A Tasmanian journey…
We’re leaving St Helens, the last town of any significance on Tasmania’s north east coast. We follow the straight road lined with neat-looking older houses then carefully take the curve as it swings westward to follow another long, tree lined stretch of road until urban fades to rural. Now we’re on the open road and the speed advisory signs go from 60 through 80kph and beyond.
We leave St Helens in fine weather, a sky of blue embedded with clumps of grey-white cloud. But as we move further into the country we see a darkening sky ahead. “Must be the cold front supposed to come through today”, I say to Fiona.
In winter, Tasmania’s weather is best thought of as the passage of successive cold fronts bringing chilly winds, rain and snow to the mountains. But that can happen any time of year as the island is situated in the path of the Roading 40s, the globe-encircling belt of winds spanning the 40 degree south latitudes before they merge with the Screaming 50s. Today, it seemed, was one of those days when the weather demons decided to let their presence be noted.
DODGING THE CARNAGE
Of possums I gave up counting after the sixth. Kangaroos numbered two. Wombats one. Others too trashed to identify numbered numerous. Tasmania’s roads are littered with road kill and many times I swerved to avoid the carnage, recalling as I did so the book I had seen on sale in Hobart, The Roadkill Cookbook.
Roadkill was not an unfamiliar taste. When I lived in this state, every so often a friend would turn up carrying a parcel of frozen wallaby thanks to his habit of stopping to inspect and collect, if potentially edible, fresh looking roadkill. Food salvage, you might call it.
MAKING FOR THE CITY
We’re move without haste across the country making for Launceston and the road starts to wind as it climbs through countryside that alternates patches of forest with the open fields of farms. I stop, grab my camera, get out of the car and shoot five or six images of a derelict farm building beside the road, old buildings and shacks holding a bizarre fascination for me.
This is the pattern of my travel… driving then stopping to photograph landscapes, buildings, whatever catches my eye. How trying it must be for passengers disinterested in the fine practice of image making and who fail to appreciate serendipitous photographic finds along the highway, objects like old farm building and countryside dappled with a variable luminosity, intensity, direction and quality of light. These are finds that force you to brake suddenly, grab a camera and leap from the car. Photographers will understand. Others won’t.
BOWL OF THE EARTH
Through bushland and down into the bowl in the earth that is Pyengana. This country, these paddocks, are cheese fields, grazing habitat for the bulky, slow moving herbivores that produce the white liquid that is fabricated into solid blocks of tasty cheese.
“How weird is it that grass is turned into cheese thanks to these animals”, Fiona says. “Yes, bovines and some clever human intervention”, I add.
Our wondering about this ancient process is cut short when we encounter the sign telling us to take the narrow road through the fields and into the forested mountains for the short walk through tree fern, myrtle and sassafras forest to St Columba’s Falls, at 90 metres claimed to be Tasmania’s highest.
From the little picnic area where the walk starts you see the falls as a ribbon of whitewater cascading down a steep rock face set amid the dull greens of the cool temperate mountain rainforest. While viewing the falls from the road is inspiring, it’s better to set off on the short walk to see them up close and stand at their thundering base.
It’s better because the track descends into the rainforest and on reaching its low point you walk through an understorey of tall tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) growing from the mossy, soft, leaf-mulched soil of the forest floor. Above tower sassafras and myrtle. This is Tasmania at its finest in these dark, moist forests with their open floor and daylight tinged green through bouncing off the foliage, mosses and lichens that cover the ground and the decaying logs that lie on it.
“If you stand still too long”, I tell Fiona, “the leaches will find you and suck your blood”. This I say as a veteran of these cool wet forests and their leaches, those squirming little animals that have many times sampled my blood to leave me with an itchingly irritating wound. I recall, in my bushwalking days in Tasmania, how I would sometimes find a squashed leach in my bloody sock, the thing, gorged with blood, having detached from my leg to end up in my boot where it would be squashed underfoot to release all that nutritional blood it had filled itself with.
We saw no leaches that day, an absence I was happy with.
The rain held off while we walked to the falls but as we returned the ridges took on that grey pallor that indicates its approach. Soon the first drops were splattering around us.
VALLEY AND RIDGE
Off again. Down the narrow road out of the mountains to rejoin the two-lane. Turn west through farmland and past isolated farmhouses, past grazing bovines and soon the road takes us into Weldborough, surely one of Tasmania’s lesser metropolises, just a small cluster of old buildings gathered around a curve in the road and set amid field and forest.
We climb to Weldborough pass and into the dim light of a rainforest made all the dimmer by the low cloud cover… this is dark, dank and wet bushland, just like the sky above.
Gone now are the farm fields of the lowlands. The asphalt strip we follow winds on and up around sharp curves that force me to slow, until at last we crest the range amid a forestry plantation of eucalypt where bush meets cloud base and the winds slant the descending rain at an acute angle. It is foggy, cold and wet outside. Now we make the winding descent and, lower down, come out into what looks like another fertile farming valley.
It isn’t long before we climb again. Rain falls, wind whips it along and we wind up the windows as the temperature dips below the balmy 13 degrees celsius it was lower down. We follow the winding forest highway over The Sideling.
We had been told the roads up here were wet and that was no exaggeration. A couple motorcyclists zip by, exhilarating in the curving, winding turns they like so much. Down now into undulating farmland where we pass a cycle tourer — bicycle, that is — a lone woman whose blonde hair spills from below her helmet as she propels her pannier-draped machine through the drizzle and the day’s coolth — another day of her grand adventure on Tasmania’s roads.
Human-powered travel. This country, I speculate, must be the most challenging for a cycle tourer with its climbs and descents, its winds and weather. I think back to a cycle tour I once made, but that ended on Tasmania’s east coast. I had thought of crossing the north east via The Sideling but decided against it. Now, I don’t regret that decision.
Encountering that woman on that strip of highway reminded me of the book I have been reading — The Idle Traveller by Dan Kieran. In it, he discusses how authentic travel is journey-driven rather than destination-driven and that what makes for idle travel are journeys undertaken in search of encounter and experience. Such journeys involve discomfort, he writes. Reaching some destination is just what happens at the end. It is not the main thing.
Discomfort must be what that cycling woman is experiencing, out in the weather in her blue cyclist’s rain jacket and moving through the country at her slow pace. I wonder where she will spend the night and think, perhaps, that her appreciation of her journey will be taken in retrospect rather than in real time.
I wonder, too, whether our journey counts as idle travel in the sense described by Kiernan. I decide it does as on the transit of the east coast we have turned off at interesting side roads leading to little beache where we spent unplanned time exploring… looking at shells, paddling in the cool water, sitting quietly. We had stopped to look at curious things, pulled over for photographs when the light made the countryside interesting and loitered in places that caught our imagination.
Now the farm valleys and the mountains of Tasmania’s rugged north east have spat us out into the gentler hills down which the road runs towards Launceston. Fittingly, the weather changes to fine and soon we are back in the city. Arriving feels good but it is tinged with the feeling that we would still rather be out there, irrespective of weather, taking those winding curves through avenues of dark, wet trees.
Such are the emotions of idle travel.