen on a sticker plastered on the inside door of a bathroom stall while sitting and contemplating: "Toilet Camera is for Experimental Purposes Only".

Excerpt from the Beer Lover's Digest: Tasmania has two of its own breweries that comprise the most commonly seen beer in the state. The other mainstream brands from Australia are represented, but the Tasmanians seem to prefer their own brands. In the southern part of the island, they prefer ales and lagers from the Cascade Brewery (nothing to do with American Cascade Hops). In the northern region they seem to prefer similar offerings from Boags Brewery. Both have similar offerings, and are servicable. I did not encounter any boutique breweries, but they might be there.

Till next time,
Matt