Van Diemen’s Land

After four months in Sydney, back from three years in London and fifteen in New York, it’s time to get out the city for a while, maybe even piss off for good. I have a friend way down south in Tasmania whom I have not seen since the sixth grade. Cate and I have talked on the phone for hours. She lives in the bush near Hobart and works for Qantas, even knows of a job lead there. So I lend my flat to my brother, and head south to the Melbourne-Devonport ferry in my little Ford.

The ten-hour drive is another story. Sydney’s homely but better educated sister is laid out on a great flat plain north of the bay, glittering impressively at dusk, with towers and spires at her centre.

I lose my way trying to avoid the expensive toll roads, but have to pay to get to the South Melbourne docks in time. The Spirit of Tasmania is as big as a cruise ship and I arrive near the tail end of a long line of cars. The inspectors are making a fuss about my jerry can of petrol and bottles stove fuel, and they walkie-talkie up front, describing my red hatchback. When I get around to the ramp I’ll be asked to halt and told to empty them and fill them with water. I grumble at the waste, shaking the fine print permission on my ticket at them, but they have updated rules to follow. When I finally get around to the open jaws of the ship, the lads wave me through and up onto the ramp. They’re too busy to worry about a bit of extra fuel.

Several decks up the restaurant, bar and gaming areas are teeming with folks, mostly old couples, youths hanging on to their girlfriends, and a few lone males like myself slumped on benches with pints of beer. The ship is an hour late getting started. The engines rumble sub-sonically underfoot as I wander up and down the white steel stairs, finding the open decks at the stern where the smokers and lovers go.

Everyone on the ship is white. That old fashioned angular, beaky, or slack-mouthed Aussie whiteness of untempered English, Scot and Irish stock, reddened in many of the men by sun and drink. The disorienting shock is similar to that experienced after leaving spice-bowl New York City and going into a supermarket in buttermilk biscuit Pennsylvania.

So I settle in, find a cruise chair, quite the same as an economy seat on a plane, and line up for dinner at the budget buffet. A couple of fellows slouch in front of me on the line, they’re really piling the food on, so I’m not ashamed to do the same. The lad next to me is tall and broad with a beet red face and straw-coloured stubble. He has a battered, barnyard-stained felt hat pushed down over his carroty bristle. He pours a couple of ladles of gravy over his pyramid of food. It wells and dribbles over the side of his plate. The other fellow laughs, turns to me and chuckles “look mite, ‘ee’s spillin’ ‘is fuckin’ grivy all iver the plice.” I grin back; how refreshingly friendly. But I rein in the twinkle after a second, because I am a foreign stranger, after all.

I sit alone and tuck in to a big plate of roast lamb, mint sauce, potatoes and a couple glasses of wine. Then I head outside with the others as the ship swings around creating a stiff breeze. It noses down the narrow flagged channel in muddy Port Phillip Bay. The suburbs twinkle around us in the black distance. At about midnight the ship rolls blindly through the churning rip tide at the heads and out onto the open sea. I’m hoping to catch the eye of one or other of the lone fellows leaning out and smoking, but they’re not interested in any conversation, so it’s off to the chair for a bit of sleep. I find a better spot, triangulated as far away from two old snoring men as I can, and get about five hours worth. Up at dawn, and out on deck; a brisk spray in the breeze and a slight roll underfoot. Gulls on either side rise and fall and keep pace, as though bearing the ship’s enormous foam wedding train. Ahead lies the coast of Tasmania cutting an ominous line under the dreary scudding sky. Further inland, a great granite wall glows between grey layers of cloud in the horizontal sunlight.

Tasmania is a temperate paradise, a much more compact array of terrain than the mainland, with rugged coasts and mountains, a broad farmed valley down the middle and tall rainforests in the south west. The climate is mild, though winters are long by Australian standards. The air is clean. The Westerly winds blow across the southern ocean with no continents to pollute them. It’s exhilarating, with a visceral hint of homecoming.

The ferry spews us out at Devonport. I want to head south immediately to catch the last of the cold spring weather. It’s only a three hour drive down to Hobart on the narrow Midland Highway. The Great Western Tiers rise like a wall from the plains, still flecked with snow in late October. Then the Ben Lomond Plateau rears up to the east. The Midlands Valley is broad and dry and dull, like much Australian farmland, but this section of the drive lasts less than an hour. The land is bedizened with willow groves along the creeks, rows of poplars, and little stone houses and churches with beautiful spires. The dusty green Australian bush has been pushed back only as far as the hills. Through Perth, Campbell Town, Ross and Oatlands, then over a crumpled scarf of green ridges to Hobart on the Derwent River, under the rocky dome of Mt Wellington and the surrounding ranges.

