My love affair with Tasmania started one typically (as I was to discover) brilliant, blindingly blue–sky August day in 1998. I had left London somewhat reluctantly, waving goodbye to the man with whom I was madly in love, on what promised to be the first day of the usual inevitably late, last-gasp UK summer. As a well-travelled 30 year old, and despite my burning curiosity for what lay head, I was probably just a little irritated at bidding farewell to London in the height of our holiday season on a hot summer's day and head down under to who knew what, in the name of work, in the last few weeks of its winter.
As my little Qantas plane from Melbourne (for no low cost airlines would cross the Bass Strait for some years to come) made its bumpy descent over desolate forested mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, enormous rich pastures and endless white beaches washed with turquoise seas, I felt the first stirrings of what would become a lifelong passion. The truck that brought my bags out to me (no baggage carousel for sleepy little Hobart in those days) was a pleasant nod to the fact that this largely forgotten and misrepresented island on the bottom edge of the Southern Hemisphere had yet to see any real international tourism of note. That was my job; this was why I had been brought here. My first meeting was less than half an hour away after almost 30 hours of flying. No pressure then! My stirrings of excitement were tempered by distinct feelings of jet-lagged apprehension.
That first blue-sky day was no fickle friend of welcome. The dark Tasmanian winter I had anticipated turned into day after day of glorious, clear azure skies, cool mornings yet with a sun that undeniably made its presence felt; as I embarked on my travels to the weat coast of Tasmania, I was thrilled by a brief, exhilarating couple of days of fast falling thick snow. Roads were closed behind me as I left Hobart and its stunning snowcapped backdrop of Mount Wellington behind, climbing rapidly in my hire car to explore the Highlands and land of 3000 lakes; into the ancient, other-worldly glacial landscape of the Lake St Clair-Cradle Mountain National Park and beyond to the wild west coast wilderness that had made its furious mark on the world some 15 years prior during the Franklin River Dam Protest.
Early marsupial-filled dusks turned into inky black billion-star-studded skies by night, the cleanest air in the world pungently scented by welcome wood-smoke from the log fires that warmed my cabins along with the carafe of Tasmanian port or bottle of pinot noir which invariably greeted me. I woke to misty mornings with deep valleys swathed in low lying blankets of mist, punctuated by snow-capped mountain summits; fast rushing waterfalls falling into gigantic tannin-stained rivers of pure water that flowed over granite rocks through densely forested gorges; and hundreds of huge deep, shimmering lakes filled with brown trout and plump platypus; I travelled along miles of bone-shuddering unsealed tracks, neck craned upwards towards eagles soaring over head. From mid-afternoon onwards, my eyes were turned downwards, searching out the countless ‘hoppy things’ – Wallabies, Pademelons, Poteroos, Bettongs and the comical, ambling Wombat and spikey prehistoric Echidna that took their lives in their hands as they foraged by the side of the road, fortunately mostly devoid of vehicles. And of course the king of this forest, the Tasmanian Devil, whose once-persecuted population had reached a glorious, defiant all time high, and yet unbeknown to me, whose desperately bleak future had already, if barely, made itself known to the one or two horrified and wholly-unprepared wildlife experts who had spotted something unforeseen, alien and deeply grotesque in a far north eastern corner of the island. I even kept my eyes peeled for a Tasmanian Tiger, which I understood to be presumed extinct but which I now know almost without question still roamed the island’s wilderness in the nineties, and probably still does today.
Tassie had, even in those days, a deeply-ingrained inner knowledge of its heart-stopping beauty – God’s own country, as it was described to me so aptly on more than one occasion. But this was an island that also felt deeply unloved and isolated from its mainland, and was endearingly unsure of how it appeared to the rest of outside world. It was nation of just over 400,000 - Tasmanians, not Australians mind - many nursing wounds that had been inflicted over centuries, hiding unnecessarily from a horrific history, and even very recently suffering from a dreadful event that had brought it unwelcome global attention; this was an island nation that seemed apprehensive about putting its head above the parapet lest it should be shot down by those bawdy mainlanders, Australians, who had no inkling of what lay on their own doorstep.
Fast-forward eighteen months to February 2000, and the height of a stunning Tasmanian summer, and I land in Launceston with three of the UK’s top journalists who have been persuaded to join me on another adventure in Tasmania, to find out for themselves what the rest of world was missing out on. My circumstances were very different from my previous travels to Tasmania; now I was struggling with a broken heart and delighted to leave behind my sadness and a grey British winter to head down to the glory of the Tasmanian summer. Tasmania was undergoing something of a wake-up call, thanks to the vision of a few extraordinary people and a new Premier, all of whom had seen its tourism potential and invested in its pristine wilderness to develop world class ‘eco-friendly’ experiences. Together with the state’s foremost wildlife expert Nick Mooney and the brilliant architect Ken Latona we walked his new, soon-to-be iconic four day Bay of Fires Walk, followed by the almost spiritual Freycinet Experience Walk with its equally visionary architect Joan Masterman. Here, we slept in the bush among Aboriginal middens, falling asleep to the screech of the Devil, awakening to the call of the Black Currawong and the rustle of the Tasmanian Pademelons and Wallabies, making their dawn forays before the heat of the day. We were taken deep into the North West, into the world’s largest remaining tract of temperate rainforest known today as The Tarkine. We found a secret lake known to just a few, Lake Chisholm, and stood on the Edge of the World gasping as the Roaring Forties winds tore the breath from our mouths, bringing with it huge rolling waves all the way from South America. Later that evening we were lucky enough to witness one of the world’s greatest wildlife experiences – watching Tasmanian Devils feeding in the wild, ripping apart a dead wallaby, fatty tissues, guts and soft organs first, before crunching noisily through bones, screeching and snarling and bashing each other away with their robust rear ends, blood and sinew dripping from their razor sharp teeth.
Our farewell present from Tasmania was a trip on a small wooden boat with Bruny Island fisherman Rob Pennicott, who would within the decade be regarded as one of Australia’s greatest tourism conservationists. As we headed out into the sparkling Great Southern Ocean, along the highest cliffs in the Southern Hemisphere with dolerite spires shooting some 300 metres into the sky, we were joined by hundreds, probably a thousand dolphin - whistling, spinning and leaping along side us; and huge colonies of fur seals, and soaring albatross. Our attempt at catching our lunch, our last meal before the long journey home, turned out to be a shark and a conger eel in the craypot, but no matter, our appetites had been well and truly whetted, sated and left us desperately craving for more.
So began my passion for Tasmania. Fifteen years and as many Tassie travels later, having shared the magic of this wilderness island and its people with as many visitors as possible through my work for the Tasmanian tourist board, I have finally created Tasmanian Odyssey, which is the culmination of my dream to create for other people the same epic adventures through this magical land that I have been lucky enough to embark on myself.