Friday, 26 February 2010

Tasmania III: Funny thing, landslides

"As one approaches the Martian tundra of Queenstown, the customary holiday fondness for cream horns, pies and other regional bakery fare recedes and the term 'undulating' emerges as pitiably inadequate. Talk about hills. Sheesh."

Helen Razer, The Age, Saturday 9th October 1999;
article found laminated on every table of the Regatta Point Tavern, Strahan

HOBART to Strahan is just one road, but what a road. From the minimal bustle of the tiny Tasmanian capital, you quickly span rivers and weave along valleys, crossing over flat, low-lying bridges that give the impression you must be below the water level. Then the ambling farmland, a lush green hybrid landscape that looks British (I should perhaps say Scottish) but remains somehow Australian, even though you can't put your finger on why. There are hedgerows. There shouldn't be hedgerows in Australia. You then leave civilization behind and have only a cohort of sheep between you and an enormous expanse of freedom. The road starts to climb, the fields become forest and before you know it you are roaring up and down mountainsides, gullies and gorges and around lakes and enormous reservoirs. The thought of what on Earth you would do if you broke down has little time to form in your mind before you have to negotiate yet another set of hairpin corners. Invariably, there would either be a sheer drop to one side of you or thick, unrelenting rainforest that probably housed monsters. Briefly you appear in a landscape stripped to bare, red earth, whereupon you drop, sharply and severely into Queenstown, a famous mining town, but then it is back into the thick vegetation once more. My concentrating face was almost permanently in use, even when Rachel was driving.

Our wheels through this landscape came attached to a hairdryer called Philippa. Philippa was a scarlet Hyundai Getz. She didn't have much power, but what she lacked in strength she made up for in spirit. She was the girl to take us into the Tasmanian wilderness. From Lake St Clair onwards was pristine, cold rainforest, a World Heritage site that is devoid of any development whatsoever. I'm convinced she was loving it as much as we were.

I've thought long and hard how to explain what it felt like to drive through this, and also how we felt taking a cruise into the wilderness from Strahan the following day, but there are no descriptive words to do it justice. The forest is so old it has no birds, as fruit had not yet evolved. Hundreds of square miles are left untouched, potentially unexplored. From the river, which is 35-metres deep at places, it is utterly peaceful, and this is the only way I can explain the whole wilderness experience. I was utterly at peace. We were at peace. It lasted a long time.

It even survived the landslide.

After two nights at Ormiston House we were heading to a farmstead in Hamilton. This meant, once again, driving along that magnificent mountain road. But heavy rainfall had caused a landslide above Queenstown and had closed it and, being the only road back to Hobart, we suddenly became rather anxious. We felt like we were experiencing the trials and tribulations of real explorers, thwarted by the elements on our expedition, only we had heaters and Tim Tams. We waited for an hour, parked in torrential rain, amused by cars reaching the barricade and, in their confusion, having a look, pulling back and then having a look again. After an hour somebody came to us and told us it would be a further few hours until the cliffs were safe and clear - by this time we would be arriving in Hamilton at night time, when we were not allowed to drive - and advised us to take another route.

Because, despite the A10 being the only road through the wilderness, there is another route.

So that is what we did.

We drove around the whole of Tasmania in a day. We stopped only to change drivers.We didn't stop to eat. We had to keep going to beat the sun. With no radio reception and no phone reception, and townships en route effectively non existent, we could not ring ahead to Hamilton to warn them we would be late. We couldn't contact anybody. Thrifty, the adopted parents of Philippa (who brought her up, it has to be said, very well indeed) had provided us with a map of Tasmania, marking all the Big Roads. We had two conditions of our rental agreement: not to drive on unsealed surfaces and not to drive at night. Unintentionally, we were about to break both.With hindsight, what we did was stupid, but I wouldn't have changed it for the world. It was just Rachel, Philippa and I, and 398 km of beauty that we would not otherwise have seen.

