Better the Devil You Know

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Oceania » Australia » Tasmania » Maria Island
June 9th 2016
Published: June 10th 2016
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A very dear friend of mine, God rest his soul, used to maintain that you should always choose the second cheapest wine. The cheapest on the menu would almost certainly be something pretty foul, as any complaint could be rebuffed by simply pointing to the price. From there on up, though, you may as well save your pennies; most folk aren’t exactly connoisseurs and struggle to tell the difference between a decent basic tipple and one ten times the price, so best just plump for the next cab off the rank.

My own new policy for holidays is a similar idea in reverse; you should always pick the second best attractions. The real headline acts become victims of their own success, rapidly succumbing to the three ‘O’s; overbooking, overcrowding and overpricing, leaving them mostly overrated. Almost everyone tries to cram their way into the exact same spots, while just down the road will be something almost every bit as good with just a smattering of souls wondering where the hell everyone else has gone.

So on this, our second trip to Tasmania, it was high-time to leave this mug’s game and explore the more obscure. Luckily we’d already ticked off Cradle Mountain, Wineglass Bay and most other hot-spots last time round, way back when the prevailing sentiment was still that Tasmania was some long-forgotten hellhole, and not the latest must-see stop on the gourmet trail it’s since become.

Tassie’s principal draw is that it’s quiet, tranquil and relatively undeveloped compared to the full-on Aussie mainland. It’s arguably the least Australian of all the states, having more in common with New Zealand or parts of rural Wales, and as such finds itself the butt of many an inbreeding joke. These days, though, Tassie really seems to be coming into its own; just as the Kiwis were boosted by The Lord of the Rings, the locals here have embraced the boutique food explosion engulfing Australia. They’ve mixed in a little local flavour and turned it into the hipster capital of the Southern Hemisphere, but somehow retained much more authenticity than your average urban wannabe prat.

Nowhere are the hipsters more at home than right in the heart of Hobart in the old bars of Salamanca Place. These also prove an excellent antidote to Tassie’s other distinctly un-Australian feature; it actually gets properly cold here, a feeling I’d almost completely forgotten since leaving Scotland all those years ago. And I have to say, getting properly cold is still a thoroughly miserable experience, the sole upside being the perverse tingling pleasure gained on stepping from the frigid outdoors into the heart of a nice cosy pub. I suppose it’s a bit like make-up sex, the miseries of moments before suddenly overpowered and forgotten. Once again this is not really my usual scene, preferring simply to avoid the argument in the first place. One ex-girlfriend was so keen on the idea of make-up sex that she spent every waking minute desperately trying to get into a fight, till I had to point out in exasperation that perhaps it was time she started having make-up sex with someone else. Funnily enough this turned out to be the only thing she ever agreed with, rapidly moving on to make some other poor bugger’s life a misery.

Following her example we swiftly ditched Hobart and moved on to Bruny Island, an islet of cheese, scallops and whisky that time forgot, days spent traipsing over secluded beaches and wooded hills and nights of chilly camping at 6 degrees, with nary a warm pub in sight. We based ourselves at Encounter Bay, where back in the 1830s, long before Google Maps, Twitter or GPS a couple of exploring British and French vessels, both of whom were under the impression they were the only Europeans within a thousand miles bumped smack-bang into each other. Luckily in a rare moment of sanity, rather than opening fire they decided they’d just both Like the place on Facebook and name it for their Encounter. Quite a bit’s changed in both France and Britain in the intervening years, but probably not nearly so much on Bruny Island.

The rest of Tassie has altered a fair bit more, and not all of it for the good. The island, known in its early days as Van Dieman’s Land, rapidly gained such a bad rap for brutality and mismanagement that, like many a crackpot dictatorship before and since, they were forced to change the name to erase the memories.

And so Tasmania was born, since when they’ve managed to erase mostly just the native wildlife. I can see a similar scenario ahead should the bewigged one win the upcoming US elections, the nation rapidly finding itself renamed McTrumpland, somehow appropriate as he’s been known to tell the odd Whopper.

A day of drizzle saw us back in the car and over to the mainland, driving north all the way up to Launceston, which proved a slightly smaller and even more sedate version of Hobart. Nightlife was distinctly limited, save for a crusty little real-ale bar in St John Street, called, imaginatively, the St John, crammed to the gunnels with hipsters clasping their favourite boutique brew, proving the old adage that as long as there’s one good bar, you’re laughing.

With the sun safely back in the sky next morning we struck out up the Tamar Valley deep into wine country, stopping off to sample a few vintages on the way, all expertly described for our pleasure by the sommelier. At our first stop at Tamar Ridge we were offered a nice crisp Viognier ‘to freshen the palate’. Very pleasant it was too, but ‘best served as a sipping wine, as its fruity character means you wouldn’t want to have too much’. This made its purchase completely pointless for a philistine like me, whose principle enjoyment in a wine is its ability to get you nicely sozzled. Besides, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the second cheapest on the list.

From there it was westwards into the valleys and hills for a couple of days walking away from the crowds, a standout being the craggy Mt Rowland, which gave spectacular views out to Cradle Mountain, without being close enough to reveal the hordes of tourists swarming like ants on a pile of sugar. Nights were once again spent camping with the wallabies and possums, bedding down just after dusk to awaken to the dawn chorus.

