x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Rustic but resilient, Tasmania is isolated splendour

On a family holiday from Abu Dhabi, Rob McKenzie and his daughter take the short flight from Melbourne to Launceston in time for the antipodean spring.

The historic Toll House at Cataract Gorge, South Esk River, in northern Tasmania. Below, a row of Victorian terraced houses on St John's Street in Launceston. Getty Images
The historic Toll House at Cataract Gorge, South Esk River, in northern Tasmania. Below, a row of Victorian terraced houses on St John's Street in Launceston. Getty Images

We landed in northern Tasmania on an August morning when the southern spring was starting to show itself. The cherry trees had just come into bloom, the North Esk had flooded its banks and the paddocked horses wore blankets but their puffs of breath brought forth no steam.

I asked a minibus driver at the airport if he knew the way to the TwoFourTwo hotel. He wore a workman's winter jacket with a corduroy collar, and squinted one eye as he thought it over and answered:

"Never heard of that. That's a new one. But we'll find that. No worries."

His words had a rough-hewn poetry that for me came to characterise northern Tasmania. It was in the old buildings and rolling lands, the grit, the gorge and the dive of the platypus.

In his history of Venice, Peter Ackroyd observed of islands: "To be insular is to be independent; but it is also to be alone." Tasmania, an island off an island (I know, technically Australia is a continent - but it feels like an island), is doubly detached, and doubly alone. Foreigners are often befuddled by Australians, with their billabongs and accents and Vegemite and football madness; in turn, mainland Aussies are prone to look upon their southern cousins as rustic, and call them Taswegians.

And Tasmania has had it tough. It was home to the bleakest of Australia's 19th-century prisons (when your penal system includes an Isle of the Dead, you know you've got troubles). Its resource economy has always boomed and busted. Smart young people tend to move away. Consequently, Launceston has a rawness that Melbourne, up across the 40th parallel, does not.

My notes from a first-afternoon walk around Launceston convey the city's two sides: "Young guy's T-shirt: gangster kangaroo with submachine gun. Smoking. Old stone building with fresh coat of yellow paint. Coffee shop in quiet laneway. 'Cooking with gas' in a sort of giant pointillist stencil under roofline of old factory. Stained glass. Face tattoos. Metal ornaments with patterns like lace. Palm trees and timber trucks. 'Wool brokers': the sign is gone but the imprint remains. Two church steeples, one of peeling paint and one of scrubbed-clean brick. 'I'm not sure which one I like better,' daughter says."

I liked Launceston; it is a city that lets you decide for yourself. If you like grit in your soap and husks in your porridge, then this is your kind of town (if you don't like husks in your porridge, try the couscous porridge with coconut cream, dates and toasted almonds at Fresh, a non-threatening vegetarian restaurant near the city centre; my teenage vegetarian daughter and I ate there twice).

A city with contrasts is a city with surprises. One afternoon, as we turned the corner to our cottage, we heard a sound like a baby crying from a car that was parking up ahead. The car stopped, a woman opened the passenger-side door and out popped - no word of a lie - a bleating black lamb.

"You little rotter," the woman said with some affection. We had to laugh.

Later we took a historical walking tour, and my initial scribbled impressions acquired some seasoning (also, possibly, the fate of the lamb). Our guide was a keen preservationist who had the endearing habit of announcing architectural styles like they were punchlines, trilling her voice and waving her hands: "Up the road we have a temple built in [activate voice and jazz hands] Egyptian! Revival!"

That Launceston has kept so much of its old architecture is thanks to a slump that the guide summarised as "the 20th century". But in parts of the 19th century and even the early 20th, Launceston was prosperous enough that its architects cooked up a feast of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian edifices (in a nutshell, Georgian is forceful and geometric; Victorian is ornate - that's when the wrought iron-like lace dates from; and, if it looks somewhere inbetween, go with Edwardian).

