Monday, 11 January 2010

Tassie Day 10 – Tamar Valley

Today was wine tasting day, although we didn't really get going till this afternoon as we had a lot of catching up on sleep to do! There are lots of boutique vineyards speckled around the valley, within easy driving distance of each other, and we managed to squeeze a lot in! K was on driving duty so was spitting mostly, but I wasn't and by the fourth vineyard, it's fair to say my powers of discernment were deserting me! We ordered quite a bit of wine, enough to keep us going for a good while yet, and K is now a convert to pinot noir after telling me for the last 18 months how he doesn't really like it...!

Dinner tonight at the local pub, which was 'interesting'. Never had rice, chips and pasta on the same plate before! Back at the chalet, we cracked open another of Marion's wines and fired up the woodburner outside, keeping us warm and the bugs away, while we sat back, got slowly pissed and as the last night of our holiday slipped into darkness, reflected on one of the best holidays we've ever had.

Tassie rocks!!

Tassie Day 9 – East Coast to Tamar Valley

Another early start, up at the crack of dawn to get packed up, breakfasted and on our way out of the festival, hoping to beat the traffic. We'd been warned that it could take a LONG time, particularly as the Australian police have a policy of random breath testing cars leaving festivals the morning after, and this had caused massive delays last year. But we were on our way fairly quickly, K passing the breath test with flying colours, and we took advantage of the unexpected time in our hands to meander up the East Coast a wee bit. Stopped off in Swansea (pronounced Swan Sea here!) for a big brunch and then took in the sights of the Freycinet National Park, including Wineglass Bay, one of the most photographed beaches in Australia apparently. Tasmania's beaches are heralded as some of the best in Australia, but to be honest, the beaches everywhere in Australia are pretty spectacular, and we've seen a lot of beaches in the past 18 we left the East Coast glad we'd spent most of our time in the more unusual scenery of the mountains and national parks.

Then it was on to the Tamar Valley, a wine-making region famous for its pinot noirs and chardonnays. After a fairly long drive up the spine of Tasmania to get there, it was bliss to arrive in the gorgeous hideyhole of Marion's Vineyard, where we were staying in a self-contained chalet with a tree-top balcony and four poster bed! We had a lovely meal at a nearby motel – much better than you'd think to look at the place – and then enjoyed a bottle of Marion's pinot noir on our return to the chalet, before crashing out after our early start this morning.

Tassie Day 8 – Falls Festival Part 2

Woke up very early in the sweltering heat that was our tent at 6.30am! Ah well, that's what festivals are all about isn't it?! Quick breakfast and then we joined the ant-march of our fellow festivallers to the beach a few kms away. The water was too cold and jellyfish-infested to tempt us in, but it was a pleasant place to blow away some cobwebs before diving into festival day 2. It was a scorcher today, over 30 degrees, so we spent most of our time in the shade, relaxing to the sounds of Dundee's finest, The View, Norway's DataRock, Welsh rockers The Future of the Left (who cracked the funniest jokes of the festival at the expense of a) Aussies and b) Coldplay), Aussie band The Temper Trap, Editors (who we'd really wanted to see and who were v good). As it started to get dark and as the new year approached, Aussie band Midnight Juggernauts got the crowd going nicely before having to leave the stage as a lightning storm blew in to clear the muggy air! They managed to finish their set though, before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs brought in the new year. They were a bit disappointing – reminded me of a pale imitation of Garbage – but all in all, it was a fine festival and we retired to bed in the wee small hours of 2010 very happy and content. Even being woken a few hours later by the god-awful techno being played by our teenage tent neighbours, wasn't enough to spoil the occasion! (I'm not just getting old, it really was terrible!)

Tassie Day 7 – Hobart and Falls Festival

After breakfast at the hostel, and after stocking up on supplies for imminent festival camping, we wandered around the harbour, taking in the sights and sounds of the end of the Sydney-Hobart yacht race. We'd seen the start of last year's race in Sydney, where hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes belch out of Sydney Harbour, jostling and tacking for position, before heading out to the high seas for the long trip South. This year, so we heard, the weather at sea had been unusually calm and there was talk of food and water rationing on many of the boats, as they'd had to spend a day longer at sea than expected – not fun! Mind you, all the returned crews looked pretty happy and relaxed as they washed and dried their gear in the sun, while knocking back a few beers!

