Innocents Abroard in Tasmania
In January 1962 the most important event for my school friend Peggy and me was our trip to Tasmania. Back and forwards we would go to the Queensland Tourist Bureau as we finalised details. At the last minute, Peggy had a mole removed from her back and so she would have to wait an extra day or so before she could leave Brisbane. I decided to go on without her and meet up in Sydney later on.
On Tuesday 9 January, I caught the morning interstate train for Sydney. Initially I was apprehensive, as I had never travelled interstate alone. The sight of my brother coming to see me off and yelling ‘have a good time’ bolstered my spirits immensely. The train pulled into Central Station next day. Guess who was there to greet me? Peggy. I was so relieved to see her.
The following day, we caught the train for Melbourne. Our carriage was crowded. Come nightfall, we placed our backsacks on our seats. Passengers marvelled as we climbed like monkeys into the baggage racks to sleep. Mostly, I had a decent night’s rest in my makeshift hammock though I was in danger of falling out. We stopped at Albury and changed trains. Our new train was air-conditioned and ran on a wider gauge. Just as we were alighting a handsome cane cutter helped us carry our backacks into the carriage. When we arrived in Melbourne, Peggy’s parents met us at the station and drove us to a camping site at Coburg. By then, I was really getting into the spirit of our adventure.
Next morning we whiled away the time window-shopping in Melbourne before catching a bus to Tullaramarine Air Terminal. When our plane lifted into the skies I was fascinated to see Melbourne become microscopic as we circled over the city before heading into the clouds for Tasmania. We disembarked at Burnie Airport. The weather was glorious: not a cloud to be seen and hot weather, too. A number of bystanders turned around and stared at us as if we were aliens as we heaved our heavy backpacks onto our shoulders.
The Burnie Youth Hostel was well signposted and we found the place easily. We picked out a room and sorted out our gear. Then we strolled around the town to buy groceries. That evening we experienced our first twilight in Tasmania. It was such a delight — so hard to believe it was still light at 9.30 in the evening, and the shops were open as it was Friday. How marvellous to shop at night! Burnie took upon a cosmopolitan atmosphere as it bustled with people from neighbouring districts.
We awoke to another sunny day. After breakfast we scouted around town to buy more supplies and found to our dismay that the shops were closed. Our plan was to hitchhike to Launceston where Peggy’s uncle resided. Now for the excitement of our first hitchhiking attempt. We stood on the side of the road with our packs on: helpless lumps of gigglers as we tried to put our thumbs up. We arrived at Launceston in the afternoon. Luckily we found a shop open ; the owner directed us to the nearest Motor Camp. It was superbly located, with excellent facilities and beautifully kept grounds. We pitched our tent without paying for our site.
In the balmy afternoon light we walked to a phone box so Peggy could contact her uncle. He arranged to pick us up within half-an-hour. He turned out to be a very distinguished looking doctor. I could immediately see the family resemblance. He drove us to his house and after a glass of non-alcoholic cider, a nibble on some appetisers and a simple meal, we climbed into an immaculate Daimler for a tour of Launceston. Peggy’s uncle drove around the beautiful Cataract Gorge, the Tamar valley for what seemed many miles. The setting sun gradually changed the landscape from green to gold, pink to black. We were in awe of the natural beauty surrounding us.
It was midnight before we returned to our camp. The sound of our li-los blowing up must have disturbed some neighbours. Every time we turned over in our sleeping bags, our mattresses would make a swishing noise causing us to wake. We were glad to see the morning and get underway on the next leg of our travels.
From Launceston we hitched lifts and stayed at the Youth Hostels at Deloraine and Sheffield. When travelling from one hostel to the next, signature books made interesting reading — especially at night when there was nothing much to do — with entries written by travellers from all over the world: their stories, comments and even hand-drawn maps of areas to visit were included. Sometimes, the same names reappeared at different hostels. How marvellous it would be, decades later, to look back on what Peggy and I had written in those guest books.
On Monday 15 January we set out for Cradle Mountain. We were two silly teenagers completely ill-equipped to undertake such a strenuous trek. On the way we detoured to visit the King Solomon Caves which were excellent and well worth visiting. Finally, we arrived at the Chateau early afternoon. After buying provisions we registered for the Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair Walk and set off on our five-day hike full of enthusiasm and little sense.
It was a hot day, about 86 °F. March flies harassed us as we trudged along the path, sweating. Our 38 lb backpacks weighed us down. At first the track sloped downwards. After we had crossed a bridge, the track continued to relentlessly climb upwards. We were so hot! Soon we had drunk all our water as we perspired excessively in the unexpected heat. I was so thirsty I stopped frequently to drink from clear puddles of water, not caring if the pools were contaminated. Our heavy loads were not balanced properly causing extra strain on our bodies. My thin ankles, unsupported by my inadequate school shoes, began to roll inwards — sometimes painfully — making it increasingly difficult to walk.
