Coast to Coast

I awoke to the soft patter of raindrops on the roof of the small A-frame hut. Normally a tranquil sound, this morning it filled me with foreboding. I had a long ride ahead, up over the endless hairpins of the mountains, through the Franklin Gordon national park that makes up the entirety of south-west Tasmania. Looking at the map which was studded with peaks, I tried to work out, if it was seven degrees C at sea level in Strahan, how cold it was likely to be on a plateau surrounded by 1000 metre peaks. Ice and motorcycles don’t really go together. Rain which might be minor inconvenience in a car causes significant problems – not just because you get wet and then you get cold, but by compromising the adhesion of the tyres. I remember reading somewhere that on a car’s tyres you have a tread surface the size of the palm of your hand – times four. On a bike you have a tread surface the size of a postage stamp. Add a layer of water between that sticky rubber contact patch and the road, and adhesion is dramatically reduced. When you steer on a bike, you are more accurately using counter-steering – steering to the left to lean the bike right, and vice versa. This shifts the contact patch of the tyre from the centre line across to the edge when you initiate a lean to go round a bend. That, at least, is the theory. In practice it means that you have to be even more alert than usual, and if you find yourself going into a bend that suddenly tightens up more than expected, whatever you do, don’t touch the brakes. You’ve got to lean it – keep on the gas and lean it over to get round the bend, even if that road surface is rushing by just inches below you, even if you scrape the toe of your boot on the tarmac, lean it over – and look where you want to go, not at the strip of abrasive macadam which is looming larger in your consciousness by the second. Your nerve will fail before the bike does, so it’s all about keeping faith.

The rain was falling steadily as I headed out of Strahan, with 300km to go till Hobart on the opposite side of the island. I was into the twisties immediately, heading for the mining town of Queenstown. I had the usual business, soon after setting off, of having to adjust glasses, scarf and jacket collar to stop the chilly draught, but I was pretty snug considering. There was no other traffic, which was fortunate – I’ve found that cars tend to be quicker than bikes through the bends – especially in the wet – but on the straights they held me up. I roared along at 100kmh in fifth gear, dropping down to third for the bends – the engine note rising an octave to a tigerish snarl – and picking my line to just kiss the apex, either the white centre line for a right-hander, or over to within a few inches of the edge on a left hander. I noticed, almost absent-mindedly, that I was far smoother on the left-hand bends.

After forty minutes or so I descended a steep set of hairpins that led past a huge industrial site, and I spotted a sign that said Vedanta Mining – the Indian corporation that has displaced countless villagers in the eastern states of India. Queenstown itself looked like a small mountain hamlet huddled in the base of the valley, with low, Scandinavian-style wooden houses, their chimneys smoking in the early morning chill. The road began to climb again, up the opposite hill to the one I had just descended, the hairpins signposted 35kmh or 25kmh. I roared up the whole thing in second gear, using the full width of my lane to get round the bends, from one side to the other. The road was still wet but it had stopped raining, and there were occasional glimpses of sunshine. I passed a sign that said “No Fuel – next 88km” and found that my eyes kept flickering over the trip counter that told me I had 180km left till empty. Coming up over a rise I passed the last few dwellings on the outskirts of Queenstown, and then the bush closed in on all sides. I could see a small white van far ahead of me, and the road led through a wide valley with a lake off to the left – Lake Burbury. The van was making good speed, so I sat about a kilometer behind it and started to relax a bit again, clicking up into sixth gear and just letting the Tiger have its head, growling along at 4000rpm.

As roads go, this was in the top ten for scenic rides, somewhere near the top. The scenery grew wilder, and the road – the Lyell Highway – ran through heart of the national park. Peaks loomed on all sides, and there was a damp foliage scent from the stands of dripping trees. The sun had come out and the road was steaming. Off to my left was a wall of mossy rock hundreds of feet high and small waterfalls ran down it and pooled out across the tarmac. I was in a kind of trance where all thought had stopped, all internal dialogue temporarily silenced – just the reflexes and training of riding a motorcycle happening somewhere beneath the surface as a constant activity while my mind was in the “mist gulfs of no-thinking”, as Ted Hughes put it: tight bend ahead so two fingers on the front brake to shave off ten k’s, clutch in and click down one gear, raise revs and clutch out to engage drive – so smoothly it might have been an automatic – and then look for the apex, choose the line, and lean it – push on the right bar to go right, touch more gas to keep me driving through the bend, and shoot through it and out the other side like a cork out of a bottle. Eyes moving all over the road ahead, scanning for debris, now near, now far, taking in the next yellow warning sign – slippery road ahead – uh yeah, tell me about it.

Emerging from the woods onto a high plateau three mountains stood just to the right of the road: two rounded hills and a jagged triangular spike in between them. There was a lay-by so I pulled in and switched off. Immediate silence. Visor up, gloves off, glasses off, undo the helmet strap, helmet off, earplugs out, glasses on. Silence. The wind plucked at the grasses causing them to shiver, and clouds chased their shadows across the expanse of moorland before me. There was an information board, which informed me that this point straddled the Great Divide between east and west Tasmania: to the West lay the wild, wet and mountainous bush which I had just ridden through, which received two-and-a-half to three metres of rain a year. To the east lay the more fertile flatlands, the arable areas, the softness of farmland, with more sunshine, more warmth. I walked a short distance off the road through humpy tussock grass which twisted the ankles, and looked back at where I had come from. Jagged peaks serrated the skyline, merging with the clouds. I stood and looked at the landscape in front of me for perhaps five minutes, just drinking it in. Then I turned my back on it, walked over to the bike, fired it up and rode back down to civilisation.

What sort of people stay in backpacker hostels? It’s not only backpackers. All of human life is here. There are young Chinese or Japanese with enormous wheeled suitcases, doing Tasmania in a week. There are the young Europeans, tousle-haired, wearing various ethnic garments and usually sporting titanic hangovers in the morning. The older, solo travellers – ladies in their 50s clad in gore-tex hiking pants, with an air of gung-ho cheeriness in the face of adversity such as bathrooms with doors that don’t shut and grubby kitchen utensils. Many are travelling alone for the first time, usually prompted by some personal upheaval: the end of a marriage, the children grown up, death of parents. They are the ones who are first up in the mornings, heading out with daypack and guidebook determined to ‘do’ the city in full.

Last night a family arrived – locals by the look of them, with two small blonde kids who stared uncomprehendingly around them at the various multi-cultural grown-ups coming and going. The man moved uncomfortably and had bandages on his hands. Their house had burned down the night before and he’d just been released from hospital. The whole family had been walking around Hobart trying to find somewhere to stay, lugging an assortment of bags – a balloon bobbed gaudily on a string from one of them. The kids played quietly in a corner as the couple waited for the owner to arrive to see if there was a room. Eventually he turned up, but either there was no room or it was beyond their budget. A series of phone calls established that there was space at the Pickled Frog down the road, and they trudged off into the night carrying everything they owned, the balloon clutched tightly in the hand of the little girl who was by now too tired to walk any more, her head drooping onto her mother’s shoulder.

MONA – the museum of old and new art, is Hobart’s great cultural showpiece. Founded by an eccentric millionaire who made his money from online gambling, it’s a satirical poke at society – Tasmanian society in particular – and sits on a peninsula to the north of the city in a fairly rough neighbourhood. Entry is apparently free for neighbourhood residents, but few go. A catamaran decked out in urban camouflage departs from Hobart waterfront throughout the day, its seats shaped like sheep, assorted plastercast livestock decorating the interior. The ferry cuts across the deep blue water of the harbour and under the elegant arch of the Tasman Bridge before docking at MONA, a 20 minute ride away. Entrance to the museum is across a tennis court and in through a doorway market Southgate Shopping Mall – a satirical poke at the consumerist society which has the effect of making dozens of visitors walking back and forth around the tennis court looking for the way in. It would be possible to spend the entire day in MONA – my three hour visit didn’t feel like quite enough. Heading along dark corridors to the eerie rumble of ambient music I saw the walls were decorated with lines of binary code, a series of ones and noughts leading into a corridor around a black rectangular cube. Set into the walls were small vases covered in ancient cuneiform script, the modern day equivalents continuing on around them: 11100100001011111001. The corridor turned left; unthinkingly I had gone around it anti-clockwise – perhaps my left-hand bend preference taking over again. I entered a low doorway at the heart of the installation, the music deepened and I was standing in the dark centre of a cuneiform ka’aba, the binary reaching high up the walls. Looking up I started in surprise: it looked as if something was descending from above, like an elevator. I realised it was my own reflection from a mirrored ceiling. I stood in this dark chamber of numbers grinning upwards, a shadowy outline of myself reflected back at me.

