Hear about travel to Tasmania in Australia as the Amateur Traveler talks to Robert Reid, the Offbeat Observer for National Geographic Traveler, about his recent trip to Van Diemen’s Land.
Tasmania is a heart-shaped island off the southeast coast of Australia about the size of the state of Indiana. Robert is working as a correspondent for Tourism Australia and planned a trip to Tasmania because when he used to live in Victoria everyone talked about getting away to Tasmania. “They dream of getting away and maybe having a cottage or retiring there. They talked about the walks, some of the food they get there. To them, it is always sort of this wonder. I like the idea that it is more compact.”
Australia is dominated by the outback, while Tasmania is much more green, much more forested. “It almost looks like the Pacific Northwest or the north of England in a sense, that is if you don’t look too closely because the vegetation and animals are clearly another world. You have the Myrtle Rain Forest and then you get up into these King Billy pines and these more alpine type of things as it gets higher up.”
“I was walking on the Overland Track which is a 6-day track which is kind of the Appalachian Trail of sorts, on a much smaller scale, for Tasmania. You are passing within hours from moors to bogs and button grass. Then you go up through these Myrtle forests and you go over these ridges and you see these rock topped mountains that escaped the ice age. They were never submerged under the glaciers there. Very dramatic scenery, it covers a lot of different things.”
Robert also recommends the MONA museum, the Museum of Old and New Art, in Hobart the capital of Tasmania. “Hobart is a great place. Earl Flynn was born there. It is at the base of Mount Wellington, this massive mountain. They are talking about building a cable car to the top. The bay itself is lined with these very crusty fish and chips places and there is some very nice food. In 2011 Hobart really changed. It got on the map because of this museum. They created this museum that you arrive to by ferry. It was built underground. It is a very cutting edge museum.”
We talk about trekking, Tasmanian Devils, Tasmanian Tigers as well as the convict history of Port Arthur.
Reid On Travel
A Town Like Alice
Henry Darger (The Vivian Girls)
James Boags Brewery
Launceston Cataract Gorge
Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park
Van Diemen’s Land
The Fatal Shore
In A Sunburned Country
Tasmania: The Tipping Point?
Great Walks of Australia
Chris: Welcome to the Amateur Traveler, I’m your host Chris Christensen. Before we get into today’s interview, let me just remind you that there are still spots available for the trip to Morocco.
One of the reasons that are spots is, we are ending up doing two trips. We’re going to do a 15-day trip followed by a 10-day trip. I’m only going on the 10-day trip, just so you know. That might influence you to go on the 15-day trip.
The 15-day trip, I don’t have the page up just yet, but it should go up about the same time as this episode. So, go to amateurtraveler.com and look on the Book Travel tab. I’ll have links to both of those trips.
I’d like to welcome back to the show, Robert Reid who has come to talk to us about Tasmania. Robert, welcome back to the show.
Robert: Thank you for having me.
Chris: I say welcome back to the show. You now have a new title, you’re the Offbeat Observer for National Geographic Traveler. I have to say, that is the best title I have ever heard.
Robert: Yeah, I love it. Offbeat Observer. Oh, oh. Ooh. I’m waiting for the march. But yeah, I write for them about things about offbeat things often. Like kind of the philosophy, the whys and hows of travel. So not so much, this is a great walking destination, which by the way Tasmania is, but why do we walk. What does it mean when we walk? So it’s these kinds of things. It’s a lot of fun. I get away with a lot of stuff, and it’s been going really well.
Chris: Excellent. And Robert still has ReidOnTravel.com, and we’ll talk about that more at the end. Let’s first Tasmania on the map. I’m guessing that the bright listener out there for Amateur Traveler knows where Tasmania is, but just in case they don’t, where we find Van Diemen’s Land?
Robert: Van Diemen’s Land. Tasmania is a name that we recognize, because of the Tasmanian Devil in the cartoon at the very least. But it is a bit of mystery to a lot of people, and a lot of people who go to Australia once, two, three times from abroad may not even make it there, but it’s a place that’s kind of rising. It is a heart-shaped island off the southeast coast of Australia. So, kind of just straight south of Melbourne, a little bit south of where Sydney is. It’s the furthest south I’ve been. Never been to Antarctica. So you’re getting way down there when you get to Tasmania.
And it’s a small place, compared to that big monster of Australia above it. It’s about the size of Indiana, and it’s an island that feels very different from the rest of Australia, which we’ll talk about a little.
Chris: Excellent. And why did you go? What led you to go to Tasmania?
Robert: I had the pleasure of getting to plan some trips to Australia. Anywhere I wanted to go as a correspondent for Tourism Australia. I lived in Melbourne when I was working with Lonely Planet about ten years ago. I went around Victoria, that state in the southern part of Australia a little bit. I’ve been to Sydney, but I hadn’t done too much. I picked a couple trips, one was to get into the outback near South Wales. I went to Broken Hill where a lot of outback films are shot, like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Mad Max 2 and all those.
