by Janice Nigro

When I was a child, I thought that the name for the island of Tasmania was derived from some kind of a special sort of psychological disorder.  It didn’t help that the only other thing that I knew to associate with Tasmania was the famed Tasmanian Devil from the Warner Brothers cartoons.  This character whirls around in a fury, growling, drooling, and speaking no words.  The Tasmanian Devil alone probably gave me the impression that the island might be a little different than where I was growing up.  But I eventually learned that Tasmania and the Tasman Sea are named after the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman.  I could not shake that initial childhood impression, though, and the first time that I traveled to mainland Australia years ago, I was half expecting to be somehow transformed into a wilder version of myself every time that I got to eat or drink something Tasmanian.

Tasmania is pretty far from just about everywhere even when you are already pretty far from home.  Two of my best friends who I met in Norway but are originally from the USA, moved to Tasmania.  You have to wonder how this could happen but it did, and I gave up on the idea to visit them several times, on each of four of my trips to Indonesia, because it was still a long way to go even from there.  But you can not allow an opportunity to stay with friends who are expats in an off the beaten path location to pass you by for too long, so I decided finally to make Tasmania part of my “swimabout” so that I could visit while they were still living there.  It was still about ten hours of flight time with a four-hour layover in Sydney from Singapore.

The airport in Sydney ranks up there (well down there) with the one in Frankfurt, where I once found myself in a stressful rush taking a bus from a plane parked on the tarmac to the terminal to get to a gate to catch a bus back to the plane I was just on.  At the first entry point into any country, you have to claim your bag, even though it is checked through to a different final domestic destination, and go through immigration and customs.  So at Sydney, I had to wait for the bag, recheck it at Qantas, and then catch a bus, which is on a strict 15-minute loop, with a security escort to the domestic terminal.  Not too stressful as my flight was four hours into the future.

On the way out, I had a one-hour layover, actually scheduled by Qantas, to do all of this backwards.  I had to first wait 15 minutes for the bus in order to get to the international terminal, which negated the early arrival of my flight from Hobart.  I was prepared with the knowledge of my gate number, but soon forgot it because I had to pass through immigration and security where there was no special express line for transfers that are less than an hour.

I never would have made my flight except for the fact that it was delayed, and it was in the security line that I thought all passengers should be required to have a certification for travel.  Don’t ask how many passengers ahead of me had to remove water bottles from their carry-ons and have their bags rescreened while I waited not patiently to make my connection.  One of the screeners actually suggested that I show up three hours early for my flight.  Ok, I thought, this is one of those times where the more I say, the less I am going to get.  The real goal is to arrive to my destination safely.

I landed in Hobart, and my first thought was that I booked the wrong airport!  “How many Hobarts can there be?” went through my mind (a very sleepy one) because I could only see one small building, like at some cities in Indonesia, and just two other parked jets.  It was Hobart and so began my Tasmanian adventure.

One of the easy aspects of traveling to Australia is that the language is English.  But it isn’t exactly the same English.  I was sitting at the bar in a beautiful vineyard just outside of Hobart, tasting wines with my friend, when she said, “Let’s play a game.”  She then told me that Australians tend to shorten words and add an “ie” or “y” to the end to make a new word for a former greater than one syllable object.  My first game was to guess what a “sticky” was.  I went for the context in which this game was initiated, a vineyard, so I guessed that it was a dessert wine.

I then started to think about it, Australians do refer to themselves as Aussies, and then I remembered from my first trip that mosquitoes were called mossies.  I subsequently noticed that Tasmania was perhaps affectionately referred to as Tassie in both spoken and written language, and that there is even a bus service called Tassielink.  I would have guessed wrong what “chuck a sickie” means, to call into work sick when you aren’t really sick, but when we stopped for breakfast and the server asked if we were there for “breakie” I finally broke and realized how entertaining Australian is to speak (“we could have “breakie” burritos,” my friend declared.) and tried to alter words like you might if you did not know a word in Italian or Spanish by adding an “o” to the end of it.  I was curious how this deviation from “proper” English started, and what was the first word that underwent this change and stuck.

I have to admit that I was pretty lazy about my approach to touring Tasmania.  I didn’t read a single line about what to do there, on land anyway (except to know when summer was), because my friends were living there.  Sometimes I think booking a ticket and just getting to some place new is good enough.  In some respects, this lack of information made the adventure all the more surprising because I did not expect to see what I saw when I first stepped onto a Tasmanian beach.

