South for the Winter Part 1: The Voyage

The following is the beginnings of a new project I am working on – a kind of travel journal I am keeping during my winter holiday in Tasmania, which I will write as I go then edit and collate when I am finished. Here is a preview of the first entry:

2nd July: The Voyage

Little birds fly south for the winter. I learnt that many years ago in a book of Sesame Street jokes and riddles. The joke ran:

Question: Why does Little Bird fly south for the winter?

Answer: Because it’s too far to walk.

That fact and its related joke have both stayed in my mind for the decades since I first read the book, even though I have since learnt that a) it clearly applies to more types of birds than just little ones and b) it almost certainly does not apply to birds in the southern hemisphere. Why b)? Because what the joke failed to teach my six or seven-year-old self is that, if birds fly south for the winter, it is in order to escape the winter cold, not – as they would be doing if they flew south in Australia – delving further into it.

And yet here I am defying all the southern hemisphere’s common sense, leaving wintry Melbourne for even more wintry Tasmania. The mind boggles – or should boggle. I, of course, know why I have chosen to do this, even if at times the decision baffles even me. There are several good reasons for what I have chosen to do: I have friends to visit; my flatmate is away for a month and I don’t want to spend my school holidays at home by myself; and last, and perhaps most importantly, if I am going to experience a cold and depressing winter I may as well do it properly.

Besides, there is something exciting, adventurous even, about approaching a Tasmanian winter, in that way we can have of feeling the thrill in doing something that we know to be foolish, challenging, perhaps even downright stupid, yet are choosing to do so, just for the heck of it.

To add a little to the sense of adventure, I am taking the boat. If the boat is in fact, as a friend described it, a large, “floating casino”, it only slightly reduces the sense of adventure, primarily because, putting aside whatever excitement the boat itself may or may not hold, it is also a means to an end: taking the boat means taking my car, and taking my car means that, when the boat arrives in Devonport tomorrow morning at 6:30, I will set off from the north of the island to the south, just me and the road.

Having my car will also mean the freedom to go exploring from my base at Carlton Beach, half an hour from Hobart. While driving around Tasmania in my 1992 Toyota Corolla will not exactly be Roald Amundsen or Abel Tasman material, it will still be the first time I have ventured around the island since I came here with my parents and brother at age ten, and this makes it something of an adventure for me at the very least. The island is small and I have a week to move around in it and see as much as I can. I have all manner of hopes and plans – going as far south as road will take me, for instance, or setting off into the bush of the southwest. What I will actually do and see remains to be determined. But I am entering the experience with a sense of excited anticipation that is not yet dampened by the realities of the Spirit of Tasmania.

There are, however, several realities which the intrepid adventurer will have to face between arriving at the pier and embarking the boat which is primarily a giant garage doubling as a reasonably tacky floating resort. The process of boarding the boat in your car is a lengthy one and a slow one, drawing into its slow upwards chug a range of emotions spanning the thrill of watching the Port Melbourne waves lap around you and then staring upwards at the giant gangway which is your plank onto the boat, through to the letdown of entering the boat’s seventh floor which boasts two restaurants, a café, a shop, a tourism centre and a gambling venue entitled the “Star Club”. It also has a cinema which, at 8pm, will screen “The Muppets Movie” for free. This may or may not be a bonus.

The restaurants do a natural enough job of sending passengers off into their different classes. There is the à la carte restaurant with waiter service to which, I presume, only the more sophisticated passengers will go (I don’t know for sure; I already pre-determined it was not for me), and then there is the “Captain’s Table”, a fairly inappropriately named all-you-can-eat bistro of sorts where you can pay $30 for a “large” plate of food, a dessert and a soft drink. The queue moves a little faster than the gangway onto the boat but only slightly, and standing in it is a curious experience of sharing a dining room and kitchen with a mass of complete strangers from all walks of life, all the while trying to avoid scrutinising their movements (why doesn’t the woman in front of me collect her tray and cutlery at the start?; why does the woman behind me give her  nearly teenage children small plates when it costs the same for children to have small or large?), all the while finding it fascinating to observe something which normally only the super-market checkout brings you even close to observing. And then there is the feeling of being scrutinised yourself, of wanting to take full advantage of what extortionate prices can allow you to have while not appearing to be overloading the plate or taking the best parts of the roast lamb.

And then you eat, the boat starting to move during your first few mouthfuls, giving you the curious sensation while you eat of having the floor moving backwards with you. You probably will not spend too long over your meal – there are people all around you looking for tables and the ambience is hardly something you will want to soak up. So perhaps you will move on to the Lavender Café, where you can buy tea, coffee or alcoholic drinks and sit where you can hear the pokies in the background and the man with the whisky whose iPad is not working perfectly enough for him to be able to savour the fairly miraculous fact that he can be using the internet from the middle of Bass Strait and thus punctuates his failed attempts at whatever he is trying to do with four-letter-word-peppered accusations at the unsuspecting touch screen. These are your travelling companions.

To look at it all objectively, the seats are comfortable, the room is warm, and you are on your way to Tasmania with your car kept somewhere safely beneath the deck. This should really be enough. If the whole experience gives you the impression that the “spirit of Tasmania” smells of cigarettes and whisky and has a soundtrack composed by a pokies machine replete with bleeps and Nintendo-like gurgles, then remember this: tomorrow you will set off onto the Tasman Highway in your own car, and the glorious east of Australia’s magnificent and tranquil southern isle will await. And if the sound of the pokies is a bit too grating and the TV keeps you from focusing on the copy of Nicholas Shakespeare’s In Tasmania that you have taken with you, then it might be worth putting the book away and taking a walk on the deck in the bracing night air and start to feel just that little bit closer to the spirit of Tasmania as it might have seemed to Abel Tasman.

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