Wild about Tasmania

By Greg Bruce

Greg Bruce is outside his comfort zone beyond the awe-inspiring southern edge.

Three Capes Track / Cape Pillar and the Blade Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service. Photo / Sunday Travel
Three Capes Track / Cape Pillar and the Blade Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service. Photo / Sunday Travel

The word "cruise" as applied to a boat ride implies a smooth experience and, by that definition, the "Bruny Island Cruise" is one of history's most misleading names. The day I went out on the three-hour trip, off Tasmania's east coast, even the skipper of the boat suggested I might want to think about doing something else.

Waiting to leave the dock, I got out my notepad and wrote a few things down. "Taking notes," the skipper said. "I don't think that'll last."

This skipper had recently been used by producers of the new Lightbox series The Kettering Incident to help them scout locations, and they had subsequently, and aptly, cast him as an extra in the role of a cranky fisherman.

I was wearing a thermal vest, a shirt, a woollen jumper, a fleece hoodie, a woollen overcoat, a scarf, a knee-length waterproof smock, gloves and beanie. At times, I was still not warm.

We headed along the massive exposed cliffs of Tasmania's eastern flank and out to the angry swell of the Southern Ocean. The wind flayed us. We didn't stay out in the ocean for long.

It would be easy but inaccurate to call the experience beautiful. It was something more like an angry cousin of beauty: intimidating, sometimes a little frightening, inspiring of awe.

"Part of the appeal is that it's not an easy place to see," said Rob Knight, of Tourism Tasmania. "You'll get people come off the boat freezing, vomiting ... they'll go get a coffee and come up to you and say, 'Thanks mate, that was brilliant'."

Tasmania as a whole is not an easy place to see, at least in the logistical sense: far away from the mainland, with just one tiny city worthy of the name, without any direct international flights, it has long existed in a state of semi-isolation.

With its dodgy climate and tiny population, it stands in almost direct opposition to the golden-beach, flashy-city cliche of Australia's generic tourism branding.

"The New Zealand of Australia," a friend said when I told him I was headed to Tasmania.

But five years ago, David Walsh, a Tasmanian mathematical genius with a personality problem, who heads a group of 17 professional gamblers called The Bank Roll — described as the world's biggest betting syndicate — spent tens of millions building one of the world's freakiest museums. Five years later the Museum of Old and New Art, or Mona, has transformed the way the world sees his state.

There are 500,000 people living in Tasmania. Less than two years after Mona opened, it had attracted 700,000 visitors. On my visit to Tasmania, the phrase I heard most often from people involved in tourism and hospitality was "The Mona Effect". Last year, there was a fairly impressive 8 per cent increase in the numbers visiting Australia. There was a 20 per cent increase in Tasmania.

Walsh has built an apartment above Mona and you can look up and see through small glass portholes some of his belongings, and on a particularly frightening day, maybe even his inquiring face, peering down.

The artistic highlights of Mona are now legend: a long, multi-chambered machine that is given food twice a day and turns that food into poo; an eye-level arrangement of 151 sculptures of vaginas. But it's all thrilling, provocative, unlikely, unsettling.

Walsh expected to be hated for what he'd done with Mona. He planned for protests and bomb threats, even police raids. Instead, he got crowds and international acclaim. Provocation, it turns out, is a great basis for a museum.

The helicopter chuntered around in the thickening breeze, The sky was grey and, even from a kilometre or so up, the violence of the sea at the base of the southern cliffs was terrifying.

The wildness of the landscape offered a good analogy for the wildness of Tasmania's dark history, the "black war" and the concerted bid by white Tasmanians to round up and push out the aboriginal population, "the black line".

But the landscape also worked as non-analogy, as something that represents nothing other than itself. Flying over the many inlets, islands and outcrops that make up the island's southern coast, my main feeling was of smallness.

As the helicopter took us beyond Cape Raoul, the next landmass would have been Antarctica. In just this tiny, bubble-fronted helicopter, the forces of nature smashing beneath us, the feeling was not just of seeing something spectacular, but of being put in my place.

- Spy.co.nz

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