Back in the corridors I entered a small side room which looked like a library. A party of schoolboys had entered just before me and they took a cursory glance around the room before laughing derisively: “All the books are blank!” They filed out, jostling each other at the doorway. All the book spines were blank. On the desk notebooks lay open, all the pages pure white. Another group of people entered, looked around for a few seconds and filed out again with an air of disappointment. In the corner leaned a museum attendant, watching the reactions of the people who entered. “That must be like an exhibition in itself,” I said, “watching people’s responses.” She nodded and laughed. Heading out along a bridge I stopped to watch a short film beamed onto the floor of a pedestrian crossing filmed from above in a city somewhere. The movements of the people were speeded up, and flocks of them arrived at the crossing. Then a giant hand appeared at the left of the screen and arranged some of them at the lights. Traffic arrived, and the hand blocked it, then swept the tide of pedestrians across, moving back to pick up a straggler, as if it were the artist’s own hand creating an installation.

Further on again a gigantic Buddha in the lotus position contemplated a mirror image of itself – but the opposite Buddha was missing its head. The forward tilt of the Buddha indicated sorrowfulness somehow, as if its own head were bowed in grief. On a panel opposite was a black and white film of a woman brushing her hair. The camera was close up on her face, and in one hand she held a brush, in the other a comb. She toyed with her hair, drawing it seductively over her face and pouting for the camera. “Am I beautiful?” she sighed. She drew the brush down the black curtain of her hair slowly. “Am I beautiful?” She encountered a knot, the strokes became harder. She grasped the brush firmly and pulled it through her hair, faster and faster, her expression becoming agitated, then scraping the brush and comb over the sides of her face harder and harder, all the while repeating the refrain, almost pleadingly. “Am I beautiful?” Yes, you are.

There was a staccato mechanical sound from the far side of the hall – like a high pressure spray. Heading over to a platform I saw a curtain of water falling in short bursts, with words visible for a few seconds amidst it, picked out in light reflecting off the droplets. They were words taken from random Google searches. “Stabbed. Injured. Back. Body. Guilty. Nurses. Outside. Former. Refugee. Claim. Balloon. Fire. Apologises. Police. Muslim. Assault. Australia’s. $40m. Aid. Cambodia. Murder. Your. Sexual. Gas. Defence. Ballarat.” The mesmerising cascade of words fell, making a curious kind of sense, like a half-heard television blaring away in the corner of a room, occasional words lodging in the consciousness. Security theatre, reflecting people’s preoccupations, no less real than the real.

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The Wild West Coast

The small town of Stanley announced itself from afar by means of an enormous protuberance known locally as The Nut. This ancient volcanic hill looms over the town like a miniature Table Mountain, with steep sides and a plateau on top. The town was tiny – once again I drove through it looking for the centre, finding myself at the wharf before I realised I’d gone too far. I had booked into the Stanley Hotel, which had a couple of nice en suite rooms and a couple of others with shared facilites. The room itself was pleasant enough and looked out across little gingerbread cottage shops towards The Nut. There were at least six pillows on the bed, including a black sequinned one – an oddly burlesque touch in such an otherwise staid little place. Arriving in full biking gear, swathed in an Afghan scarf and sporting a week of silver beard, I distinctly got the impression that I was lowering the tone. There was a kind of small-town snootiness that didn’t quite work – like provincials putting on their best manners while genteelly slurping tea from saucers with little finger crooked aloft.

I decided to walk up The Nut, and found a nice lady of a certain age in Church Street who gave me directions to the path. I was itching to get going as the sun was getting low in the sky, but she appeared keen to chat to a visitor – especially one from England; an unusual situation in Tasmania in my experience so far. I’ve wondered why it should be, but I’ve found the people here reticent to say the least. Perhaps like some colonised peoples they find it hard to forgive the chief culprit – after all, England was responsible for the island’s appalling foundation as a giant prison. Perhaps it’s just a small-town suspicion of the outsider, and a wariness of being judged. Either way, I’ve found Tasmanians far more guarded and unforthcoming than most Australians, although this is naturally enough a completely spurious generalisation based on a handful of experiences, albeit ones frequent enough for me to think it worth mentioning.

So… the convict stain. Robert Hughes, in his superb book The Fatal Shore, on the founding of Australia as a colony, estimates that 22% of Australians have convict ancestry. There’s long been a slight stigma attached to this – never more so than when Australia was a backwater that had a bit of an inferiority complex; one that is not entirely absent even to this day. Many Australians, particularly of the older generation, still regard England as ‘home’, and see themselves as occupiers of some far-flung outlying nation-state that has a distinct sense of identity in its own right, but is nonetheless full of reminders of British rule. The Union flag in the corner of their own. The Queen’s head on the currency. The ER II post boxes. The judicial system – even down to the barristers’ wigs. The republic debate is still unresolved, and, although undoubtedly an irrelevance to many, it lingers on. Up until roughly the 1970s Australia looked far more to England than it does today, and was a fairly bungaloid, suburban sort of place that took all the worst elements of ‘Little England’ – the appalling, school-canteen food of meat and two veg; the ludicrous drinking laws; the blatant racism of the White Australia immigration policy; the net-curtain-twitching, parochial mind-your-manners snobbery. Then, in the 1980s, it all began to change. Australia suddenly realised what hemisphere it was in, and starting looking north, to its Asian neighbours. People became more cosmopolitan as a result of more liberal immigration policies. They began experimenting with different cuisines. Australia topped UN indexes for quality of life. And perhaps there was no greater culmination of this than the Sydney Olympics in 2000, where, as the fireworks cascaded over Sydney Harbour Bridge, Australia announced its sense of identity in a bold shout that reverberated around the world. As a result, the stigma of convict ancestry has changed; it has instead become a unique identifier – a badge of Australianness. That from such inauspicious beginnings, under the colonial heel, the Australians have managed to create a wealthy, thriving, cosmopolitan place with an enviable quality of life and many enlightened policies (with a few notable exceptions, such as the woeful development indices for many Aborigines who are still the victims of institutional discrimination, despite the best efforts of countless social initiatives), is a remarkable testament, and one of which they should rightly be proud.

Nevertheless, scratch the surface of this brash and self-reliant society and you realise the cocky assurance is often skin deep. There’s still a bit of a chip on the shoulder – the slight fear that unless they jump up and down and make a lot of noise, that the rest of the world might forget they are here. In part this may be caused by the very land that they inhabit; there’s no greater fear than that of being ‘lost in the bush’. It’s a big place – people disappear. Australian life clings to the shoreline, with 80% of the population living within ten miles of the coast; at its arid, red heart, there’s an emptiness, a void, which acts like a gigantic sink, threatening to pull modern life and its trappings into the vortex like society going down the plughole. Nick Roeg’s seminal film Walkabout illustrates this quite beautifully, in a movie with hardly any dialogue. A father and his two children – a small boy and the teenage Jenny Agutter – end up far from civilisation. The father commits suicide, and the children, still in their English-style school uniforms, walk off into the bush, discarding a tie here, a jacket there, along the way. They are rescued by an Aborigine boy who shows them water, but increasingly he develops feelings for Jenny Agutter, who is aware of them but cannot bring herself to acknowledge it, so great is the gulf of cultural incomprehension between them. The film ends with her standing in a suburban kitchen, with a white husband who just got home from the office and is complaining about his boss, and for a moment she stares out of the window at the blue swimming pool winking in the sunlight and the plangent music swells, reminiscing about the lost idyll, the state of grace that she almost lived as a child of nature, out in the bush with the Aborigine boy.

It was a stiff climb up The Nut; a chairlift up to the summit stood motionless, the chairs swaying idly in the wind. The plateau opened up and I looked down upon the town, out on a peninsula with a beach on either side – one half-decent tsunami and there won’t be much left of Stanley. In the distance brooding sea cliffs fell away into the ultramarine ocean, topped with fields so green they looked artificial. It looked like Shetland or some North Atlantic isle. A solitary figure was hunched over a tripod, photographing the cliffs at a viewpoint, and I stood a short distance away until she had finished. Turning round she spotted me and jumped: “Jeeze – you scared the crap out of me!” I apologised. We walked together for a while – she had grown up on the Cape York peninsula in the far north of Queensland, and now lived in Huon, in the far south of Tasmania – from one extreme to the other. Soon I left her behind with her tripod, and descended through a low forest, where I startled a wallaby who thumped away into the bush. On the path down I encountered four Asian ladies staggering upwards and resting every few metres. They were from Thailand, and had one of those telescopic poles attached to their camera for selfies. I was  encouraged into a group selfie, and obliged with a peace sign for the camera. They were all very friendly, and I saw them again at dinner back at the hotel, and then again at breakfast at Moby Dick’s cafe. Small place, Stanley.