We had another tasty lunch at the food festival before hitting the road for the hour or so drive to Marion Bay, our home for the next 2 nights, at the Falls Festival. Soon enough, we were there, the tent was set up and we were ready for some music – hurrah! As festival settings go, this one is hard to beat – the backdrop to the main stage is beautiful Marion Bay, with the ocean and hills framing the view, and on a day like today with the sun beating down and not a cloud in the sky, it was sheer relaxation to be sat on the grass with a beer and good music. Highlights of the evening were Rodriguo y Gabriela, a spanish guitar and singing duet, and Moby, who did a storming set over midnight, with his full band on display. Despite lack of prior arrangements or mobile phone reception, we managed to find our friend P, who'd originally recommended Falls to us. All in all, a great day and night.

Tassie Day 6 – Lake St Clair and Hobart

Today was the biggest driving day of the trip – about 5 hrs worth of driving, most of it on twisty, windy roads that twist and wind for no apparent reason! We broke the journey up with a stop at Lake St Clair, where we did about an hour or so's walking through the rainforest and then around Platypus Bay (sadly no platypus to be seen) before walking along the side of Lake St Clair for a while, one of the most beautiful settings I've seen - the water is deep, royal blue, Mount Rufus rises in the background like an old king and the lake stretches out for miles and miles with white sandy beaches at its shoreline and barely a sound to be heard. Blissfully peaceful. Lake St Clair marks the end of the Overland Track and it must be quite a relief to be able to drop your pack and drop into the lake for a cooling swim after 6 days hiking!!

Onwards from Lake St Clair to the big metropolis of Hobart. Well, it's not exactly New York, but after a stretch of time in the peace and quiet of national parks, anything feels like a metropolis! Hobart's the capital of Tasmania, with a population of around 200,000 (Tassie's total population is about 500,000). It's celebrated for its well-preserved colonial era architecture and it's relaxed-yet-cosmopolitan way of life. Hmm, I'm not sure about that, but we were lucky enough to be there for the two big events on the Hobart calendar – the end of the annual Sydney-Hobart yacht race and the Taste of Tasmania food festival, handily located at the waterfront next to the yachts.

After checking into our hostel, we bussed it into town and headed pretty much straight for the 70 food and drink stalls that make up the Taste festival. Clearly, there's only one way to go with food festivals – sheer gluttony. I think we 'sampled' a good 5 or 6 things, all of which were very tasty indeed. The evening's entertainment was provided in a side tent where various performers had slots for the evening, including an all girl hip hop group and a unicycling juggler – “eclectic”!

Tassie Day 5 – West Coast Wilderness

Today we set off towards the West Coast of Tasmania, skirting round the edge of the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park, with the little town of Strahan as our end destination for the day. We took a slight detour to do a couple of hours rainforest walk into & back from Montezuma Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in Tassie – very high they were too!!

Clearly the West Coast of Tassie is much like the West Coast of Scotland or Ireland as it poured with rain for a lot of the drive onwards! We crossed up over a lot of very rugged, isolated scenery, with the occasional quarry and mine – iron ore I think – before winding our way down to the coastline to Strahan, where the weather was quite a bit nicer. Strahan itself is a bit of a one-street town, but the main tourist destination in these parts because of its location at the head of the Franklin river. Sea planes, helicopters and boats all take people out to see the river but we didn't have the time or really the inclination to do that, so we soaked up the local atmosphere instead (i.e. we went to the pub!)

Tassie Day 4 – Canoeing and wildlife spotting

After yesterday's climbing efforts, we had a slightly more relaxing day lined up today. Took full advantage of the hot buffet breakfast (full cooked brekkie plus a pancake for good measure – always feel it's important to get your $$ worth!) and then met up with our canoe guide for the morning, Claire. Along with another couple, we'd arranged for a morning of gentle canoeing round Dove Lake, which was formed by glaciation in the last ice age and sits just below Cradle Mountain. It was a beautiful day, quite warm and with a gentle breeze, although still we had to get a bit wrapped up to fend off the chill from the glacial waters. K and I were both feeling ok after our walk yesterday, but glad to be using our arms rather than our legs! Think we both enjoyed the feeling of smugness when telling the others about doing the mountain as they all looked very impressed!!

