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.