Early morning sun lights up the pale trunks of the birch trees. A magpie, head cocked to one side, inspects the edges of the flowerbeds and lawns. Sharp eyed breakfast at a hooked beak point. The tomatoes soak up what the hose offers. I check windows and doors (again). A yellow taxi does not seem big enough with bags and people inside. No last minute returns for forgetfulness. Always pack the night before. Always leave on a Sunday. Always take less stuff. Always check the weather. And today – check the fire reports.
The weather has been warm and cold, record highs, surprising lows, but most of all, dry. Nobody uses the word drought – not yet anyway. But you can feel it building, the slow deep breath of summers running beyond season. And in the weather silence you can hear a whisper that says fire. Long grass, deep leaves, forest litter. Crackle dry layers wait for the spark of conflagration. The careless act, the willfully stupid match strike, the lightening bolt – instant and Sun hot.
We should be flying away from this, down to cool and damp Tasmania. But we aren’t. There are fires where we are heading. The next few days look uncertain. Well laid plans un-made, cancellations needed, new bookings made. The slow wind down of the first few days of a holiday does not happen. Hours creep past, time spent just to get to the end of the day in the hope that the next will bring better news. We book a room in a place that some people consider “funky”, which I now understand to mean slightly run down, a little shabby at the edges and generally in need of a little more cleaning. Excellent Internet access helps. All of the windows are nailed shut – maybe this is what a Wi-Fi hot spot means.
Smoke hangs in the air; a bitter taste grows in the back of your throat. When the wind turns the air clears and a bright sparkling light forms. It feels like a summer holiday. But then the wind turns back and you remember the fires and the things they have taken. I feel bad for feeling bad, as if a restless night’s sleep in a stuffy room is a real problem, as if having time to waste is a waste of time. Other families look lost, disrupted, in Hobart. Too many people wear dark walking shoes with pale socks and old, well loved, shorts. There are long queues outside tourist offices. Silver gulls fight over thrown chips, pigeons bob and spin to each other. I have lost nothing but imagined times and maybe a little money. Plans have gone up in smoke, but plans are figments of an ordered imagination; constructs created by people who believe they can control the world. Plans have no substance. But elsewhere, real things are burning, there is real loss, the smoke is a tangible reminder. I smell the smoke and try to get a grip. Engage. Move forward.
Down in the harbor Hobart looks to the sea, to the south, to the Antarctic. A huge cruise liner sits next to a Sea Shepherd boat. More than just size separates them. Woven lines pull tight over cast iron bollards, metal penguins look out from their cast rocks. Even in the busy dock the water is clear, although traffic cones and a Panama hat form part of the reef around which tiny fish swim. Starfish twinkle through the surface waves, muscles and oysters grow on the pier legs and a puffer fish, with its spines flat for now, weaves unconcerned from morsel to morsel. The kids count jellyfish, and fishermen drop back undersized flathead.
Behind the town sits the often snow dusted Mount Wellington. Today the summit is shrouded with dull yellow green clouds. A mix of water and smoke. It is here that Hobart looks to the sky and to the things that lie beyond what we can see today. We drive to the summit, more in hope of a view than an expectation. The road winds, it’s steep enough to make your ears pop. The trees grow thin and then by the sides of the roads are open fields of rocks, studded with twisted, wind formed trees. Small lizards and large, colorful, grasshoppers sit on the rock tops, mini summiteers with no colonial flags or Sherpa guides. My kids ignore warnings of twisted ankles and hospitalization and rock hop and balance around the boulders – helicopter arms twirl and spin. They laugh. They argue. Without the weight of smoke curtailed expectation, they play were they are. P finds a bright beetle. H burns the barely contained energy that threatened him with an internal conflagration and a mental melt down. For different reasons we all enjoy the hill top space and the movement.
Even with the fire haze you can see for miles. Hobart looks a stone throw away and you get a picture of how important this mountain is to the city itself. A little bit of wilderness on the doorstep. The plants at the summit are beaten down by winter cold, and grasp for shelter in bob buttons close to the ground or in the lee of rocks. Many of the plants are hairy with lichen, that intimate combination of plant and fungi that thrives where life is tough and the air is clean. There are more stones than plants, each shaped by the wind and the cast off water of rain and frosty days. We all take deep breaths and look beyond the smoke and the fire. Tomorrow promises to be a better day. The wind has turned, the fire contained and the road opened. A day to travel, 48 hours delayed, beckons. We move towards where we want to be.
Any movement seems good after a couple of days cooped in hot or dull rooms. But the air still smells of smoke. The long roadside grass is baked to a yellow gold. The colour of the cooler, but still hot, outer edge of a wood fire flame. A colour that seems to invite fire, the crackle tongues of a summer running wild. The roads sweep and turn – almost English – in tune with the ups and downs of the landscape. Not the ruler drawn freeways of other places, but still the byways and highways of an older age. Apart from the news on the radio and the smell in the air there is little to suggest what is going on around us. Little to suggest the loss and damage that kept us in Hobart. But this illusion does not last.