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I really wanted to walk, I mean everyone in Victoria when I was living there was talking on and on about this place called Tasmania to the south. They’d kind of getting away and maybe having a cottage there. It’s like their Hamptons or something. Or to retire there. They talked about the walks, they talked about some of the food they get there. To them it was just this wonder. That always stuck with me.
So, when I had a second place that I was looking for, I really wanted to get into Tasmania and understand that. I like the fact that it’s more compact. If you look at Australia itself, and you think about what it’s made of, this big, ancient rock that it’s built off. A lot of people call it the rock there in Australia. It’s essentially almost all dominated by the outback; some of the most inhospitable, harsh landscape you can imagine.
In fact, I look it as a candy apple. If you take the caramel or the toffee off the top of a candy apple like you get at the state fair or something, and you’re left with that apple in your hand. That’s how much of the outback is Australia. So, you think about that massive continent and how much of is outback really, it’s almost the whole thing.
And then you go just down to Tasmania, it really just doubles up what the Australian experience, in the sense that it’s much more green, much more forested, and mountains. It almost looks a little bit like the Pacific Northwest or the north of England in a sense. That is, if you don’t look too closely, because the vegetation and animals are completely another world.
Chris: Well, and you mentioned Australia first of all. I’m longing to get there; I just finished the book just today, A Town Called Alice. So, Australia is on my mind. But if we head sort of north in Australia, we get rainforests, but we get tropical rainforests. But you’ve headed the other direction. So you’re talking about a temperate rainforest.
Robert: It’s a lot different there. I mean, you have the Myrtle Rainforest in through parts of Tasmania, then you get up into the King Billy pines and all this more alpine like things as it get higher up. So, you have a lot of different types of vegetation, a lot of trees that are endemic and plants that are endemic to Tasmania. It depends on where you are, and where you go. But you can get into it.
I was walking, I was reminded of going on the Overland Track, which is a six day trek we’ll talk about a little bit. Which is kind of the Appalachian trail of sorts on much smaller scale for Australia, and certainly for Tasmania. It’s right through the heart of the island. You’re passing just within hours from moors, and kind of like bogs, and button grass. If there weren’t places to walk clearly, you would be kind of sunk to your shins.
Then you go up through there myrtle forests, and over these ridges and you see these rock topped mountains that escaped Ice Age. They were untouched. Part of these rocky bluffs that were never submerged under the glaciers there. Very dramatic scene, right. It covers a lot of different things. A little wetter than the outback I must say. It does rain a little bit.
Chris: You are painting a different picture than the picture that I have of Australia when I just do the default picture. What did you see, or what you recommend seeing while you’re in Tasmania?
Robert: The first thing I would talk about is, I went out of curiosity today, and I looked up Tasmania on Twitter to see just what conservations are right now today. The first I thing is that Tasmania is worth a visit in itself for Mona. This is something that has changed museums. Mona is the Museum of Old and New Art. And it’s in Hobart, which is the capital of Tasmania on the southern coast. The Hobart I know of by the way. I’m a sucker for any town named Hobart, so I had to go to Hobart.
Hobart is a great place. Errol Flynn was born there in 1909. It’s at the base of Mount Willington, this massive mountain that they’re talking about building a cable car to the top. It’s very controversial right now whether the local community wants that or not. Or you still hike, there’s kind of like a battered road and you can go up the back side. The cove and like the bay itself is lined with these very cresty fish and chips kinds of places, and there’s some very nice food and things like that.
But, in 2011, Hobart really changed. It got on the international map because of Mona. What this tweet was about, Museum of Old and New Modern Art. There’s a millionaire there by the name of David Walsh, and he created this in this kind of former working class neighborhood up the Derwent River from the center. It’s where he used to grow up. He created this museum that you arrive to by ferry. So, you take about 20 minutes to go from the center up this beautiful, wide river that when it was first settled, there was whales in it that would occasionally break ships, and everyone would die because no one knew how to swim 100 feet to shore at that time.
You get to this site, and it’s like kind of on a little kind of spit of land of sorts, and there’s a vineyard down the backside of it if you happen to see it. But there’s kind of a glob building. You’re going, well, where is the museum?
And it was built underground in the sandstone. It is a very cutting edge museum. I’ve been doing some research on museums in general. Basically, if you think about museums as a thing we go do when we travel a lot, museums are really kind of struggling right now how to be still relevant in this digital age when they have digitized collections and people are traveling more about… local experience is kind of a buzz word. Eating food, going to sporting events, figuring out how to stay in neighborhoods with Airbnb. Where do museums fit in?
So, a lot of museums… There’s like museum nerd, museum conferences. They’re talking about what Mona did as a museum is so cutting edge that it’s really changed how museums think about what they should do go ahead in the 21st century. That’s a long winded way of saying that Mona is a place that people feel like they have to see. That’s making Tasmania an absolute place, even if they’re going to… If they’re coming, 70 percent of the people are coming from mainland Australia. But, about 1 in 10 or so are coming from abroad, and they’ll add on a few days in an Australia trip specifically to get to Hobart, specifically to see this museum.
