Australia's smallest state, Tasmania draws me back time after time to climb extinct volcanos, walk on deserted white beaches, visit waterfalls in pandanus groves and explore historic Hobart
I won’t even try to write a comprehensive essay on this lovely island just off the southeastern tip of Australia – the libraries, especially the splendid main one in the capital Hobart, have shelves stacked with books on the history and geography of Australia’s smallest state, as well as excellent guides to the sights and scenery.
On the other hand, after many trips to visit our daughter and her family, Tasmania has become so dear to us that I want to share some of our impressions.
The last leg of the long haul from Heathrow – the one-hour hop from Melbourne – is always the best bit of the journey. In a way, it begins as the jumbo jet taxies towards Melbourne airport. ‘Waltzing Matilda’ on the tannoy, passport control, leftover apples into the quarantine bin, and soon we are in the air again, crossing the blue-rippled Bass Strait – and here is the Tasmanian coast, rising out of the ocean as from a contour map, all greens and blues from up here, crossed by a few white empty roads. This is a comfortable small plane: smiling stewardesses chat with the passengers, tourists or Tasmanians home for Christmas; everybody is in a holiday mood.
The plane tilts towards the sandy wetlands near Hobart airport. Already we can see familiar landmarks. Midway Point, Seven-Mile-Beach, and then we are down and walk towards the waving families waiting just inside the small arrivals building with its one and only luggage carousel.
You forget between times how clear and sharply focused everything looks in the Australian air, almost like in some very vivid dream with close and sharply outlined images, and it takes a day or so to become used to it again. Within an hour of our arrival, we are walking the golden sands of our favourite Cremorne Beach, just half an hour from central Hobart but near-empty and with a glorious view over the bay towards the Tasman peninsula and several nameless islands and foreshores, golden green in the afternoon sun. On one end of the beach, great black rocks washed by the waves; on the other, a tidal lagoon, very still, overlooked by treeless round hills like giant tumuli, and beyond, the towering summit of Mount Wellington.
Nothing has changed since our last visit, and Pete at the one shop/post office/filling station remembers us straight away. That’s nice.
Our first excursion is a day out in Hobart town. We drive in our borrowed car across the splendid Tasman Bridge, past the lovely Botanic Gardens, and park at the historic harbour, surrounded by well-restored old warehouses and customs offices. By the marina is the famous Mure’s fish restaurant, where we intend to have our lunch. A cruise ship has docked in the far wharf. Hobart boasts a deep-sea port – the last before the Antarctic – and the visitors provide a welcome boost to the struggling economy of the island. For some time there was a steady decrease in the population, but lately the influx of well-off mainlanders from Melbourne, who buy up properties as second homes, has brought a promise of greater prosperity.
Today is Saturday, and market day at Salamanca. This is one of the local attractions, and a day is hardly long enough to see everything, the many craft stalls selling hardwood and stone garden ornaments, lifelike wading birds and tortoises, painted barrels, hand-sewn period dolls’ dresses, hand-knitted garments, pottery, toys, paintings, home-printed children’s books, jewellery made from local semi-precious stones, leather goods, home-grown strawberries, honey and much more than I can remember. (Oh, and our daughter, Claire, paints her designs in glowing colours on tiles. No harm in a quick commercial!)
And there are international food stalls, and Asian vegetables grown on the slopes of the mountain by Vietnamese boat people who settled here, and buskers of every musical persuasion, from bagpipers to country music and four children earnestly performing chamber music. Around the market, a whole secondary village of restaurants, art galleries and outdoor cafes has sprung up, and all are doing a roaring business.
Hobart is a capital, with a handsome parliament building, a theatre and cinemas, visited by artists and celebrities but with the advantage of being a compact colonial-Victorian city of only about 180,000 people, without the skyscraper centre of other Australian capitals, and beautifully situated around the wide estuary of the river Derwent and straggling up the slopes of Mount Wellington.
Later into our visit we venture into the interior of the island. The lowlands look superficially like rural England but you are never far away from the gum forests and other woodlands, which cover 40 per cent of the countryside. And there we are back in Australia. The last Tasman aborigine may have died a long time ago but the bush – the gum forests, the vegetation, so thick that it is impenetrable for humans in places and, they say, sometimes even for animals – is still the same. There are huge tree ferns, waterfalls, high mountains in the west and many areas inaccessible by car. You walk, or sometimes you can fly, and touch down on a remote river, and lately the former mining railway from Queenstown has been taking tourists into the wilderness. There are animals native only to Tasmania, and you can meet wallabies almost anywhere, although we have seen the Tasmanian devil (in recent years decimated by disease) only in the zoo. But possums, blue-tongued lizards and even an echidna come right up to the door, and a copper snake once came near to the chicken house!
We’ve travelled as far as the rough tracks go into the Cradle Mountain National Park, then watched with admiration the walkers signing the log book before disappearing into the wilderness for at least five days (after that the rangers start looking for them). We have stared through a telescope at the top of some of the tallest gum trees in Australia and seen the spectacle of the Esk river tumbling down Cataract Gorge in Launceston; and spent an eerie night in an abandoned former scout camp near Ben Lomond National Park, listening sleepless to nameless creatures in the roof space; and marvelled at the blowholes on the beautiful east coast.
And then, always too soon, another visit is over. The friendly plane carries us away, the northern shore sinks into the sea. At home there will be photos to transfer to the PC, emails to write and many memories of our family and friends, lots of kindness, smiles and helpfulness to cherish, and hopefully our next trip to plan.