Friday, 9 April 2010

Tasmania VI: Pushing it

THE first time I went to Tasmania I arrived - after two months of constant movement - tired, hungry and underweight. I didn't feel very well. But, determined to see Hobart of a Friday night, I got myself up and out and wandered towards the city centre, a little delirious, first finding a park overlooking the expansive estuary of the River Derwent, where sailing boats pirouetted like dogs chasing their tails.

From here I wandered down through Battery Point and discovered Salamanca Place, a waterfront area of renovated old sandstone warehouses, now smart apartments, restaurants, pubs and art galleries. I really liked it - it was smart and stylish but not so pretentious as to scare away the average punter. The art galleries were full of people, sipping champagne and admiring the exhibitions. The restaurants were buzzing, the area thriving on this warm Friday evening. There were buskers, the pubs had live performances, and people were having fun. Just wandering around was making me feel better.

I walked through some of the alleyways between warehouses, at first not sure if I was allowed, where I found craft shops and cafes. I was following my ears, as I could hear some kind of commotion coming from within the complex, set back from the harbour. I soon came upon a courtyard behind the warehouses where, at the base of a dominating rock face, a band were performing. To one side there was a barbecue and a makeshift bar. I no longer remember the music that was being played but I remember that it was making people dance. I had stumbled across a public party.

I stood at the back feeling highly self-conscious, not knowing anyone or if I could join in. For all I knew I could have walked in on a private party, so I tried to stay out of sight and was about to leave when a lady started chatting to me. She told me that there is a gathering and live music there every Friday. It's the place to be in Hobart, where most people start their evenings before going off elsewhere, only to return the next day for the "famous Salamanca market". I had never heard of it. I made a mental note to come back.

The lady's friends were dancing, but she was at the back holding a baby. We chatted for a while, getting on well, and she invited me out with her friends to sample the Hobart evening scene once the Salamanca party had ended. Tasmanians are very friendly and hospitable people, but this was thoroughly unexpected.

In preparing this story some three years after the event in question, I have only just remembered that she made this invitation, for what happened next had rather replaced that memory. Amongst the mêlée of the craic, midway through a sentence, she rather unsubtly and unexpectedly manoeuvred her clothing and started breastfeeding. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with breastfeeding, it is a perfectly normal thing. But being British and male I panicked. I hadn’t expected this turn of events. Where should I look? At her face, yes. Or the floor. No, not the floor, her face. Keep talking, just keep the conversation going; she’s only breastfeeding. But does she have to? Of course she does, the baby needs it. Keep calm and carry on. What were we talking about? Oh yes, she just invited me out, I remember. Where? Help.

Once I had managed to control myself I quickly realised that her attention was now, understandably, permanently elsewhere. That was the end of my wild Friday night in Hobart.

The following morning I returned to the famous Salamanca Market, a very fine street market. I sampled passion fruit fudge, mixed and matched pewter animal casts, bought a fluffy kangaroo and the most delicious apricot jam. The standard of produce, artwork and entertainment was very high, although inevitably there was still a group playing panpipes along to a recording, as you'll find in most markets around the world. I loved Salamanca. I loved Tasmania. I never thought I would go back.

So when, in July 2009, our plan to drive across New South Wales and South Australia via Wagga Wagga and Lake Mungo was abandoned and instead we flew to Hobart in time for Friday night, I became very excited indeed. We sipped wine and beer to a soul, rock and roll and ska band under that rock face at Salamanca Place, then on Saturday we returned for the market, where I bought some Australian Breakfast Tea, some passion fruit fudge and the most delicious apricot jam.

Salamanca Place is a hub of activity in an otherwise sleepy city, nestled in the corner of Sullivans Cove, where statues of explorers and penguins hint at the port’s importance in the initial exploration of Antarctica. Tasmania is so far south that to sail due West would take you to Argentina, missing South Africa completely, and to the South there is nothing between Sullivans Cove and Antarctica. New Zealand is closer – present day flights to McMurdo Sound and the South Pole disembark from Christchurch on New Zealand’s south island – but Hobart remains an important port for the southern continent. Indeed, as we walked around the market, we were in the shadow of the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights), a cruise ship, painted bright orange to be spotted in the ice fields as it takes tourists to Terra Incognita itself. I looked on the ship with envy.

In this shadow, we spotted something remarkable. Of the many fast food vendors in the market, not one appeared to sell anything free of gluten (Rachel had recently been diagnosed with coeliac disease). Then we saw a crêpe stall, which I wrote off immediately. But Rachel persevered, and discovered that they had a separate batter mix suitable for coeliacs. She was, very simply, delighted.

We ordered one savoury and one sweet crêpe, and while they were being cooked, the German cook explained about the batter and how it was proving popular. But we seemed to be distracting her, and she very nearly used the wrong mixture. Rachel pointed this out, and the cook apologised.

She was then distracted once more, and nearly used the wrong utensils. Rachel pointed this out. The cook corrected her error. She stopped chatting with us and instead made conversation with her assistant.

Then she went to put cream on the sweet, raspberry jam crêpe, despite our prior request not to do so. Rachel pointed this out. The cook started to talk in German, presuming we would not understand. But she made a critical error.

“Es ist ein bißchen pushing it!”

An unfortunate lapse into English, if ever I heard one.

Tasmania remains a very special place for me, and there are so many other stories I could tell. But, so as to not push my luck any further, and to keep some memories just for ourselves, it is time we moved on. Before all of these Tasmanian shenanigans - before Beaumaris Zoo, the landslide, Curringa Farm, Ormiston House, the West Coast Wilderness Railway and those five happy Tasmanian devils bounding around their enclosure at Something Wild, near Westerway - we drove for 2,000 miles along the Western Australia coast into the desert in a mad race to see the largest fish in the world.

Who needs package tours?

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