Monday, February 6, 2012

Tasmania in Four Days: Part 1

There are five states and two territories in Australia: New South Wales, Victoria, Northern Territory, Western Australia (not very original, it'd be like calling California "Western United States"), South Australia (again with the originality), Australian Capital Territory, which hosts the nation's capital (seriously, guys, come on), and Tasmania.

Among these, Tasmania -- or Tassie (pronounced Tazzy) as the locals call it -- is the runt of the litter. Literally, it's the smallest state by far.* Western Australia is nearly 1,000,000 square miles in area; Tasmania is about 26,000. Tasmania's situation isn't helped by the fact that it's an island of its own and you can only get there by plane or a 10 hour ferry. Most Australians have never visited. As a result, it always gets the shaft. When a big biscuit (biscuit=cookie) company launched a box of biscuits shaped like Australian states, Tasmania was left out. I have to admit, it doesn't feel like a part of the country.

Still, it's supposed to be a beautiful place and is known for its wines and cheeses. Sharon and I figured while we're in this remote corner of the world, we ought to check out Australia's remote corners, and this is one of them. We were joined by a couple friends: Michelle, a born-and-raised Aussie, and her husband, Alex, an American who now has Australian citizenship.

We flew directly from Sydney to Launceston, the second biggest city in Tasmania, which is located on the northern side of the island. The plane descended over turquoise blue waters  and pine tree-filled hills. Launceston airport is small, but nicely designed. We walked from the plane across the tarmac under a clear blue sky. The atmosphere was relaxed. "Now we're on Island Time," I declared to Sharon.

Typical Tasmanian landscape.

We took a quick spin through Launceston just to check it out (small, but charming) before a long haul to the east coast for our first destination, the Bay of Fires. The drive was spectacular. Every fifteen minutes someone would point out a particularly beautiful vista: "Look over there." Every time this happened I'd try to take a quick look as well, which usually coincided with the car briefly leaving the road. After an hour my passengers caught on and began saying "Look over there -- not you, Adam; you look at the road."

By 3:00PM the clouds rolled in and we still hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. The few restaurants we passed were closed for Australia Day. We passed a sign saying "Fruit Orchard + Golf: 800 meters" and, in need of a change of pace and some food, turned off the main road onto a gravelly track. The detailed sign soon gave way to lazier signs simply saying "Fruit Golf." We weren't sure whether we'd be teeing up some oranges or what, but soon passed a sad looking golf course before creeping up to a small shack next to a fruit orchard. We got hot chocolate and coffees and then hit the road again.

Just after our less than remarkable Fruit Golf experience, we discovered an old fishing boat moored to a dock that sold fish and chips. We were all famished by then so boarded for some lunch. The main highlight was a terrible aerial photo of said boat, which I christened the "Lunch Boat", hanging on the wall. The photo looked like it was taken in the 70s and, in addition to the boat, mostly captured the parking lot. Copies were on sale for $65. I wanted to ask the owner if anyone actually bought these but didn't want to offend him.

We once again got back on the road and 30 minutes later arrived at our first sightseeing destination. The Bay of Fires is a huge bay whose beaches are surrounded by giant red rocks; the red hue is caused by a bacteria and the bay earned its name because when the sun rises and shines off of the rocks, it looks like fire (well, as much as red rocks can look like fire). We, unfortunately, were not privy to this as the sun was tucked away behind a solid cloud cover.

Bay of Fires

As the rain threatened to intensify, we decided to move on. We sped down the Tasman Highway, which runs along the empty coastline and treats you to wonderful views of the Tasman Sea on the left and fields and hills on the right, and finally arrived in the tiny town of Bicheno, our stop for the night. There were only two restaurants in town and one of them was closed, so that forced us to go to the Sea Life Centre, an odd name considering it was just a plain old restaurant (albeit with lots of seafood on the menu) and a tacky gift shop.

Under peer pressure from Michelle and Alex, Sharon and I tried oysters for the first time. They were better than I expected and didn't have the rubbery texture that I thought all shellfish had. Despite being at the Sea Life Centre, for dinner I went with lamb.

Just as we were paying the bill our waitress asked, "Are you going to see the penguins now?"

"What penguins?" we asked.

Each night a number of mini-penguins comes on the rocks for a snooze. We walked down the hill to find a few hanging out. We couldn't take any photos because the flash disorients them.

A lazy evening in Bicheno.

Friday morning we woke up, got some breakfast sandwiches at Pork's  Place ("Where smiles are free.") and stopped by a blowhole. This was a cool formation of rocks that forced waves up through a crack; even with a light swell the water launched a good 15-20 feet in the air. I can only imagine how high it would get during a storm. Afterwards, we got on the road for a 45 minute drive to Wineglass Bay.
Bicheno's blowhole.

Wineglass Bay, along with Cradle Mountain, is among Tasmania's most famous spots. It's on a peninsula that breaks off from the Tasman Highway. We paid the fee for access to the park, changed into hiking clothes, and started our climb: to get to Wineglass Bay you first hike up a steep track to a lookout point, and then must walk down the other side to get to the bay. The hike up the near side is no disappointment, though. Huge boulders tower all around you and another flawless body of water, Coles Bay, sits at the bottom of the track.

Coles Bay

But once you get to the lookout -- that's where you realize everything you've seen yet pales in comparison. Wineglass Bay might be one of the most stunning beaches in the world. From the top of the trail looking down, turquoise water lapped against white sand that seemed to glow in the sunlight.  Huge green hills slope down to the shore. There wasn't a manmade structure in site. A few boats bobbed in the waves.

Excited by what awaited us, our step quickened on the walk down. At one point, we passed both a pregnant woman and a woman carrying a young child on their way back up. We were all sweating profusely supporting our own body weight; I couldn't imagine carrying another's. "Crazy," I thought.