I could go on and on about it, and probably should. It’s an unbelievable, unreal museum.
Chris: So, you said old and new art. Is that including aboriginal art, or just classical art?
Robert: Pretty much classical. It’s whatever the whims of this very vocal, provocative leader of the museum, David Walsh, wants. He’s into Egyptian art, so there’s like 1500 year old Egyptian art there. And then you have the poop machine, to be indelicate about it. It’s a very modern installation of tubes and all this, that once a day will… poop. It creates this gooey paste that does smell a little bit like something that you might not want to smell. That’s a modern installation of art.
Chris: And some people wonder why I’m not a big fan of modern art.
Robert: Well, see, the funny thing about it is, you get off the ferry, you go up these steps, and the first thing you see is a door without a sign on it. Nothing that labels it whatsoever, and a tennis court. The reason they do it is because they purposefully want to underwhelm you. They want you to not think of them as a place that culture has to be taken too seriously. It just makes you curious. They said, I talked to their research curator there, who’s hilarious and said, “We don’t want to be experts, we just want to encourage curiosity.”
So they don’t have labels to any art. They don’t want you to appreciate Picasso because it’s Picasso, they want you to appreciate the work. So they take all the labels away. You go down three stories by elevator or spiral staircase, and it feel like you’re in an Egyptian crypt or tomb or something, because it’s all lined with sandstone. You’re purposely getting lost. You stumble on things.
And then you have a GPS device called the O. It recognizes where you are, and if you want to find out more information about something, it’ll give it you. It will tell you what this weird machine is or why is there a ping pong table next to the rather sexualized versions of Red Riding Hood. Why is there a library in the middle in this room? You can go and use the library.
One of my favorite things about it was actually, there was this one exhibit on the Vivian Girls which was done by a creepy self artist in the Midwest in the US, I forgot his name. When he died, he left behind like 15,000 drawings of kind of cartoonish drawings of young girls involved in some kind of civil war. It was very strange. It was called the Vivian Girls. I went though, and I was going, “Gosh, what to make of this.”
Then I listened to it, and part of it was, you could listen to a soundtrack while going through it. There were songs that were made about by the Vivian Girls by different bands. Some indie band I’ve never heard of, Natalie Merchant who was the singer for 10,000 Maniacs. Another was a name I cannot say on this family friendly podcast, because it was a profane name. It’s a punk rock band, and it’s an eight minute punk rock song called “Vivian Girls”. So, I played that. I went back and I looked at all the drawings with this music, and it was unlike any museum experience I’d had before.
What they’re trying to do is just change how we see things. Make it more democratic in a sense, that everyone’s accessible to it. You don’t have to have some art history, you like it or you don’t. They’re trying to make it a little bit less serious. It has been controversial, but it’s really, like I said, it’s making a lot of museums think about how they present whatever their topic is, and that’s a good thing. It’s worth saying I think even you would like it Chris.
Chris: Well, it does seem like there’s a fine line between we took down the labels so that you would just appreciate the art, and it’s just poorly set up.
Robert: That’s true.
Chris: And one thing I should clarify, there are at least two Hobarts in the world. The other one that I found is in your home state of Oklahoma, which we did not cover on the Oklahoma episode, but it is named after Garret Hobart, the 24th Vice President of the United States.
Robert: Gosh, that’s Amateur Traveler pulling through right there. I love it.
Chris: Are there other things we should see in Hobart, as long as we’re in that neck of the woods?
Robert: Well, there’s an interesting art display that’s in the water itself. They have an outdoor art installation that you can walk along the bay. It’s absolutely beautiful. You’re looking out over these sailboat, you see the hills in the distance on the other side, and they have these kind of installation art pieces that are sometimes embedded in the water just offshore, just right there and with some description of it. That’s interesting to see because it’s interesting to see, but also because it’s an awkward kind of path that you can take and just see how beautiful it is. It’s really hilly and gorgeous, and just the view of the water.
The last one is one where Errol Flynn was born. He used to disguise the fact that he was from Hobart, Tasmania. He would tell people he was from Ireland when he was in Hollywood and stuff. So, Tasmania has been kind of slow to embrace this very controversial figure from Hollywood, but they end the walk with Flynn. They have the Flynn mystique, and it pulls no punches in showing all sides of that character.
So, it’s a beautiful place. Mona dominates, but there’s food and that art walk. The other thing I would say is the Salamanca Market on weekends in that historic neighborhood right by the water. Great outdoor market with all kinds of things to eat and look for.
Chris: And Hobart as I recall is where Tasmania was first settled.
Robert: It isn’t, it’s the second oldest city.
Chris: It’s the second oldest?
Robert: The first oldest is its bitter rival to the north. And I spent a day there, it’s called Launceston, otherwise known as Loni. They do not like each other too much, which I find very funny. The fact that one of the mayors of Launceston, they’re trying to get a footie team in Tasmania, like Australian rules football. Some teams, I think Gilang [SP] plays some games in Launceston. Hobart’s so upset about it that they’re get another team to play there. And the mayor said, famously, of Launceston that he would rather give up them hosting some footie games than to see Hobart get any at all. That’s funny rivalry they have between the two cities.
