Monday, April 25, 2011

Runnin’ the roads

People have been telling me that I’ve seen more of Tasmania in eight months than many Tasmanians have in their lifetime. It’s probably true. I’ve been to three of its four corners and travelled three of its four major north-south routes.

Some of it’s due to cricket – attending “Thylacinian’s 11” games in out-of-the-way places like Branxholm, Forth, and Ross, and doing some sightseeing along the way. Some of it’s because Pete has been good enough to take me to see his old stompin’ grounds in the Stanley/Wynyard/Burnie area in the northwest, where I interviewed writer Rees Campbell in Somerset. And some of it’s because of my mom’s visit: we headed back up to the northwest on St. Paddy’s Day for my second interview with Rees, stopping at various hotspots along the way.

The first was the famous Ross Bakery, known for its "vanilla slice." The bakery, which is over 100 years old, has become shrine-like for many Japanese because it features in a Japanese anime book, the much-loved "Majo No Takyubin" - loosely translated as "Kiki's Delivery Service"... (Sound familiar?) Vanilla slice is a many-layered cake with a gelatinous inch-thick layer of vanilla custard. It's, well, different... but I ate it - every crumb - before I remembered I should have taken a photo of it first...
Our second stop wasat the devil park in Mole Creek, run by Thylacinian’s 11 Androo “Roo” Kelly. Called Truwanna Devil Park, it's one of several quarantine centres for the Tasmanian devil, which in recent years has been dying out in great numbers due to a facial tumour disease. Along with the devils are wombats, wallabies, and birds. Stephanie, our guide, introduced us to Maggie, a wombat who had been found in its dead mother’s pouch after she was hit by a vehicle.

I remember as a child saying a prayer for all the dead animals we’d pass on the road. Here I’d be praying the whole way there and back – roadkill in Tasmania is THAT prevalent. But Stephanie told us that Wildlife Tasmania runs a program whereby drivers – especially truckers – will, if they hit a marsupial, check to see if there are young in the pouch, and take them to a volunteer who will foster them until they’re old enough to be released back into the wild. Maggie was one such baby. At six months old, she’s a regular visitor to Truwanna, where visitors like us get a snuggle. Stephanie invited us to "knock" on her back, just above her tail: the thick cartilage is the wombat's protection against intruders. The wombat will head into its hole, stick its butt in the entranceway, and no one can break down the door.

Mom and I then headed down to the Mole Creek Pub – the Thylacinan’s 11 “home pub,” and sampled some Tassie Tiger brew. The “thylacine” or “Tassie Tiger” was hunted into extinction early last century. At the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart is an old video of a thylacine in captivity, trying to jump out of its pen. The video runs on a loop – and each time I see it I think maybe it’ll manage to escape THIS time...
We made a brief stop in Devonport, where the ferry, Spirit of Tasmania, leaves for Melbourne at 7:30 p.m. daily (the crossing is about 10 1/2 hours). Mom’s friend Joy, who now lives in Victoria, had spent a year in Devonport a l-o-o-n-n-g-g time ago, so Mom wanted to buy her something to reassure her that it was still there.
We ended the day in Somerset, with Rees and her wonderful partner Col. They took us along to their regular writing group meeting – Wordplayers – in Wynyard, where we all shared poems and short stories in the newly renovated Community Arts Centre. Rees’s poem “The Last Tasmanian Devil Died Today” was an evocative reminder of where we’d been earlier in the day.
Rees Campbell is the author of two books, The Legacy (a fictionalized memoir about her growing-up years in Tasmania) and A Thousand Treasures, A Million Pleasures (an informative book that brings together her vast knowledge of seashells and other beach finds). Rees is a passionate Tasmanian, and her writing and photography articulate beautifully her attachment to place - and remind us (because it seems that we need it, time and time again) that what we have here is worth preserving. She’s currently working on a book of poetry and photos called Brazenly Pure - the truth and beauty of Tasmania.

The next morning we headed into Burnie, to the Makers’ Workshop, where I met with the Director, Jenny Cox. Burnie had been a one-industry town for decades, reliant on “the Pulp.” A few years ago the pulp mill closed, throwing the town into an economic tailspin.  But the city has worked hard to reinvent itself, and one of the things it did was create the Makers’ Workshop – a $5.5 million world-class arts and culture centre that celebrates - and builds on - the legacy of paper-making.
Here you can watch artisans making beautiful hand-made paper – including exotics such as Roo Poo and Wombat Poo Paper, as well as the more traditional kinds. The Workshop also offers studio space for painters, printmakers, photographers, papier-mache artists, sculptors, jewellers, glass artists, whisky makers, and fabric artists to come and demostrate – and sell - their art. Although there are some who think the ultra-modern glass and steel architecture doesn’t fit with the landscape, the gift shop and cafĂ© are popular with tourists and (many, if not all) locals alike.   
Late that afternoon the Workshop featured the Ten Days on the Island opening of “Shorelines,” an art installation in two parts - along the boardwalk and in the Burnie Regional Art Gallery.
The show featured the work of six artists from Ireland and Newfoundland. I met two people from close to home: curator Charlotte Jones and artist Pierre LeBlanc from Corner Brook – and we’ve planned to meet up when I’m in Newfoundland this fall. Nothing like familiar accents to make you miss home!
Jennie Cox (Makers' Workshop, Burnie), Sean McCrum (Ireland), Charlotte Jones and Pierre LeBlanc (Corner Brook, Newfoundland), and me!
Installation artists Anthony Kelly and David Stalling (Ireland)
The installation along the boardwalk consisted of solar-powered cabinets and audio playbacks featuring moving images and objects found along the beach at Burnie.

