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Soft welcome

Here’s the throw pillow I bought, a year after I first saw it in a Melbourne shop. The design is taken from a 1908 postage stamp issued to commemorate the arrival of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet.” I love it because we have felt very welcome here, both from the Aussie cruising friends we’ve met from the time we started cruising to the new friends we meet every day. Our time here in Australia will most likely be the longest we’ll spend in one country and it feels like home to us.

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What have we missed?

You know how it is. When you live somewhere you don’t always do the things tourists do when they visit your home town. In the year before we left Pittsburgh we scrambled to do all the things we kept meaning to do but never get around to. And so it is here in Sydney. We’ve spent so much time here that we feel like locals and now that we know we’re leaving soon we suddenly realize there are museums we missed, neighborhoods to explore, beaches to walk.

One beautiful day we took the bus downtown specifically to visit the Art Museum of New South Wales, which we’d somehow missed and which we heard had a good collection of aboriginal art. We weren’t disappointed and on nearly every piece I bestowed my highest compliment, “I’d have that in my house.” If I had a house, that is.

We rested and re-energized at a beautiful garden café, the kind of place that makes us love city life.

The day was heating up and we took refuge in St. Mary’s Cathedral, a nineteenth century gothic revival building that was begun in 1868 but not completely realized until this century. I couldn’t talk Jack into visiting the crypt. He was happy to sit quietly while I explored the architecture and artifacts.

We’re always interested in pipe organs and this cathedral has several, a 1942 Australian model, and a newer Orgues LéTourneau of Quebec, installed 1997-1999.

I didn’t get to see the console for the newer organ but it can be played from this mobile console at floor level.

Back out in the suffocating Aussie summer sun we called it a day and made our way back to the cool comfort of Escape Velocity.

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The view from the back porch

Dragon boat practice at sunset, Rozelle Bay, Sydney.

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Fly away home

We don’t often leave Escape Velocity and when we do we worry that she’ll be ok while we’re gone. Before we left for Victoria and Tasmania we had a difficult time finding a safe place to leave our home. Sydney is bow-to-stern packed with boats. Every marina, every mooring field is dense with yachts of all kinds and after calling every club, marina and boatyard I could find I came up empty. As time ticked by and our planned departure date approached with no solution I took the plunge anyway and booked our flights and car rentals in a sheer act of optimism that it would all work out in the end.

Salvation came in the form of Women Who Sail Australia, a private Facebook group who share local info and can generally be relied on for up-to-date tips in just about anything related to boating in Oz. I put out a call to my sailing sisters and within days I had a mooring booked at a small boat shed up the Parramatta River. Roger, the owner, was borderline non-verbal on the phone but promised a heavy and safe mooring ball and a ride to shore when we left for the airport so we could leave our dinghy at Escape Velocity for the duration.

On moving day we had no trouble finding the boatshed but Roger was nowhere to be found. He finally answered our phone calls and asked if we could wait until he finished a repair job further upriver. Sure, we said, and Jack held EV in station against wind and rambunctious ferry wakes for the promised half hour, which then stretched past an hour. Finally Roger and crew appeared in a paint-spattered, beat-up launch. He approached and asked if we could wait until “after lunch.”

Jack and I looked at each and shouted back simultaneously. “No!”

“We’ve been circling for more than an hour!”

“Ok,” he said reluctantly. “We have to move a boat.” And they disentangled a small powerboat from one of the moorings on the outer edge of the mooring field and moved it to another mooring further into the river shallows. Jack and I picked up the newly freed mooring, only to discover we would be within a few feet of the small sailboat just behind. Not ideal, but Roger assured us all the moorings are oversized and plenty strong enough to hold us in any weather. We snugged up as tight as we could to give maximum clearance with our neighbor.

We asked where we could land our dinghy and it turns out, no place. What?! There’s no public dock, Roger’s is packed with his work boats, the nearby rowing club won’t allow dinghies and the ferry landing prohibits tying up even at the back and out of the way of ferries. It was Friday and we weren’t leaving for the airport until Tuesday. And we can’t get ashore.

We spent some time on boat projects, but then in a desperate act of defiance we tied up to the back of the ferry dock anyway when our friend Alex offered to pick us up and take us shopping. It was a welcome break from the relentless wind and ferry wakes in our temporary home upriver.

Roger took us ashore on the day we left and we called him the day before we returned to make sure he’d still be around to take us back to EV from the ferry dock. He promised to be at work at the boatshed until 5 o’clock.

