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The antipodean Emerald Isle

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The antipodean Emerald Isle

Hobart is at one end of the world; the Capital of Tasmania is completely off the beaten path for Indians. But it is a hub of great fresh produce, beer, spirits, and art, writes Kushan Mitra

Talk to an Indian about Tasmania and the first thought bar none to the minds of most Indians, men and women, will be “Ricky Ponting”. While the former Australian captain and batting virtuoso is at the top of the minds when you speak about this island, some older folks among us will think of the 1980s’ mustachioed Australian batting basher and beer chugging legend, David Boon. But earlier this year, I got an opportunity to travel to Hobart, the home of the Bellerive Oval and a place again known to avid cricket fans but possibly visited only by those who play or cover the sport. But here is the thing, Tasmania is not just cricket. In fact, after spending six days in the lovely port city of Hobart, the end point of the annual Sydney to Hobart sailing race and also the point from which tens of Antarctic cruise ships depart, you realise that there is so much more to this amazing city.

Hobart, one of the most southern provincial capitals in the world, is an amazing place to visit in the Australian summer. I travelled there last February and the sun was bright and sharp although it was never uncomfortably hot during the day. The main island of Tasmania has a total area of 64,500 square kilometres, making it larger than the Indian State of Himachal Pradesh. With some pristine forests and 42 per cent of its land mass under protection, the island is also quite sparsely populated with a total population of just around 520,000 people, 40 per cent of whom stay in and around Hobart. The other major city on the island is Launceston in the north, which incidentally is where Ricky Ponting is from.

Hobart is not a short distance away from India, indeed while Air India has daily service between Delhi and Australia, alternating between Melbourne and Sydney, still a 12-hour flight. One-stop services to Australia via Singapore and other hubs are often cheaper but mean 14-15 hour journeys. Hobart has a small airport with about 30 services daily to the Australian mainland and no international services. The one-and-a-half -hour flight from Sydney passes over the island after crossing the Bass Strait, a place that I remembered from my Class VI geography textbook. And it is a delightful shade of green. My Boeing 717 looped around to approach the airport from Tiger Head Bay, named because of its shape and passing over Seven Mile Beach. I’ll say this much about Australian names, they are fairly matter-of-fact ones.

The airport is quite a distance from the city because of the huge mountains surrounding Hobart, the main one being Mount Wellington. Hobart itself is located on the southern side of the estuary of the river Derwent and is one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. The port is a lot less busy nowadays and while visiting in late February after the Australian school vacations and after most of the cruise ships had left, the city was relatively empty. I was staying at The Old Wool Store, again the name says what it was, on Macquarie Street on the eastern edge of the city. Macquarie along with Davey Street are the two major parallel thoroughfares that run through this city, with everything located on these two roads.

Hobart is a quiet town, at least quiet by Indian standards. After arriving, I walked down Franklin Wharf and there are a host of places where you can catch a bite and fresh Tasmanian beer. And being on an island surrounded by rich fishing grounds, there are tens of places to have all sorts of fish. The piers — particularly the Brooke Street Pier, which has been converted into a hotel, and the Elizabeth Street Pier, which has some of the better artisanal shops in the city, as well as the excellent Glass House bar and restaurant where I later enjoyed some fabulous Australian sparkling wine and fresh oysters on the half-shell later on — are must visits.

Dinner that evening with my host Rick Snell from the University of Tasmania was at an Italian place Maldini’s where I enjoyed a lovely fillet from a blue-eyed Trevally. Snell gave me a whole lowdown on the island, even explaining the north-south divide on the island when it came to beer. Tasmania is home to two commercial breweries, James Boag’s and Cascade, and while beer divides the island, as an outsider, I can freely admit that they were great beers. Afterwards, Snell took me on a drive to the viewing point at the top of Mount Wellington. Despite the small population of the city, which would be less than that of Bandra West in Mumbai, the metropolitan area of Hobart is massive.

And it isn’t just about eating and drinking in Hobart, as I discovered with Nick Courtney, a former state cricketer and now part of the management of the Australian Cricketers Association among his many hats. Of course the conversation was about cricket, but Nick pointed me to some of the great gins in Tasmania. Blessed with amazing water, Hobart is one of the gin capitals of the world. A stone’s throw from my hotel was the Lark Distillery, one of the many ginneries in Tasmania. Apart from making a delightful gin called Forty Spotted, the bartenders made some great cocktails as well. Another day at my hotel I had a ‘flight’, which is a tasting of three different gins. Along with Seattle in the Pacific Northwest in the US, Hobart is just one of those cities naturally suited to power the gin revival.

