Across Bass Strait

 

It doesn’t take me long to get bored of Hobart. I take my time in the museum. I walk around the harbour. When I go to Mures for a late lunch, the waitress tells me I can stay for as long as I want. I write in my journal long after finishing my meal, knowing that I’ll just be aimlessly walking the streets once I leave.

In my hostel room I eat naan bread, watch I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, read about the Tasmanian bushfires, and message Alaina.

message

message2

I’m slightly convinced that I’ll miss the bus, or that I’ve read the location wrong and I’ll be standing outside my hostel at 8am waiting for someone to pick me up, but no one will show. Before I go to bed I spend twenty minutes figuring out what to wear for the next day – I wish I wasn’t so concerned with something as trivial as choosing an outfit. In the morning I’m grateful that I hadn’t read the location wrong, there is a bus to pick me up, and the majority of people in the tour are older than me. Somehow this makes me more comfortable – I’m not great at socialising with people my own age, which is kind of a problem.

In saying that, the first person I initiate a conversation with is the youngest in the group – a girl from Switzerland, Melina, who’s only a year younger than me. The conversation is awkward at first but she seems sweet, so I latch onto her for the rest of the day.

Found: my first friend.

The drive from Hobart to Strahan takes just over four hours, according to Google Maps. With a few stops in between – Russell Falls, Lake St. Clair and Queenstown – the trip is longer. At first I enjoy the drive, listen to old music that I grew up despising but has now grown on me, and take in the scenery. After a few hours the sense of boredom reaches me again, and I wonder if I made the right decision in booking this trip and travelling alone.

My only experience with backpacker accommodation before travelling to Tasmania was a night in 2016 when two friends and I got drunk at a club in Melbourne called Bang! and stayed overnight in the city. In Strahan I’m placed in a room with four other women, which at first seems crowded but later begins to feel like an enjoyable school camp. The owner of the backpackers was promised to be ‘a character’ and did not let us down – he’s strange, different to regular people you’d meet, and that’s what makes him downright loveable. He takes us through to the kitchen and tells us that while we’re here, this place is our home, and everyone is family. Sounds wholesome. I dig it.

On the first night I drink beer and stare into a creek waiting for a platypus to appear with Sonja, a woman from Germany. When the mozzies come instead of the platypus, we go inside and play cards with some of the others. It surprises me how quickly I start to get along with them, and how it only takes a couple of beers and a game of Shithead to do it.

The next day I am one of three people from our tour to go on a cruise across Macquarie Harbour and down Gordon River. I stand on deck in the wind and rain and grip the rail. Throughout the day I befriend the guy in the seat opposite me, who’s from Oregon but has been living in North Melbourne for the last few months. He tells me how he’s been reading The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes and I’m immediately impressed, wishing I knew more cute guys who willingly read books on Australian history.

Sonja and I wait again for the platypus that night, this time joined by Victoria’s other representative, Jenny. After waiting in silence for a while, the two leave. I sit down and scroll through Facebook for a few minutes, before downing the rest of my beer and standing up to join them inside. I take one last look out into the creek and there, upstream, I catch sight of movement. A dark object in the water. It swims away from me and I realise that it is actually a platypus, that I’ve actually been lucky enough to spot one in the wild.

“Holy shit.”

It disappears and I do a small jig before scampering into the kitchen to tell the others.

Strahan Backpackers
The winding roads on Tasmania’s western coast make me grateful that I didn’t bring my own car over on the ferry. I’m not a bad driver and would have been all right, but it feels better to place my trust into someone else’s experienced hands. The one-way streets in Hobart would have admittedly messed me up the most.

We drive through Rosebery, spot a wombat on the side of the road on our way to Cradle Mountain, hike around Dove Lake. In Sheffield I break away from the group and find a small op shop that has a box full of free books and cassette tapes inside. The books are what you’d expect – pulp fiction, an illustrated sex education guide, some musty copies of the Bible. I think about taking a few back and presenting them to some of the others on the bus, but figure it’s probably too soon into our acquaintance for them to understand my sense of humour. Instead I take a cassette tape for myself, The amazing sound of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. 

In Launceston we hear kookaburras but don’t see any. A group of us go to the conveniently named Pizza Pub for dinner and I order a pint of cider, forgetting that I had also agreed to share a jug of beer. The alcohol makes its presence known as my laughter becomes louder and I start contributing to conversations more. I gain the most amusement from sitting next to our tour guide Evan and getting to know him; after a few jokes are made I quickly realise that we share a similar sense of humour. It’s the kind of humour that has cemented some of my closest friendships throughout the years, and I’m surprised to stumble across it now.