It’s fun to fly over Sydney because the harbor is beautiful even from the air. We easily picked out the opera house and harbor bridge and just for fun I tried to follow the river to where our boat was. I counted the curves and bridges we remembered navigating. And suddenly there was Escape Velocity, easily recognized by the orange canvas and bright kayaks on deck! As the plane banked to the airport approach we watched in awe and relief that we could see our home from the air and that she was safe and sound, just as we’d left her. And did we grab a camera and snap a photo? No, we did not.

We had an easy time collecting our luggage and taking the train and ferry and we were back at the dock within sight of our home within an hour. It was 4:30 and Roger was nowhere to be found. When we called he told us he was towing a boat, that we would see him passing the ferry dock soon and that he would come get us as soon as he could. Sure enough we watched as he towed a sailboat down river and in a little while he came back to the boatshed and took us and our luggage the 100 yards to Escape Velocity.

We told him we’d be leaving in the morning so we could get back to Sydney and a supermarket. We don’t have any fresh food onboard, we told him. He seemed concerned.

“What will you eat?”

“Spaghetti, probably,” said Jack.

We hoisted our luggage up onto our deck and climbed aboard, happy to be home before dark and waved goodbye and thanks to Roger. A few minutes later he reappeared, still looking concerned. I think the idea of spaghetti must have been unimaginable.

“There’s a restaurant over there,” he said, and he pointed across the river. “And another one on the other side of that marina down there,” pointing the other way, “but they don’t like you tying up there.”

We assured him we’d survive the night on spaghetti and jarred sauce, which happens to be Jack’s specialty, and we celebrated our homecoming with a bottle of red.

The next day we motored the five miles back down the river to our old anchorage at Rozelle Bay and went ashore to the supermarket for a few essentials. Back onboard I was unpacking and sorting laundry when Jack called down, “Hey, I think that’s Roger towing another boat!” Sure enough there was the beat up workboat towing a sailboat right past us. We stood on deck and waved as he went by and he called out, “I’m the patron saint of derelict boats!”

He was gone before we could reassure him about the spaghetti.

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Siren Song

I don’t know about you but it seems like in our travels, the more we see, the more we discover what we haven’t seen or wish we’d seen. Tasmania certainly fills that bill of lading. After yesterday’s Trail of Tears trauma in Port Arthur, with its massive tragedies old and new, we decided not to go back for a scheduled second day and opted for a day of lookouts and beautiful vistas that aren’t necessarily on the must-do, hotspot tour, but we really needed the chill. We’re glad we did. We found ourselves on the beautiful rugged Tasman Peninsula with an extra day to play with, so we set out to see what we could see.

When you’re in an area that’s known for growing berries I say, “Have a few.”

Sad to leave such a beautiful place but we both could feel EV’s siren song calling us home.

Our flight back to Sydney was scheduled for 4:30pm. However the car had to be turned in at 11:00am so our intrepid travel director switched our flight to an earlier one. I couldn’t help but notice the same large bronze sculpture I first saw when entering Hobart Terminal featuring a luggage cart with trunks stacked on it and about a half dozen bronze Tasmanian Devils exploring it, as though they smelled dead meat. I confess that I felt differently about the husky buggers now, than when I first saw that sculpture. Bugs Bunny was right.

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Speak of the devil

We’ve been having good experiences with Aussie wildlife Down Under, even though they tend to be rather shy and nocturnal. I wasn’t leaving Tasmania until I’d seen Tassie’s most famous and exclusive marsupial, the Tasmanian devil. We’d been seeing signs showing people hugging and petting the cute little buggers even though they seem to have a preponderance of large pearly white teeth. You know, how puppies open their mouths and kind of smile while being petted…well those are teeth, aren’t they?

Photo from Tasmanian Devil Conservation Project

We were informed that we probably wouldn’t see any out in the wild but there’s a zoo nearby called the Unzoo and we’d have a good shot at seeing some. Unzoo, that must be where the Tasmania devil petting zoo is. Great. Turns out they have a kid sized tunnel that leads to a small plastic observation dome so you can watch them without disturbing them. Wow, they must be really shy.

After entering through the gift shop we found out that the next feeding was about to start. Unexpected, but as we turned a corner around some landscaped shrubs we entered a small amphitheater, sat down in front and immediately noticed a heavy duty thick glass wall separating us from the…show. Interesting. Eyebrows slightly raised.

In came Crocodile Dundee, slightly out of breath, carrying a small cooler, which he opened and set on top of the barrier. “Did you see him? Usually he does a couple of laps before he settles down enough to be fed.” We looked at each other with eyebrows well arched. There was no devil in evidence, so the naturalist vamped with some informative fun facts on the devil’s lifespan and behavior.