The bistro was full for dinner that night. It was a Sunday evening, and the locals were out in force – everyone seemed to know everyone else. People were dressed up, relatively speaking, and on their best behaviour. The tone was only slightly jarred by the extraordinary soundtrack – the stereo was playing glam rock and heavy metal. The menu was a sort of mod-Oz melange of staples – fish and chips, country pie, Thai curry. It advertised its local credentials in fairly unabashed terms: “Our fish and chips is sourced by local fishermen who catch shark from the clear, cold waters of the Bass Strait. Is there any other way?” Well, some people think so. It went on: “Everyone knows Tasmanian potatoes are the best. We use the finest selection for our chips, sourced from north-west growers.” On and on it went, trumpeting its own credentials, random apostrophes all over the place, commas instead of full stops… and lots of ellipses. I sat at the table for a good quarter of an hour trying to catch the eye of a waitress without success, and contemplating performing the Indian style of summoning –  a loud shout of “Bhaiya!” with arm raised aloft. In this place they’d have been talking about it for a year. In the end I went up to the bar. A girl detached herself from the till and came over. “Can I get you a drink, sir?”

“I’d like to order dinner actually.”

“We take food orders at your table, sir.”

“Yes, well, you see, the problem is, you don’t.”

“Huh?”

“I’ll have the Bass Strait shark in batter and north-west chips, please. And a ginger beer.”

She wrote it down grudgingly.

I later consolidated my credentials as a difficult customer by asking for a coffee in the lounge. The lounge was three sofas in the back of a bar, which was propped up by a few local guys in random bits of workwear. The New Zealand marine outfitter Stormline seems to be a popular look for rural Tasmania, complete with gumboots. Sipping my flat white and tapping away on the laptop, listening to more glam rock from a juke box, I felt like I was distinctly lacking in general blokeishness. Sure enough, when a couple of the local guys got up to leave, one, drunker than the others, grabbed his mate by the arm and said: “There’s a bloke sitting there drinking coffee!” Swaying towards me he called out: “How ya goin mate!”

“Good,” I said, shaking the outstretched hand. It felt as if he was wearing gardening gloves. “How are you?”

“Aw yeah. Ya know.”

“Come on Tony,” said his mate, smilingly leading him away by the arm. “Time to go home.” They left. I looked up to see the barmaid watching me. She dropped her eyes and did some more wiping up.

I had to retrace my steps some 80km along the coast road the next morning in order to head south to Strahan (pron. “Strawn”). The whole of south-western Tasmania is a gigantic national park, and the north-west corner is an unofficial wilderness known as the Tarkine, with only a single dirt road leading through it and conditions described as “very rough”. Sadly the Tiger wasn’t insured for dirt roads, and anyway, riding solo through a place described as rough even by Tasmanian standards wasn’t something I felt entirely happy with on my own – in the company of a couple of others it would have been another matter, but if you come off out there you could be lying there with a broken leg for a week or more. I filled up in Wynyard – moments after a farmer pulled in towing a tank on the back of his 4×4 who promptly drained the garage’s entire stock of diesel. The road headed south, through more lush farmland, and I roared over hill and dale watched by bemused cows. Mostly I had the road to myself – I think I overtook one caravan all day, and was overtaken by one other bike: a guy on a Harley who clearly knew the road as he flew around the bends. The high position of the bars and outstretched legs always make Harley riders look like a human bug splat from afar; I imagined one smeared on the front radiator of a giant Kenworth truck, of the type I kept meeting on the coast road… and then I told myself to stop being so ghoulish and instead to focus on the ride. Entering forest I pulled over for a while, and listened to the purest silence -only birdsong and the wind in the trees. Small wisps of cloud drifted overhead and the sun was warm. Eventually I saddled up again and headed on south, round many more twisties. The aerial map of Tasmania must look as if it is covered in asphalt four-leaf clovers, so long and sinuous are all the bends. Stopping, shattered, in the tiny hamlet of Tullah I sank a large coffee and ate a Snickers bar, before pressing on for the final 80km to Strahan.

Strahan was a holiday resort out of season. Of the three dining establishments in town only one was open – the Hamer Hotel. As a result it was packed. I asked about a table and was told there was an hour’s wait, but that I could eat at the bar if I liked. That was fine by me, so I hoovered up a place of seafood fettuccine full of gigantic prawns, vast mussels and various other items of unknown fishy provenance, surrounded by blokes in random bits of workwear again. No ginger beer here, but they did have apple juice – a syrupy sweet concoction clearly designed for children. Heading back to the hostel-cum-holiday park I found a tour group had arrived – 22 of them, of all nationalities. They had met the day before in Hobart and were doing Tassie by bus in a week. I mentally decided never to do a bus tour. The next morning I enquired about cruises across the bay, but was told they were all-day affairs and left at 8 in the morning. There was a midday lunch cruise, but it wasn’t operating that day for some reason. So I decided to take the bike out for a spin round the town. It was a fine, sunny day- unusually for the region, which is famed for its inclement weather. In the cruise office a helpful lady commented on the sunshine “despite the cloud-seeding”.

“Cloud-seeding?” For the uninitiated this involves aerial spraying of clouds to make it rain. The Chinese apparently did it before the Beijing Olympics to ensure fine weather, thus prompting a few wags to say that if the Communist party orders it, even the weather had better obey.

“Yeah, they do the cloud seeding to make it rain. It’s the power company. They do it to top up the dams.”

So here in an area known for wet weather, they seed the clouds to make it rain more in order to justify the dams that they have built in a national park in order to keep the power flowing. All very odd.

Tasmanian Tiger

Crossing the coast of Tasmania at 30,000 feet, I looked down and thought how much it looked like Norway – not the dramatic fjords of the west coast, but the rolling, pine-covered hills of the Nordmarka north of Oslo. Occasional peaks were covered with a smattering of snow which only reinforced the impression. As we began our descent into Hobart the plane turned, bringing us in over the sea. The slate-grey water looked ominous, and a few icebergs dotted here and there would not have been out of place. We lost height until the ripples of the water became distinct waves rolling in towards the shore – and then a guy in the row behind gave a sharp intake of breath and muttered: “Bit low, aren’t we?” I had thought it was just me feeling mildly alarmed; a pilot once told me that despite all the cabin crew safety briefings of “in the unlikely event of a landing on water, place your life vest over your head and form an orderly queue…”, that there had never been a successful aircraft emergency landing in the sea. Not at least until the Hudson crash of a few years ago, although technically that was a river. In the event everything was under control – the runway began just the other side of the dunes.

We emerged from the aircraft shivering in the wind, the temperature at 8 degrees C. Hobart airport was small enough for a couple of hundred passengers to fill it, and we filed two by two past a lady with a spaniel sniffer dog that was checking for alien vegetable matter – large quarantine bins stood at the entrance where one could deposit illicit bananas, bunches of flowers and contraband potatoes, judging by the illustration. I wondered what the spaniel would make of Cherry Cavendish Borkum Riff pipe tobacco; probably need to have a lie down. I boarded a shuttle bus together with two others, and we then sat and waited for a Qantas plane to arrive to make up the numbers. The airport lies 18km out of town, and the shuttle bus costs $18 and will drop you at your hotel. Heading into Hobart, past a fence decorated with graffiti in the form of the word ‘minge’ in garish colours repeated over and over, the harbour came into view on our left, and it was Norway again – houses climbed halfway up the hillsides and it looked just like Oslofjord, with even the same squarish towers of the CBD around the waterfront. The driver announced that this was one of the world’s deepest harbours, hence the resemblance I suppose. Once into the streets of the town, however, it looked more like Dunedin in New Zealand – those same steep hills, whitewashed wooden bungalows with corrugated iron roofs,  and a distinctively antipodean feel. A wall caught my eye. It was ‘minge’ again! He must have gone for miles – from the airport road right into town. It seemed like a poignant insight.

After checking in to Montgomery’s Private Hotel and YHA, I wandered through the dark and windswept streets of the city centre in search of a supermarket. There was a Woolworths inside a shopping mall that was closing up for the night – it was half past five in the afternoon – so I stocked up on Yorkshire tea and milk. Heading out later for dinner I walked down the hill to the Waterfront, a few minutes away. A place caught my eye, set right on the harbour – it was full of people, and turned out to be a fish and chip shop. Over the door stood the sign “Fish Fren&y”, with the ampersand as a stylized object which may have been a mermaid. Fish Friendly? I wasn’t sure. I ordered trevally and chips, which was excellent, and it was only later, back at the hostel, that I spotted an advert for the place, which quoted the Sydney Morning Herald: “Fish Frenzy on Hobart’s Waterfront – best fish and chips in Australia.” Fish Frenzy! Of course. Well it was very good, for sure, but I think I’ll need to sample a few more before concurring.

