The huge slab of a ship glided up to the pier as if guided on mystic rails the name ‘Spirit of Tasmania’ writ large along the hull, white on orange, sliding across our field of view like a giant autocue. Just when it looked like a massive collision was imminent the ship magically stopped dead and berthed against the dock with the slightest of bumps. We waited patiently with a couple of Harley dudes for the bow to open, the returning traffic to disgorge and then we entered the bowels of the leviathan. We were finally on our way to Tasmania…
The ferry took all night to plow across the thankfully calm Bass Straits towards our island destination. For those of us affected by Brexit, Tasmania is about the same size as Ireland. If you’re not affected by Brexit, then it’s about the same size as Switzerland or for our American buddies, it’s about the size of West Virginia. ‘Tassie’ has a relatively miniscule population (half a million compared with nearly four million in Ireland for example). Throw in a myriad of small and winding roads, some marvelous mountain scenery with even more of those stunning Aussie beaches and it is a right little paradise. The first chink of light was shed on all of this when we met three Tassie blokes Shorty, Brian and Brad on their motorcycle tour of Flores, Indonesia who implored us to come see them on the island. That plus numerous ‘must-see’ recommendations as we travelled through mainland Oz made it a hard one to pass.
The ‘Spirit’ glided into Devonport at 7am on a Sunday morning and our first views were a beach of creamy sand backing onto a verdant slash of isle that sloped upwards to some far-away lofty peaks that disappeared into a low slung ceiling of dank grey cloud, promising paradise with a puddle or two in the coming weeks. We were quickly on the road following GPS directions to Brian’s house where a welcoming breakfast had been arranged. The roads were deserted on the somewhat chill morning and the rain from the previous night was drying out leaving the place feeling fresh like it had just been spring-cleaned for our arrival. We were whizzing along a dual carriageway, waving to one or two bikes that were headed for the ferry back to the mainland, when Mags came over the intercom… “There’s a really friendly biker just rode up alongside me with a big friendly grin. He’s waving like mad!” I looked in the rear view mirror to see the scene just as she described it and then the penny dropped for both of us… It was Shorty, out to meet and greet!
Shorty Halfacre stands about 5’ 2”, is slightly ruddy-faced, bald with a big bushy white beard. When travelling in India, the kids called him ‘Ali Baba’ and now, as Christmas approached, I reckon he would have made a good, if somewhat diminutive, Father Christmas. It was the smile you see, a clear and broad beacon that you just met a kindly soul. He caught up with me and beckoned that we follow him home. Now following my description above, you’re probably holding an image of a friendly mountain dwarf so it will come as no surprise to learn that Shorty worked all his life as a mining engineer and is an explosives expert to boot. He still holds all the relevant pyro licenses to conduct firework displays at events like the Hobart Speedway. We arrived at a small cottage nestled in the woods not far from the coast and what proved to be the most beautiful place we have stayed at yet in this round the world journey. We dismounted the bikes and approached a hidden garden half expecting to see six other ‘Shortys’ and a Snow White who looks after them. If this fairytale setting lacked all seven dwarves, it certainly had a lovely lady waiting at the garden gate with a smile to match her partners; and so we met Maureen who bade us a warm welcome and showed us around their little paradise…
The house graced a small headland overlooking the Blythe River on the north coast of the island. Shorty dabbled in metal sculptures and these together with an assortment of Buddhas scattered amongst the greenery to give the place the air of a most serene retreat. There was a smaller dwelling set to one side, a little self-contained bungalow that was our home for the next week. We quickly unpacked and drove on for a reunion with Brian and his wife Karen, who had that massive breakfast on the go. They’d had friends staying for the weekend and set a few extra places at the table, thus continuing the warmest welcome we’ve had in any place. Tasmania may be a small island but its inhabitants surely possess some big hearts.