After a few more minutes with no devil he radios to his assistant for, well, assistance. She shows up with a stout walking stick, heavy boots, long pants, vaults over the barrier and charges through the habitat. Soon he appears, the muscular black and white growling spitting devil, and he means business.

From the opened cooler our naturalist pulls out a hunk of gristly bone, meat, and fur, kinda Wallaby colored, attached with a massive hook and cable and proceeds to tease our devil who came in here with a bad attitude to start with and he’s not appreciating the show business qualities of yanking away his rightful food. Seconds later he’s snatched the hunk of meat out of the air and now he’s going to take it home which will shorten the show. So now we have a tug-of-war with the small but powerful bugger, nearly pulling the full grown straining naturalist over in the process. Impressive. Pound for pound they have the most powerful jaws of any animal, so once he bites down it’s obvious he’ll never let go. He can bite through bone but they have poor eyesight, lousy hunting skills, smell well enough to notice rotting carion, and are not the brightest bulb on the tree. Let’s agree to call them opportunistic hunters. They have on occasion clamped down on sleeping humans and I’m guessing it didn’t turn out well. In the meantime he’s managed to get the hunk off of the hook and growling and grunting, the show is over. It’s no wonder that the only thing that Bugs Bunny fears is the Tasmanian Devil! The Unzoo doesn’t like to cage its animals but we can only hope that enclosure for these buggers is secure.

With the star off grumpily gnawing on whatever’s left of his breakfast we explored the grounds. The only native kangaroo in Tassie is the Forester Kangaroo and they had a nice feeding area for guests and Roos.

Most of the animals at the Unzoo are Tasmanian specific and the Eastern Quoll are carnivorous so don’t let the cute fawn like fur fool you.

We also saw a lot of these Tasmanian pademelons, smaller kangaroo-like marsupials, just wandering the grounds.

And as if the Tasmanian Devil weren’t enough, at a little bird show here’s a rather strange bird called a Tawny Frogmouth.

Strange frog or weird bird? Either way he had great eyesight and when he saw an eagle, just a tiny dot high up in the sky, he elongated his neck to look like a tree limb, and stood absolutely motionless while staring right up at that tiny speck.

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Another tide-dependent destination lead us south from Port Arthur to arrive at Remarkable Cave by mid afternoon. Our lodging host told us that at low tide we could hop the fence and walk through the cave to the beach. It sounded good to us until we saw that “hopping the fence” also including some rock climbing, an activity more suited to younger limbs and those with no fear of heights. I think if one of us was willing the other would have followed, but we decided our lives would still be complete if we didn’t do the hopping and climbing. Still, it was a pretty cool place but hard to photograph.

Our last foray along Tasmania’s Convict Trail was the ruins of the coal mine where the worst of the worst were sent to serve out their sentences doing the hardest of hard labor. At one point the mine provided all of the coal used in Tasmania but it was poor quality coal and eventually the mine was closed and the convicts moved to Hobart.

The shafts are collapsed now. The site is remote and unstaffed but well preserved and interpreted with cleverly placed placards and an online and downloadable brochure for more info. I found the setting ruggedly beautiful in contrast to the brutality that took place here.

The punishment cells were barely large enough to lie down, and were underground and windowless.

We drove a further few kilometers on the unsealed road to the far northwest corner of the Tasman peninsula and Lime Bay, as peaceful and lovely a place as we’ve seen in Tasmania. The boats anchored off in the distance made us almost wish we had sailed EV down here. This truly is a special place. It’s not exotically beautiful like many places we’ve been to and the landscape is so similar to our homeland that we were initially underwhelmed, unfairly so. We were also shocked a few times by overt, unconsciously racist remarks made in casual conversation by some locals, but Under Down Under has grown on us day by day.

At Lime Bay the rains came again but it was only a brief shower and as always, when it stopped we were rewarded with a rainbow.

We only have one more day here and we’re on a mission.


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House of horrors

“We could have spent two days,” friends told us about the Port Arthur Historic Site. And so we staged ourselves on the Tasman peninsula a day before the original plan so we could maximize our time at one of Australia’s World Heritage sites. There are actually eleven locations that comprise the UNESCO designation of Australia’s convict history and five of them are in Tasmania, with Port Arthur being the largest.

Walking through the perfectly groomed and maintained grounds today it’s hard to imagine the brutal treatment that thousands of convicts were subjected to for the twenty years the station operated.

