Grant Spencer takes TBS #travelogue readers on a guided tour of beautiful Tasmania’s finest…well, what he has time to guide us through, anyway!
At home in Sydney, the gym saves me every day. A machine helps me swing my arms and legs in a smooth orbit to avoid the terrible impact of gravity. Unfortunately this fails my climb up Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain. My breath, hacksaws – a toothed blade catching in my throat. And my mouth is as dry as sawdust. My wife, who suggested this trip, has sensibly opted to explore the lower, less vertical parts of the mountain. Up ahead, my friend Denis, who finally bought his dream farm just outside of Launceston, moves steadily upward like a goat. He has been here only four years but his easy ascent makes him seem a part of the landscape, a country boy. This climb seems a long way from the beginning of our friendship when we both were strong; he swinging his bass guitar, my microphone gripped with anger. This time however I have something very viscerally desperate to communicate. He pauses to wait every few minutes.
Absentmindedly, he forgets the marked path and I am in no state of mind to follow anything but his back which disappears intermittently as we weave to the peak. I decide to take a rest and call for water. I’m waiting for Denis to call me soft, or snigger, but he just hands me the flask and looks out over the tiered valleys, each cupping a vast green lake. Then I remember that he was the one everyone made fun of in the band.
Denis is a horticulturist and environmental conservationist, and he expresses his knowledge about the flora we walk past almost as if he is surprised he remembers, like he is discovering it all over again. We ascend to the Twisted Lakes, named in that distinctly Australian tradition of considering creativity a waste. Denis tells us that the environment around the Twisted Lakes is as close as we’ll see to something out of the Gondwanan age. This piece of trivia is perfectly timed, as the scene feels dream-like. The lake edge is lined with stark, native pines. Green moss hems the deeply lipped edge of the lake, framing clear water teeming with tadpoles. Limestone-grey boulders rise steeply on one side. It looks like the inspiration for a sculpted Japanese garden, but more wild, more ancient. What I’m trying to say is you should go to Cradle Mountain. Don’t take the easy walk around the lower lying lake.
So far Tasmania has given me a sense of the “uncanny valley”, an apt expression to describe that experience of the unfamiliar when the stimulus should seem entirely familiar. It is extraordinarily lush in the way that the south coast of New South Wales boasts, but it also has a dramatic ruggedness, and in some areas that barren arctic quality of Scotland. My wife and I have explored both these places together and now we are here, a trip planned to coincide with our first wedding anniversary. An exceptionally romantic plan for the most part, if you leave out the bit about our decision to come back home early so I could still go to the music festival I’d bought tickets for that she wasn’t interested in attending.
Together we explore a large portion of the state by hire car, which is a very reasonably priced transport option. Look into it. The Bay of Fires is our first stop, lined with pure white sands that produce the striking aquamarine colour as the waves rise. The sand squeaks as you walk through it. A fire-coloured lichen licks the rocky coastline, its smooth bright stone so different to the volcanic coast I am used to cutting my feet on. It is the site of the whaling industry of the 1800s, back before this place was considered a paradise. Close by, we take the disappointingly short walk from a roadside to St Columba Falls, where the idyllic rainforest scenery feels too surreal. A Swedish girl asks me to take a photo of her staring wistfully away from the camera, looking nymph-like. The giant fern and the rush of the brook behind her makes it seem like a perfectly reasonable attitude to take. I have Gianna take a photo of myself in a similar pose, and to my satisfaction the results are anything but sexy.
Another day and we are kayaking around the Tasman Peninsula. The bone white ghosts of dead trees stand taller than the fringe of bush that crowds the coastline. Intense bushfires in the ’60s reduced decades of towering gums to cinders, leaving these spectres as a reminder. The Cascade Brewery was also destroyed. We are on a guided tour and one of our fellow kayakers old enough to remember this event whinges about having to drink Boag’s. We pass seal colonies where the inhabitants are draped across rocks with the same dead weight of bloated brown punching bags with heads. They are mostly disinterested in us. The water however acts like an alchemist, transforming them into playful, slippery creatures waving from and twisting through the water.
Our guides, Roaring 40s Kayaking (there’s really no reason you shouldn’t just book a trip with them now) take us through a series of sea stacks. Towering totems of stone standing hundreds of metres high and only a few metres across. I know I won’t forget the sight of a lone man crouching in profile as he climbs the thing. Just imagine an ant on a school ruler. Bull kelp, seaweed so heavy it moves with the swell, rolls in the water like an animal. Turquoise water glows between cave walls that grow a radiant pink lichen that we’re told only grows in Tasmania due to the purity of the water.
Back on land MONA awaits, of course. Just about everyone who has travelled to Tassie will tell you that not visiting this art gallery is a punishable offence. They may as well just staple an entrance ticket to your boarding pass at the airport. It still amuses me that contemporary art draws such a broad crowd. I hear the disparaging comments of our fellow gallery visitors as we all walk past the gold gilt remains of the underside of an old American Muscle Car, the wall of die cast vaginas, the shitting machine. I like to believe that these insults are a front, a way for people to distance themselves from the possibly awkward realisation that they have been moved by something they cannot articulate. Denis knows how to be thoroughly moved by both art and nature; it aggravates me that these people cannot. Also like Denis, this place knows how to call me out on my intellectual pretensions, which are thoroughly indulged and mocked at the same time. There is an iPhone audio self-guide that has a little icon in the shape of a crudely sketched penis called Art Wank.
Meanwhile, Gianna walks open mouthed into a room which houses a giant metal book with pages of glass quite literally falling out. A description reads that it references the terrible power of literature, specifically in the Nazi book burnings. We linger at this exhibit longer than I need. And that’s why I love my wife, to be around when this kind of thing wakes in her. The gallery itself is set into the side of a sandstone cliff rising out of the river, there is a vast room where a wall of sandstone leaks. It’s as beautiful an experience as everyone makes out. Remember a time when you could recommend something and not have anyone wonder about how much you’re being paid? This is one of those times. Go there too.
Denis put us up at his acreage for four nights where we talked into the swiftly descending darkness without looking at our phones. I spotted the wild platypus that lives in his dam. This is the Tasmania I will remember, natural gorgeousness and a reason to talk. A total disengagement from the life Sydney has taught me to live.
You may be wondering about our early return home for the music festival. Don’t worry. On the actual date of our anniversary, I surprised Gianna with a trip to the Hunter, where she flaunted her disposable wealth in front of her until-recently poor, psychology student husband, by buying many, many crates of wine. Have you ever been on a hot air balloon ride before? That was pretty amazing. I’ll tell you about it next time.