Thursday, July 23, 2009

Still thinking about Tassie

The problem with having a busy routine and trying to maintain a blog is that you inevitably end up having to choose between doing stuff and writing about it. We’ve been keeping pretty active since returning from Tasmania, so I haven’t had a chance to write about all the fun stuff we did there. I’ll try to get at least some of it down in pixels and bytes before we go off on our next adventure.

On the way to Tasmania, we stopped in Melbourne. We had visited Melbourne back in January... well, sort of. We arrived there after spending more than a week in Sydney, and were feeling pretty citied-out, so even though we’d heard Melbourne was a lovely, vibrant, exciting city, we decided to spend all our time there explring the countryside. We drove the Great Ocean Road, and went to see penguins at Phillip Island, and toured the lovely Dandenong forest and hills. Of Melbourne itself, though, we saw nothing. Needless to say our good friend Jackie, who is from Melbourne, has given us no end of grief about that.

This time, we had a day’s stop-over there on our way to Tasmania (due to the oddities of the airlines, it worked out to be cheaper to fly to Melbourne and stay overnight than it would have been to fly direct to Hobart. Go figure.) Since we hadn’t seen much of the CBD (Central Business District, or downtown), we decided to stay right in the heart of it, booking a room at a “backpackers” hotel near the train station. (Backpackers seem to be a uniquely Australian institution. It’s a term that covers everything from cheap and funky through grotty all the way to downright scary. This one was on the grottier end of the scale, but it was only for one night.) We planned to spend our day and evening in Melbourne just walking and exploring.

It turns out that, as advertised, Melbourne is a lovely, vibrant, exciting city. It’s got some fabulous architecture, tons of great restaurants, and some really cool markets, as well as one of the world’s best public transit systems (which includes free trams in the CBD). We stopped in Federation Square, a former industrial area which is now home to art galleries and museums. In celebration of winter, there was an outdoor art show with the theme of light. The most interesting exhibit was a platform about 20 m square, dotted with dozens of pillars about 2 m tall. Each pillar contained speakers and light panels, which lit and played in response to the movement of people on the platform. In effect it was a giant sculpture and musical instrument which we were all playing. Very neat.

After a bit of walking around, though, we started to get chilled (it was around 6 degrees in the evening). Isaiah and Charlotte’s ears were getting cold, so we stopped into a tourist shop to see if we could get them some cheap “beanies” (or touques, as we know them). And that’s where I suddenly understood how crazy Melburnians are for AFL.

This is footy season, so every Friday and Saturday night I get to choose between watching rugby league or Australian rules football on t.v. One of the things that’s intrigued me about Aussie rules (AFL) is that I have no idea where the teams are from. I certainly don’t know all the places in Australia, but I’ve got a pretty good idea of where the big ones are. But when I watch AFL, I see 60,000 people cheering as teams from St. Kilda, Essendon, or Collingwood hammer each other. And I think “surely these must be fairly big places to have this many fans come out to their games week after week. Why have I not heard of them?” In Melbourne, I suddenly realized what was going on. St. Kilda, Essendon, and Collingwood aren’t cities. They’re all parts of Melbourne.

And they’re not suburbs from distant parts of the city – they’re neighbourhoods, butting up against each other. In our walks around Melbourne, we passed through several of these neighbourhoods without even realizing it. You can see how close they are on this map.

In all, Melbourne – a city of 3.8 million people – has nine professional AFL teams. Ten if you count Geelong, which is a small city about 70 kms from downtown Melbourne. Imagine if Toronto had nine professional hockey teams – not just teams from Etobicoke and Scaroborough, but teams based in The Beaches, the Danforth, the distillery district, and so on, with another pro team in Milton. On top of that, I’m told there are another nine semi-pro teams scattered around Melbourne. The pro teams share the city’s stadiums, each of which has four games on a typical weekend. The desk clerk at our hotel said there are about 300,000 Melburnians at a footy match each weekend!

I’ve been told that going to the footy in Melbourne is one of the city’s quintessential experiences. Unfortunately we hadn’t timed our trip to catch a game. But this weekend we’re going to do the next best thing by going to Brisbane to watch the Brisbane Lions take on the North Melbourne Kangaroos. Charlotte bought a Kangaroos hat in Melbourne, mainly because she liked the name. She’s not sure whether she’ll wear it to the game on Saturday, though, as it only seems right that we cheer for the Brisbane team. (Isaiah bought a Geelong Cats hat, because they won the first game he saw on t.v., and because we stayed in Geelong while exploring the Great Ocean Road. But he thinks he’ll cheer for the Lions as well.)

Most Queenslanders seem to view AFL as a bit of an intruder, here in the rugby league heartland. That would explain why tickets are being sold on a two-for-one promotion this weekend. But it should still be fun to pile into The Gabba and see what all the fuss is about.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Eating well with the nine-year-olds

Every now and then you get to witness a t.v. show that makes the shift from programming to phenomenon. This year that show is a little reality program called Master Chef Australia.