We learnt that the "cooking with gas" building had been, naturally, a gasworks; that Launceston's leading merchants of the 1830s gathered at the Cornwall Hotel (a Georgian, big circular windows) to plan the foundation of Melbourne (a fact, our guide said, somewhat deflating to visiting Melburnians); that the "wool brokers" site was being turned into shops and parking, but the facade, with its unusual jagged roofline, would be preserved; and later, we saw for ourselves that the church with peeling paint has, in fact, been deconsecrated.

If Launceston has a claim to fame, it is Cataract Gorge, where the South Esk is squeezed and tumbles between ancient cliffs. August marking the start of the Tasman spring, we heard the gorge in full throat, roaring madly. It was overwhelming, like a rush of violent emotion. In the unrelenting way it twisted and attacked, it reminded me of the snake in Harry Potter.

But I grew up in a country town and am drawn to smaller and smaller places, so we drove north from Launceston to see rural parts of Tasmania.

This brought the most exhilarating hour of our four days on the island: the hill drive from Beauty Point to Latrobe, on narrow roads pitching back to front and side to side. It filled one's senses and felt like so: the wind ruffles your hair through the car window; Adele on the car radio mingles with static; your hands hold the steering wheel more tightly as transport trucks roar towards you from the opposing lane; you smell forest and field and take in their contrasting green blurs under the pure blue of sky; sheep speckle the roadside pastures like whitecaps on the sea; all the while the Zen mantra in the back of your head goes, "Stay on the left, stay on the left, left, left". You stop the car and birdsong ranges across the forest, like a scattered symphony warming up before the big show. As Latrobe approaches and the road straightens out, a burst of speed brings a sly smile; you pass a farmhouse with a sign showing today's prices for eggs, dry manure and boiler hens; you miss a turnoff and slide into reverse; you reach Latrobe and have a coffee in a cosy shop with hardwood planks on the floor and old maps on the wall.

Our drinks drained, we headed to the Warrawee Forest Reserve at the edge of town, where our guide Nipper Hedditch helped us stalk the wild platypus at dusk.

The platypus is an odd duck - a semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal with a beaver's flat tail, a mole's furry torso, a moist bill, a venomous spur in the male and lactation via sweating in the female. This bargain bin of parts was fascinating to Charles Darwin, though the men who discovered it feared they would be accused of attempting a hoax.

The Warrawee reserve is beside the Mersey River, which flooded its banks by seven metres in January, wrecking the platypuses' burrows and washing away their food supply. Nipper reckons 80 per cent of the local platypus population died, but only six months later he was spotting them regularly again.

We stood still at a pond framed by dogwood, eucalyptus and silver wattle trees, waiting quietly for one lonely platypus to show herself. You can't hurry this shy beast, watchful and timid, the Boo Radley of the animal world.

When she finally hurried over an embankment before sliding into the pond, it was just like Harry Burrell, vaudeville comedian-turned-naturalist, described more than 80 yers ago in his opus The Platypus: Its Life-History and Habits: "… progression on land is clumsy, shuffling, and sinuous, like that of a heavy-bodied lizard."

The platypus was smaller than I had expected, its torso maybe two shwarmas long. It would not scare an Abu Dhabi cat (then again, what does?).

When the platypus dove, we could track her by the trail of air bubbles escaping her fur. She returned to the surface, then submerged with a turn as neat as an otter's.

"So graceful," said my daughter.

And she was. A misfit on land, she found her ease in the water. Even her absurd bill has a purpose offshore - scooping up food off the pond's bottom. On this day she did not have to work so hard for her dinner, and tucked into a feast of dragonfly nymphs on the surface.

While the platypus went about her business, we chatted with Nipper, not one to waste words.

Have the animals come to recognise him?

"Could do, yeah."

Why does he like platypuses?

"Born and bred here."

Has he ever seen them in captivity?

"I like them in the wild. They can come and go as they please here."

There is a certain poetry in leaving something alone. Seeing the wild platypus was down-to-earth and almost anticlimactic, yet lovely and indelible, and a lot like Tasmania.

rmckenzie@thenational.ae