Today's mission is to make the four hour drive up to Launceston in time to meet up with another traveling friend for lunch, then make the two-hour journey up through Devonport to Ulverstone, where we will find our way to the Bedford's property in the mountain bush in time for dinner.
The drive up through Tassie's Midland Highway takes us through the agricultural center of the state. The sky is filled with puffy, backlit clouds, the asphalt disappears quickly beneath the campervan, and the iPod is cranking out some great road tunes.
Trucks shake the van as they thunder past in the opposite lane,while the gently rolling hills and greenery stretch all the way to the mountains carpeted in dark green eucalyptus stretch on the horizon, punctuated every now and then with a craggy cliff face yawning skywards. These mountains beckon silently, persistently: "Come, explore us, hike us, wander us...there is much to discover."
Launceston sneaks up on us at around 2pm, and the autumn sun is shining brightly. This town looks and feels very much like Hobart, with its short, squat buildings and no-nonsense vibe. Autumn is still very much in effect here, and the afternoon sunlight sets the orange and yellow leaves ablaze. I am always so impressed with Autumn, and the warm, brightly shifting hues that celebrate its arrival.
We make contact with Aisha, a friend of Jill's who has just completed a week's worth of WWOOFing on a horse ranch in the area we are headed towards. There is time to kill before she can meet up, so we find our way to the public library for some quick internet access to check email accounts after two whole days without internet access. I am amazed that I have survived 48 hours without updating my Facebook status... hanging out @ home for the last few weeks, I have been updating my FB status 20 or 30 times daily, cliffhanger updates and deep thoughts such as "eating toast" and "gone out for another coffee" and "why do we have toes anyways??"...
100 new emails later, I find myself being kicked off the computer by an annoyed librarian, so I head out to catch up with the girls who have gone ahead in search of lunch. Launceston is a wonderfully small city - more like a country town - you can almost see horse & carriages being driven around the wide streets here. I pass a group of Harley riders relaxing in front of a two-story brick government building with tudor windows that is right out of an old British colonial movie. I walk around a few city blocks with my mobile phone thrust infront of me, snapping pics every 10 steps or so, fascinated with the long shadows and dramatic lighting that the afternoon sun is casting.
Aisha is catching Jill up on her travel adventures since the last time they saw each other, and they are poring over highlighted maps in their guidebooks when I find the cafe they have been hiding in. We slow down to 5km/h and push her out of the back of the campervan to drop her off at her hostel and cheerfully wave goodbye in the rearview mirror on our way out of town; it is 4:30pm by the time we leave Launceston and strike out for Ulverstone.
The LET'S GO IN AUSTRALIA guidebook says that the best view of Devonport "is from the rearview mirror", but as we approach this town the sun is setting dramatically right in front of us. Nature's lightshow is expansive and brilliant and dramatic and calming all at the same time, and oooohs and ahhhhs bubble from my lips unconsciously as the spectacle unfolds.
Problem is, the late departure from Launceston mens that we arrive into Ulverstone, another quaint coastal town [from what can be seen], well after dark. Now we are faced with the task of finding our host, who lives deep in the mountains on a self-sufficient compound that he has built to escape from society. What's more, he doesn't really want to be found. The directions to his place are somehwat cryptic:
"Not easy to find, its better to phone with a map in front of you. If your in Ulverstone head to Sprent, Castra, Nietta, Leven Canyon, go past Leven Canyon until the bitumin, continue for 4.8 Klm, we are on the right just past 6 or 7 letter boxes that will be on your left."
In hindsight, the directions actually make perfect sense... though not while winding through unfamiliar narrow roads in the darkness from Ulverstone. The road gets progressively narrower and more unsealed, and a couple of logging trucks barrel down past us, their bright lights looking like alien motherships in the complete absence of streetlights. The campervan shudders as the roar past and I pull nervously onto the shoulder to give them a wide berth.
We take a turn marked LEVYN CANYON and the road surface is no longer sealed - not quite blacktop, but not quite dirt road. A few turns in and I slow right down to about 40 km/h as the bouncing bottoms of some small furry creatures bound away from the headlights. Pairs of glowing eyes turn away and become bouncing tails disapperaing into the night. They look like plump, oversized rats on pogosticks, and for the longest time we are unable to catch a good look at them. We find out later that they are wallabies, very plentiful in this part of the world.
