Christian Anderson’s a man with a plan: get bike; ride bike; conquer Australia. We join him at the border crossing to Tasmania…
Tasmania is a bit of a quandary. It’s also an island, of course, the 26th largest in the world in fact, but it’s mostly a quandary.
While definitely part of Australia, the island state, Taz is fiercely proud of its ‘apart’ status and island mentality. During my time there I’d have to make sure I didn’t refer to the rest of Australia, 260km to the north over the energetic waters of the Bass Strait, as the ‘mainland’ within earshot of any of the locals.
I was sitting astride Gosling One, my beaten and mile-weary Yamaha XT600E, listening to the rain patter down the outside of my helmet. The reflections of the vehicles in the queue ahead of me for the checkpoint shimmered on the wet tarmac while I waited patiently for the waterproof liner in my jacket to lose its fight against the rain.
Entry to Tasmania is on the condition that you don’t bring along any fruit, vegetables, plants, seeds, insects, annoying family members or other such undesirables; and it was the job of the depressed and thoroughly sodden-looking border guards to confiscate such on arrival. Luckily for me, the Tasmanian weather was doing an excellent job of scouring most of the dirt, vegetation and grilled insect corpses from the bike and me. Finally, we were waved through the vehicle inspection checkpoint by an officer who looked reluctant to touch Gosling One with even the longest of poles. We thumped our way out of the docks, through the curtain of falling water and into Tasmania proper.
We’d been travelling for nearly two months around Australia, me and Gosling One, before arriving on the island; Tasmania was a last-minute alteration to what could only very loosely be described as the overall ‘plan’ to circumnavigate Australia. The wet season in the northern reaches of the country had made hassle-free travel an impossibility without scuba gear, so our delaying tactic was a trip to Tasmania – an excellent way to spend a month while allowing the wet season to get a bit, well, less wet.
The miles had been taking their toll on Gosling One. Her previous occupation as a rental machine with a tour company meant that her life up to this point had been one full of riders who knew they didn’t have to deal with the consequences of ragging her about. Once we got to Tasmania, however, the old elastic band that had been serving as the drive mechanism was replaced with a shiny new chain, and the front suspension fork seals were replaced by a man with a big hammer. It’s amazing the difference it makes having shock absorbers that actually do just that, rather than transferring the full force of any impacts (and there were a few) straight up your arms into your fillings.
As we rattled along the gravel and sand track which passed for a highway in these parts, the sun racing towards the horizon on my right, I could have been the only person in the whole state. I’d not seen another soul since turning south at the settlement of Marrawah on the north coast where we left the tarmac behind and began riding into the Wild West region of the state. The roads for the most part in Tasmania are good quality asphalt, but the highway crews had either got bored or lost when they reached the western coast. Still, I’d gone there for a bit of off-road practice, and if the massive dust cloud billowing out behind me and the smile on my face were anything to go by, I was getting what I’d set out to find.
As it was getting late, close to the hour when kamikaze kangaroos leap out into the road and try to kill you, I selected a spot for my camp (when I say ‘selected’ I mean I ground to a halt in some sand and was too knackered to dig myself out). If you’ve not found somewhere to sleep by the time night throttles the sun from the sky, wherever you happen to be will generally do the trick. The fact that there was nobody else around to argue about my chosen spot made it all the simpler to throw up the tent and crawl inside. According to my map, I was at the rather poetically titled ‘Sundown Point’. Close to the beach and well sheltered from the weather’s attentions, I allowed myself a smug smile as I brewed up some tea and watched the dark angry skies broiling over the waters of the southern ocean.
Come morning, I was to be found well rested and cursing the thieving ways of the indigenous wildlife as I hopped around my campsite. A Tasmanian devil was the suspected culprit in the theft of some of my footwear. It had attempted to make off with one of my motorcycle boots during the night, dragging it part way into the dunes before thinking better of it and pinching one of my sandals instead. I didn’t hunt for it too hard though; Tasmanian devils are only about the size of a jack russell, but have the temperament of a incensed bear. Seriously, they pack more strength, teeth and attitude than anything else that could conceivably be described as ‘cute’.
