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Vol. 13, No. 3, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

the down under wonder



John M. Edwards middlenamed his daughter after his favourite travel writer, Bruce Chatwin. His work has appeared in, CNN Traveller, Missouri Review,, Grand Tour, Michigan Quarterly Review, Escape, Global Travel Review, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets and Entertainment Weekly.


On 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 before me.

Of 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 unclipped.

Who knows, maybe there were one or two Tasmanian Aborigines left hiding out in the primary rainforest? If so, I was destined to find them.

In 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.”

Some 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.

Gavin 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.

Anyway, 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.

Later 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’ hostel.

After 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.’

Already 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.

Standing under a huge fern fan, I used Sissy’s expensive Contax camera (only a thou) to immortalize the moment.

And that is how I’ll always remember Sissy, image burned on to my retina for a small eternity.

At 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).

Looking 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.

I thought 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.

In 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.

I 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.

An 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.

Hitchhiking 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?”


Staying 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.

While 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.

When 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 Stepfather.”

Hence, 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.

In 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 faithful boomerang.

also by John M. Edwards:
The Bulgarian Way
Sumatra's Hex & Sex
Kutna Hora and the Chapel of Bones
Remembering Bruce Chatwin
Coffe Art of Sol Bolaños


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