Trusting the Thrifty map, we went north, driving on roads that connect disparate, tiny habitations, and sometimes connect nothing at all, but carve through the finest scenery in Australia and the finest scenery I have ever seen. We didn't really have time to admire it, as we couldn't stop, not even for a photo. I was in my element, in part because I have had the great fortune to have been to Tasmania before - having honestly thought I would never be lucky enough to go back - and here I was, revisiting some familiar scenery (albeit briefly). So the road past Cradle Mountain I recognised, longing to see a wombat there again. I recognised Mole Creek, remembered the honey shop in Chudleigh and the turning for Marakoopa caves. As the afternoon got older, we were carving up and down mountains, confounded by the lack of easterly main roads across the state, still miles to go. But we weren't panicking. In fact, we were rather enjoying it, especially when we passed a sign saying "Paradise (Sheffield)".

The shops were close to closing as we went through Deloraine, a small town that seemed satisfyingly old-fashioned, tucked away and cut off from the rest of Australia (something you could say of the entire state). From here we joined the A5, a highway that would take us nearly all the way to Hamilton. It was a highway that would be our undoing.

The A5 connects Deloraine with Melton Mowbray, via the farming town of Bothwell. It travels up to the Central Plateau Conservation Area, the highest flat land in the state. The plateau spans from the Walls of Jerusalem National Park to the Great Western Tiers and is home to a thousand lakes, including Great Lake, the second largest in the state and 1,030 metres above sea level. It is a fisherman's dream and a popular holiday location for families in the summer. It was not the summer. It was cold, bleak and up here, empty buildings were simply eerie. I've seen too many horror films.

Worryingly for us, at the highest point of this road, when our options were to keep going or turn back for several hours in search of a single alternative (let alone a suitable alternative), despite being an A-road and on our map, the tarmac ends. I had wondered why we had not seen any traffic for hours. For 27 km we slid and skidded along wet gravel, trying to avoid enormous potholes and the greater risk of sliding into the second largest lake in Tasmania, which was only a few metres to our left. Keeping up our speed was impossible and, frankly, dangerous. The sun was lowering, providing an idyllic backdrop, but far from tranquil we were terrified, particularly when lorries hurtled by in the opposite direction.

I have since discovered that the A5 is the least used highway in Tasmania.

It then became a race against time to reach Hamilton, and a race that we failed. Despite my best efforts (Rachel and fallen asleep), it was very much dark when we rolled up at the home of Tim and Jane at Curringa Farm. They had just finished their dinner and their son was playing with their pet cockatoo.

They asked us how we were and where we had come from, and took pity on us for our journey. In the warmth of their kitchen, they proceeded to show us incredible kindness: filling up tupperware with portions of their own dinner, they not only gave us a free evening meal but also a hamper of homemade bread and jam, butter, milk, bacon and eggs from the farm. Tim and Jane are sixth generation farmers at Curringa, a large site in the Derwent Valley. They have three holiday cottages at the far side of their land, overlooking a lake, itself annexed to the river Derwent, which flows to Hobart. At the time of visiting, they had, at least, one pet cockatoo and one pet wombat.

"Do you like fishing?" asked Tim. A previous visitor had left a fishing line in our cottage, so Tim went off to fetch us bait and lure. I didn't have the heart to say I didn't have the faintest clue what to do. "Feel free to fish beside the lake or take the canoe out", he added. "Although, if you see a boat pass by, you best not get caught. You need a licence to fish."

Jane asked us of our plans for our short stay, whereupon Rachel mentioned that the following day was my birthday. At this both Jane and Tim got very excited and, entirely unprovoked, produced a bottle of champagne from their fridge.

"Sorry it's not local", apologised Jane.

After a day of hurrying, hunger and panic, landslides, unending vistas and extreme isolation, their sudden hospitality could not have been more welcome. It set up our stay there nicely.

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