But Launceston is interesting because it’s in the North. It’s near the wine valley of the Tamar valley. There’s all kinds of wineries, a lot of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays going on around there. It’s a historic town, used to be a big beer town. There’s a brewery that’s been there since the 1880s that you can tour called Bouge’s [SP].
What I liked about it was, it’s the best food I had in Australia. They have a lot of seafood there where the river, the South Esk River comes by, and they have this great restaurant where you can get… And this old 1830’s flour mill, they made it into a restaurant called Stillwater. I had some of the greatest seafood probably I’ve had. I’m not a foodie, but I’m telling you the seafood there was remarkable.
A lot of people I know, like kind of Melbourne city will sometimes go on weekends away to Launceston specifically for the food. Also a block away from that, you go back into the cataract gorge, and suddenly you’re in the bush. One block from the center of Launceston, you get into the gorge, it’s lined by this Dolerite rock. It’s kind of a narrow river walkway, you go back about the equivalent of a mile. There’s this real Victorian area tea pavilion. Peacocks running around, wallabies at dusk. Absolutely beautiful. Until you get to that tea pavilion, you feel like you’re in the middle of the bush.
So, Launceston was kind of nice way to kind of book in Tasmania in a sense. The two cities have a relationship to each other, which is sometimes a big rivalry, but really interesting. Really interesting on its own too. I had a good time in Launceston.
Chris: Since we’re starting to get into the bush, and you’d been talking about walking, what time of year were you there then?
Robert: I was there in our spring, which is their fall. It depends on what you want when you’re going and things like that. If you go in their winter, our summer, walks can be difficult. They have snow up in the mountains. They have snow potentially any time of year. But you go at that time of year, it can get really harsh in some parts, depending on what you’re doing. If you’re going to the city, it’s easier to deal with. But I think a lot of places, the curb seasons of spring and fall are great because it’s not peak season, you don’t have tons of visitors and the weather is really great. I had rain two times a week or something like that.
Chris: Okay, and where to next?
Robert: Well, I think the main reason why I picked Tasmania and why a lot of Australians think about Tasmania is because of walking. It’s interesting. Americans, we call it hiking, they call it walking. There was a study a number of years ago that counted the number of steps that various nations do a day. Australians walk twice as much as Americans, which fascinates me. Because on one level, Australia is equally a grand, big nation, a car culture nation if you will, as the United is. In the sense that you have big metropolises that are spread out, a lot of them are. And vast distances between them. Why is it that people are walking that much more?
Well, a lot of them, when they go on a walking trip… Maybe it’s because we call it hiking, I don’t know. The premiere walking destination in Australia is Tasmania, and part of it is its compact area. They have this real infrastructure up for walks. You have these multiday walks along the south coast, and on the east coast, and right through the heart of Tasmania, which is the classic one, it’s the Overland Track. Which is about the equivalent of about 70 kilometers, 45, 50 miles.
You go hut to hut, and they limit the number of people that can go in a day on the Overland Track. It’s just kind of a little bit rugged of a walk. I thought that I should do that to get a sense of really what’s in the middle and the heart of this island of Tasmania.
Chris: And you say hut to hut, I’m sleeping in the huts? So I’m not having to carry a tent, but are they providing food or is it just shelter?
Robert: A couple different ways you can go. Overland Track allows 60 people a day to start. You have to pay a pass, an Overland Track pass to go. So they really limit the number of people, because they do not want to do any kind of damage to the natural habitat of these animals and the forest, and the mountains themselves. They’re very careful about doing that. So they’re limited.
So they have a series of public huts that are spaced between maybe like four to six hour walks depending on how you walk, all the way through the path, which goes from Cradle Mountain to the north, down to the south to a place called like St. Clair. There is these public huts you can stay at, and you have to take a tent too, because sometimes one of them could be a little full, so you might end up camping. They have these platforms that you can camp on.
There’s another series of private huts which I did, because I’m a bit of wimp. Private huts enable you to not worry about camping, no tents. But you also had showers and you had food already at those places, so you didn’t have to think about all that. You carry a little bit less.
I’m just enough of… I like camping, but going for six days, kind of rugged, you may be getting wet. I just like that sense of having… I’m just going to be honest, I liked having a shower. It’s all solar heated, solar powered. All of these huts are, and water is rainwater, things like that. They use the solar power to heat it, so there were warm showers at the end of the day. So, that’s Cradle Mountain huts, and a lot of people do that. It’s very limited. You’re going to have a lot of space yourself out there.
Chris: Describe to me the terrain you’re hiking through here. You mentioned moors on one side, and coniferous forests, and…
Robert: You go through all kinds of things I’d never heard about. Stringy bark trees, and banksia plants, and snowy peppermints and all this. You learn very quickly about wombat droppings, because they’re all over the place. Wombats are these funny, hilarious little animals that leave where they’ve been in these stacked cube of feces essentially. You think you’re sick of it, believe me, in like three minutes.
