Tassie is one of those secluded island (states) in Australia that everyone talks about, but few people actually visit. Perhaps the additional effort of having to book a separate domestic flight from Melbourne is enough of a deterrent, but this little haven of an island is every bit as imaginative and pristine as an advertisement for Mount Franklin spring water bottles. You know, the type of spring water that makes you feel holier-than-thou, au naturale, bitches.
We land in Launceston, a sleepy, historic city in the North, and we’re whisked off in cab to Peppers Hotel. The hot sweltering sun reminiscent of the 1939 Californian dust bowl beats down on us. On the drive over, we’re surrounded by a sprawling expanse of flat, brown plains, with the sporadic scattering of stumpy plum, swamp gums, Eucalyptus trees, and rolling verdant green hills. Our cab driver tells us that he has to drive slowly so as not to contribute to the road kill of wombats, wallabies, and the Tasmanian Devil- the brown mounds on the side of the road we see bury any doubts we have, and then some.At this time, having been to Queensland, NZ not too long ago, I feel slightly underwhelmed.
As dusk falls, we freshen up, venture outside, and any disappointment is quickly dispelled when we’re greeted by a orangey-rosey mother of all sunsets that makes you want to cue Seaside by the Kooks and simultaneously wish you were born in a different era. We share a quick meal at Helum’s on the boardwalk, whet our palettes with some blacker-than ever squid ink spaghetti, and sample some local oysters with some spritzes of lemon. Strangely enough, there seems to be traces of Asian cuisine, and I wonder if it’s to accommodate the growing tourist base. Hints of this fusion cuisine comes the form of kimchi-braised in salmon, and other Western twists on seafood in dishes like stuffed Wonton soup. This lends it an interesting taste, and the jury is still out on whether we like it.
In any case, we stroll along the promenade with ice cream cone in hand, watch the sun go down, and feel time slowing down.
With full tummies in tow and duvet covers beckoning, its lights out for the night.
Fast forward to 8:00 am the next morning, when we meet our tour guide for the day, John Lovell. He pulls up in a Discover Tasmania van with a natural affability and an easy kindness that puts Southern hospitality to shame. Armed with a repertoire of knowledge of the land’s flora and fauna, we swing by Lily Dale Falls, "ooo and ahh’" at the cascades, and then quickly head to my mother’s long-awaited Bridestowe Lavendar Estate.
To my mom’s dismay, its harvesting season for lavender fields and the petals are past their prime; now a a muted, pastel purple. The sheer volume of lavenders dotted across the fields more than compensates for its lack of usual vibrancy though. We see tourists in every possible shade of bucket hat you can imagine equipped with selfie sticks weave in and out of the fields, and the smell wafting over from the distillery is overpowering in the best possible way. Quick bathroom stop - and we’re on the road again, this time through Tamar Valley’s renowned family-run and small wineries.
We clink glasses at Holm Oak Vineyard, all of us trying (but failing desperately) to savor the wine like the connoisseurs we are not. We indulge in smoked salmon sprinkled with basil and fennel, and freshly chopped yet slightly acidic tomatoes on a bed of crème freische cheese whose name I can’t remember. The toasted bruschetta soaks up all the excess balsamic oil and I scrape my plate clean. Four glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Gris later, we meet the neighborhood pig also named Pinot, and we are soon on our merry (tipsy) way, this time to our final destination of the day: Cataract Gorge.
1,499 feet later, with feet dangling, we are on the world’s longest single-span chairlift.
My mom confronts her vertigo while I feast my eyes on rugged cliffs with teenagers jumping off the precipice, a suspension bridge, more trees, and then smack dab in the middle- a swimming pool. A weird sight for sure, but I’m not complaining.
We learn a bit of history here and there.
The happiest cows do live in Australia. It’s hard to beat a life of free-for-all grazing and sleeping. I think they forgot the caveat that this applies only to dairy cows—earlier in the day our tour guide John pointed out the window at a black angus cattle, and reminded us “hey look, its Maccas on Legs. I keep this in mind but still ravenously dig into my dinner at Black Cow, the sister restaurant to the famous Stillwater (sorry vegetarians). The steak is succulent, and I feel like Jamie Oliver should dedicate a season of his show to Tasmanian steak alone.
We’re wiped, but we’re saving the best for last. We hop on a bus to Lowhead, home to the little penguin1 parade. It’s windy as hell, and we’re quickly sorted into groups. Apparently there was false advertising at play and we’re right in the thick of multing season for our little penguin friends- which means that half them are in hiding while they “mult” or shed their feathers. We wait patiently; see a couple of adorable baby penguins in their boroughs. Our attention is quickly diverted to the Milky Way and vast expanse above us that is the universe.
Cool ‘Stralian slang we picked up
- Arvo= afternoon, as in "let's put the shrimp on the barbie this arvo!"
- Australians don't roll their R's, and add A's to everything. Newfound appreciation for my awesome colleague, Nat, who claims she sounds more American as of late. (s/o to you, Nutty Mu!)
- Wallabies are not the same as kangeroos; Australians are kind of iffy about this one
- Please follow #ShauntheSheepTassie for some uplifting memes involving sheep. You won't be disappointed.
- Our guide conveniently left out that fact settler colonialism effectively wiped out all aboriginal first Australians, which led to this a "pristine state of nature." Pretty sobering, and also interesting how whiteness in Australia is so staunchly preserved. It also used to be an island where young convicts from colonial Britain were sent from the 17th century for petty crimes. Betcha didn't know that.
