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The Devil and the deep sea

The Devil and the deep sea
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First Published: Sat, May 12 2007. 12 14 AM IST
Updated: Sat, May 12 2007. 12 14 AM IST
The ‘Spirit of Tasmania’ is the perfect entry to Tasmania. Drive onto this 29-tonne ferry at Melbourne or Sydney and the immediate sensation is of being drawn into an energetic holiday carnival.
Located off the continent’s south-eastern coast, Tasmania is Australia’s holiday isle. And there’s no better way to travel to the vacation island across the Bass Strait than aboard a luxurious ferry with lively bars, gourmet restaurants, chilled-out lounges and gaming areas. 
I’m not too fond of long plane and train journeys, but I enjoy that 10-hour crossing because there’s so much to do, so many areas to explore. And so much space. Standing against the rail at 3am, sipping a cognac-laced hot coffee and watching the light buoys float past, I feel completely at peace.
That feeling is lost soon after docking at Devenport amid thunder and lightning. Sheets of rain and heavy mist that seems woven into the rainforests escort us from Devenport to Strahan, along Tasmania’s west coast. But the weather in Tassie is as fickle as a Bollywood actor’s popularity. By seven the next morning, as we tuck into an Aussie breakfast of eggs, sausages, bacon, juice and croissants at one of Strahan’s waterfront cafes, the sun is cheery and yellow.
Strahan’s harbourside street is very attractive—if artificial—but the town’s appeal lies in the nearby natural and historical wonders. One can go for a comfort-in-wilderness ride on a seaplane, cruise down the Gordon river or explore the pristine wilderness of the area on the recently restored Abt Wilderness Railways.
We do none of the above because we have to get to Hobart, the capital of Tassie, 300km away. It is Saturday, the day for the Salamanca Place market—reputedly the most happening street market in the entire continent.
The drive to Hobart takes us along the boundary line of the Cradle Mountain and Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Parks. The road itself is smooth and glistening, winding through the hills, and the Toyota Camry is a like an eager thoroughbred, chomping at the bit. That drive sums up Tasmania for me: Delightful, twisty roads, multi-hued rainforests, shimmering lakes, the crisp air and a fantastic three-and-a-half-hour drive.
At the end is Salamanca Place, bustling with happy vibrancy. Alongside the local produce—handicrafts, sandwiches, toys, tea, jams, fruits, vegetables—are the buskers, who add a unique flavour to this market. Hobby musicians, from an eight-year-old with her clarinet to an eight-man band, they practise their passion for an appreciative audience.
Not for us, though, a long lingering afternoon listening to the buskers. We’re short on time, and long on the number of places we want to see—and it’s so much fun getting there.
En route from Hobart, we stop at Richmond, 25km away. This town—including Australia’s oldest bridge, dating back to 1823—was built almost entirely by convict labour. It’s a reminder, after the free-and-easy ride along the west coast, that Tasmania was established as a prison, the island on the other side of the world where Britain could banish its convicts and, literally, throw away the key.
Its cruel origins, however, is partly the reason why Tasmania remains unspoilt. Its wilderness is largely intact; its natural wonders have been tapped for tourism most unobtrusively.
On the way to Port Arthur, we sample strawberries at the Sorell fruit farm, stop at the Tasman Peninsula National Park and walk on the Tessellated Pavement, a natural floor of volcanic rock tiles tempered by the ocean over the ages. Further on, we cross the narrow isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck to buy a delicious lunch of hot Tasmanian pies and creamy blue Boysenberry ice cream, made more memorable by the view of the Devil’s Kitchen and the Tasman Arch, erosion-sculpted rock wonders straight out of fantasia.
Bathed in the setting sun, the rock ruins of Port Arthur look almost pretty. But I can’t escape the sense of gloom that pervades the place: This used to be a ruthless prison colony for the most hardened convicts and their pain and misery seem to have seeped into the very air of Port Arthur.
It doesn’t help that we sign up for a 45-minute lantern-lit Ghost Tour. Our guide kicks off the tour by announcing, “Stick together, if you fall back, you might suddenly find company—company that you might be able to see and walk through…”
The conviction in his voice makes me move to the centre of the group, so that I am safely surrounded by souls still existing within their physical forms.
The rain catches up with us again on the east coast. But sunny spells follow soon. Tasmania’s east coast is made up of terrific roads that switch from the Tasman Sea to the rainforests for scenery, punctuated by picture postcard-perfect bays—the Wineglass Bay, Coles Bay and the Bay of Fires—and charming little pubs.
By the time we drive into Launceston, our last stop before Devenport, the Camry has clocked 2,000km around Tasmania over nine days. The day-and-half we have left on the isle is spent exploring the astoundingly scenic Tarmar River region between Launceston and Devenport, tasting cheese, sampling salmon, swirling wine and savouring the distinct taste of leatherwood honey at the Chudley Honey farm.
Sipping a chilled Riesling and basking in the rustic ambience of Stillwater, one of Tasmania’s most rewarded restaurants housed in a restored 1830s flourmill by the Tamar river, we raise a toast to the setting sun as it brings an end to a fascinating holiday.
Most tourists to Oz don’t include Tasmania in their itinerary. Unfortunate, because this is one of Australia’s most understated destinations, a magical place that richly rewards the traveller who takes the time to explore its pretty environs, scenic bays, diverse forests, friendly folk and, of course, divine food.
Just hit that road.
(The writer is a travel correspondent for Autocar India. Write to lounge@livemint.com)
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First Published: Sat, May 12 2007. 12 14 AM IST
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