You’re seeing a rise, you’re going up and down over these rocky mountains. You look over and you see kind of a string of glacial lakes in the distance. Sometimes it will be overcast, and you can’t see for 20 feet. That’s going to happen on a walk, because you’re going to get some of these climate conditions.
So, the first day is actually the most famous when you go past Cradle Mountain, which is this massive rock top peak, one of the highest parts of the walk. You go up past these lakes, over a pass and through these moors, and you see these kind of button grass and cushion plants. It’s kind of bright green.
You go up to this mountain. I was talking to someone that had been like 30 years before, they said the last time I was here, I couldn’t see my feet. It was amazing to me the clarity that I’d had that day. The next day or two days later you might not be able to see it. Within my six days, I had a couple days that were foggy, and I couldn’t see much, or it was raining a little bit. Some days that you could just see forever. It depends on the weather you’re having, and what part of the track you’re at.
To me, it was even beyond this place, which is absolutely beautiful. You’re out in the middle of nowhere; you’re not going to see… I didn’t even notice a place going by for example. In some places, you might, once in three days hear a plane or something like that. Nothing. No semblance of the modern world so to speak. Certainly no cell phone connection or anything like that.
It was really about looking more close at these waterfalls and at these… they have thousands of mushrooms in Australia. Only ten percent of the mushrooms in Australia, and many of them are in Tasmania don’t even have… only ten percent have names. There’s so many different kinds. You see these bright red, and bright yellow, and translucent, and different colored kind of fungi basically sprouting from the middle of trees and on tops of fallen logs and stuff all over the place.
As you see a lot, you’re going to be [inaudible 0:22:51] I was just amazed at the amount of color and exotic detail that was just right around you, regardless of the weather.
Chris: You mentioned the sounds of your trip, and you’re in Tasmania, so I have to ask. Did you hear at night the Tasmanian devil?
Robert: No, the Tasmanian devil right now is going through all kinds of this epidemic. There’s some tumors that they have developed in the recent years. Their population has gone down dramatically. I think like 80 percent of the population are lost. To see a Tasmanian devil in the wild is almost unicorn like right now.
That isn’t to say they’re not around, because there are these conservation centers that are trying to give them space, but track their numbers and make sure that they don’t have this illness that is very infectious. The problem with Tasmanian devils is, they are these gangly little creatures. They are predators, they have very strong jaws. They can bite through bone and actually completely…
Chris: I think they’re more scavengers, aren’t they?
Robert: Yeah. That’s what I meant to say, sorry. They bite each other while eating. It’s part of their habit.
Chris: Their table manners?
Robert: Yeah, their table manners. Tasmanian devil table manners are the best. So, what happens is, it can lead to this infection. They don’t know where it’s from. There has been a problem with foxes in Australia in general, and they’re really bad for wild life such as Tasmanian devils. It hasn’t become a problem yet in Tasmania, but if it did it could be very damaging for Pademelons, which are kind of small, small kangaroos, and wallabies, which are slightly bigger, but miniature kangaroos so to speak. It could be very bad for those populations because they’d be going for similar food sources, and it could be a problem.
But they had this poison that went out a number of years ago that some people may have suggested may have had something to do with this to go after the foxes. This was trying to keep any fox population from every growing Tasmania. For whatever reason, it’s never happened. The foxes haven’t been a problem in Tasmania. That could be, who knows?
But I did go to a conservation center for the Tasmanian devil, and got to see close up Tasmanian devils, and they fed them. This was not in a natural setting; this was a scientific survey of them.
Chris: Well, and the reason why I ask is, I remember when my kids were little, they would watch Kratts’ Creatures, and the sound of those at night was the strange and eerie sound. You understand why the people who created the Tasmanian devil on the Warner Brothers cartoons, where they got sound from that they used there.
Robert: Yeah, that’s not the best sound probably. I heard that the population used to be about 15,000, and 80 percent of them had been lost. This in the last 20 years.
Chris: And then you mentioned the foxes, and that poisoned the foxes just in case anyone didn’t know, I think this is a very well educated audience here, but the foxes and as well as dingoes and rabbits in the mainland all being introduced by Europeans early on, so not indigenous to Tasmania.
Robert: The dingoes apparently were introduced by the aboriginals before.
Chris: Sorry, you’re right. They were introduced later. Right, you are correct.
Robert: That’s true. That’s why you have to be careful what you introduce for certain.
Chris: Well, yeah, if you want more about that, watch the Rabbit-Proof Fence as a movie here.
Robert: I just saw that, yeah. That’s a great… There’s a lot of different Australian movies that are really great. Just to look at Australia in general that are fantastic and sometimes aren’t as big and mainstream here as Crocodile Dundee. There is a Tasmanian movie, not necessarily the best in the world, with Willem Defoe about the Tasmanian tiger.
Robert: And it came out, this is an extinct animal that used to exist. It’s like one of those animals like the platypus that looks like it was just assorted pieces put together. They went extinct about 70 or 80 years ago.
Chris: You mentioned you had a public option limited to 60 people a day starting, and a private option, that was the one with the jacuzzi and the butler as I recall. What are the various costs of those?
