TAC 39 Index
Globetrotting TACer Graeme Semple goes backwards in the Antipodean backwoods
AMONGST the world's media-fuelled stereotypes, Scotland is a place of mists and broadsword-wielding, sparsely inhabited by red-bearded mobs whose main leisure-time activities are bagpiping and the consumption of an eccentric foodstuff that marries a cereal with butcher's shop backroom offcuts. Urban Scotland may be recognised as a depressing, grey arena of bottlings, chibbings, football violence and heart disease, firmly in the shadow of the ultimate merchandising tie-in that is the landscape, replete with its fabled bloody romanticism. Last year, to test these perceptions, I told a bloke in Yogyakarta, Central Java, that I was from Scotland. His eyes twinkled and he immediately professed knowledge of two main subjects: Rangers Football Club, their recent performances, signings, and boardroom machinations; and "The island where they has the sheep for which to make the sweeter." This latter aspect seemed something of an abiding passion, such that he was hoping one day to go "to the island of the sheep where they has the great fire for which to dance around."
I left Indonesia not long after, ever ready to have new expectations fulfilled and subverted. Wide-eyed optimism turned to disdain on discovering that the popular culture of the country I was now to inhabit for ten months would occasionally echo its TV drama exports just a little too efficiently. For how long will the main Australian news network refer to Prime Minister John Howard as "a pollie"? Is the appalling, hilarious, and absurdly dated commercial TV output taken seriously by someone, somewhere out there? I would find the answers. In the process I would also discover that there is considerably more to the landscape of Australia than cinnamon, sand, and a certain well-photographed exposure of rock.
I started my journey in Melbourne, an energetically multi-ethnic city that, more than anywhere, has rattled the meat-and-two-veg Anglo-Saxonism of 1950s Australia. Daytime TV viewers in Britain may remember the typification of this WASPishness in The Sullivans: the sepia-toned credits showed a young scamp making off with a hat belonging to one of the elders who, despite the passage of years, remains the double of Hen Broon. Such comparisons dispensed with, I was soon earnestly languishing with the city's Versace-attired, mobile-phone-clutching, Porsche-driving, pumpkin-gnocchi-munching tossbags, on the vast caffe-latte-tastic sweep of Chapel Street.
After nearly three months of this high life, and having only escaped for a day of horseriding in the semi-pastoral kangaroo-speckled bush, I considered a new destination and happened to see a coffee-table book on the National Parks and World Heritage Area in Tasmania. The photographs possessed the verve and elevated visual impact found in the work of Colin Prior and Gordon Stainforth, but the landscape also spoke with comforting familiarity to one so far from the Highlands. At around this time Qantas magnanimously made it cheaper to fly, rather than ferry, to Tasmania; furthermore, our departure was perfectly timed: we would trade Melbourne's February highs of 42° for the cooler, yet nonetheless dependable, weather of the south.
With only an itinerant, circuitous route in mind, we accepted the offer of a fellow passenger's lift to Strahan, halfway down the Tasmanian west coast. Strahan has so fully embraced the economic viability of tourism that decrepit audio-visuals on the conversion of ancient forest into Formica-clad furniture have been superseded by a twice-daily theatre performance charting the area's geological, ecological, botanical, and social development. Bruce Morton once found himself at a gallery-opening in Glasgow with a similar politically correct feel, where the food was "something rigorously right on, like boiled stick." The transparency of this sub-Disney pandering to the unquestioning mind of the tourist is lent a cynical edge when set alongside the opinions of Strahan's residents. The pubs retain the backward chauvinism that led, in the 18th century, to Tasmania's especially grievous aboriginal persecution. The federal government has overseen some abysmal duplicity by sanctioning the activities of the Department of Conservation and Land Management. CALM is seen to foster an image of caring, sharing environmental attunement, whilst giving a hardware chain free access to prime ancient forests all over the country. I'm far from selling my stereo to help Greenpeace, but the blinkered and characteristically masculine Aussie faith in such regressive short-term practices must be addressed as urgently as the growing support for Pauline Hanson and the fish-frying, genetically-questionable coterie of her One Nation Party. (She got well gubbed in Oct - Ed.)
The scenery around Strahan was a pleasant reminder of Kintyre - although, after two days, this was reinforced in climatic terms, just to kick any homesickness. We stood hitching, blue-lipped, like the Stay-Puft Man and the Pilsbury Doughboy, our rucsacs bereft of clothing. And how we laughed, shambling out of Strahan to a wooden shelter, to read an inscription from 1993 describing a two-day wait for a lift. The traffic did indeed have a local, clapped-out quality that made reaching Hobart, five-and-a-half hours distant, seem a surreal joke. These tartan-shirt-clad farmers weren't driving further than the petrol station half a mile away for some chewing tobacco and a few racist quips with the overweight attendant. Asking them to go 300km was like trying to conceive of a journey of light years made using a space shuttle. It won't happen, we said; but we were proven wrong after only three hours of comfort-eating and stone-kicking. Our driver recognised the dearth of cultural diversity in Tasmania as well as its physical beauty. He took pleasure in stopping at a windy viewpoint where the mountains lurked behind old country mist, and he gave us his mountaineering highlights plus some morbid folk- tales surrounding the hill-billies of yore.
