Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tasmania Part 1: In which there is a boat and scenes from Tasmania's colonial past

There are only 2 ways to get to Tasmania from mainland Australia. 1 is to fly and the other is to go by boat. Due to the fact that it’s still relatively cheap and it takes little over an hour to get from Melbourne to Hobart by plane the majority of visitors elect to fly. Last time my wife and I went to Tasmania (incidentally the first time either of us had visited the island state) we flew and hired a car. That’s the other thing; there’s a lot to see in Tasmania, it’s not very big, but the only way to get around really is to drive. This time my wife worked it out, if we flew and hired a car it was going to wind up costing us twice as much as if we took the overnight ferry and used our own car. Given that we have a 4WD with plenty of room in the back as opposed to some little buzz box like a Hyundai Getz that we’d hire (I use the Getz as an example, because we hired one of those when we went to Sydney and the Blue Mountains and it was a huge mistake, it handled Sydney and it’s surrounds just, but the Blue Mountains, forget about it. The only car I’ve ever seen that is actually scared of anything resembling a hill). There was going to be a lot of driving, so we took the boat. Yes, it takes a whole night to get there, but that’s all part of the adventure.

I’ve always felt that Tasmania gets a raw deal with regards to tourism. Not just from overseas visitors, but within Australia itself. As far anyone not from Australia seems to know there’s only one city here, that’s Sydney and only one state worth visiting and that’s Queensland, sometimes the Northern Territory may get a look in, because it’s a got a dirty great rock sitting in the middle of it. Tassie is just this odd bit of an island down the bottom that looks like it was put there as an afterthought. The thing is that Tasmania is Australia’s jewel. I’m positively convinced that millions of years ago New Zealand had 3 islands, one of them was Tasmania, it floated over here and became part of Australia. As far as I’m concerned Tassie has it all over the Land of the Long White Cloud, it’s got the mountains and the waterways, similar climate, same ease of getting around, it doesn’t have the earthquakes or unstable volcanoes that New Zealand has, either. This place was absolutely made to be the setting for a good old fashioned fantasy epic.

The boat docks at about 6:30 AM in Devonport. That’s up the top and we had our first 2 nights accommodation booked in at Wrestpoint Casino in Hobart. Hobart is Tasmania’s capital and it’s down the bottom of the state. Not really a problem, it doesn’t take that long to drive down. We left the boat somewhere between 6:30 and 7:00 and despite some mix up with disembarkation where we got stuck faffing about in a queue for 30 odd minutes in Devonport, we still ended up in Hobart at around 11:00, we also stopped for morning tea along the way.

Outside of Australia Tasmania is mostly known as the home of the Tasmanian Devil, I’m not talking about the marsupial, I’m talking about the cartoon creature known as Tazz. It’s a remarkably inaccurate portrayal. Devils are actually fairly small, they’re about the size of a very small dog, they do look rather doglike, although they are marsupials, they’re black and white and while they growl and make all sorts unpleasant noises, it’s mostly for show, they’ve got extraordinarily powerful jaws and they will take a finger off if you’re stupid enough to put your hands to close to them. They’re excellent carrion eaters, though, because they can bite through pretty much anything and they eat everything, including fur. Regarding the cartoon character I could never understand why in the series Tazzmania, made in the 80’s, why he was able to create a small hurricane and spoke in a series of inarticulate grunts and squeals, the rest of his family dressed in human clothes and spoke normally, of course I could also never work out why his father was Bing Crosby. The Devils are in pretty dire straits these days. It’s estimated that about 90% of the wild population has been wiped about by a facial tumour disease, they only occur in Tasmania and I hope they can find a cure, because they’re unique little creatures and it would be a great shame to lose them from the wild. Tasmania is also known for another native marsupial; the Tasmanian Tiger or to give it the more scientific name; the Thylacine. It wasn’t actually a tiger, it wasn’t even a cat, it was in fact a marsupial dog, it got the name from the yellow colouration of it’s fur and black vertical stripes, which were rather tigerish. I refer to the creature in the past tense, because as far as anyone knows the last historically verified one died in captivity in the Hobart zoo in 1936. There is a school of thought that it may have survived in the wild and there have been various reported sightings ever since, even on the mainland, where the creature never seemed to occur naturally, not one of these sightings has ever been proven. It is possible that some of them may have survived in the wild and have hidden in some remote parts of Tasmania. There are some sections of forest, especially in the Franklin River, that are so dense that they are completely impenetrable.

We stopped for morning tea in a place called Ross. Ross is kind of an odd little town, it’s very old, even by Tasmanian standards, which is one of the first European settled states in Australia. It’s in the middle of nowhere and it’s largely a collection of antique shops with a couple of non related businesses, one of these is a great little bakery. I only knew about it and decided to stop there en route to Hobart because we’d stayed there on the previous trip, because it was the closest place we could get a booking to Launceston. That’ll happen on the weekends there’s an AFL match in Launceston. They love their football these people, yet the league won’t give them a team. They’ll stick another one in Queensland where the Lions struggle to survive even with their 3 Premierships won between 2001 - 2003, go figure. It’s a bloody good bakery, the one in Ross.

What will strike you first about Tasmania is the scenery, it is spectacular. Verdant rolling hills, historical monuments dotted all over the place. It’s lambing season, so there were fluffy sheep (shearing season is about to start) with their offspring in nearly every paddock you could see. I’ve never seen that many sheep anywhere and that includes New Zealand. We had mountains and hills rising all around us on every side. In the fields and paddocks that ran alongside the Midland Highway they had positioned metal sillhouettes that recall the state’s natural and European history. There was everything from a couple of emus to a bushranger holding up a horseman.

We had elected to stay at Wrestpoint Casino. Wrestpoint isn’t in Hobart as such, it’s in Sandy Bay, which is a suburb close to the city centre, it’s a high class suburb, full of large stately houses and has the University of Tasmania located in it. On the point, next to the marina on the Derwent River, they built a 17 story tower, which houses Wrestpoint Casino. Wrestpoint is Australia’s first legal casino, it was pretty big news when it first opened back in 1973, it was on the telly and everything. We’d actually stayed there before and been impressed, so we decided to repeat the experience. We had a waterfront room with views of the river. What really gets me is the price. It’s incredibly cheap, Tasmania is like that, high class accommodation is remarkably reasonable compared to the rest of the company and the service is excellent. A comparable room at Crown Casino in Melbourne would cost me twice the price and get me half the service. From our room we could see the river and observe the comings and goings of the small flock of ducks that make the grounds of the casino home. We were there for 2 nights largely because we wanted to go to Hobart’s famous Salamanca Market on Saturday morning.

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