It’s so different to Australia, my husband says as we putter around Tasmania in our camper, drinking in the God-given green mountains, reminiscent of its motherland; Great Britain. I remind him we still are in Australia, as the chameleon landscape changes again before our eyes to flat brown, like a parched tongue. Geographically isolated, Tassie, as it’s colloquially known, is an island 240 kilometres off mainland Australia, separated by the Bass Strait. This wild place is still considered, by mainlanders, as ‘other’; a distant entity. Historically it used to be Van Diemen’s Land, named by the Dutch, where British convicts were sent to serve their sentences to build the colony. Yet it’s hard to feel like a coloniser when there is no trace of Indigenous people. It’s as if they’ve dissipated, like smoke into the ether.
As hunter-gatherers Aboriginals didn’t define their land rights in the same way as British land ownership permitted so vacant domain or Terra Nullius (land belonging to no-one) was justified upon invasion. To white settlers Aboriginals didn’t exist, they were considered part of the flora and fauna, upon which their bones lie buried. This fallacy continues in white Australian consciousness— in the absence and silence of Indigenous people. Captain Cook got it right when he described the land as being ‘in a pure state of nature’ but this island, Lutruwita, its Indigenous name, had been populated for tens of thousands of years. I need to know the story of the earth I stand on. To know the mind of the mountains from time’s basement, that stood here before us all. Is there a trace of sadness and suffering in those mountains in the memory of what happened?
Tasmania hums to the ancient rhythm of nature; almost half of the 68,000 square kilometres is made up of reserves, national parks and World Heritage Sites. Abundant in space, minerals and exquisite food, super fresh seafood is trawled in from every port and there are more vineyards than you can shuck an oyster at, with the cool climate taste of Europe. Tassie is an introvert’s dream; whisper quiet. You can drive meditatively through unpeopled landscapes, past mountains, farms, alpine forests and coastal beaches.
The only busy place is Salamanca Market on Saturdays in Hobart, the island’s capital. Hugging the waterfront, it teems with people — who have crawled out from who knows where. Abuzz with stalls that throng the harbour, selling familiar handicrafts and bric-a-brac, live music and local artist galleries contribute to the atmospheric je ne sais quoi; the earthy, artistic yet modest chic that is Tassie. Yet it lacks the multicultural hub of many capital cities, it’s full of white faces, without even the Aboriginal paintings, and didgeridoo players daubed in paint for tourists, characteristic of many Australian cities. Though the permanent exhibition at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart is a nod to Aboriginal cultural heritage.
We take Louisa’s Walk tour from Cascade Brewery. The plight and journey of a typical Irish convict, Louisa, is enacted, from London to the women’s prison in Hobart. It’s entertaining and poignant yet there is no mention of the Indigenous people, of their conflict with the first settlers. It’s as if they have been erased from minds, like a layer of paint slicked on canvases.
Aside from its beaches, the surrounding premium vineyards of the Coal River Valley and the cute historic village of Richmond, there’s another feather in Hobart’s cap that impresses, even those without an artistic gene. On the seventh day God created MONA: Museum of Old and New Art. Or rather David Walsh did. A professional gambler who funded MONA, donating his wealth to the public domain. Aside from its exhibitions, the main building of the artistic hub is a worthy masterpiece. High on a hill it stands, like a brown rusty giant, eerily prison-like — a reminder of the island’s convict history — its industrial chic is nonetheless enticing.
Multiple levels with rooms of all shapes; soaring sandstone walls, lots of concrete, steel, timber, and a glass cylindrical elevator—like in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory—that descends below the ground, where you can smell the sea in the cool darkness. Red Queen, a character from Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, is the current exhibition. Her sinister blend of power and futility is depicted, through the art, into an inquiry about human nature and how we evolve with our environment. The most memorable piece is Fat Car; a red bulging Porsche, conveying the excessive nature of our commercialised society. An indulgence to which I can relate, with all the wine and oysters I’ve consumed—what a truly ‘first world’ traveller I am, but I appreciate my privileges and use them well.
The drive from Hobart to Cradle is momentous. I traverse through every season and landscape imaginable in one day. Quintessential Australian country; patchwork of yellow fields and fragrant gum trees. Weaving on through the cool alpine passes of Derwent Valley, so similar to its counterpart in the Lake District, England. A place I know well. I imagine the first settlers’ comfort in naming their new home; so reminiscent of its northern hemisphere roots.