As night fell, the signposts showed we still had miles to go before arriving at Waterfall Valley Hut . Finally, we arrived just in time as the velvety blackness of the evening encircled us. What an incredible sight it was to detect the shape of a rustic dwelling nestled in a clump of trees.
A tall, handsome English youth named Shaun with blond hair and light blue eyes emerged to greet us. He showed us where to fetch water and obligingly built up the fire for us. Shaun’s male companion kept to himself and did not converse much. Peggy and I ate our meagre meal by the light of the dying fire. We were so wrecked we crawled into the hay-filled lofts early.
The next morning I felt absolutely dreadful. My eyes were dry and sore, my body stiff and painful, and my swollen ankles throbbed as I moved stiffly around the dark hut. When I accidentally knocked over our supply of powdered coffee onto the dirt floor we were aghast at what had happened. Peggy declared we should go back to base because our food shortage was critical, even in this early stage of our journey. I was loath to do so despite our weather gear being almost non-existent. It had started to rain; all we had for protection were our plastic raincoats. We did not possess gloves, scarves, hats or jumpers to protect us from any sudden changes in the climate. Other than a few bandaids we had no first-aid equipment.
We were not prepared for Tasmania’s summer weather that could be so wonderfully warm one day but could capriciously drop to 45° F the next. The rain bucketed down. A few hours into our walk we were developing hypothermia. Peggy was the sensible one in making the decision to turn back. It was just as well we decided to return to the Chateau because I continued to slip on the wet rocks, and in so doing, badly sprained my left ankle. All the way to Dove Lake it poured. Exhausted, we stopped at a boatshed close by. We were cold and miserable. Peggy tried to light a fire. Rain had seeped into our backpacks and had turned our dry food into mush.
Back at the Chateau we were met by the wallabies whose welcome was warmer than that of the warden on duty. We found it would be impossible to leave that night as there was no public transport available. I made enquiries and finally a labourer and his mate agreed to drive us out for a fee and we started out immediately. We had an uncomfortable trip squashed between the driver and his friend. By the time we arrived at the Burnie Hostel it was well past nine o’clock.
Next morning I glanced at the hostel clock. Seven forty-five! We knew the train left for Rosebery at eight o’clock. Frantically, we packed up our gear, not caring if food was mixed up with our clothes. We ran through the town with our backpacks on our backs and our sleeping bags dragging down our arms. Now and then we stopped to pick up a spoon or a knife that had dropped. On our arrival at the platform, we found to our amazement that it was only half-past seven. Some ‘bright spark’ must have set the hostel clock an hour forward.
The train arrived at Rosebery around noon. Judging by the stares we received, we must have appeared a bedraggled pair. The day turned cold and the cruel winds probably coming from the Southern Ocean chilled us to the bone. At last, a truck pulled up and the driver gave us a lift right to Strahan. On the way we passed magnificent forests where the trees stood tall and splendid.
Strahan was a dear little fishing town. Life centred around the hotel. As there was no hostel, we were wondering where we would spend the night. We attempted to put up our tent in People’s Park but the wind gusts defeated us. Hoping that the wind would soon ease, we strolled to the pier and watched the boats coming in after a day’s fishing. Why don’t we ask one of the fishermen if we could sleep on his boat? It seemed a silly idea, but as it was getting steadily colder we decided to give it a try. Surprisingly the first fisherman we asked agreed.
‘You can stay, but it won’t be very safe,’ he warned. Soon after, he and his son came back with a primus stove. Father and son were hospitable. And we were invited to stay a second night.
‘Let’s have a decent meal at the pub tonight and celebrate,’ Peggy suggested. We were absolutely starving and demolished the courses in record time. Peggy asked for a second helping of pudding. The waitress put the plates down in front of us and beamed, ‘There’s no charge, girls. They’re on the house.’ Afterwards we battled our way back to the boat, the wind nearly toppling us over. Shivering, we climbed into our sleeping bags and in no time the gentle rocking of the boat sent us to sleep.
I had been asleep awhile when I awoke with a start to find the boat rocking crazily. Then I heard the sound of footsteps thumping on the deck. Quickly, I woke Peggy and switched on the light. The door crashed open and there stood three grinning youths at the entrance. Motivated by fear I grabbed a fishhook from the wall and thrust it menacingly into the air. Peggy stood in front of me, and roared out a stream of expletives. The youths were astounded by our reactions and slunk away, but they were still around as the boat rocked erratically for a long time afterwards. Eventually, I fell asleep despite myself.
