1 May 2009

Hobart, Tasmania

Even three years as a university student, desperately clinging to the overdraft limit, could not prepare me for the desperate times in store as a backpacker. Now let me make one thing clear, I am not, for one second, claiming I know what it feels like to truly struggle for money, unable to pay the rent/mortgage or even eat one good meal a day. I know that if times got incredibly desperate then my parents will bail me out or, failing that, I will fly home and live rent-free as I enjoy some home cooked meals. But for me personally, this is as desperate as things have got.

I make this point for one reason. When I booked this trip over six months ago I set myself a few targets for my three months in Australia. I wanted to drive the length of the West Coast from Perth up to Darwin (check). I wanted to visit at least some of the national parks in the Northern Territory (check). I wanted to see at least one kangaroo in the wild (check). And finally I wanted to see the few states that I had not yet visited in Australia; South Australia, ACT and Tasmania. Now South Australia and the nation’s capital, ACT, can wait for later parts in this trip, for now my focus was on getting to Tasmania, a small island off the Southern coast of mainland Australia.

Now it is not a place I have heard too much about. Even in Melbourne, just over the water, the most information I got about this small island was that it is a place where incest is rife, whether Melburnians genuinely believe this or not I am not too sure, but it is about the most I could get out of people. So I carried out my own research and discovered that it is one of the most striking and unique climates on earth. Even more isolated than mainland Australia (which, incidentally Tasmanians call the ‘North’ island), it is a place that was cut-off from foreign influences for thousands of years, means Tasmania has developed it’s own unique characteristics. It is home to some of the world’s tallest trees, not much shorter than the famous Redwoods of California, as well as their own unique wildlife, most notably the famous Tasmanian Devil.

So the plan was set. Take the overnight ferry from Melbourne to Devonport on the island’s north coast, hire a car and spend a week or so discovering this unique place. And then two things happened. Firstly, I checked my bank statement. Not only would I not be able to afford accommodation (in the meantime I had found a free place to stay in Melbourne), but also the hiring of a car was a definite no-no, particularly given that I had absolutely nothing left on my ‘emergency only’ credit card. Secondly, I checked the prices of the overnight ferry. Now there are a few things I question about Australian wisdom, in particular why a great many of people here still see the mullet as a good look (I’m not even joking I’ve seen a few blokes, even some women, fashioning this ‘haircut’), but a 10-hour overnight ferry on hard wooden seats priced at four-times that of a one-hour air conditioned flight does not strike me as an ingenious business decision by the ferry companies. So with that in mind, I booked myself on a flight to Tasmania’s capital city, Hobart, and a flight back again four days later. Unfortunately I would not be able to see a great deal of the island during this time but it would at least give me a taste.

With it being just a few days trip, I decided to pack as lightly as possible for my little jaunt across the Tasman Sea. I chucked a few spare t-shirts, a jumper and a book into my little day bag and felt the seasoned traveller as I arrived at the desk with no bags to check-in. A big grin on my face, I bounded up to the check-in counter, pleased with myself at being so smart and handed over my passport. The friendly man behind the counter accepted this little gift and began typing my name onto the keyboard in front of him. A confused look came up on his face and he tried again. ‘I’m sorry sir’ he said ‘but we don’t appear to have a booking for you.’ That’s weird, I thought, I’d booked myself onto the flight online just the day before and I told him the same thing ‘That’s weird’ I said ‘I booked myself onto the flight yesterday. Online.’ – just in case you didn’t believe me – so he went back to looking on his computer screen. I’m pretty sure a slight chuckle came onto his face as he looked at me and said ‘Oh you actually booked yourself on yesterday’s flight, sir.’ Shit.

So as you see, dear reader, it wasn’t the greatest start. But not to be deterred, I handed over another 120 dollars to get onto this particular flight (I told you, I was not missing out on this place) and made my way through security.

I arrived into Hobart airport perhaps an hour or so later and despite my slight mishap morale was still high. I strolled straight off the plane, past those silly fools that had checked baggage in and into the fresh air of Tasmania, still delighted at myself for not experiencing that most dreaded part of travelling, waiting to see if the airline company has sent your bag to some far-off place like Alaska- don’t laugh that actually happened to me. A tall, bearded man in a luminous workman’s jacket stood smiling outside the terminal building so I approached him to ask how I could go about getting a bus into town. ‘That’s what I do’ he replied in a gruff accent that I came to understand was how they spoke down here ‘now jump on this bus’ he pointed to the bus next to him ‘and we’ll get you into town. Just after everybody has collected their luggage.’

