Under Down Under
Trip Start Aug 05, 2007
12Trip End Jul 26, 2008
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..the land that time forgot.
It's an Aussie Jurassic park, a wild wonderland where every five minutes you trip over another mountain, rain forest, beach or waterfall. It has weird and wonderful creatures and weather that whips up from the Antarctic. It's my favourite place in Australia.
..the land that tourists forgot.
Only 4% of visitors to Oz come here. And with the population being less than half a million on an island twice the size of Ireland, it means the place is as empty as a polling booth during local elections.
..the land that fashion forgot
The clothes worn wouldn't be out of place on the set of the tv series Bread. I've never seen so many shell suits and mullet hair-dos. That's when I actually spotted anyone. The Tassies I did meet were friendly and incredibly proud of their island, calling the mainland the 'north island', and those on it 'flatlanders' due to their lack of real mountains.
I flew in to Tassie on the coat-tails of a hurricane, managing to sleep my way through 176km winds on my first night there. I started my trip tramping down the east coast, with its wide bays and sparkling beaches and little seaside towns called St Helens and Swansea, with cafes selling every flavour of ice-cream under the sun. I spent a memorable morning climbing down a trail to get onto Wineglass Bay, recently voted one of the best beaches in the world. Gorgeous white sand set on the toes of hillside forest, with the sea all shades of blue and green.
The east coast is home to the most controversial figure in Tassie - the Fairy Penguin.This little bird is currently at the centre of a media storm concerning its name, deemed by some to be offensive. All tourist guides have been instructed to call them 'little blue penguins'. I went to see what all the fuss was about, creeping at night down little lanes lit with, yes, fairy lights, towards the beach, where the penguins were emerging after a hard day's swim
The west coast is wilder and wetter, its scenery having less charm but more drama, and there are fewer towns, leftovers from a long-gone mining industry. We stopped in Queenstown, a Deliverance/stick to the road/backwoods type place, where apparently families are more familiar than they should be. We were greeted by some of the aforementioned middle-aged mullets, wearing dressing gowns in the middle of the day, clasping their cans of beer and cheering on some teenage lads who showed impressive multi-tasking skills by riding their bikes, mooning and giving us the finger all at the same time.
My favourite day on the west coast was walking with a group in Cradle Mountain National Park, hiking up near the summit of the Mountain and back, following the contours of lakes and the mountain range. It was a good day's walk, tramping through snow, up onto boulders, along boggy paths. We spotted wombats waddling like toddlers in nappies, and had great fun flicking leeches off each others legs
I finished my time in Tassie with a visit to the world-famous Boag's Brewery, where I got to wear a fluorescent yellow outfit which said 'VIP Beer Lover' on the back, and, literally, wore beer goggles whilst in the bottling room. I had a beer or four at the tasting session afterwards, and can say with confidence that Premium is my favourite Boag.
Other world-famous Tassies:
* Errol Flynn - actor and renowned swordsman, born and brought up in Hobart.
* David Boon - test cricketer of the eighties, also known as 'Keg on Legs'. Possibly more famous for consuming 52 cans of lager on a flight from Sydney to London in 1989, a record that still stands today.
* the Tasmanian Devil - not the cartoon but an actual animal endemic to Tasmania. I went to see some at a conservation park, and how cute they look with their black dog-like bodies, sniffing snouts and pink ears. Until some wallaby road-kill was thrown into the enclosure
I visited Tassie because when I was little my Uncle Vincent talked about it like it was the best place ever. He was absolutely right.
From Tasmania I headed back to Melbourne and Trish and Darren, who introduced me to my first Aussie Rules Football game. We went to the Telstra Dome to see Essendon Bombers v Western Bulldogs (which according to an expat magazine I read, was roughly akin to West Ham v Charlton). Before the game started we collected our drinks - three types of beer, red or white wine and sparkling wine on offer, how civilised - and sat in a group of mixed supporters, mainly families, who were loud and cheerful. When the match started, it seemed like one of those playground games where everyone piles in. There were masses of blokes on the pitch - 18 a side, with five refs (five times the fun of shouting at the man in black). 23 in a squad, and players could come on and off without asking the ref first
I had to say another goodbye to Trish and Darren, but hopefully will see them again in 2010 if they manage to carry out their John O"Groats to Land End cycle ride, the crazy pair.
No Melbourne visit is complete without a Neighbours Night Out, a 'meet the stars' evening in an English pub, rounded off by a few tunes from Dr Karl's band. Imagine the scene - crowds of British gap-year travellers, all made up and sparkly (girls), or with trousers slung so low you could see their pants (boys), baying for the 'stars'
My last stop in Australia was Sydney, with a detour down to Jervis Bay to meet with Paul, an old schoolfriend of mine I hadn't seen for 23 years. Paul moved here with his family a few years ago, and flies helicopters for the Aussie Navy. It was really funny seeing him again, we just kept staring and saying 'bloody hell, we're grown-ups!' We mis-spent many hours back then at St Columba's High School in the prefects room, sitting on the heaters wearing fingerless gloves and putting the world to rights. And this time it wasn't much different, but with lots of wine thrown in and without the gloves. One evening we stopped by a river, and Paul made a fire so we could toast marshmallows. I was very impressed with his backwoodsmanship, as he successfully used a tampon as a firelighter
I had a great time with Paul and his lovely family, and I'm sure we won't wait another 23 years before the next reunion.
Here in Sydney, after nine healthy months of travelling, I've finally succumbed to a nasty flu bug. Thankfully it's rained a lot, and the hostel I'm staying in is gorgeous, what with the chandeliers and huge sofas scattered around, so I've been happy to spend days curled up inside, sneezing and reading. I have managed to see some sights, and got up early on Anzac Day last week for the Dawn Service, which was beautiful. It's hugely important here, and large crowds turn up every year for the 4am service. We gathered at the Cenotaph to hear pipe bands, sing hymns and watch the wreath laying. I was given a sprig of rosemary for remembrance, and some Anzac biscuits for the journey home.
So I'm off to New Zealand in a couple of days for glow-worms, mudbaths and seeing my great mate Ann. I've had a brilliant two months in Oz, its so easy to travel around, and I love how Aussies always say it like it is. I listened in on one conversation:
Aussie No 1: "I read a survey that says Aussies are the most polite nation in the world'.
Aussie No 2: 'That's bullshit, mate'.
And they are so literal with the names they give things. A beach, 12 miles long? Let's call it 12 Mile Beach. Mm, this cheese is tasty, what'll we call it? I know, Tasty Cheese! I passed a car showroom, its name in lights - 'Bloody Cheap Cars'.
Just not sure how that applies to 'budgie smugglers' though...