Tasmanians can be a bit precious. They get miffed when cartographers leave their island off maps of Australia, or even when graphic designers leave it out of logos. From prior visits I know never to ask a Hobart waiter “How much is that in Australian dollars?” And Tasmanians are quite sensitive about being reminded how they succeeded where so many others had failed by perpetrating a wholly effective genocide on the indigenous population, the last Tasmanian aboriginal having died in 1876. Tasmania is to Australia what Cornell is to the Ivy League – they’re in, but only just.
The ferry arrived as scheduled at 6 am, but we lingered in our room swilling push-button coffee until seven. We were fourth in line at the Avis counter when we discovered an overnight storm had knocked out the Avis computer system. There was a Japanese family of four, a German couple, and two Chinese guys in front of us. The lone, cheery, endlessly talkative and helpful clerk, Sally, was processing the rentals manually. In effect, this meant asking each renter to sign a blank check rather than write in the rates each presented. It was excruciating.
Finally, we got our car. Sally suggested we try Bella’s for breakfast. We ignored her copious directions preferring to set off to discover Devonport on our own. Devonport is a pretty if somewhat industrial port town nestled by the Mersey River. The ferry looms across the river from its CBD, dwarfing everything. We ended up at Bella’s dining with was a Japanese family of four, a German couple, and two Chinese guys. It was quite good. But such is Devonport – what you see is what you get. After stocking up on groceries and wine, we headed in the general direction of the Cradle Mountain -Lake St Clair National Park.
Cradle Mountain isn’t in Tasmanian wine country, but on the way we passed through its edge. As the coastal plain resolved into rolling farmland with imposing mountains in the distance, we stumbled upon the Barringwood Vineyard, arriving only 30 minutes before its cellar door opened at 11 am. We did something extraordinary for us – we sat down to wait, enjoying the view, miles of undulating countryside down to the sea. An ambulance pulled up, a uniformed woman paramedic climbing out, pressing her face against the locked glass doors, determined to get in. “Looking for a morning pick-me-up?” I asked sardonically.
“No, I’ve had my coffee,” she answered, somewhat perplexed by my smirk. “We had our Christmas party here last night, and I forgot to get the tax invoice!” She struck me as highly functional for the morning after the company Christmas party, a positive sign for Tassy ambo’s.
Soon enough, Barringwood Vineyard’s cellar door opened and we got to taste some lovely (and not-so-lovely) wines, and our ambo friend got her tax invoice. I’d recommend the vineyard for the view alone. Armed with over a half-case of wine, we were ready to take on the wilderness.
We checked into the Cradle Mountain Hotel just outside the gates of the national park. By 2 pm we had parked at the visitor centre, where we paid our $16.50 per person entrance fee for a 24-hour park pass. While I am happy to give money to any park service under almost any circumstance, I must admit that $33 seemed a bit steep for a walk in the woods. Having arrived so late in the day, our thought was to take the rather easy two-hour hike around Dove Lake, some eight kilometres south, saving the morrow for more ambitious adventures. I asked the woman who sold us our passes “Can we drive down to Dove Lake, or do we have to take the shuttle bus?”
Her answer was carefully worded, no doubt repeated a thousand times a day. “Vehicular access to the park and parking is very limited. The road is one lane with many blind curves. We strongly advise you to take the shuttle bus which is both safer and more environmentally responsible.” We heeded her advice, failing to notice that she didn’t answer my question, much less ask why a bus careening around blind corners is any safer than a car doing the same. We boarded the shuttle, and twenty minutes later arrived at the Dove Lake car park.
Immediately we realised the error of our ways. There was a queue of perhaps a hundred people waiting for the 24-seat shuttle bus back to the visitor centre. As we rose to alight, the driver shouted “The last bus returns at 5 pm!” Doing some quick counting and calculation, I surmised that if we wanted to get a return bus, we should go get in line straight away. As I stepped off the bus, I realised I should not have stepped on the bus.
