MORNING is breaking, the Spirit of Tasmania is sidling through the Mersey mouth into Devonport, and I’m thinking about being seduced by Tassie’s timeless charms. For me she has always been a favorite lover. In six decades, I haven’t stayed away from my island home for longer than a few months at a time. Although I live and work on the other side of Bass Strait, Tassie keeps drawing me back.
I confess it’s a physical thing – I’m attracted to the beautiful light that Tassie bathes in. Cameramen call the early morning or late afternoon ‘magic hour’ because they shoot their most sublime pictures when the first or last light of day casts a soft, surreal glow over the landscape. ‘Magic hour’ in Tasmania is long and enchanting – the old lady is a stunner at either end of the day.
Nature has blessed Tassie with tumbling golden plains, with the inky colors of the mountain ranges and with trout streams that glide through seamless valleys. It has craggy cliffs on the wild West Coast and sparkling beaches on the East, an untamed wilderness within and the ever-changing vistas of the Central Plateau.
I was born and raised at Longford, in the grazing country of the Northern Midlands. To the south are the Western Tiers, and to the East is snow-capped Ben Lomond. Those peaks framed my view of the world.
Longford is barely an hour’s drive eastwards from the Spirit of Tasmania ferry terminal at Devonport. But, instead of sticking to the highway, I usually take a ‘short cut’ through the back country. It’s on the roads less travelled that you find the real gems in Tassie.
We ramble inland from Devonport to Sheffield (population approx. 1000), a farming town that’s daubed with murals depicting its heritage. I like the way they have used their past to reinvent their community.
The story on the mural at Slaters Country Store tells how Jessie and Nellie Slater declined their neighbor’s offer to go partners in a shop that the neighbor and his sons were planning to open in Melbourne in 1927. Their neighbor was G.J. Coles.
Leaving the mural town, we mosey eastwards, past country houses that are half the size of their wood-heaps. Chopping and stacking wood are Tasmanian obsessions. We’re mad about collecting firewood. You’ll find huge stacks nearly stockpiled at the side of most farmhouses, or running the length of a fenceline, ready and waiting for the next Ice Age.
As my old man would say, you never know when the next frost will come. The old man was particularly fond of a black frost, the one you can’t see.
On our drive from Devonport to Longford, we pass through Dunorlan and stop at the junction, just to adore Mt Roland in the distance. The hamlets beneath Mt Roland are named Beluah, Promised Land and Paradise. Yes, this is God’s country.
When mainlanders travel our roads, the thing they notice first is the volume of road kill. To the outsider it looks like we’ve lined up all our native critters and run them over. The answer probably lies in the fact that most of our roads pass through countryside where so many creatures live.
On we drive through gum-shadowed paddocks and rows of pine hedges, turning off the Bass Highway in the direction of Longford, past the pretty church and graveyard where the impressionist painter Tom Roberts is buried. In his later life, Roberts married a local girl.
Longford is a meatworks town. They built the abattoirs upwind of the settlement, and a foul smell wafted over my boyhood. No-one complained, because the meathworks is Longford’s livelihood, and we’d never want to jeopardize keeping it.
As an expatriate Tasmanian living in Melbourne, I’m often asked by intending travellers where in Tassie they should go.
The answer these days has to include MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art. The genius of David Walsh has helped transform the image that Tasmanians have of themselves.
No longer is Tassie a dowdy place where you can’t buy a decent coffee. Now your experience includes a gallery that wouldn’t be out of place in Berlin or New York. Tassie boasts a wonderful selection of boutique accommodation, the unforgettable cruises off the spectacular coastline and visionary projects such as the Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm golf courses that bring golfing pilgrims from across the world.
My advice to visitors is not to think you can ‘do Tassie’ in a few days, or even a week. If you’ve only got a few days, visit a small part of the island and chill out.
The rhythm of Tasmania is tranquil, much slower than the ‘north island’, despite what some Tasmanians might think.
Twenty years ago, when I was living on a farm in northern Tasmania, a member of the Launceston-based Tasmanian Aero Club came to see me with a marketing idea.
He wanted me to approach a Launceston radio station with a plan to put a light plane in the skies over Launceston to give traffic reports during the morning and evening commuting periods. He used the words “rush hour”.
Rush hour? An ‘eye in the sky’ over Launceston? Traffic?
I waited for him to slap his knee and break into spasms of laughter, but he didn’t.
Needless to say Launceston still doesn’t have an ‘eye in the sky’ and you can still get around the northern capital without road rage.
That’s not say Tassie doesn’t get reasonably busy – over summer and autumn the island is awash with travellers, thousands of them taking in the many village fairs and heritage-related events.
My favourite is at Evandale, where we had the farm in the ‘90s. Evandale is the village nearest Launceston airport and every February it hosts the penny farthing championships. Go there and you’ll find yourself thinking that the 20th century never happened.
Towns such as Richmond, Ross, Longford and the west coast port of Strahan have fabulous histories built on their colonial past. They’ve been restored sensitively and have retained their integrity.
Perhaps the most aesthetically thrilling of all Tasmania’s villages is Stanley, a fishing port on the far North West. It nestles under The Nut, an outcrop of land sticking out from a district quaintly named Circular Head. Think television’s Doc Martin, think Stanley.
Of course, no visit to Tassie is complete without venturing to Cradle Mountain or to see the old penal colony at Port Arthur.
It’s less than four hours from one end of the island to the other – not that many Tasmanians would tackle that sort of journey.
My auntie lived in the north of the State for all of her 80 years and didn’t once go to Hobart. She couldn’t bare the thought of all that traffic, and thankfully she was spared the spectacle of an ‘eye in the sky’ over her beloved ‘Lonnie’.
For those who can endure the odd red light, Hobart is a magical place.
It is Sydney without the salespeople – Battery Point is more interesting than The Rocks and Constitution Dock is as rich in flavor as Circular Quay.
I have three favourite destinations in Tassie.
The first is a seaside hamlet on the North West coast called Boat Harbour.
You find it up past Burnie and you get there by taking a winding lane down the mountainside, passing dairy cows grazing on lush green feed.
After a few gentle twists and turns, you’ll round a bend and overlook a bay of turquoise water, with a pristine, white beach in the shape of a half moon.
The vista of Boat Harbour is so thrilling you want to rip off your gear and fling yourself into the beckoning sea. Be warned, however. The water is so cold it will freeze your ‘proverbials’ off.
The second is a place called Liffey Falls. It does not qualify in the top thousand waterfalls in the world, maybe not even the top hundred in the country, but it is my special place.
In my boyhood at Longford, a Sunday drive to Liffey (about a half hour) was a much-anticipated event. My brother and I would race each other along the roughly hewn track for three or four kilometers into the falls, and then we’d jump from rock to rock, sometimes slipping into the icy water. These days I often take my wife and daughters to Liffey.
On the way back from the mountains to my home town of Longford, we drop in at my third favourite destination – a little hamlet called Bishopsbourne.
Here at the local churchyard, the west wind howls, the mist rolls off the Western Tiers, and the sheep in the adjacent paddock spend most of their winter days kicking the frost off the stubble. Sound a bit off-putting, eh? Well, every road has an end, and Bishopsbourne graveyard will be my last resting place.
On a nice afternoon, when the dappled rays of sunlight quietly disappear over the Tiers and a soft breeze whistles across the valley, ‘magic hour’ at Bishopsbourne is a place of beauty.When I go there, I’m going home.