The premise is pretty simple: a few dozen of the country's best amateur cooks compete to see who can impress a team of professional chefs/food critics in a variety of challenges, as their numbers are gradually winnowed down until only one remains. The challenges are all genuinely food-related, such as making a meal from a given set of ingredients, or trying to copy a professional chef's signature dish (usually something horrendously complex). The competitors are quite ordinary -- not the "eye-candy with issues" that are cast on most other reality shows -- and there's a spirit of camaraderie that is refreshing. It sounds rather mundane, and highly derivative, but amazingly it isn't. It's entertaining and fun, and it's the top-rated show in Australia -- with an audience of 2.3 million this week, that means about 10 per cent of the people in the country are watching it.

This is the final week, and everywhere you go you hear people talking about the show, debating whether Chris should have been voted out despite the fact that his braised beef cheeks were judged a failure, or whether Poh was wise to use century eggs in her dumplings. It's particularly popular with families -- we're certainly not the only family that gathers together to watch it every night, nor are we the only parents to see our children suddenly taking a greater interest in plating technique or a desire to learn to make croque em bouche.

Naturally, then, when we started planning a birthday party for Charlotte, she decided she wanted it to have a Master Chef theme. Today we had six 9- and 10-year-olds over for an afternoon of cooking and fun. We mimicked a number of elements from the show, which all of the kids watch with just as much fanaticism as Charlotte does. For example, every week the professional chefs on the show conduct a "master class" in everything from sausage-making to how to make a proper kofta. We decided to teach the kids how to make their own pizza, starting with making the dough from scratch:

A popular elimination challenge requires contestants to name all the ingredients in a complex dish such as minestrone or Indonesian curry. We had a blindfold tasting where the kids had to identify items as varied as golden syrup and fresh lychees.

We even had a visit from one of the judges, Melbourne Age food critic Matt Preston.

All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable and memorable birthday party.

Tomorrow night is the final episode of the show, and along with a few million Australians we'll be gathered around the t.v. watching to see who wins. And, like a few million Australians, we'll be hoping to reap the benefits of the show in the coming months as our children attempt to cook ever more complex and satisfying dishes.

