Still in Tasmania: The South East

Well, we’ve had almost six weeks in Tasmania now and have only just made it to the west coast, known as the wilder part of this strange little island. We seemed to get stuck in the south east for quite a while there, because every dirt road seems to conceal some little version of paradise. Here’s a roundup for the folks following at home.

Cockle Creek: “End of the Road”

We quit our apple picking jobs (hardened veterans after a week in the orchards) at 1 p.m. on a Thursday, and by the afternoon we’d driven as far south as it was possible to go in Australia. You could barely call Cockle Creek a village – just a cluster of houses and some grass for camping behind the dunes on sheltered Recherche Bay.

The coolest thing about Cockle Creek is that it’s closer to Antarctica than it is to Cairns, in tropical north Queensland. Tasmania dips down into the Roaring Forties, a ferocious wind current that whips up the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, unencumbered by any land mass around the fortieth parallel. These winds smack into the coastline and adjacent mountains and swirl about in the craziest ways. Recherche Bay is tucked into a calm, protected corner, but a gust will sometimes find its way into the trees along the shore. On a quiet night, the sound is like rounding a river bend and discovering a waterfall, interspersed with the creaks and groans of the gum tree trunks.

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A French expedition stopped at Cockle Creek in 1793, which explains all the -eaux names down this end of the island. They were mainly there to look for the missing explorer Laperouse, who disappeared some years earlier, and was never found. Various scientists tagged along and they passed a jolly month in Recherche Bay, collecting plant specimens and hanging out with the local aboriginal people. When they’d topped up their supplies and finished their experiments, they waved goodbye and continued on a voyage that seems more like a merry holiday than an urgent rescue mission.

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At the South Cape

British settlers turned up in the early 1800’s with different motives. They slaughtered the southern right whales that lived in Recherche Bay, harpooning them to the brink of extinction. They felled the forests and gouged the hillsides looking for coal. It’s a very quiet place now, save for the wind whispering in the trees and the odd generator thrumming outside the caravan of your more obnoxious breed of grey nomad. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the chanting of local tribes described by the French explorers, the cries of the whalers and the thunder of falling trees as the loggers scurried for cover.

Bruny Island

We were rained out of our attempt on Hartz Mountain, so we chased the sun back towards the coast at Kettering, where it’s possible to take a short ferry ride across to Bruny Island.

It should really be two different islands – North and South Bruny look and feel very different to one another – but they’re joined by a stretch of sand dunes called The Neck and so it all counts as one bit of land. North Bruny is home of farmers and rich arty types who find tiny Hobart too much of a bustling metropolis, while South Bruny is a rugged, forested place with plenty of cliffs and tourists to look at them.

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Looking over the Neck towards South Bruny.

The long Labillardiere Peninsula walk was notable because it took in five full beaches, and we made the most of the sunshine with a skinny dip. There were decent waves breaking in a corner of Cloudy Bay so I spent a couple of mornings riding clean, head-high waves there with islanders who all seemed to know each other. In my last post I mentioned the Tasmanian’s love of a good Yarn. Well, here I watched four blokes yarning so happily away, they were halfway through the heads before they realized they were in a rip and on their way out to sea.

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Sunset at Cloudy Bay

We shared a campsite in a little gully that night with a convoy of young European backpackers who had procured some firewood and seemed happy to ignore a fire ban. In the early evening a police four-wheel-drive rolled down and a young, bearded officer jumped out wearing his vest, his high-vis and an ugly expression.

“Whose idea was it to steal the firewood?” he spat.

The backpackers looked confused.

“Whose idea,” he repeated slowly, barely containing his fury, “was it… to hop somebody’s fence… and take… their… firewood?”

The backpackers didn’t appear to understand. They jumped when the officer roared again.

“Answer me!”

A surly blonde youth in a backwards cap raised his hand.

“You. Right. Where’re you from?”

“From France.”

“Right. Now in France,” (he spat the country’s name) “is it normal to go into someone’s yard and steal their things?”

The Frenchman’s face remained politely blank. There was a note of hysteria in the policeman’s voice now.

“You filthy little thief! You don’t. Steal. On. Bruny. Island. You don’t. Steal. In Tasmania. You don’t steal in Australia.” He was shouting now, raging. He made the youth pile the pilfered wood – nicely chopped blocks, and lots of it – back into his station wagon, and they drove off to return it.

