The Edge of the World

Tasmania is the Australia, in miniature, that tourists travel so far to see

RENAISSANCE cartographers portrayed the edge of the known world as an evil, enchanted place, where storms raged and bizarre creatures lurked. Sailors foolhardy enough to venture there were believed to face certain death. Yet resolute explorers pushed the world's edge ever farther back, until the map finally wrapped around the globe. The known world is now the entire world. Almost: adventurous travelers can still capture the feeling of arriving at the edge of terra cognita by visiting Tasmania. Australia itself is remote from almost everywhere else, but Tasmania, a small island state, which dangles like a pendant from the mainland's southeastern tip, is about as far from anywhere as it's possible to go. The island is an enchanted place, but a decidedly hospitable one. It does rain from time to time, but Tasmania has no more storms than most other places. All manner of bizarre creatures lurk in the wilderness, but it's a fainthearted explorer who's afraid of wallabies, wombats, and platypuses. Tasmania has within manageable compass almost everything that attracts travelers to Australia. It's as if the mainland's essence were distilled and concentrated in one compact place. Its coastline is as gorgeous as the Great Barrier Reef; its interior wilderness contains one of the largest stands of virgin temperate rain forest in the world, incomparably rich in wildlife; its historical heritage is fascinating and well preserved; its food and wine are superb. The only thing Australian it lacks is desert.

Tasmania is also amazingly undervisited: the island receives fewer than 75,000 foreign travelers a year (the Empire State Building gets that many visitors in a week), though it's very popular with mainland Australians. You can walk for hours in the national parks and not meet any other two-legged creatures, unless they be wallabies or kangaroos. Travelers planning a trip to Australia this fall for the Olympic Games might consider getting away from the crowds for a week in scenic, salubrious Tasmania. North American fall is the Antipodean spring, a good time to visit. The only time to avoid is Tasmania's damp, cold winter -- our summer months. And the prices will make you think you've traveled back in time twenty years. Sydney is a bargain for Americans, but Tasmania is downright cheap: when you convert your American dollars into Australian ones, they swell in the most pleasing way.

Throughout its history Tassie, as the Australians call it, has attracted a rugged breed of people who have come and stayed. The first wave of Western inhabitants, the convicts transported from Great Britain, came involuntarily; but in modern times the island has held a special appeal for visionaries, explorers drawn to the far end of the earth.

UNTIL the twentieth century Tasmania was almost entirely wilderness, so no one saw much need to create parks. One of the pioneers in the island's national-park movement was an Austrian outdoorsman named Gustav Weindorfer, who bushwalked the mountainous interior, fell in love with the sublime landscape, and never left. In 1912 Weindorfer and his wife, Kate, built a pine chalet next to Dove Lake, at the foot of Cradle Mountain, and the couple lived there for the rest of their lives. Today most visitors to Cradle Mountain National Park stop for a look at Waldheim ("Forest Home"), which is just as rustic as its name, set in the midst of a grove of gnarled pines and myrtle -- all covered with brilliant-green moss.

"Hobbity, isn't it?" said Di Hollister, a guide provided by the Tasmanian government, which was my host on this trip. At first I thought Di was using a strange Australianism (the words are sometimes as odd as the animals Down Under), but she was referring to Tolkien, and the invocation was apt. A mist blanketed the forest that morning, but the thick cover of boughs kept the winding track dry. The dense air was saturated with the emerald sheen of the moss, and I almost did expect to see wee folk darting among the knobby roots of the trees.

When I got to know Di a bit better, she let slip that she had been a member of the state parliament, representing the Green Party. In the 1960s and 1970s environmentalists and bushwalkers like Di came together to oppose a series of industrial projects, including hydroelectric dams and pulp mills, that would have had a devastating effect on the wilderness. The state's Green Party emerged from this coalition, and at one point it held five of the thirty-five parliamentary seats, enabling it to push through strong environmental legislation. Today Tasmania's wilderness enjoys greater legal protection than that of any other state of Australia: 20 percent of its land has World Heritage status, and is therefore in a class with the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon.

Every visitor to Tasmania soon learns that according to international health organizations, the island has the cleanest air and water in the world. Di worked this fact into the conversation five minutes after I met her. The island is also remarkable for some of the things it doesn't have: fruit flies, for example. Houseflies, yes, but no fruit flies. Unlike the mainland, it also lacks foxes (the settlers here weren't exactly the riding-to-hounds set), which is good news for wallabies and other slow-moving marsupials.