Salamanca Market, which faces the piers at the port, is the hub of the city, full of small bars and great eateries. One lunch when I found myself there, I enjoyed the best Moussaka at Mezethes. Australia has a long history of attracting immigrants from southern Europe, and with amazing produce including meats, fish and dairy, food tastes so much better. However, interestingly the fastest growing language in Australia is Punjabi and after a few drinks at night, the taxi from Salamanca Market was driven by a young Sikh, who had moved from Gurdaspur a decade ago. In fact, one of the Australian Senators from Tasmania is a lovely lady called Lisa Singh of Fijian-Indian heritage and someone working towards improved India-Australia ties. Unsurprisingly, there are obviously a few Indian food joints around the city as well. Every Saturday, hundreds of locals, including Snell, who sell old and classic books, set up their small stalls in a massive open market on the roads outside Salamanca Market. This flea market, that’s around through the year, is the highlight of every week in Hobart. However, since I arrived on a Sunday and left on a Friday, I sort of missed out, which was a pity.

But something I did not miss out on was the opportunity to visit the world’s wildest art museum, MONA. The Museum of Old and New Art was established by Tasmanian gambling multimillionaire, David Walsh, in 2011. It is located a little distance north of the city on the grounds of the Moorilla winery and while you can get there by car, the best and most dramatic way to get there is to use the ‘Mona-Roma’ catamaran built by the locally-based Incat company, that is the world’s leading builder of these sleek twin-hulled boats. A short boat ride from the Elizabeth Street Pier that took me under the spans of the Tasman Bridge and our captain was happily providing commentary. Tasmanians are friendly folk, friendlier than the average Aussie in my opinion and our captain was no exception as he narrated tales that included the 1975 Tasman Bridge disaster when a span of the bridge collapsed into the Derwent in a tragedy that still haunts the area.

The walk up from the pier to MONA is misleading for someone who has not read a bit about the museum and its eccentric owner. Walsh wanted to create a seeming ‘anti’ museum, and when you look at the museum from outside, it is just a single storey building. That is because MONA has been carved inside the hill; it is a massive cavernous space. And, as described earlier, nothing prepares you for MONA, no matter how many of the top global arts and culture museums you have experienced. The first piece you notice is Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca machine, which is basically an artificial digester which uses the same enzymes from the human digestive system and produces, for lack of a nicer word, poo.

Then as you walk into the bowels of the cave, you see the ‘Wall of Vaginas’, which are casts made of the private parts of 151 women. The special exhibits, that constantly keep changing, are also very in your face at times. Thankfully, the price of admission includes a free audio guide, which believe me, really helps. I’m not saying MONA is a reason to travel to Hobart, but it is a weird and whacky place and definitely one of the most interesting yet bizarre art museums I have been to. Thankfully, I discovered the lovely Sud Polaire gin store where I had a great G&T; after your cerebral cortex has been overwhelmed, a G&T was in good order.

MONA is not the only museum in town though; the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery located next to my hotel gives a lot of information about the cultural heritage of the island, including talking of the virtual genocide of the once thriving aboriginal population and how Hobart was built on the back of the barbaric whaling industry. You also see the natural heritage of the island including preserved specimens of the fabled Tasmanian Tiger, which was hunted into extinction. You learn about the first settlers to this island, called Van Dieman’s Land who were mainly prisoners from the United Kingdom who had survived a perilous journey from the mother country. Through the rest of the town, and even into South Hobart, where the huge University of Tasmania campus is — definitely one of the most scenic university campuses around — you can easily walk or cycle around. This is a lovely town to walk around and discover some fascinating treats, but it is also obvious that Tasmania and Hobart depend on tourism from the Australian mainland for many jobs, evident in the number of bars and hotels dotted across the city.

While I couldn’t manage a drive up to Launceston, despite Nick’s kind offer to lend me his car, I did take a day trip to the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary and the village of Richmond. While the sanctuary has some grey kangaroos that will readily eat the oats that you offer, it also has other Australian oddities like wombats and koalas, although the latter are not native to Tassie. But the animals that I really wanted to see were the Tasmanian Devils; these little animals, which are the size of house cats, have seen their numbers decimated by a fatal cancerous tumour that spreads among adults and the researchers at Bonorong and other places are working towards finding a cure.

Richmond, on the other hand, is a beautiful little village and is a throwback to the English heritage of this country because it feels like a small English or Welsh town. It is a popular tourist stop and there are several souvenir shops where you can buy the standard ‘Made-In-China’ products, but it was a nice detour to see the interior of the island.

The next morning, as I finished packing and headed to the airport to begin the first of three flights that would take me back home, I realised that I would miss this little island. Hobart and Tasmania might be thousands of miles away and there is so much to see in Australia, but if you want something different, somewhere off the beaten track for folks from India, it has to be Tassie. I hope I can return soon!

 
 
 
 
 

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