(Dec 7, 2020 – written by Dave)
Wow, what a year. We started with bush fires on New Year’s Day, got scorched by continued fires and the ongoing drought through all of January and finally in mid-February we got pummelled by a three day, once in a hundred year rain event. Only six weeks in, 2020 seemed like it was already overly dramatic. Then only a month later, this Covid pandemic thing pops up. Enough already!
While the first three events were dramatic for Australia, Covid has clearly been dramatic everywhere. By April anyone who was travelling had to return home (somehow) and anyone not travelling had to stay put. Some countries locked down completely, some didn’t. Regardless most travel was put on hold. We had a 2020 Japan trip all mapped out but instead we got to spend what seemed like the month of June on hold with airlines trying to get tickets refunded. Nobody was going anywhere. (Our tickets were eventually refunded)
Even though for a while we couldn’t travel outside our city, much less outside the country, in the big scheme of things, we are really lucky to live in Australia. Our government took Covid serious from the beginning and while most people hated being locked down, we did it for the good of others. Eventually cities and states got the Covid waves under control with testing, tracing and mandatory quarantines. Cities and states started to re-open and finally we find ourselves now with nearly all state borders in Australia open. In fact, as of tomorrow December 8th, the last state border is scheduled to open and we’ll be completely “free to move about the country”.
We’ve made a couple of previous non-riding visits to Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost state, but we’ve never managed a proper bike trip on the island. It has been on our bucket list for some time. Being small and having a relatively small population, Tassie is an ideal place for a bike tour. It does have some challenges however. It is remote, hilly, can have challenging weather and takes effort to get there – plus to do it proper you need a minimum of three weeks.
So, now the timing feels almost perfect. We’re not working, so there is no issue with time off. Because state borders have only just re-opened, short notice frequent flyer tickets were available. Tasmania currently has no required quarantine on arrival. And finally, looking for a silver lining in Covid, international tourists are not currently allowed in Australia so just maybe Tasmania won’t be quite as busy as it would be during a typical summer.
So, what/where is Tasmania? Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t really know. I was talking to a friend from Ecuador the other day and all she knew of Tasmania was the Tasmanian devil – I’ll bet she is not alone!
Tasmania, nicknamed Tassie, is an island state in the south of Australia. It is separated from the Australian mainland by the Bass Strait, a 240km/150 mile wide waterway. I know, Australian mainland? Isn’t Australia already an island? Where is the Australian mainland? Never mind, too much to explain here in a short post… Tassie, the state, encompasses the main island of Tasmania, the 26th-largest island in the world, and roughly 334 surrounding smaller islands. Tassie has a population of about 540,000 people. The state capitol and largest city is Hobart, with around 40 percent of the population living in the greater Hobart area.
Tasmania covers an area of about 68,000 square km. For perspective, that’s slightly larger than Florida and slightly smaller than Ireland. It is promoted as the natural state with protected areas of Tasmania covering about 42% of its land mass. As such, it’s not too surprising that Tasmania was home to the world’s first “environmental” political party. Several environmental campaigns to protect Tasmanian wilderness areas led to the formation of the original Greens party.
The island is believed to have been occupied by indigenous folks for around 30,000 years before the British arrived in 1803. The indigenous Tasmanians were separated from the mainland Aboriginal groups about 11,700 years ago after the sea rose to form Bass Strait – think about that for a minute – pop over to the neighbors place for tea and when you head off to go home, your path is cut-off by the Bass Straight – now that’s having a bad day.
The Aboriginal population is estimated to have been around 5,000 when the British arrived. Sadly, they were mostly wiped out within 30 years by a combination of conflicts with settlers including the “Black War“, intertribal conflicts, and from the late 1820s, the spread of infectious diseases. The Black War peaked in the late 1820s, and led to more than three years of martial law. It cost the lives of around 1,100 Aboriginals and settlers.
The island was permanently settled by the British in 1803 – not because they ran out of room up on the mainland but rather they wanted to create a southern presence during the Napoleonic wars. Apparently the French were aggressively on the lookout for new lands back then. Tassie was originally home to mostly just convicts and was considered part of New South Wale. It became independent in 1825. Overall from 1804 to 1853, nearly 75,000 convicts were sent to Tassie – mostly the really bad cases from Australian states but also directly from England. Today many old convict-built buildings can still be found in and around Hobart.
For 11,000 years the indigenous folks called Tasmania Lutruwita. In 1642, a Dutch captain named Abel Tasman came looking for the “great southland” and found Tassie. He stopped for supplies near Hobart. He planted the Dutch flag and named the island Van Diemen’s Land (humbly after his patron Anthony van Diemen who was safely ensconced back in Jakarta). Tasman somehow missed the Bass Straight and thought he was claiming discovery of the whole of the land later to be named Australia, so maps drawn back then referred to all of Australia as Van Diemen’s Land. The name Van Diemen’s Land stuck for Tassie until 1854 when the British changed the name to Tasmania. I guess they felt giving discovery credit to Van Diemen, a mere financer (a Dutch one at that), was a bit rich. Finally, over 200 years on, Abel got his due and Tasmania was renamed.
In addition to killing most of the original Aboriginals, colonization also wiped out all of the native Tasmanian languages. There are limited records of the Aboriginal culture and no records of their languages. The last native speaker died in 1905 and with her a 30,000 year old language disappeared from the face of the earth. In addition to its original inhabitants, colonization also cost Tasmania two unique animals, the Tasmanian emu and the remarkable Tasmanian tiger – the last of the tigers died in 1933. Europeans weren’t exclusive in their plundering of animals as fossil records point to a giant Komodo Dragon-like lizard living in the deep south when the first Aboriginals arrived.
While colonization wasn’t overly kind to things living on Tasmania, the remoteness of the island kept development to a minimum. Today the island is still known for vast untamed wilderness, wild areas and heaps of unique native animals. And yes, the Tasmanian Devil is a real animal – though the devil part is a bit embellished. Tasmanian Devils have a reputation for getting angry when threatened by a predator, fighting over a mate, or defending a meal. Colonist dubbed them “devils” after witnessing their aggression coupled with their guttural growls. Our friends at Warner Brothers were not impressed enough by the actual devils so after a little embellishment, they came up with Taz, the cyclonic lunatic that everyone knows about. The original fake cartoon news story perhaps!
One of Tassie’s nicknames is “The Apple Isle”. They grow apples and a lot of other cool climate fruits on the island. Being a remote island at the end of a remote continent, early on Tassie built a strong local food production culture. “Farm to table” was not a clever marketing term on Tassie, it was just the way of life. While over time Tassie has shared more with the mainland and greater world they have also maintained the small farm connection. Much of what’s eaten or drunk on Tassie is grown, caught, brewed or vinted there. Food and drink always feature heavily in our blogs – this trip might go overboard.
We fly to Hobart on December 10th. We will be in Tassie for about 5 weeks. We’ve mapped out a counter-clockwise loop of the full island but we should have more than enough time to make a few off-the-grid side trips. Even with Covid, it appears that some of the more popular places are nearly filled, so we’ve made a few bookings ourselves. This will give us a bit of a schedule, not enough to put pressure on us, just enough to keep us moving. We’re taking our light gear and we’ll be camping in the remote areas. Blog highlights will be forthcoming, naturally dependent signal strength from out in the Tasmanian wilderness. Stay tuned…