The canoeing was quite gentle and very relaxing to be out on the hushly quiet of the lake. We did a full circumference, stopping off at a couple of places along the way, taking us about 1.5 hrs in total. Once we got back to the start, K and I decided to then walk round the lake which took about another 1.5 hrs, by which time we were definitely ready for lunch! We had a mediocre frittata at the visitor centre cafe – took ages to arrive, then was still frozen in the middle, then it was obviously nuked in the microwave – before heading back to the hotel for a bit of chill time before dinner and the evening's wildlife tour.

Around 9pm we joined a minibus full of other guests and set off along the national park roads. As Tassie is quite a bit further south than Sydney, it gets dark a lot later and at 9pm was only just getting dusky. It's amazing how much the temperature drops at night – having spent the day feeling comfortable in t-shirts, we now had our fleeces, hats and gloves on! As our bus trundled along, our guide gave us lots of interesting facts about the local wildlife, most of which I've since forgotten – but it was fascinating at the time, honest! We spotted lots of animals from the bus – two types of wallabies (Bennets and Paddy Melons), loads of wombats and a possum. Then we went on a short walk where we also saw a quoll and more wombats, including one that was only a couple of feet away. Sadly we didn't see any Tasmanian Devils – apparently they're now almost extinct because of a contagious face cancer that's spreading through the population very quickly. It's one of very few contagious cancers in the animal world and apparently they're particuarly vulnerable to it because the population of devils is highly inbred, following the destruction of most of the gene pool after British colonisation.

Anyway, apart from that sad story, the night tour was a fun end to our time in Cradle Mountain!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Tassie Day 3 – Climbing Cradle Mountain

Up bright and early again on Boxing Day with the excitement of climbing Cradle Mountain ahead. The weather had stayed fine and bright so, although we packed our thermals and waterproofs (you never know!), we were expecting to be able to get to the top. Having said that, it was a bit tricky to know what to expect as although the various guidebooks graded it as a 'hard' walk and mentioned a long scramble and a steep climb, we've generally found that walks here are graded 'hard' when they're really quite straightforward for anyone that's ever been anywhere near a Scottish mountain. Still, I'm not a fan of scrambling and Kevin's not a fan of steepness, but we knew the walk in would be good to do anyway, so off we set.

Our starting point was Ronny's Creek and the start of the Overland Track, a famous and very popular 6 day walking route from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair. I'd hankered after doing this but as it involves carrying all your food and gear, and as K has a bad back, it wasn't really an option. So I was glad to be doing at least a section of it.

Despite its popularity, the track was fairly empty - perhaps everyone left earlier than us!

After around 1.5hrs of steady climbing, we reached Marion's Lookout with fabulous views out over the mountains around and down to Dove Lake. The whole area was formed out of glacial retreat in the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago and the carvings and hidden lakes are beautiful to see.

A few more hours of walking and we reached the foot of the final ascent to the summit. This was our designated 'turn back' point if either of us felt too tired to go on, as there was a hut where one of us could wait while the other one went to the top. But we were both feeling good so onwards we went!

Soon enough the path turned from well-trodden and easy walking track to smallish boulders and rocks that needed a bit of scrambling to get over. Fair enough, I thought, this is do-able. Then after half an hour or so, the rocks started to get much bigger – much, much bigger than me in fact! At this point I was seriously considering whether to carry on – I have a big fear of falling down hills and although I felt ok going up, I wasn't sure I'd be able to get back down again! - but after dumping my backpack under a rock, I figured I might as well keep going. It was very, very tough though and once or twice I nearly gave up out of sheer terror at having to come back down again. But I got my moment of inspiration when, as I was standing to one side, clinging to a rock and trying to find some mental strength to keep going, a portly red-faced bloke dragged himself up said rock, swinging his builder's-bum-in-hiking-shorts in my direction. Nothing like the thought of being beaten by a fat bloke to get you up a mountain!

