Tasmania: Why I’d Never Return to Paradise

As the plane’s wheels screeched on the tarmac, I turned to look out the window.

I thought we’d accidentally landed in someone’s paddock. As far as the eye could see, there was grass. The odd bale of hay dotted the landscape, drenched in the hot summer sun. There were no high-rises. No built-up fences. Hell, I don’t even recall if there were any other aircraft.

I turned to my aunt. “So, this is Tasmania?”

“Yep,” she replied as a wide Cheshire Cat smile slowly but surely appeared on her face.

When I was a kid, Tasmania was Australia’s “no-go” area. The laughing stock. The place where people walked around with two heads, an unfortunate result of genetic inbreeding (and ingrained classism). I never once considered going there as a holiday. It lacked Melbourne’s finesse, Sydney’s class and Brisbane’s relative proximity the Gold Coast. It didn’t even have that weird bus/train hybrid Adelaide had.

But a few years ago, there was a sudden, seismic shift.

In 2010, David Walsh used his gambling money to turn his quaint little boutique museum in Berriedale (an otherwise unremarkable suburb just north of Hobart’s CBD) into MONA — the Museum of Old and New Art. It caused a sensation — people flocked to Hobart from all around Australia and the world to try the in-house restaurants, sip the in-house wines and generally flex on people back home.

But of course, there was MONA’s raison d’etre — its art.

Within its sphere, MONA boasts the most extensive private collection of art in the Southern Hemisphere, from all historical periods from the earliest works to contemporary art. Both strange and terrifying, MONA boasts — among other things — an obese car and a wall of plaster-cast vaginas. Soon, talk of MONA’s unique brand of artsy weirdness reached all known corners of the known universe, spellbinding all within its reach.

One of the people to catch wind of this gossip was my mother.

In 2014, shortly after marrying my stepfather, she visited Tasmania for the first time. She went to Cradle Mountain. She went to the Bay of Fires. And, of course, she went to MONA. The infamous den of debauchery the art world had come to know and love.

She fell in love with the place — the culture, the climate, the isolation from the mainland and all its hustle and bustle. She started going more frequently — one annual trip turned into two, which then turned into three … until one balmy morning, in mid-April 2017, she slowly opened the door to my bedroom while I was engrossed in surfing the web.

“Emi,” she said in a chirpy tone of voice as she poked her head through the gap, “Can I ask you something?”

“Uh … yeah.” I put my iPad down, expecting the best and the worst in one fell swoop.

“How do you feel about moving to Tasmania?”

“No.” I was firm. I did not want to go to Tasmania. I had a life, academic and otherwise, right here. I had work. I had a boyfriend. And I was not prepared to throw away what I had been working so hard towards so my mother could indulge in her Tree Change fantasy.

“But Emi, you’ll love it there. It’s so pretty. You’ll make new friends. You’ll even find the love of your life there. Just come with us.”

The next thing I remember, it’s the end of 2017. My parents have bought the house. It’s a beautiful, open-space contemporary home situated in the hills of the Huon Valley. It has a steely, clean quality to it, nothing like our lived-in California Bungalow with its ripped wallpaper and its Art Deco plaster ceilings. Because of my lack of job prospects and money, I have no choice but to join them. Not to worry though, because I will be living in the granny flat out the back of the main house. My own space. What a concept.

All of my things are in boxes, ready to ship. My degree from my very recent graduation is in a plastic slip among them. It’s been an effort to clean up every other day for inspections, but someone has finally bought the house, and the big “SOLD” sticker covers the “FOR SALE” sign, a victory in a battle I was never involved in.

Eventually, the morning of January 3rd, 2018 rolls around. Me, my aunt and my grandfather are shuffled into a taxi with our hefty suitcases as my parents stay behind to hand over the key to the house. That morning was overcast, windy and threatening to rain — a suitable avatar for my mood. In the back of the cab, our two dogs whine continuously in the crate. They don’t know what’s going on. I share their pain.

