Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged roads

  • Down Home

    Down Home

    When Peter Conrad was twenty years old, in 1986, he put his belongings in a burning incinerator in the backyard of his family home in the northern suburbs of Hobart. He had a Rhodes scholarship, and went off to Oxford. To all appearances he had grown out of the mould cast for him, against his will, by the island of his birth.

    Conrad became a noted scholar. He didn't return to Tasmania for a decade. In 1987, he had Down Home published, a memoir of his later Tasmanian experiences. After a childhood in which he barely left Hobart's north, Conrad travelled widely around the island: to Queenstown, to Melaleuca, to Wineglass Bay, to Tiagarra, to the Pedder dam.

    The book is not widely cherished here, mostly because the author refuses to bang on about how uniquely beautiful it is and we are. That is essentially what we want to read more than any real critique; we dearly crave outside acceptance. But frankly, Conrad didn't love Tasmania, although a creeping appreciation for his island of origin appears throughout the book.

    Like any memoir, though, the book is more about Conrad than it is about its purported subject.

    Re-reading Down Home recently, I began worrying that my work is uncomfortably analogous to that book, which precedes my writing by three decades. Like Conrad, I am writing a travel memoir about my own island. There are some differences, of course. I still live in Tasmania, for example, and I am at times rapturous about how thoroughly I love walking and working here. I also know the island more intimately than Conrad ever did (I admit that I relish finding those handful of mistakes in Down Home). But there is a similarity in form, in themes. It is a conundrum, or perhaps it is merely interesting.

    I have chosen to live without a home for the summer. When asked, I explain that is a matter of practicality - I work away often, renting a room would be a waste of money - but implicit in the decision is the effort I am making to expand my home territory to the entire island. Home is here thanks to my childhood, and over the past years many aspects of Tasmania have become very familiar to me (dolerite, myrtle, wedge-tailed eagles), but I still feel like a foreigner in certain corners, certain conditions. I am only now starting to learn the winds and swells of the east coast. I must better understand kelp, abalone, orchids, chert. There is a fairly unattractive beach in the north-west, with an astounding geological diversity that I am can barely begin to pull apart.

    It's a dangerous decision though. Whenever I finish up with one or another season of my life, I wonder if it's time to settle down, to roam less, to cultivate a patch for myself. I now see that I am getting further from that ideal. It seems that I will never own land. I came to an intersection of my life: whether to be less or more of a dirtbag, in the parlance of my bushwalking colleagues. I am more of a dirtbag than ever. I have a pile of books and a 1992 Ford Laser to my name.

    That car recently broke down. It's fixed again, but now, more recently, my laptop has carked it. It suddenly blacked out and went quiet, never to make its breathy hum again. Someone is currently trying to pry the data out of its now-useless case. But I may have lost much work.

    It has so happened that most of my identity has been derived from growing up here. That's what Peter Conrad was writing about too. I have perhaps accepted that more readily, and devoted myself to the task of understanding what it means to be Tasmanian: to live amongst these materials, in this climate. I am a state of constant travel - by vehicle and by foot - roaming around trying to sus out what it is that I belong to. But the thought has lately struck me: what if it doesn't turn out? What if being post-modern, middle-class, and non-Aboriginal are conditions that preclude me from truly connecting to country?

    Peter Conrad wrote of being afraid when he was alone in Tasmania. For me, it's what I like best. The other night I was driving on the highway as a sunset sent all sorts of colours sprawling over the Western Tiers and Ben Lomond. I don't need to share that with a mob; it seems enough to share it with the land, with its ecosystems, with history. While Tasmania  - as a concept - becomes popular in a way that poor Peter Conrad could never have guessed, I am more inclined to find areas that haven't yet been touched by branding or signage. I recognise that I am pushing myself out further into a sea of solitude. As the years progress, I suspect that this will become an estrangement, from which it will be harder to return.

    I also think I will find it worthwhile, so long as the land doesn't turn against me. But it might. Recently I returned to a spot, a pile of rocks at the end of an east coast beach, where I once discussed how I might retreat from the world, distant, if it all got too ugly. The problem is that Tasmania is not in fact remote enough to be immune from the intense changes to the natural order of the world. Just out from those same rocks, oceanic surface temperatures have risen dramatically. What if, just as I started to feel like I had gotten in step with the swirling vortices of our ecosystems, they spun out of control?

