Tasmania: England Down Under

We stopped for tea and scones in the rain forest.

"Help yourself to the whipped cream and jam, now. Don't be shy." Laurie Wootton turned from the billycan on his portable stove and waved us toward the refreshment stump. The 74-year-old guide from Cradle Mountain had set us up on a flat spot near a stand of 1,200-year-old King Billy pines, towering old trees garlanded with moss and mist, their thick trunks floating in liquid, aqua-tinged light that seemed to bleed from every pore of the high forest canopy.

Through the aroma of tea rising from my cup, I could smell sassafras and mud, fern leaves and damp, disintegrating wood – the musty scents of life germinating, thriving, dying, and decaying.

"Go on, have a seat," Laurie said. "Plenty of logs about. Just mind the leeches."

I decided to stand.

Laurie – gray-bearded, wet-eyed, and wearing a green terrycloth hat that looked as if it might have been with him on his first climb up Cradle Mountain more than a half-century ago – smiled. "The Ballroom Forest is what they call this place," he said. "A good spot for a boil up, wouldn't you say?"

And it was. Granted, many people might find it a bit incongruous to stop for a Devonshire tea surrounded by the baroque vegetation of an old-growth rain forest, but those people have never visited Tasmania. Because here, on this quiet, West Virginia-size island 150 miles off the southeastern shore of Australia, British traditions have proven surprisingly adaptable to exotic antipodean climes. Afternoon tea among the leeches is only part of it.

Tasmania is also one of the few places in the Southern Hemisphere where you can find a game of King John's favorite sport, royal tennis; it's played on the indoor court on Davey Street in Hobart, with balls made of champagne corks wrapped in string and tape.

And anyone with an undemocratic yearning for the golden age of British landed gentry can easily fuel their fantasies at, say, Prospect House, Glen Derwent, or one of the other well-preserved Georgian mansions scattered across the Tasmanian countryside, any of which could serve as backdrop for one of those agonizingly faithful BBC adaptations of Jane Austen (although extra stagehands might be required to keep wallabies and possums from wandering onto the set).

In fact, it's a conviction among mainland Australians that the island state of Tasmania looks and feels just like England. And to desert-seared eyes from Western Australia, perhaps, Tasmania – blessed with good rains and greenery – may indeed seem an exact replica of Surrey.

But my eyes saw something different, something more like a Surrey gone bush, with multicolored parrots, weird organ-pipe cliffs, and treelines transformed by the profiles of swamp gums and Huon pines. And now, in the Ballroom Forest, as I sucked raspberry jam from my fingertips in the shadow of the world's tallest heath, some 30 feet high, it seemed obvious to me that Tasmania, while echoing certain details of the country that used to be known here simply as "Home," resembled nothing really except Tasmania. "Sui generis" is the Latin term for it: of its own kind. A class unto itself.

I had begun my trip in Hobart, the handsome little capital city that is the focus of cultural, political, and financial life on the island. Located on the deeply indented southeastern coast, Hobart forms a kind of geological bowl, at the bottom of which sits a placid harbor and a series of 19th-century warehouses now converted into mercifully unquaint galleries and pubs.

From there, the streets rise gently through a historic government district of sandstone colonial buildings, then a humming business district (where the shopkeepers' gates rumble down chastely at six every evening), before finally reaching the hilly suburbs. Beyond those stand low mountains, including Mount Wellington, whose 3,000-foot cliff face gives the city a touch of visual drama.

But drama is not Hobart's major manufacture. "No, life is rather slow here," said David Rankin, who, when not sketching or painting, serves as the chief operating officer of a little map-and-print shop on the waterfront. He gave his beard a few strokes. "Not staid, though," he added. "If you know the right people, it's not staid at all."

I asked whom he knew in Hobart.

"Oh, I've lived here for 30 years, so I know almost everyone," he said, choosing to ignore my irony. "Tasmania's like that. You know practically everybody, and if you don't know somebody, it's probably because you're related to them, and they don't want to know you."

That kind of small-town ethos suffuses the entire island, but it takes its most picturesque form in Battery Point, the old residential part of Hobart on the bluffs overlooking the harbor.

I walked that neighborhood with Isa Hurburgh, a member of the local group of the national trust and a longtime Battery Point resident. As we wound through the narrow streets lined with churches and old terraced houses festooned with iron lacework, Isa was constantly greeting neighbors: an old man carrying an armful of dusty LPs, a gray-haired lady wearing white gardening gloves who was tending her rosebushes. When two young girls approached, displaying a handful of red hair ribbons and a basket of plastic barrettes, Isa seemed delighted.