Saturday, July 11, 2009 the forests of the night

Like most islands, Tasmania has benefited from its isolation. Give a land a few thousand years of peace and quiet and you’re bound to end up with some creatures that don’t exist anywhere else. That’s as much a result of what doesn’t evolve as what does. Australia as a whole didn’t throw up any large, hoofed ungulates like deer or antelope, so that niche in the ecosystem was filled by enormous jumping mice (kangaroos and wallabies). And until a few thousand years ago, Australia didn’t have many large carnivores either – no lions or wolves – so small scavengers and herbivores were able to live unmolested.
Unfortunately, around 5,000 years ago or so the aborigines who lived in northern Australia met up with some wandering Polynesians who introduced them to this really cool companion animal they’d domesticated, and before long there were dogs – and later their wild cousins, dingos – running all over the country, gobbling up anything that wasn’t fast or fierce or poisonous or camouflaged.
For whatever reason, though, the natives who lived across the Bass Straight didn’t take to dogs. It could be that they just didn’t travel to the mainland much – having 200 kms of the most storm-tossed ocean in the world to cross may have had something to do with it. So the devils and the thylacines survived. At least the devils did. The thylacines – marsupial dog-like creatures also known as the Tasmanian Tiger -- were doing alright too, until Europeans decided they didn’t really like having their sheep eaten and started hunting them. In the late 18th century there was a bounty on thylacines – up to one pound a head, an enormous sum at the time. The last known animal died in a Hobart zoo. There have been hundreds of sightings since then, but nothing confirmed by scientists.
We recently visited the Bonorong Wildlife Park, a rehabilitation and rescue centre just outside Hobart. We hand-fed kangaroos, petted a wombat and an imported koala (another creature that never made it across the Bass Straight), and marvelled at the weird sound produced by devils (it’s a cross between a growl and a shriek – a bit higher pitched than the one on the Bugs Bunny cartoons. If you imagine yourself as a newly arrived settler in Tasmania, huddled in your hut and hearing those noises echoing through the dark, it’s not hard to see why they earned their name). On a wall outside the gift shop is a tribute to the thylacine. I was surprised that it said “some believe the thylacine to be extinct,” so I asked inside. I ended up chatting with Greg Irons, an energetic man in his 20s who runs the rehabilitation centre. I asked him if he thought thylacines still existed. “Ten years ago, I would have said almost certainly,” he said. “Today, probably not.”
More than a decade ago, he said, a hunter he knew and trusted said he had spent a full minute observing a thylacine from about 20 metres away, and had even taken a plaster cast of the print. Irons thinks that may have been one of the last ones left. “We still get people in here who say they’ve seen one, or who claim to know where they breed, but...” and he dismissed their credibility with a shrug.
But why, I wondered, was he so sure they had died out? While driving to the Hastings Caves and Cockle Creek we had seen just how dense the Tasmanian rain forest can be, and that area was just the beginning of a massive wilderness region that stretches for hundreds of kilometres. Surely there could be thousands of thylacines still roaming in the forest undetected? Irons said that’s not the kind of habitat these cats need. “They weren’t fast animals, but they had endurance. Lots of things could outrun them but they would just keep going and going until they caught up.” They were hunters of the open land, he said, and that land is pretty heavily used by farmers and shepherds. If there were still thylacines there, someone would have seen them.
If the thylacine really is gone, though, it certainly still lives on in Tasmanian iconography. From license plates to beer labels, t-shirts to shot glasses, thylacines are everywhere in Tasmania. In downtown Hobart, I walked past the former headquarters of the Cascade Brewery – Australia’s oldest brewery, founded in 1834. Atop the grey stone building was a carving of a beer cask, and perched on that was the unmistakeable striped figure of the thylacine. Since the building was constructed in the 1870s, the sculpture dates from a time when thylacines were still roaming the fields and hedgerows, still being shot on sight and poisoned for a bounty.
And that, it seems to me, is the oddest thing about the way thylacines are used in Tasmania. Yes, it’s a romantic animal with a great name (Tasmanian tiger), but it didn’t just die out by accident. It was wiped out on purpose by the great-grandparents of those who now celebrate it. It would be like coming to North America and seeing monuments to the passenger pigeon everywhere, or finding out that the international mariners federation had adopted the dodo or the great auk as its symbol.
I hope there are still a few thylacines roaming the forest. It could happen – ten years ago, most scientists agreed that mountain lions no longer lived in Ontario; now there’s a broader consensus that they may still exist in the wild.
I also hope someone manages to find a cure for a disease currently sweeping through the wild population of Tasmanian devils. It doesn’t look good, though: in the past ten years the population of wild devils has dropped by 70 per cent. Most people like Irons are focused these days on building “island” populations, keeping a few devils disease-free so they can be reintroduced if a cure for the disease is ever found. They’re also trying to stop new logging roads from being built into areas that are currently disease-free, and even talking about building a devil-proof fence to keep infected animals out of clean parts of the island.
If all that fails, there’s a very real possibility the Tasmanian devil could go the way of the Tasmanian tiger.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Down to the very bottom

Tasmania is a fairly small island -- you can drive across it in a few hours -- but when you have less than two weeks in the place you quickly realize that it's not as small as you first thought it was. When we were planning this trip, we had talked about spending a couple of days driving around the island, going to Cradle Mountain in the northwest and seeing some of the rugged mountain scenery of the west coast. We soon realized there was so much we wanted to see in the Hobart area that we wouldn't have a chance to do that. So we started prioritizing. What were the things we really wanted to see and do in Tasmania? Go shopping in the Salamanca market along the waterfront in Hobart (did that on Saturday); see a Tasmanian devil (today); visit the Cadbury factory (tomorrow); go to Port Arthur (Friday); go as far south as you can go in Australia.
That was Sunday's trip.
When you travel around Australia, you quickly get used to the superlatives being qualified the same way. Every attraction is the biggest, the tallest, the oldest, the only "in the southern hemisphere". In Tasmania, they have another option: "the southernmost X in Australia." Surprisingly it's not used all that often, but it is used for the road to Cockle Creek, the southernmost stretch of road in Australia.
Before Cockle Creek, though, we went to the Hastings Caves. The caves are about an hour and a half south of Hobart, through some lovely mountains and along the Huon Valley. As you go, the road gets narrower and more winding, and the houses seem to get closer to the road. Eventually you feel as though you're driving along someone's driveway. Then you leave the houses behind entirely, and pass along a narrow track through the forest. The last 8 kms to the caves are gravel, and since it has been raining every day for the past two weeks it's pretty slick and rutted.
At the end of it is the Hastings Caves, one of two Dolomite Caves in Australia that are open for public viewing. Unlike limestone, which most caves are made of, dolomite is really great stuff for making stalactites and stalagmites, and the Hastings Caves are just full of them. Thousands of them in a massive cave system. It was quite a stunning sight, and well worth the drive.
By the time we had the tour and went on a trek through the rain forest looking for platipuses (didn't see any), it was getting pretty late in the day. But we knew we couldn't come this far without going to Cockle Creek.
The lady at the information desk said the 28 km road to Cockle Creek was gravel, but in better shape than the road to the caves. For the first 10 kms or so, she was pretty accurate. But soon it too started getting narrower and more rutted, turning into a more typical logging road right down to the trees fallen across the road which we had to skirt around. We took it slowly, though, and after half an hour we reached Cockle Creek. We were here, the very end of the road, the southernmost road in the country.
And what did we see? Nothing, really. No sign saying "welcome to the southernmost point of land in Australia". Not even a view of unbroken ocean stretching as far as Antarctica, because Cockle Creek is on a peninsula and faces north. The actual southernmost tip is a two hour trek through the bush, and since it was getting late in the day we didn't have that option.
Apparently there's a sculpture of a whale at the very end of the road, and a display honouring the settlers who once lived here, but we weren't able to see it. The road was flooded about two kms from the end, and we decided our little Hyundai Elantra just wasn't up to the challenge.
Instead we got out and looked at the ocean, then started backtracking. A few kms up the coast we stopped at Recherche Bay, where you really are looking south. We stopped and walked on the beach, took pictures of ourselves, and contemplated the fact that we were closer to Antarctica than we were to Cairns. And then we piled back in the car for the long, slow drive in the deepening dark back to Hobart.
On the way back, I wondered if it had been worth it. I decided it was. Not because we had seen anything so spectacular, but because I knew I would have regretted it if we hadn't. If we had been 28 kms from the southernmost piece of road in Australia and hadn't gone there, I would have wondered whether we would have seen anything really special. We didn't, but we at least answered the question of what was there.
And, in case you're wondering, we really did go as far south as you can go. The road does a bit of a dogleg just before that wash-out where we turned back, so we would have been heading north if we had pressed on.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Happy Canada Day, welcome to hell