Tasmania had one of the most inauspicious beginnings. Under its previous name Van Diemen’s Land, named for the governor-general of the Dutch East India Company, it became a byword for brutality and incarceration – so much so that the island rebranded itself to shake off the penal associations of its founding. It chose instead the name of the man who discovered it by accident. Abel Tasman had been commissioned by the company in 1642 to establish the location of “Southland” – the fabled southern continent that promised riches to its colonisers – and to investigate the possibilities of trade. Although the Dutch had glimpsed the northernmost tip of mainland Australia in 1605, when Captain Willem Jansz sailed through the Torres Strait and glimpsed a wilderness populated by “wild, black, cruel savages” who killed some of his crew, it was felt that there might exist a greater landmass with more hospitable locals. To this end Tasman took a far more southerly route – so far south that he managed to miss Australia altogether, landing on the south-western coast of Tasmania. By the time the British established their penal colony at Port Arthur, on a peninsula with a chain of guard dogs spanning its narrowest point to prevent convicts escaping, the Dutch were out of the race.

Hobart’s harbour has been used as a base for many Antarctic expeditions – including Captain Cook, who sailed further south than anyone had before, and reported an uninhabitable land of ice floes and snow. The polar connection is still visible today: a large red icebreaker, the Aurora Australis – or “Southern Lights” – is moored just next to the main waterfront. In the same way that Oslo serves as a deepwater port for polar expeditions to this day, Hobart represents its southern equivalent. Across the road lies Salamanca Place, site of Hobart’s bustling Saturday market, and the location of many bars and cafes. The town centre is compact, with everything a short walk away, and the atmosphere is somehow “otherly” – an air of remoteness, self-sufficiency and of being on the periphery somehow. Even so, it’s a cosmopolitan sort of place, which draws people from all over the world. In Annapurna restaurant, where I had a particularly good rogan josh, the staff seemed to be a good mix of local Aussies and Indians. Indeed, I even received an authentic Indian headwaggle in response to my enquiry: “does it come with rice?” The waiter grinned, waggled his head and said: “It may do.” It did.

 

I had rented a bike for a week from Moto Adventure, based in Herbert Street just on the other side of the harbour – a short walk around the waterfront from the CBD. There were a variety of bikes available, ranging in size from the huge BMW 1200 GS down to a Honda CB500 – the kind learners take their test on in the UK due to its extraordinary placidity and dullness. As I didn’t particularly want to die of boredom on a motorcycle, and not being the kind of corporate type who wants to look like they’ve just ridden across Asia but will be back at their desk in a fortnight, I went for a mid-sized Triumph Tiger 800. It seems a good choice. Lots of low-down power – much more than the Fazer which howls like a banshee over 8000rpm but chugs and grumbles in too high a gear at too low a speed. The Tiger just powers up the hills steadily, even at 4000rpm.

Coles Bay lies on the east coast of Tasmania, a couple of hours from Hobart. It’s a small place – about 200 residents – but is a popular holiday spot, set on a peninsula that ends in Frecinet National Park. Jagged peaks lie just the other side of the bay – the Hazard Mountains – and at sunset they were lit in colours of ochre and burnt umber, as if glowing from within. There was a terrific wind off the strait, throwing jets of spray across the road – it had been windy all day, and on some of the headlands that the road crossed the bike had felt pushed sideways. Even so it growled on, forgiving my little mistakes –  a too hasty gear change or a touch too much brake while leaned over on a bend. The Coles Bay YHA is part of the same complex as everything else in the town; aside from the Tombola cafe by the jetty, which closes at six, the supermarket, petrol pump and bar are all connected. I got lunch in the bakery – a scallop pie, which seems to be a Tasmanian staple, and is a kind of mildly curried pie. Talking to the woman behind the counter she informed me that her family were originally from a place called Suffolk, and that she’d been to look round their local town which was called Aldeburgh. “So beautiful,” she enthused, “and it has that really distinctive Euro feel.” I wasn’t sure what the stolid burghers of Aldeburgh would make of being described as “Euro”, but I suppose from a rural Tasmanian perspective it made sense. Her daughter was at boarding school in Hobart, and she mused on the isolation of Coles Bay, wondering whether she wasn’t really a city person at heart: “Of course it’s beautiful here, and I love swimming in the sea in the mornings, but I feel a bit like my life is on standby at the moment”. It’s ironic – I know so many people in different places around the world expressing exactly the same sentiments; perhaps some of them even dream of escaping to somewhere like Coles Bay and taking a job in a bakery.

I had some serious ground to cover the next morning – up the coast road towards St Helens and then turning inland and across the north-east to Launceston. After heading up Elephant Pass, which had some tricky tight bends – although nothing compared to what was to come later – I found a pancake shop at the top. It seemed wrong to just pass by, although I’d only had breakfast a couple of hours earlier – complementary Weetabix left behind in the free food cupboard at the Hobart YHA by an Under-13 football team. So I had a Black Forest Gateaux Pancake for second breakfast before pointing the bike north for St Helens. From there I took the opportunity to deviate a little and head up to Binalong Bay and The Gardens, part of the Bay of Fires so named because one Captain Tobias Furneax saw the cooking fires of the local aborigines from his ship Adventure in 1773. The road narrowed and dipped and rose, round bend after bend, while off to the right lay the vastness of the ocean – a deep, dark blue, with water almost jade green in the shallow bays that presented themselves around the headlands. It was an impossibly pretty landscape – idyllic almost. Cows stood in fields that shone “green as fire” in the dazzling light, with occasional Norfolk Pines on the higher ground. It was a relief to stop riding for a bit – the earpiece of my sunglasses was digging in to the top of my ear due to the pressure of the helmet, I had a chill breeze down my neck which was making me hunch my shoulders, and I had the beginnings of a headache. I dug out an ethnic scarf from one of the panniers – the Tiger comes with lockable, removable suitcases on either side, as well as an enormous topbox – and solved the icy draught problem with my green and purple checked Afghan scarf, bought for a pittance on Chicken Street in Kabul.

Retracing my steps back towards St Helens I stopped at yet another impossibly pretty view, with three white yachts at anchor in a sparkling blue bay. As I sat there, next to a small playground and a strange concrete hut that proclaimed it was constructed by the Lions club, a red ute pulled up and three men got out. One carried a bucket down to the shoreline and took out various offcuts of fish which he then threw to the gathering seagulls. The other two sat on a park bench and cracked open cans of VB – Victoria Bitter. I watched the larger black-backed gulls perform pinpoint aerobatic swoops which carried them down to the fish on the sand, and then they’d seize a piece and walk down to the water where they would wash it prior to eating. I commented on this to the three men. “Yeah – the black-backs are top of the pecking order. The others get all the leftover stuff,” one said. They were all tanned the colour of teak and had broad local accents. “You’ve got a nice day for it,” one said, nodding to the bike.
“It’s great,” I said. “But it was pretty cold in Hobart yesterday.”

“It’s always cold in bloody Hobart,” one said, and they all laughed.

 

I was beginning to relax more on the bike by now, this being the second day with it. I was learning its little quirks – what gear it liked to be in for what speed and so on. With the warning signs that indicated bends ahead and a speed, I worked out a kind of system; if it said 65kmh I could pretty much stay in 5th gear and just ease off the throttle a bit. For 45kmh bends I could usually take then in 4th, but 3rd was better – the Tiger had a sweet spot in the power band somewhere above 4000rpm which made it sing. Some of the bends were tricky though – you could be going into it well enough but then suddenly the camber would tilt against you and throw your line. A 25kmh corner was 2nd gear only, and there were even a few real hairpins marked 15kmh that I needed to drop into first for. But the Tiger was flawless – it growled and snarled and occasionally roared but it was sure-footed and stable.

Arthouse hostel in Launceston was conveniently located on the north bank of the River Tamar, so it was easy coming into town from the north-east. It had been a long day and I was starting to make silly mistakes from tiredness – changing down instead of up, and so on. The thing to do is stop, but the light was failing and I didn’t fancy riding into Launceston in the dark. In the village of Derby I pulled over just outside a cafe and called the Arthouse hostel, warning them I might be late. The reception closed at 6pm, and after that a code was needed for entry. But the girl on the phone wanted my credit card details if I was going to arrive after reception had closed, which seemed a little pedantic. So sitting on a verge under a tree in sleepy Derby I dug out my card and repeated the details down a phone line that kept cutting out. As I was doing so a woman wearing an apron came out of the cafe, and leaning on the fence with folded arms, called out to me: “How ya goin’!” Good, I told her. Just passing through town – seemed like a nice place. Peaceful.

“We like it!” she announced, rather defensively, I thought.

Well I’d have liked to spend more time there, I told her, but I was low on fuel and had to get to Launceston before dark.

“Where are you gonna get fuel!?” she interjected. Scottsdale, I replied. This was met with a curt nod, as in: Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that one. As any further conversation seemed futile I said goodbye and sadlled up once more.