We were treated to champagne and nibblies brought up from the beach by some local surfguards.  

The next day Mom and I got up before dawn and headed to Arthur River on the west coast, where we caught the stately red wooden boat M. V. George Robinson for the Arthur River Cruise.
Our skipper, “Wog,” entertained us with stories about the river, including one of a 50-year-old sea eagle whose original mate had drowned when he was caught in a wave. She had been on her own for several years when a much younger “boy toy” came along; they’ve since raised several young in the “Arthur River Hilton” – a two-metre-wide nest in a large eucalypt, well-fertilized by eagle droppings, along the shore. We were treated to a feeding demonstration (Tasmanian salmon – only the best!) for the pair and their fledgling that hatched last October. Wog assured us that the young eagle – who had just learned to fly in February and was now the same size as his parents – would be getting “the boot” shortly and would have to go find his own patch of sky.
Wog gave us a good idea of the tenacity of this female eagle. A staunch defender of her part of the river, she took on a neighbouring wedgetail that was encroaching on her territory. In a kamikaze move, she flew underneath the wedgetail, turned upside-down, and took out talons-full of feathers and blood before swooping down and scooping up a trout right from under its nose.
We stopped at Turk’s Landing for lunch: burgers and snags on the barbie (not suitable for veg-o's), along with various salads. Our welcoming committee of a couple of tiny pademelons was not disappointed.
The five-hour trip along Tasmania’s last undammed river was a lazy one. We went through a couple of different weather zones featuring scrub bush clinging to the bank, large branches sweeping the river, then rainforest-type foliage: patches of large ferns.
Pete says that if ever he was to see a “blackfella come out of the woods” it’d be somewhere along here. His poem “Arthur River Suite” captures the atmosphere of the river – and some of its history: of George Augustus Robinson (the “Conciliator” tasked by the governor in the 1830s to round up the Aboriginal people and take them to Flinders Island) being rescued by Truganini at the mouth of the Arthur River. Pete gave me permission to reprint the first part here…

Arthur River Suite
(for Joe and Margot King)

1832: George Augustus Robinson at the River

At the river, it will be told,
the men from Sandy Cape
danced the death
of the Mission blacks.

Only time
in all the Mission’s fraught wanderings
that George Augustus Robinson, Conciliator of Aborigines,
faced a bloody dying.

Even at the death camp Wooraddy
will cloak in the old way, hunt in the old way.
Now he urges Truganini to the bush.
But she stays.

No swimmer, hard pressed,
The Conciliator chances the river on a spar
propelled by Truganini, his saving grace.
I stand at the spot – the likely spot – of the haulout.

Here at the river
is a moment of fractal portent,
possibilities intersecting, branching, pointing forward,
some – it may be all – to a doom.

I conjure descission in the island’s story –
Truganini slips, with Wooraddy, to the scrub,
Robinson dies on a Sandy Cape spear,
and all is changed.

I tread paths not taken in 1832,
eager for their turnings
even as the imprinted ways falter
on the brushstrokes of the intruding bush…

(Reprinted with permission Pete Hay from Silently on the Tide, Hobart: Walleah Press, 2005.)

Wog told us to be sure to drive a few kilometers to the Edge of the World where we could see the river mouth from the other side of this bridge. We did.  As you can see from the photos, it was worth it. We then headed up through Marrawah to Montagu (not a typo: it’s missing our familiar “e” on the end!), on the far northwest tip of the island, to stay with Rees and Col at her daughter and son-in-law’s house. This stretch of beach is Rees’s “place.” It’s looking out at Robbins Island that she really gets a sense of Tasmania as an island.
The next day we headed home to Hobart – through the mining town of Waratah, and over to Strahan, which is on MacQuarie Harbour, where you can take the Gordon River Cruise to the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station and Sarah Island, the most remote of Tasmania's historic penal colonies.
I thought the 38-kilometre detour off the main road wouldn't slow us down too much (we had to be back in Hobart by 7 p.m.) – but I failed to heed the next sign: "Strahan 40 minutes"… For its twists and turns it wasn’t quite as bad as “The Road to Hana” in Maui (where you can buy a T-shirt that boasts "I survived the Road to Hana") or the highway from Ucluelet to Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island – but it was a close third! 
On the last leg to Hobart we went through some spectacular scenery... and some devastating stuff, too (especially at Queenstown, an old mining town) - but we didn't really have time to stop for photos. Next trip...

But we made it home, safe and sound. And, most importantly, I'm happy to report we did NOT contribute to the road kill count. I slept well in my bed that night – with the sway of the car zigzagging through all those kilometres (about 1,100 over four days) rocking me to sleep!