Robert: If you take the Cradle Mountains, you’re going to pay a couple thousand dollars to do it for six days including all your meals, guides, staying at the places, and transportation to and from.
Chris: That’s the private?
Robert: That was, yes. Then the other one, you’re paying for Overland Track, it’s about 160 Australian, and their national park pass, it’s about 190. So that’s about $175 or so to get out there. The huts themselves are part of it. And camping as well. You’d obviously have the cost of packing all your things.
Robert: Food for the trip and stuff to consider. Considerably cheaper if you use the public huts.
Chris: Excellent. Where to next?
Robert: I would say that another thing that people do associate for better or worse. And for worse for many years with Tasmania is that it was Van Diemen’s Land. A lot of people when they think of Australia, oh they think it’s an island of convicts. The country has considered that part of their history that were founded essentially by convicts from Britain as a stain. It’s called the stain there. That’s true of all of Australia, but particularly connected with Tasmania.
Tasmania at a time, like if you go back to the mid-1800s, something like three percent of New South Wales, the state that Sydney is in were convicts at that point. Whereas it was about 40 percent in Tasmania. So, the number of convicts that were there, the association with the worst prisons, the most dreaded destination if you were a repeat offender, a convict, was to get into Tasmania, which was called Van Diemen’s Land at that time. So, Van Diemen’s Land, there was all these epic ballad poems and stuff. A lot of linked with the Irish that were written in the 1800s that was like oh my gosh, Tasmania, I made it to Van Diemen’s Land. It was like this ultimate disastrous place you could go to.
So, Tasmania in particular is linked to that side of the history. That affects how we can see it today, because one of its more famous sites is called the Port Arthur Historic Site, which was a penitentiary that was founded in the 1820s, and it was active in 1877. So, about 50 years or so that it was active. It’s in the southeastern corner of Tasmania. It was very remote, and that’s why it was put there. They had to go by sea; it was a very rocky outcrop of islands you had to navigate through to get into what was this pretty calm bay. Quite beautiful now. You can drive there an hour and a half from Hobart now. You certainly couldn’t back in the 1800s. So it was very much like an Alcatraz, even though it was not an island or something.
Chris: Almost like Devil’s Island. Just being so remote and far into the earth.
Robert: I went there. I felt like it was important to see some of that side of history of Tasmania. It’s so much this and that in terms of, it’s a site that Robert Hughes, he wrote a book called “The Fatal Shore” about this whole era.
Chris: Wonderful book.
Robert: Yeah. He calls it Australia’s Dachau, linking it to a concentration camp. Not exactly the right analogy, but that’s how much it weighs to some people. You get there, and it looks like a gorgeous English village. You see this kind of gothic church and these wonderful quarters that… There’s two buildings that were part of the prison. They’re actually kind of beautiful architecturally right along this gorgeous cove. Just absolutely fascinating setting. There’s gardens and beautiful green meadows and things like that.
So you’re going, what? This is Port Arthur? And so I talked to people there. And you get some of this from Hughes’ book too that it wasn’t necessarily meant outright to terrify. They honestly created that to try reform people which was a very unusual concept at that time. Until the 1800s, prisons where we felt that the people were inherently bad and they would go to prison.
But, and starting around like the time… Like Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary used the notion of solitary confinement as a way that was better than whipping people in terms of reforming them. Hope was that you could reform these people. That was very much part of the plan in Port Arthur. Though it sounds terrible obviously to be in prison in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and be one hour active a day by yourself in a high walled garden or something like that.
The goal was as many attest, and the site talks about, was hopefully to reform these people. So there was actually worse prisons, more notorious prisons in Tasmania than Port Arthur, though Port Arthur is sometimes seen as the worst of the worst. It’s something that’s still debated a little bit.
Chris: Well, and the other thing too is when we think about the people who were sent to Australia or to Tasmania, many of them were for just petty crimes or just poor trying to get by. You didn’t take the serial murderer for instance and send him to Australia. You hung him, the way justice worked at the time.
Robert: Part of this all happened because the Americans got independence. They couldn’t send people they normally would to the colonies, the American colonies any more. But it was founded very differently, because American colonies were gradual, and you did have all these different settlements in different places.
There, the first boat of convicts came specifically to found the place. It was 1788. The arrived at Sydney Cove with nothing there for them. How crazy, and what an amazing achievement it was really that Australia came from that. Then on down to Tasmania. But Tasmania’s link to this is far greater. The site itself I must say, is remarkably preserved and fascinating.
In one of the prisons they have plays. They have a play of true story of someone, an Irishman who threw a rock at the English king, and hit the kind, and was sent off to Van Diemen’s Land. He did a hunger protest, and refused to eat. They did a 16 minute play about this guy arriving in Van Diemen’s Land in the prison. I thought that was just fantastic use of space. And it was really interesting just to see in there, in the place it was inspired from.
Chris: Excellent. What surprised you about Tasmania?
