Thursday, July 30, 2009

Australia Part 3: Tasmanian Tour

I didn't want to screw up my weekend plans, so I really only had one full day and two little half days to work with. I don't usually like to do tours because I enjoy the freedom to wander, but this little island isn't too big on public transportation. I briefly considered trying to rent a car, but I'm glad I decided on this. One big contributing factor to the excellence was that this was the off-season in Tasmania, so even the flashiest tourist traps were relatively tranquil.

So I was sitting out in front of the hotel around daybreak when the little white tour van rolled up. The tour guide introduced himself as Rob and asked my name. Maybe I was too tired to correctly pronounce my own name or we had some accent misunderstandings, but a few minutes later I confirmed that this man thought my name was Yahn. By the time I realized we had a difference of opinion I figured it was funny enough that I would just let it go. The novelty wore off though, and soon I had a whole van of friendly tourists calling me Yahn. Yahn!? I wonder how many native born Americans actually go by that name. I told some of the others about the discrepancy and it reached inside joke status, with giggles emanating from the back every time I was addressed. I wonder if I shouldn't always give a fake name in touristy situations. It's kind of fun.

Mt. Wellington over the city.

We didn't go in, we just paused briefly on the road and got a few fun facts from our guide. Beaumaris Zoo is where the last known Tasmanian Tiger died. The animal is now used as a symbol for Tasmania and of various conservation efforts.

The first real stop was at Richmond, a small town that is known for its rich history.

St. John the Evangelist's Church is the oldest Roman Catholic church in Australia, completed in 1837.

Richmond Bridge is central to the little town's offerings. According to a nearby sign, it is "Australia's oldest bridge still in use, built using convict labour in 1823. The erection of the bridge facilitated travel to the east coast and the Tasman Peninsula, as settlers pushed further in search of land." As you can see, there's a lot of old stuff in this town, by Australian standards at least.

A picturesque look at the Coal River from the bridge.

After another little drive in the van we stopped for breakfast at a small town bakery with an excellent pie selection. Here they looked so good I bought two, a chicken cheese and asparagus and a scallop pie.

Our guide said the scallop pies were a local specialty and I didn't need more convincing than that. There was a nice flaky crust and it had a bit of a curry sauce inside as well. Very good. While in Australia I maintained an average of almost 1 pie a day. Is that bad?

I thought the island had a bit of an Irish feel to it. When the two Irish girls in the group voiced the same opinion it was confirmed.

We had a few more stops along the way to our final destination. These were all more scenic than historical.

This is kind of an interesting tree that I'm not used to seeing.

Here's a close up of one that's a bit more lively.

This vicious-looking metal dog marks the spot where a dogline was posted to keep escaped convicts from nearby Port Arthur from slipping by and entering the rest of the island. A dogline is just what it sounds like, a line of nasty dogs meant to maim or at least warn nearby soldiers of the presence of intruders. "Dogs were also placed on platforms out in the water to prevent escapees by sea".

It was shortly after this last stop that I deviated a bit from the tour plan. You see, smack in the middle of the tour route is the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park(website). I only had a very limited time to spend in Tasmania, and I really wanted to see some devils. I managed to convince the guide to drop me off for a bit and pick me up later. I think the Japanese are the most efficient enforcers of the rules that I have ever witnessed, and something like changing the tour plan would have no chance of happening. So, I was pleasantly surprised at my success.

I was dropped off at the park, but only for about an hour, so I had to act fast. The park's entry fee was $26. A bit steep. Even after my guide came in and asked for a discount and explained why I had only a very short time to see the park, the man at the counter refused to budge. He became noticeably annoyed and continued on about the costs of a new veterinarian the park would soon hire. The conversation between the two got uncomfortably tense so I just blurted that I would pay. There was a van full of tourists waiting for their guide, and the sand in my Tasmanian animal hourglass was steadily tumbling. Today an email reply from the park had a bright spot: "We also offer an unusual benefit; you need only pay once a year so your normal entry fee can be transferred at no extra cost to an annual VIP pass. Just ask at reception." That's generous but it unfortunately isn't really much help to tourists.

Anyway, with the unpleasantries done with, I had a really good time seeing the animals that Tasmania has to offer.

I hurried and was just in time to see the Eastern Quolls chewing some carrion.

These guys were pretty impressive, despite the fact that none more than batted an eyelid while I watched. They are called Tawny Frogmouths, and are apparently often erroneously referred to as owls. As you can see they have pretty good camouflage. Luckily the trees in their cage were a different color than they are, or they might have been hard to spot.

Another little guy practicing his "nobody here but us trees" routine.

At just about the end of my hour I got to see some devils having their lunch.

The little guys weren't real big on sharing.

Unfortunately, the Tasmanian Devil is being threatened by a facial tumor that caused the Australian government to put the species on the endangered list in May 2009 (source).

This being the Port Arthur tour, that was the last place that I ended up. By now the weather was getting a bit nasty so most of us took an abbreviated look at the grounds. There is a little cruise around the coast included in admission, but it was so rainy/foggy that I could barely see anything.

Port Arthur (website) was the site of a pretty brutal penal settlement. "From 1833, until the 1850s, it was the destination for the hardest of convicted British and Irish criminals, those who were secondary offenders having re-offended after their arrival in Australia. Rebellious personalities from other convict stations were also sent here, a quite undesirable punishment. In addition Port Arthur had some of the strictest security measures of the British penal system." So sayeth the wikipedia.

The main building in the compound was originally built as a flour mill, and the milling continued with the convicts. They grounded grain into flour on a large tread mill, forced to walk or they would fall off. The pictures looked like a torturous version of a hamster wheel.

The recreated cells had an interesting little mechanical system where the prisoner could pull a wire that would both stick out his cell's number flag and ring a bell in the guard's post. It seemed pretty advanced.

It doesn't look like wooden things would last very long in that climate.

Back in Hobart a few of the other tourists and I relaxed and checked out a bit of the city's nightlife. Not too shabby.

Just a tiny bit of info on the tour. It cost $105 which included everything but the food I ate and (obviously) my little zoo side trip. Our guide Rob was super friendly and knowledgeable. They even picked me up and dropped me off right at my hotel's door. The tour company is Adventure Island Tours. I definitely recommend them. After such a good experience I would have looked into some of their other offerings if I had only had the time.

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