Home and away in Tasmania
So far-flung is Tasmania from the real world that a concrete cow standing on the aft deck of a camouflaged catamaran hardly looks out of place.
This Australian island state is one step beyond, in nearly every direction. Its star is shining in the international art world thanks to the extraordinary Museum of Old and New Art, the life's work of eccentric gambler David Walsh. The museum is a subversive adult Disneyland, an antipodean reciprocal to Venice's Biennale installations. It's designed to boggle the mind and test the taste of visitors, and it's no surprise to find that the aforementioned catamaran is the Mona Roma that shuttles customers to Walsh's Derwent River door.
Everyone we meet in Hobart mentions Mona; it has quickly injected itself into the fabric of Australia's most southern state capital since opening in 2011, and it fits right in.
Flying in from Melbourne after dark, the first Tasmanian I meet is driver David Reynolds, who credits the art renaissance for hauling in business and marvels at the deals that airlines are offering to get people here.
"I picked up a bloke the other day who paid $9 to fly in on Jetstar. Nine dollars!" he said. Then, with a slightly manic cackle, "Cost him about $900 to get out again."
David is an engineer, but he's been in recovery after being injured in the devastating January fires that destroyed 100 properties and forced Dunalley householders into the sea with its ferocious heat.
"Did you get burnt?" I wondered.
"No, fell backwards off a fence and broke legs, broke ribs, punctured lungs, cracked two spinal vertebrae . . ."
The shortest flight to Tasmania from New Zealand is Invercargill to Hobart - about 2 hours in a 737. But until that airline link is forged, Kiwi travellers must fly via Sydney or Melbourne.
That has me checking in at Hobart's Henry James Art Hotel just as the restaurant closes, but the casually attentive staffers deliver a superb steak and pinot dinner to my room. The Georgian sandstone waterfront warehouse, built in 1804 as a jam factory, was reborn as a 56-room hotel accommodating more than 300 works of art, much of it by local (Tasmanian) artists. It's a joy to inhabit - the rooms are as spacious as a gallery and a walk through the well-hung corridors is a feast for the eye.
Hobart is a Wellington-sized harbour town with a Dunedin-sized population - about 120,000 people live in the immediate town basin that wraps its honey-coloured stone warehouse buildings around wharves full of fishing boats. The proud Mt Wellington's dolerite stone columns stand sentinel above the city as if scanning the southern ocean for signs of Antarctica.
Early explorers looked south too; over the edge of the map.
At dawn the port comes alive. Ocean-going fishing rigs come and go from the port under the gaze of a bronze statue of Louis Bernacchi, the first Australian to winter in Antarctica. He's patting his dog, Joe, standing on a crate. At their backs, the grey ocean stretches to Macquarie Island, 1500 kilometres south, and Antarctica 2640km.
We're heading south, too - to Kettering, by road, for a less testing voyage - the car ferry to Bruny Island. We're going to meet some singular island characters doing pretty cool things, and they'll confirm that it's not till you delve behind the scenes and gas with the locals that you encounter the true taste of Tasmania.
The busy little port of Kettering, 37km south of Hobart, is a stepping-off point - even for Tasmanians, who are regarded by other Australians as having already stepped off. "Terminal underperformers," is what columnist Jonathan West called them in January, "at the bottom on virtually every dimension of economic, social and cultural performance".
The sense of "islandness" we notice runs parallel with an unwillingness to change and confront economic reality, he says. And the attitude is right here on the Bruny Island ferry. Loaded with trailers and heading away for the weekend, bach owners - "shackies" - are heading for a timeless isle of eucalyptus-covered grasslands, sweeping golden beaches, sheltered waters and seafood for all. They don't want it to change.
The smoke of a (controlled) bush fire is drifting across the wharf as we disembark on North Bruny. The island is pinch-waisted with an isthmus causeway between north and south, and separated from Tasmania by the D'Entrecasteaux Channel. The names come from French explorer Bruni d'Entrecasteaux, who landed in 1792 and recognised it as an island, something both Abel Tasman and James Cook had missed.
We roll down over The Neck into Adventure Bay, and rock up in a seaside village of shacks - some rough as guts, some architecturally immaculate, all with leafy gum-tree sections and stunning water views.
This is where the native oysters cling to the rocks and the wharf fishing is legendary. The last Kiwi they saw through here was Al Brown, chef and hunter-gatherer fisherman, who caught squid for a calamari cook-up and raved about the local crayfish and little blue mussels for his new television series, Dishing Up Australia.
Here's where we meet Rob Pennicott, the raspy-voiced little ball of scruffy energy who many credit with Bruny's new position as Tassie's tourism darling. Rob and his wife, Michaye, run the yellow boats of Bruny Island and Tasman Island Tours - a fleet of six high-powered open-sided rigid inflatable boats which take groups of up to 42 down the coasts seven days a week year-round in all weathers.
The quartermillion-dollar speedboats are the new benchmark in environmental tourism and Pennicott loves them - "they're really comfortable," he says, "and really well air-conditioned".
"But if anyone is prone to sea sickness, have one of these. They're all-natural ginger tablets, and they're free now. In an hour the price goes up to $500, and we'll shake you upside down until your credit card falls out."
Pennicott's gags draw shy smiles from the Hong Kong honeymooners and the family of 10 from Mumbai, but he sets the tone for the tour. Soon we're togged up in red spray-capes and surging out into the ocean, speeding through deep water only metres from more of the columnar dolerite rock pillars that remind travellers of Ireland's Giant's Causeway. They support colonies of lichen, and the red fungus that gives Tasmania's famous Bay of Fires its name.
Incisive lectures on the flora: who knew bull kelp grews a metre a day and is an ingredient in icecream and beer? It's the largest photosynthesising organism on the planet, we learn.
Then we spot a sea eagle soaring above a disturbance in the water, and the roll call of fauna begins: seals, dolphins, orcas, gannets, albatross and falcons . . . then a cormorant drying its wings on a tideline ledge.
"We call that a shag on a rock," says Pennicott, "but that's a story for later."
We're starting to tick off the species when a huge barnacled shoulder rises between the waves off the starboard bow. The skipper gets really excited. "It's a humpback! I'm almost certain." The whale blows a double spout, giving away its identity. "No! Even better! It's a southern right whale! And he's huge!"
The humpbacks migrate down this coast on their way to feeding grounds, but the southern right whales are less often spotted. "That's really rare," says Pennicott. "How lucky are we?"
Pennicott's enterprise employs 71 staff and brings about 40,000 visitors to Bruny Island each year. It has been named Tasmania's best tourist attraction for six of the last seven years.
"Yeah, I forgot to fill out the form in 2007," says the skipper.
A quarter of his business profits are donated to local, national and international conservation, pest eradication and humanitarian projects. In 2011, Pennicott circumnavigated Australia in a 5.4m inflatable dinghy and raised over $250,000 to help Rotary's push to eradicate polio.
We nose into caves, get sprayed by tideline blowholes and blast between a rock pillar and hard place with no room to spare.
Then the boat rounds the island's southern point and Pennicott announces that we're entering the Southern Ocean. That's when the enormity of this trip kicks in. Round-the-world sailors have been lost down here and ships wrecked, but here we are in midwinter eating a packet of Shapes and laughing with a crazy bloke in shorts.
There's no better introduction to the wild south of Bruny Island. But when it's time to go, there's a better perspective: from the window of a floatplane during the 15-minute flight back to Hobart.
Ex-RAF fighter pilot Jethro - "like Jethro Tull," he says on introduction - has slid his Tasmanian Air Adventures six-seater workhorse into a deep bay to pick us up. On board are two Red Bull girls, Tammy and Jade, researching cool venues for a sales conference, and newly qualified co-pilot Nick, whose dream is to pilot a Flying Doctor plane.
A lot of Jethro's mates left the air force to fly commercial jets, but that's too dull and predictable. "This is real flying," he says, pointing out the coves and bays of Bruny as we fly towards the Tasmanian "mainland" at a stately 100 knots.
Cameron Williamson and photographer Craig Simcox travelled courtesy of Tourism Australia, Tourism Tasmania and Pennicott Wilderness Journeys.
Sunday Star Times