Melina, James and I are the last to make our way back to the hostel. A man yells something at us from a passing car that I don’t catch – after a while, all things yelled at you on the street just become the same incomprehensible screech. It’s James who addresses it.

“They just called us sluts.”

The first thing I think of is how ‘sluts’ sounds funny with his English accent. The second thing is how that term definitely wasn’t directed at James, that if you take Melina and I out of the situation, the incident wouldn’t have happened. I consider mentioning this to James but cant be bothered.

On the fourth day my mood is ruined by a mountain, some rain, and my own internal monologue that ran something like this:

turn around just turn around and go back to the bus you’re going to slip on a fucking rock or have an asthma attack oh my god am I having an asthma attack right now? no of course not I would know if I was but urrrggggghhhhh shit shit shit could I just sit on that rock and tell everyone to go on without me no that’s so melodramatic do you want these people to think you’re a drama queen just keep walking but urrrrgggggghhhhh I’m going to faaaallllll.

I manage to reach the summit of Mt William without falling or having an asthma attack. I’m perfectly fine, albeit a little grumpy. It’s probably not fair to blame the mountain, or even the rain. Sometimes I just get into a foul mood.

On the way down I find myself walking next to Evan. The day before I had made a playlist for the bus and since then I’d been waiting for a good time to bring it up. In retrospect, I probably would have picked a day when I wasn’t having so much anxiety, but this doesn’t occur to me at the time. When I figure out how to connect my iPod to Evan’s portable speakers I play Khe Sanh and try to find something to occupy my hands with. Back home I’d be playing this song at maximum volume in my Holden commodore, driving down the Nepean Highway and getting emotional as I sing along, as if I can relate to being a Vietnam vet.

A few songs into the playlist, I somehow convince myself that everyone will hate my taste in music and subsequently hate me. I feel isolated and for the first time wish that we weren’t all spread out on the bus.

09/02/19

In Bicheno for the next two nights – I walked down to the beach by myself after dinner to watch the sun set behind the mountains. One girl came running down the stairs to the sand and shouted to her younger siblings behind her, “OUR BEACH, OUR RULES!!!” A legend.

Sat on a rock and sang some Billy Joel to myself. In a better mood now. Kind of hope Desmond will forfeit the front passenger seat so I can ride shotgun tomorrow, but don’t love my chances.

Waubs Bay

There’s a small struggle to claim the Iron Throne, and for a fleeting second I think I’m going to lose my cool holiday composure and yell at some guy who’s twice my age. Just let me sit in the passenger seat god damn. Soon enough though I’m climbing over the gearstick and settling into my new position, being called upon to make another playlist for the bus. It comes as a shock but I’m delighted not to be banished from the speakers, and with the added bonus of front seat views and quality banter with the one person I didn’t expect to appreciate so much throughout the trip – I thrive.

Wineglass Bay fails to take my breath away. The place is gorgeous but I can’t help thinking that it’s just a beach. This is most likely a side-effect of living my entire life in close proximity to the beaches of Mornington Peninsula. A beach is a beach is a beach.

According to a sign at the beginning of the track, there are 1,000 steps leading to Wineglass Bay from the lookout. Going down is fine, but there’s a sense of dread in knowing that I eventually have to return this way. I leave the beach early so I can make my way back to the carpark by myself, not wanting Nina and Jenny to see how red in the face and sweaty and out of breath those fucking stairs will make me. It’s awkward enough passing people in their fifties and sixties who look like they’re on a leisurely Sunday stroll while I’m hoping not to pass out. I wonder whether I should take up jogging when I get back home.

Midnight Oil plays in the bus and I think about Peter Garrett’s unique and awful style of dancing. Evan mentions Garrett’s stint as environment minister and I tell him how I’d hate to work in politics.

“It would be soul destroying,” I say.

“Kind of like this job,” he quips.

I like the idea of what Evan does and can picture myself doing it. Driving a bunch of tourists across Australia, forcing them to listen to INXS, relentlessly calling everyone mate and boring them with endless history lessons. The driving would stress me out, though (Hobart’s four lane one-way streets???), and I’m not entirely convinced that I have the personality, or physical fitness, to be a tour guide.

Back in Bicheno I make the short pilgrimage to the grave of Wauba Debar, the woman who Waubs Bay is named for. The journey would have been shorter if I hadn’t walked straight past and got distracted by exploring the rocks around the bay. The headstone reads,

Here lies
Wauba Debar
Female Aborigine
of Van Diemen’s Land
Died June 1832
Aged 40 years
~
This stone is erected by
a few of her white friends

The only information I can find about Wauba Debar online is that she was kidnapped by whalers as a teenager and married a sealer, who she saved from drowning as well as another man. I discover later that her remains arent here anymore, but had been removed in the late nineteenth-century for scientific research. The thought is distressing but not altogether surprising; museums and scientific institutions worldwide still refuse to return Indigenous remains to Australia.

