Strahan (et al), TAS
Australia’s largest island is also her smallest state (ACT notwithstanding). It’s probably the most varying, easy-going, coldest, most scenic and cosiest state, and well worth a visit or three. Starting in the capital, we toured around the Apple Isle to the lush pine rain forests and jagged mountains of the west, the scallops of the north, the scenic bays of the east and wildlife of the whole island.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Hobart on christmas day is almost a ghost town. Being dropped off a fair kilometre from our hostel, we followed the street up, past closed boutiques, bars and coffee shops, until it halfway through swapped to being lined by carpet shops, auto repairs and the occasional cat café. It seemed only the Asian restaurants were open*.
Our hostel lacked lobby, reception or staff. A chalked telephone number above a row of key boxes gave a clue, and our Australian SIM card came to use for something other than data. As we had already had our Xmas in Melbourne** we were fine with eating Indian, before checking out the local cinema’s screening of Frozen II. In Australia, you can have beer at the movies. And I’m not talking ’bout a paper cup, I’m talking’ bout a glass of beer.
A full bus left Hobart, setting course for the former fishing and logging town of Strahan on the west coast. The way there was not really long, but it was winding and full of sights.
Lake St Claire is a nice stop for a lunch sandwich, with a distant view of Cradle Mountain, which would be further explored later. We also had a quick stop in Queenstown before reaching our main destination. Queenstown, TAS is nothing like Queenstown, NZ. An old mining town, it has since declined. The surrounding area is one of the few really environmentally messed up in Tasmania; as the purification processes leaked various contaminants into the water, the evaporation also contributed to acidic rain, causing the vegetation, and with it, the wildlife to gradually vanish. The mining has since stopped, but the town itself doesn’t exactly prosper.
Musts in Strahan
Strahan is another example of a town that used to rely on environmentally questionable activities: logging. The mighty Huon Pine can be found in the area. A truly impressive tree, its wood produces a natural oil that makes it impervious to rotting. It is also extremely slow-growing, and as such exceedingly strong. Needless to say, the pines cost a hefty price, and wasn’t made cheaper by the difficult terrain in which they grow. Taking a boat cruise in the harbour also takes you up Gordon river, lined with lush rainforests and tranquility, the former in which the pines grow.
Nowadays, the logging has declined, partly due to the area now being a protected one. Strahan instead relies mostly on salmon farming and tourism. Macquarie Harbour is the natural bay and was at a point the ship building hub of Tasmania. The Huon Pines, along with the fact that the penal colony of Sarah Island providing free labour, made for good conditions for ship building.
Sarah Island has been described as Hell on earth, as well as a reasonably comfortable place to stay. Quite polarising for a place that hosted repeat offenders; convicts of convicts. The change was as gradual and sudden as the fall of the eastern block in the late 1989’s. The death of a corrupt warden, the arrival of an enterprising ship-builder, the organisation of convicts who had had enough, the firing of a regional governor…. it all added up, and Sarah Island went from, for example, issuing over 9000 lashes with the double cat-o-nine-tails*** one year, to merely a few the next, and the convicts pretty much went from hell to heck.
Being a penal colony, Sarah Island has its fair share of escape attempts. One of the most infamous must be Alexander Pearce. Successfully escaping the island and making it to the mainland, he and some fellow convicts nevertheless had to make it through the dense forests and hilly terrain. Not being trained bushmen, they eventually reverted to cannibalism, with Pearce being one of only two to make it into open land. He was later found, captured and hung by the neck until dead.
A remarkably less macabre escape was that of The Frederick. Ten convicts, under the unofficial leadership of former whaler James Porter, managed to hi-jack the ship they themselves had built from the design of esteemed Scottish shipwright David Hoy. Allegedly, all ten convicts made their way to Chile, where they lived as free men for some time. Four were later recaptured, and at least two made it to USA and died in freedom. The whole story is hilariously acted out in the play “The Ship that Never Was”. Australia’s longest-running stage play, the performance is played out with audience participation with children and adults alike, and is one of the highlights of the whole trip. A must in Strahan.
