Tassie Times

29th April 2011
Have to say I’m not sure why I’m writing this, it should be Mike. He seems to have fallen hook, line and sinker in love with Tasmania; not that it isn’t a truly beautiful and unique place, just that I’m not quite so sold on all the remote wilderness stuff as he is – prefer the city myself. I have had to almost peel him off the mountains.

Still we did start with the city – Hobart to be precise and the fun of the Wooden Boat Festival (WBF). The sight of so many beautiful boats was wonderful and made us realise just how much easier life can be with a glass fibre boat. Some of the steam launches with their brass boilers and literally piles of coal aboard were living reminders of a bygone era. Clearly many hours had been spent with oily rags, pots of varnish and polish. The WBF provided a platform for all sorts of boating related activity, some obvious and some not so obvious like a floating shed complete with a band and an outboard that meandered round the festival each day. It was also a time to catch up with sailing friends who had flown in from Sydney for the WBF and with that some sadness as we reflected that we may not see Brian and Isabelle again as they sail north in their Oyster and we stayed here preparatory to going east to New Zealand

So time for some land based exploration and a couple of days in Cradle Mountain National Park and Mike’s first fix. It is a wonderful area of rugged beauty and wildlife, you realise just how much wildlife is still running around Tas when you see the amount of road kill. The tarmac is littered with dead wallabies and possums which results in a thriving crow population. Happily we did manage to see a lot of it still running around the lodge we stayed in, there was a wombat snuffling around the undergrowth as we arrived, several echidnas and Burnett’s Wallabies aka pademelons. Mike was somewhat annoyed, having spent ages in the woods waiting patiently to take photographs of them to find the best shots were to be had behind our cabin!
We were very impressed by the Parks and Wildlife Service that runs the National Parks and provide excellent information in their visitor centres which all seem to be manned by people who are both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the parks. They also do a tremendous job of encouraging people into the wilderness areas; provide great information and interactive areas along the walks/tracks whilst also protecting the habitat with board walks. It all makes for very accessible and enjoyable walking. Needless to say Mike felt the need to explore further, so early one morning whilst I stayed in bed he got up at some unearthly hour to hike up Cradle Mountain hoping to take photos as dawn appeared. Sadly Cradle Mountain stayed in thick cloud until after he was back in the car park!

But naturally the exploration hasn’t all been on land and after the trip to Cradle Mountain we set off to explore by sea. On the doorstep of Hobart is a wonderfully protected cruising ground called the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, where Bruny Island creates a channel with a myriad of anchorages protected from the weather of aptly named Storm Bay. The plan was to head to the south west of Tasmania, to Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour a World Heritage Wilderness Site that you can’t access by road so you sail, walk or fly in (http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/index.aspx?base=3135). You can’t write about Tasmania without reference to the weather. It’s wild down here. Not just the fact that it’s wet and windy in real extremes of both, but that it all changes so quickly. The locals all say ‘If you don’t like the weather wait 5 minutes and it will change’ and they are right. Wind and rain sweeps across in squalls, those of you who sail will know what I mean. It can be a bit grey and chilly and then bang its lashing down and you’re nearly being blown off your feet and then 10 minutes later the sun is attempting to make an appearance. So the departure for Port Davey was delayed as we had to sit and wait whilst 5 cold fronts with winds of 30+ knots went through in as many days. But as ever, waiting pays off and we set sail in fine conditions. The trip round took us past the most southerly point Sea Rover will be going as we rounded South West Cape. One advantage of the combination of the cold, the wild weather and meeting a local guy, Robb, whose work regularly takes him to Antarctica has been that Mike has now accepted that we won’t be going to there in Sea Rover. We’d have to do far too much to make Sea Rover happy to sail in those latitudes. As it is our winter duvet is on the bed, with a polartec fleece blanket over it and, as I write, our trusty £10 fan heater from Argos is whirring away in the background – thank heavens for shore power.

Port Davey is a gloriously unspoilt area, no shops, restaurants, hotels (well unless you count bunk beds in a walker’s hut – which I don’t) so you have to be as totally self-sufficient as if you were at sea on an ocean going passage. One of the extraordinary features is the amazing tannin coloured water which gives the sensation of sailing in tea and certainly stains everything as if this were the case. As is so often the case we ended up making new acquaintances, including Robb (who works in Antarctica), Emma and their daughters and enjoyed spending a fair bit of time with them. One of the famous characters from this area was Deny King (‘King of Wilderness’ by Christobel Mattingly) who literally built from nothing his own house and the walker’s huts and first airstrip etc at Melaleucca. He also built a bird hide where we met Shane one of the volunteers monitoring theendangered Orange Bellied Parrot (OBP). There are only fifty alive in the wild, a gene pool that is too shallow for them to survive, so the wild OBP - a few of which we were lucky enough to see–are functionally extinct and will have disappeared from the wild entirely in about three years’ time. Odd to think we are seeing something that others will never see in the wild; well that is unless the 150 bred in captivity can be gradually introduced back into the wild, something they hope to start in around three years’ time.