"Ah, been to the fair, have you, dears?" she asked, a line I could have sworn came straight out of A. E. Housman.

Down along the waterfront, life was moving at only a slightly more 20th-century pace. Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace flagship, was in port to deposit two barrels of toxic waste on the steps of Parliament House (in protest of a delay in the tightening of environmental regulations). But the office workers and tourists strolling the wharves seemed blithely unconcerned.

Following their lead, I stopped at one of the floating seafood stalls at Constitution Dock and ordered a half-dozen Pacific oysters, four giant prawns, and a bottle of Cascade Lager, the local beer. Then I found a free bench near the yacht basin and consumed one of the best lunches of my life. The prawns were firm and delicately flavored. The oysters – plump, briny, and slick – literally detonated in the mouth. Tasmanian seafood, as I discovered throughout my trip, is a revelation, a throwback to what seafood must have tasted like before the incursions of the Industrial Revolution.

After lunch, I followed the office workers back downtown. Compared to the rest of the city, the shopping district was a virtual mob scene, teeming with schoolgirls in blazers and straw hats, boys in shorts carrying cricket bats and skateboards, morose-looking teenagers lounging around in the uniforms of International Grunge, and plenty of older shoppers – ample matrons, harried mothers – trailing bags full of houseplants, cloth, and bread.

Nearly all the faces I saw were white, the Tasmanian aboriginal population having died out (or been murdered, not to put too fine a point on it) sometime in the last century. The ethnic homogeneity of Taswegians (as some locals call themselves), combined with the downtown architecture (Victorian and Edwardian shopfronts, along with 1950s department stores) reinforced the feeling of being in a small English city in the age before mass immigration.

But of course the population of Tasmania is made up entirely of immigrants, or descendants of immigrants – a function of the island's bizarre and often brutal history. Until 1803 Van Diemen's Land, as it was called, was exclusively the domain of a small number of Aborigines and the occasional whaling ship. But in August of that year a small group of settlers arrived from the mainland. Half of them were British convicts (Australia began as a convict settlement, after all), and during the next several decades they were followed by thousands more.

Tasmania, in fact, became the repository for some of the worst offenders of the British Empire: the recidivists, the incorrigibles, the hardest of the hard-nosed. And they were held in some of the most notorious prisons in history – Port Arthur and Sarah Island, which made mainland Australia's infamous Botany Bay look like Club Med.

At Port Arthur, on the Tasman Peninsula not far out of Hobart, the ruins of the enormous penal institution have been preserved here in a sort of Tasmanian version of the Acropolis. Wandering the long dark corridors of the so-called model prison (an experiment in "scientific" incarceration that had the unfortunate effect of driving some prisoners insane), I was not surprised that this now unremittingly pleasant island could once have been regarded as the least desirable place on earth, containing (as one of its own lieutenant-governors once complained) "a larger portion¿of the most depraved and unprincipled people in the Universe."

And he wasn't necessarily talking just about convicts.

"I come from a convict on one side of the family and a warder on the other," one native Taswegian told me, "and by all reports, the convict was much the nicer man."

One of the great Tasmanian mysteries, in fact, is how this population of convicts and their often corrupt jailors has evolved, over several generations, into the conservative, law-abiding, genial people that inhabit the island today. Mainland Australians like to flatter themselves by looking down on Taswegians, much as the British do on the Irish, or northerners do on southerners in the United States. As a tourist from the mainland admitted to me, "Yeah, we give the Taswegians a hard time, saying they inbreed and all that, that they've all got two heads and no brains." But Taswegians, it seemed to me, are just like other Australians – only more self-deprecating in their humor.

"All of those stories about imbeciles and inbreeding," insisted Sally Martin, who with her husband, David, runs a guest house near Port Arthur, "they're just not true. Simply not true."

David looked up skeptically from his breakfast. "Don't listen to her," he said. "Judge for yourself: In Tasmania we've got a population of 450,000 and 54 state politicians. That's the highest rate of politicians to people in Australia. Of course we're imbeciles!"

David notwithstanding, I found in my ten days of nosing round the rest of the island far more politicians than imbeciles among the population. The federal government had called elections, and the newspapers were predicting one of the closest races in Australian history. Election posters dotted the island – from the dry, pastoral midlands and east coast, to the high alpine interior, to the wild, thickly forested west – and just about everybody was fed up with the whole process.

"I'm trying to understand your politics," I would say to people I'd meet.