- You can procure dried kangaroo testicles as souvenirs at Melbourne Airport. I think it was one of those $9.99 "buy 2 pairs, get one pair free" kinda deals. Talk about a catch and a half. Serves the dual purpose of a Valentine's Day gift for your girl (nothing says "I love you" more than a furry pair of duty-free balls!) or as an ornament for your car mirror.
On that uplifting note, that's all for tonight.
CRADLE MOUNTAIN, TASMANIA
We board the bus to Cradle Mountain, led by a kind older chap named Headley. I realize that I have some kind of weird affinity towards old people (so long as they are not racist, homophobic, misogynistic- you know the rest, of course. Does that make me ageist? They just seem kinder, more endearing, and their eyes crinkle in a way that makes you imagine they’ve lived many lives. Just me? Okay, I can roll with that). On this ride, we are told that we will traverse through the green pastures of South West of Launceston, through the mountains of the Western tiers, and through the ever so quaint towns of Carrick, Hagley and Westury. From the looks of the brochures, I am half expecting to see sheep frolicking in the pastures, singing Kumbaya— and I’m not sure whether the absence of this was more surprising than not. The reality being that I can only recall a couple pit stops of (mostly) barren strips of land, during which we tried Billy Tea (locally brewed black tea), a lamington (coconut flake encrusted sponge cake) and saltine crackers with vegemite. It's every bit as salty as you can imagine. We leisurely pass through the mural town of Sheffield, which has earned its name as Tasmania’s Outdoor Art Gallery, through the iconic efforts of local artists who have lifted up a town recovering from economic demise through their murals.
At this point, my legs feel like ten million pins and needles have been hammered into them, and thankfully, we arrive shortly at Cradle Mountain National Park. We walk down the pathway, with Headley pointing out flora and fauna along the way. This all sounds much more romanticized than the reality of things; which was basically my family and I sitting perched on a rock, eating our cold scalloped pies, miserably shielding ourselves from stronger-than-expected gales of wind. The only compensation is that the view is nothing short of beautiful.
The journey back seems longer, as all the anticipation ebbs away. We visit Waldheim Chalet, the home of Gustav Weindorfer, the Austrian-raised amateur botanist, and later make a detour to Ashgrove Cheese Farm. Who knew cheese-making could be such a mesmerizing art form? Also, mad respect to people who major in agriculture. I was having a discussion with my s/o James about the fact Hong Kong is mostly service-industry driven, and produce less than 2% of its food. Meaning that if there was ever an economic blockage, we would be royally screwed.
By the time we situate ourselves back in Launceston, the sky has darkened considerably. We share a low-key meal at the hotel’s Mud Bar, consisting of oysters, ravioli stuffed with ricotta and some other interesting concoctions. Satiated, our heads hit the pillow in record time and we lose ourselves to sleep.
I have a knack for ending on good notes, don't I?
After much deliberation over whether or not to go to Freycinet National Park or continue through Wineglass Bay, we bite the bullet and take the two-hour day tour to Hobart, Australia’s second oldest city. MONA- the Museum of Old and New Art, has cultivated an impressive cohort of art enthusiasts across the world who have flocked to see its exhibitions, with the collective vision of capturing both the contemporary and the “confrontational” – an euphemism for the eccentric, the outlandish, and the sexually deviant. En route to the art museum, we pass through the sandstone town of Ross, a quaint town with ornate churches, wool factories, pulleys, sweet stores and even an old-fashioned mill, complete with granary and a stable at the back to make even the most diehard of city urbanites feel like they're on the set of Little House on the Prairie.
MONA has interactive exhibits built for the young and old alike, with the unifying twin themes of sex and death. Strewn across one wall are contemporary pop art posters, an interactive complex which lights up upon movement recognition, and smack in your face—a wall chock full of 400 plaster casts of vaginas. No euphemism here- this is literally “The Great Wall of Vagina” (how the artist procured these samples is still a TBD). Our audio headphones tell us that Jamie McCartney's vision in displaying this impressive repertoire of vulvas is rooted in the goal of achieving “freedom from genital anxiety." The feminist in me screams a little inside. Sure, I can identify with McCartney's logic that the vagina has historically been stigmatized and that women likewise have been shamed for their sexuality. But isn’t the very fact that a white, cisgender, male artist who, incidentally occupies a position of power, might I add can display what is essentially woman’s prerogative and call it “art” fundamentally problematic? Similar to the issue of all-male bands with lyrics telling women to "love themselves" like we don't know how to. Call me unappreciative and uncultured, but I think introducing politics into art makes for interesting dinner table conversation, ya dig?
A separate section of the museum is cordoned off for historic Ancient Egypt, while another section boasts its pottery. Don’t you love how entire dynasties spanning thousands of years are often collapsed into one room? I.e. the "Chinese Room", "Ancient Egypt" and "Africa".. the list (unfortunatey) goes on. Even the bathrooms have a separate viewing deck and binoculars through which you can go on a little artistic trip while doing your business, if that’s what tickles your fancy. The architecture too is not for the faint-hearted—hollowed tunnels, which intersect at an epicenter, warm flourescent lighting, a glass-bottomed elevator, and long ballesters meet in the middle.
The museum also does a communal dining experience in what they call “The Golden Hour.” Executive Chef Vince Trim whips up some savory dishes on their rooftop pavilion. Even better yet, do the deed, visit the museum, and make a day out of it.
Two hours is not nearly enough time to take in all the art. We continue our trek, this time north to Mount Wellington.