  • A Breakdown on the Peninsula

    A Breakdown on the Peninsula


    Some weeks back I drove down to the Tasman Peninsula to catch up with my mate Old Dog. He’s working on the new track to Cape Raoul; that evening, he and I would sit on the dolerite tip of that cape, each with a longneck of Cascade stout, as the sun’s descent behind us pushed a bluff-shaped shadow onto the sea beneath.

    But before that I strolled to Shipstern Bluff, to have lunch on a warm rock. The pigface was just starting to flower. A dead possum lay prostrate on the steps that have been recently fashioned, as if she had taken a big tumble on its way down to the shore. With reverence I stepped over her. Lunch was flatbread and babaghanoush.

    This is a well-known surf spot, where blustery southerlies and a powerful swell bring the sullen ocean to smooth shapes of rideable waves. More comfortable travelling over rocks and roots, I feel like a foreigner at the ocean’s edge, but I marvel at the forms and texture, and I love the changing colours in the heart of the swell.

    Most of all I hope to intuit the special life-giving meanings of the coast. Seeing bull kelp flail in the surf’s frenzy, I remember that this is one of the most significant species in the island’s ecosystems. Some of the finest Tasmanian crafts have been made of this stuff for millennia. Its value is ongoing, both practically and symbolically.

    The ocean is not my realm. But another good mate, Danny Dick, will happily lay out on a fibreglass plank and turn himself to flotsam on the waves. Sometimes I’ve followed him out to the beach and sat in the back of his car, reading and writing, while he clads himself in a few millimetres of neoprene and plunges in.

    This year, in fact, I followed him to Bali. Stationed there on that island for work, he spent his weekends by the famous waves of Uluwatu. Danny was writing a series of reflections for an online surf journal, exploring the introspective nature of surfing and of travel, about “the creeping sense of lost time” that backdrops island lives. I'd like to see what he'd have to write about, if he went to sit at Shipstern Bluff with a cheap lunch.

    As for Old Dog, he and I met playing footy. We have since discovered a complicated network of other commonalities. He’s also a writer, a fine one, who is able to draw together his diverse interests and speak clearly on them - particularly when it comes to Aussie Rules football. I had read his observations long before I met him in person. They have much the same tone as Danny's writings, and the subject matter may only be different on the surface. 

    Old Dog and I had a beer and a yarn on Cape Raoul, then, we walked back to the carpark in the dark. He jumped in my car and we drove back to his place on an empty winding road, flushing out rabbits with the headlights on high beam. There was his partner Elena. She was from Venezuela, and her pregnant belly was like a full moon, containing a constellation of possibilities.

    It turns out that Old Dog and Elena met through a publican in north-east Tassie, who is also the same man that once owned my car. He’d then sold it to Danny, who pretty much gave it to me. Invisible threads continue to run between these friends of mine, and even the old pile of carparts that I drive is burdened with our stories.

    Let me introduce another mate: Johnny, whom I met in Iceland two years back. He was coming to Tassie with the worst possible timing – he arrived to the airport just as I was about to board an outward-bound flight. But at least I could lend my car to him and his girlfriend Sierra, and let them enjoy the Tasmanian landscape.

    I'm sure they were grateful, until the starter motor shat itself at the Shipstern Bluff carpark.

    In a flurry of phone calls and text messages from elsewhere in Australia, I managed to get Johnny and Sierra and Old Dog to meet each other at a pub on the Tasman Peninsula. From all reports they got along very well indeed.
    I believe a bottle of bourbon may have been involved. Johnny and Sierra managed to hitch-hike off the peninsula to meet me later in the week, but the car has been left behind. With Old Dog’s help I’ve at least managed to get it to a mechanic.

    Maybe you have struggled to follow this unwieldy narrative. I have tried to simplify it all, but it’s even more complex than I’ve allowed here, and the plot is distractingly messy. But you don’t need to keep up with who’s who or how they’re all connected here. The point is that in the far-off south-east of Tasmania, where the land breaks off into the ocean, myriad threads of my life have come together, patterns repeat themselves and subtle affinities are revealed.

    I am getting to know the Tasman Peninsula better and better, although it’s country that still holds its secrets. At every sunset, the tall cliffs of Cape Raoul throw a shadow over the sea. Bull kelp, with fierce tenacity, holds onto boulders as it’s battered into the surf. Old Dog and Elena have had a daughter: they have called her Cielo, a Spanish word meaning both ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’.