Scottsdale was a large dot on the map, but a small one in person. Opposite the Shell station four teenagers sat on a bench and sniggered at passers by. The fuel light had been on for the last 20km and I filled up with 95 octane, but the bill came to less than $20. As I was leaving the garage I happened to see a sign to Launceston – the route marked on my map as “warning: slippery”. But the Lilydale route was miles out of my way, and a narrower road. I followed the sign, and the road rose and fell through lush green pastureland. Then the yellow triangles began: bends, next 16km. Warning, slippery road surface. There was a picture of a motorcyclist losing control. The road climbed steeply through dense forest, switchbacking its way upwards. It was definitely slippery – I was just glad it wasn’t raining. After four-and-a-half hours riding I was rather looking forward to stopping. Instead I was greeted with a set of slithering hairpins up and down a forested mountain range in failing light, that went on for the next 55km. I was pretty done in by the time I roared into Launceston, and at the first suburban street I pulled over outside someone’s house and just walked up and down a bit, trying to get sensation back into my limbs. Tough ride. The last couple of kilometers were easy enough and I found myself outside the Arthouse hostel at five to six. Could’ve paid cash after all.

Arthouse was more of a conventional hostel than the YHA’s. It was older, quirkier, and a bit grubbier. The room was clean enough, but the bathrooms were grimy, and the kitchen was full of other people’s unwashed dishes. Still, it was nice just to stop. I made tea, had a Tim Tam and smoked a pipe sitting in the courtyard, which was plastered in notices exhorting people to bring in their empties, not drop cigarettes on the floor, and to keep the noise down, otherwise courtyard privileges would be withdrawn. It was all a little like school. After the enormous Pyengana ploughman’s for lunch I microwaved some instant noodles, and had them in the dining room. Four people, sitting at four separate tables, all eating instant noodles and looking at their phones. Travel has become a solitary pursuit. A waif-like girl dressed mostly in pink wandered in: pink hair, pink sunglasses – though it was dark. She kept up a continuous murmuring commentary into her phone, punctuated by sharp, sudden laughs. She was clearly on drugs, though which one I couldn’t be sure. She had a perpetual sniff and that moaning, lackadaisical air: everything was a hassle – sniff – , Launceston was a drag – sniff -, she had a great time last night though – sniff – , and she complained to the person on the other end of the phone that some junkie bitch had latched onto her the moment she got off the plane. That she was in town until she “got better”. That everything was fine. I wanted to take her to one side, and just say, simply: “Listen – whatever you are doing, just stop. Stop now. There is no town small enough or far enough away for you to escape from yourself. You have to save yourself before it is too late.”

I didn’t, of course. She saw me looking at her and gave a scowl of annoyance, murmured into her phone some more and flounced out, still rambling and sniffing and giving odd random cackles of humourless laughter. Nothing I could say would make a blind bit of difference. That’s the tragedy of it.

It was 5 degrees when I left Launceston, but the heated grips were like holding onto a towel rail. I missed the turning for the Tamar Highway and ended up on a motorway with no easy exit, so just kept going in the direction of Devonport. After a while blasting along I spotted a brown sign saying “Tourist route”, and followed it toward Deloraine, which I kept mentally calling DeLorean. The road took me inland through what looked like perfect farmland glowing in the sunlight. I stopped in a small town outside the church to readjust various items of clothing – the scarf had slipped down and I had an icy breeze down my neck; one earplug had come out and my head was filled with the rushing wind which sounded like a waterfall. An elderly man stood outside the church and stared as I pulled up, so I called out good morning and got a nod in response. Heading off again I took the road to Frankford which led back towards the coast. It was perfect riding – far easier than the day before, with wide roads and bends that you could comfortably take at 100kmh. The Tiger just did its thing, growling along, ocassionally roaring a little. I was much more relaxed on it by now, not in that state of tension where you become hyper-vigilant and you end up riding more jerkily as a result. I took a detour off the main highway to visit the small town of Penguin, purely for the name. It was a sparkling day and the sun was warm in Penguin, with a few Sunday bikers around, mostly on Harleys. Spotting a cafe I got a coffee and sat on the beach, sweltering in all my gear – it’s really not practical to spend ten minutes getting undressed every time you stop. Pressing on towards the metropolis of Burnie I fuelled up again at a BP, and headed for Stanley, 75km away.

I’m not sure what made me turn off the main road again down to Sister’s Beach, but I’m glad I did. It was 8km down a set of hairpins, but it was a fine day and I was in no hurry to get to Stanley. There was a small general store with a couple of tables outside, and another Triumph bike parked up. I pulled in next to it, thus creating Sister’s Beach first Triumph bike meet. A guy with a helmet on the table before him gave me a nod as I wandered in, so I joined him. He was a local, out for a Sunday ride. We chatted about bikes for a while, and about Tasmania. He was probably in his early 60s and had ridden all over Australia – he described one trip where he got the ferry to Melbourne, then rode up to Mount Isa in the north of Queensland – a trip of thousands of kilometers. As we chatted a group of local teens amused themselves with a skateboard; they’d clearly just come back from the beach, and were all towels and wet hair. Occasionally battered 4x4s would draw up and get diesel from the solitary pump outside the cafe. It was a beautiful, peaceful little place, the sun shining on the sea, the laughing children and birdsong echoing around us.

Deciding that I should probably get some lunch I headed into the cafe, and there followed one of those moments of cultural incomprehension that can strike even when in a country that seems ostensibly similar. The menu was full of things I didn’t understand. I saw pie, and asked if they had scallop pies. “Nah – not till tomorrow. But we’ve got chunky pies.”

“What,” I asked, “is a chunky pie?”

“Aw y’know, with meat and stuff.”

“Are they nice?”

“Aw yeah, good tucker, they are.”

“Right – I’ll have one of them, please. And some chips.”

“Do you just want minimum chips?”

“What’s the difference between them and ordinary ones?”

By now she was looking at me like I was having her on. It was four candles and fork handles all over again.“They’re the same chips! There’s just less of them.”

“Oh I see. OK then, one chunky pie and a minimum chips please.”

She was right. Very good tucker, was the pie.

The Twelve Apostles

Leaving Cape Otway lighthouse we drove along a winding road lined with the slender trunks of gumtrees. A few cars had pulled up seemingly at random, and their occupants were acting in the manner of people who are undergoing an experience of some sort – they stopped in the middle of the road, walked out in front of traffic, stood with necks craned aloft like meerkats and suddenly took off running into the trees. A passer-by accosted me, giddy with excitement. “Koalas! There, in the trees!” She ran off. Three Chinese were uttering shrill cries at the base of a tree, halfway up which sat a bundle of grey fur. The bundle stirred itself and peered blearily around, to a chorus of chirps and clicks from assorted cameras. A man with a Scandinavian accent and a worried expression came loping down the road. “There are four… no, five more on the other side,” he announced, with the air of one who has just detached himself briefly from some important work that he simply must get back to at once. We ambled into the trees. A pair of teddy bear tufted ears appeared in the cleft of a tree, followed by the rest of it. The ears swivelled, taking in the scene below, the koala yawned, and went back to sleep. We dutifully took scores of photos of leaves and branches, with the occasional glimpse of koala visible by accident. As we were walking back along the road one decided to slowly ascend a branch while uttering a series of strange groaning noises, which galvanised the small crowd below into further frenzied activity, trying to find the video settings on their phones. I was secretly quite pleased – having stroked a couple of kangaroos I had now seen koalas in the wild – and relatively close at that. All that remains now is a wombat. Preferably a live one.

Koala

Leaving the koalas and their onlookers behind, we continued our journey west along the Great Ocean Road. After a brief halt at a motel that looked like some outback pub for a tepid pie and oven chips, we emerged from the Great Otway National Park onto the coast once more. The first brown tourist signs began to appear, indicating the Twelve Apostles. We had been concerned that we might miss them, perhaps during one of the many occasions when I was rummaging around on the floor of the car in search of the change which had fallen out of my trouser pockets – something which happened with the regularity of a Las Vegas slot machine. But no – we couldn’t possibly miss the site: a huge car park off to the right, some modernistic visitor centre and a couple of helicopters buzzing around, taking people out for an aerial view. The site was at least free of charge, and we made our way through a tunnel under the road and out along a walkway to experience the brooding solitude of the sea stacks in the company of a few hundred others. It was the largest concentration of tourists I’d seen since arriving in Australia – and this mid-week in the off season. I inadvertently photobombed numerous people who were cleverly taking selfies of themselves with telescopic poles attached to their phones, and felt obliged to pull the duckface expression each time – although I refrained from doing a peace sign. A tour bus of Chinese had clearly just disgorged itself, judging by the vast majority of spectators. But then I spotted an Indian aunty clad in purple shalvar kameez wading through the crowd, arms akimbo. In her wake came a few dozen more Indians, including the ubiquitous moustachioed uncle in an Argyll tanktop bringing up the rear. As the uncle drew alongside us he began loudly conversing with the aunty at the lead of the column, some twenty yards ahead of him. I scrutinised this meeting of two cultures on the south coast of Australia surreptitiously; with 1.3 billion Indians in the world and 1.4 billion Chinese, soon a third of the world’s population will be Indian or Chinese, which is an interesting thought. Aunty was making great progress through the crowd in a re-enactment of the parting of the Red Sea, and I wondered what they made of each other’s presence.