Robert: Tasmania is complex. I’m sitting here trying to talk about this. People who have lived their lives in Tasmania are divided about it. It’s kind of this Tasmanian complex, so to speak, in that what I mean is that is beautiful, there is great food, there’s great people and events and things happen, but if often feels like it’s astray from the nation itself.
Bill Bryson’s book, “In a Sunburned Country”, which I think is an absolutely wonderful travelogue book on Australia which is hilarious and filled with wonder. I’m just highlighting page after page when I read that, and just thinking, “My goodness, what a fascinating place.”
In fact, he says so. The theme of his book is, at the beginning he’s flying to Australia, and he realizes with a sigh that he doesn’t remember who the Prime Minister is. He says someone out there somewhere should be in charge of remembering who the Prime Minister of Australia is. His point is that, in the Western World at least, Europe and the States, we don’t pay attention that much to Australia. It registers on us, but we don’t think about it on a daily basis. The last line of the book is, “You see, Australia is an interesting place. It truly is. And that, really, is all I’m saying.”
Now, the reason why I bring that up is, is he’s trying to give attention to something that people maybe take for granted because it’s down under and far away. Well, Tasmania is down under of down under. It has the same relationship that perhaps Australia has with us with Australia. So, Tasmania has this kind of funny complex in a way. There’s a hilarious book that I got called the Tasmania tipping point that came out last fall. It was done by Grift [SP] review. They do books there in Australia. This one was all about Tasmania. I was reading these essays, and they talk about David Walsh who was the person behind the Mona museum we were talking about early, we Taswegians as he said, know that we aren’t special, but paradoxically we think we have something to prove.
Someone else named Cassandra Piper says, I can’t live anywhere else but this beautiful, empty terminus of the world. Someone else, they described the shape of Tasmania, and they said it’s a heart. Then a friend said, well it could be a bum. So they have this funny paradox of how they see Tasmania. It’s like how we feel like they are trying to have their coming out party essentially, right now. That’s what’s been so pivotal about things like the Mona. Or that they have a whiskey from Hobart that actually won an award for the best whiskey recently in Chicago.
They have these funny things that are happening, that are registering, and it feels like finally they’re going to get on the radar. Historically, people who go Tasmania are going on their second or third trip to Australia, if at all. But it’s starting to feel like this finally is there moment.
So if there’s something that’s surprised me, it’s just this kind of embedded culture of a wait and see, is it really happening kind of thing. Which is very playful, because the people absolutely love Tasmania. Everyone that I met in New South Wales and Victoria said, “Oh, you’re going to Tazzie? You’re going to Tazzie! You’re going to love it.”
People have that reaction that it feels a little bit lost. The down under down under, away from the limelight too. I’m still working it out Chris, it’s hard.
Chris: Well, you have spent a lot of your life, a significant portion as a guidebook writer. If you were writing the Tasmania guidebook, what is one top people should know?
Robert: I think that is a huge walking destination. They have 60 short walks that are organized around the island that are mapped out clearly so that you can see this very rugged coastlines going into the forest, over mountains. And it’s very much part of its culture, the walks. You have a lot of these bigger walks. Australia has something called the Great Walks of Australia. I forget how many there are, like eight or nine or something like that. Half of them are in Tasmania. It is very much a place that you do want to bring your hiking boots to.
Whether it’s just a two hour hike like up that cataract gorge in Launceston I was talking about earlier, or off the coast along the rugged coast as a day trip from Port Arthur Historic Site in the south eastern corner, or a multi-day trip, whether it’s camping or hut to hut. Think about Tasmania, getting out into it. That’s how Tasmanians love it; it’s how Australians look at it. We really see it differently from close up and out with all those fungi.
Chris: Excellent. You’re standing in the prettiest spot you saw in Tasmania. Where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Robert: The first thing that comes to mind is the middle of the Overland Tract. A rainy day. There’s a tree, and in the middle of the tree is a cross that says “Ranger Fergie.”
And it was a little tribute to a former ranger in the park that was instrumental in helping create and conserve some of these preserved trails themselves, and really loved the spot. You can hear this roar that Ranger Fergie apparently really liked. You go off the tree a little bit towards this roar, and suddenly through this thick… It’s the Myrtle rainforest there, you look down and you see this stack of rocks just completely under this waterfall. It’s just thundering down. It kind of confused my sense of dimensions, because it looked like the waterfall was going under your feet, because it was such an extreme angle of where this ended to where the water was. It was built on these kind of alternating massive boulders of dolerite rock that look like a kid put it together. It was just so dramatic because of how it just broke the dimensions in a way. I don’t know if I’ve ever approached a waterfall as dramatically as that.
Somewhere out there in the middle of Overland Track, if not that spot would be another spot that would be the most scenic, beautiful view I had.
Chris: Excellent. Any language tips for Tasmania?
Robert: It helps to leave your sense of English at the door so to speak. There are some strong accents going on. I’m just joking really. There’s some funny expressions. There’s abbreviations for everything. Sunnies are sunglasses, like you see in the rest of Australia. Everything is abbreviated, which I find humorous. So I try to collect abbreviations as much as possible, and funny little expression that will come up. But no, you can understand everyone. They do speak English in Tasmania, or so I’ve been told.