The descent brought us to the crushingly ugly "lunar landscape" above Queenstown, and then to the even more depressing town itself. Not since Ayrshire's melancholy interior of Patna, Muirkirk, and Dalmellington have I felt such a sense of hollow post-industrial loss, or seen a main street with such a weak pulse. Many younger residents are semi-transient, unwilling to become saddled with an unsellable property. We were shown a mossy, stained shack sold blind to a holiday-home-seeking Queenslander. He was still to see the "charming riverside view" that consisted of a motionless, viscous streak of shit-brown sludge, destined only to star in an environmentalist campaign video.
Although Hobart lay a mountainous four-hour drive away, the traffic was certain to go through, with nothing to distract but a chilly roadhouse at the halfway mark. Huddled, hooded, an icy wind accompanying our hitching, we clung to a new-found faith in the diversity and sleekness of the non-agricultural traffic. A thermos-laden carload of elderly Queenslanders stopped to remind us, "It's never like this where we come from", then we were left to monitor our loss of peripheral circulation and to note the climate-controlled luxury in which each lone motorist passed. All this occurred as the gauge tipped 41.2° in Melbourne.
A sparkling Land Rover roared up the hill towards us, prompting bitter comment that the owner's manual stated On no account pick up hitch-hikers, particularly if their ears look cold. But, being a good man, Lewis, the driver and our new friend, scoffed at such exclusivity. He enthused about his time at Imperial College London, and enlightened us on the logging situation and the pristine forest scenery of the National Parks, covering 20% of the state, that make up Tasmania's World Heritage Area. We stopped at the Derwent Bridge Roadhouse for an insight into backwoods cuisine: the Tasmanian version of the ubiquitous pie. Laughing in the face of Melbourne's Greek, Balinese, and Vietnamese traditions, here the National Pie Company reigns, their marketing spearheaded by the claim that their savoury treat is "The pie with the superior interior."
Heavily forested mountain scenery gave way, as darkness fell, to the less grand green of Perthshire, and a string of uninspiring, pie-mongering hamlets: Hamilton, Elderslie, Clyde River. Lewis deposited us at the ludicrous Treasure Island Campsite, from where, next morning, we called Jim Clark of Newtown, Hobart, originally of Tarland, Deeside. We'd never met Jim, who left Scotland in 1949, but our connection was through Andy's grandmother. Jim sailed for Australia aged twenty, and didn't return until 1984 when his mother passed away. In that time he married a native of Hobart and raised four children, yet the welcoming voice was straight from Grassic Gibbon. After keeping the Doric alive in the southern hemisphere for three-and-a-half decades, the natives of Deeside reckoned his way with the dialect excelled their own. He drove to the campsite, shook our hands, handed over the keys to the annex, then sat us in the front room with comically enormous drams before eulogising about his ascent of Mount Wellington.
Next morning we were seated beside Jim as he drove halfway up Mount Wellington and elaborated further on its form, flora, fauna, as well as on the phenomenal bush fire that swept its lower slopes in 1967 - the damage is still apparent. The peak bears no classic profile and is capped by a huge rocket-shaped transmitter, but the stunning contrast in the surrounding scenery was complemented by a soft light unseen on the mainland in February. Alan Partridge would have felt at home on the summit, awash as it was with stay-creased golfing slacks and luxury coaches. We slipped on to one of the deserted wooded paths for our descent beneath the prominent summit cliff.
The day's travail failed to dent Jim's commentary, and on the drive home he took a red light during an enthusiastic appreciation of 19th-century architecture in downtown Hobart, or "Hobirt" as he called it. We returned to icy ales, a grand meal, the coal fire, and more uisge beatha.
The following day we arranged the hire of the cheapest, deadliest car we could find. The garage excelled itself by providing a yellow Japanese model with tyres so bald that unusual white fibres protruded. Indecisive wrangling with the vest-wearing vulgarian in charge held us up, but by lunchtime we were on the open road with fresh Goodyears.
Tasmania has a proliferation of free campsites, many tucked perfectly between a quiet road and a stretch of white sand, and the iron-clad rules concerning fires are relaxed outside the National Parks. So, for nearly two weeks, each day's journeying would culminate in hazy, rosy-cheeked contentment, reclining with a box of Chianti beside some toasty embers. It was during these sessions of karmic inactivity that acquaintance was made with the many species, cute or otherwise, inhabiting our campsite. Latitude dilutes the range of the most unpleasant creatures, and to stunt the length and sharpness of their fangs, yet there was much to be wary of. An evolutionary inversion has left the huntsman harmless: a black behemoth with thigh muscles like a speed skater, hairier than an all-in-wrestler's chest, and starting fights when it goes out on a Friday. Conversely, the redback, a wee fella the size of a thumbnail, can kill. Thankfully a combination of the two, the funnelweb, big yet lithe and reasonably hairy, known to chase a man upstairs for having lobbed a training shoe at it, exists only on the mainland.
On the first evening by the fire I felt something move questioningly by my fingers. In the flickery half-light I saw the silhouetted form of some unholy creature. I shrieked involuntarily, rose up with arms in the air like a pre-match All Black, knocked over a bottle of Cascade Ale, and generally disquieted Andy into the bargain: he thought he was about to witness some drunken tribal dancing. He was fortunately spared such a spectacle because the beast hobbled, crawled, or jumped away to traumatise some other camper. It didn't return. Having obtained the reaction it desired, it retired for the night, but I was left to listen between each breaking wave for the sound of tiny feet shuffling purposefully in my direction.
TAC 39 Index