"Good luck!" they'd answer back. Or: "You're a brave man, I'll give you that."

Sheep grazed the Ocher Hills of the midlands, a region of farms and old country towns that stretches between Hobart and Launceston, Tasmania's second city. Horses stared idly at ponds full of wild black swans. Quiet farm towns – Richmond, Oatlands, Ross – punctuated the road at regular intervals, their sandstone colonial houses and tiny churches overlooking the sweep of rolling grasslands.

I stopped at Richmond, where an elegant, convict-built bridge, the oldest in Australia, arches over a bushy little river clotted with reeds and noisy ducks. The 19th-century Richmond Gaol ("home" of many of the bridge-building convicts, who were treated as a kind of slave labor) is strikingly well-preserved. The lightless solitary cells have lost none of their horror, though now they contain only grinning Australian vacationers being photographed by their companions.

I checked into a brick manse from the 1830s whose haylofts have been converted to guest rooms. Surrounded by rosebushes and brick paths, the house has been scrupulously maintained by proprietor Mike Buscombe, who is actually the great-great-grandson of the original owner. Mike treated me to a short lecture on Australian politics (his party was losing ground in the polls) and took me down to the old convict quarters in the cellar, which now (in a nice little metaphor for how much Tasmania has changed in the last 150 years) serves as a wine cellar.

Afterward, I had dinner in the marble-hearthed, candle-lit, mahogany-trimmed dining room – one of the few Tasmanian experiences that really did seem unadulteratedly English to me – except for the fact that Orion, shining through the antique glass windows, was upside down.

Halfway up the east coast, however, this comfortable Britishness gave way to a more typically Australian eccentricity, in the form of the Hazards at Freycinet National Park. These 1,000-foot-high granite cliffs form a monolithic – and decidedly pink – wall that overlooks a lovely bay on one side and the ocean on the other.

I hiked up over the shoulder of one of these cliffs, through a forest chittering with parrots and laughing kookaburras, and came to a long, untrodden curve of beach: Wineglass Bay. Two almost shamefully adorable wallabies browsed the bushes at the perimeter of the beach while I lay on the sand, the surf chuffing quietly at my feet. Looking out across the water, I felt that I had reached the end of the earth.

After spending a night at a Freycinet lodge (where I shared a bit of Tasmanian cabernet with a presumptuous ring-tailed possum on the redwood terrace), I went looking for some of the seafood for which this coast is famous.

I found it – in glorious abundance – at a cray stall near Bicheno, where, if you'll excuse the redundance, I had another of the best lunches of my life: a huge, lobster-size crayfish fresh off a fishing boat.

Jane Wardlaw, ensconced in the stall, showed me how to splinter the shells to extract the sweet, milk white meat.

"My dad used to get up at two or three in the morning to get the crays from the fishermen in Bicheno," Jane said wistfully, cracking claws. "He'd bring them up here, Mother would cook 'em, and he'd serve 'em while he listened to his Louis Armstrong records. He loved his jazz, Dad did."

Christopher Wardlaw had died just a few months earlier, but his jazz was still playing over loudspeakers hanging above a few scattered picnic tables. I joined a group of cyclists at one of these tables, and there we all sat, sucking noisily and unself-consciously at our crays, while Armstrong's rendition of "Mack the Knife" crackled from the speakers overhead.

I knew that i should have bought the "I Brake for Wombats" bumper-sticker at the tourist shop in Launceston. That, at least, is what I kept telling myself as I crept along the unpaved access road in Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park. It was a moonless night, and as I wound my rental car slowly through the overhanging eucalypti, I kept having to slam on the brakes. The reflective eyes of wallabies and brush-tailed possums would suddenly appear in my headlights; then I'd turn a curve and find a rotund wombat limping across the road in front of me. No, I told myself, I refuse to be responsible for the death of something that cute.

It was my last night at Cradle Mountain, the gateway to Tasmania's extensive national park system. A vast portion of the western part of the island has been set aside as parkland, a UN World Heritage Site. In fact, so wild and remote is this 3.3-million-acre wilderness that even today there are parts that are virtually unmapped.

But I had found the area immediately around Cradle Mountain to be fairly well-trodden ground, largely because of the 86-cabin lodge spread around the forest at the entrance to the park. The main structure is a huge building of native timber, the kind of place where you drink hot toddies in front of a huge stone fireplace after a day of hiking and canoeing.

