Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ghost Tour on the Tasman Peninsula

In the days of Charles Dickens, the jails in Great Britian were overstuffed with convicts locked away for crimes ranging from idleness to assault, from petty theft to murder. So many men had gone through the British penal system that there was no more space in the jails to house all the prisoners.

The British sailed these convicts halfway across the world to an obscure island in the middle of nowhere known as Australia. These convicts became Australia’s first settlers.
But Australia, which stretches the width of Pennsylvania to California, was too large a space to keep prisoners under control, so the British searched for an even more obscure location, a place harder to escape from.

Their quest landed them in Tasmania, a small island that today is a 9-hour boat ride south of Melbourne.

The British corralled the prisoners to a thin peninsula, known as the Tasman Peninsula, at the bottom of Tasmania. The peninsula is connected to the mainland only by the thinnest neck of land, across which the British chained a line of snarling dogs. Here is where hundreds of convicts were forced to do backbreaking hard labor of constructing houses, churches, even building their own prison cells. The result is Port Arthur, a town built by convicts, for convicts.

We headed into Port Arthur and discovered a walled-up fortress surrounding the entire old town. “This is incredible,” I thought, imagining prisoners staring longingly at the wall, dreaming of getting out, not knowing that even if they escaped these walls, they’d discover two large bodies of water and guard dogs chained across the peninsular neck of land. “Wow, how intense,” I thought. “How do you wall off an entire town?” It reminded me of the Old City of Jerusalem, the only other town I’ve seen that’s 100 percent walled away.

Yet this wall, we discovered, was the one thing not built by convicts. It was built in the last couple of decades to force tourists to pay entry fees.

Surrounding the wall were half a dozen large tour buses, a gift shop, a tall desk selling entrance tickets and tour packages, and a restaurant called Felons with the tagline: “Not eating here? Now THAT’S criminal.” What was once a penal colony had morphed into a veritable tourist zoo.

While this normally would cause us to immediately turn around and retreat into some wilderness area, we decided to stay and follow the advice of some locals we had met camping, who strongly recommended Port Arthur’s ghost tour. The ghost tour was a reasonably cheap option in which, among other things, you’d visit the scenes of centuries-old murders.

Murders were ubiquitous in those days. Convicts, desperate to escape their life of hard labor, wanted to escape into death, but they believed that committing suicide would sentence them to eternity in hell. But after carefully studying Christian doctrine, they found a “murder-suicide” loophole. They’d murder a fellow prisoner and be hung for their crimes, but just before the hanging, they’d get the opportunity to visit a priest and ask for forgiveness for their murderous sin, thereby absolving themselves so they could enter heaven.

We spent a night on the ghost tour, camped by the ocean at the edge of the peninsula for two nights, and hiked along the shoreline overlooking the towering cliffs. After about 4 days on Tasman Peninsula, we decided to leave and head to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania.

We’re driving down the road, past a Tasmanian Devil sanctuary, when I see a sign announcing ‘Chocolate Factory – Free Tastings. Open.’

“Pull over!,” I demand at once, visions of Willy Wonka running through my head.
We entered a room filled with the tools used to build this peninsula. Several tree-cutting saws, with handles designed to be pulled by two men, lay strewn on the floor. A crank-handle telephone hung on a wall post. Rusty steel blades that looked to me like finger-slicers were propped against a back wall. Two large windows in the wall showed woman in white lab coats mixing and moulding batches of chocolate in the next room.

I wandered toward the front, where a tray of chocolates were laid out, representing every flavor imaginable … Cherry brandy chocolate, licorice chocolate, orange ginger chocolate, strawberry chocolate, rum and raisin chocolate, as well as classic flavors like hazelnut, mint and white.

A rotund woman with reddish hair, standing behind the chocolate tray, asks if we’ve been on the Port Arthur tour.

“Just the ghost tour,” I tell her, “which was heaps of fun. I normally don’t take tours; waste of money if you ask me. I like going at my own pace. But their tour of haunted places and strange sightings was quite fun.”

“Ah, but you must take a tour to know the stories of what you’re looking at.” She had a lecturing tone in her voice which caused me to keep quiet. “Otherwise you’d think they were just buildings and not know anything about them.”

Her voice softened a little, and a faraway gleam developed in her eyes. She was silent for a moment.