Around a corner, behind a hill, there are columns of smoke and faint drifting clouds rising where none should be. The air thickens and fills. Dense yellow green smoke drifts and covers the road. I slow down and turn on my lights. Cars coming in the other direction appear with little warning, as if solidified from the heated vapors of fire and lost trees. Some approach too fast and with no lights, driven by immortals that know better than to follow advice, or heed warnings. The smoke scatters the headlight beams, so the car is surrounded by light, but it’s still dark. I drive within a halo of uncertainty. My foot rests lightly on the pedals, waiting to stand on the brakes. The kids in the back fall silent. This is not how it is meant to be. The smoke thins and I unpeel my fingers from the wheel. They tingle with recovering blood flow, and the soft plastic below them expands back to its rightful shape. Beyond the windows the landscape reappears, still dry and golden, but thankfully not burnt or burning. Around mid-day we reach the turn off for Coles Bay.
The north side of the road has been burnt, deliberately so, to make a break between the possibility of fire and unburnt fuel. It makes for a strange drive. Eventually we enter a landscape that is free from fire. Small trees crowd the roadside, grass waves its dried heads around the roadsides and in the distance The Hazards begin to fill the horizon. Shaped like the knuckles of a clenched fist they rise from the sea to dominate the delightfully sleepy Coles Bay. A good shop, a splendid little restaurant and a world class view make this the most perfect of holiday towns – although what it would be like on a wet Wednesday afternoon in the middle of winter is another question.
Our house for what remains of the week sits in the lee of the Hazards, and what it lacks in view it makes up for in privacy. We are greeted by a young Bennett’s Wallaby, which has yet to gain the red neck that gives it its other name. The kids, with a comic lunacy derived from mysterious sources, christen him Mr. Dude. He stays with us all week. The house has that strange combination of elegant lines and complete lack of functionality that seem to characterize modern houses.
One cannot sit at the base of a hill for too long without looking to the summit. And you cannot look at the summit for too long without planning to climb. Mount Amos is the highest knuckle of the Hazards fist; elsewhere its 454 m of altitude would be overlooked. But here each metre really is above sea level, as a cool, fish filled bay washes its feet. It invites you to climb. And the park authority tries to stop you. Its signs and leaflets use words like “strenuous”, “steep” and “treacherous”. It is suggested that the young or the inexperienced stay on the beach. There is a sign at the end of the made path that basically says that there is a good chance you will die if you pass it. This is clearly an exaggeration, both on my part and by the park authority – but the path is steep and it is almost always over, and sometimes up, solid rock. In places where the shape of the land pushes people in to narrow strips, the rock has taken on a polished sheen. A sheen that would indeed be very slippery in the wet. But today it’s dry, and the rock is warm and grippy. Which is a good job, because some of the walkers (possibly related to the high speed smoke drivers) are wearing shoes of limited utility. Even my kids notice.
The route to the summit seems to follow a vein of quartz in places and the pale crystals climb the hill in front of you. The landscape is scattered with time carved boulders, the broken edges of their ancient falls rounded by wind and water. There are few sharp edges but many fine views. P’s lack of years is made up for by a surplus of energy. H’s lack of experience is made up for by a lack of peer driven apprehension. Both skip like mountain goats. Both smile and enjoy the feel of the rock and the taste of the barley sugar.
Before we reach the summit we walk across a shallow bowl, dense with head high plants and woven, contrary paths. Rustles in the bushes, and branches that sway against rather then with the breeze, suggest we are not far from watching eyes. One last climb, up a walled gutter, hand pushing backwards on the right wall for support, brings us to the top.
A view opens up before us. A narrow sweep of bright white sand hugs the sea. Two rocky arms sweep out and inwards to make a deep, sheltered bay. This is Wineglass bay, the picture post card heart of Freycinet and (according to local myth) a destination less than 1 in 10 visitors reach. The beach has been listed as one of the top ten in the world by some people, and the second best by others – as if the clear and obvious beauty of the place was not enough. Would less people come if it was only the 11th best beach – would fewer photographs be taken? The beach and view are unchanged by the ranking, but I doubt that is the case for some of the people who climb.
While it’s clear that the bay is the shape of a wine glass, there is a disturbing edge to the name. In the past, when the waters here were full in a way we no longer see, there was a whaling station in the bay. As the whales were flensed, a word that conceals its real horror, the bay would flow red with blood. The wine glass would fill with claret and the living rooms of Hobart and London would flicker with smoke free light. The wheels of commerce were oiled with the death and blood and horror that flowed half a world away. Today, in a place of remarkable beauty, it feels as unlikely as it sounds horrific.
We settle back to eat sandwiches, still cool from the chill of the fridge. Water never tastes as good as at the top of a hill. For most of our lunch we are mostly on our own, just the view and us. Just us and a small grey bird snatching crumbs from around our feet. Just us a small wallaby that pauses to look back over its shoulder at us.
We pack our bags and reverse our path. Down the hill and back towards the sea.