28 April 2011

Tasmania - west coast goodbye

Here I am in paradise: warm water, easy wave access, and - the bottom line - friends and family.
Yet somehow dreaming of 4 milimeters of rubber, the summer days that never were, watching point swells do the same...the tough love of Tasmania...
here's one just for fun.
I had a mad mad run out of Hobart.  Lying in our bedroom in the "summer" evenings' ever coolness Talia says, "We have to move out of the house."  Family comes first.  Studenthood is geographically flexible, Talia is all too ready to wrap up work at the cafe.  So 10 days till Talia's flight out, 20 days till mine, we decide to cut our tethers.  Our friends offered more help than we needed, plenty places to stay when we return.  And we did it - lease signed over, car on the market, boards under friends' houses, our treasured posessions - all 86 kilos - packed, and repeatedly packed, into 4 separate bags for us and friends to check onto flights.  Borrowed a wallaby spring-scale from the school and hoisted luggage for an evening to get the weights perfect.  Ran ourselves ragged sorting drawers, clothes, and things, dropping bags at the goodwill store, deciding what stays, what we need.  Yet underneath the frenetic current of sorting and chucking and packing was a sense of serenity - we don't need much - everything else was a burden unshouldered - and our families would see us soon.

Talia was off first.  Only a minor meltdown at check-in, as the robotic counter lady repeated the $400 price tag for the extra bag, over and over.  "Thanks for your help, I'll take it back to the car."  There were many things still left to do once she left...little things mostly, getting extra boxes, bikes, canoe, and surfboard donations wherever they needed to go.  But I had another very important task, a matter of some adventuring to do.
Tasmania is a tough lover to be sure.  And, selfish as they seem, the mad journeys folks make through this crazy landscape are more for Tasmania herself, to show the place how much respect you have.  And, also to be sure, you must respect this place, oftentimes simply to survive it.  So, in the most literal sense, I felt I had one more jaunt to give, for now, before leaving.
Tassie also doesn't make it easy to choose - ocean or mountains - you cannot go wrong in either direction.  But with most my camping gear boxed up and headed to Darwin, the simplest choice was the sea - boards were staying on island and my wetsuit would travel by trashbag in carry-on.  Car's still for sale, though - a trickier one.  Screw it - I leave the keys with my housemate, even field an interested buyer via my mobile, and four days before my flight out I jump the bus to meet my mate Trout in Launceston.
Sunday morning I roll in off the Midlands highway on Tassie's Own Redline bus.  Trout had a big one the night before - as did I, packing bags though not beers.  Either way we're both a bit of a wreck.  I throw my boards in the ute and we go to his place to load up for a trip...the winds have gone easterly - perfect weather for the West Coast.
"Where the fuck is Stuey?  Probably on the fudge.  That's what he's done."  - Trout.  And so on went the running half-joke over the 4 hour drive through Tasmania's bible belt westward.  Stuey had the key to the devil shack - we'd pass by his house on the way out - but we're gunning for an evening surf and can't reach him.  So we stall ourselves in Stuey's hometown, Smithton - a town the proper size and strangeness of a real frontier.  To the south lies stark, maddening wilderness, the second largest tract of temperate rain forest in the world known - the Tarkine.  We are riding the fringe.  The sun is dropping low, but the shack is worth the wait.