We must have been climbing up and over these massive boulders, sometimes on almost a vertical plane, for a good 45 minutes before we finally, finally got to the summit. Hard on the legs, hard on the arms and hard on the mind! Every time we passed someone coming down, they just kept saying 'you've got ages to go yet'!!

The views, of course, were well worth it and as a bonus the weather had stayed really clear and fine the whole way. At 1500m+, it's actually the highest peak I've climbed, although as we started from 900m, not the biggest climb I've done, if you know what I mean.

Going back down was easier than I expected, thankfullly, although I did stick to the tried-and-tested (by me anyway) approach of doing quite a lot of the scary bits on my bum. Not exactly a nimble mountain goat! Once we got back down onto the relative flat, I got my second wind while Kevin was starting to lose the ability to string a sentence together after nearly 7 hours walking by the time we finished!

A long soak in our spa bath, with a well-earned Boags for K and glass of pinot noir for me, accompanied by some bar snacks was our reward for the evening. K crashed out asleep by 9.30 – the earliest I've known him sleep in 5 years together!

More to follow soon...

Tassie Day 2 – to Cradle Mountain

Up bright and early on Christmas morning for a quick hostel breakfast before hitting the road on our way to the mountains. Slight panic when K announced he couldn't find the car keys and turned everything upside down to no avail. Just as he was calling the police to report them lost, I found them in the place they were meant to be all along – his bag!!

The sun was shining bright and warmly as we started off on our travels. We meandered our way towards Cradle Mountain, our destination for 3 nights over Christmas, via a small sojourn through the Highland Lakes region. The scenery was stunning and it was great to see real mountains in Australia (instead of the pretendy plateau things that the Blue “Mountains” in Sydney pass themselves off as). Did our first walk of the holiday, just a short hour or so to Liffy Falls and back, followed by Christmas lunch of sandwiches and fruit!

Arrived at Cradle Mountain and checked into Cradle Mountain Chateau, our base for next 3 nights. This was only place left when we got round to booking and it was extortionate so we were hoping for big things! Massive king size bed, spa in the bathroom and beautiful view out onto woodland grounds – so far so good.

Walked a km or so down to the entrance to the national park, where we picked up a shuttle bus into the park itself. Visitors are encouraged to use the free shuttle bus service instead of driving themselves, as the roads are narrow and wildlife is a-plenty. A good idea I reckon.

Arriving at Dove Lake we got our first proper look at Cradle Mountain, a jagged and very impressive monster rising above the glacial lakes around. Its multiple peaks and knife edge ridge were quite a sight in the late afternoon sun. Another short walk around the lake and then it was time to head back in time for our Christmas Buffet Dinner!

The buffet promised much but sadly delivered disappointment, especially on the lack of roast potatoes front! Still, we stuffed ourselves silly and after a quick nightcap and one-sided game of snooker in the bar, it was time for bed.

Tassie Day 1 - Launceston

Left Sydney on the morning of Christmas Eve, and after changing planes in Melbourne (onto a tiny one with old-fashioned propellers – fun!), arrived at lunchtime to a cold and drizzly Launceston. Picked up our hire car and found we'd been upgraded to a monster that I soon decided I wouldn't be driving as I couldn't even see the front of it from my seat!

After checking into Launceston Backpackers, we made our way to the Boag's Brewery where we were hoping to squeeze in a quick tour before sampling our first beer of the holiday. Sadly though it was closed up for the festive break, so we had to move straight to the sampling! Boag's is the preferred tipple of Northern Tasmanians, and very fine it is too.

There's not an awful lot to Launceston, but we managed to find a good place to eat – The Pizza Place – where we had a couple of delicious pizzas and a few more beers before hitting the hay.

Back to blogging

I haven't blogged for several months because it hasn't felt right, and I haven't felt up to it. Those of you who know me will understand why.

But now, it's a new year. And I feel it's time to pick up the keys again, starting with a run-down of our recent Christmas and New Year trip to Tasmania. Link to accompanying photos here.

For Dad.