Letter from Tasmania

You may find it hard to believe, but I have experienced more extremes in temperature in Tasmania on one morning than in the 16 days I was on Star Princess plying between South America and the Antarctica. There must be some good lessons to be learnt from the processes.

Everyone knows that it is cold in the South Pole. I was warned to pack warm clothes that would enable me to brave the extremes in temperature on deck and on the land excursions, which I did. Well, I have been to the Antarctica, or as close as most people could, and I have since told you that I had left over half of the heavy gears I packed untouched. Now, everyone also knows that it is now summer in the Southern Hemisphere in general and in Australia and Tasmania in particular. Had it not been that it was 7 degrees Celsius in Hong Kong the day I left, I would have no warm clothes with me on this trip, except a pullover and a windbreaker.

It was a very pleasant flight from Sydney to Hobart. We were met by a local guide who was friendly, considerate, rather well read, knowledgeable, and professional. We later found out that she was a teacher and a mother of four, including a daughter currently reading a degree in Chinese medicine in Melbourne. She doubled up as driver, and she came with a 24-seater with a luggage compartment at the back, so that everyone in the party of 12 could sit comfortably and do whatever he or she liked on the bus.

We spent the day leisurely and we even managed to have golf in the afternoon. It rained while we were having dinner, but then it was not unexpected; and the day passed rather uneventfully.

We left Hobart early next morning with our luggage and began the ascent to Mount Wellington. This is a mountain 1,271 metres tall and rises above the City of Hobart. It is often snow covered, even in summer, and is famous for its immense geological features. It is made up mainly of Jurassic dolerite with rocks everywhere and moving, albeit rather slowly. The guide told us that they were rock streams which operate just like glaciers except that the movements were not as noticeable and were only discovered through GPS tracking. The dolerite rocks form into perpendicular precipices some of which appear like gigantic organ pipes and are thus called as such.

Eucalyptus trees are the dominant vegetation on the mountain. These are rather oil-rich trees and they support bushfires. There had been a few serious ones in the past 40 to 50 years which destroyed many huts and buildings along the road and forest tracks. Our guide pointed to us a small church in the area which survived at least four or five bushfires and which still stood there proudly and unscathed, and to the inspired and spiritual, as a constant reminder of the Almighty Creator of all things.

Charles Darwin visited Hobart in 1836 and made reference in “The Voyage of the Beagle” to Mount Wellington in general and to the place being covered with Eucalypti species in particular.

There were lookout areas at various points and it became progressively cooler as we went up. Soon the bus reached the summit and the guide gave everyone the option of staying on the bus or taking a stroll outside. I was one of the few who decided to brave the elements, foolhardily in a T-shirt and a windbreaker. I made it to the observation point from which I could see the City of Hobart through the flowing clouds and mist. It was very cold indeed and the wind was even stronger. I had to steady my hands before I could take pictures with my Nikon D70. At this point, a young man asked me to take a picture of him with Hobart as background, using his tiny two-inch and delicate camera. I did; and I did not bother to ask him to reciprocate. Looking back, I think both of us were stupid, the wind could have taken the camera or either or both of us away, anytime. Soon, water began to run from my eyes and nose and I could hardly feel my ears in the biting cold and wind. I dashed for a shelter, which was an enclosed box made of strong plastics for visitors to look out, and had a temporary reprieve before making a final run for the bus. There were applauses and someone gave me a chocolate medallion as a token prize. The guide then said that the icy winds at the summit could reach over 157 km per hour and that gusts of up to 200 km per hour were quite common. She reckoned that the combined altitude and the chill factor of the day would create a condition of -10 degrees Celsius. I was not wrong therefore when I told them that it was colder than the Antarctic.

From Mount Wellington, we went to Port Arthur, a tourist attraction made famous for the wrong reasons, first as a penal institution for repeat offenders founded in 1830, and more recently, as a site of the worst mass murder in Australian history, where on 28 April 1996, a resident went on a killing spree, killing 35 people and wounding 37 more, mostly tourists, before being captured by Special Operatives Police. The incident reportedly led to a national ban on semi-automatic shotguns and rifles.

Port Arthur is now turned into a theme park which featured not only the physical ruins of the past and disused prison and facilities, including a prison for boys and an Island of the Dead, but also the historical and documentary accounts of the people who once lived there, both the inmates and those who watched over them. At least one account described the Port Arthur initiatives to reform offenders as badly failed and flawed experiments. The prison was closed in 1877, and the Island of the Dead – it actually has a French name – is now home for 1,646 graves, mostly unmarked, apart from 180 in respect of staff and military personnel. A local columnist said every Australian should visit Port Arthur, not because of the theme park, but because of the history, the history-making angles, and the aftermaths of such history.

There are many other aspects of Tasmania that are interesting. And I hope to talk to you about them the next time I got up at the wrong time.

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