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.”
“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.