They rolled in off the Roaring Forties, spouting and with their flanks glistening like fountains on basalt. Who knows where they had come from. There is nothing much in the 10,000 wind-tossed miles of the great Southern Ocean between here and Patagonia.
Was there trouble with the sonar? Were they sick? Why did these twelve great sperm whales, each as big as a single-decker bus chose to negotiate the hazardous passage of Hell’s Gates, the rocks at the entrance to the remotest great natural harbour in the world?
When I told people I was coming to Tasmania, even seen-it-all Ausssies, they said: “Ah, you’ll like it there. It’s like Britain in the 1950s.” A genteel sort of place where you can stay in comfy boarding houses with chintz sofas and lace curtains and still get tinned peaches with evaporated milk for tea.
It doesn’t seem much like that as I stand blown sideways in the spray at the side of Macquarie Harbour in Strahan, on the windy northwest coast of one of the remotest places on earth. I was waiting for a seaplane which was due to take me to view the secrets of the mighty Gordon River, which flows through the heart of one of the last areas on earth of temperate rainforest not yet destroyed by mankind.
“Sorry mate,” says the pilot, looking tired. “No go. We’ve been out all day with those big guys out there.” I know that everybody in town is anxious about the whales. “No worries, mate,” I reply like everyone else round here. Instead, I drive up the coast to the vast, wild Ocean Beach, the longest in Tasmania, intending to beachcomb some of the mariner shells that were once a staple for Tasmanian aborigines. And slumped on the sand are three of the giant cetaceans. Without the ocean to support the weight of their vast bodies, they have flopped on the sand, dead from exhaustion.
It seems a world away from two days ago where I sat on the harbourside in Hobart with its smooth waters and the gentle chime of the yacht rigging, eating some of the crispest fish and chips this side of Morecambe and next morning buying supplies for my journey in the famous Salamanca Market. With the morning sun warming the honey-coloured stones of the Georgian houses built by the first English settlers two centuries ago and the smell of herbs, lemon, leather and home made soap on the air, I could have been Saturday morning in any English market town – or even Camden Lock. Except look out to sea and you realise you are at standing at the last stop before Antarctica.
The writer Nicholas Shakespeare says that Tasmania stands for all that is far-flung and strange – “like outer space on earth”. Merely the size of Ireland it started out as Britain’s harshest and most distant penal colony , a dumping ground for 76,000 desperate criminals. But its exceptional natural beauty fertile soil and temperate climate have, over the centuries attracted a host of settlers to its softer side, bringing with them the cosy names of the familiar towns of rural England – Launceston, Brighton, Southport, Beaconsfield. Trollope once described it as “more English than England itself.”
This is just one of the paradoxes that makes Tasmania one of the most mysterious places on earth. It is both genteel and wild. It is simultaneously domestic and savage. It can be rough-edged and cool at the same time. On my way north from Hobart I stay in a remote former hydroelectric construction workers village built by men who were given 100 stakes each, and brutally told: “Build your own house.” They wrought art deco masterpieces which, now refurbished, have been turned into a luxury hotel. Tucking into local venison with a risotto flavoured with pepperberries from the local hillsides, I reflect that I have rarely dined so well so far from home.
Everywhere in Tasmania there is contradiction. You find what you think is solitude in the remotest places, believing you are entirely alone for as far as the eye can see. Yet shine a torch out into the bush around you and you are staring straight into the eyes of the menagerie of wombats, quolls, echidnas, possums bettongs and pademelons who are sharing the place with you.
And so, just as the whales seem to have been doomed, there is marvellous news, too. It is a “world first” for whale rescues, local conservationists guide the remaining beasts out into the safety of the ocean, with the largest two bulls the last out of Hell’s Gates. Rosemary Gales, the head of the team says: This has never been done anywhere in the world before.” Typical Tasmania.
Next day, minus seaplane, I chug aboard the motorboat Wanderer II along the Tannin-stained waters of the Gordon river for the rest of my journey into one of the last wildernesses in the world. We stop off at Sarah Island, set up in 1821 as the Guantanamo of the Georgian age, reserved for criminals too hardened even for the rest of Australia. Trunks and branches of ancient eucalypts, myrtles and Huon pines crowd in on the riverbanks, their branches stained like some Tolkien forest with dripping mosses, lichens and liverworts. The Huons, found only in Tasmania, are the second oldest living things on earth, some still alive after 10,000 years. “This one is older than Jesus Christ,” my guide Kate says, pointing to a split trunk lying askew in the forest where we land. It, too, can rise from the dead, growing a new trunk to live on for further millennia.