The entry fee included a guided walking tour of the convict areas, after which we could explore the rest of the settlement on our own, plus a harbor cruise to see the dockyard, the boy’s prison and the Isle of the Dead, where both convicts and free people were interred.

Our guide was young and enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and far more accustomed to the capricious Tassie weather than the tourists in our group. Our changeable conditions continued, bright sun, light rain, gusty wind, seemingly in five-minute increments. I was happy to have my laugh-at-the-weather Kiwi jacket and Jack was sporting a new waterproof jacket he picked up on our second day on the island.

The guide introduced the site with a historical overview and took pains to dispel the myth that most convicts were guilty only of stealing a piece of bread to feed their hungry families. The men sent to Port Arthur, he said, were hardened criminals, repeat offenders from all of Australia’s colonies.

This is also the site of another incident, a more recent one, our guide told us, adding that if we wanted to talk about it he preferred we ask him personally rather than other staff members, as many of them still have “connections” to the event. I was initially puzzled by this, but within seconds it dawned on me.

I knew the story in broad strokes: Australia suffered one mass shooting and reacted within a short period of time to make significant changes to their gun laws and haven’t had another mass shooting since. I had confirmed the facts in the past year to bolster an online political argument and at this moment the bell began to ring. Port Arthur, the location of the shooting. This Port Arthur. Here.

I don’t know if anyone else spoke to the guide about the shooting. I know I didn’t. But as we continued our tour the new knowledge of where we are, both in regards to the shooting and the events of the convict period, opened a deep well in my brain.

We were guided through and around the convict areas and learned about the theory of English prison reformer Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy, along with other contemporaries, proposed to remake prisons into penitentiaries. Instead of just locking up criminals they should be penitent and reformed, in Bentham’s ideas through “discipline and punishment, religious and moral instruction, classification and separation, and training and education.”

Similar ideas were taking hold around the world during this period. In the city of my birth, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the radical new Eastern State Penitentiary was built in 1829 with the same “reform rather than punishment” goal. I have an ancestor who did seven years at Eastern State. Don’t ask.

As our guide described life at Port Arthur, the story veered dizzingly from brutality — punishments of 200 lashes with a cat o’ nine tails — to benevolence — free health care after the whipping! I don’t know whether the patter was written to whitewash or downplay the cruelty or not, or maybe just to make it family friendly, but it was starting to remind me of guides I heard as a child touring slave plantations in the South, about how the owners “took care of” their slaves, providing food and clothing and honest work. I was cringing.

Jack reminded me that it was a cruel time, and told me how much worse it was at sea but still, I was having a visceral reaction to the thought of human beings treating other humans with such cruelty. I imagined the resident flogger whipping a convict to near death, then walking up the hill by dinner time to say grace at the table and tuck into a nice roast and jacket potatoes with his family.

After the introductory walkabout we made our way to the waterfront for a harbor tour. Almost as soon as we were aboard the vessel the sky opened up and dumped a few minutes of pea-sized hail. Could Tassie weather be worse than New Zealand? Maybe. The hail turned into rain and we passengers had to rely on the photos displayed on the TV monitors to see what the tour guide was describing, as the view out the windows was distorted.

By the end of the boat tour we were cold and hungry and headed toward the visitors center for a bite to eat. As we walked the path toward the back entrance a placard caught my eye.

It marked the entrance to the memorial for the shooting in 1996. “I’m going in,” I told Jack, and he made an about face to follow me. Within ten feet of entering the wooded pathway, I was overwhelmed with sadness and burst into tears. Thirty-five people died that day, most of them at this very spot, the location of the previous cafe and gift shop, now demolished but the ruined frame preserved as part of the memorial. I have felt this kind of sorrow before, for example at Gettysburg, where the peaceful beauty of the rolling farmland can’t erase the memory that thousands of mostly young men died a horrible, senseless, lonely death.

But my sadness in Port Arthur came not just for the victims of the deranged shooter, but for my country. When Australians learned of this incident they were horrified and sickened and the leadership sought ways to lessen the likelihood of it ever happening again. Within months they legislated a multipronged approach to reducing gun violence. The American NRA fought hard against it — they represent gun manufacturers who stood to lose revenue from the new laws — but wiser heads prevailed and the tighter restrictions on gun ownership have had the desired effect. Australia has not had a mass shooting since Port Arthur.

In my country there is a mass shooting nearly every other day, in theatres, shopping centers, offices and most tragically, schools. Rather than feeling horror and outrage, Americans shrug and call it Tuesday. “There’s nothing we can do,” they say. “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” they say. “If you take the guns away from the good guys, only bad guys will have guns,” they say. All of these arguments were bandied about by the NRA and others during the debate over Australia’s gun legislation and in the end all of them failed to pass muster. Australians value life without the fear of gun violence more than they value the freedom to amass an arsenal of deadly weapons. And no one with a good reason is prevented from owning a gun.

