It was a bit like The Amazing Race: hurtling down a mountain by bike, paddling through the rain on a kayak, hanging on for dear life on a speed-boat… reverse parking on a busy CBD street during rush hour. Hobart was pushing me to the limits, my patience was being tested, my sense of direction – which is dyslexic at best – was reaching demented levels and my ‘team mate’ from London was suffering from some form of multi-platform road rage.
First stop, or should I say challenge, on our two-day Hobart trip was to navigate out of the airport, which is roughly the size of a 7-11 in Sydney. Yet, when I forget to ask for a GPS, I go running back to the hire-care office like I was fleeing a burning building. I could never figure out why contestants on those shows were always running. Now I know – panic.
We made it to the shores of Marieville Esplanade just in time for leg one of the journey: kayaking Hobart’s Derwent River. My team mate seems to get more worried by the minute, from “check out those grey clouds” to “it’s definitely going to rain” to “we’re going to capsize and drown”.
Ignoring the fact I am travelling with someone who empathises with the Costa Concordia captain, I get kitted out into the kayaking gear. This includes wet weather clothing, life vests and your very own skirt that attaches snugly to the banana-yellow kayak. Hang on a minute, capsizing and drowning is looking more and more likely. Our lovely guides tell us otherwise. This is a peaceful paddle into Hobart’s docklands as we discover the history of Tasmania’s capital. I called shotgun and took the front, which meant I had no control over the rudder. People with control issues make better drivers.
Hobart has a colourful history. It’s the second oldest city in Australia and considered the Cell Block H of all the penal colonies in the 1800s, with the country’s worst convicts being sent down the road to Port Arthur. The most dangerous offenders or the repeat offenders from Sydney’s penal colonies were sent to Tasmania, which was known in 1803 as Van Diemen’s Land. Our guide jokes to us Sydney folk that Tasmania made The Rocks “seem like the Holiday Inn”. And yet, with such a troubled past, today’s Hobart has a quaint and peaceful feel to it. That is until we crash into a bridge pillar and the rain starts to fall.
Paddling hard through the rain, my vision shrouded by my saltwater encrusted sunglasses, we make it into the docks and miraculously the sun comes out. I’m realising that unlike Melbourne, which has four seasons in one day, Hobart has four in every hour. You can go from wind-burnt to sunburnt in 10 minutes. We stop in the docks and our guide rounds up some fish and chips from a dockside fish punt. The salt from the food may be rubbing into my blistered wounds and the cold air is whipping me in the face, but I decide to lie back and think of England. Err, not like that. I mean Hobart has the old-world charm of the English seaside about it.
After lunch we go back out to sea on the return leg of the journey. This time I’m controlling the steering and I’ll admit it takes some time to get used to the pedals not being ‘accelerate’ and ‘brake’, but left and right. The wind is back and the sea is choppier than ever but we make it back to shore without capsizing like an Italian cruise ship and, although my arms ache and my fingers are blistered, we feel a sense of accomplishment as we move onto round two.
The mountain that had been looking over us like an overbearing father we find out is Mount Wellington and we’re going to be riding down it – yes all 1,270m of it. These adventures always start off so smoothly, a nice bus ride up the mountain, meeting people from all over the world. Me? Well, as I’ve said before, these things are a challenge. For some reason brakes frighten me, it’s something about stopping too fast and falling ass over tit that concerns me. Therefore coming down the mountain like a bat out of hell, or a convict out of prison (when in Hobart) seems the only option. At the summit of Mount Wellington you really do feel like you’re on top of Tasmania, you’re actually looking down on planes as they descend into Hobart. The air is probably the freshest air you’ll breathe in Australia too, having not touched land since South America. It’s also some of the coldest. As Hobart is a last port of call for those heading to Antarctica, going up to Mount Wellington should be mandatory for acclimatisation.