With fine hospitality on tap for the next week we set out to explore the Northern parts of the island with a ride out to Stanley to see the ‘Nut’, the sheer-sided remains of an ancient volcanic plug whose summit was accessed by a chairlift to reveal spectacular views over the town and beyond. Fine weather ensured that our visit to Cradle Mountain returned a splendid all day hike around Dove Lake with wow-wow-wow views across the mountainous hinterlands. We rode out with Shorty, Brian and Maureen to visit Sheffield a small town famous for its wonderful gable-end murals depicting aspects of Tasman life. Should you ever find yourself in these parts, I’d recommend a visit to ‘World of Marbles’. What looks like an emporium selling small glass balls for kiddies to play with, is also host to a fine ‘contraptuary.’ What a lovely word to describe a collection of amazing contraptions and machines; everything from mechanical toys to elaborate and sometimes huge, stainless steel ball-race machines festooned with pendulums, seesaws and other mechanical devices. Please check out their website at www.worldofmarbles.com.au and, trust me, it’s not to be missed!
Aside from these destinations, the rides were spectacular in their own right down narrow lanes that chased creeks and brooks through forest clad mountains, the dark recesses sometimes illuminated by flak-bursts of Foxglove. Suddenly the trees disappear and you burst onto a hillside covered in fields of bright pink poppies grown for the pharmaceutical trade. The poppies alternated with fields of tiny white daisy-like Pyrethrum, a natural insecticide, that also make a useful companion plant as they naturally repel insects from any veggie or ornamental flower garden. I could draw a line under Tasmania here and say we scrapped our plans to ride around the island and instead stayed put to relish the hospitality heaped upon us by Shorty and Maureen, Brian and Karen. Garden BBQ’s with game on every menu; Brian is a keen hunter and chef to boot and he kept us supplied with succulent venison steaks and delicious kangaroo burgers and meatballs. Great company and lots of laughs all lubricated by local beer and a drop or two of the red stuff. But the island beckoned and we prised ourselves away from paradise to explore this latest two wheeled wonderland.
The weather is Tassie is dominated by its location, set square in the path of the ‘Roaring Forties’. These strong westerly winds are found between the latitudes of 40° and 50° South and are generated by the combined effects of hot air being displaced from the Equator towards the cold Antarctic, the rotation of the planet and the scarcity of landmasses to serve as windbreaks with only the southern tip of South America and the islands of New Zealand and Tasmania in their path. Consequently the wind can rip along at quite a pace and the westerly shores of Tasmania get quite a battering with a reputation for some grim weather. Consequently this side of the island remains wild, remote and sparsely populated.
The weather lived up to its reputation as we rode towards Strahan (pronounced ‘strawn’). The road was deserted as we left the north coast and crossed a mountain-wilderness-hinterland that took us around Plimsoll Lake and dropped out of the skies into Queenstown, a quaint little town set against the maw of an ugly opencast mine. We stopped several times to don extra layers and ended up in waterproofs as rain arrived, blown in sideways by the aforementioned wind. Thankfully it eased, allowing us to get the tent up but later we looked on in horror to see the tent almost double over when the wind returned, learning in the process that the fibreglass tent poles in our cheapo $70 tent were deformed. From Strahan we rode across the Central Highlands, stopping off to look at Lake St Clair and to visit ‘The Wall’ – a wilderness art installation of huge Huon pine panels, intricately carved to depict aspects of life in these Highland parts. Sculptor Greg Duncan estimates it will take him around ten years to complete. In a quote from his website: “The idea for The Wall is quite a simple one. I’m carving a series of 100 panels. Each panel is one metre wide and three metres high. The panels will be placed back-to-back. So, by the time I finish, I’ll have created a wall 50 metres long with carvings on both sides – 100 metres all up.” Photography was not permitted so I have included a link here to the website as the work in progress is simply outstanding and something we’ve never seen equaled anywhere else in the world. Have a look at www.thewalltasmania.com.au
Our days ride ended at a delightful riverside campsite at New Norfolk just outside the island capital of Hobart. Campsites in Oz are full of ‘grey-nomads’, a bunch of retirees who have taken to the road in campervans and trailer-tents to explore their delightful homeland. With few responsibilities (no mortgage, kids are grown up and left the coop, etc) they have the time to take in the country at their leisure and are consequently a great source when it comes to gleaning what to see and do in an area. A typical example was a lady called Anne, who Maggie met while clearing up some dinner dishes… “You the loons on the motorcycles?” she asked and then went on to run down motorcycling in general… how two wheels are inherently unstable and only a crazy idiot would venture forth on such a contraption and so on. But then she enquired into what we’d been up to in Tassie and started a flood of recommendations of things to do and see, including one that we took up; an excursion out to look at the Russell Falls. Our ride out ran through some breathtaking rolling countryside on a sinuous road that wound up into some serious rain forest. Then a short hike through an emerald Jurassic world of palm, fern and cycad, which parted to reveal curtain upon curtain of little jewel-screen cascades descending from on high. Quite possibly the most beautiful little waterfall we’ve come across yet in all our travels.