I'm not quite sure whether we were to mark Canada Day on July 1 or 2. We didn't do either, really, but we thought about Canada on both days so perhaps that counts.

On the evening of the 1st, when folks in Bracebridge were just waking up to find paper Canadian flags dotted on their lawns, we were taking a walking tour of the Hobart waterfront. On the morning of the 2nd, when the crowds were just starting to gather for the Canada Day fireworks at Bracebridge Bay, we were arriving at the most brutal of all Australia's penal colonies, Port Arthur, a place that was often described as hell on earth.

Naturally there are Canadian connections to be found all over, if you want to look for them. The governor of Tasmania at one time was John Franklin, who is best known in Canada for his failed attempt to find the northwest passage (our tour guide on the waterfront told me his favourite song of all time was Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers); Port Arthur was named for the same person as Port Arthur, Ontario (now known as Thunder Bay); there's a building called Canadian Cottage on the site, a mail-order prefab building that came from Canada in the early 1900s; following the failed 1839 rebellion, several of Les Patriotes were sent from Canada to serve their sentence in Port Arthur; and on it goes.

Port Arthur, Tasmania, is a fascinating site. If you were a common criminal in England in the early 1800s, you were sent to Botany Bay or Van Diemen's Land (Sydney or Tasmania). If you re-offended, you were sent to Port Arthur. It was a model prison, in many ways, because the focus was on rehabilitation rather than just warehousing and punishing. Unfortunately for the inmates, part of rehabiliation in those days was punishment. Hard labour was just the start of it. If you offended within the prison -- talking back, failing to show up for duty, etc. -- you were given the lash. But by the 1840s they realized lashing was just hardening the convicts, so they came up with another method of breaking a man. They built a place called the Separate Prison, where you were kept in sensory deprivation. No noise was allowed, and you were known by the number of your cell rather than your name. You stayed in your cell 23 hours a day, and were allowed one hour of solitary exercise during which you had to wear a hood. If you violated those rules, you were put in the punishment cell, kept in total darkness with metre-thick walls.

Not surprisingly, the lunatic asylum was located next door.

And forget escaping from this prison. Even though there were no fences around Port Arthur, the woods were thick, the water cold. It's located at the end of a peninsula that's connected to the main part of the island at two points by necks of land that are no more than 200 metres wide. At one of them the British stationed The Dog Line, a line of half-starved dogs that were chained along the width of the land.

The site was home to more than 2000 people at its height -- not just prisoners, but guards and their families, and boys living in a special prison across the bay. There were massive sandstone buildings all around the site, including a church that could seat a thousand. The prison closed in the 1850s, and the site was renamed Carnarvon and sold off for private homes. It was so notorious, though, that tourists started coming almost immediately, and the old lags found they could make a good living by giving guided tours. They also found their tips were better if they made the stories a bit more dramatic than they really had been. Naturally they played up the brutality, showing their scars and telling tales about how sadistic the guards were. Apparently in the world of tourism, some things never change!

Many of the buildings were destroyed in bush fires, but the site has been partly restored. We spent a full day there, and still didn't see it all. Fascinating.

Today we're going to brace the elements of Hobart harbour, going sailing on a tall ship for a three hour tour. Better pull on our woolies!