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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Days 17-19: Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

We spent the last day of the old year in Tasmania. This state was renamed after its Dutch “discoverer,” Tasman, because its history as Van Diemen’s Land was so frankly atrocious. Along with the usual unspeakable history with regard to indigenous people—brutality to the point of annihilation—Van Diemen’s Land was home to the most vicious penal regime in all the history of Britain transporting its convicts to Australia. But Tasmania is also a land of cool temperate rainforest and its capital, Hobart, is the last port before Antarctica. It is crazy to think we are so far south, but the southern cross in the million-starred night sky confirms it.

A surprisingly large percentage of transported convicts were women—perhaps one in five. We learned more about this at Female Factory, the historic site of the women’s prison, where a dramatization, “Her Story,” illuminated the real life of Mary James. The disgusting treatment she and her fellow prisoners received is depressingly familiar, and I could not help thinking of the United States’ prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, cleared for release more than a decade ago yet still subjected to inhumanities today. I would have been moved by Mary’s plight even had she not been played by our niece!

The “international airport” of Hobart reminds me of my hometown airport, only smaller. Nothing seems big or crowded in Hobart; even on New Year’s Eve there was plenty of room to breathe, and after the fireworks at midnight we simply walked away from the pier with no hint of claustrophobia. Paving the roads seems optional. As for internal Australian flights, it is still possible to go through security and up to the gate, just to meet passengers. Remember when you could do this in the U.S.A.? Except for brief periods like the Gulf war, when it was understood that security alerts would go back down again, not only ever up.

Tasmania is supposed to be very different from the rest of Australia; sniffer dogs even inspect the luggage coming in from the mainland for stray produce. Yet ironically, I’ve finally met some Australians here, who say “G’day,” drive “utes” (utility or pickup trucks), and put beets on their sandwiches as routinely as lettuce and tomato. 

The Coal River Valley, where we stayed, is yet another wine region, and I had a chance to sample some of its pinot noirs at the Taste of Tasmania which is going on at this time. The Coal River is crossed by Australia’s oldest road bridge (1823) at Richmond, a fabulous historic town. Scallop pies and Tasmanian ice cream are the order of the day here. You have to go to the Taste for a Fish Frenzy or Malaysian laksa and char kway teow, or more adventurous local fare such as wallaby burritos or possum confit. I wish I were making those up.

St. John the Evangelist Church, on a hill overlooking Richmond Bridge, is the oldest Catholic church in Australia (1836). The dates in its graveyard indicate how short lives can be in such a bleak place. I lit a candle for my cousin and wished he were here to show me how the constellations in the southern sky differ from those in the northern hemisphere. I suppose he can see it all clearly now.

Driving on the left is so much easier in Australia, where the roads are actually wide enough to have lanes. It helps that there aren’t so many other drivers, too, and speeds seem so slow. Down at the Elizabeth Street Pier we watched the fireworks at midnight. The yachts are all docked in Hobart from the end of the Sydney to Hobart Race, and readers of The Discreet Traveler may recall that in June, in Santorini, T. and I met the landlords of a Hobart pub called the Shipwright Arms. We were invited to the “Shippies” when we were here on New Year’s Day, and we could not pass up an invitation like that!

Sure enough, just down from Battery Point they were having “A Quiet Little Drink” in the beer garden of the 1846 pub. A band was playing out of the back of a truck, and the landlady, who was tickled to see us, explained that these same guys have played there for 50 years! Considering this they were still pretty good. It was nice to have a beer with the landlord and relax in such a non-crowded environment. The sun had come out by then and we could have stayed all afternoon. 

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