Shacks, you see, are a way of life in Tasmania.  Many dot the tracks crossing the island's vast wilderness areas - the highland lake country, ever-remote coastlines, all throughout the national parks.  Many are still open to any passing traveller requiring shelter.  Others have been padlocked over the years - either due to visitor neglect or disrespect.  Some only require knowledge of place, but the upper echelon require a key.  And access to a locked shack is a privilege which one reveres.
In the eleventh hour we are frothing to see the ocean and Stuey calls back Trout.  "Come on up to ol' Mick's place."  We venture on a road south, wending our way through the surreal green pastureland, the last curve of rich, tillable earth before the leached out skeletel soils of the Tarkine.  The beef here, they say, are raised on the cleanest grass in the world.  If air quality sets the standard, this is no lie.  Stand into the prevailing westerlies, facing the southern ocean and the next piece of land out there is South America.  So breathe deeply, there's two-thirds a world of ocean to clean the air filling your lungs.
Up at Mick's were invited into the barn for a beer.  He and Stuey are getting ready to lead a 4x4 trip to the South Cape - a gnarly track down the Tarkine Coast from Arthur River as far south as you can drive.  Trout tells them I'm working on Aboriginal burning up north and Stuey gets straight into the Aboriginal history of where we stand.  "That shack, its in a crazy place, a special place."  In short, as white Australians expanded the agricultural frontier westward from Hobart and Launceston, the Tarkine Coast became the last stronghold for local Aboriginal clans.  "Because this was the westernmost place with good soil.  The shack sits right on the line."  While Aborigines had lived off the rich marine resources of the Tarkine coast for at least 40,000 years, towards the end of that terrible history the West Coast literally marked their final stand, the last foothold of a cultural legacy so long-lived, we really can't imagine it.
Stuey hands us the key.  "Have fun boys."  And as we're pulling out, Stuey yells over his shoulder, finishing a piss in the yard, still shaking his willy, "And Trout, get to the hahdware store and get yahself a copy of the cunt!"  Get it done.

 Only a half hour to the coast and the low sun is making the world all fat and brilliant with color.  "Shit, don't forget the roadkill."  Did you forget the name of the shack?  The spot marks yet another frontier - devil country.  Tasmanian devils are getting knocked out across the island by a facial cancer so aggressive its actually contagious (as they bite each other eatin' and fornicatin' - for real).  Out west remain the last populations of devils as yet unaffected by the disease.  And the best way to lure them in for a peek is nice bloated roadkill.  Load 'em up. 
Just after dusk, we pull off the Arthur River road up to the gate barring the track to the devil shack.  I get out to scope it.  We gun it through a pretty boggy section, takes a couple solid frame-shots, but we make it no worries in Trout's 2wd Mitsubishi.  The shack sits on a bluff maybe a half kilometer from the water and overlooking a sweeping white crescent beach fringed at either distant end by the red rocky points endemic to Tasmania.  First things first - get the rotting wallaby carcasses out of the back, drag 'em round the scrub surrounding the shack and string 'em up to the metal post cemented into the ground.  Pull out the car battery to power the lights inside, pop open a couple stubbies of Corona, and enjoy the panoramic fade to nighttime. 

Next morning we pull out for the beach - wind's still offshore but we know we're only pretending to see lines on the ocean...the surf is tiny when we arrive at the overlook.  And at the moment we're feeling deflated, over it, the frenchies pull in.  Gerard, who I have met before through the university, is on a road trip up from Hobart with his brother.  Fortunately his enthusiasm was just contagious enough "Kiman guys - jest to get awet."  We suit up, grab our fishes and paddle out into the waste high waves - as the Aussies say - just to have a dag.