There are other musts in Strahan. Strahan Backpackers is one of the cosiest hostels you’ll find, and it’s run by the unique and loveable man known simply as Bumpy. Funny, original and welcoming, he invites each traveller not to his backpackers, or his hostel, but to his home. He’s quite the character, and he knows where to go for some fish and chips.
And that is Bay Fish Co. Another must in Strahan. Located by the beach, wherein a shipwreck has made its home, inside a non-impressive shed of corrugated steel, stands a fish’n’chippery that serves the best fish&chips in the world.
Scratch the “L”
Further up, it was time to re-acquaint us with Cradle Mountain, this time through a hike. Starting at the scenic Dove Lake, the easy walk became increasingly rougher, steeper and more jagged. Eventually it was more climbing than walking, but all who set off reached the peak, Marion’s Lookout. Reaching either of Cradle Mountains double summits is a much grander commitment, though, taking a few days hiking. We had some phot ops, had our packed lunch and had the option of going down the same way (shorter) or via Wombat Pool (longer and more strenuous). I chose the longer option, natch. And at every sign for Wombat Pool, someone had scratched off the last “l”, natch. I saw the pool, I saw the poo (which I photographed, much to my wife’s slightly jelly squee), but I saw no wombats.
That happened some hour later, after visiting Waldheim Chalet, a wilderness getaway built by German immigrant Gustav Weindorfer, and to an almost unearthly squee from my significant other; Tasmania had delivered!
An almost unearthly squee from my significant other; Tasmania had delivered!
After a lovely, albeit unorthodox Christmas eve we flew over to Hobart, Tasmania, on Christmas day. Apparently everyone and their auntie do celebrate Christmas. Especially in the restaurant under our hostel. But we got them back since most of the guests had gotten rooms at the hostel and we woke them up at pre dawn. We started our new adventure at 0600. In Taz one does not see white swans, one sees black swan-appalooza. So I had high hopes for my wombat search. Finally I would see the famed animal with the square poop. Black swans, paddymelons, echidnas, kangas and roos but no wombats and not a speck of poop. I was slowly starting to lose hope. But in a place as lovely, fascinating and multi-faceted as Tasmania I soon got other thing on my mind. We drove trough almost ghostly towns filled with despair and depression. When the mines closed no other employment could be found and with the surrounding nature destroyed by the poisonous bi-products nothing could be harvested nor eaten. Not an easy feat to attract tourists then. But a place that has seen their main trade almost disappear is Strahan. The place where it rains 300 days out of the year (we had two lovely rainless days) has manages to turn around and cater to tourists in an charming and ecological way. We got to stay at the home of Bumpy. A true original with an enormous heart as well as a bunch of platypi living in the stream bisecting his property. No, we did not see a single one of them but that was probably due to our inability to not giggle and laugh. Bumpy made sure that we would get the best fish and chips ever. He called his mate and told us where to go, and oh boy am I glad we did. Or am I? The best fish and chips ever. And it is on the other side of the world….
Sarah island. It hurt going there. The evil, the nastiness and the awful way of punishing humans and profiteering from it. It was a hard pill to swallow. As well as the treatment of the indigenous people of Tasmania. The genocide, the rapes and the enslavement. I won’t go into detail but it was awful. That day was day filled with impressions. Good and bad.
But i did get to see a lot of wombat poop at the bottom of Cradle Mountain. A lot. But no wombat. Our guide had never seen so much poop before and he was very concerned over the lack of wombat sightings. Normally he saw half as much poop, and plenty of wombats. I did feel rather sad when we left the park but Lo And Behold! A fat little butt wiggled its way down the hill. YEEEEESSSSSS! A Wombat!!! Joy! Happy!!! Nobody on that mountain missed my squees of happiness.
*) Which was doubly disappointing as our hostel was literally door to door neighbour with a brewery tap room
**) on Xmas eve, as one should
***) allegedly named Macquarie Cat