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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Days 20-22: Bicheno, Tasmania to Mackay, Queensland, Australia

I heard the Australians were really into their coffee, and they are. It may be possible to order a generic, slopped-out-of-the-carafe, American-style coffee somewhere in this country, but I have not found it. When you get a coffee here it invariably tastes excellent. A “flat white,” which seems the closest thing to a regular coffee, is more like a cappuccino, only it can’t be a cappuccino because that is something else on the menu. When your coffee arrives you will really enjoy it. But.

You cannot spend a reasonable amount of money on it, nor can you get it in a hurry. Four dollars will get you a (small) cup of coffee in a roadside café, and it will take fifteen or twenty minutes. If you’ve ordered food as well, the coffee will take as long as it takes you to give up and finish your food. You will never be able to have coffee and food at the same time. I believe the coffee is considered so important that it must be savored alone, like a wine tasting, so you’d better have a ton of time on your hands.

You’d better have a lot of time on your hands to accomplish anything, actually—it’s just that coffee is the kind of thing a North American is typically in a hurry for. I realize what I describe may not be true everywhere in Australia all the time, but in my experience it is.

Once you’ve had your coffee, look around for the sharks. They’re everywhere. No, not in the water—Australia has averaged only one shark fatality per year since the eighteenth century, and if you’ve heard there’s a cluster of attacks or they’re getting more common, I refer you to Risk (published in North America as The Science of Fear) which explains the misleading-ness of the news cycle, statistics, and hysteria generally. No, where you’ll find shark most commonly is at the fish and chip shop. It’s called “flake”—the fish they sell the way the English sell cod—and it’s delicious. But be warned, it is shark.

We were on our way to Bicheno, a fishing town on the east coast of Tasmania. We passed Break-Me-Neck and Bust-Me-Gall Hills, and creeks with names like Wackett and Old Man; even the “Rivulets” are named. We have guessed that the smallest bodies of water are named so you can identify where you are on the highway, as often there is no other way to tell.

This country moves at a slow pace generally. Sometimes, as with the coffee order, it is hard to take, but other times it is lovely. We made our final turn and had to stop behind a truck, who knew why? Turns out the driver stopped to let what looked like a very large hedgehog cross the road. We were delighted, first, that the animal was allowed to live; second to learn that it was in fact an echidna or spiny anteater, a member of the monotreme order. In other words, an egg-laying mammal. This was the next best monotreme to a platypus, which we have not managed to see although they are supposed to be numerous in a national park near Mackay, the last stop in this chapter. I have always thought that the platypus—a duck-billed, egg-laying furry mammal—was is proof that God was having fun that day.

Among the walnut orchards en route to Bicheno the echidna was the most unique animal we saw. Wallabies, with their pogo-stick ways, and the non-native rabbits have become routine. I was just happy not to have squashed anything with the car. Even the town bakery appeared to have a resident chicken pecking around outside, or maybe it was just our lucky day. Every town has a bakery, no matter how small—goes with the coffee.

The Freycinet Peninsula is a highlight of the area, and the steep walk up to Wineglass Bay lookout and down to the beach itself is worth it—supposedly one of the top ten beaches in the world. (Another will feature in the next breathtaking episode of TDT.) One can take the steep walk back up, or opt for the much longer roundabout way via Hazards Beach, which takes you through cool temperate rainforest, along the beach, and up along rocks overlooking the Tasman Sea. Either way, walking is the only way to Wineglass Bay and that makes it nice!

Residents take the wildlife for granted, of course, so we knew the “fairy” penguins that dwell in these southern seas could not be far away. We waited until dark at the Bicheno Blowhole (that’s well after 9:00 at this time of year and so far south) and were rewarded by the emergence of the little penguins scrambling out of the sea. After swimming around fishing all day, the poor little things looked exhausted and on their way to nest. I know how they feel...

My animal highlight of the trip so far may still be the chimpanzees in the Singapore Zoo, as I’d never before seen the species that shares 99% of its DNA with mankind (the final 1% must be asshole). The chimps, though, did have the sad disadvantage of not being in their native environment. Up in Mackay, via Brisbane, I didn’t expect to see much but the mining and sugar cane industries; yet we were surprised with a great colony of fruit bats! Flitting around Victoria Street, they may not have the cuteness appeal of their bird cousins, the smallest penguin species; but we were happy they sang in our night. 

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