Melina and I go outside after 10pm to look at the stars. There are thousands scattered across the sky and I can make out the faint outline of the Milky Way. I spot Venus, Orion’s Belt, and the Southern Cross. If I wasn’t so tired I could sit outside all night stargazing, and feel perfectly content with myself and my place in the universe. But I’m exhausted, and we have an early start tomorrow, so I follow Melina back inside.

10/02/19

The tour finishes tomorrow and I’m feeling pretty sad about it. It’s difficult for me to make connections with people and possibly never see them again … That’s life though, I suppose. And it’s better to make lots of these connections with people all over the world instead of staying isolated in your own hometown.

… Maybe I’ll see some of them again. Maybe I’ll sleep on Sonja’s lounge in Germany, or bump into Evan on a street in Darwin – if it’s meant to happen, it will. But if it doesn’t – it’s still nice to have had these people in my life and to have known them even for a short period of time.

Tasman Highway

On Monday morning we wake up at five o’clock and while everyone yawns in the kitchen I smile to myself – this is just like getting ready for work, but far better. It’s worth waking up early anyway to watch the sun rise over Bicheno, and see the dull dry grass light up like a field of gold.

I make new playlists on Evan’s Spotify account while we play the old one from my iPod. This time I skip the Kylie Minogue tracks, the only thing that didn’t earn me any friends. At one point Desmond leans forward to comment on how old some of the music is and I ask him if he doesn’t like my taste in music.

“Not really,” he says.

“That’s a shame,” I reply. Evan laughs.

“What kind of music do you like, Des?” Evan asks, the one being paid to be considerate. Or maybe that’s just his personality.

“Smoother voices, like Céline Dion.”

Evan and I exchange a look. I cringe, but think of a friend back home who probably would have gasped in delight. It’s All Coming Back to Me Now starts playing in my head.

“I would rather listen to a cat dying than Céline Dion,” Evan says. I laugh. There it is.

I order a coffee despite my stomach’s repulsion every time I drink one. As we wait for the ferry to Maria Island I fidget and drum my hands against my thighs, repeatedly saying, “I’m so excited!!” Sonja offers me more grapes.

On the deck of the ferry we see a fur seal and I get hit with waves of water coming over the edge of the boat. Beside me Nina is in hysterics but I’m in too good of a mood to let the water get to me, so I laugh with her.

Maria Island can be summed up in five words: wombats, convict buildings, and bike thieves. No, the ‘and’ doesn’t count in the five words. It never does.

Wombats: Evan, Nina and I chase a wombat a few hundred metres to no avail. Later we are rewarded with a super chill wombat who gives no fucks as we crouch right beside it to take photos. A win.wombat on Maria Island

Convict buildings: There’s an old spooky barn that smells like bird shit. It was dope.

Bike thieves: While Nina and I follow Evan to find the aforementioned super chill wombat, we hear some bike bells ringing from behind us and step aside to let them pass. Looking behind us, though, we see that Desmond and another guy from our tour are on the bikes, grinning at our surprise.

“Where did you get those bikes??”

“They were just on the bike stands back there.”

“No, you have to put them back, those are other people’s bikes!”

I guess it’s one of those situations that’s funnier if you’re there.

The tour ends in a few hours and I only recently decided to give something to Evan – specifically, a toy wombat (could it have been anything more appropriate?). This is meant to replace his old bus mascot, which he told Melina and I was lent to someone on his tour and never made its way back to him. “Since then, mascots have been dead to me.” I figured this sentiment was too bitter, though it gave me a great idea for a parting gift.

I tell Sonja about my idea and she asks to go halves on the wombat. She’d been wondering whether to tip him or not, but I tell her nah, Australians never tip. Although maybe I just robbed Evan of $50, which could have been more beneficial to him than a new mascot. Sorry mate.

In Richmond Sonja and I skip the historic bridge and head straight to the antique store, which from the outside looks like it also sells the kind of tourist merch we’re after. There’s a sign on the door that reads back in five mins and I think you better fucking be. Sonja decides to get some ice-cream from the store next door as we wait. I try the lavender flavour and hate it.