Maggie’s bike was now approaching the 100k-mile marker and decided to make the occasion memorable by scrunching the front wheel bearing. We phoned BMW in Hobart who informed us replacement bearings were available on overnight order from Melbourne, so initially all seemed well. I asked if there were any additional parts required, seals etc, which proved to be the case. However the seals were not in stock and would have to be ordered from Europe with a 4 to 5 week delivery estimate! We called in person to the dealer, a large ‘white-tile and stainless-steel’ clinical showroom that sold both cars and bikes. We asked the spares manager if there was any way they could help, maybe sourcing the bearings and seals locally? Would it be possible to speak to one of the mechanics for help or an idea as to what was involved in their replacement? It was a brick wall… we’d have to wait however long for the parts, it was not permitted to talk to any of the mechanics and if we wanted BMW to do the work, we’d have to wait until the New Year, which was about a month away! We felt pretty appalled and badly let down to think that we had ridden two of BMW’s products for over 100,000 miles and halfway round the world only to be turned away when we needed help. Luckily better service was on tap at ‘Motorworks’, a local KTM & Triumph dealer who ordered a replacement bearing kit overnight and replaced the defective items in ten minutes the next morning.
Up next, two of Tassie’s top tourist attractions; an avant-garde art collection and a prison museum. One would be absolutely fascinating and the other, one of the most miserable and depressing places we’ve been on our travels. First up MONA; the Museum of Old and New Art, the largest privately funded museum in Australia. Founder David Walsh was a professional gambler who turned his winnings into an extensive art gallery set in a beautiful modern building sited on an old winery just outside Hobart. The car park was packed and we rode around for about ten minutes until we eventually found a small slot to leave the bikes. The place is a bit of an iceberg in that very little of it is visible from the entrance, where non-Tasmanians are fleeced to the tune of $20 a head to enter a series of subterranean vaults that house the exhibits. Your $20 also rents you an ‘O’ device; a snazzy interactive ‘I-pod’ that contains descriptions of all the exhibits and even records your visit so you can download and revisit later on your computer at home.
All good so far and we entered the crypt full of enthusiasm, descending a spiral staircase to the lowest of the three levels and then working our way back to the surface. We wandered the galleries in silence, navigating through our little ’O’s. A few exhibits caught our eye; 365 weather drawings by Russian artist Viktor Kulikov. Every day at 9am on the dot, Viktor take his coloured pencils and draws the view outside his apartment in Nizhny Novgorod. Perhaps the concept was more catching than the execution but the idea was novel. Ditto a collection of dinosaurs made from cable ties but then it all went downhill from there. Dark and dreary rooms full of depictions of war, chaos and moral bankruptcy. Walsh himself describes the museum as a “subversive adult Disneyland.” Take an exhibit like the Victorian Kitten’s tea party, by Walter Potter, a diorama of a long table set in garden, where about thirty kittens are having a picnic. They are all dressed in little suits and riding bicycles, having tea, etc and it’s all very good until the macabre realisation hits you that real stuffed kittens were used to make the work at which point it becomes a little sickening… or how about the long-wall collection of 77 individual porcelain casts of women’s vaginas, entitled C***ts…and other Conversations? It was all very dark and the few acoustic exhibitions added a monotonic dirge to the background. I looked at Mags and said, “Are you getting any of this?” She shook her head but we agreed to persevere to see it all. It was all so dreary and depressing, vulgar and crude; even the ‘O’ had a button on it called ‘Art W**k’ with a little pink ‘spitting penis’ icon that led into a discussion on each particular piece. In a so-called leading art gallery… really? Emerging into the light we both felt awful, really sad and depressed, like our trip to the pointless vaults had sucked the very life out of us.