View of Wineglass Bay from the lookout point.

At the bottom we changed into swimsuits. I dived into the water and just as quickly retreated back to the beach. Unfortunately, the tropical looking water doesn't have a tropical temperature. One Tassie woman had charitably called it "Refreshing." Someone of my disposition would call it "Freezing." There's nothing south of Tasmania except Antarctica, and that's where the ocean currents come from.

Then we clambered around on the huge rocks on the west side of the beach a bit before settling on to a blanket Sharon brought to relax for a while. We soon had a visitor. A wallaby had popped down from the brush to scope out the people. He just hung around a while, basking in the attention as everyone crawled closer and closer to get their photos. When he had enough, he bounded back up in to the dunes.
Wallaby checking out people on the beach.

We decided to go since we still wanted to visit a winery or two before the day was out, and we began the slow ascent back up the mountain to get back to the car park.

Before leaving Wineglass Bay, we wound our way up another hill -- this time in an air-conditioned car -- to a vantage point called Cape Tourville. From here you have an amazing view of the Freycinet Peninsula to the north and south. We took it all in for a moment, then got in the car again to head to some wineries.
View of Freycinet Peninsula from Cape Tourville; Wineglass Bay in the distance.

Along the way we stopped at a seafood stand and got some fresh lobster and oysters (and local beer) for a quick lunch. We followed that up with a stop at the Freycinet Vineyard (good wine; okay setting) and finished with a tasting at Milton Wineries. I didn't drink because I was driving, but this one definitely had the better setting to sit and enjoy some wines.
Fresh lobster and oysters.
At Milton Winery.

Thoroughly worn out, we headed towards our motel, the optimistically named East Coast Resort in Orford, which was a "one blink" town as described by a woman at the second winery.

Following the GPS' instructions, we pulled off the highway -- and I use that term loosely -- onto a local road with nothing around but some fields. We followed this road to the very end, where it terminated among a number of deserted lots sitting by the water. A few appeared to be warehouses. Another was a shuttered bar. An empty looking building had a banner hanging in front indicating it could be hired for conferences, but there was no other sign. 

"This can't be it, guys," I decided. "We're still a few kilometers from the town center." I started to drive back towards the highway. Alex called the hotel to find out where it was. It turned out the GPS was right: the empty building was in fact the lobby of the motel.

We turned around again and drove to the entrance. It didn't look any more occupied than before, but this time the front door was open. "You know this is how horror movies start, right?" someone said.

A guy inside sitting behind the desk checked us in. When we commented on the general lack of people he told us they were supposed to be shut down for renovations, but the work crew bailed before starting, and now they were trying to salvage their tourist season. He was going to head home but told us he was on call 24 hours a day if we needed anything.

We parked in the car lot -- we were the only car -- and walked to the second level, where we had rooms next to each other. No one else was staying at the motel.

"We can misbehave!" the girls cheered, skipping down the veranda.

We washed off the grime of our hiking and hopped in the car to head into the center of Orford, another tiny village that consisted of a liquor store, a gas station, a fish and chips place, and a pizza and pasta restaurant that had been recommended to us.

Alex and I sprung for the pizza special, made with wallaby salami. "Where did the wallaby come from?" I asked the waitress. "From the butcher in Bicheno," she replied. She didn't really answer what I wanted to know, which was "Is this roadkill or do they have wallaby farms here?" and I didn't press her on it.

(One side note on roadkill: a colleague who had been to Tasmania said it had more roadkill than he'd ever seen in his life; he was right about that. It seemed like every kilometer there was a dead wallaby, possum, or some other furry critter. "They're just sleeping," Alex assured us each time.)

Digging in to some wallaby salami pizza.

After dinner we headed back to the motel to drink some wine and play some cards. We huddled up in the room where Sharon and I were staying.  It was eerily quiet, and now that it was dark, a little scary.

"I hope we don't get murdered tonight," someone said.
"No one would hear if we were," someone else replied.
"Well, no one else is here."
"That just means one of us is the killer."

"What makes it all a bit alarming is that the phones don't work," said Alex. Sharon got up and picked up our room phone -- no signal. Sharon and I, both on Vodafone, the crappiest mobile network in the country, hadn't had a signal since arriving in Tasmania. Our phones said "No signal" but that implies there was a signal to be had; it should have said "Just forget about it". Alex and Michelle were on Optus and had been getting service at various spots in our travels. But here they also got nothing. So no mobile phones and no room phones. If anything did happen there was no way to reach anyone. It added to the horror film atmosphere.

Back in the States, Sharon and I often stayed in a small cottage in the mountains of Massachusetts, where no one else was around. Those experiences were never creepy -- it was solitude that we sought out to escape the buzz of New York. This was different. This was a forty room motel with only two rooms occupied. In the middle of nowhere. With no phones.

The fun was thoroughly sucked from the room. What had been a chance to misbehave was now a death trap. We decided to call it quits on the cards and go to bed. Paranoia got the better of me and I propped a chair against the bedroom door. I learned the next morning that Alex did the same thing.

The next morning we were excited to see everyone was still alive and the car wasn't sitting on cinder blocks. We quickly loaded everything up, checked out, and started the drive to Port Arthur, a penal colony during the 1800s. But you'll have to wait for Part 2 for that story.

*(I'm excluding the Australian Capital Territory here, which is comparable to Washington D.C. in purpose; i.e. I don't count it as a real state).
Some Tasmanian coastline...


  1. Check out this new movie The Hunter. Its set in Tasmania.

  2. What a fun adventure (except for the creepy motel room). The fresh oysters & lobster looks amazing.