There are many ways to see the wilderness in Tasmania, from camping in the wild to staying in Waldheim-style huts or posh lodges, yet even around places of this last kind, the critters are everywhere. When I checked in at Cradle Mountain Lodge, which is adjacent to the park, I found a mother wallaby munching away on the grass beside my cabin, with her little joey peeking out of her pouch. On a short walk to the park entrance we immediately chanced upon a wombat, who looked up calmly, turned his broad rump to us, and scuttled away. "The usual view," Di said.

I'm a great fan of all mammals (well, most mammals -- I can do without rats and bats), but it must be said: marsupials are the cutest. Even blasé urban-canyon dwellers and hardhearted pulp-mill magnates tend to get all sappy and silly around wombats and wallabies. I never did see a Tasmanian devil, the cutest, and also the meanest, marsupial of them all -- an omission that I think was more disappointing to Di than to me. I told her that my main quest was to see a kangaroo (what's a trip to Australia without seeing a kangaroo?), but she ruefully informed me that kangaroos live on Tasmania's coastal plains.

AFTER Cradle Mountain, Hobart, Australia's second oldest city (Sydney is the oldest), seemed like Manhattan. With a population of slightly under 200,000, Hobart is just big enough to feel like a real city. According to a government fact sheet, Tasmania has "the greatest complement of historic buildings in Australia"; I'm not sure how such things are measured, but you can certainly wander around the streets of Hobart for an hour without seeing more than a handful of twentieth-century buildings -- and many of those are charming examples of British Art Deco.

Much of the architecture in the city center is Georgian in style, constructed from golden-hued sandstone. Salamanca Place, a long, straight row of beautiful sandstone warehouses on the harbor, dates back to the 1830s, when Hobart was a whaling port. The district has been redeveloped for shops, galleries, and restaurants, and is now the center of the city's nightlife. The old residential sections contain street after street of trig Victorian cottages, every one with a tiny rose garden in front.

I stayed in such a cottage, part of a bed-and-breakfast managed by another of those visionary edge-seekers, a Dutchman named Wilmar Bouman, and his partner, Matthew Ryan, an Englishman who grew up in Tasmania. When Bouman was twenty-two, he and his parents and his brother decided to leave Holland, so they looked around the world and chose Tasmania. Soon after they moved here, Bouman met Ryan, and the two began restoring old houses together. They finally settled in Corinda, an Italianate Victorian mansion fallen to the condition of derelict boarding house, on a hill overlooking the harbor. They restored the outbuildings at Corinda and furnished them with antiques and period bric-a-brac for paying guests.

I stayed at the gardener's cottage, on the edge of Bouman's exquisite formal parterre. Pleached lime trees, box, and old yews form enclosures, each with its own color scheme, "painted" with fritillaries, hellebores, and, of course, roses. I went into the garden at dusk, taking a book to read but instead finding myself watching the parakeets and kookaburras dart about. Bumblebees buzzed industriously; butterflies flittered. The edge of the world couldn't have seemed more like the center of an orderly universe.

A brick wall running alongside this oasis was built before the house, when the land was a vegetable garden worked by convicts. In no other state of Australia does the convict past loom so palpably. British magistrates continued to transport convicts to Tasmania for thirteen years after they stopped sending them to New South Wales, in 1840, and when convicts on the mainland committed crimes, they were sent to Port Arthur, on the Tasman Peninsula, southeast of Hobart -- the cruelest and most feared prison in a cruel, fearsome system.

Tasmanians are quite open about the convict period; Di cheerfully told me what rascals her great-great-grandparents had been. I confess that before I went to Tasmania, I was a bit apprehensive about visiting a place where so many people are descended from criminals; even some fashionable neighborhoods in Sydney can be scary at night, with prostitutes and drug dealers and what used to be known more generally as riffraff. Yet as I explored Tasmania, it seemed to me noticeably less rowdy than the mainland -- or than my own neighborhood in New York City, for that matter. Opium poppies happen to be a major cash crop here, but they are grown for export to American pharmaceutical companies; the island was chosen both because its climate is ideal for growing poppies and because the level of illegal-drug use is low. As I traveled around the island, I kept thinking how much more British it was, in a cozy, Jane Austen-y way, than any part of the mainland I've seen.