Sans-footwear we headed inland. There’s no option once you reach Strahan, the rest of the area is given over to national park, some percent of the island in fact. Tasmania’s the sort of place that you can only explore fully if you’re big into your hiking or can fly.
We travelled away from the coast towards the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, heading in a roundabout sort of fashion for the southern coast. On the way I decided to take a short break from Gosling One, to hike out to an abandoned town called Pillinger. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but Pillinger isn’t really anything special unless you’re a big fan of brick-making towns, which I’m not. I just fancied a walk. Thousands of kilometres on a Yamaha XT will do that to a fellow, trust me.
It was during this rare stroll that I had another run in with the local fauna. A tiger snake had been sunning itself in the middle of the track as I clomped my way noisily through the bush, forgetting for the moment that the Australian countryside isn’t quite as sweet and innocent as middle England.
The tiger snake is one of the top 10 deadliest snakes on the planet, and I’d almost interrupted this particular serpent’s tanning session by stomping all over it.
After reading up a bit more on the tiger snake in the local newsagents, I realised that had it made the effort to chomp down on one of my limbs, I’d have been thoroughly deceased before managing to stumble back to Gosling One; a sobering thought. It was a sign, I decided, that’s what it was. A sign that I shouldn’t get off the bike ever again. Walking!? What was I thinking? ‘This is a motorcycle expedition,’ I told myself. ‘Walking can be hazardous to your health.’ Gosling One would keep me safe.
An hour later and I wasn’t feeling particularly safe though, peering through a swirling miasma of dust and debris at a once-level mountain track. Gosling One offered her agreement with the conclusion I’d reached by coughing fitfully, her engine finally lapsing into indignant silence. It was an oddly serene place to be having a bit of a lie down under my motorcycle. High on a gravel track clinging grimly to a mountainside, somewhere in the south western reaches of Tasmania.
We lay there for a few moments in a touching man-and-machine embrace. Me wedged up against a crash barrier and Gosling One serving as the dead weight which was crushing me into the galvanised metal. As the dust cloud started to settle over us, the realisation that I was both stuck and really rather pissed off about the whole affair dawned.
I’d gone left, yes that was it. That was when the day quite literally took a turn for the worse. I’d been travelling along the Gordon River Road through the Denison mountain range, en-route to nowhere in particular (which is a good job really as the Gordon River Road only goes to two places: the Gordon Dam and nowhere in particular). Seized by curiosity over a tantalising line heading south on my map, I swung left and swapped the familiar solid security of the asphalt surface for an altogether less reassuring one.
The track had been reduced to a single car width thanks to an extensive collection of gravel, stones and sand on the left and an imposingly vertical rock face on the right. Riding in the ruts formed by passing vehicles was the only way to progress, keeping the speed up to prevent the front wheel from getting bogged down in the deeper patches of detritus. From the look of the place, there’d been a ‘buy one, get two loads free’ deal on gravel track surfaces the previous week.
Approaching a blind right-hand bend while descending a high point on the track, a white car erupted from its concealment behind the rock face, travelling much faster than could be considered polite. I pictured the driver as being the sort of person who’d employ the, “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you” excuse as he stooped over my broken form to pinch my wallet (not that it would have been worth the effort), so wisely decided it would be best to relinquish my claim over the wheel rut. Wrenching the front wheel up and left catapulted Gosling One free of the groove, out of the car’s path and straight up to our necks in excrement. The rear wheel fought for grip and lost; there was none to be had. The front wheel ploughed itself into the ground up to the rim, which didn’t do much for our forward motion. With the rear wheel spinning wildly, spitting gravel out and up in all directions, we rapidly slowed, wobbled, and toppled over into the metal crash barrier.
Ah, well. Lying around in the dust and reminiscing about it wasn’t going to get us to nowhere in particular any time soon. I pushed Gosling One’s now inert 160kg Japanese frame off myself using my free leg and wriggled out from under her pressing bulk. As I glanced behind me at the crash barrier, I gave silent thanks to whichever road crew had installed it. There was nothing beyond its metal embrace other than fresh air, with solid ground a few hundred metres below. The venerable Yamaha XT could cope with plenty, but I was fairly certain flying was out of the question.
