From the Road: My Tassie Adventure

Richard rode from Launceston to Hobart in January 2017, and sent us his riding reminiscences, via Facebook.  For those not following us on FB, enjoy!

More Journal, Less Essay; Along the Tasman Highway

St. Mary’s, Tasmania 6 January 2017

It’s not dark yet,

But it’s getting there.

- Bob Dylan “Should I stay or should I go?”

It’s my perpetual question. When you travel solo, you have only yourself with whom to make decisions. That’s nice, but sometimes I find I am in debates with myself. Launceston is a wonderful city from which to begin this bicycle adventure. The Arthouse Hostel is one of the very best. Yet despite the amenities and fellow travelers, I’m here to move about. I skipped the New Year’s bands, parties, and libations. As much as I enjoy revelry, onward I go.

It can be annoying, but I enjoy putting my gear into panniers, readying for the ride. Tent and sleeping bag go into the Ortlieb rainproof bag on the front-end lowrider rack. It beats the hell out of stacking everything above the rear wheel. I split everything else—clothes, tools, etc.—into my vintage Cannondale bags; essential needs on the left, all else on the right. My load is 7 to 9 pounds less this time, but still heavier than I want. A liter of water always weighs 2.2 pounds and I head out with about 3.5 liters. What, I wonder, can I toss overboard?

First, the basics. I was oriented 180 degrees wrong and had to sort out the North-South thing before I could go anywhere. Then I was off on the East Tamar Highway (A8), aimed towards George Town. I left books for the hostel library, some clothes I can do without, and my gear bag. I’ll buy another when the time comes. More immediate was getting used to the Tassie hills and narrow road shoulders. There are some tight spots along the way, and more shoulder wash (broken glass) than I like to see, but all in all, the roads are in good shape. Twenty miles was just fine for a first day out; headwinds and hills kept me working. I found free camping at Egg Island Point on River Tamar and watched brilliant stars at midnight. A pretty nice New Year’s Eve.

George Town isn’t much of a town but sits at the mouth of the River Tamar. It’s all saltwater from the Tasman Sea. Settlers, I was told, kept moving upriver until they reached fresh water. That is where Launceston is located and why they settled there. I stayed at the old Pier Hotel in George Town, luxury compared to a hostel bed.

Hills… I don’t care for them. Some riders claim to love them, but I am pretty sure most are lying. From George Town to Bridport looked easy enough, but further along there is no way to reach the coast without a whole bunch of hills and passes along the way. More, places with names may be nothing more than crossroads that don’t have water and food. So I took a strategic retreat, rode back to Launceston, had a rest day so that my weary legs could recover. There’s an easier way to St. Mary’s and the coast, heading south, then east, with free camping along the way.

Leaving Launceston for a second time, I skirted the mainline for a more scenic route out of town, into the Northern Midlands. I was rested and ready for another day of hills, but they never came. Today was as easy a day cycling as I’ve found; gentle grades all the way with clouds keeping the temperature down. Sometimes luck beats planning and gets the job done. More hills will catch up with me. I’ll bet on that.

When you’re down to one book, it had better be a good one. I’m rolling with Loren Eiseley’s essays in “The Star Thrower.” Most don’t read Eiseley these days, which is a shame. His prose is as good as any today and his observations still seem relevant. He writes of one day seeing a raven prepared to murder some songbird nestlings. The parents set up a racket, unable to do anything about it. Suddenly, small birds from half a dozen species fluttered to the branches. None were able to attack the raven, but “suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing.” They sang under the shadow of the raven. “In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.” Eiseley’s observation seems apt allegory for our modern times.

Simple pleasures. Launceston to Conara, Conara to Fingal, Fingal to St. Mary’s. I've been working my way up along the Esk River and these are some of the best miles I have pedaled. Fingal’s dryness made the beer taste so much better in St. Mary’s. As I left Fingal, one local told me, “It's all downhill from here. The problem is if you decide to return.” I won’t.

In addition to tossing unneeded gear, I lose things along the way. Gone are my bicycle lock’s key (I bought another lock), my left riding glove (that hand is getting tan), and my bandana (how the hell did I lose that?). But I find things as well; $3 AUS coins on the road shoulder, and a roll of thick electrical tape that I’ll use to patch my handlebar wrap. It may not all even out, but pedaling along, it often seems like it does.

I began this morning in the Break O’Day municipality. Here, all the rooms over the pub are booked, but a few hundred meters away is another free campsite with showers (and electricity to charge my devices). I may be competing with local travelers for spots tomorrow. But beaches await and I’ll surely find somewhere for my tent.

January 13, 2017 Hobart, Tasmania

For weeks I'd anticipated a tough climb from St. Mary's to reach the coast. After all, it is called, St. Mary's Pass, which always means work. But not so! I had pedaled up the Esk River watershed, gaining all the elevation needed. It really was all downhill from there.