The next morning we walked to the pier and spoke to the captain of the tourist launch about a trip down the Gordon River. He wanted to charge us £1 each. Peggy said, ‘Sorry, we can’t afford it.’ As we walked away he called us back and said we could go for half price! There was not a cloud in the azure sky. Apparently it was unusual to have such perfect weather in western Tasmania. As we entered the Gordon River, cameras clicked everywhere. We glided past breathtaking scenes of ancient rainforests and came upon Huon Pine trees growing horizontally and vertically along the banks. Suddenly a cascading waterfall came into view. How spectacular.
We arrived back at Strahan late; the sun had gone down and it was so cold. When we reached the fishing boat we found we had visitors on board: the fisherman’s children. Gallantly, the fisherman’s oldest son offered to shout us to the pictures. Though the theatre had heaters, it was so cold our breath vaporised. It was just as well the youth had brought along blankets for us. We wondered whether the boy had been one of those intruders from the previous evening and was trying to make amends for the fright we experienced. He escorted us back to the boat where we had an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Despite our frightening experience we considered our stay at Strahan to be one of our peak experiences in Tasmania.
Throughout our fortnight in Tasmania we were struck by the numerous kindnesses strangers bestowed on us. An example — after spending a chilly night at Lake St Clair we headed for Hobart. Near Oatlands a spiffy car pulled up and a tall, middle-aged man offered us a lift. It was midmorning — a beautiful day; the clouds had cleared and the landscape was glistening from the recent rain. We told the driver about our travels and of our disappointment in failing ‘to walk the track’. He was exceedingly sympathetic and offered to take us home for brunch. At first we were distrusting, but we were wrong in our assumptions.
He drove up a beautiful tree-lined driveway at the end of which was a majestic two-storeyed Georgian sandstone house. He ushered us into a huge kitchen where an elderly woman was tending an Aga stove on which a huge kettle was spewing steam.
‘Hey, Mum! Guess who we’ve got here? Two little hitchhikers all the way from Queensland! I thought we’d show them some Tasmanian hospitality.’ His mother appeared somewhat dazed, as she observed our crumpled clothes and torn shoes. Not the kind of guests one would expect to drop in on a Sunday morning. We devoured all the food served: bacon, French bread, fried eggs and lamb cutlets. With our tummies replete and minds swimming with information about Tasmanian sights, we said goodbye to our hospitable hosts and walked out of the mansion. Our spirits were greatly lifted by our hosts’ altruistic gestures of kindness.
After staying a few days in Hobart and taking tours of nearby sights our next destination was Port Arthur where we intended to stay a couple of nights before heading back to Launceston. In magnificent sunshine we spent two days wandering around the ruins of the Port Arthur Historic Site. We stayed at Smith O’Brien’s Cottage that had been converted to a (YHA) youth hostel. William Smith O’Brien was a famous Irish political activist, who was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1849 and had spent some time in the cottage during his exile. The visitors’ book contained a warning about O’Brien’s ghost creeping around at night. The hostel was so picturesque. The main disadvantage was the ‘dunny’ which was located in thick undergrowth a hundred yards or so from the hostel. Trips to the toilet were a worry as neither of us had a torch; we dreaded the nocturnal visit.
On our second night I awoke to the sound of some ‘thing’ bumping into the furniture. Petrified, I lay trembling in my bunk, thinking it was O’Brien’s ghost haunting us. Next morning, I noticed the hearth was decorated with flowering wattle branches. Peggy confessed she was the culprit. Overcome with queasiness she had thrown up in the fireplace. To cover the mess she had placed flowers on top. Peggy blamed the blackberries we had eaten. I told her I thought the shadowy figure was O’Brien’s ghost! Once we had left the cottage we burst into uncontrolled bouts of laughter about the ‘mysterious’ O’Brien visitor. (On reflection, I confess to feeling guilty about the messy fireplace and wonder who cleaned it up.)
Due to our dire financial situation, our last night in Tasmania was spent trying to sleep on the concrete floor of a public toilet block close to the Launceston Airport. Although our holiday was somewhat marred by lack of money, we were glad to have shared the Tasmanian experience as intrepid nineteen-year-olds, and to have survived despite our naivety. On some occasions I overly relied on Peggy for protection and decision-making, which caused us to bicker. My sense of self-preservation caused friction; for example, when some truck drivers looked like potential predators I ‘chickened out’ sitting next to them. Peggy complained about my cowardly action. Overall, though, we got along well and came out of the holiday more confident and resilient, but our friendship was temporarily strained by the experience.
Come the day of our departure we wearily stumbled up the stairs to board our plane for Melbourne. No more hitchhiking for us. We caught our interstate train and railed through Victoria, New South Wales with little money to spare. I arrived back the weekend before I was due to start work at Stones Corner Municipal Library. Peggy and I had survived our hiking experience and had many stories to tell for those willing to listen. On my return everybody asked what I thought of Tasmania.
My stock reply was, ‘It’s a lovely place but it’s too cold’.
Little did I know that twelve years later I would be calling Tasmania :‘home’.