Located on the southern coast of the island, Hobart’s two most distinctive features are water and mountains, wherever in the city you are in view of at least one of these. Mount Wellington is the most defining mountain here, standing 1271 metres above sea level it watches proudly over the city and it is where my Hobart adventure would begin. Arriving late the day before I had walked around to get a feel for the place, but being late not much was open. So early the next morning I was heading up the mountain in a small group to begin the ‘Mount Wellington Descent’, an overpriced but enjoyable few hours of riding bikes from the mountain’s peak to the bottom. Now, seeing myself as a fairly experienced traveller I am used to being over-charged every now and then and must point out that this activity did not really feel like a ‘rip off’ but how a company can justify charging 70 Aussie dollars (about 35 English) to drive you for 30 minutes up a mountain, kitting you up with a waterproof jacket, helmet and half-functioning mountain bike I will never know. Nevertheless I was foolish enough to pay the price and here I was at the top of the mountain in the hope of overlooking Hobart Town from this wonderful location.

Of course, being as far South as you can in Australia and it approaching winter here it was not quite like the Australia seen on post cards, of stunning beaches and bikini-clad women. So rather than having a beautiful view of Hobart Town below me, the only view I had was of a cloud of fog. However, as we rolled our bikes down the mountain (roll being the key word here, there was absolutely no ‘riding’ to be done) the view became clearer and suddenly I found myself with the exact view I was hoping for. It reminded me much of my favourite view on this planet, at the top of Queenstown Hill on New Zealand’s South Island. Off in the distance we could make out the Hobart suburbs set in green-rolling hills, separated by the stunning Derwent River, and there directly below lay the sprawling town of Hobart, petering on the edge of the water. Unfortunately being of the male form and therefore unable to do two things at once, I was able to enjoy the view but this act had completely devoid me of having any control over my bike at the same time. Feeling suitably inspired by the view below, I took in a deep breathe of that fresh Tasmanian air and returned my gaze to the road in front of me. Just in time, as I headed directly towards a rather large truck that was making it’s way up the mountain. I managed to react just in time, steering my bike swiftly away from the oncoming traffic but almost directly into the poor young lad in front of me, who from then on, it must be said, did not quite enjoy the experience quite so much. But in my defence he was South African, and really quite annoying so I did not feel quite so bad.

The group stopped a few hundred metres further down the mountain and the leader informed us that we would now be heading off-road. Being that this section would be a little more difficult that the riding we had done thus far if anyone did not fancy it then they could continue down the road, following the van that was carrying our luggage back down to the bottom. The whole group decided to head onwards, although I am pretty sure I heard a shrill quiver from the boy that I had nearly sent toppling off the mountain a few minutes before, and we continued along a pleasant route that made me feel quite the professional mountain biker.

We stopped a few minutes later above a steep path that made me question the judgement that had me believing so strongly in my biking abilities. The hill that ran below was incredibly steep, on a similar gradient to, say, a vertical line. But not just that, the path wound around all sorts of corners and had huge lumps of rock as big as your fist, which you had to navigate your way around. ‘Now this is much steeper than anything we have done so far’ said the leader ‘if anybody feels this is too much for them then you may walk with your bike down this bit. I must warn you it is very difficult.’ I looked around the group and for a moment it looked as if no-one was to be the coward of the group, when suddenly the young South African lad slowly lifted his hand up, still looking petrified from our earlier encounter and dismounted from his bike. I felt a few daggers in my direction but stayed focused on the hill ahead of me.

Well how I am still here writing this article I cannot tell you. I tumbled downward and downward, picking up speed all the way down. I managed to avoid a couple of those oversized rocks by sheer luck alone and went straight into a few others, but minutes later I arrived at the bottom of the hill, somehow in one piece.