He was peeved, as I had interrupted his headcount. “No!” he barked.
“What happens if all the busses are full?” I whined.
“Ya takes your chances!” he replied, pleased with himself, as he pulled away.
Now I was as angry as the teeming mass in queue. The Tasmanian Parks Service, in its infinite wisdom, deems it “safer and more environmentally responsible” to drive tourists eight kilometres into the wilderness and dump them there. It was a surprise Outward Bound adventure with grandparents and toddlers.
Yet, there we were. We would have to make the best of it. We set off around the lake with dozens other like-minded individuals, pardoning and excusing each other as we passed or were passed, occasionally falling into uncomfortable silence when becoming aware that we were walking at the same pace as another group, doomed to accompany each one another until somebody blinked. It seemed more like Christmas shopping than hiking.
Ten minutes later we reached Glacier Rock, a lookout offering spectacular views of the lake and Cradle Mountain towering above. Right, views! I was so furious with the Parks Service and overwhelmed by the crowds that I had forgotten I was surrounded by some of the most stunning geography on the planet.
Happily, at Glacier Rock everybody else turned around and went back to the car park, their twenty minute walk being only eighteen minutes longer than most tourists can sustain, sadly. And I do mean everybody else – for the next hour we did not see a soul as we hiked the lake’s shoreline, climbing occasional structures to pass rocky outcrops or cross roaring creeks. It was wonderful.
I had to remind myself that in national parks, to experience the peace, beauty and solitude these places were created to preserve, one has to get more than 500 meters from asphalt. Oddly, this is something that very few visitors bother to do, despite copious planning and hours of travel. Completing the lake’s circumnavigation, we knew we were within ten minutes of the car park when the throngs re-appeared.
We quickened our pace, calculating that each person we passed was one fewer we’d be behind in the line for the shuttle. We found the queue was down to about 30 people as we joined it, but within minutes it was back up to a hundred, 70 of them behind us. We were lucky, then, to have had only a forty minute wait in the blazing sun, snagging two of the last seats on the second bus that came at 4:40 pm. In theory, there was only the 5 pm bus to follow, with three to four busloads awaiting it. Since, I’ve been scanning the papers for any mention of mass graves at Dove Lake.
The Cradle Mountain Hotel was a abuzz with activity on our return. Some sort of “mining negotiation” was wrapping up, so the car park was full of gruff looking mining company men comparing each others’ trucks with those of even gruffer looking union men. Thankfully, they all left, having buried the hatchet and broken new ground, I hope.
At reception, by contrast, a dozen middle-aged bicyclists had arrived after several days riding through the mountains from Hobart. All were clad in identical black Lycra uniforms emblazoned with a slogan about ending sexual violence, a slogan I can’t recall other than the fact that the word “sexual” caught my eye. That’s one tough bike ride, and even a tougher issue, so I had to admire them despite being resolute in my belief that it was no excuse for black Lycra. They did not leave, and would spend the next few hours shouting at each other in the hallways like they were riding bikes in the woods.
There are limited choices for accommodation at Cradle Mountain, and none is particularly cheap. At $179 a night, our Cradle Mountain Hotel was the cheaper option to the Cradle Mountain Lodge, which is one of the Pepper’s chain of luxurious spa retreats. As for our hotel, its sprawling complex was well run, if a little plain. Of course, other than bicyclists and mining men, most visitors weren’t here for the hotel, but the national park.
The dining options were surprisingly similar to those offered on the Tassy ferry. Basically, you could go the buffet route, whereby you paid about forty dollars a head to gorge yourself, or go the pris fixe route, where you paid fifty or sixty dollars for a two or three course meal that somebody else shovelled off the buffet and delivered to your table. Or so it seemed to me.
As for us, we feasted on the eclectic spread we’d purchased in Devonport that morning: paté, baguette, cheese, salami, salad, salt & vinegar chips – and of course started in on our considerable stockpile of Tassy wines. A big day ahead, we were asleep by nine.
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