After a return shoot-through Launceston for some beardy-brews and a damn fine curry, our last stopover was a real stand-out at Maria Island, four hours down the east-coast off Triabunna.

This little outcrop thirty minutes out to sea is a land of surprises. The first is that it’s pronounced ‘Mar-eye-a’, named for an enterprising Spaniard’s wife way back when most locals were yet to meet a woman who wasn’t named Sheila. In fact, given that it was originally a penal colony many of the locals possibly hadn’t met a woman at all in quite a while, so perhaps can be forgiven for the curious pronunciation. It did have the unfortunate consequence that much time was spent trying to rid from my mind the songs of one Mariah Carey, which, while being one of the island’s few downsides was nevertheless a sizeable one.

The second surprise, and the one that sees it off the conventional A-list, is the frigid little ferry ride required to get there. It’s strictly just you, your bags and your frozen bum on the bench seats, the warm interior of your hire-car being left forlornly behind on the mainland shore. The fact that accommodation is limited to rooms in the barely-updated old prison or camping (which I know for many people amounts to the same thing) also probably helps keep the numbers down.

This being Easter it turned out the prison was full, so we happily pitched up once again and had a couple of pleasant but somewhat sleepless nights being kept awake by parties of giggling teenagers and the munching of wombats chewing greedily on the grass outside. Often they were so close you wondered how long before they ate the tent itself, and a little part of me half-hoped they might start munching on the giggling teenagers, but wombats, as it turns out, are strictly vegetarian.

That having been said, the island does have one notably carnivorous animal as a major drawcard. On our last visit to Tasmania just a decade ago Tassie Devils weren’t hard to find. Even then, though, there were dire warnings of their vulnerability, the threat of extinction looming in good part due to them being just too damn carnivorous for their own good.

A plague had recently beset the poor devils, in the form of an infective facial cancer passed on all too freely due to their habit of biting the hell out of each other whenever they felt a bit frisky.

Ever since the Eighties we’ve been told about safe-sex, and just what constitutes risky behaviour, but I don’t recall ever being specifically warned not to chomp clumps out of my partner’s cheeks. Perhaps I simply haven’t read the small print, but love-bites don’t seem to feature prominently outside the realm of giggling teenagers, Tasmanian Devils and possibly the various sexual conquests of a certain Mr Luiz Suarez, for whom safe-sex presumably involves wearing not only a condom but also a muzzle. If you ever do find yourself in bed with a Uruguayan soccer striker, I’d recommend keeping yellow and red-cards within easy reach on the bedside cabinet, as well as the odd can of pepper-spray for the times when he really can’t control himself.

Unfortunately back in the world of the devils this is all just standard foreplay, and the dire warnings of the scientists have come to pass, with over 90 percent of the wild population having disappeared. As a result Maria Island has been selected as a sort of natural Noah’s Ark, thirteen pairs of innocent virginal young Devils being introduced back in 2013 as a living, walking seed-bank should the mainland’s dirty devils finally manage to shag each other to death. So far it seems to be working as the 26 have already turned themselves into 82 at last count with no ill effects, breeding like particularly bloodthirsty rabbits.

We even got to see one of the little guys, as they’re not such shy creatures, one sashaying menacingly right through the middle of the camp kitchen, which proved a good way to silence the giggling teenagers. Fortunately it did so without actually maiming any of them; turns out it’s Better the Devil You Know.

The remaining days were spent exploring the stunning beaches and hiking the hills for great views to the south, which hopefully we’ll have time to explore at closer quarters on our next trip, as all too soon it was time to return to Hobart for our flight home.

Maria is in many ways a microcosm of Tassie and indeed Australia itself; a truly beautiful land with a somewhat dark past, a surprisingly sunny present, and a hopefully promising future, so long as it chooses not to follow the Devils’ path in cutting off its nose to spite its face.


10th June 2016
Painted Cliffs, Maria Island

Painted Cliffs
Like a resplendent piece of fungi...sandstone displaying it's finest...beautiful!
10th June 2016

I enjoyed this blog about my adopted home, and yes I can confirm that it gets very properly cold and wet here :) I was interested to read your thoughts on MONA after I saw the art photo...did you go?
10th June 2016

MONA was,.... Interesting! I liked it, Debbie not so keen, but still a fun day out due to the ferry ride, markets and wine- bar! The whole place is made all the more surreal by being in Hobart, not not, say New York or Paris...
12th June 2016

Second cheapest wine
Unfortunately Ive been told by a marketing consultant friend that the second cheapest wine is always the worst one. Apparently people never choose the cheapest in order to avoid appearing, well, cheap, so restaurants cash in! Great approach to destinations and attractions though, and made for a really entertaining blog- thanks!
29th November 2016

Beautiful Maria
I live in Triabunna and operate the coffee van at the wharf where the ferry for Maria Island leaves from . We see everyone who boards the ferry and unlike the convicts that departed from here for the island between 1825 and 1850 they are all excited to be going. Unfortunately, as you found out, occasionally there are school groups who have excursions to the island and as kids are they can be a little rowdy. On the visitors return, be it after a day trip or a weeks camping, we have not heard from anyone who was disappointed with their visit and many vow to return for a longer stay. PS. The devils are still doing very well without any sign of disease. Safe travels. Tom

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