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.