I had always wanted to go to Tasmania. As a child, I would take my globe, put my finger on my home town of London, and then spin it around until I found the farthest possible spot away. Strictly speaking, this would put me in New Zealand, but I also had a collection of old maps and atlases which filled that area with sea monsters and “here be dragons”, a notional outline of the Australian coast, and a peculiar little dot right at the bottom labelled “Van Diemens Land”, sometimes marked by a small devil with a pitchfork. Tasmania was, to me then and for much of my life, the far ends of the earth.
Of course, from my new home Australia, it is just one of the States that make up this nation, and but a small hop by aeroplane from my current house in Canberra, so when Patrick and Helga turned up from Holland one month, I mentioned my Tasmania story to Bronwyn, and she said, “I’ve always wanted to go there too. Lets surprise them.”
But first, of course, we needed to take them to the Sydney Opera House.
The following morning, we whisked the bemused couple down to Canberra airport with the vague promise that we were taking them to somewhere interesting. The first flight was to Melbourne, and we kept tight hold of the onward tickets, but as it happened when we arrived at the transfer gate, all the sign said was “Launceston”. Patrick and Helga were still saying “Where the hell is Launceston?” when the plane left the tarmac and they suddenly realised that there was probably a map in the in-flight magazine…
From the air, Launceston looked a lot like the green fields of England, a somewhat welcome sight after our home town of Canberra’s worst-drought-for-fifty-years look. Once on the ground at the tiny airport, I waited in line at the rental car counter as the smiling clerk explained to the couple in front that the clause you must not drive on unsurfaced roads simply meant “…and when you do, don’t tell us about it.” When he took me to see my own vehicle, he explained away the scratches on the door as “the usual marks you make when trying to put the key in when you’re drunk,” and advised me not to worry too much about damage “because its only a rental car.”
After this interesting introduction to the Tasmanian psyche, we drove to our nearby hotel, and enquired about food. The receptionist looked aghast. “At ten at night? This is Tasmania, you know…”
However, we did end up grabbing some fast food, and headed over to The Lounge Bar, the only pub that everybody seemed to recommend. After a door-check for steel toecaps we were allowed into a cavernous old hotel ballroom with comfy sofas where we could sit with endless four-pint jugs of Carlton and observe as the girls danced to the rather decent cover band, and the blokes stood and watched, or – more often than not – stared glassily at the cricket on the TV over the bar.
One of the defining geological features of Launceston is its gorge, and after breakfast net morning we took a beautiful walk via a winding path and some suspension bridges to an old hydro power station, stopping on the way to watch spiny echidnas and cicadas doing their thing. The water was pretty darn cold, but Patrick went for a dip anyway.
Hungry, now, we headed up into the hills above Launceston, knowing that the area was packed with vineyards and hoping to get some food. According to our guide book, only one – Rosevears – did lunches, so we were a little disappointed to roll up and be told that sorry, lunch was over. We must have looked a bit forlorn, because they offered to bring out some “nibbles”, which turned out to be a couple of enormous platters of excellent seafood, salads, meats, fruits and cheeses, washed down by ample tastings of their excellent wines. In fact, the wine-tasting was going so well that we thought it would be a good idea to ask if the small row of cabins that overlooked the valley were available for rent.
The waitress, somewhat flustered, said that they had only just been built and weren’t really supposed to be available yet, but we were welcome to rent them if we wanted. Heartened, we returned to the food and wine. It was a minute or so before we realised that the waitress was still standing somewhat awkwardly by the table. Nervously she blurted, “but you haven’t asked me how much they cost!”
“Dont worry, we assured her, everything will be fine, and can we have another bottle of this excellent wine?”
Some time later, we ambled up to our cabins, to discover that each was a beautifully crafted cube of beech and glass, decorated inside in semi-Japanese style, and featuring a fully stocked wine cabinet and an enormous bath with views over the vineyard and the lake. Stupendous, sumptuous and beautiful.