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.

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