Even with gloves on my hands are numb, which doesn’t bode well for manoeuvring breaks. We speed down the mountain, on the main road no less. “Surely this isn’t safe”, says my team mate who has now joined forces with a German lady in her sixties, who looks fit enough to overtake us both. To be fair it doesn’t feel safe, shooting down a mountain with oncoming traffic on such narrow roads. One wrong move and you’re off the road and rolling around with the boulders that crumble down the mountain slopes, victims of the harsh weather conditions themselves. Still, I concentrate, breathe in that fresh, crisp air and think of England (seems I’ve got Thatcher on the brain). Things are going well until someone decides we should go off-road. Suddenly oncoming traffic doesn’t seem so bad. I’m coaxed into taking the dirt track with the boys in the group, trying hard not to get sticks in my wheels and ducking tree branches overhead. It’s not long before we get to a steep part of the track and I decide that brakes are, in fact, my friend. Waking up my numb hands, I slam on the right hand brake but it seems my left hand is still sleepy. As predicted, I buckle off my bike and into the dirt. Aside from a throbbing thigh and group humiliation, I’m okay. I dust myself off and wheel my bike down while the boys look on sympathetically. I emerge from the track picking sticks from my helmet, grinning like a mad woman.
Hobart is the last remaining chunk from the Antarctic Gondwanaland – and you can feel it in the air. Like a British immigrant to Australia who insists on turkey at Christmas, the weather here just won’t give up, even in the middle of summer. We do what you have to do in these situations, we find a cosy pub and warm ourselves up with the local tipple – Cascade beer. The following day I pray to Margaret Thatcher for sunshine and miraculously the Iron Lady delivers.
We’re off to Bruny Island to cruise around Tasmania’s rugged south-east coastline, spotting wildlife as we weave in and around the rocky caves and sea cliffs. We make a quick photo stop at the stunning Adventure Bay, named after Captain Furneaux’s ship the HMS Adventure who became separated from Captain Cook and stayed in the bay for five days in 1773. Unfortunately by the time we arrive the weather is looking cruel. We step onto our boat and are handed bright red full body-length jackets that are designed for Antarctic Survival. It really looks like the 30 or so passengers on board are off on an Antarctic expedition.
The first of the creatures we meet are the black-faced cormorants (perhaps they could be Qantas mascots?) At a distance these birds look cute like penguins. There are some “oohs” and “ahhhs” before our captain tell us about these “pests” whose “poo rusts our boats”. You can tell he doesn’t want us to like them, but he swings the boat around several times so we can all get photos of them. The boat is rocking all over the place, people are scrambling to get photography vantage points and the oversized Antarctic suits allow us the movability of 30 spacemen in the one sardine can. I’m glad I took one of those calming ginger pills that were handed around earlier. Several faces are beginning to look a little green, turning them into human Christmas decorations. My team mate is leaning over the side with a sandwich bag. I ask her, what would our British ancestors have done?
With that in mind, I put my adventure hat on and marvel at the huge cliff faces of Bruny Island. You really do feel like you’re miles from civilisation. No one really lives on this side of Bruny, except for the fur seals who are basking in the sun (it’s back). The coastline is rugged, rocky and daunting, the perfect place for seal breeding it seems. The smell from the male seals is potent, no wonder the female seals go offshore after they’ve done the deed. But I forgive them as they playfully follow the boat, surfing the bow waves.
The return journey is a lot smoother as we head further out to sea to avoid the coastline waves. Thankfully no one else feels the need to get intimate with a sandwich bag. I would have liked more time to explore Bruny Island, one day just wasn’t long enough. But it was back on the race for me and my team mate. We speed off to Hobart airport… only to find out our flight is delayed.
[Alex stayed at Central City Backpackers Hobart (centralcityhobart.com, 03 6224 2404) which has beds from $21 a night. Mt Wellington Descent (mtwellingtondescent.com.au, 03 6274 1880): Departs 9.30am and 1pm daily. $75pp. Hobart Paddle (freycinetadventures.com.au, 03 6257 0500): Departs morning and twilight, year-round, $70pp. Bruny Island Cruises (brunycruises.com.au, 03 6293 1465): three-hour wilderness cruise, departs 11am daily. $110pp.]
February 28th, 2012