— CNP

Tasmania

A recipe for adventure:

Take one small Carl Nilsson-Polias, add a pinch of Anna and Ross Kingston, simmer for fifteen minutes slowly stirring in a cup of Robin Tatlow-Lord and serve with an eye-catching garnish of Alexis Buxton-Collins.

What do you get? A hiking party in Tasmania’s wilderness. And, no, I didn’t pilfer those names from a Noel Coward play or a Jane Austen novel, there actually were that many hyphens in the group … and such well-bred, sophisticated hyphens at that … apart from that first one which reeks of ethnicity!

Yes, Tasmania, that suggestively shaped island to the south which is the brunt of too many jokes about cousinly love and Mars bar wrappers used as prophylactics. A state in which, up until even my all-too-recent childhood, politicians were frothing at the mouth about the manifold evils of legalising “buggery” in parliament (ambiguous syntax entirely intended). An apparently backward and reactionary population and yet 18% voted for the Greens at the last ballot. But i wasn’t in town to give a sociology lecture, I was there to climb up a mountain. Specifically, Frenchman’s Cap in the World Heritage-listed Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park (more hyphens!).

Alexis and I both worked at that den of culinary depravity, the Adelaide University Refectory, and there is a special kind of bond that develops between people as they stand side-by-side ladling glutinous gravy over damp chips to spotty first years. In any case, Alexis invited me along on the hike one warm December evening while on the set of a short film we were acting in. Now, that isn’t just a frivolous plug for my thesping ways but an attempt at a neat segue. For, you see, amongst our little camping cabal were a dancer, a visual artist, a musician, a writer and me with my combustible dramatic urges. Quite the little Renaissance team … maybe I’ll pitch it to Mattel as a new set of action figures.

All of us were in Melbourne for a couple of days before heading across the Bass strait, and while I was zipping about on my scooter from house inspection to house inspection (growing more and more disillusioned), Anna was out all night with her dance troupe touring the nightspots and doing impromptu performances … (grumble, grumble) which would you prefer? Alexis and I had the same flight to Launceston so we met at the A1 Bakery beforehand for a much savoured spinach and cheese triangle and zataar, the perfect traveller’s feast.

Launceston has a gorge. It’s a rather pretty town with some great old weatherboard houses but really, it has a great big gorge where the kids can jump off the rocks into the water or swim (and we did) and apart from that there’s not much else. Though small towns have their charms, like Launceston’s airport, which does away with the luggage conveyor belt, opting instead for that little golf-buggy-with-trailer to just drive on up to the terminal so everyone can just go and pick off their bag, which means there’s none of that annoying “my bag’s on the other side of the belt, do I wait patiently or walk around and get it and risk missing it” stuff to deal with.

We were sleeping on the floor of Anna’s friend’s house and I had a restless night of insomnia. Being in travel mode, I thought “fuck sleep” and at 5am I decided I probably wasn’t going to get any anyway, so I crept pass my slumbering accomplices and went out into the brisk twilight. Having arrived only the previous night I hadn’t seen anything of Launceston in daylight, and due to the fact that Alexis and I didn’t realize JetStar didn’t have reserved seating we ended up down the back with no window to look out of, which meant we had the eerie experience of knowing that we travelled somewhere but nothing more, kind of like being locked in a car boot. But, yeah, I was fairly confident it was Launceston I was stepping out to meet. There were some other dawn-risers out in their tights and sneakers and I figured they’d know a good scenic place to walk, so I thought about following one of them from a distance, but then a small old man with talc-white hair and hiking boots crossed my path. Him! So, like a timid Alice, I followed my little white rabbit in a “I’m not following you, you walk this way too? what a coincidence” kind of way. Half-way through some suburban scrubland I lost him, maybe he found a warren, but he did indeed lead me to a nice spot where the high grass danced in the golden sunlight and other such saccharine delights.

