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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The devil inside: Tasmania

“It’s like sailing into Venice!” T. enthused. Well, maybe not. As the Spirit of Tasmania sailed into Devonport, I saw a movie theatre and a McDonald’s. But crossing the Bass Strait from mainland Australia had not been as uncomfortable as I’d expected.

Tasmania is the island off the southeast coast of the continent of Australia. It’s often left off of maps and ignored by mainland Australians, but it is a state. The fast way to get there is to fly, as we did last time. This time we were relocating a camper van and took it on the ferry. For five Australian dollars a day, it was not a bad deal.

T. was the main driver so I had to pay for my own seat on the ferry. By “seat,” I mean a reclining seat, which I was told would be something like a plane seat. Not in the class we fly! It was so comfortable I was actually awakened by the announcement that we would dock in 45 minutes. It was a promising start to several nights’ sleeping in the back of the camper van, as we camped along the coast at Bicheno.

“Did you see that enchilada?” T. asked excitedly as we drove along. She meant echidna. This is a prickly native beast that looks a bit like a large hedgehog, and it was waddling along the side of the road in the sunlight. Most refreshingly, this enchilada was alive.
There are a lot of things to like about Tasmania but there’s one big drawback, and it’s to do with Tasmanian roads, like roads in many other parts of Australia, having no street lights. Most of the native Tasmanian wildlife is nocturnal, and this makes for a distressing number of dead animals squashed every morning. I grew up in the country so I know about roadkill, but this you wouldn’t believe. Even driving slowly and carefully at night is no guarantee you won’t hit something, and based on how people drive during the day, I don’t think they’re trying very hard.

The unique Tasmanian devil, a cleanup species like the catfish, used to play its part in clearing the roadkill. But its leading cause of death is now a facial tumor, spread too easily because of the Tasmanian devil’s limited gene pool. This inbreeding, in turn, is the result of the species being decimated repeatedly and having to bounce back from limited numbers. The devil is so called because it chews through everything—bones and all—and because of its screeching noise, but it doesn't deserve the bad press that nearly led to its extinction. 

You’re supposed to get used to all this death and destruction if you live in Tasmania, but it's not something I want to get used to. That’s the way the human brain works—if you’re repeatedly exposed to something, say a repressive government or news of yet another shooting at a school, the brain dials down the volume simply to protect you. But when something is distressing, I don’t want it to start to seem normal. 
At East Coast Natureworld
This is a baby wombat. The keeper first showed us a “teenaged” wombat, walking around the enclosure and even letting it bite his legs, to demonstrate how inappropriate a pet a wombat makes. I thought he was going to great lengths to show that we should give wild animals their space. Yet no sooner had he turned his back than one of the men in the group leaned into the enclosure and was petting the wombat, and encouraging his kids to do so. Next to a big sign saying “don’t lean into enclosures or touch any animals in them.” The guy wasn’t bitten, but he deserved to be. 

Sometimes I wonder why evolution has not yet weeded out the gene for stupidity.
Kangaroos roam free in the Natureworld sanctuary. It's OK to feed them.
Another thing that’s distressed me is the number of white people who, even today, repeat what they’ve heard about indigenous people. That they’ve been given too much, when in actual fact, nothing could ever make up for what was taken from the indigenous people: their own country. It boggles my mind that there are still so many people who believe that they, or their ancestors, had the right to immigrate to a country, better than the right of its original inhabitants to live there in the first place.

I’m not just picking on white Australians. Henry Knox, George Washington’s secretary of war, said that to dispossess the American Indians would be “a stain on the character of the nation.” He was right—it is a great stain—but Knox is also evidence that even back in the eighteenth century, there were people who knew better. The principle of not just taking what doesn’t belong to you was as well known hundreds of years ago as it is today.

The only way not to get used to something you shouldn’t get used to, is to get away from it. So we got out of the city of Hobart and explored the state as much as possible. We started at nearby Mount Wellington, where, driving up to the summit, we were surprised by a cloud of snow flurries! In wintertime it’s common for Mount Wellington to be capped by snow, but the end of January is midsummer in this hemisphere. Fifteen minutes later, you’d never have known there was snow there. But I saw it.

Our stay outside Hobart coincided with a once-in-150-years lunar event. There was a blue moon (the second full moon in a single month) combined with a supermoon, and a total lunar eclipse. I confess to not seeing the “super” aspect of a particularly large moon, but luckily the clouds did clear around 11:00 at night, and we saw the totality. As the blue moon reddened, it occurred to me that the eclipse darkening the moon was the shadow of the entire earth. This whole planet, with its billions of people and conflicting concerns, was only big enough to cast this shadow on the moon.
Photo courtesy of T.
My camera isn’t up to capturing constellations, but T’s sister-in-law pointed out the Southern Cross, which is represented on the Australian flag. It felt like I was seeing the entire galaxy. The darker the moon got, in a country sky without light pollution, the more stars appeared.