Hobart is a pretty little city with many colonial remnants: Georgian symmetry and Victorian wedding cake in honey coloured stone around the waterfront. Battery Point, up the hill, is the next oldest settlement. There’s a small oval village green, Arthur’s Circus, and there’s St. Georges Church on Cromwell Street, built in 1838 in the Greek style, with a tower like the lighthouse of Alexandria might have looked. The church is surrounded, as though in a medieval village, by streets of imposing houses and workmen’s cottages. Trellises, roses, clean tan stone and peeling green paint on the veranda posts. Antiques, tea with scones, jam and clotted cream; so motherly and English. South along Sandy Bay there’s Wrest Point Casino, a glass and concrete cylinder built in the early seventies to attract mainland money, now looking as sophisticated as a stack of ashtrays. The suburbs sprawl along the Derwent as far as steep slopes and water will let them.

Tasmanians are friendly and down to earth, but quite conservative and leery of mainland ways and mores as they see them. It’s a very comfortable place to exist in, but whether they think about it or not, they carry tragedy and terror in their bones.

The aboriginals of Tasmania were descended from the earliest wave of humans in Australia, pushed south by successive migrations over tens of thousands of years, becoming isolated on the island when the seas rose 12,000 years ago. Soon after colonisation the British proconsul had them concentrated in reservations, for their spiritual and corporeal good, where of course, they died. Decades later, impatient for more land, killing parties set out to pick off the hold-outs. The last full blood aboriginal man, William Lanne, passed away in 1869 and his wife Trucanini survived until 1876 as a revered curiosity. Only a diluted strain of native blood survives in a fraction of the population.

The island had been touched-on in the 1640’s by the Dutch sailor Abel Tasman, who came ashore briefly and named it Van Diemen’s Land in honour of his patron. In 1772 a French ship under the command of Capt. Marion Du Fresne stayed a week. After Port Jackson was settled in 1788 by the British an expedition was sent south to consolidate the claim, and to discover that this part of the territory, long thought to be the southern tip of Terra Australis Incognita was separated from the mainland by a broad strait. Australia’s second penal colony was founded on the Derwent River in 1803.

Van Diemen’s Land would become hell on earth for the convicts who were sent here, and Macquarie Harbour on the rugged south west coast, with cold rain and wind squalling down the mountain slopes, was its black hole. Intractables were kept chained together at night on a wet rock ledge, up to seventy bodies at a time. The Irish convict Alexander Pierce escaped with a party of five from here. Seven weeks later, having crossed the mountains and reached settled land, he was caught eating a sheep, raw, alone. One, then another of the weaker members of his party had been isolated, axed and eaten. Pierce survived at the top of that ragged food chain of men. The authorities could not believe his exploits, assuming he was covering for the other escapees. He kept his mouth shut after being sent back to Macquarie. Incredibly he escaped again with an unsuspecting sap who came along to be used for food. Pierce was again captured, found chewing on the remains of his companion, and promptly hanged in 1823. His skull, boiled and picked clean, was eventually sold to an American collector. It sits in a glass case at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Port Arthur was the great Victorian experiment, erected on the south-eastern Tasman Peninsula. It served as a model of scientific penal thoroughness, with a separate gaol for the moral protection of child convicts. Its impressive barracks and church now sit roofless in lawns of green, tranquil and monastic in the afternoon sun, the stones scrubbed clean of blood and pain, a major tourist attraction. A troubled local lad massacred thirty-five visitors there in 1996, most of them in the cafeteria, others he hunted down one-by-one as they fled.

I spend two weeks here. Wandering the pretty streets of Hobart, listening to music at the cathedral on Sunday nights, eating hot chips with tomato sauce, hiking up Mt Wellington, heaving and sweating, humming along with the birds under the snow gum saplings up to the cold brackeny heights. When there seems less chance of rain, I drive further into the western and northern wilderness and sleep in the car, to clamber higher and further up Cradle Mountain, The Walls of Jerusalem, and Legges Tor. I spend bad weather at Cate’s house in the bush on the south slopes of Mt Wellington. She works evening shift in town and sleeps much of the day. So I go out in the mornings, and then drive back up the rough muddy track to be alone with Gismo the cat afternoons and evenings. Huddled by the whistling smoky stove as the cold rain pours outside, with cups of tea and Arnotts Teddybear biscuits. Wonderful, and oh, so depressing.

I am just not ready for this. Didn’t Pascal write something in his musings about man’s misery? About not being able to sit quietly in a room alone? Perhaps it is easier to shut a noisy world out with a grumble, than to draw it in to one’s solitude; easier, when we are weak, to have a giant to battle on the outside, rather than face the whining beast inside.

So I dither about the job possibility and head back north, to Devonport and the ferry, avoiding the toll roads of Melbourne, on to the thousand kilometres of road and the anaesthetic allurements, stress and family obligations of Sydney. Better to cast my pearly daydreams before swine than toss them back into the deep, forgetting sea. I’m going to learn to love to hate that city, just as I learned to love to hate other bigger cities in the past.

But I will return to Tassie often; maybe one day for good, to hike the rugged outcrops, to sit in a silent mountainside room, wind and rain raging through the gum trees, fire in the hearth, cat under the sofa, alone with my Goliath.

November 1st 2004

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at


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