Despite that tempting fireplace, however, I spent as much time as possible out in the remarkable landscape that surrounds the lodge – rain forests, eucalyptus groves, buttongrass moors, and, of course, on Cradle Mountain itself, a 4,500-foot crag rising above a pristine alpine lake. The extravagant lushness of the forests held surprises – the elegance of a fern leaf, the gnarl of a eucalyptus trunk – each of which satisfied some deep need in me for the exotic. No, this was not England.

And that impression was driven home even more vividly by the park's prodigious fauna. Many of Tasmania's native species are nocturnal, so most of the animals I'd seen were those flattened by cars. But at Cradle Mountain dinner scraps were put out every night on a platform near the main lodge. Attracted by the food, droves of possums, wallabies, and pandemelons (tiny versions of kangaroos) would appear out of the darkness, to the coos and cheers of the onlooking lodge guests.

One night, as I was watching this daily debauch, I felt a gentle tap at my elbow. I turned, expecting to see another guest maneuvering for a better view, but it was a brush-tailed possum looking for a handout. He and a few of his cohorts had climbed the terrace railing to try their luck with the pushover Homo sapiens.

We also had a visit that night from a Tasmanian devil, the growling black carrion eater about half the size of a pit bull and twice as ornery. The devil lurked, invisibly but very noisily, just beyond the reach of the lodge's spotlights.

I got a more realistic sense of Tasmanian wildlife on my late-night drive. The animals along the park road seemed leery, secretive creatures, not brash like the ones begging handouts back at the lodge. In the heavy darkness of the Tasmanian night, their mystery remained intact.

When I reached the end of the road at Dove Lake, I got out of the car and tried to glimpse the peak of Cradle Mountain through the darkness. Suddenly I felt a bat swoop over my head, soundless, eerie, a reminder of the impenetrable strangeness of the bush.

Development has been a constant concern in Tasmania for some time, particularly on the intense battleground of the wild western half of the island, where mining and hydroelectric interests have gone chin to chin with the so-called tree-huggers at every turn. A showcase for the environmentalists is at Strahan, a fishing town that was a seldom-visited outpost until recently. Nowadays, however, the tour buses chug along the waterfront to disgorge their passengers onto ships, which then proceed to ferry them down Macquarie Harbour, past Sarah Island, and up into the wilderness of the Gordon River.

Thanks to a blockade that made international headlines a decade ago, the Gordon was spared a controversial hydroelectric scheme. Vast areas of forest – including some of the last strongholds of the Huon pine – were saved as a result of this action.

The controversy has been preserved at the new Strahan Visitor Centre, a state-of-the-art audiovisual museum that harangues visitors about everything from the absence of gay rights in Tasmania to the multiple harms that tourism does to the environment (although the museum seems happy enough to gather in the tourists' dollars at the entrance gate). Meanwhile, prodevelopment forces bombard residents daily with the usual promises of jobs and prosperity.

Caught in the middle of all of this are people like Paddy Williams and Ann Farley. I came across them on the waterfront at Lette's Bay, a remarkable little village made up exclusively of dilapidated corrugated-iron huts, a few miles from Strahan. Paddy was loading firewood onto a trailer, while Ann sat nearby, watching a couple of men wrestling a fishing boat out of the water. I walked up and – as I had found remarkably easy to do with Taswegians of all kinds – just started talking to them.

They warned me not to be deceived by the pristine-looking surroundings. "See this bay," said Paddy, taking off his decrepit straw hat to wipe sweat from his close-cropped gray hair. "It looks all right from here, but there's actually a couple feet of pure tailings under it – from the mine up in Queenstown."

"That's where we're from," Ann added. "Most of us is Queenies in this place."

I had seen Queenstown on my way in – a homely little place in a moonscape of red hills denuded by logging and pollution. Queenstown epitomizes the developer side in the environmental wars. To be honest, I had found its grandiose ugliness mesmerizing, another aspect of Tasmania's deep physical weirdness.

"This is a lot different from Queens-town," I said. And, looking at the boats, at the corrugated-iron huts, at Paddy's crownless straw hat, I went on: "It's a lot different from anywhere else I've been, come to think of it."

Ann and Paddy exchanged an amused smile. "You're absolutely right on that, young man," Paddy said.

"No," Ann added, sighing, "you don't see too many places like this nowadays. Even in Tassie."

Even in Tassie. This strange little hybrid of an island may be full of echoes from other hemispheres, but on that cloudless afternoon in Lette's Bay, as the gulls swooped low over the water and the ex-Queenies dragged their boats up the shore, the England of the midlands seemed as far away as the moonscape of the Queenstown hills.