Later that day, down in the gorge, Alexis, Robin and I went for a swim in the basin. It was a hot day for Tassie (mid 30s) and all the cool fourteen year-old boys were parading their Industrie polos and the girls their Roxy bottoms. On the water, Robin and I met Emily, who was 10 and whose parents had left her and her brother at the gorge while they “looked at fences”. Now, maybe they were doing some renovations but I did wonder whether that wasn’t possibly the most innocuous subterfuge for a dirty day without the kids ever! Anyway, Emily had this great big tree trunk that she was paddling about on and Robin and I asked if we could join in. Soon we had quite the little circus act going on, balancing this way, diving off that way etc. (Nostalgic note: reminded me of being in Parnu with Anna and bashing into lots of little Russian kids on the water slide, yeah). So we did that for an hour or two and then thought we better get some supplies for the hike …

I was the only one out of the lot of us with a driver’s license, so I had the great honour of driving our hire-car (cheaper than the bus!) across the Great Western Tiers down to the trail head near Frenchman’s Cap. The first part of the hike took us across the Franklin River and up through dense forest, gaining several hundred metres in altitude very quickly. Then we got to go downhill for a while but that’s only fun until you realize it means you’ve just got more uphill to go. The fact is, describing walking through nature with a 20kg backpack is a pedestrian affair. Nothing I can write can properly communicate the experience. The very point of hiking is to do it. Travel books can be entertaining in their own right for their cultural curios but hiking books are dull, functional pieces whose attempts at literary merit seem unnecessary folly. “Unnecessary folly” … that could be my motto.

We had much fun on the first day trying to get through the infamous Sodden Loddons, a stretch of floodplains whose saturated soil creates blanket areas of sticky, thick, black, plashy peat. It’s impossible not to get muddy even in the dry summer months (in winter it can resemble a black river) so we had a running tally of how many times we lost an entire leg to the mud. After the bog, our boots squelching satisfactorily in time with one another, we decided to keep walking until we got to the first hut, thereby guaranteeing a dry night. So, as the light waned, we climbed through temperate rainforest complete with mossy trees, babbling brooks and any other Romantic fixation found in Keats et alia. We got to the hut just as the last light was creeping through the trees and quickly changed into dry thermals and got the Trangias blazing. We’d decided to be gourmet on the first night, so out came the shitake and the ginger and the soy and the sweet chilli and the snow peas and the mushrooms and the ……. well, we got it ready pretty quickly but a couple of the other (older) hikers in the hut wanted an early morning and began shushing us as we whispered conversation to each other (at the unhiking time of 9:30pm). We agreed that whispering is pretty annoying when you want to sleep so instead they had to listen to our jaws clench, our teeth grind and our lips smack as we devoured our dinner … which we agreed would be even more annoying.

Day two was big. Something about the landscape kept reminding me of Klaus Kinski in “Fitzcarraldo”, and I was glad I wasn’t an insane German trying to pull a steamboat over a mountain in the Amazon … but sometimes it felt like I was. The photos I took can’t do justice to the literally breathtaking extremity of the landscape. The climbs are at times almost vertical and the descents destroy your knee caps as you clang down with the pack’s added weight. From the hut at Lake Vera we ascended for two straight hours or so up to Barron Pass where we got our first clear look at Frenchman’s and the surrounding peaks, valleys and lakes. A few hours later, we left our packs at Lake Tahune and began the final clambering ascent up to the peak. Totally worth it. Suddenly we could see from the tip of Lake Gordon to the south to Mt Ossa in the north. We’d been blessed with blue skies for the entire hike and the rubble of quartzite at the top of the Cap was white as snow in the unfettered sunlight. We cracked open some ginger nut biscuits and soaked up the Nature of it all. Brilliant.

