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Tasmania Part I

Tasmania Part I
         Once we boarded The Spirit of Tasmania in Port Melbourne we wondered what exactly was the "spirit of Tasmania", aside from a very large car ferry that would take us on a nine-hour trip across the Bass Strait.
          The crew on the vessel seemed very helpful - here are your recliner seats, lunch will be served in an hour, we'll try to get the grease stains out of Adrienne's jacket during the ride. (After three washes, they were successful.) Maybe the spirit of Tasmania was "helpfulness."
         Kathy drank some Tasmanian gin. That was probably not the spirit(s) they were referring to.
         The trip itself was relatively easy: a little rock and roll from a swell, which eventually flattened out. One of our fellow travelers pointed out the shoals, which stretched far out into Port Phillip Bay where he and his friends did free diving. He told us one day he dove at a spot which had a seaweed-covered marker: it memorialized the area - near the wreck of the Cheviot - where Harold Holt, then-Prime Minister of Australia, disappeared under the waves in January of 1967 while free-diving. As we watched the waves break at the entrance to the bay, our vessel sped towards Tasmania at 27 knots. Dolphins rode our waves. "Hey, we've been waiting here for two hours," I think one of them said.
         The dolphins were right...we arrived in Devonport about two hours late. The sun was down as camper vans (one of them looking like a house!), scores of motor cycles, refrigerated trucks, SUVs and at least one antique silver Rolls rolled off. Our modest Civic was just about last off the boat. Hey, we get no respect around here.  That can't be the spirit of Tasmania.
         We immediately drove to Penguin, a beach community about 40 minutes away. We had booked a stunning two-bedroom, two-bath apartment that looked out from the second floor to the beach. We knew we were in the right place when we saw the News Agent (newspaper and magazine store) on the first floor.
         By the time we arrived, we were tired. Terri, the owner of the unit, greeted us as we drove into his parking area. We needed a drink. I asked if we could buy a bottle of wine from Terri and he gave us a delicious bottle of Tamar Valley pinot noir. Maybe generosity was the spirit of Tasmania?
         The next day, after a walk along the waterfront, we headed south and west to Strahan. We had never been on the west coast of Tasmania. When Ken and Sue Simmons visited us in 1992, we went on a food treasure-hunt in the Great Western Tiers, in the middle of Tassie. Handmade chocolates at one stop; Ron-picked (and ate as he picked according to some sources) raspberries at a farm; fresh bread and smoked salmon somewhere else. Then, we drove to the Bass Strait where the flies were so thick we had to eat our feast in the car. We headed back to Hobart on the east coast. So, the terrain and towns in the west would all be new to us.
          At some point on our way to Strahan, we pulled over and Ron started driving the Civic. Since we owned a Honda Accord with a stick shift when we lived Down Under, driving the car was not totally alien. It all came back relatively quickly. No grinding of gears, no riding the clutch. Adrienne, who owned the car, remained calm.
         Australia has a long history of mining. Somehow when the continent was formed millions of years ago, it ended up with a lot of minerals everyone needed. Gold, copper, iron ore, tin, and silver were discovered in many locations. Large coal deposits blanketed the nation. Tasmania got more than its share of the mineral wealth. We passed signs for mines and even stopped at a petrol station located right next to a mining complex. The road eventually led down to the shore - our goal.
         Strahan is on the north shore of Macquarie Harbor, which is six times larger than Sydney Harbor. The town was initially founded to support the copper mining in Queenstown and the logging around the Gordon River. Today, the primary activities are tourism-based with restaurants, hotels and tour boats.
         One of the highlights of Strahan was the play, "The Ship That Never Was," a two-person play (billed as the longest running play in Australia) that tells the story of how some inmates built a wooden ship to try to escape from Sarah Island, a dreaded prison in the harbor. Since the number of inmates was far greater than the two paid actors, the cast co-opted some of the audience to become part of the action.
          Adrienne was given a vegetable steamer and a seat on a box. By opening and closing the strainer she became a jelly fish - a box jelly fish. Other members helped pump the bilge. Some played British bad guys. And, when a big storm came (it was in the play), everyone was given spritzers to emulate the falling rain.  (Yes, we got wet).  It was all great fun: maybe the spirit of Tasmania is not taking itself too seriously.
         The next day we got up early to cruise the Gordon River on a very modern catamaran. First, we went out into Macquarie Harbor. During the steamboat era, a British engineer realized the harbor would silt up unless a long jetty was built that made the currents scour the bottom, keeping the channel open. I think it's one of the longest jetties in the world. Maybe the spirit of Tasmania is innovation.
         As we got out to the narrow harbor entrance, the waves became more noticeable as we entered the Southern Ocean. A lighthouse warned mariners of a shoal only a few meters from the mouth of the harbor. On a gray and misty day, the Ocean looked formidable. Kathy had always wanted to "sail" the Southern Ocean. Okay, maybe watch a sailboat on YouTube in the Southern Ocean. We now had the tips of our toenails in this violent body of water. Maybe a little adventure was the spirit of Tasmania.
         The ship turned around and headed back across the harbor to the Gordon River. The color of the water went from blue to brown. It was not pollution: tea trees lined the river, and the roots stained the water. Tea anyone?
         Our catamaran shifted from diesel to electric as it moved up the river.
         In the 1970s/80s, the Gordon became an international cause celebre. The government of Tasmania proposed erecting a dam on the Franklin River, a tributary, to provide hydroelectric power. Without the dam, the premier (governor) warned that Tasmania might not have enough electricity to keep the lights on.
         Environmentalists rallied, chaining themselves to bulldozers and trees. The protestors became known as the "greens," marking the start of worldwide eco movement. The anti-dam people ultimately won (and by the way, Tasmania has not gone dark - they have enough electricity to recharge a cell phone.) Maybe the spirit of Tasmania is respect for the environment.
         Finally, we pulled up to a dock where we were able to follow a boardwalk into the forest primeval.  Early explorers of Tasmania discovered the Huon pine trees, magnificent giant trees that grow to over 130 feet and live thousands of years. The pine is unique in that it floats while it is green. It also resists insect attacks and won't decay for a very, very long time. On the trail we saw a 90 year-old Huon that looked like a sapling. In New York City we're happy if a tree lasts 20 years.
          The other remarkable insight from the walk was the density of the ground cover. The early settlers would have been hard-pressed to walk 100 feet, not to say 10 miles.
         We all imagined how discouraging it would have been to be a convict sentenced to Sarah Island. Even if a convict escaped the island, traveling anywhere else would have been nearly impossible on foot. Having said that, one individual did escape and somehow made his way to Hobart and then Sydney where he was recaptured. But, his sentence was not too bad: he was assigned to help survey some of the unexplored country in New South Wales. Clearly this was an individual who could survive in the bush. Perhaps perseverance is the spirit of Tasmania?
         The next stop on the catamaran was in fact, Sarah Island. Initially, the convicts received harsh treatment: many men crammed into unheated cells. Solitary confinement was a dark room the size of a coffin. British bullies used their cat-a-nine-tails liberally.        Eventually, the men started to build boats out of the Huon pine. They concocted ways to make money off their labors. A master boat builder from the USA arrived to take advantage of the wood. He paid the men for their wood-working skills. Whipping went way down. The food improved. Men committed crimes so they could be sent to the island. Maybe crime does pay. On a nice day, you could imagine the convicts joking about being sent to the Sarah Island Resort and Casino.
         When we returned from the trip we piled into the Honda and took off for Cygnet, only five hours east. Nothing to it, right? Little did we know.  Maybe that's the spirit of Tasmania...heading out to who knows where without really knowing what to expect. 

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