“When we were kids we play on those buildings all the time,” she finally said. “That was before they built big walls around it and started charging admission. That was before anyone ever came down to this peninsula to see our convict heritage. No one in those days talked about it, you know. We were all descendants of convicts, all us kids, playing in the old jails that used to house them, but we never once thought about it.”

She shrugged. “Never knew most of that stuff, really. Then some history buffs started coming down here to check it out, and the next thing you know, people are coming in by the thousands to see the old solitary confinement cells.”

She shrugged again and held out a piece of chocolate with a set of tongs. “Good for business, though.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tasmania is a little island at the end of the world

Tasmania is a little island at the end of the world.

A 9-hour boat ride separates Tasmania from the rest of Australia, and perhaps this isolation – as well as Tasmania’s unique climate and history – gives Tasmania the feel of being in a different country.

While mainland Australia consists of desert expanses, monsoon torrents mixed with severe drought, and is intersected by the Tropic of Capricorn, Tasmania is made of rolling green hills, grey granite cliffs, and is intersected by the 42nd parallel – the same line of longitude that comes close to the Canadian border.

The air in Tasmania is the cleanest in the world – scientifically stated. It is the benchmark against which all other air is measured.

An air monitoring station sits on a cape on the west coast, measuring the quality of the air that travels the longest uninterrupted expanse of ocean in the world. The winds blow in from South America, carried east across the ocean for thousands of uninterrupted miles, hitting Tasmania with full force and earning it a nickname as the land of the “Roaring Forties,” a reference to the longitude.

This climate is ideal for growing berries, olives, walnuts, wine, and raising sheep, goats and cows for producing gourmet cheeses and local yogurts.

And so, in addition to the endless camping and hiking that makes Tasmania famous among outdoor enthusiasts, many visitors come here for the wine tastings.

We started our visit to Tasmania with a tour of the Tamar Valley wine region. Most cellar doors were what you’d expect – open, breezy rooms with hardwood floors, oak-barrel furniture and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vineyards or the river.

But one winery was different.

The door is locked when we approach, and we assume the winery must be closed. But a chubby man with a torn black t-shirt appears in the window. He looks to be about 30 and his curly hair is unwashed and oily. He unlocks the door and it swings inwards.

Loud rock music playing as we walk in. A long-haired guy is breaking down piles of cardboard boxes. To our left is a blackboard covered with curvy chalk writing, resembling the menu in a college-town sandwich shop.

The man clears about a dozen empty beer and wine bottles off the desk.

He doesn’t even try to describe the wines. Most wine-tasting hosts say, in slightly pompous and well-heeled tones, “Now let’s start with a Brut Cuvee,” but he began rambling about the time he spent making wine in Oregon and how it showed him that the American political system is screwed.

“I mean, really,” he says as he absently swings some Riesling into a glass, “why do the majority let people get away with not having health care?”

Then he abruptly switches topics.

“You know, you gotta watch for the animals when you’re growing grapes here,” he says as he pours something white and sticky from another bottle without checking the label. “Two years ago, I lost $30,000 worth of crops to wallabies. To wallabies! Can you believe it! They just find their way into the fields and chew up enough crops to pay for a house. You gotta watch out for them. Watch for kangaroos, too. They’ll really mess your crop.”

He pours himself a small drink.

“Some people catch them and drive them over to a competitors field and let ‘em go there,” he tells us. “Business is nasty. But there’s good people, people who trap the wallbies and the kangaroos and drive ‘em out into the country, 60 kilometers away, and let them into the wild.”

He’s switched to red wines now, though he still won’t mention anything about it.

“But I still don’t like live trapping,” he says. “I prefer to shoot the roos.”

He was a window into the young, hip, Generation Y side of winemaking, the kind of winemaking that’s armed with a rifle, listens to an iPod and has no pretentions about what the critics are saying about Bordeaux this year. He loves the chemistry of winemaking, the calculus of soil, wind and water, and the machinery through which it’s processed.

We camped that night under the Batman Bridge, which crosses the Tamar River, which divides the two sides of the wine valley. “Look at us,” Sara told me, “sleeping under a bridge. We’re going to wine tastings all day and sleeping under a bridge at night. In America we’d be considered homeless. Here we’re just called travelers.”

Friday, February 12, 2010

Kamikaze Kangaroos

When driving through the Australian outback, you’re surrounded by nothing. Barren, empty space fills a great majority of this country. You could go 800 kilometers without seeing a town, a grocery, a gas station, a place to get your tire puncture repaired, or a nozzle of drinking water. You could go for days upon days without seeing another human being.