Chris: The most memorable local you met?
Robert: Well, I met Burt Spinks. First one to come to mind, he was on the guides on the trip. Young guy, he was long stringy blonde hair. He grew a beard, so he said, because some people mistook him for a woman. He’s a young 24 to 25 year old guy. He’s as proud of Tasmania as you possibly have. And he’s poet, and he has a website called A Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania. He’s written poems on Tasmania; he has like events in Launceston about storytelling and things like that. There’s kind of a timeless quality about him.
I really enjoy talking about walking with him and why it’s okay to get muddy boots is what I learned from him. You might complain that every step is soggy after a while, and it gets wet out there a little bit. He talks about what a cheap price that is to pay for access to a place that is lucky to still be there. Tasmania has had quite a controversy over some areas being deforested, and losing these old growth forests. This area is still preserved, the price of muddy boots, that’s very small.
So, Burt would be one that comes to mind. Oh, I want mention another one. I want to mention this woman who’s in her 60’s in Launceston who was hilarious. This is a story that will come and go all over Tasmania. She was talking about how…. I asked her, it was simple, when did you family come here?
Well, she started talking about her great, great grandparents. He great, great grandfather came as a convict. He apparently liked to reveal himself to people. He exposed himself, and immediately got the lash for that. His great grandmother was actually in for larceny. So, the reason why I say this, and they found true love together I guess, I don’t know in which penal colony or what period that is. The reason I bring that up is, is that part of history is very much linked today. A lot of people have been there for multiple generations.
In fact, at Port Arthur, people tell me, “Yeah, sometimes people come in here so proud and beaming with excitement because they had an ancestor that was there.”
This is new for Tasmania and Australia that people would have some sense of pride, or they wouldn’t hide their past. So, this woman that I met who was fascinating and hilarious, and who spoke like a sailor with every of kind new use of profanity that I couldn’t imagine was really funny because of how open she was about the. Fascinating. It said a lot about the things I’d read about in the Robert Hughes book. But, here we are talking to people that are linked very much to that historical origin of a place. Chris: Well, it brings a whole meaning to the term penal colony.
Robert: Yes, that’s right.
Chris: Before we get to our last three questions, what else should people know before they go to Tasmania?
Robert: If you go to Australia for the first time, you might consider it. You can get cheap flights from Melbourne and Sydney that are a lot cheaper than going out to Alice Springs to see Uluru, or going to Darwin. I’m not putting down those places, those are dreamy, once in a lifetime places you would have to see in the middle of the outback. I’m just saying that in terms of proximity, and cost, it may be closer and more manageable than you realize in terms of a couple hour flight from Sydney or something like that.
And I think that increasingly, people will like the promotion of Mona and the way people are talking Mona, this museum, look it as a city break going for a few days and having a little bit of a walk. It really tales another side of Australia, because it feels and looks so much different, but it’s so close. I really liked it.
Chris: Excellent. One thing that makes that you laugh and say only in Tasmania.
Robert: Oh gosh. Sheep poo. I’m going on these country roads, and you see this little sign that says Sheep Poo. There’s a little box next to it. It’s like an honor system, and you can buy the sheep poo. Hopefully you brought a little bag to take it.
Chris: As much as you need, okay.
Robert: Used as fertilizer. It’s things like that. There’s a sense of do-it-yourself a little bit like that. Which is really fun. I didn’t get any sheep poo, so I’ve got to go back.
Chris: And finish this sentence: You really know you’re in Tasmania when… what?
Robert: You look and you see rocks that look like concrete french fries on the top of the mountains. Kind of cube like rocks. And then the fog comes, and you can’t see anything. You look down at your leg, and there’s a little leech you have to flick off. Then you realize that it doesn’t matter whatsoever whether you can see that rock or if that leech does get on you for a second, because there is… I don’t know, it goes back to what Burt says. There’s this absolute appeal of having your boots muddy. I don’t know of any place I was more happy to have boots muddied than out on the Overland Track.
Chris: Excellent. And if you had to summarize Tasmania in just three words…
Robert: I would ask for four. I’m going to cull it; down under is down under. The second down under is close up, so it’s three words. It just goes back to that notion that it is down under, feels like this other world that’s far, remote, and wondrous. This is kind of doubling it up. The down under of down under.
Chris: Excellent. The only clarification I would leave for people is if you’re looking for the General Tommy Franks Museum, that’s in Hobart, Oklahoma, not Hobart, Tasmania. But you can learn more about Oklahoma also by listening to the episode we did with Robert. Robert has also been on the show talking about the far east of Russia. Thanks so much for coming on and talking about Tasmania. Where can people read more about your travels?
Robert: I write on my site, which is reidontravel.com. Over at the National Geographic Traveler’s website, I wrote recently about walking, which connects me very deeply to my Tasmanian experience too.
Chris: Excellent. Robert, thanks so much for coming back on the show.
Robert: Thanks for having me.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.