Most holidays start with frantic packing, unpacking, repacking and frayed tempers. The late arrival of a large box of toys for the kids is likely to strain the relationship between the provider of packages and the car packer. The kids are both bored and overexcited. But finally we are packed, and surprisingly it’s late in the afternoon, but that’s OK. The short drive to the ferry terminal only lasts about 30 minutes, far better than the longer drive to other destinations. However, getting onto the boat itself is a much slower business. Minutes tick past and we don’t move; it’s like checking in for a flight, but whilst sitting inside motor powered luggage. After 40 minutes we have moved forward a car’s length. Security checks the luggage, the roof box and the engine bay. They check for pets, fruit, damp fishing tackle and gas canisters. Tasmania is clearly under threat from people casting explosive cats and apples in all directions. P needs the bathroom. I need a drink. We all need to move forward. Eventually we get on board and move off to our cabin.
Real Estate agents may have described the cabin as “deceptively spacious” - but I would have described it as tiny. The cubby house in our garden is about the same size, although it has more spiders. Clearly the probation on pets is because you would not have room to swing a cat, although you may have had no problems swinging a hamster if you had the inclination - but at least we knew it was all ours. Outside in the cheap seats people were engaged in strategic manoeuvres for seats and sleeping spots. On the upper decks sleeping bags had been laid out to claim the best spots. Dinner was served by the plate - flat rate dining with an emphasis on size rather than substance. Mothers cautioned their children about overeating and the perils of seasickness and then proceeded to polish off enough food to feed a small nation. I know that I’m a snob. I finish my meal, encourage the rest to do the same and head off for bed.
The room is vibrating. It’s not the waves. It’s not the beer either before you ask. The engines shake the whole ship with a kind of 6/8 beat, with occasional bars of 2/4 thrown in for good measure. Free form engine jazz. It does not encourage sleep. The top bunks offer little headroom, but at least the kids are asleep and we are moving. Tasmania comes closer with every passing minute. Devonport arrives in the wee hours of the morning. The dock is lined with the markers of seaside arrival; car parks, old sheds, rusting machines of unknown purpose. We hurry to the car deck and then wait. And wait. We wait again as we pass through security again - we are checked for pets, fruit, damp fishing tackle and gas canisters - again, and strangely we still don’t have any.
We drive into the island state and it rapidly becomes clear that things are different. The landscape seems to be a contradiction, both small and large at the same time. The land is folded, creased in intimate ways, with tiny patches and twists, but it is also filled with greater distance and larger size. While some roads are the ruler straight byways of the mainland, roads that seem to make no concession to the landscape, others are twisted and plastic. These roads flow through the landscape rather than just bisect it. These are roads that have been made with the landscape, the easiest way rather than the fastest way. Not for the last time I am reminded of England. Small roads. Patches of woodland. Steep sided valleys, tiny and almost hidden, with fast flowing streams. In places there are stone walls by the side of the road. But then the distance appears and the illusion of Englishness fades. The distant hills are fuzzy at the edges with trees. The paddock trees are huge, but straight, with leaves and branches growing in clumps. They have few low side branches. When these trees were young they were forest trees, and their form still shows this. They are the ghosts of a forest that has only recently been lost.
We pass through small towns; they may even be villages, with equally small churches. Towers and spires, arches and stained glass windows. Many of the buildings have rough edges and still bear the marks of simple construction. They lack the ostentatious grandeur of goldfield churches and buildings, but they fit into the landscape. They seem to sit low to the ground, and come from it rather than rest upon it. They seem part rather than placed, a part rather than apart.
The thoughts and memories come think and fast, the landscape a mental trigger to elsewheres and elsewhens. The turn of the road here, the shape of the land there, each seems to hold something that takes me away from the here and now. Such thoughts come with the golden glow of a memory and the blue funk of regret. Why can’t I just see this place for what it is rather than try to build bridges to a place which, because of time, no longer exists. The car swerves to avoid a wallaby and I am back in the here and now. Brought back by one of the true markers of difference, as if the place knew what I was thinking and needed to give me a gentle nudge.
We head south and east, towards Freycinet. It’s a picture postcard place, featured on tourist maps and calendars, and even under a grey sky the first glimpse of the Hazards is exciting. They are a chain of round top hills that fall away into the sea and form one side of Coles Bay. The town of Coles Bay itself sits across from the Hazards with a fine view, and a waiting house. The car disturbs butterflies from the drive, dozens of them. It’s an unexpected greeting. The air outside the car has an autumn chill, brought by southern latitude and winds. I moved south as the sun moved and seasons had rushed ahead of me, one a day away from home and a week closer to winter. As unpack the car it starts to rain. Light and windswept, but rain. By the time I finish unpacking the car it’s not light but it’s still windblown. It continues to rain for the next 72 hours - almost non-stop.
The clouds are at sea level, and the see level is just about zero. We settle into the house and find comfort in card games and the soft heat from a pot bellied stove. Occasionally a dragon hiss boils up from the fire as rain leaks through the roof. The near horizontal rain pushes its way between the chimney and the roof and comes inside to join us. A rust red streak on the fire shows that this has happened before.
That night I fell asleep to the crackle of water falling from the gutter onto the decking outside the window. It sounded like the violent pop and fizzle of an egg frying in over heated oil, irregular and sharp. When I woke in the morning it was still going. There was no view to speak of from the house, and for much of the time there may have been no garden either - I had no real way of telling. Water was running down the track to the house in coffee brown steams, taking the soil down to the sea. A few birds sulked in the undergrowth and there were no butterflies.
Under these conditions there is only one thing to do - go outside. It’s not a matter of if you are going to get wet, that’s a given, it’s just a matter of whether you care about getting wet. Rain walking has more appeal than many people think. Down by the sea the low tide had exposed rocks and beds of kelp - perfect conditions for rock pooling. Once the first crab dashed for cover when a rock was lifted any thought of rain whooshed from the kids’ heads. Crabs! Lots of Crabs! Purple crabs, crabs with strange long claws, soldier crabs on the sand. This was a playground of the inquisitive, a source of adventure for the curious. Chitons - “like fossils” - cling to the rocks, sea anemones - “like jelly sweets” - hide in the depths and starfish - “Patrick!” - are all found. The waters here are so rich that we find fish on the beach, as if a wave has just left it there. The solider crabs twist themselves into the sand, round and round, building delicate sand hideaways. A White-faced Heron hunts by the rocks, and the crabs panic. Gulls drift past, the tide turns, time passes and still it rains. Nobody seems to care. Warm drinks and towels wait back at the house; it’s all you need.
The next day brought yet more rain. The land was saturated with water, it lapped at the edges of the road, it pushed against window frames, it filled the rivers to bursting. The swollen streams meant even beach walks became difficult, each one barred the way. Some could be jumped, most were too deep, too fast. Eventually the clouds began to lift, but some, reluctant to leave, lingered. They formed lines and patches on the hill tops, some looked like chains of smoke, some looked like crowns. But whatever they looked like, they stayed. That afternoon the clouds gathered back together and the rain fell with a renewed vigour. A White-bellied sea eagle flew through the clouds, its grey wings the same shade as the sky, only its named belly really showing. As it flew away it became a white patch in a grey sky, like a glimpse of the sun peaking through.
I hoped it was a sign of things to come.