Another day we hiked on the Tasman peninsula to Cape Hauy. The views along the cape were stunning, reminding me a bit of Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, but warmer and not nearly as windy. Unfortunately, in order to make the hike doable steps have been built up and down almost the entire way. It’s an impressive undertaking by the parks system, but not my favorite way to hike. 

Maybe my legs were worn out from the previous night’s dancing. Friday nights see Hobart’s finest, including a Bear Bryant lookalike and someone who reminds us of cousin Tony, dancing to a blues band behind a rock wall. Our hosts for all these adventures were T’s brother and sister-in-law, plus assorted nieces. On this occasion we were also joined by a young friend who’d stayed with T. and me during her own sojourn in Britain a few years back. We’re cashing in on all this hospitality now as we make our way back round the world.

Another night the fire pit was lit, and I had a go on my brother-in-law’s guitar. It felt good to be picking at a guitar again, but mostly it reminded me how out of practice I am. My fingertips no longer have the worn pads that a guitarist should, and I couldn’t play very long before having to set the thing down!

We had some other good walks, on Seven Mile Beach and in Mount Field National Park. Something that has started happening is that my day pack, with its flags of all the nations we’ve visited, has become a conversation piece. A Malaysian standing in line behind me, or a European couple on the trail, will ask about all the patches and the places we have visited. One of them even asked if he could take a picture—not of me, but of the pack! It made a change from the selfies with Asian people. “Wild lady,” he called me.
T. also called the carabiners on my backpack "carbonara." Clearly she has food on the brain.
Mount Field is the site of the Three Falls hike. One of the falls is called Horseshoe, which is pretty funny to me as that’s also the name of the most impressive Niagara Falls (on the Canadian side). Horseshoe Falls in Tasmania are the least of the three. But the Tall Trees walk offered us the chance to see eucalyptus (“gum”) trees that are more than 400 years old. In other words, they were already standing there before any European set foot on the island. Around Lake Dobson, we saw some pine trees that are more than a thousand years old.

All these experiences of nature were quite humbling. So it seemed only fitting to balance that out by watching the Super Bowl. It wasn’t easy: home televisions now are too complicated for us to turn on, let alone tune in, without special training. Instead, we found a cafe in Richmond that was showing the big American football game on TV. I got a curried scallop pie (a Tasmanian specialty) and the cashier offered a plate of free cupcakes. Given that it was Monday morning here, I felt I participated in the excess adequately. 

Before leaving Tassie, we visited yet another UNESCO World Heritage site: Port Arthur.

The remains of the British prison at Port Arthur are the world’s best surviving example of a modern prison. Sounds surprising, as the history of Britain transporting convicts to what was then called Van Diemen’s Land is not often thought of as modern. But in the nineteenth century, as our excellent guide told us, the maximum security prison built at Port Arthur was an attempt to rehabilitate the most serious offenders—not flog them or keep them in horrible conditions. The most serious punishment they endured, in an era when the sole responsibility for old people’s care rested with their families, was that these criminals could never see their families again.

The fact is that solitary confinement at Port Arthur was probably no more inhumane than solitary confinement today, and the prisoners may have had a higher standard of living than where they'd come from. Crime, after all, doesn’t emerge from a vacuum, and the slums of 1840s England were some of the worst places to live in the history of humankind. The average life expectancy in Manchester’s slums was 17, reflecting extremely high infant and child mortality as well as the early age at which adults grew old.

Britain in the nineteenth century was the first country ever to industrialize. The longterm result of industrialization, for good or ill, is our modern life, unimagined in any previous century. But the first decades of the Industrial Revolution were, in the word of our Port Arthur guide, “horrific.” No wonder the Communist Manifesto originated in London.

Port Arthur is [in]famous for another reason. In 1996 a lone white man opened fire on the historic site, killing 35 people and injuring 23 others. It was the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history, and it shocked the country, as any massacre should. Australia’s government, which at the time comprised center-right parties, decided to make it harder for Australians to reach for a gun. Despite being hanged in effigy by the Australian gun lobby, these politicians did it. Not only was Port Arthur’s the last such shooting in Australia, but there have since been far fewer of the deaths that make up most of gunfire’s toll: suicide and domestic murder.

There have been other acts of terror in contemporary Australia. No one claims that it is possible to eliminate evil. But that didn’t stop Australians from doing something that saved lives.

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