the down under wonder
JOHN M. EDWARDS
John M. Edwards middlenamed his daughter after his favourite
travel writer, Bruce Chatwin. His work has appeared in Amazon.com,
CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Michigan
Quarterly Review, Escape, Global Travel Review, Condé
Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets
and Entertainment Weekly.
TASMANIAN DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
the ferryboat Spirit of Tasmania, plying the waters 240 kilometers
(150 miles) across the Bass Strait, I prepared to land at the
ersatz capital port city of Hobart, with an impossible task
the 10,000 original inhabitants, known as Aboriginals, supposedly
exactly zero now remained -- at least that was the latest estimate.
When the last survivor of this Stone Age race, Truganini, died
in 1876, everyone said another genocide. But this was followed
later by another contender, Fanny Cochrane Smith, who ended
up pushing up daisies in 1905 and was buried, they say, in her
favourite flower print dress, yet with her ugly sideburns remaining
knows, maybe there were one or two Tasmanian Aborigines left
hiding out in the primary rainforest? If so, I was destined
to find them.
Hobart, I hooked up with a strapping lad named Gavin, a muscular
drummer for a popular rock band, who was visiting his mum and
dud. Hobart looked like an empty set from “The New Twilight
Zone,” very British in its own way with its Protestant
public houses and bottle shops, except
for the looming presence of Mount Wellington rising up from
the earth like the head of the sea monster in the Ray Harryhausen
flick “The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms.”
escapees from a Renaissance fair or a secret Grateful Dead reunion
or a Phish jam, wandered down the street in their Swandri parkas,
hair dreadlocked, faces tattooed, noses pierced -- one of them,
resembling a wasted Russell Brand, was even flipping his flippant
fingers along a wooden lute.
looked at them without pity, eyes lepidoptera: “Watch
out for them. They are Hill People: none of them even work,”
I could tell he was a little bit envious of the free-spirited
wanderers. Or, Fleetwood Mac.
when we got to Gavin’s house, I waited outside while he
argued with his mum. He came out looking quite contrite: “I’m
sorry but it is not convenient right now for you to stay with
us -- a family emergency has come up.” As if upon instinct,
with appypollylogies he surely handed me a cassette tape of
his band, which, when I played it much later, only as an afterthought,
was really quite good.
at a backpacker’s hostel, I met Sissy Pfisher, a Bavarian
who had rented a car, but didn’t want to drive it. Poor
Sissy had that ancestral congenital handicap, suffered by the
German diaspora world-wide, in not being able to express the
‘th’ sound: therefore we were staying in a ‘youse’
a Henry James tour of a week’s duration driving around
Tasmania, also known as Tassie (pronounced Tazzie), we stumbled
into a remote mining town filled with inbred suspicious inhabitants
straight out of Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes.”
Then we made a beeline for a large patch of primary rainforest
where it was Sissy’s fondest wish to be photographed among
some prelapsarian ‘foins.’
used to Tasmania’s majestic landscape, we ignored the
rocky dolerite outcropping with panoramic views of layered clouds;
the lush green grasslands dotted with little ‘willages’
with vernacular churches; and the impossibly beautiful eucalyptus
forests and alpine heathlands.
under a huge fern fan, I used Sissy’s expensive Contax
camera (only a thou) to immortalize the moment.
that is how I’ll always remember Sissy, image burned on
to my retina for a small eternity.
last I found myself dumped at the Ozzie island-state’s
most infamous tourist attraction, from where the local stock
of immigrant white meat came: The Port Arthur Prison Colony
(now a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
like a vast English garden waiting for the sun (O heck, rain
again), with picturesque stone ruins, Port Arthur just didn’t
look very infamous, not even forbidding nor scary.
the Cockneys (once euphemistic slang for criminals), who had
arrived here between 1830 to 1877, probably preferred working
out in the Elysian Fields here to rolling proper English gentlemen
in the back alleys of London’s East End, then showing
off to their mates by dramatically swirling stolen top hats
and canes like the notable highwayman Monsieur Fancypants.
truth, I didn’t know what the big deal was concerning
the famous headline splattered everywhere: PORT ARTHUR MASSACRE.
Originally, I thought it referred to the complete and utter
disappearance of the aboriginal local pop, via imported influenza
and border skirmishes, even though Dreamtime Aborigines had
no concept of land ownership.
thought it a little odd that this historic event instead referred
to something as recent and as newsworthy as the Columbine Incident.
On 28 April 1996 (note the clever inversion), a Hobart resident
named Martin Bryant (as crazy as that recent Norwegian lunatic
who went on a killing spree on his own people) received thirty
five life sentences for slaughtering thirty five people and
injuring nineteen more. This was a significant loss of life,
since only 500 people live in this damnable area.
area referred to by no less an authority than Anthony Trollope,
who said, “No man desired to see the strange ruins of
Port Arthur.” No man, except perhaps for film actor and
sexual daredevil Errol Flynn, a native of Tasmania. And also
Ned Kelly, the dangerous bushranger, who was so entranced by
the island ruins that he made up a new name for it, Dervon,
in his tome The Jerilderie Letter.
later, I was picked up by a real ANZAC Vietnam vet and bushwhacker
who resembled Mr. Rogers of The Neighborhood fame, along with
his lovely wife and newborn child, and two twenty-something
freckled hotties pure as Ivory soap, straight out of our most
extreme and provocative farm fantasies. One of them, eyes wide,
asked without either irony or guile, “You’re American?
Do you know any movie stars?”
too long at their scenic farmhouse, I felt a little like Dutch
explorer Abel Janszoot Tasman going, er, Dutch? He discovered
the island in 1642, dubbing it Van Dieman’s Land, after
his boss at the Dutch East Indies Company. Of course, it was
later renamed in his honour, becoming Tasmania in 1850.
pretending to enjoy the paper-plateful of bloody baked beans,
which had been introduced to me by the bushwhacker’s wife
as “if you don’t like it, don’t eat it, but
that is all we can afford right now,” I had my eyes glued
on the daughters who seemed to like the attention -- then I
felt a light kick under the table. Wow, contact. With practiced
casualness I dropped my tuning fork on the ground and bent downwards
to retrieve the tined trident, only to discover the impertinent
varicose-veined leg of the Missus Bushwhacker.
I sat up bolt upright in my chair, I noticed a secret Mona Lisa
smile flickering across her pale face. Where was Mister Bushwhacker?
Probably sharpening his ceremonial machete in the tool room
with the guttural grunts and apocalyptic cries of “The
there I was again like the next day, looking sort of glum and
pathetic, pointing a finger down at the rain-slick road downunder-style,
instead of hitching with a Roman American’s thumb up.
I could wait a long time, dickheads, longer than you, I could
wait a long time, dickheads, longer than you.
the end, I spotted not a single Tasmanian Tiger nor Tasmanian
Devil, both of which are so rare that none of the local lads,
all of European descent, had never seen any either. More important,
I did not find even a single Blackfella (aboriginal person)
passing the time just hanging around the pumps or training his
also by John M. Edwards:
Hex & Sex
Hora and the Chapel of Bones
Art of Sol Bolaños