We stayed in the memorial for the Port Arthur victims feeling the pain the families and friends of the victims live with until the cold and damp sent us reluctantly back to shelter. Upstairs the café was crowded and noisy.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “We can come back later.” As we drove up through the multilevel car park out of the valley and back onto the main road, I felt the anguish lift, leaving me drained but still sad.

If anyone doubts that a nation as diverse in political, cultural and ideological thought as America can come together to make changes for the benefit of all, let them come to Australia and see what humanity and concern for their fellow citizens can do.


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Good timing

We’d already decided to write off Maria Island, just off the coast of Triabunna, due to the all day nature of having to take a ferry, the many long hikes, no café or ice cream, not to mention the expense. Somewhere in our travels we ran into someone who said, “You’ve just got to go to Maria.” We’re finding Tassie to be tricky to plan anyway, so even a bad plan is better than wandering around aimlessly. Our ace activity planner jumped into action and soon had something feasible worked out. Once again the kind lady at the information office fine tuned our schedule and said you can change the ferry tickets on the fly so no worries.

Soon rain beat an insistent tattoo on our windows as the sky closed in and we were glad to be on a closed-in boat. With a cross swell running out in the Tasman Sea, even in these benign conditions periodic wave slaps jolted the large boat just to remind you where you are, and you travel here only at the indulgence of Neptune. It’s the nature of rain at sea that it comes in bands and by the time we pulled into Darlington Bay, it had stopped.

Everyone on the ferry spread out along the many disparate paths and we found ourselves stepping carefully, dodging an amazing quantity of poo. Whose? I don’t want to think about it. Spare, desolate, spooky, any place where a great deal of bad juju happened always gives me the creeps and this place has it in spades. Evidence of whaling was found on the beaches and topping a rolling hill we ran into a wombat busily grazing, who by all rights should have been asleep.

This island is part of the UNESCO heritage listing for Australia’s Convict History and was definitely not for convicts with privileges but was reserved for what they called convict probation whose focus was on “punishment and reform through hard labor, religious instruction, and education.”

Evidence of hard labor wasn’t hard to find and just past the grassy landing strip doing duty as a kangaroo spa we found the fossil cliffs where convicts were tasked with cutting huge blocks of lime rock for concrete until somebody, probably one of the convicts tired of cutting huge blocks of lime, noticed that the high lime content was due to an amazing quantity of fossilized marine life contained within.

I fancied the longer loop return hike passing through the interior of the island and a large reservoir built by the convicts. By this point the pricey bicycle rental was sounding like a good deal.

Past the engine house, brick and lime kilns we stopped to eat our picnic lunch at the penitentiary and were soon on our way with the most ambitious hike of the day, all the way to the painted cliffs which could only be seen at low tide and for a change we seem to have gotten the timing of the tide right.

The weather started to get serious and we knew we still had a long drive ahead so when Marce suggested maybe we could make an earlier ferry we focused on speed rather than style. Just as I began to no longer care whether we made the early ferry or not we could see it coming into Darlington Bay. After more than eight miles, good timing again.

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Looking eastward

We covered a lot of territory over the last few days and we took a day off, just driving the Freycinet peninsula and doing short walks to overlooks and protected areas. The weather continued to be iffy, sunny one minute, spritzy the next, and generally gusty on the shoreline. We were grateful it wasn’t the heavy relentless downpour we experienced on our trip to New Zealand’s South Island, but still, a sky with fewer clouds and clearer vistas would have been welcome.

At one car park a couple of bold and friendly wallabies visited a camper van where the travelers were eating lunch. No dummies, these little guys, and even though I didn’t have anything to offer they still let me pet them.

The big thing to do here is the hike to Wineglass Bay overlook, but we agreed that a four hour hike was not in the cards for us today and instead took the easy routes. According to my Fitbit we still clocked a couple of miles and 40 floors of climbing, albeit at a leisurely pace. Given the conditions I don’t think the view from higher elevations would have been very good.

Our last stop of the day, as the rain began in earnest, was the “Spiky Bridge” built by convicts in 1843 of fieldstone using no mortar. No one is quite sure why it’s topped with the vertical spikes but it certainly prevents loitering on the walls.

By late afternoon we were in a downpour and Jack drove us safely down the coast to Triabunna where we had a decision to make.

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