After my adrenaline-inducing first day my next day in Hobart was to be much more relaxing. With it being ANZAC day and with that another Bank Holiday in Australia (they even have days off for the Queen’s Holiday, here something we don’t even do. And have a day off for the Melbourne Cup. A horse race!!) there was very little open to tourists like myself. So I slipped on my most comfortable shoes and decided to do something, unlike mountain biking, I feel I am very good at. Walking. I walked and walked and walked with no real intention in mind. I found myself crossing the Tasman Bridge, linking Hobart with those stunning suburbs I could see from the mountain the day before, and walked further and further along the coast line. About four hours or so later I found a park bench and pulled out a map to see how far I had covered. I discovered that I was in Bellevive, directly across the water from Hobart, and had covered about 10 kilometres but it was then I realised I would have to retrace my steps and do the return trip. Before that long process I was to discover what Bellevive had to offer and only then I remembered a conversation I had had with a Hobartian the day before. I had asked if there was much to do across the water. The response I got was pretty straightforward ‘No’ the lady said ‘Bellevive gives a fairly decent view of the town but other than that there’s fuck all.’ And they were almost right, apart from an international cricket ground- and those that know me will be aware that I am very keen on any sort of sporting stadium – there were a couple of bakeries and not a great deal else. So I looked at my watch, it was 4pm and starting to rain, and began the four-hour return trip.

Due to the previous days’ ANZAC Parade, the town’s famous Salamanca market was changed to a day later. So here I was on my final day in Hobart exploring this marketplace. Now I don’t know about you but for me the name ‘Salamanca’ brings to mind images of laying back on a sunny, Spanish beach, Sangria in my hand and fresh fish at my side. So when I woke up on that final morning to a dismal overcast sky it was with some trepidation that I made my way towards the market. But despite the weather and my lack of funds, giving me a spectator rather than participant status, it was an enjoyable experience.

Although the weather was familiar, feeling more like stepping straight into a drizzly November morning back home, the Salamanca Market had a very different to feel to any market I have experienced. My only memories of English markets are in dirty industrial towns of old-glories with the Saturday afternoon market now being the highlight, selling everything from second-hand toasters to mobile phone covers for phones that stopped being used five or so years ago. Even through Asia the experience is different again. These places are filled with all sorts of smells, noises and foods that you are unlikely to be experience anywhere else and although the people here are generally friendly they can sometimes be a tad annoying, hassling you continually to buy one of their products.

Here in Hobart, as the sun began to break through the atmosphere was much more laidback. The stalls sold all kinds of things, including homemade jams and every type of hat you can imagine. While the products are not the sorts of things I intend to carry around in my backpack for the next eight months until I get home, this day was much more about the overall experience than the things on sale. As you made your way through the stalls all sorts of musicians giving a taste of their music. The musicians here were of very different demographics, a group of Chinese students played a collection of classical songs by way of violin, a crowd of men who looked like they had just stepped out of a XXXX Beer advert gave a few renditions of songs I had never heard before with all sorts of percussion instruments, and a young lad who can only be described as ‘hippy-looking’ strummed away happily on his guitar. It was an experience that I certainly was not expecting.

As pleasant as the Salamanca market is there is only a certain amount of time one can spend looking at stalls without the intention of buying anything. So a few hours later I made my way away from the market and towards the harbour. Now when you visit certain parts of the world there are things one must try before leaving the place. For instance, in Mexico at least one of shot of Tequila should be consumed, preferably swallowing the worm afterwards, or in Dublin a pint of Guinness should be at least attempted. And so it is in Hobart, a place with the water playing such a key part of the community and fishing being such a large part of the economy, Fish and Chips must be tried.

There are many arguments I have had with Aussies as I have made my way around the world. Most of these involve their strange takings on the English language, and even stranger pronunciation of these words- the argument is generally ended abruptly when you ask what the language is called that they are speaking- but one of these that has resulted in some heated discussions is the merits of fish and chip meal in each country. While the British palate may not be the equal to our Italian or French friends, we have three meals that I would proudly call British, these being fry-ups, Roast dinners and of course fish and chips. So when our antipodeans cousins claim that their take on the meal is better than ours it gets to me a little bit. But having experienced first hand this tiny little independent fish shop on the harbour front I am willing to stop arguing. It is perhaps the best I have tried and, yes, that includes the Sutton-at-Hone fish bar, Mum.

Of course, as Sod’s Law would have it, on returning to Melbourne I discovered that people I had not spoken to previously about Tasmania had much more information on the island than what I had collected before going. ‘Oh you stayed in Hobart’ they say ‘oh you really should have got up to Launceston, or even just down the road from there is the Huon Trail. I can’t believe you missed it.’ I try to explain that my budget would not allow it this time and I am gutted to have missed them, but generally they are not listening, they are off telling me about another incredible part of the island I just HAD to see. That is the thing about Tasmania, while it may not be a place many have heard about, or if they have it is not a place that has appealed much, those that have speak incredibly fondly of it and I am certainly one of those. As soon as I have enough money I will be in a car and heading that way again.