Apostles

The stacks were rather folorn in comparison – I could only count five, some in better repair than others – but turning around and looking in the opposite direction to the one the crowd were all facing, three more stacks were glowing golden in the rays of the afternoon sun. Still further along the coast lies a promontory named London Bridge (falling down, apparently), which had been a popular viewpoint as it was attached to the mainland. Each year the hole in the cliff beneath it became a little larger with erosion, until one day the small bridge of rock attaching it to the mainland collapsed – much to the surprise of a couple who found themselves standing on a newly formed stack, having just walked over the bridge some minutes before. A dramatic rescue was launched, and they were eventually winched off the top by helicopter and dropped into the middle of a camera scrum as the assorted media teams had gathered to capture the rescue on live television. The amusing thing about this lucky escape was that the couple immediately fled the scene; it turned out they were having an affair, and their romantic getaway in an isolated spot had dropped them right into the spotlight of the evening news.

apostlesbw

After a brief diversion around a series of roundabouts in the underwhelming town of Port Campbell, we regained the road once more. Our ultimate goal was Port Fairy, a short way beyond the end of the Great Ocean Road, described as  “quaint and hugely appealing” in the Rough Guide. The road led inland once more, and we passed through miles of lush green pasture dotted with cows. More than once I commented on how much it resembled the East Anglian coastline of England. But then a strange sight –  an Irish tricolor flapping in the garden of a small and rather ramshackle house. The name plate on the gatepost said “Clonmara”. A few flecks of rain began as if on cue. We were approaching the village of Killarney, and Irish names were all around – there was O’Reilly Truck Hire, at least one Shamrock Hotel, and many Hibernian house names. The landscape too now looked much more Irish than East Anglian, but on a scale that could only have been Australian – the views went on for miles. Entering the town of Warnambool we drove along a dual carriageway lined with car showrooms and 3-star motels; one motel / bar spotted a slogan that said: “New decor! Even better than before!” Looming over the town was a curious metal sphere on tripod legs, rather like an illustration I once saw on a Sci-Fi book cover, which we immediately dubbed the Warnambool Bauble. Off to the right a line of funfair onion domes caught my eye; the Moscow State Circus was in town. This was clearly something of an event in Warnambooble as the posters advertising it continued on for several miles beyond town.

As abruptly as the US-style strip malls had begun, they ended, and we were back in Ireland. The sun was coming out after a thunderous downpour and the road shone. We crossed the Mourne River and saw the sign for Port Fairy coming up. Turning off the main road into the town centre we drove along enormously wide streets – wider even than those of Bulawayo, which was said to have roads designed so that you could do a U-Turn with a team of eighteen oxen attached to your wagon. I suppose roundabouts would have been impractical in the circumstances. The houses of Port Fairy looked old – turn of the century or even earlier – and had a distinctive charm. Few people were about, and we rumbled up the main street which we had largely to ourselves. This was something I had noticed about many Australian towns – that they seemed eerily deserted – but nowhere was it more pronounced than in Port Fairy. You begin almost to fear that some great calamity has befallen the place and you’ve just arrived in the aftermath. Even so, it was a pleasant, relaxing sort of a place to wander around – much larger than I had expected from the guidebook, rather like a town that felt like a village. Up a sidestreet we found the YHA in a charming colonial era building, and having unpacked, we headed out for dinner. The main drag was Bank Street, with a few restaurants visible: a posh Italian place, several closed cafes, a pizza joint, a couple of Chinese takeaways that looked as if they specialised in the sort of sweet and sour orange gloop that you’ll never see in China, and a Turkish restaurant called Ramellahs, which looked the most promising. Well – it was an inspired choice. Here, in this bizarre deserted town at the bottom of Australia, we had the best Turkish food I’ve ever eaten. Iskender kebab with lamb of such tender succulence that I was tempted to eulogise it in song. Chicken kavurma with just the right hint of smokiness from the grill. It was extraordinarily good. And all this for $20 a head. Seriously – if you’re ever in Port Fairy (well, you never know), Ramellahs. Highly recommended.

After a flat white and a chocolate brownie at a cafe in town the next morning we hit the road once more, heading for Halls Gap – the township that lies at the heart of the Grampians National Park. The road was dead straight across the flat green fields, but soon we could make out the silhouette of hills on the skyline. These grew imperceptibly larger with every kilometer, looming over the plains rather like Kilimanjaro dominates the skyline of Amboseli. The road entered the National Park and the temperature dropped as we began to climb, forests thickening around us on all sides. A few kilometers short of Halls Gap we spotted the park’s visitor centre, characterised by a highly convoluted one way system which kept trying to divert us back out of the car park and onto the main road again. We picked up a few brochures and maps before heading into Halls Gap proper, and inadvertently drove through the town and out the other side before we realised we’d missed it. Nestled in a valley surrounded by forested hillsides, the wind rushed through the trees with the sound of a mountain river. At the small shopping centre we had lunch at the Live Fast cafe (presumably the Die Young franchise failed to take off) and stocked up in the supermarket for a two night stay at the Grampians YHA. This was another eco-lodge along the lines of Apollo Bay, but it felt significantly more run down; entering the reception one was greeted by the smell of rubbish, which somehow seamlessly morphed into odour of septic tank the nearer one got to the bathrooms. This was a pity, as it was otherwise well appointed – just neglected. There were a handful of other guests in residence, the usual assortment of characters. There was a gravelly-voiced local who was catching up on a few creature comforts before heading into the hills for a while, a woman in her 60s who was driving from Western Australia to New South Wales with all her possessions in the car prior to moving into a new house, and a couple from Germany – we swapped a few travel stories and had an interesting talk.

hangingrock

It was cold in the Grampians, with frosts at night, so in the morning I was shuffling around wrapped in my patoo. I adjourned to a small patch of sunlight on the terrace with tea and looked up at the cliffs behind the hostel. As the sun’s rays crept along them the forests covering the hillsides came alive with a chorus of cicadas. Kangaroos occasionally hopped past on their way to the sports ground, which seemed to be their local hangout – in the evening there were two dozen on there, grazing just as rabbits would in the UK. They were extraordinarily tame as well – we could approach to within a few feet without bothering them in the least.

After breakfast we decided to head up to the Wonderland car park on the road leading into the park, and see what walks we could take from there. A signpost advertised that there was a track to the Pinnacles, 2.7km distant, so we set off up the hill. There was the usual business of stripping off layers a few hundred metres up the hill, and the weather changed every few minutes – first hot sunshine, then a sudden downpour followed by a brisk wind, then sunshine again. The surrounding rock formations looked prehistoric – fantastic sculptures like rows of faces or the vertebrae of some long-extinct creature.

faces

We continued upwards over bare rock, passing a waterfall whose strands were like silvery tinsel twisting and turning as they fell, against the red ochre of the rock behind. Reaching a gully whose jagged sides towered overhead we ascended a set of wooden steps and picked up the trail once more, marked by small yellow arrows, each just visible from the previous one. A couple of times we lost the path, but by following the most likely course we soon picked it up again. Soon the pinnacles that had dotted the landscape were all below us bar one, which was where we were headed – the summit. At a small scramble we met an elderly couple who were struggling – she was in hiking boots and skipped on ahead, but he had on leather lace up shoes and struggled for grip. I loitered nearby in Outward Bound mode, ready to lend a hand if needed. “It’s just traction,” I said. “It’s a tricky surface if you haven’t got much grip on your shoes.”

