The far side of the world.
By Stanley Johnson. Published in ES Magazine, Monday 16th March 2009
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Deserted sugar-white beaches, sea eagles, rainforests and a very fine Pinot Noir, no wonder Stanley Johnson has become a Tasmaniac...
I have visited Australia half a dozen times since my older sister and her family went to live there in 1969, but up till now I have never had a chance to visit Tasmania.
Last month, however, as deep snow fell on London's streets, my wife and I spent a fortnight travelling around Australia's magical offshore island. We must have driven almost a thousand miles while we were there. Such a distance, of course, is a mere bagatelle to those used to the vastness of mainland Australia, but in Tasmania a thousand miles goes a long way.
I find myself wondering why on earth I waited so long before heading across the Bass Strait. As a holiday destination, I would have to put Tasmania right up there among the world leaders.
Take the weather, for example. Most days the sun shone and a light wind blew. While other parts of Australia, notably the state of Victoria, experienced scorching heatwaves and the worst bush fires in decades, the temperature in Hobart when we landed was a comfortable 70F to 75F. And it stayed that way for the rest of our time on the island.
In the nature of things, you are never far from the sea in Tasmania and most days I was able to swim. On the southern coast (we visited both Bruny Island and Tasman Island), the water is admittedly bracing, and only slightly less so on the eastern coast, but when you go up to the north coast to stay, for example, in the little village of Stanley, the water feels almost Mediterranean.
Of course, Australia is an outdoor country. But in Tasmania, with only half a million people in an area the size of Ireland, outdoors has a special meaning. One of the high points of our visit was the four days we spent on the Freycinet Peninsula, on Tasmania's east coast.
This is a place of sugar-white beaches and crystal seas, secluded rocky coves and granite headlands splashed with flaming orange lichen.
One side of the peninsula looks out on to Oyster Bay; the other is bounded by the waters of the Southern Ocean.
Over the course of our time there, Jenny and I walked the whole length of the peninsula, now protected as Freycinet National Park. Apart from the spectacular scenery, Freycinet is a haven for wildlife. We saw sea eagles and dolphins, black swans and rare crested terns. One afternoon, walking back to our eco-lodge in the forest behind the beach, we saw one lone king penguin standing on the foreshore. It was in the last stage of its moult, living off its fat, before returning to the sea.
For me, as an environmentalist, Tasmania was seventh heaven. After Freycinet, we drove to Cradle Mountain in the heart of a World Heritage Area and then on to Corinna, a tiny settlement, once a mining village, on the banks of the Pieman River at the southern edge of the Tarkine Forest, the world's second largest temperate rainforest.
My motto has always been: 'If you can't swim in the sea, swim in a river.' Unlike Queensland or the Northern Territory, where you run the risk of being eaten by a crocodile, there are no such lurking dangers in Tasmania's rivers.
One afternoon I took a kayak and paddled a few miles downstream to where the Savage River joins the Pieman. A century and a half ago, there was a mini gold rush here. Now there are only half a dozen houses in Corinna. If you are lucky, you get to stay in an old miner's cottage. Tasmania's human history, of course, goes back far beyond the sealers and the whalers, the miners and the 'piners' (who sought out the high-value Huon pine). Like other states in Australia, Tasmania has begun to realise the richness and importance of its aboriginal past. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart contains an aboriginal gallery which celebrates 2,000 generations (around 35,000 years) of aboriginal history, as compared with the eight or ten generations (200 years) that have passed since the arrival of the Europeans.
Looking back, what astonishes me is how much there is to do and to see and, because of the relative compactness of the place, how easy it is to get around. To sum it up: the natural environment is without equal, the Tasmanian food and wine ( particularly the Pinot Noir) are superb, while its cultural and historical aspects are now recognised as being of major importance. The day we spent at Port Arthur, for example, the site of the former penal settlement, was both fascinating and moving. As a West Countryman, I was struck by how many of the convicts seemed to come from Devon.
In spite of all the sombre associations, there is, in the end, something uplifting about Port Arthur. Many convicts eventually earned their freedom. Van Diemen's Land was in due course renamed Tasmania. A grim past has been replaced by a glorious future.
Stanley Johnson's memoir, Stanley I Presume, is published on 19 March (Fourth Estate, £18.99)
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