But as the OBP are migratory and at the moment only visit Tasmania during what passes for summer here, one question is whether the ones bred in captivity are hard wired and will know when to fly off to the Australian mainland and where to go (apparently, in the US they released some endangered osprey bred in captivity and they knew to migrate from California to the Caribbean which gives some hope that these beautiful birds may yet survive). Controversial thought for the day: the history of planet earth is one of extinctions as species failed to adapt for survival. Just because it’s pretty or cute, how much effort should we take to try and Canute like hold back the inevitable?

Of course the surrounding hills couldn’t be resisted. Although I managed one very boggy walk up Mount Belcher and most of another Mike did several more including, you guessed it an early morning one up Balmoral whilst I stayed snuggly aboard under the duvet. Have learnt it’s much better and happier all round if I leave Mike to go yomping up and down hills spending hours taking photos rather than plod along and get cold hanging around. After a couple of weeks in Davey it was clear from the weather forecasts that we were either going to have to leave or stay another week or more. There was bad weather on the way and down here bad is truly bad – 2-5 metre seas with an additional 4 -5 metres of swell on top with 30+ knots of wind does not make for happy sailing. Think (well know) Mike would have stayed longer but I was happy to leave.

So from Tasmania’s wild wilderness to her rather unhappy past as epitomised by Port Arthur a surprisingly large penal centre from the 1800s that brings to life all too clearly the brutality of transportation, another unappealing part of British history.
Yet to get to Port Arthur you had to be a repeat offender and the prisoners included hardened dregs of British society. They may have had a regimen of very hard labour but did receive better rations (3000 calories a day) and medical care than their UK counterparts and many had used the time on the transportation ships to learn to read and write. We don’t know whether they were treated that much worse than prisoners back home were, but guess not being back home was what made it all the more unbearable for the prisoners. The life of the soldiers guarding them didn’t fare much better as their rations were the same, their living quarters more cramped, the punishments the same, and with nowhere to spend free time, no wonder it was a much hated posting. Port Arthur is where solitary confinement was developed to break prisoners unbroken by brutal lashings that could leave their boots full of blood and the area around the whipping post covered in ‘gobbets of flesh’.

In the Solitary Prison for the first time prisoners were known only by numbers and not their names and the harshness of life can only be imagined.What is the answer for dealing with society’s miscreants? I’m sure I don’t have the answer but do know that society does need protecting from the worst it can produce. The massacre of staff and touristsby a lone gunman at Port Arthur in 1996 being an extreme example.

Back in Hobart we made a virtue of another grey wet day with our second visit to MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), an extraordinary building created by David Walsh, a multimillionaire courtesy of his gambling syndicate, with an amazing private art collection of ancient (think sarcophagi and scarabs from ancient Egypt, Neolithic stone arrow heads) to the newest installation type art like Damien Hirst and the recent rest all with an underlying theme (well for this exhibition anyway) of sex and death. Walsh has described MONA as a subversive adult Disneyland and it is a brilliant experience, often shocking, sometimes deeply disturbing but always thought provoking. It is fast becoming not only the prime attractionin Tasmania but an Australian must do – we’d whole heartedly recommend it to anyone. So, sated with art we set out in our hired little Hyundai Getz, this time after a pleasant evening with Robb and Emma, and on their recommendation drove to Mount Field National Park. The area was very reminiscent of the Lake District and only served to reinforce why so many from the UK have felt at home and settled here. We were self catering in a lovely little cabin and when we got back from a long day doing the Tarn Shelf Walk we found on the table a bread and butter pudding with a note from Anthea who runs the cottages saying ‘though you might like this after a long day’. Needless to say we wolfed it down.

Tasmania hasn’t been exactly good for the waist lines with all their excellent food and drink and seeing friends old and new; including old sailing friends from previous trips and Al and Jill from UK days. We took them for a short sail and I think Jill was a little worried by just how delighted their 4 year old Alex was with being on a boat and how well he took to sailing – helms better than many adults we’ve met. So finally we have what looks like a possible weather window to leave – next week. Hopefully the passage back to New Zealand will help get a pound or two off, but if it doesn’t we will be the two people waddling off the plane when we get home in July, talking of which we hope to sort out a get together as we have done previously, in mid July. So watch this space and we will let you know more details once we have sorted out dates

In the meantime hope you are all well and enjoying what we hear is the start of a great summer. Here of course, autumn has arrived!

Much love from Australia where republicanism is somewhat muted and we are about to enjoy a ‘commoner’s meal’ - aka bangers and mash - at the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania. We’ll join much of this nation watching the pageantry as our future king and, quite probably theirs, weds the woman he loves.

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