Pylons and mountains, with flat grey peaks like slate roofs, and the smell of smoke from a recent fire somehow warn me of the ensuing desolation of Queenstown. The scene is a dramatic charcoal painting, blurred and rubbed onto the concrete canvas of the road. Petals of ash float. The cloud is so low it hovers on the ground of the narrow pass that winds down into Queenstown. A begotten, forgotten copper mining town, like an old haunting story, in a deep dark valley, cocooned by mountain walls. A place where, if it had a gender, it would be a male of the macho kind. Where the drizzle and biting wind make bones rattle and backs round in misery against the cold, feeling the poverty of their ancestors to their core. A place that smells of loneliness yet has a beauty of its very own. Everything is brown. Discoloured teeth form the ridged escarpment. Chocolate mud stirred with caramel streak the precipice, resembling claw marks, as if someone tumbled into the abyss of the valley.
Round the next hairpin bend autumn arrives in russet and burnt orange glory. Impossibly steep gradients and plummeting escarpments jolt my heart into my mouth. Tight clusters of fat trees huddle, like broccoli florets, reaching and waving a welcome. Skinny pine and gum trees tower like a man’s long legs with arthritic knees. Upon approach to Cradle Mountain, deservedly the best-known feature of Tassie, the sun creeps around the corner, revealing the mountains’ grandeur—like a performer’s bow.
Blessed with a clear day to view the dramatic vista of Cradle; named for its resemblance to a miner’s cradle, I begin with Dove Lake circuit walk. It’s a flat, friendly two-hour stroll by the lapping of the lake, whose hip meets the mountain of Cradle. To follow, a three-hour steep climb to Marion’s Lookout; around two-thirds to the summit, of jagged dolerite peaks. I look out at the peak of Cradle that rises and looms like a camel’s hump, past the grassy slopes, past the boats that bob on the icy black water below. A ragged landscape where an old gum tree, stripped bare to her grey waist, is smooth and surprisingly cool to touch; immune to the scorching sun.
A three-hour-drive north-east from Cradle takes us to Launceston. A surprisingly beautiful city with, in many ways, just as much to offer as Hobart. Victorian and early colonial buildings lend the city its quaint historic character. The Tasman River and expansive waterfront are dotted with fishing boats and restaurants, and the city is surrounded by yet more vineyards. At Cataract Gorge peacocks roam and strut around manicured gardens and a Victorian grandstand— where I imagine gentry once strolled in their Sunday best under parasols.
Two and a half hours’ drive south, past St Helens and Falmouth, sees me arrive at the Bay of Fires; a conservation area on the northeast coast. Cosy Corner is a secluded little bay with sand textured like lentils, where men fish atop boulders and seagulls cry and swoop for fish. Where waves pound and slap the orange-hued granite rocks, nestled in the water. Numerous bays huddle and give onto endless beaches of white squeaky sand, framed by plump sand dunes, alive with birds and vegetation.
Along the coastline heading south to Freycinet National Park, I meander past the fishing port towns of St Helens and Swansea, each named for their British counterpart. The fish are so fresh they have barely ceased to flap: Blue-Eye Trevalla, Blue Grenadine, abalone, crayfish, prawns, mussels and scallops; cooked every which way – curried, smoked, bread crumbed, fried and packed into good old Aussie pies. And creamy heavenly oysters, served at oyster farms—straight from sea to plate.
The sprawling beauty of Wineglass Bay at Freycinet National Park is a visual delight. A great yawning curve of sugary white sand stretches like a slow smile, framing the ice-cold water against the mountainous peaks and troughs. Tame wallabies and pademelons frolic on the beach unperturbed by the odd tourist.
It seems inconceivable that this idyllic place was founded by the hard labour of British convicts. Yet you can feel the people’s survival instincts and hardy resilience in the bite of the wind in the roots of the trees. This ‘Island of Inspiration’ has shrugged off its stigma of isolation. Yet the peace and quiet is the very jewel in its crown. Where else can you find a place where the beauty of the landscape induces a meditative state of peace. A place where you can breathe clean air, and walk along a seven-mile beach without seeing another person. A place of mountains, oysters and wine. And silence. If you listen you may hear the swipe of the woodcutter’s axe and the cracking of bones of the silenced ones.