Hauling Gosling One upright, I dusted myself down gingerly, persuaded the gear lever back into place, fired up the 600cc thumper and crunched back into one of the much-coveted wheel ruts on the main track.
After spending a fitful night in a symphony of pain, each bump, scrape and bruise adding its unique sensation to the orchestra of agony, I awoke to discover that I’d traded left arms with Popeye. I poked at it to see if it was broken – a well-recognised medical technique, poking – and ascertained that as I could still waggle all my fingers and use the clutch, I was a lucky bastard. I squeezed into the now-battered riding jacket and zipped up the arm vents, which acted as a handy substitute for the compression bandage I probably needed but didn’t have. Still, it could’ve been worse, I reckoned, thinking back to the airy vista where we’d taken our tumble.
A few days later, bruises still smarting, I was at it again. This time it was due to a short cut through some pseudo-Scottish scenery between New Norfolk and the state capital Hobart. Not for me the smooth and easily traversed surface of the Lyell Highway, oh no. I’d opted for the 4×4-only ‘Crabtree Track’. Three hours and about 47km of rattling around in an attempt at corner cutting, and as I watched Gosling One slide noisily off down the slope in front of me, metal screeching in protest, I realised I had no one to blame but myself.
One of the downfalls of travelling long distances alone is that there’s nobody around to hold the fan for you as the excrement starts flying. As I hauled the prostrate Yamaha back onto her wheels again, I decided I needed to break this habit before I broke something important. I don’t want to make it sound like I spent all my time in Tasmania crashing into things, but those are definitely the times that make an impression, both figuratively and literally speaking. Still, I assured myself, it was all good practice. Soon I’d be world class at throwing my bike down rock strewn mountain tracks, but perhaps I’d stick to asphalt for the next few days, I decided, lest Gosling One start to take the abuse personally.
No visit to the island state of Tasmania is complete without taking in the decrepit splendour of the Port Arthur ruins, a former convict settlement and now fulltime tourist honey pot. It might actually be against the law to visit Tasmania without paying homage to the state’s most popular attraction. I’d called in en route up the east coast while riding around the Tasman Peninsula, an afterthought of land seemingly stapled to the south eastern edge of Tasmania proper.
Port Arthur was home, if it could actually be called that, for the worst of the worst as considered by the British penal system until the 1850s. My visit there was the one concession to ‘traditional’ tourism during my stay in Tasmania. The brief guided tour, overly enthusiastic tour-guide and atmospheric carcasses of the former prison buildings were a welcome insight into the history of the place.
Photo: Christian Anderson
Tasmania is like a microcosm of ‘mainland’ Australia; its eastern reaches are markedly more popular and therefore far more populated than the rest of the state. Picturesque bays, national parks, innumerable camp grounds and a surfaced road running almost its entire length mean you don’t have to run the risk of having your family saloon pebble dashed by the road surface in order to reach the best camping spots. I didn’t linger long, paying scant service to world renowned locations such as Wineglass Bay. I was actually under time pressure for once during my expedition. Also you tend to look a bit out of place on a photogenic beach in armoured motorcycle clothing. I had a ferry to catch in a few days’ time, and a day or so’s worth of maintenance or ‘essential tinkering’ to get done before returning to mainland Australia.
We wriggled our way across the map tracing an eclectic route that followed all the minor roads, surfaced or not, in an attempt to reach the Central Plateau region of Tasmania before I was left to swim back to Melbourne. Two precious days were spent on the shores of Lake Sorell for that ‘essential’ maintenance. A seductive spot to while away some time, regardless of how little there was left. It’s easy to get lulled into staying for just one more cup of tea, hour, afternoon and then night in some of the places you can camp around Tasmania; ‘picturesque’ is an understatement. Lake Sorell was obviously an immensely popular place once, but the rusted kids’ swings, deserted log cabins and eerily whispering stands of pine trees made it look more like a set from a low budget Tasmanian horror film!