At Port Arthur, I saw a very uncozy side of the British. It's a sinister place; I felt a chill as soon as I clapped eyes on it. The site was chosen because the Tasman Peninsula at one point is 200 feet across: to prevent escapes, platforms with ferocious chained dogs were placed at intervals across the neck of land, Cerberuses guarding a penal hell. The cuffed and fettered prisoners were worked like slaves in granaries and coal mines, confined in tiny lightless cells, and whipped mercilessly when they broke the strict rules. Many went mad; some committed murder or other capital crimes to find release from their suffering in the hangman's noose.

In 1877 the prison was finally closed, and modern Tasmania began to emerge from the gloom of the penal era. Every visitor to the island should have a look at the Port Arthur Historic Site. It's well interpreted and beautifully landscaped, and the ninety-minute drive from Hobart passes through some spectacular coastal scenery. But this is definitely an educational experience, not a fun outing.

THE only sensible way to see Tasmania is by car. Don't make the mistake of getting on a plodding bus tour just because the Australians drive on the wrong side of the road. The roads are excellent here, the traffic thin, and the drivers polite; no competent driver will have any difficulties. The island is also just the right size for driving: the trip from Hobart, on the south coast, to Launceston, Tasmania's second largest city, in the north, takes a leisurely day, and one passes through some delightful villages stocked with early-nineteenth-century sandstone bridges, churches, and houses.

In Oatlands we saw the seventy-five-foot-tall Callington Mill, built in 1837. A handsome gray-haired woman, who seemed to be in charge, told me that if I was willing to oversee the restoration of the windmill, I could move into the miller's cottage for a dollar a year. The town of Ross (pop. 282) is famous for its graceful convict-built bridge and tiny women's prison; almost all the buildings are limestone Georgians, but the village was too self-consciously quaint for my taste. If you wanted to, you could stay the night there at Apple Dumpling Cottage or Church Mouse Cottage (the rate for the latter, the equivalent of $60 U.S. a night, seemed a bit steep for a church mouse's budget). Back on the road we saw a cheese factory, a run-down mansion full of antiques and Salvator Rosa paintings, and a family farm open to the public, which is now run by the great-great-great-grandson of the man who established it, in 1824. At a jumble sale I bought a copy of the memoirs of that doughty embodiment of Australia's buoyant self-confidence, Dame Edna Everage.

Launceston, founded in 1805, is Australia's third oldest city, if a place with a population of 70,000 qualifies as a city -- you can walk from one end of town to the other in twenty minutes. The period architecture is mostly Victorian, much of it in a fine state of preservation; there's a spectacular cataract gorge just outside the center of town, some lovely public gardens, and an impressive old water mill. But the best reason to come this way is to tour the island's northern wine country. Though the industry in Tasmania is young, it produces some wines that rival the mainland's best -- and that's saying a lot. The sparkling wines are particularly fine; have a glass of Lake Barrington Alexandra with fresh-shucked Tasmanian oysters and you'll forget there's a place called France.

At the last possible moment I saw my kangaroo. Di, never one to pass up a chance to meet a wombat, took me to another park on the way to the airport. There's no asbestos in Asbestos Range National Park; someone thought the local quartzite outcroppings looked like the stuff. (Di told me that of late there has been talk of changing the name to something less toxic-sounding.) The landscape there doesn't possess the rugged, spectacular beauty of the Cradle Mountain Valley, but its gentle, grassy plains and placid tea-tree wetlands have their own mellow charm. We arrived just before dusk, and creatures were wandering around everywhere, wallabies and pademelons -- shy hopping marsupials less than a foot tall.

Di soon found her wombat, a big fellow in tall grass, who nibbled away for a long time, oblivious of us. Then, when I turned back to the plain behind us, I saw a Forester kangaroo, with a magnificent tail, who would have been almost as tall as I am if he stood up straight. He peered at me coolly with his glossy black eyes and then hopped away. There's something undeniably comical about the way a kangaroo hops, but when you feel the earth shudder under you with his every bound, awe creeps into your smile. I saw where he was heading: far away perhaps a hundred kangaroos were roaming in a herd on a grassy plain beside the sea, quietly having their afternoon graze. Paradoxically, the edge of the world felt close enough to touch, yet it was a comfortable, familiar place.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; The Edge of the World - 00.03 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 3; page 32-37.