Weird moment number one at the pub that evening.  We're onto our second round of Cascade Stouts, shooting the shit with the locals.  In rolls Pierre Cardin, pink button-down tucked in, nice slacks, polished shoes, sits at the counter and orders a bottle of red.   
"You boys got the boards out there?  Get any surf?"
"A bit - only waste high - just down the road."
"Wait a minute."  Things suddenly turn dramatic.  He looks at us quite seriously.  "It was waste high down there?"
"Yeah...maybe waste high."
"Shit."  He slams the wine in his glass and looks to the bartender.  "Keep the bottle behind the counter."
Trout and I look at other...what?...then look at Pierre, "What's up, man?"
"Arthur River boys.  It'll be firing right now."  With that, buddy runs out the door.  The bartender takes the wine bottle and wipes down the counter.
Its 5:30 pm, maybe 2 hours till nightfall.  We tilt back our beers.  "Whatya reckon?"
"Gotta go check it out."  
 So back in the ute and make the run down the cost to Arthur River.  As the road dips down to the single lane bridge we get a first glimpse of feathering lips waving to us over the dunes.  We cross the bridge and pull into to the tourist area overlooking the river mouth - of course its called "The end of the world."  The sun is laying low, winds still offshore and to the north several peaks are A-framing beyond the huge rock lying off the beach.
"Where the F is buddy?"  We're scanning the beach, the water, we even went back to check for fresh tire tracks to the beach track heading south.  Meanwhile its approaching dusk and we're staring at these peaks rolling offshore, staring at the churning tannin-stained river entering the sea...then staring back at the waves.
"Why is nobody out?"  Why?  Because its the spookiest set up imagineable...cold water, sunset, rivermouth, way offshore.  Shit - we need more recon on this.  Buddy is nowhere to be seen.  Shit...lets go get another beer.
Weird moment number two at the pub that evening.  I stay in the car, Trout goes in for ice.  One of the local old mates grills him immediately, "How was it?"
Trout:  "We didn't paddle out."
Old mate: "Why not?"
Trout: "'Cause it was bloody spooky."
Old mate: "Whaddya mean, spooky?"
Trout, looking at old mate a bit funny: "Ya know, spooky.  Rivermouth, sunset..."
Old mate: "And what?"
Trout: "C'mon mate, looked pretty sharky out there."
Old mate #2 pipes in: "Nah."
Old mate: "Nah."
Old Mate #2: "No shahhks out there, mate."
Trout, looking at old mate # 2 a bit funny: "Ya sure about that, old fruit?"
Old mate: "So how big?"
Trout: "I don't know.  Maybe 4 feet."
Old mate: "Whaddya mean maybe 4 feet."
And so on and so on as if testing Trout's whole oceanic worldview - within a minute Trout's found himself hip deep into some weird interrogation and somehow defending his whole history - growing up at Margaret River, Rottnest island...what the hell is going on here?  He suddenly checks himself.  "Reckon its time to go, mate.  Nice chat."

Meanwhile I'm watching this through the glass door of the pub, thinking old Trout's getting some more inside info - at the very least finding out what happened to Pierre Cardin.  But he comes out bewildered.  "I don't know what the fuck that was."  And proceeds to relay the interaction.  Scratching our heads, a bit downtrodden, we crack one for the road and try to beat the dark back to the devil shack.

"We'll get 'em tomorrow."  The waves we mean.  I failed to mention also the night before no devils came.  So our bait had an extra day to ripen, an extra day to draw them in with its sweet sweet stench.  After a feast over the propane cooker, we crash out on our board bags on the floor, silently hoping the abundant huntsmen spiders won't creep across our faces.
(not a devil)
AM.  Trout, in whisper: "Dude, wake up."  No way.  I spring up knowing instantly what he's on about.  We peer out the panoramic front windows with our flashlights.  At the edge of the clearing, like a miniature bear, a devil has its snout raised, sniffing the wind.  The light makes it pause, but those dead carcasses are so tauntingly close.  Cautiously, it eases into the clearing - its stocky, maybe 40 cm tall, with little bear-like ears, a shiny black coat with a bib of white fur under the chin, the hindquarters sporting a stiff, stubby tail in that slightly awkward way that is peculiar to marsupials.   The devil comes in, grabs one of the carcasses by the leg and tries to pull into the bush.  The yanking builds in violence, but our zip ties hold strong.  We switch on the spotlight out front.  The devil backs away again but soon sniffs the air and cannot resist.  Accepting the fact that the meal must remain stationary, the devil starts prodding the good bits.  It nibbles at the gut and the bloated cavity suddenly deflates.

"He's in!"  As cute as the devil was when it walked into the clearing, watching it bury its snout deep into the rotting bowels of a dead wallaby shatters any possible teddy-bear analogy.  It works up into the internal organs first - seemingly seeking out its favorite bits - the sweetbreads, I'm imagining, the thymus, liver, pancreas.  It takes its time, we sort of drift in and out.  Later, I wake to the sound of bones being snapped and gnawed, the devil has moved onto the legs.  Sorry, no photos here.  When you get a group of devils they're easy to sneak up on, distracted as they are quarreling and snapping at each other over the carrion.  But ours was solo and a bit timid, bolting everytime we tried to get close.  
Next morning, the devil is long-gone, but there is enough carcass to go around another night at least.  Too bad we'll be heading back to Launceston that evening - I've got a flight to make in a day and half.  We pack up our gear, put the battery back in the rig, donate our extra food and firewood, and head back to the little bay we surfed the first morning.  On the track in we run into two of Trout's mates that live up the road, Salty and Macey.
"Nothing happening down there, boys.  Heading to Arthur River."