“The shoes are perfectly fine,” he said rather crossly. His wife looked at me and rolled her eyes, as if to say: “I’ve told him and I’ve told him. But will he listen?” Well he wouldn’t listen to me either, so we went on ahead. At the actual summit a fence rail led out onto a small viewing platform, occupied by a school group who looked miserably cold. A chill wind was whipping over the summit and a fine drizzle began. But the view was spectacular. We looked down upon the valley in which Halls Gap lay, nestled in a strip of lush green upon which fell a few rays of watery sunshine. Off to the right were the cold grey waters of a dam. The school group moved off a few yards, seeking shelter in the lee of a large boulder to eat their sandwiches, and we took their place on the platform.
After a few moments a crotchety voice said from behind us: “Look! There’s more of these blasted padlocks!” It was the elderly man. Looking down I saw three small padlocks attached to the fencing wire, as couples are wont to do to somehow consolidate their relationship. “There’s a bridge in Paris which is on the point of collapse because of this sort of thing!” he said, sounding outraged.
I wondered whether he had noticed the view, and said: “Oh look – there’s the visitor centre with the one way system. Way over there.”
He snorted. “It”s ridiculous. I never bother with it – I just go the wrong way.”

pinnacles

The Great Ocean Road

Great Ocean Road

Extending 285km along the southern coast of Victoria, the Great Ocean Road was constructed between 1919 and 1932 by returning veterans of the First World War as an employment scheme. Hacking their way through rugged bush-covered hillsides equipped with little more than picks and shovels, the men carved out a sinuous route that runs along the clifftops which bear the brunt of the southerly gales. Technically the road begins at the seaside resort of Torquay and ends at Warnambool, where it joins the Princes Highway. It was a three-hour run down to Torquay from Kyneton, skirting round Geelong (pronounced “Ja-long”) and a few small settlements on the way. Torquay was sunny but out of season – half the cafes in town were closed, but we found one that was open which seemed popular with retired people. In fact we were the youngest customers by around 30 years.They sat in the companionable silence of long familiarity while we murmured to each other in low voices over our flat whites, not wishing to disturb the general somnolence. Finishing our coffees we took a stroll down to the beach, which curved around a beautiful bay lined with Norfolk Pines. We were the only people on it. A fresh breeze raised small waves which rolled in and unfurled, the water a translucent turquoise in colour. Torquay appeared to consist of numerous surf shops and the occasional shopping mall, with several large building projects underway – presumably more surf shops. We decided to press on to Lorne, described as a popular holiday resort, and we headed along the coast in a golden afternoon sun. Away from the bay the ocean grew darker – a deep, abyssal blue with occasional whitecaps. It somehow conveyed vastness; this was no mere sea, but the great Southern Ocean – a sort of maritime never-never – where the world’s great oceans, the Indian, the Atlantic and the Pacific, merge into one, which in the latitudes beyond Tierra del Fuego and the southernmost outlying islands of of New Zealand, spans the globe uninterrupted by landfall.

The road was well-furnished with laybys and scenic viewpoints, and we pulled over repeatedly for photo opportunities. In the manner of these things, our stops became fewer the further we went, as one stunning scene after another revealed themselves around each successive headland. Occasionally we’d pass large studio flats on the hillsides which commanded spectacular views out to sea, all of which seemed to fit the same architectural template – a kind of Scandinavian modernism, glass-fronted and with abundant pillars. A short time after the resort of Angelsea fell behind us, Lorne itself appeared, not as the bustling tourist resort that I had anticipated, but as a rather sleepy seafront with a few pavement cafes, many of which were again shut for the low season. We parked up a hill off the main street and walked along the promenade looking for somewhere to get lunch. There were a couple of cafes blaring loud music to occasional customers who sat in ones and twos, but nowhere that seemed appealing. The Rough Guide had mentioned the Lorne Hotel – a large building at one end of the promenade – as being the best budget food in town, so we wandered in to have a look. Perhaps six or seven tables were occupied in a cavernous dining room, with an odd assortment of customers: elderly couples, a young family, and a couple of rather anxious-looking girls in harem pants and large backpacks who presumably also had a copy of the Rough Guide and had belatedly spotted the prices. Looking at the menu we found that most of the main courses were upwards of $25, far more than we would normally spend on lunch, so we decided to take our chances back along the promenade. It was fortunate that we did so – down at the opposite end of town we came across a few tables outside a burger bar called The Bottle of Milk. Burgers were around $13 each, and turned out to be some of the best burgers we’d ever had. In fact, bar a couple of mishaps (usually involving pies), the food has been consistently excellent here, and I can see why Victoria Tourism has gone for the gastronomic angle in its brochures – even a tiny cafe in some out of the way little town will have good food.

Self Torquay

As we made our way further along the Great Ocean Road from Lorne we entered the Great Otway National Park, and the road cut inland for a while, passing through forests of wattle and eucalyptus. The landscape reminded me of New Zealand – perhaps the Norfolk Pines, that same coruscating light, and the subconscious knowledge of being beside a vast ocean. In fact the sense of deja vu was so strong that I felt obliged to comment upon it with monotonous regularity. We were making for Apollo Bay for the night, where we had booked a room at the YHA. This proclaimed itself to be an eco-lodge, so I was slightly wary, fearing lukewarm showers, nagging notices about recycling and compost toilets, but this proved to be unfounded. The hostel (or “host-ell” in Australian, as in “hotel”) was large, modern and well-furnished. A log fire crackled in the lounge, drawing the hostel’s few residents in to a convivial huddle around it. Able to accommodate upwards of 100 guests, that Monday night there were perhaps nine staying. A storm was brewing, and an unseasonably warm wind whipped up the main promenade as darkness fell, causing lamp posts to sway. The first two places listed in the Rough Guide turned out to be closed, but we found the Apollo fish bar open, with a solitary diner sitting beneath the fluorescent lights in front of a large television showing the sports news. I hadn’t yet tried fish and chips, having something of the coastal dweller’s prejudice about eating it inland, but here beside the sea I was happy to indulge. All the fish was different, however – there was nothing that I recognised from a British menu. Most popular seemed to be flake, used as a catch-all term in Australia to denote several small species of shark, such as the gummy shark. I wasn’t entirely happy about eating shark, so ordered the butterfish instead, which was very good. The chips, however… well, perhaps it’s a British preference for the kind of thick-cut soggy wedges dripping in oil that our chippies generally produce, but Australian chips all seem to be dry oven chips. Not impressed with the chips.

The YHA have a policy of not permitting the use of sleeping bags for hygiene reasons, but there’s no mention of patoos – my woollen Afghan blanket that has been to Afghanistan and back twice, and which I have become very attached to. The room came with sheets and duvet (or “doona”) and, despite being furnished with the breeze block style of decor, was very comfortable. A bed in a dorm cost around $23, a double was $90. It seemed good value, given the generally high cost of living here. In fact we were due to stay in three different YHA’s on the trip, and each of them were quite different, with Apollo Bay being modern and comfortable, Port Fairy being older but somehow having more character, and the Grampians being malodorous and generally ramshackle despite being a similar design to Apollo Bay. We sat in the lounge and exchanged travel stories with the other guests – a lady in her 50s from Michigan who was on a group tour of some sort, and who had found being alone on the Paris metro “terrifying”, a Canadian girl who had been doing sea turtle research in Japan, and a Singaporean chap who I found very difficult to understand, but who gave us a great tip for the next day by telling us about Mariner’s Point, a lookout high above the town which offered incredible views along the coast.

Mariners Point

The next morning we set off again into another dazzling day – the storm had blown itself out in the night. After a short walk up the hill to Mariner’s Point we headed out along the road west. The coastline here is known as the Shipwreck Coast due to the high number of wrecks over the years – Cape Otway lighthouse, with its signature three white flashes every eighteen seconds, was often the first sight of Australia for many of the ships arriving from England after a four month voyage. Twelve kilometers down a winding road towards the ocean, past windswept heathland that looked like the Suffolk coast, we arrived at Cape Otway. There’s an old telegraph station which has been turned into a museum, an old Second World War radar post, and the lighthouse itself – built in the 1840s. It looks out over a deep ultramarine sea, set upon rugged cliffs against which the breakers roll in, booming and throwing clouds of white spray into the air. Ascending the spiral steps we met the lighthouse keeper, a woman with a strangely familiar accent. It turned out that she came from Leicestershire, but had moved to Victoria with her Australian husband a couple of years earlier. She was very enthusiastic about her new surroundings, and indeed it must have been a dramatic change from the English Midlands. I told her that there was a lighthouse which looked similar in my home town on the Suffolk coast, and she produced a lighthouse guide. Together we leafed through the pages until we found Southwold – date of construction, height, signature: one white flash every ten seconds – and there, standing in the turret of a lighthouse off the southern tip of Australia, I looked at a picture of Southwold lighthouse, and my grandmother’s flat just next to it.

Otway lighthouse

Victorian Winter

I first arrived in Melbourne slowly and backwards. The V-Line train that runs from Bendigo has a great number of rear-facing seats – statistically safer in the event of a crash – so after miles of pastoral views, with isolated farm houses nestling in folds in an undulating green landscape, the suburbs appeared progressively behind me; the first two-storey houses, shopping centres, arterial road networks and industrial estates slowly assembled themselves as we trundled into Southern Cross station. The city looked a bit like New York to one who has never been there – yellow cabs and skyscrapers – with a dash of San Francisco. Speaking of the cabs, the recent introduction of a tougher test for taxi drivers was so stringent that only one candidate managed to pass out of several thousand. This was hailed as a resounding success by the committee which came up with the idea, who claimed it was evidence of their high standards – impossible, one might even say. The sun is bright and, at this time of year, the wind is cold. Whereas central London is all steely blue and grey, Melbourne’s colours seem predominantly brown and yellow.