The road drops away on one side, and treetops can be made out at eye level - we are skirting the edge of a valley, or perhaps the sheer edge of a canoyon wall; we cannot tell in the darkness. After the two trucks, there are no other cars to be seen, and the houselights on either side of the road become fewer and further between, until eventually we are buzzing along in near-total darkness, with only a slim sliver of moon and the twenty meters or so of headlights lighting the way.
After an hour or so, we slow right down to make a sharp corner at the bottom of a switchback, and spot a lone house up a hill to the left. The sign says FIRE BRIGADE, and this touch of civilization gives us a surge of renewed confidence that we may be on the right track.
The night is teeming with wildlife, and as the bitumen (asphalt) ends, the campervan clatters on over corrugated dirt road and even more wallabies scatter out of headlight range. I swerve to avoid a large possum that looks like a cross between a large cat and a racoon, and is sitting adamantly in the middle of the road. A ghostly shape whispers through the air in front of us, and for a few moments we follow a tawny frogmouth hunting along the road on silent wings.
The road gets rougher and rougher, until it is clear that we are creeping along logging tracks now, massively wide tree trunks dimly visible through the thick underbrush caught in our headlights on either side of the road. We've gone 16 km past the end of the bitumen into the mountains, and I notice that the petrol tank gague is reading 1/4 full... time to turn around before we break an axle or run out of gas or get bogged or... HIT A WOMBAT..!
...a fat little ball of muscle and fur waddles calmly across the road directly in front of the van, and as I hit the brakes he doesn't skip a beat as he calmy walks under the front wheel well and off into the night. It is well known in Australia that if you hit a wombat, he is likely to do more damage to your vehicle than you are to it... this is an animal who evades his predators by burrowing into the ground and presenting his bum to his attacker, whose teeth are unable to penetrate the tough, bony hide there.
LOST IN THE BUSH
We continue back the way we came, deciding to ask directions from the last house we saw before the end of the bitumen, keeping our eyes peeled for those 6 or 7 mailboxes referred to in the directions. There are more possums and wallabies on the way back out, and some Tassie devils even lope along side the van for a few meters, do a couple of confused circles as we stop to get a closer look, then decide to explore the underbrush off the side of the road. As we near the end of the dirt road, a couple of very unhelpful cows look very bored when we stop and ask for directions and shrug us off without so much as a grunt or moo.
The Fire Brigade turns out to be an older white-haired couple who eye us suspiciously as I jump up and down to catch their attention. He sizes me up, this wild-haired, unwashed, brown-skinned traveler doing jumping jacks outside his window in the middle of the night in front a a rental campervan that reads HAVE A DEVIL OF A TIME on his driveway... he decides that yeah, he could take me... and comes outside into the cold to see what I want.
"Bedford is it?" he says, looking me straight in the eye. Then something like "Yeah, figures..." under his breath before he proceeds to give me directions on how to find the cluster of mailboxes at the side of the road that will tip us off to the entrance to the Bedford property.
5km after the end of the bitumen, we just make out the mailboxes at the edge of the headlights, and find tire tracks leading off into the woods to the right, so I gun the engine to get the van up the embankment. The "road" is rocky and the van slips and slides underneath us as we twist and turn and finally crest a hill. A cold, solitary light can be seen shining through the trees up ahead. The van slips down the slope and the headlights show us a junked car next to a horse shed, building materials scattered around the yard, and old Toyota 4wd parked backwards against the main house. The digital clock in the van blinks 10:07pm.
A moustached man in a beanie is moving around under the solitary compact flourescent lightbulb that lights the place, and as I kill the engine Jill says, "Good thing you didn't wear your moustache t-shirt today..." We jump out of the van bearing gifts, wine bottles in hand and are greeted by a happy, slobbering, leaping juvenille bulldog and the moustached man, who has a glass of wine in one hand.
I notice a severed wallaby head squinting up at us behind the two, and gulp as I reach out my hand to introduce myself: "We've brought wine!"
"Finally found the place didjya?" he says quietly. "Yeah well it's not easy is it....I'm Poida, nice to meet ya. Come on, let's have some wine and then I'll give ya a tour of the place!" he says, with a handshake as hard as rocks.
Above, the moon has set, and the Milky Way stretches out across the entire night sky, silhouetting the tall eucalyptus trees that close in all around us.
I smile and blow warmth into my hands: Welcome to Tassmania.
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