    My car is now at a mechanic’s on the Peninsula. Perhaps I’ll be on the bus to Nubeena today, or perhaps I won’t be able to pick it up for some weeks. Given that I live out of my car, you might think I’d be a bit anxious to retrieve it quickly, but I won’t be too stressed if it doesn’t work out yet. Never mind. The ocean is not my realm, but some days, the land of Tasmania that it contains feels entirely like home – the whole lot of it. And the preponderance of mates here are my kin.

  • History of a Highway

    History of a Highway

    A road is not like a railway, built mile by mile, inching along to an inevitable goal. No, a road begins with tracks, either of men or animals; it is improved haphazardly as occasion demands.”

    So wrote George Hawley Stancombe, in his self-published history of the Midlands Highway, History in Van Diemen’s Land (1968). Anyone making the journey between Tasmania’s two urban centres today would notice that the haphazard improvements continue. The earth along the highway’s sides scoured and graded, big boulders broken, lanes added, and (for the meantime) vehicles being slowed down to a grinding halt at certain sections.

    But we presume that in the end it will make the journey between Hobart and Launceston smoother, quicker, and safer. We chip away gladly at the amount of minutes spent on that road as it glides amidst the farmlands and villages of Tasmania’s eastern interior.

    In doing so we dismiss the efforts of Lieutenant Laycock, who on February 12th 1807, accompanied by four men and three weeks worth of provisions, staggered bedraggled into Hobart Town, having hoofed it from the Tamar to the Derwent.

    Their route was not identical to our highway’s, and the landscape is not the same. They spoke of thick forests – now all the land is cleared for agriculture – and they seem to have been in the vicinity of New Norfolk. Their adventure, along with those of several other parties that followed theirs, may have involved encounters with Aboriginals and bushrangers, and required that they overcome swollen rivers and tough terrain, not to mention the transport of their possessions.

    The first vehicular passages occurred in 1824, with two mail carriages relaying, meeting centrally at York Plains on Friday afternoons. Rendezvousing at the White Hart Inn, they quickly toasted one another, and then returned from whence they came with the other man’s cargo. (Mr. Presnell, proprietor of the inn, is said to have served “good mutton, indifferent wine and very poor bread.”)

    The name of York Plains, along with Ross, Epping Forest, and anything with his or his wife’s name in it came from Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who, with Elizabeth Macquarie and other dignitaries, traversed the island in the early days of the colony. But was Antill Ponds named after one of his men, one Major Antill, or a bushranger whose head was bashed in by one of his colleagues? And who is responsible for the naming of Jericho, Jordan and Bagdad – and were they really reading from the Bible or the Arabian Nights?

    Each traveller in Tasmania has their impressions from the road. Many have a story of accident, or more often, a near-accident. The weather has come and gone on us, hazing up Ben Lomond or the Western Tiers on either side; Mount Wellington, either ahead or behind, looks stern and foreboding, or glorious and inviting. On a recent trip down, there was snow down to about 500 metres in the midlands.

    We have had a good toasted sandwich in Kempton or a kick of the footy at Oatlands. Sometimes the two hours have passed too quickly, and sometimes, they’ve dragged on forever. Everyone has had a coffee at Campbell Town – but do you prefer Zep’s or Red Bridge?

    Poor old Brighton, bypassed a few years back: who knows what happens in Brighton now? These days, in and out of Hobart we pass the former Pontville Detention Centre. This was an army barracks, and then for a short while, housed asylum seekers. It is back in private hands now, and its history, shadowy, may just disappear as we familiarise ourselves with it as a benign, unregistered, fairly bland landmark along the highway.

    Just as we ignore the silhouettes in steel commissioned, I am told, to help drivers keep their attention as they head through the Southern Midlands. The gunpoint mugging of a gig, the surveyor’s strained efforts, the emus and thylacines, and the forlorn figure of the hangman at the turn-off to Stonor all blend into the hedgerows, the sloping fields, the solitary gums, the homesteads and so on, as we mostly move hastily between the urban centres.

    But I have missed too much out! History and anecdote crowd my attempts to write this brief account of the Midlands Highway. There are those who have lived along the highway, who have seen it snake towards and away from them, and those people and animals who formed its basic route before Europeans ever dragged their sheep to the fields or planted a radiata pine or poppy. There are truly funny stories to tell, and miraculous moments, and maybe I could even muster up something romantic. I am sure there will be many readers who feel the same.

    I won’t tell it all now. But someday I, like Lieutenant Laycock, will stroll from the Tamar to the Derwent – and then there will be time to unravel the stories. Even a highway journey ought be taken on foot sometime.