I am not a Tasmanian.
Yet in spite of this, the southern isle always feels like home to me, and flying into Hobart a week after the winter solstice was no different. The quarantine beagle nosing items on the baggage carousel felt like a familiar friend, and – as I discovered to my amusement some time later – the beagle handler was indeed actually a familiar friend’s brother.
I’d lived in this island capital for three years whilst completing my undergraduate degree, so there was no need to be a tourist on this occasion and I went straight for the good stuff: the Lark Distillery.
Rumour goes that back when the isle was Van Diemen’s Land, Hobart Town had 16 distilleries, until in 1839 Lady Jane Franklin urged her husband the Governor to ban distillation because she’d “rather have the grain fed to pigs than see it turn men into swine.”*
In any case, Bill Lark, in the late 1980s, was inspired to question this law in order to take advantage of the seemingly idyllic Tasmanian water, climate, barley and even its own Central Highlands peat bog, and thus the Lark was born as the first licensed distillery in Tasmania since 1839.
Now Tasmanian boutique distilleries are springing up across the island like skiers after a snow fall, and winning international awards too. But I’ve always had a particular affection for the Lark, partly because they are the only ones using the Tasmanian peat, and partly because I’ve always had friends working in the cellar door on the waterfront (and all the advantages that come with that…). An afternoon of tastings had me feeling more chuffed about being back in Hobart than ever.
Still, this trip was not about settling into old territory, so soon enough I was cruising up the Midlands Highway to Cradle Mountain. There I warmed myself up with glühwein and the company of a dear fellow Victorian, who was spending her time playing with quolls and Tasmanian devils, and had the battle wounds to prove it. The night was spent in the back of the car, and, pre-dawn, the alarm violently announced the hour.
Outside, the world was all white.
Of course, there was only a limited amount of world that I could see from the back of the car, as the windows were all iced with snow, but emerging from the vehicle in my mother’s very sexy old-school ski pants (including braces!) and my oh-so-fluffy down jacket I was treated with a vista of snow frosted central highland glory.
I wasn’t the only one to drive up to Dove Lake to see the sunrise over Cradle Mountain, though my footprints were the first to impress the track down the boat shed, as the chill weather, still-falling flakes and minimal visibility drove the other visitors back down the road.
The closest approximation to a dawn that the weather allowed was a brief glow of gold in the fog, and Cradle Mountain herself remained secreted away, but it was nevertheless a glorious morning. My recently acquired Sony A57 helped my amateur attempts to capture the scene, but no photo does justice to the beauty of the national park. Still, it was great fun playing around, exploring the new camera as well as the landscape!
The rest of the day was a celebration of gastronomy, as I toured my Victorian friend around Christmas Hills Raspberry Farm, Ashgrove Cheese and Anvers Chocolates, before we parted ways and I feasted on dishes of vegetarian goodness with some medical students in Launceston.
Finally, it was time to be introduced to my intended destination: Ben Lomond. This area of Tasmania’s north east is dominated by free standing dramatic dolerite crags, and en route I ascended the hitherto unknown to me Mount Barrow; another snow-shawled fortress rising out of temperate forest, with a narrow zig-zag road providing the only access.
Unlike the geology, the history of this part of the island is not obvious. The Tasmanian Aboriginals of the Ben Lomond tribe were three or four bands and numbered up to 200 individuals, the most famous of them being the leader Mannalargenna, who fought during the Black War. (To read a haunting, heavily researched fictionalisation of these events, read Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party.)
These days, the only visually accessible history is of farming and forestry, though these do combine to form the background of a picturesque drive in one of the loveliest parts of the world: a drive that leads ultimately to Ben Lomond, Tasmania’s premier ski resort… when it actually snows. (The village is at 1470m, and Legges Tor, the second highest peak in Tasmania, is at 1572m.)
Much like Mount Barrow, Ben Lomond is an impressive ruined castle of a mountain. The road access to the plateau is via the zig zagging Jacob’s Ladder – a route up the dolerite escarpment only established by 1966. Narrow and winding, the road is much improved by 2013 – apparently the safety railing and “widening” of the ladder is relatively recent!
It was then a casual drive across the plateau to the village, where the car was parked and the packs towed on a sled to the last hut on the road: Foresters. Though a replacement for the fire-destroyed original, this hut is more than twenty years old, and not only uses gas for heating and lighting, but bans all electronic forms of entertainment (luckily, an exception was made for ebook readers).
This cosy hut became my home for the next week, welcoming me with fresh brewed tea, scones and couches to curl up in at the end of a day skiing. Not that there was much downhill skiing to be had for a time, for in spite of the excellent snow cover during the school holidays, the lifts didn’t open for several days.
This did give me a chance to play around with my mother’s cross country skis, and explore the spectacular landscape.
Unfortunately, explorations were prematurely halted on the first day due to the bolt holding the front of one of the ski boots together falling apart.
But this was rectified with a spare bolt and nut, and a massive filing effort.
Though it was not to last, as the next day, the other boot fell apart. This time it was repaired with screws in the back of the boot as well, just to make sure any more plans that it had of retiring would be postponed for a few more years.
The evenings too were full of joy, ranging from challenges to jump between moving sticks in time with a piano accordion, to an amusing snow dance, to dirty limericks told whilst burning sugar into Croatian plum brandy called šljivovica, to the hilarity of “Chinese Whiskers” – a game involving passing piles of paper around a circle, and alternating between seeing a phrase and drawing a pictorial representation of it, and trying to interpret such a drawing into a phrase.
Eventually a few of the lifts were open, and there was much rejoicing.
Some friends came up to join us, which was wonderful (particularly because, as beginners, they made my own poor attempts at skiing look passable… until one of them turned out to be a natural!). Other friends and family left, and the last evening was a different gathering, with a different atmosphere. It was time to leave.
It was raining as we sledded our gear to the car, though that didn’t halt a dozen runs down a slope on a tractor inner tube as a toboggan. Still, the four of us that were departing were pretty wet, so after a drive back through the picturesque countryside listening to folk music we stopped in Evandale for a decadent red velvet cake and hot chocolates.
And then, we parted ways.
The next morning, I said goodbye to Hobart too, as we drove through her one-way streets and out to the airport. It had been a wonderful adventure, and I would return.
After all, the island feels like home.
* Originally, my brief research on the distillation ban found no substantiation to the Lady Franklin story (though I would love some!), and other explanations are the 1901 distillation act that cracked down on backyard moonshine by forcing distillation to be commercial size or nothing.
HOWEVER, the fabulous new Tasmanian Whisky Trail website proclaims the truth of the Lady Jane Franklin story, so I’ll just assume that they’ve found some original sources to support this!