‘Wow! Where did all these people come from?’ my brother wondered aloud in amazement, echoing the same question that had popped into my mind. As our SUV emerged from the tree-lined driveway, we were greeted by the surprising sight of at least a few hundred cars parked in long orderly rows in a huge open field. One week into our self-drive holiday in Australia’s only island state, our family of six had encountered a healthy number of holidaymakers and more tragic roadkill than we could keep count, but this was by far the greatest concentration of activity in a single place. It was the Easter weekend and we were cruising along the picturesque wine-producing region of Tamar Valley. Even as a self-professed wine amateur, I was curious about all that fuss over the taste of Tasmanian terroir given the country’s fertile volcanic soil, a cool maritime climate, possibly the purest air in the world, and viticulture know-how cultivated from as early as the 1800’s. As soon as we had our car parked, we followed the others and found ourselves at a mass gathering of families in a large, lush vineyard. Adults lounged on plastic mats sipping what must be Pinot Noir, savouring perhaps a rare luxurious morning where they could leave their kids to entertain themselves squealing and chasing one another all over the lawn. The men in our group made a beeline for the food trucks, while the rest of us hunted for a comfortable spot to settle down. Up on a makeshift stage, two young musicians crooned original acoustic compositions, lending a relaxed vibe to this lively affair.
As the only Asian family at what clearly was a favourite local hangout, two stout-looking Aussies were intrigued enough to strike up a conversation with us. One of them lived in Burnie, a busy port city not too far from where we were, and which he proudly proclaimed as “beautiful” and a “must-visit”. The northern coast of Tassie, as I found out, is home to some of the most populous towns outside the capital region down south, and with Easter being a national holiday, it only made sense for families to head outdoors and enjoy the beautiful autumn weather.
After a satisfying lunch of burgers and booze, we continued our journey northwest along the rounded cheek of this heart-shaped island where a noticeably greater number of heavy vehicles invaded our traffic space. This coastal route was scenic where it faced the Bass Strait on the right side, but not so pretty on the left as it took us through the industrial backyard of the country. Massive steel and concrete structures stuck at like a sore thumb, blemishing the natural landscape. I was surprised to discover that Tasmania’s biggest export is neither tourism nor agricultural products as I had assumed, but processed metals and ores. Apparently the diverse geology of its lands concealed a treasure trove of abundant precious mineral deposits which have led to a mining industry that has been thriving for more than a century.
The oldest of its rocks are millions of years old and can be found at the aptly named Rocky Cape National Park situated further up along the coast about 25 km west of the sleepy seaside town of Wynward. We decided to head for the North Cave which had been carved into a rugged cliff face by the relentless waves and believed by the indigenous people to be a home for spirits. Hiking along the deserted trail, I could not help but imagine how the surrounding Precambrian rocks had endured and witnessed the passing of eras from before dinosaurs roamed the earth, through to the settlement of the coastal aboriginals 8,000 years ago, up until the modern world as we know today. If those still giants could talk, they would certainly make captivating storytellers.
In the late afternoon, we arrived at the small historic town of Stanley, the gateway to the island’s remote northwestern corner popularly known as the edge of the world. The most prominent feature of this quaint coastal village was once described as a “cliffy round lump resembling a Christmas cake” by the first explorers who sighted what was actually an old basaltic lava plug that rose dramatically from the water. Between the comfortable chairlift and steep steps, we settled for the less strenuous way up to the plateau of The Nut where an hour-long circular trail through low shrubs and wild grasses unveiled panoramic views of the craggy coastline and rural farmlands.
The seemingly infinite Southern Ocean that stretched before me was more than a little overwhelming. In fact, I was gazing at the world’s longest uninterrupted expanse of relatively uncharted waters that stretched from Tasmania’s western coast all the way to Argentina. It dawned on me that our brief fragile existence was but a fleeting moment in the perpetual lifetime of mountains and seas. Perched precariously on the edge of permanence, I felt, not for the first time this trip, minuscule, powerless yet thankfully alive.