"We're right behind you."  This again?  Nah - this is how it was supposed to happen the day before.  We shoot back down to the river mouth, happy to put our luck in the hands of locals.  Back at end of the world, we duck in under the gazebo, out of the rain and tuck into breakfast.  Once again we're staring across the river at the peaks just north of the big rock.  Its a bit bigger and even cleaner than last night.  "Dude...where are they?"  Crap, not again...then suddenly there's old Macey, his helmet a tiny white dot as he kicks out on his kneeboard.  Up ahead Salty's almost made his way to the peak.  "We're out there."  As we finish brekkie, we see Salty whip into the left we had been drooling over the night before and take it 300 meters down the beach before kicking out.

We get in our wetsuits under the cover of the gazebo, drive the car back across the bridge and follow the beach along the Arthur river, trotting through the graveyard of driftwood to the break just up the coast.  Its a tangle of rocks at the beach, but the paddle out is way more mellow than it seems.  When we get to the line-up we get shit-eating grins from Salty and Macey.  Only 5 of us out, everyone simply stoked, and we spend all morning shouting each other into 4-5 foot rights and lefts peeling off the outer sand bank.  Four hours later, surfed out to all hell, we're back on the beach staring at the empty lineup and pounding a bag of local cherries with our new mate Udlis.

"How was that?"
"Unreal. Problem with this spot is its usually just too bloody big."  The skeletons of rain forest giants strewn across the beach and up into the dunes confirm his claim.
"Hard to leave it today, anyway."  No shit.  Udlis is wrapping up his summertime Tassie migration, off to trim grapevines in Victoria as a private contractor.  "Good gig - at least for now - let's me come and live down here in the off-season, even sneak an Indo trip here and there in-between."
Until next time then, mate.  We hike back down the beach, half-drunk from the sea, and unwind at the car with a stubbie.  There are a couple spots to check as we meander north.  We pull back into the first little beach break of the trip.  There's a little crew parked down on the beach and a few guys out inside the cove.  The winds are dead, the cloud cover bringing an early evening feel to the afternoon.  As we watch the lines bend and push into the bay a mist is slowly creeping in off the water.  We spot Macey down at the lower overlook and head over to shoot the shit.

We talk about his stained glass work and how we should play some mandolin next time we make it down.

"Any stories about this spot in particular," I ask.

He gets what I'm after immediately.  "There's powerful history all around this place." 
He gestures to the giant shell middens looming above us and the beach, marking the old encampments of its former stewards.  This history is still alive here in Tasmania - all the struggle of settlers staking their lives at the ends of the earth and all the guilt and horror of a genocide.  And while many may choose bury this history - how easy, sitting in the cafes of Hobart town - folks living on the West Coast confront it everyday - and keep it part of their story.
"Ya going back out?" Trout asks Macey.
"Maybe not tonight...I'll be here tomorrow too."
No worries, old mate.  We run back and suit up at the ute, grab our boards and surf head-high waves in the bay till dusk, till we can barely paddle.  Its almost dark and we pull out towards the main road, dodging wallabies and pademelons, as you do in Tassie.  The mist turns to rain and fog.  Have a piece of fudge, its gonna be a long haul back.
We make it to Launceston before midnight and crash hard at Trout's place.  I'm on the 9 am bus back to Hobart the next morning.  I've got about 20 hours till my flight to Hawaii.  Still got a couple surfboards to leave with friends, some things to lock up at school, a last minute deal to try and sell the car, a few more goodbyes.  Little things, really.  I've already given Tasmania the goodbye I owe her.  At least for now.

No comments: