Western Tasmania and Escaping the Apple Isle

In the years that I’ve kept this blog, I would say a majority of the posts start the same. This one is no different: I’m sorry I haven’t been posting. This time I think my excuses are reasonably good. In the past month or more I have been working on other projects (and even getting paid for some of them!) and spent a good three weeks in and around Melbourne, stationary weeks spent kicking my sister out of her bed and Hailee’s friend Rachel out of her living room. My camera also stopped working, and unbroken chunks of text are no fun on your phone.

I’m writing this now in a red earth clearing surrounded by mallee scrub and chunks of granite. It’s a place of emus, red kangaroos, camels and, above all, flies. We’re in Western Australia, east of Norseman and southeast of Kalgoorlie, but to get you up to speed we’re going all the way back to chilly Tasmania, to the carpark at the end of the Frenchman’s Cap track. I’ll try to make this succinct – which is another way I invariably start long, rambling posts.

Done with Frenchmen

It was raining when we tried hitching out to the trailhead from Derwent Bridge, and hours passed before anyone picked us up. When we tried to get back to Derwent Bridge, the sun was shining and friendly Stan pulled over within minutes. He grew up in Queenstown, down near the west coast, and had worked most of his life in the mines there.

“I’m no nature lover,” he said, “and I loved it when the hills around Queenstown used to be bare, and we could run amok on them.” He looked and spoke like an Australian version of Mike, from Breaking Bad. I’m sure he was a decent miner but with a crackly voice like that, he’d make a better reader of audiobooks.

Queenstown is now an “overgrown shit hole,” he said, but to us it seemed stark and bare. The surrounding hills were stripped of their timber for copper smelting in the early 20th century. The topsoil washed away, and the place is like a patch of manmade desert. We didn’t stop for long.

We deserved some luxury after the hike (we thought), so we checked into a caravan park in Strahan, a tourist hub at the mouth of the Gordon River. There were hot water showers, WiFi, a kitchen and even an oven! We drank beers in the pub with Max, a Melburnian we’d met on the track, streamed TV shows on Hailee’s laptop and cooked a big mess of mac ‘n’ cheese in the kitchen. Max introduced us to the joys of percolated coffee, and we have him to thank for our growing caffeine addictions.

The Tarkine

Everywhere you go in Tasmania, you see posters and bumper stickers demanding that we Save the Tarkine. The Tarkine is incredible, people say. Must see the Tarkine. Won’t somebody save the Tarkine?

I eventually figured out that the Tarkine is another one of those helpful names Australians give to vaguely-defined pieces of their country, like the Pilbara or the Top End. The Tarkine refers to a large chunk of forest in Tasmania’s sparsely populated north-west.

Things definitely felt a little wilder out there. The main arterial road that joins Zeehan to the upper north coast is mostly unpaved. We took Steve on the Fatman barge across the Pieman River to Corinna (we passed on the “I took the Fatman” bumper sticker) as there is no bridge, and bumped our way up to the bank of the Savage River. The night there was dense, the forest absorbing light and sound like a malevolent presence in the darkness. Spooky.

In the morning we climbed Mount Donaldson for a view of the surrounding wilderness as well as a few forestry areas, where humans get their wood, and a large silica mine, where they get the dust to coat their camera lenses.

Hailee on Mount Donaldson

The pub in Marrawah, on a coastal plain of farmland near the island’s north west corner, was decorated with images of local surfers riding nearby breaks, as well as framed photos of a fishing boat as it waited for a lull in a four-metre swell to scoot across a reef.

The Southern Ocean is wild, and this wildness bleeds onto the coasts that surround it. I passed on the monstrous waves that were battering reefs at Trial Harbour, but the beach at Green Point, near Marrawah, had a friendlier break over a kelp bed. It was like getting a slippery hug every time I fell off my board.

The weather became warmer as we entered the Tarkine, but only briefly. After that sunlit afternoon surf at Green Point, the night turned evil and lashed our tent with wind and horizontal rain. We retreated into the hills to check out the Julius River Forest Reserve, and the rain followed us. With a roof tent and a relatively open back, rain is not Steve’s forte. We began to dream of warm, dry deserts on the mainland.

Winter was coming. It was becoming intolerably cold at night, and as they days grew shorter we found ourselves clambering into the tent as early as 6 or 7 p.m. Travelling in Tasmania was like a romance with a saucy older woman (or man, in Hailee’s case); we’d had fun together, but now she had other things on her mind. She was hinting that it was time to move on. We counted the days until our ferry to Melbourne, on April 30th.

The North Coast

As you end your clockwise circumnavigation of the island, civilisation reappears around Smithton. The curve of the Bass coast is sheltered from the Southern Ocean’s rages, and the towns cluster together like moss on the lee side of a stone.

Everything here is in miniature. The towns are never bigger than a few thousand people. Tiny waves lap at narrow beaches, backed by a knee-high dune or two, behind which shrunken retirees live in tidy cottages.

One of these small towns, Stanley, shelters in the shadow of a huge rock called The Nut. The Nut plugs an ancient volcano, and hosts a whole forest on its flat top. You can climb the steep stairs up it or, if you were an early investor in Apple or Microsoft and are therefore a billionaire, you can pay a whopping $20 to take the two-minute chairlift to the top.

I mention this because I have to get something off my chest: there is no such thing as “good value” in Australia. I can hear the chorus of protest already: “we have a living minimum wage! Everybody makes enough money to get by! It’s not so expensive if you’re working here!” And I’m not saying that isn’t true.

But you know that moment where you finish a really great meat pie? You’ve slurped down the last of the gravy, swallowed the last flake of pastry, and perhaps you think: “Man, that really was worth five dollars!” If you have ever thought that about a pie in Australia, it means you paid closer to $15.

This kind of robbery isn’t restricted to pies and chair lifts. On Victoria’s Cape Otway it costs $20 to see a lighthouse. The Fatman barge costs $25 per vehicle, to cross a river I could throw a stone over – and I’m no cricket player. In Port Lincoln, South Australia, they charge $350 to sit in a boat and maybe see a shark. In Melbourne you can go to a restaurant that imitates a “greasy spoon” American diner, the kind where you pay $5 for a burger, a few sides and an endless supply of soft drink. Only in Melbourne you pay eighteen dollars for the burger, and another $4 for all of ten French fries. Want tomato sauce? That’ll be fifty cents.

Travelling in Australia gives a closer experience to real poverty than travelling in, say, India, where we think we’re slumming it by going to a cheapo hotel to save a few rupees. Travel Down Under involves hearing about all sorts of cool experiences and exotic food in a prosperous society, and being left out because you can’t afford any of it. So you drink goon, pick fruit, live in a car and make your own way.

We Australians should embrace this. On the tourism advertisements, between the images of indigenous children, red earth and women in swimsuits, they should have a few shots of backpackers boiling two-minute noodles in a carpark, handing two days’ picking wages to a caravan park owner and push-starting broken-down vans. For the kind of middle class, university-educated yuppies who can afford to go travelling in the first place (like yours truly, for example), this is a valuable experience.

Australia should be begging the world to send us its spoiled rich kids, with return tickets pre-booked to keep them here for a year or two. Their pesos, roubles, dollars and euros will evaporate before their eyes. They’ll live in a junky car and pick fruit for a living. They’ll count themselves lucky when they can buy groceries at an Aldi. They’ll go home humbled.

Cradle Mountain

We saved Tasmania’s biggest draw for last. Cradle Mountain is a craggy, two-peaked hunk of rock that towers above the surrounding lakes and marshes, a formidable sight to open the seven-day Overland Track (speaking of good value: the permit alone costs $200). The sun shone as we drove in, but it began to cloud over as we boarded the shuttle bus into the park. By the time we jumped off the bus, flurries of snow were whipping across the carpark. We layered up and trudged into it, hoping the weather might change.

Realising it’s time to go north.

The sun was shining again by the time we hit Crater Lake, pooled between two fingers of rock. A fat little wombat ignored us, intent on chewing his grass as we climbed past him. Another cloud bank descended and it snowed during the short ascent up one of the fingers, but it was sunny at the top and we had fine views to the peak. We watched the Overland trekkers shoulder their packs and trudge on, and then we skipped back to Steve as another snowstorm blew in.

Crater Lake

Cradle Mountain, Dove Lake and another snowstorm on the way.

Wildlife Hunting

There were two items left on our agenda: to see a platypus and a Tasmanian devil. We knew our chances of spotting a devil were low, as they’re pretty thin on the ground these days. There are numerous “wildlife sanctuaries” (read: zoos) in Tasmania where you can pay to see the little fellows but, as I discussed earlier, it was barely worth asking how much ($60 for two people, if you’re wondering). Besides, we’d heard their snarls in the dark down south, and that was enough.

So we were on the hunt for platypuses (not “platypi”) instead. Early on, we’d made the mistake of asking fellow road trippers if they’d seen any.

“Oh, heaps!” they chirped. “They’re everywhere!”

Yet they had eluded us so far. This wasn’t for lack of trying on our part. We had researched their ideal habitats (calm water, steep overgrown banks for digging burrows) and always made sure to hang around such places at sunset.

Now, it’s not like we were trying too hard. Mostly we just plonked our chairs above a likely looking bank, kept quiet and sipped wine from plastic cups. But on Savage River, Lake St. Clair, Julius River we succeeded only in getting tipsy, without sight or sound of a platypus.

Then, at Gardiner’s Lake, we spotted a crocodile shape moving in the water. A platypus! They are territorial, and for an hour or so we watched three or four of them swimming busily about their respective patches of lake, ducking underwater, surfacing elsewhere, and scratching about on a log or a muddy bank.

Mission accomplished, then. We pointed Steve northwards, towards the coast, and spent a Sunday afternoon at the Forth AFL ground. This was where we had spent our first night in Tassie, as it’s the closest free campground to the Devonport ferry. The Forth Magpies were playing North Ulverstone and a crowd had turned out to see the home team.

The sun was out. The travellers were busy airing their mobile homes or having yarns. The locals were soaking in what could’ve been the last sun before winter’s long night and on the field, their team was winning. Tassie was smiling on us one last time, before the morning’s goodbye.

Next week: we finally go west!

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