It seems to me that the roads I've taken from Launceston to St. Mary's must follow the old farm and wagon roads. They follow the path of least resistance, because both farmers and drought animals, like bicyclists, prefer going between hills and not over them. Convicts did a lot of the original public works projects here in Tassie, and so it was with the road from St. Mary's to the coast. In the 1840s, several hundred incarcerated men were ensconced, and the road was built. Headed downhill, you will appreciate their work. Uphill would have taken at least half a day. When the downhill ends, the road rolls out to flats, miles and miles of easy bicycling, along the Tasman highway, just south of Scamander.

Wind! Damned wind; the invisible foe. Barely out from Bicheno and it begins. At 20 mph dead straight into my face, the going was tough. Add extra 10 mph gusts and all my focus was put to keeping me on the road. I couldn't muster the extra effort for a ripe expletive, which I'd not have heard had I yelled one. Knee-high grasses were bent towards the ground, pointed right at me. I've faced wind before, but not like this. Wind is unexpected and you never know how strong it will be or how long it will last. Hills, pains though they may be, are generally predictable. Not so a headwind. It just keeps coming.

Heat! Yet another foe. I knocked off an easy twenty miles from the Bay of Lagoons to Bicheno. Nothing to it. A Sunday market, coffee, and breakfast awaited. Coming up on noon, I figured no problem putting in another thirty miles before dusk, about nine o'clock. About ten miles out I booked my bed in Swansea, a good thing because the hostel was full up when I arrived. But the heat! Walking and riding up Cherry Tree Hill, the roadway looked wet. Bilge water from boats headed home, I figured. But nope, the heat had melted the roadway tar, doing nothing to help traction. Still, less a problem than a sign of how hot the day had become. My plan was to break every five miles to cool down, a plan rapidly shortened to two mile stretches. For the first time I reached for my backup 1.5 liter backup water bottle. Heat blisters cover both my forearms. Sunscreen, yes, but not much more to be done.

And just so quickly, the heat abated. As the sun fell lower, a cooling shade from tree shadows crossed the road. The wind began to swirl more than blow and even the tall grasses were upright. Ten kilometers out from Swansea, I could have walked it on in and arrived before dark. No need to search out a campsite, four nights were enough, and a hostel bed awaited.

My route notes say the road from Swansea to Triabunna is "relatively short and easy." I'll take that any day. Along the coast clouds kept the temperature down and views across to the mountainous Freycinet Peninsula were perfect. I stopped at the Spiky Bridge, a roadside attraction I'd wanted to see. As claimed, the stone spikes were...spiky.

At Triabunna was more free camping, behind the town pub. I was serenaded by Aussies singing Johnny Cash and Jimmy Buffet songs. The guitar player sang a spot-on "Me and Bobby McGee", followed by an Aussie version with astounding lyrics. Then a bunch of ribald story songs; some things are best around a campfire.

Two days out and decisions had to be made. The boat to Maria Island leaves from Triabunna, but I passed. I know it's a beautiful place, but I can quickly sense when a tourist hustle is coming on. Triabunna to Buckland was an easy 25k, but there were still another 70 to Hobart. I pressed on, climbed one stiff pass and another much easier. Still, arrived in Sorell by 6pm, 25k out, leaving the roll into Hobart the next day an easy morning in the saddle. Hobart is a beautiful city, but it is a city. My most dangerous miles were during the last 10k into town, where the shoulder disappeared and I shared the road with speeding motorists.

Over all, Tassie roads are well built and maintained. When wide enough, solid striping gives a shoulder. When too narrow for a shoulder, I just suck it up and press on. Locals and professional drivers with big rigs don't scare me much. It gets scary when rentals driven by visitors are hauling boats, trailers, and sporting extended rear view mirrors that cut the margins close. I try to be safe, but some things I just can't worry about.

Wildlife is best seen in the wild. Sheep and cattle don't count. I enjoyed the small wallabies that hopped in front of my bike and I annoyed a flock of huge, white-crested cockatiels. Very cool. Best was a colorful Eastern Rosella that flew across my path. I have never seen anything quite like it. What I wanted to see was a twin-spotted blue-tongue skink. Actually, I saw bunches of them DOR (dead on road), but no luck with live ones. Finally, on my last day. I came on a robust, five foot long snake slithering across the road. By the time I got close it was in the bush. In a place where venomous Tiger snakes and others are common, even I won't chase blindly after that snake.

Tasmania! Old Van Deiman's land, renamed about 1850 after a Dutch navigator named Tasman. One place I never thought I'd reach. So spectacular; so beautiful. And there is something odd and wonderful to have summer in January. Makes me almost forget the tragedy underway. At home. Almost.

 

Richard Dorsett

Tacoma, Washington

7 March 2017


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