Monday, September 27, 2010

My first bushwalk

It started at Friday drinks, after a presentation by UTas philosophy lecturer Dr. Linn Miller called “Telling Places in Country: Re-tracing and Re-mapping the ‘Friendly Mission’ through Northeast Tasmania.” She and her fellow researchers, along with groups of walkers from the Aboriginal community, had retraced the “journeylines” of George Augustus Robinson’s “infamous ‘Friendly Mission’” in the 1830s. The community-engaged Aboriginal research initiative “makes a unique contribution to the historiography of Tasmanian colonial contact relations, and has generated a deeper appreciation of the significance of place in the shared histories of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Tasmanians.” In her multimedia presentation, we were treated to the routes they followed through the bush, using Google Earth technology as well as video footage. So I was primed when Millie Rooney asked if I’d like to go on a bushwalk on Sunday. I said sure!

I’m learning that I make a lot of assumptions when I speak to people here, and maybe I need to ask more questions. Like maybe the most elementary: “What is a bushwalk?” At the word “bushwalk,” my mind went immediately to our Sunday walks at home in Prince Edward Island, where for six Sundays after Labour Day we choose an hour-long walk in various parts of the Island, bringing along kids in backpacks or strollers or on bikes, our dogs, and a contribution to a potluck picnic lunch. The trails are usually well-groomed, at least a couple feet wide, surfaced with gravel or tree bark or hard-packed red dirt, and lined by lovely fields or trees or ponds. Aside from the hills on the cross-country ski trail at Brookvale and the odd ditch alongside the Confederation Trail in Hazelgrove, our walks don’t involve much up-and-down movement. And while my three weeks in Hobart walking to and from the university have improved my fitness level somewhat, it turns out the hills on Lynton Avenue and Washington Street don’t hold a patch on a bushwalk hill.

So if I had asked, I would have learned that a bushwalk is a walk on a sand trail through the bush – real bush. No boardwalks here. The one Millie and Vishnu were planning was in the Tasman National Park on the Tasman Peninsula, close to Port Arthur, and about a 90-minute drive from Hobart. The walk was approximately 10 kilometres, to the top of Mt. Brown and down to the spectacular Crescent Beach. And whereas our Sunday walks usually start at 10:30 (which, despite the warning “laggards will be left behind” usually means 11), the Subaru wagon we borrowed from another student, a vacationing Jenny, was leaving town at 8.
 There were six of us altogether (current and former students): Millie, Vishnu, Jade and I met Lily and Sarah at the Blowhole, about a half-hour drive from our final destination. The “blowhole” is a former sea cave and tunnel, where the roof has collapsed, creating a blowhole effect when conditions are right (read wild) – swells and air are blasted through the funnel, creating an explosion like that of a whale’s blowhole.
When we got to the Tasman National Park around 10:30, the scenery that greeted us from the parking area was truly magnificent. Giant dolerite cliffs, huge swells that crashed into them with abandon, glorious aquamarine water… The drive was worth those vistas alone.

Our walk started with a warm-up jaunt down a couple hundred feet of stairs, not to Unremarkable Cave, but to Remarkable Cave. Here the water comes roaring through the tunnel (I don’t think this one will ever collapse), flooding the tiny beach of large smooth-polished stones and trying to pull them out to sea again, resulting in a sound much like the clatter of a train. You get to witness the show from the safety of a catwalk above – although there’s evidence that the water might just reach it on occasion. Remarkable, indeed!

It turns out that many of the people in our geography department come from a science background – botany, geology, entomology, climatology… Vishnu’s and Sarah’s passion is plants, and Lily’s is trees. Fortunately for me, the walk consisted of LOTS of stops to take photos of the abundant spring flowers and bushes. I was able to catch my breath before heading up and down yet another gigantic hill.

It was fun being at the back of the line because I could see the chain reaction when the person in front saw something spectacular – all the way down to me. It happened especially when we came upon Maingon Blowhole, a barely discernible slit in the earth that drops gutwrenchingly down to rocky teeth and shuddering seafoam – in a place you’re hardly think of as being close to the cliff.  We took turns peering down into it from the one safe viewing spot, and thought of escaped convicts from nearby Port Arthur coming upon it unwittingly in the dark…

At one point, close to what I figured must be lunchtime, we came to a fork in the trail: straight was to Crescent Beach, luring us to its baby blue water and pristine dunes, and right was UP. Up a mountain. Mt. Brown, to be precise. I later learned it’s 156 metres high. Cairns marked our path, though the path didn’t look much different from the rest of the face.
I was grateful for my non-slip sneakers, and my bottle of water. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, and when I got to what I thought was the top they asked what I thought of that. I said, “Holy F***!!!!” They laughed. But I almost cried when I realized we were NOT at the top. Vishnu spurred me on by saying I was probably the only Prince Edward Islander who had been to the top of Mt. Brown. Pride (my own!) made me keep going.