Transport in the city revolves around the Myki card, pronounced ‘My key’, not ‘Mickey’ – much like the Oyster card familiar to Londoners. It works on V-Line trains, metro lines and also the city’s trams. I was instructed in its use by the stationmaster, who set out a number of potential pitfalls that might snare the unwary tourist, chiefly revolving around failing to clock out after the journey.

“Say for example you go out with a couple of mates for a beer in Gisborne,” he announced. I nodded knowingly, although the likelihood was slim. “Well you’ve got to make sure that you clock out again at Kyneton, otherwise you’ll be charged for the whole way to Bendigo.” He had an air of grim satisfaction at the prospect.
“Just as well the train doesn’t run all the way to Darwin then,” I laughed, Darwin being nearly 4000 km to the north.
He looked at me as if I were mad. “Darwin?” he said incredulously. “Darwin’s on a completely different track network!”
I looked suitably abashed, hoping he wouldn’t list all the trains that I’d need to take in order to get there. Fortunately he didn’t. 

It takes a little over an hour from Kyneton to Southern Cross, and the trains run more or less every hour and cost around $11 on the Myki. The service has so far been very good, bar one unfortunate episode last week when we pulled into Sunbury and the driver announced that due to an incident ahead police had taken control of the line. We were advised to remain on the train, and then informed that we should all get off. Nobody had any idea what was happening, but as we milled around looking nonplussed, an elderly lady sidled up to me and said: ‘It’s an armed hold up. Man with a knife. It’s all over Twitter.’ She showed me her phone, which indeed confirmed this. As the knifeman appeared to be in it for the long haul a fleet of buses was mustered as a replacement service. Given that I’d only decided at the last minute to head to Melbourne anyway, and that it was now three o’clock in the afternoon, I didn’t much fancy spending the next 2 hours on a bus. ‘I might just take a look round Sunbury,’ I told the lady. ‘I probably wouldn’t have come here otherwise.’
She looked at me sympathetically. ‘Well that won’t take long.’

A few minutes later, having walked up and down the main drag and arrived back at the station, I saw her point. Sunbury was basically suburban overspill for Melbourne. There was an unusual shortage of cafes by Australian standards. The focal point of the town seemed to be a large shopping mall consisting entirely of budget stores, and a disconsolate-looking food court. I ordered a falafel wrap from Happy Kebab – which wasn’t bad as these things go – and decided I might as well head back to Kyneton.

Back in Kyneton the weather had taken a turn for the worse. A chill southerly breeze and dwindling sunshine meant the temperature struggled to reach double figures. I’ve been surprised how cold it actually is here; September should be spring time, but this year it is late, and there are still occasional frosts at night. Along ‘historic’ Piper Street long vertical flags flapped from poles along the storefronts like Tibetan prayer flags, reminding me of Ladakh. The daffodils were just beginning to come into bloom, though it had been a near thing – the town’s annual daffodil festival began on the 4th of September, and there were fears that there wouldn’t actually be any daffodils due to the late spring. The festival runs for a couple of weeks, and features a parade, as well as a range of activities: photography exhibitions, knitwear sales, best scarecrow competitions, something called a ‘Men’s Breakfast’, and the thing that really got my attention, ferret racing. I’ve never seen ferrets raced before, so am unsure if it’s round a track for the 100 metre scamper or perhaps some kind of steeplechase. Either way, I shall make a point of attending.

Daffodil festivals aside, Kyneton is a quiet little town with a nice botanical gardens. The Rough Guide devotes three lines to it, two of them to a completely different festival which doesn’t actually take place in the town anyway – Budburst in November, celebrating the grape harvest – and states that the town ‘lacks Woodend’s charm’. This seems harsh. I’ve only spent a few hours in Woodend, and although it was very nice, it was much like a dozen or more sleepy little Australian towns; wide pavements shaded by corrugated iron verandahs, a handful of cafes, a clock tower and flower bed, an ‘Avenue of Honour’ line of trees commemorating veterans of both World Wars, and the inevitable snarl of V8 utes up and down the main drag. Away from the main street are rows of bungalows drowsing in the sunshine and not a soul about. If you do encounter anyone they are likely to have a provincial curiosity about a stranger in town. In London strangers’ eyes slide briefly over one another, and never make that contact which might pre-empt a conversation. In small town Australia the stares are longer, more unabashed, curiosity winning out over mere politesse. Everyone knows everyone else in these little places, and while Bendigo or Castlemaine might be a tourist attraction for a day or two, Kyneton is somewhere that few would venture to.

Nearby Daylesford, however, was once labelled ‘the world’s funkiest town’ by the British Airways in-flight magazine – why, one can’t imagine. It’s nice enough, and has a pleasantly alternative vibe, with organic cafes lining the main street, but it’s the surrounding area that draws a different crowd. Daylesford lies in the hill country, and you pass small homesteads and caravans which have a vaguely bohemian look to them. Castlemaine too has a strong ‘alternative’ vibe, with a Saturday market full of characters in tie-dye T-Shirts, battered bush hats and the occasional ethnic scarf, manning stalls selling organic honey and assorted seeds. Kyneton is more workaday, more square, more ocker – a term meaning genuine Aussie. The main employer in the town is the local abbatoir. It has aspirations toward historical respectability, with antique shops and assorted bric a brac in abundance, but it’s the town the farmers head to for shopping, not the arty-farty Melbournites, and it can’t ever quite shake off that blue collar heritage. It has a small town gossip to it, a circular way of skirting round the issue without wishing to seem up front, or worst of all committing the cardinal sin of being seen as a ‘sticky beak’, or nosey parker.

Kyneton, then, contains all the essential ingredients for that concept so indispensable to the magazines – an authentic travel experience. It’s a parallel world with few concessions to tourism, so remains resolutely unchanged by it. You travel ten thousand miles, pop up on the opposite side of the world where night is day and summer is winter, and you find yourself in a place where life goes on regardless. Nevertheless the town has, after a fashion, sought the benefits of the tourist dollar, not least in the form of the daffodil festival. It’s a curious blend of village fete and mardi gras – there’s a parade in the closing days with stilt walkers, cheerleaders, a convoy of fire engines from all over the state and assorted other attractions. This morning’s main event was the ferret racing, which was curiously understated – a small crowd of perhaps 40 or 50 people assembled around a maze of white plastic tubing into which the ferrets were placed. A couple nearby armed with a guitar and mic provided the kind of dreary dirge-like music one usually associates with hymns. Much hilarity as one ferret appeared to have put on a little too much weight in training and got stuck. The ferrets’ owners, who were graded by age, fussed over their animals in the manner of thoroughbred owners. A man attired in yellow with a microphone provided an unintelligible commentary in a burble of laconic dialect where every word merged into the next: “RightsoherecomesCharliewithhisferretLightningtellmeCharliehowdyareckonLightning’sgonnadotoday?”. A smartly attired woman with a TV camera provided footage for the local news, presumably. Two children approached, nervously stroking their charges, the ferrets were inserted into the maze, lids were put on, and they did what ferrets do – scurrying along the tubes and emerging confused into the sunlight to a round of applause. Then it was the next age group – teenage girls, from what I could tell. They cradled the animals, one large girl with dyed hair, a piercing and a hole in her leggings kissing her ferret on its head before popping it into the tube. Ferrets being generally contrary animals, they didn’t exactly play by the rules – two popped their heads out of the tubes simultaneously, watching each other beadily. Another was disqualified for only half emerging from the tube and then sniffing the grass, paying little regard to the furious exhortations of the commentator. As the patter of applause died down and the crowd began to move away, I was approached by a man in an orange hi-viz vest and an ipad. Could he ask me a few questions for a survey of the festival? Certainly, I said.
“How far have you travelled to come to Kyneton?”
“About ten thousand miles. What is that – 16,000km?”
His eyebrows rose. He swiped through a few options on his ipad and ticked ‘500km+’.
“How would you rate today’s entertainment? 5 for very good, 4 for good, 3 for average and then 2 for not very good. 1 for poor.”
“Oh I think that was definitely a four star ferret race as these things go. I mean for five it would really have to be outstanding.”
“How about onward travel? Where are you going next?”
“Along the Great Ocean Road.”
He lit up. “I’m from Geelong! Ah, you’ll love Geelong. So much to see there.”
This was contrary to what I had heard, and I regretted that we were only passing through. But we might stop for lunch.
“Aw yeah, you should do that. One last question. Will you be attending the festival again next year?”
“Well I don’t want to skew your results, but realistically, probably not. It’s rather a long way to come.”
“Good on ya,” he said. “Have a great time in Straylia, mate.” 

Yep. I am.