It was an hour before he came back. The backpackers convened, and two French girls in a hatchback drove off again. Twenty minutes later they returned with thick branches sticking out the rear window. These were thrown on the fire, and the party resumed.

Dodges Ferry

Firstly, if they’re reading, a message to Trev and Deb: you’re a pair of legends and your “shad” (not a shed or a shack, but a brilliant combination of the two) is truly rad. We stayed in the shad on a hilltop, using it as a base to explore Hobart and the Tasman Peninsula.

We visited the prison-cum-tourist attraction that is Port Arthur, which is basically a set of rundown 19th century buildings on a pretty harbour. The buildings themselves aren’t particularly beautiful or old, but the history of the place is well documented so there are plenty of personal stories to absorb. For a while after the convict era the town of Port Arthur changed its name to Canarvon, to “erase the convict stain.” Recently I’ve read two books written by two different American travel writers who spent time in Australia – one was here in 1991, the other in 1999. Both report that Australians don’t particularly appreciate jokes about our convict heritage, which I don’t really understand. I think we sons and daughters of Britain’s “trash” actually built a pretty decent society for ourselves (with the obvious and shameful exclusion of the first Australians). Imagine how much better things will get now that, instead of illiterate British thieves and petty criminals, we’re bringing in Sudanese lawyers, Afghan business owners and Burmese fruit pickers!

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Port Arthur

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We also ambled along the clifftops past Devil’s Kitchen, Tasman Arch and Waterfall Bay without any real desire to hit the tracks that go deeper down the peninsula’s famous coastline. In Hobart we stocked up on enough culture to last a few months at MONA, which stands for the Museum of Old and New Art. The visiting exhibit at the moment has four different academics using various works to push their point on “why we need art.” This being MONA, one of them swears it is an evolutionary device that we use to get laid, and explained this with innumerable depictions of weewees and peepees.

Lake Pedder and the Dams

When you look at a map of Tasmania, the whole south-western corner appears as a green splotch of uninhabited wilderness. The only sign of civilisation is a lonely finger of roadway that squirms into its very heart, coming to an abrupt halt at a settlement called Strathgordon. We took Steve for a drive up it to see what lay at the other end, and found Lake Pedder.

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A visitor at Edgar Dam

Most Australians have seen images of this lake, which was a tea tree-stained mountain lake fringed with a beach of fine pink sand, and ringed with rugged mountains. And most know it was at the centre of some environmental struggle in the 1980’s, but that’s probably about it.

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Well, that original lake now lies 16 metres beneath the surface of the New Lake Pedder, which is a veritable ocean of freshwater in the middle of the southwestern wilderness. It, along with Lake Gordon to the north, were created by a series of dams to leverage Tasmania’s buckets of rain and power the state with electricity from hydroelectric plants. Lake Pedder became a symbol of conservation and while the efforts to save it were unsuccessful, the episode created one of the world’s first environmentally minded political parties.

Among all the natural beauty is Gordon Dam, wedged into an impossibly deep chasm to create Lake Gordon. It’s a fine example of a concave-shaped arch dam, and the result of this design is that the wall seems to bend over under the pressure of the water it withholds.

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Freycinet

You can’t see Tasmania and not stop in to see Wineglass Bay, so we crossed back to give the east coast one last hurrah before buggering off for good. The beaches here are mostly identical to those at the Bay of Fires – white sand, cold turquoise water, lichen-clad granite and kelp – with the added bonus of sea cliffs and loads of wildlife.

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Wineglass Bay

I should give my friend Karl a shout out for yet another brilliant recommendation in sending us to camp on a bluff called the White Water Wall, jutting out over gorgeous Bluestone Bay. I have photos, but they don’t capture the inky quality of the water so I’ll let you imagine it instead.

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Having a sit

One evening, while we were camped at the fantastically-named Friendly Beaches north of Freycinet, we were standing on a rocky outcrop enjoying some sunset colours, when a wombat ambled out of the bush for a nibble at the grass to start his evening. It was full moon at this time, so after dinner we returned with headlamps and found two pairs of mother wombats with their babies. It was touch and go for a few moments there, but in the end our tender hearts did survive the cuteness overload.

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Photo credit to Hailee for this one.

Next week: we go for a long walk in the mountains!

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One for Mum.

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