But just as you dream of floating off into the unfathomable fringes of the universe, here is a little railway line in the forest to take you home – with trains hauled by 100-year-old narrow gauge steam locos, built in Glasgow, and where you can get smoked salmon sandwiches and a glass of Hobart’s finest riesling in the buffet car and buy the local leatherwood honey at wayside stations. No toy train this, though. Hewn by navvies against crushing odds through the rainforest and clinging by its fingernails to the mountainsides in harsh wet conditions, the West Coast Wilderness Railway is one of the most exciting train journeys in the world. It was abandoned in the 1960s. But now, once again, the venerable green engines puff and grind up 1 in 16 gradients on their rack and pinion track after a vast restoration feat.
Simultaneously exotic and familiar, like so much else in Tasmania, it seems odd when I squeeze in for a cab ride to have to duck the giant “man” ferns draping their clammy fingers across the boiler Otherwise it all seems comfortingly home-grown. Driver Mark Tregonning represents the heritage from the Cornish tin miners who built the line and general manager Eamonn Seddon originally worked at the Ffestiniog in north Wales. “Can you see we modelled the terminus on Manchester Central,” he tells me proudly when we arrive at the Queenstown terminus
But there is no mistaking where we are. After the forest, the light returns to that ferocious, unblinking clarity that you find in Tasmania like nowhere else (locals will tell you it is because of the ozone hole directly above. Maybe also because the air is also the purest in the world. We know this, because it is measured in a machine which captures the breeze every day at the monitoring station on the north coast The orange-coloured lichen covering the rock’s below is nature’s own litmus test.
Dark and light. As Nicholas Shakespeare notes: “There is the Tasmanian light. And all over the island there are pockets of extraordinary darkness.” The darkest ever moment was the ethnic cleansing of the island’s Aborigines – regarded by the English colonisers as the most inferior of races – an attitude brilliantly satirised in Matthew Kneale’s novel The English Passengers. I ask about “Queen Truganini”, the last aborigine, who died in 1896. Is her skeleton still displayed in the museum at Hobart, as it was until recently? Now, apparently she has been cremated and given a decent burial at sea.
Dark, too, is the history of the fabled Tasmanian tiger – not actually a tiger, but a large dog-like marsupial with stripes on its back and large jaws. The very last one is reckoned to have died in Berlin Zoo in 1936. But there’s no shortage of folk who claim to have seen them recently. Which is why I am in the epicentre of sightings – the Tiger Bar at the Mole Creek Hotel, in lush farming country, where a tiger might still just take a nip out of a sheep. There have never been any confirmed sightings. But over a Boag’s lager or six, unofficial ones multiply, and the wall are covered with press cuttings of them. “Tigerman”, who’s published a book of tiger sightings reckons there could be 200 in existence. “But, he claims darkly, officialdom wants to cover them up
“Hmmm,” says “Wild Bill” Flowers, who takes me round the Trowunna animal sanctuary down the road. “People like to think this kind of stuff because they feel guilty.” He should know because he spends his life rescuing Tasmanian Devils, the small pitbull-like relatives of the Tiger, whose numbers are being wiped out by shootings and a mysterious and spreading cancer of the jaw.
Bill pokes his hobnail toe in the mouth of a young Devil, which flashes teeth that could break a human neck. “You’ve got to let them do this, or you can’t return them to the wild.” “But stroke him,” he says, picking the animal up ever so gently as it emits the blood curdling cry that led the original settlers to cross themselves and snuggle further under the bedcovers.
Bill thinks it not too late to save the Devil from extinction. And maybe he’s right. Let’s hope so. Somewhere, it is rumoured, scientists are trying to recreate a living Tiger from traces of its own DNA. And, who knows, it could happen. Maybe it’s something in the light or the air, or simply because it is poised on the edge of the planet, but, there’s a mystical quality to Tasmania. A place where lost whales recover their bearings, where trees grow seemingly for ever, and where the ghosts of Victorian railway pioneers live on in the rainforest. Tasmania is what you make of it. You choose.