But there’s one thing you will see constantly: Kangaroos.

They’re everywhere, both living and dead. The living ones bounce up and down across the fields, resembling giant hopping rats in search of their next meal. Once upon a time, seeing a kangaroo was a novelty; now it’s as common an event as seeing a squirrel.

It’s the dead kangaroos that bother me, the ones whose bodies litter the roadside like …. Well, like litter. Lots of it.

Seeing so much roadkill is a reminder that we have a high chance of knocking off a kangaroo as we drive. The roadkill – which has usually been festering in the desert heat for days – is an even more stark reminder than the dozens of warning signs posted along the highway that say: “Danger, Kangaroos!” or else just show an image of a kangaroo and assume you know that this means you should try to avoid killing one.

You should also try to avoid being killed by one, because perhaps one of the most violent ways to die on the Australian roads is by being kicked to death by a kangaroo. Here’s how it happens: Your car smashes into a kangaroo, whose badly-injured body flies through your front windshield and into your front seat. The terrified kangaroo starts thrashing about, kicking as hard as it can with its massive leg muscles, those muscles that make it so famous for jumping. Within a few minutes, you’ve been kicked to death by a kangaroo.

It’s a fate so scary that everyone in Australia drives around with “roo guards” on the front of their cars. The “roo guard,” which is similar to what Americans call a “bull bar,” is a set of steel tubes that stretch the length of the car’s front hood (or as Australians call it, the “front bonnet”), protecting the engine and radiator from kangaroo-related damages.

Our “roo guard” didn’t help when we hit a kangaroo. Well, really, the kangaroo hit us. We were driving down the main highway at night in Western Australia. Well, perhaps the words “main highway” are misleading – we were on the only highway, the only road. There is only one road that runs the length of Western Australia, north to south, and we were on it. In fact, we seemed to be the only people on it; we hadn’t seen another car for at least an hour. Such is the remoteness of Western Australia.

Despite the empty highway, we were driving quite slowly – about 60 kilometers per hour – in an effort to reduce our risk of roadkill. I was sitting in the front passengers seat, scanning the sides of the road for kamikaze kangaroos. We had devised a system of alert signals. Every few minutes, I’d call out “left incoming!” or “right steady!” to signify, for example, a kangaroo on the left side of the road hopping into the highway, or a kangaroo on the right side that was sitting still.

The kangaroo that hit us belonged to the “right steady” category, though I didn’t have to say anything because it wasn’t sitting by the roadside. It was squarely in the center of the right lane.

It sat there, in the middle of the street, completely still, just watching us as we pulled up. The driver immediately slowed us down further, to about 50 kilometers an hour, perhaps less, and we began to cruise by the kangaroo, which was still just sitting still. We had almost passed it when it decided to take a giant leap into the side of our car.

WHAP! We could hear its body crunch against the back passenger door at 50 km/hour, and I instinctively cringed harder than I’ve ever thought possible. My eyes squeezed tightly shit, my lips curled back, my breath sharply drew in, and I gave new definition to the word “cringed.”

But later we saw that there was no blood on the car, and when we circled around and drove by the same spot again the next morning, we didn’t find a body. It must have lived, though I imagine it didn’t have a very pleasant evening.

“I hope it had health insurance,” I said.

The closest call we’ve been in happened a few weeks later, when I was in my usual position in the front passanger seat, scanning the roads with intense concentration, looking for suicidal animals.

It was nighttime, and once again we were alone on an empty highway.

It was pitch-black dark outside, with no street lights or other traffic to illuminate the roads. Suddenly I saw something so immediate, so terrifying, that language failed me. I opened my mouth to talk, to give the driver an urgent warning, but all that came out was “WHHA WHA WHA WHA!!”

There, in the center of the highway, was an enormous jet-black cow. I am not joking.
It was massive, looking like it weighed at least 500 pounds, and about as tall as our car. You would NOT want to hit this thing.

And here it stood, in the middle of the road, jet-black in the dead of night.

The driver slammed on the brakes, and we narrowly avoided it. Everyone in the car was silent for a moment as we contemplated what being another few inches over and being a few seconds too late would have meant.

Finally someone spoke.

“How on earth did you see that thing?” the driver asked me. “It was so dark; it was hard to see even up-close.”

I nodded.

“It’s eyes,” I replied. “I could see its eyes.” Yellow in the reflection of the headlights.