Day three. Everyone’s thoroughly sick of scroggin (the slang for dried fruit and nuts) and we’ve all decided that apricot is a daggy fruit. The log book in the huts can make for entertaining reading and we’ve all been given a totem animal in keeping with the back-to-nature-Rousseauian bent that hiking tends to promulgate … I’m an ocelot. Totes. We end up walking all the way from Lake Tahune to the car. That’s about 18km of difficult terrain with packs. In an unspoken consensus, we go at our own pace through the thickest of the rainforest, each getting a chance to feel alone amongst the ferns and birdcalls. Bliss.

We get to the Franklin River, set up our Trangias, drop in some 2-minute Mie Goreng and get devoured by mosquitoes as we demolish the MSG. It’s dark by the time we get to the car, we’ve been walking for 11 hours … and I still have to steer us back to Hobart. Baile funk, Apricot Delights and great conversation make for a safe and effortless drive. We hit one possum but saw about a dozen wallabies. Past a hydroelectric plant (aka the Dalek factory), past the evil corporate Scandinavian greed of Norske Skog, through towns where the only sound is the broken hum of an old fluoro tube at a truck stop, to Hobart and the floor of Ross’ apartment. My legs felt like springs that had been coiled so long they’d forgotten how to loosen but I got to wash for the first time in three days, which was nice. And then to sleep. 2am.

An enormous electric storm blew across Tasmania later in the night so I was definitely glad we didn’t bust open the tents (which “may be waterproof”). Hobart was great. Alexis and I found a laidback youth hostel to stay at, then I had a wander down to Salamanca. Robin soon joined me and we checked out the waterfront. We reached the Centre for the Arts where some hip young things were milling, so we sauntered into the crowd to find we were at some kind of exhibition launch where there was free beer, wine and Turkish bread with hommus. Art, libations and hommus, I couldn’t have dreamt up a more perfect situation! Amazingly, Ross and Anna were there as well, though they actually intended to be there because Ross knew some of the art students. Lots of uber-cool trans-Bass kids (in other words, Tasmanians who’ve become chiced-up by Melbourne) were sitting around in fedoras and pirate outfits swilling the grog and contemplating the cocaine-inspired artwork. Cocaine? Well, one of the exhibits was installation pieces based on wool and salt that had a distinctly white-powder aesthetic. And another exhibit was a set of (frankly awful) portraits of girls using fluoro-pop-fauvist colouring where the only theme seemed to be dilated pupils. But, hey, everyone kept half-jokingly telling me that, as a young person in Tasmania, you either move to the mainland or move onto mainlining. After the impromptu art-ingestion, we made our way back to Salamanca for “Rektango”, an open-air-courtyard music-dance-and-drink event that happens every Friday for a few hours in the evening. Kind of like a mini-mini-Womad where the music is danceable and barefoot hippy toddlers dance alongside trendy yuppies.

The next morning I woke up in a youth hostel dorm only half remembering where I was but was quickly reminded by the chorus of European snores and the plastic-cuteness of my Japanese neighbour’s toiletry bag (“Hellooo Kitty!”). Got to say that staying in a youth hostel did momentarily make me want to ditch my flight and keep living out of a backpack, wearing the same two shirts for the next six months. Saturday morning means Salamanca Markets and, sure enough, the strip of paving where last night I’d eaten cheap Vietnamese takeaway was now abuzz with stalls of limited interest and tourists of limited interest. I did buy a second-hand Nabokov book and a jar of raspberry jam to go with my sourdough baguette, but underwhelmed would be a good word for it. That’s OK, though, the markets were only a brief distraction from the day’s main task, Freycinet National Park and its main attraction, Wineglass Bay.

The weather was odd, it was supposed to be about 37 degrees in Hobart and the drive up was hot but Wineglass Bay itself had remarkably low clouds that embraced the hills surrounding the crescent beach. Sun or cloud, the water was still turquoise and I couldn’t help but swim even though it was so cold my nipples were aching from it. It was a great way to finish off my Tasmanian experience — a swim at “one of the top ten beaches in the world”.

See all the photos.