You might think a trip to see some old prison relics would hardly offer an antidote to such misery but our day at Port Arthur was just that. First some great riding as we left Hobart behind and took to the lanes once again down onto the Tasman peninsular. We visited some spectacular coast along here at the Devil’s Kitchen and the Tasman Arch. Port Arthur campsite was a wildlife wonderland full of wallabies and parrots that animated every evening. As to the prison itself, we expected to spend an hour or so padding around some old brick ruins. We wound up spending an entire day at the complex, learning about penal systems and reform back in the days when the UK shipped its undesirables ‘down under’. Back in the 1800’s the law deemed seven-year old children to be old enough to be tried for their crimes as a man. At eight they could be hung and at nine they could be deported to the colonies, thus removing the bad apples from society. On arrival in Australia convicts were mostly put to work clearing the land, building the early settlements, the hard labour deemed an appropriate remedy for their misdemeanors. Hardened cases who reoffended in Oz were then sent on to Port Arthur, a prison with no walls at the extremity of the Tasman Peninsular. Access in those days was by boat only; the surrounding bush was all but impenetrable so there was nowhere to run. Even if you made it through the dense bush up the peninsular, the narrow stretch of land at Eaglehawk Neck was guarded by a dog-line of ferocious mastiffs with no way past.
By the mid-1800’s prison reform was high on the agenda. Quakers in the US had reckoned that hard labour alone was an insufficient deterrent and an alternative system was proposed; solitary confinement where the offender would contemplate his wrongdoings in silence and isolation, denied access to all reading material bar the word of god. A ‘Separate Prison’, based on Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and Pentonville in London, was built at Port Arthur in 1853. Inmates were issued on arrival with a prison uniform, had their name taken from them and were allocated a number by which they would thereafter be known. A list of several hundred rules was read out, the gist of which was that they would serve their term in a solitary cell, where they would spend 23-hours a day contemplating their lot in life. For one-hour they were led to an exercise yard, when they had to wear a hood for the duration of the exercise period and were not permitted to talk to any other prisoners or guards. Even in the prison church the pews had little flap doors so that you could see neither the person to your left nor right, only the preacher out front in his pulpit. Today this whole regime of silence and isolation seems utterly barbaric. Mental cruelty has much more lasting effects than physical punishment and it simply turned most of those processed into lunatics. In fact a lunatic asylum was eventually built at Port Arthur to treat the wreckage of those who had passed through the system.
The prison site provided a fascinating window into those hard times. Undoubtedly many of those incarcerated deserved to be there, murderers, serial thieves, rapists and the like. But the museum detailed some of the other inmates sentenced to transportation for stealing a spoon, or in one case a child who stole a toy. Australians used to be understandably ashamed if they had convict ancestors but today many are proud as these were the men who, through their hard labour, cleared the land allowing the early settlements to take root and thrive. There is a certain kudos to having jail-mate roots, however one Tasmanian confessed to have been shocked to learn on checking into his own genealogy that an ancestor had been sentenced to ‘transportation to the colonies’ for the crime of ‘having carnal knowledge of a horse that was not a mare.’ So, had it been a stallion, that would have been perfectly permissible then?
The curtains to this stage that had been Tasmania were drawing to a close and what a splendid performance it had all been. The encore was a trip to Coles Bay and a hike to the overview above to drop-dead gorgeous sands of Wineglass Bay. Once again I’ll let the photos do the talking on that one. We rode back for a final evening in the good company of our Tassie friends saddened by the fact that we were leaving these fine people, Shorty and Maureen, Brian and Karen and just wishing this wonderful place was just a little closer to home…
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Tasmania