Here is another excerpt from my Tasmanian travelogue. This chapter tells the story of my journey to the southern-most tip of road in Australia: Cockle Creek in the far south of the Huon Region.
The modern world does not hold many more physical frontiers. Star Trek once famously decreed that space was the “final frontier”, though this is not quite true for the average human being who may have a few other barriers to pass through before space travel becomes a remotely conceivable “next step”. For most of us, even in this increasingly mobile age, our lives still operate mostly within certain fixed parameters, and a journey outside of these parameters constitutes the passing of a frontier. And, for the majority of eastern seaboard Australians, some of those frontiers are found at the country’s extreme north and southern ends, or at its red centre. The sense that these are frontiers is no doubt helped by the fact that, at least at our northern and southern tips, our road systems, normally reliable, break down before we can drive to the physical tip, as if to say, “Go no further. Here be dragons,” or “Here be barbarians hoards.”
I drove to the northern tip, or close enough to it, with my family as a child, so that has less appeal for me. Besides, it seems less extreme than the southern-most point: we all know that the world continues further north of us, and the seas to the north of us are barriers I have since crossed many times. The centre also draws me in; I had planned to head there with a friend these holidays, but our plans fell through. Perhaps the feeling of thwarted adventure this has given me is what has planted in my mind the new desire that has got me up today before daybreak: to drive as far south as Australian roads will take me. Certainly, the southern “frontier” is surely the most fascinating one Australia holds. Very few people go there, and even fewer have ever gone further south, save for the odd trip to New Zealand or Patagonia; yet even they do not lie due south of us. Once you pass Australia’s southern-most tip, there is nothing but water and then that true southern frontier, where only scientists and the ridiculously wealthy can go – Antarctica. I cannot go there, at least not now; and so, instead I will go as close as Australian roads will allow me to go. They call it Cockle Creek.
I set off around 8am, with toast and two cups of coffee in me and some relatively straightforward directions in my head. It sounds like a difficult trip to mess up; once you get into the Huon Valley there are not terribly many directions you can go. Still, the isolated nature of my destination adds to the tension in me as I set off – mostly excited tension, true, but tempered by a sense that, if something did go wrong, I might be a very long way from anywhere or anyone when it happened.
But I have a few helpful tip-offs as I leave which hopefully minimise the risk: I should fill up with petrol in Huonville, though there may also be petrol in Southport; I should also buy good in either Huonville or Southport (precisely which town my friend recommends for food, I cannot quite remember…), in case I find myself south with nowhere to eat and a long time before I am back in “civilisation” – which, apparently, ends in Tasmania when you reach the last town with a Banjo’s. This is, presumably, a very different thing to the last town with a banjo in it, as that would surely mean that, not only had you left civilisation a long time ago but you were now thoroughly in Deliverance territory, at which point you should get the hell out of there before it’s too late.
My friends and I joke about what else I might find when I get to the southern frontier: a man rocking back and forth on his verandah, toothless, sucking on straw with his bare gums while mumbling, “You’re not from around these parts, are ya, stranger”? There’s a high chance, actually, that when I get there, there will be more or less nothing to see save the road ending. If it gets to that, at least I have my hiking boots in my car; I can go for a wander and make the most of the wilderness.
I suppose the true test of a frontier is how little you can imagine what you will actually find when you get there, all jokes and stereotypes aside. Each town I pass through feels like it may be the last. If civilisation ends with the last Banjo’s, then it ends at Huonville, a reasonably busy little town where I stop for petrol. The lady at the service station makes light conversation as I pay (what is her accent? I cannot identify it. French, perhaps? Or Dutch?). She expresses the hope that the weather will hold for the weekend. I ask if she thinks it will; she shrugs. I pay for my fuel and keep winding south.
Before long, I am one of the only drivers on the road as it stretches and turns through foresty hills and drops from time to time into pockets of wood-smoke where towns sit snugly in the belly of a hill; other times, the road opens onto circular bends of water with towns stretched out on its arm. And gradually the towns grow smaller and smaller. In Dover I stop for a few photographs. A girl walks her pony in a field. The streets boast shops which do not seem to be open. As I return to my car and head towards Southport, I wonder if it was in fact Huonville where I was supposed to stop for food.
At the turn-off to Southport I see one car going the other way, driven by a man with a beard the size of a Louisiana swamp. There are no cars going with me. In a matter of minutes I am in Southport, or what purports to be it. There are signs for an information centre but I see none. In fact, there is no centre at all; the town consists only of a handful of houses sitting unobtrusively in dollops on the flat at the bottom of a hill, the road stretching out into the curves of hill and water. No shops to be seen, and before long I reach a ramp where cars are parked for boating but no people can be seen, just a dead-end, a large dirt turning circle which I use to head back towards the start of the town. On my right, where the road enters Southport, I see what proves to be the “information centre”: a public toilet with a map and some information about the far south on its outside wall. I park my car and take some photographs of rippling sand and gently undulating water with boats sitting softly upon the surface. I then take advantage of what may be the last toilet of this leg of the trip, though the inside of the toilet is black and I reflect on leaving that a tree in the bush would have been far, far nicer.
The map on the wall shows me where I have gone wrong in my navigation: the road ends at Southport but only because the water stops you from going further south; it seems the town sits upon the curve of a bay or an inlet. If I want to get to Cockle Creek, I will need to back-track. The road where I saw the swamp-bearded man was where I should have gone right with him not left; there a dirt road will take me to Cockle Creek.
Foodless and hungry, around an hour from anywhere I can eat, I decide to make my way to Cockle Creek before I will be too hungry to do anything.