We buy the wombat and take it back to the bus before everyone else gets back. Evan is stoked and dubs his new sidekick wombie. It may not be the most creative name, but its the only thing that sticks. Ill realise later, while I’m sitting in my single hostel room, that this could have been the ideal moment to thank him properly for all that he’s done to make our tour amazing, and for putting up with my bullshit in the passenger seat. Instead Sonja and I try to sneak inside the Richmond gaol without paying and are chased off by the man working there.

It begins to rain as we enter Hobart, the heaviest it’s rained since Strahan. I don’t think anything of it at the time, but looking back I can recognise the obvious cliché. The tour was ending, I was dreading our arrival in Hobart and not being able to say meaningful goodbyes to everyone, and as if my life was a movie, it rains. That’s called pathos, darling.

Well, I say ‘everyone’; I mean the four or so people I formed genuine connections with during the last six days. It’s easier to settle into post-tour life because most of these people are remaining in Hobart until the end of the week. Mostly I’m just sad to be losing a sense of purpose and adventure every morning, and the opportunity to chat with Evan in the front of the bus.

I can’t remember what I said as ‘goodbye’, maybe it was simply that word. I remember watching Sonja forming her sentences better than I could – English isn’t her first language but maybe her age compared to mine has made her better equipped to handle verbal communication. I take my suitcase and walk with her and Melina to our hostel. I glance behind my shoulder to watch Evan get back into the bus and think I will never see or hear from him again.
looking out from the cottage of William Smith O'Brien, Maria Island

The next day I wake up late and dawdle in my room. When it gets close to 10 I force myself to lace up my Docs and leave the hostel.

It’s still raining but I decide to walk to the Cascades Female Factory anyway, forty minutes out of town. I stop at Woolworths on the way, after bumping into Sonja and feeling grateful for the familiar face, and grab some fruit and yoghurt for breakfast. I pull my hood over my head and smile at people I pass.

The Factory is nothing spectacular and very little remains of the original institution, but it feels eerie to stand in the middle of what would have once been a notorious convict prison. I stand still and try to feel the ghosts of colonial women around me I feel nothing but the rain.

Maybe if I had taken a guided tour they would have mentioned Ellen Scott, or the Flash Mob that she had been part of, but by myself I find nothing to indicate their existence. In The Fatal Shore, Hughes describes Cascades as being “swarmed with lesbians” – this isn’t new knowledge, though may be a bit of an overstatement. Either way, I don’t find anything at the heritage site to suggest this. I wonder if the dramatised tour would have acknowledged the Factory’s queer history, extremely doubt it, and leave.

The rain has cleared up by the time I begin walking back to Hobart. I’m in a reflective mood and think back over the last few days, and realise that the main reason why I’ve felt so deeply about the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve gained is probably due to my extremely limited travelling experience. In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, Mark Manson writes, The older you get, the more experienced you get, the less significantly each new experience affects you.” Though even this explanation seems too simple.

Probably for the first time in my life I consciously feel how young and blissfully naïve I am. I think about all of the things I still have the opportunities to do, all the people I will meet and all the places I will see. I think about how the people I’ve met on this trip are inevitably going to fade from my life – possibly soon, maybe not for a couple of years, most likely have already begun to fade – but that’s okay. It’s not realistic to expect everybody you meet to be your friend for life, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t love and respect and appreciate them within the period of time you’ll know them.

It’s easy to say that but a week later I’ll be moping around at home and annoying my Melbourne friends with how much I miss my travel friends. I’ll message Maggy, who has been overseas for the last three months, and she’ll sum up my feelings in a single sentence: “I just think, wow, how beautiful and wonderful our paths crossed.”

Somewhere during my reflective process I stop at an intersection and look across the road. Evan is waiting to cross on the other side. I wonder if this is the universe giving me another chance to say goodbye with some closure. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence – Macquarie Street is one of Hobart’s main streets, after all (also one of its cursed one-way roads).

If it is the work of the universe, I fuck up again because, quite simply, I suck at verbal communication. We chat about mundane things for about five minutes and then he goes on his way. I glance over my shoulder and think, okay so now I will never see him again. I go to the Maritime Museum and check out the scrimshaw exhibition, sit in a park and call my parents, have a good dinner with my friends. We make plans to head to the summit of Mount Wellington, where I will see snow fall for the first time, catch a ferry to MONA where I will feel underwhelmed by the wall of vaginas after hearing about them for so long, and eat our last meal together at Mures.

Everything is okay.

 My last day in Tasmania is Valentine’s Day. I didn’t think I’d been missing Melbourne that much, but I must have been subconsciously answering the call to home as I pulled on my Courtney Barnett t-shirt. Sitting in the Skybus, I take in my last view of the Derwent River and have the sense that Ill be back sooner than I expect.

 

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