I left the luxury bungalows behind this time and found myself car camping instead.  My friends are experts at camping as well as arriving by various modes of transportation to specific sites, such as canoeing, kayaking, or backpacking.  The fact that they are experts always makes me a bit nervous because I am afraid that I have a lower threshold for camping than they do.  But I can do car camping.  We loaded up the car with all sorts of equipment, including a refrigerator that gets plugged into the car and cools down as long as the car is running.  That meant that we could take a few normally perishable items, and of course chocolate would not melt.  I was asked what I wanted for dinners, and I had to mention that the last time I had been camping, in fact, backpacking, duck breasts were roasted on an open fire for me.  This was how the French did it, but I was quickly told with a smile that I wasn’t going to get that.  We planned for a seemingly less sophisticated dinner but somehow whatever you make, including hot dogs, tastes not just good but great when you are camping.  My friends, however, happen to also be the gourmets of cooking over camp stoves (there should be a food show for this) so I did little, except watch.

Tasmanian camping initiated at Friendly Beaches in the Freycinet National Park, on a peninsula east and a little north of Hobart.  A glimpse of the water from the car as we descended the road to the first of these beaches took my breath away.  The sea seemed to go through a series of color gradations as if you were asked to paint the perfect color wheel.  A French friend once described her honeymoon in French Polynesia to me as “Fifty shades of blue” because of all of the magnificent colors of the sea there, even though it had obvious negative connotations for the honeymoon.  I think I would like to steal that title for my trip to Tasmania because the beaches on the east coast of the island are like none I have ever seen.  And I have seen a lot of beaches.

To step onto the beaches, even with your eyes closed, is also magnificent.  We did a hike to the famous Wineglass Bay (unfortunately on a cloudy day) and when your toes touch the sand, it is hard to believe that you are 42 degrees away from the equator.  The sand is fine and white just like on any tropical beach, but it is derived largely from stone rather than coral and seashells.  Our first day ended with a spectacular full moonrise over the ocean, and our toes digging into the cool, fine sand.

Unusual weather plagued Hobart for many days, but we managed to plan a second camping trip around the wind and rain.  Luckily for us, the window of opportunity included New Year’s Eve.  Bay of Fires…  When I first heard that name, I thought of natural formations, but the name is more historical.  James Cooke named the area Bay of Fires when he first saw the area because of the series of small camp fires lit by the Aborigines on the beach there.

It is sometimes hard to convince yourself when you are older to camp-sleep on an air mattress and wake up to cool air-until you find yourself in a tent with a view of such a beach  and the waves crashing and lulling you to sleep at Cosy Corner South.  The beaches here are fine sand interrupted by large boulders eroded down over time into smooth, roundish surfaces and big fissures.  It reminded me a bit of the beaches in the Seychelles with those characteristic boulders that seem out of place on a tropical island.  But Tasmania like the Seychelles is a piece of a big continent left behind somewhere.

A beach hike across the area of the coast called the Gardens induced a hypnotic trance.  I kept wanting to see what lies beyond the next pile of gigantic boulders, like a small child who wants to see what is on top of the refrigerator.  You have to climb up, stretch your toes, jump, and hop on the boulders to reach the other side, but somehow it was never exhausting.  It is here that I felt as if I spent two days immersed in a three dimensional cubist painting, Gulliver-size.  The boulders are different, mostly rectangular, shapes that seem to be placed with purpose, but you do not exactly know what they mean.  And they are painted, painted by lichens, one of which is bright orange.  Natural rock sculptures were sort of a recurring theme in Tasmania; Mt. Wellington overlooking Hobart has a face weathered down over time into “organ pipes”.  If you took a moment to look down into the tide pools as you crossed, you would find sea stars, kelp, and a lot of anemones…  New Year’s Eve was spent on a plateau on top of some of these boulders, gazing up at the stars in the quiet, rather than man-made fireworks.

In between camping and hiking, there was Christmas with friends, a trip to a very modern museum of art, Port Arthur for historical context, marsupials and an echidna, and the Taste of Tasmania.  If you are wondering, grilling was involved for Christmas, but it was “prawns on the barbie” not “shrimp on the barbie” (see there is that “ie” word again).  The Taste of Tasmania is a week long festival of food and wine that coincides with the Sydney to Hobart sailing race.  It could almost be just another festival until you stand in front of a booth where you can order wallaby burritos.  It seems though that the real purpose of the festival is to showcase Tasmanian wines.  You purchase a $7 “glass” (actually you can use the one from last year) and taste all the Tasmanian wine that you would like to.  I am sorry, but I was stuck on the “stickies”.

And for all of this fun, I was charged one homemade pasta dinner!  It pays to be skilled…

Today for me was always tomorrow for most of my friends and family, summer is in December, furry animals hop around and some even lay eggs, and the next bit of land to the south is, of course, Antarctica.  Tasmania still seems to me like it could be a word to describe something that isn’t exactly right…

©2014 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiink.com


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