But from the top you can see Tasman Island – next stop Antarctica! A surveying marker and a huge cairn – probably added to by everyone who has conquered the hill – were the only signs of humans. Far below was Crescent Beach, and the national historic site of Port Arthur just around the corner. We could see a farm set on a peninsula of lush green way off in the distance. Lily dreamed of pies cooling on the farmhouse windowsills. 

We decided it was lunchtime after all, so we sat on millennia-old rock circled with lacy lichen, and scarfed down sandwiches, fruit, water and Millie’s fabulous chocolate balls. The spring sun made us all drowsy, but we knew we had more miles to go before we slept…
We lost sight of the cairns going down the mountain, but, like I said before: it didn’t seem to matter – we found the trail eventually, and headed DOWN to sea level.
The thick lush green air of sea level made me think of Mexico. The dune at Crescent Beach is the biggest I’ve ever seen: higher even than Greenwich in PEI National Park.

The lure of climbing it (because it was there) was too much for Sarah, Vishnu and Jade. Up they went, and down they came… even though, as botanists and environmentalists, they knew it probably wasn’t so good for the dune!
I have three water-temperature gauges on my feet: bathlike, “refreshing”-once-you’re-used-to-it, and numbing. This water was definitely numbing. But every so often, when I started to feel like a bubbly apple pie baking on the beach, I had to go back for some more. The waves were incredible, and later we saw six black figures come sliding down the dune, seemingly right into the water, where they bobbed up and down like buoys.  Ah… the joy of wetsuits.
Millie – who has done lots of bushwalking in her day and, judging from the size of her pack, knows to be prepared for anything – surprised us by pulling out some tea-making equipment, extra water, what was left of her chocolate balls, AND some home-made trailmix bars. I added a storebought package of Timtams (my new favourite chocolate treat). Never has black tea tasted so good.
Tea on the beach
Our walk back seemed faster than going in – probably because we didn’t have to go up and down the mountain again. We stopped along the way to marvel at a cockatoo way off in the distance (supposed to bring good luck for the spotter – ME!), and to listen to something mammalian (probably a bandicoot) snuffling in the undergrowth. And we took photos of more flowers and shrubs and birds… but, thank goodness, we didn’t spot a single snake*! Despite the strenuous workout, I learned that there’s something very special about walking a “place.” You see it, hear it, smell it, experience it, in a much different way than if you were driving it. And there’s something about seeing people you see every day in a much different way, too.
The pathway
We were back at the cars by 4:15 or so.  We sang along to “Graceland” and stopped for coffee on the way home – all essential when Millie goes bushwalking. Thank you for sharing your gifts and traditions, Millie - and the link to your photos! My first bushwalk was truly memorable. She asked if I’d be up for going on another one in a few weeks’ time. I said I’d see…
Millie: bushwalker extraordinaire
When I got home, I headed for a long soak in the tub with some epsom salts. Today my knees are killing me, and I hurt all over, but tomorrow I know it’ll be a good hurt.  

Lily and Vishnu
*When I told Pete about the bushwalk, he warned me to look down when I walk. He said, “You Prince Edward Islanders never look down when you walk. Here in Tasmania, you look where you put your feet - because of snakes.” I said, “But I’ve never seen a snake in PEI. We don’t have any.” He laughed. He said, “Yes you do - three kinds, in fact. You’ve never seen one because you’re always looking up at the scenery. When you go back home, you’ll see one because you’ll have learned a new way of seeing your island: you’ll have learned to look where you put your feet.”

Monday, September 20, 2010

My first Lark

I’d already heard of the Lark Distillery from Tasmanian Sue Dilley when she was part of “Tasmanian Frenzy” at the Frank Ledwell Storytelling and Comedy Festival at St. Peter’s Courthouse in July. Hosted by Patrick Ledwell, and featuring comedian Fraser McCallum and Poet Laureate Hugh MacDonald, the evening included Deirdre Kessler on guitar, Sue on mandolin, and their friend Terri Lukacko on old-time fiddle collaborating on some trans-hemispherical tunes. Sue’s a regular at the Lark when she’s home in Tasmania – Richard Lemm had shown us some pictures on her band when he did his talk on Tasmania in UPEI’s Faculty Lounge earlier this spring.  
So my first night at the Lark – which doubles as a distillery, cafĂ© and bar (with Moo Brew!) - featured "Novelists on Place and Experience," with Danielle Wood, author of the book The Alphabet of Light and Dark and Robyn Mundy, author of The Nature of Ice, set partly in Antarctica. Danielle has also been in our Faculty Lounge – she was the first Tasmanian to participate in the PEI-Tasmanian Writers’ Exchange, and I attended her writing workshop probably four years ago now. I don’t blame her for not remembering me… it’ll be a miracle if I can remember all the people I met in my first days and weeks here! But our host, Chris Gallagher of the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre, was a familiar face, and of course Pete came along.
And Robyn is a friend of my officemate, Antarctic scholar Jenny Scott. Robyn and her partner Gary Miller are in Tasmania for a couple of weeks, preparing for a four-month caretaking stint at the lighthouse in the Maatsuyker Islands. They fly in and out by helicopter... reminds me of Sable Island off Canada's east coast. Talk about being situated in place!
Robyn Mundy and Jenny Scott
The evening opened with the awarding of a poetry prize sponsored by the UTas Departments of Philosophy and Geography & Environmental Studies, as well as Fullers Bookshop, the Tasmanian Writers' Centre, and Island. The theme was "Place and Experience," and organizers received 268 entries from all over Australia. Unfortunately, neither the winner nor any of the finalists was from Tasmania, but we got to hear some wonderful place poetry to start the evening.
Danielle Wood and Robyn Mundy
We took a short break, then Chris, Danielle, and Robyn took their chairs around the coffee table. Both women read and then Chris asked some amazing questions about place. Here are some sound bytes from the evening:

Danielle quoting Pete Hay: “Place is not to be trifled with.”

Robyn: “Place is more than a setting; it’s as animate as any human figure. For me, Antarctica is a human character.”

Danielle: “I’m very much from Tasmania. Long-term relationships with and deep affections for places are very important, especially places we’ve spent our childhoods. Inheritance factors strongly, too – the fact that generations before you have been here… And, most important is taking inspiration from the environment we’re in… Place is all around us: our city, our countryside, we connect to it. Do we value our natural environment enough? Probably not.”
Robyn: “I was listening to the ABC news the other evening, and not once were Tasmania (where I was born) or Western Australia (where I now live) mentioned. There’s something about being on the edge – being separated by the Bass Strait – isolation, segregation, being quite separate from the mainstream…”

Danielle: “Writing in a place is different from writing about a place. My book was written in Western Australia, not Bruny Island – but my longing for Tasmania infused my writing.”

Danielle: “Place, character, and time – these three things all create you, and they’re almost impossible to untangle.”
Pete said later that he’d planned to be a fly on the wall and not say anything, but of course he couldn’t… He talked about place discourse being a political act; that it’s in resistance to globalization: “In the name of market rationality we must resist homogeneity and claim and catalogue particularity of place.”  Writers and artists can do that. Danielle cited two examples: protecting the Tasmanian forests and Lake Pedder – these rallying points, so central to the environment, offered Tasmanians the opportunity to do something different here.

Danielle: “I’m immensely proud to be here, where there’s a strong tradition of being different.”

Finally, I can’t remember who said this: “Who do you become when you go to the coast? The go-go-go of day-to-day existence becomes a time when you get to know yourself.”

Sounds like the best reason to live on an island…

Deirdre and I have been invited to be guest poets at the next "Lark" on Wednesday, October 27, starting at 6 p.m.!
Pete Hay with Tasmanian poet Adrienne Eberhard

Coningham Beach

You’d think that a picnic in early September would be a pretty safe bet. However, here in Tasmania, early September is equivalent to our early March, and there’s no way we’d be on a beach drinking wine and dipping our toes in the water surrounding Prince Edward Island in early March! Maybe we’d be digging out from a pre-St. Patrick’s Day storm… But the climate here is more like that of Victoria, BC, where my mom has the good sense to live… Right now the magnolias are out in full force, the cherry trees are in bloom, daffodils and rhododendrons are showing off their frills…

But September 12 in Tasmania turned out to be a glorious day, with temperatures reaching close to 20 degrees when the sun was out. Denbeigh packed us a picnic, and off she and her dad Bob and Maddie and I went in the station wagon.

Coningham Beach is just this side of Kettering, where the ferry to Bruny Island goes. I felt kind of smug knowing that that jut of land just over there was Tinderbox, and there was Bruny, right across the water…  We pretty much had the lovely sandy beach to ourselves, and I felt a little like Robinson Crusoe when he first found Friday’s footprint in the sand.

After lunch and more playing in the sand we drove to Peppermint Bay for coffee – a restaurant, bar, and conference centre set on a point of land looking over to Bruny. From there they offer tours on a luxury catamaran moored out front.  It all looked a little too costly for this poor student - I think I’ll save my shekels for Rob Pennicot’s adventure tour: after all, he’s our own Sylvia Ridgway’s nephew-in-law! Check out this great article about this award-winning business...
Looking across to Bruny Island

Thanks to Denbeigh, Bob, and Maddie for a great day all-round. And thanks, Bob, for buying the wine – a lovely rose from No Regrets Vineyard, which he’d picked up in the Salamanca Market – shades of summer yet to come – and a nice pinot noir from Australia. Maddie fell asleep in her car seat on the way home. I suspect we all felt the same – a perfect end to a perfect day. Life doesn’t get much better than this!