Time eventually did of course catch up, so much so that in the last afternoon before catching the ferry back to Melbourne, we were to be found speeding through the falling snow and freezing slush across the Central Plateau Conservation Area. I’m sure the scenery would have been breathtaking if I’d been able to see through the encroaching patterns of ice on my visor, but the chill air was doing an excellent job of taking all my breath away, seizing each exhaled lungful and hurling it back down the highway. I tried not to mumble too many complaints through the air vents in my helmet. In the next few months I’d be lucky if I saw water, let alone anything resembling a snowflake.
Rolling in to Devonport, the last vestiges of ice melting from my frozen hands we clanked over the metal tongue of the Spirit of Tasmania and into the warming embrace of her vehicle hold. It was time to go west.
Top 5 Taz Trips
- Take the road less travelled. If you’ve got a bike that can handle a bit of the rough stuff, seize the opportunity to explore the wilder, western reaches of Tasmania where the are fewer tourists
- Go wild. Sure there are some fantastic resorts to stay in, but Tasmania itself offers some brilliant places to throw up a tent and spend a night or two under canvas, or nylon, or the stars…
- Don’t expect to find anything open on a Sunday. If you’re riding over the weekend, make sure you’re well stocked up on food, fuel and other supplies. Alternatively, just take the day off and relax. Everyone else seems to
- Keep an eye on anything you can’t afford to lose. Those Tasmanian devils have a reputation for half-inching the small stuff if it’s easy to get to
- Take care in the bush. Tasmania looks quite a bit different from the Australia you might imagine, but it’s still got more than its fair share of beasties that could quite easily curtail your travel plans
After the American War of Independence, Britain couldn’t send convicts to America, so in 1788 transportation began to the Australian colonies, one of which was on Van Diemen’s Land, which later became known as Tasmania. Initially these colonies were labour intensive – and in Port Arthur that meant ship building. The Port Arthur penal settlement started as a small timber station in 1830. Most prisoners sent to work there were re-offenders who’d been convicted of ‘petty’ crimes in England like stealing small articles, food or livestock. Few ever returned home.
Photo: Christian Anderson
Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula – Why you shouldn’t break the law, especially if you lived in the 1800s.
Convict Brick Trail, Campbell Town – A memorial to all those ‘criminals’ who died en-route to prison in Australia, not as melancholy as it might first sound.
Gordon River Road – Goes to nowhere in particular but provides some great riding, deep into the heart of the massive Southwest National Park. Check out the Gordon Dam at the end, then turn around and ride back for twice the fun. Not that you’ll have a lot of choice about it.
The West Coast – Not many asphalt roads but plenty of sand and gravel. The Arthur Pieman Conservation Area provides a fleeting glimpse of Tasmania’s untamed western edge. A suspicious lack of pies, though.
Most southerly navigable road – Lune River to Cockle Creek past the imposing views across Recherche Bay – it’s gravel, but it’s still a road. It’s also the most southerly ride you can make in Australia. Expect mountain vistas, long beaches, and camp sites galore. Just hit the brakes before you reach the end; it’s a long swim to Antarctica.
The Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), never has there been a more recognisable symbol of national identity than the fierce, prickly natured and hardy Tasmanian Devil. They steal footwear, eat anything they happen across, and bite through metal just because they can. Unfortunately for this tough little marsupial, the population has been taking a hit since the 1990s thanks to the arrival of ‘Devil Facial Tumour Disease’ (DFTD) a thoroughly unpleasant cancerous affliction. Where it comes from nobody knows, but a treatment is being rapidly sought as it has rendered the Tasmanian Devil officially endangered as of 2009.
So if you see one on the roads and trails as you ride around Tasmania, take extra care to slow down and avoid them. Not least because they’re endangered, but because if you’re unlucky enough to interrupt one as it crosses the road, you’re likely to end up on the toothy end of a mauling: don’t mess with Taz.
Christian Anderson is 32 and from the UK. Currently working as a freelance graphic designer, illustrator and outdoor equipment ‘shop boy with aspirations’, he spends too much of his ‘spare’ time trying to get the book about his 44,347km expedition around Australia, Arse About Face, published. He’d never owned a motorcycle before meeting Gosling One in Australia, and has convoluted and lofty ideas about what constitutes an ‘adventure’.
Photos: Christian Anderson