Because our furniture has been bundled on the Spirit of Tasmania, our first week in the island state is spent in a lodge in Port Huon, an hour’s drive from Hobart Airport. Even in January, it feels dark and bleak. The clouds are thick and grey, cows mope around in endless paddocks, boats bob silently on the glassy river with nobody to greet them. On the slim and winding roads, traffic is but an alien concept. I am completely unaccustomed to this sudden change of scenery.

Once our furniture arrives, we move properly into the main house in Huonville, a 15 minute drive from our temporary lodgings in Port Huon. It’s as big and as beautiful as the photos on the real estate website made it look, but its sheer largeness feels like wasteful emptiness. Before long, I am seated on a leather couch in front of massive glass double-doors leading out onto a deck overlooking the garden. The view is enviable — sloping gardens, curvaceous hills, verdant trees. In the distance, Sleeping Beauty surveys her lush Queendom. To anyone else, this would be Paradise.

On my first foray into Huonville town centre, I notice that perhaps the reason our new house seemed so large was because the town itself is so goddamned small. Huonville is exactly the kind of small town us born-and-bred “city folk” so often love to complain about — a supermarket, a couple of pubs and a couple of Bottle-Os are the landmarks of the area. The main road is lined with tiny boutique shops with little foot traffic. A dilapidated bus shelter covered in juvenile penis-shaped scrawls anticipates hourly bus trips to Hobart, the folksy town of Cygnet and the laidback beach town of Dover via the Huon Valley’s designated “Forest Town” of Geeveston. Just a couple of hundred metres away from the bus shelter, a Woolworths presides over the township, its corporate banners a vaguely threatening yet timely reminder that progress is looming … oh, it is looming.

It is worlds away from the miniature cities I’d come to know as inner-city suburbs. Ashfield, with its rapid gentrification and clogged arterial roads. Burwood, with its flustered Christmas shoppers and hoardes of schoolkids waiting for the bus home. Strathfield, with its never-ending throng of people scurrying to their connecting trains, froyos in hand. Compared to those places, one can hear a pin drop. I almost once took the bus into Hobart to buy an endless supply of pins just so I could drop them at my feet to feed my auditory processes. I often wondered if it was the city that corrupted my hearing or the country that was cleansing the constant roar of Sydney traffic from my ears.

Occasionally, I take the bus into Hobart — not just to work, but just to experience something akin to being in a major metropolis. It is an eerie experience — being in the centre of Hobart is nothing like being in the centre of Sydney. It is a city populated by some 250,000 people — diametrically opposed to Sydney’s gargantuan 5 million — and it shows. Faces slowly but surely begin to repeat themselves. Unlikely friends shout each other’s names and go in for a warm embrace every five minutes. Long, detailed conversations about work and the kids and upcoming trips to Europe frequently play out between service staff and customers. It feels more like a community than a city. However, instead of feeling a sense of comfort and ingrained belonging, I feel a creeping sense of voyeurism. I feel like an ethnographer studying this odd community of people with their strange customs of coziness and togetherness. I feel like an outsider.

Sitting in Elizabeth Mall, I often feel a sense of emptiness. Like all that can fill it is activity, noise, life. Hobart is full of activity, of course, but it feels less busy. Less alive. Less complete.

I try to fight off this lingering sense of emptiness in a multitude of ways. I explore Hobart’s culture via the restaurant strips of North Hobart, the olde-worlde lure of the waterfront and Salamanca Place and the sandstone-carved paths of Battery Point. I begin to volunteer as a literacy tutor at the local library. I begin carving my niche in Hobart’s active spoken word poetry scene. I even say hi to strangers in the street from time to time — an interesting social development for a long-solidified hermit whose friendships are largely formed by way of social media. But nothing feels right. It’s as though I’m living in a Vaseline-smeared dream while completely conscious.

It is while sleepwalking through Tasmania’s state of being that I also experience another facet of its reputation — the cold.

Having to leave in the early mornings to travel to Hobart, I quickly realised something — I needed to learn the delicate and refined art of layering. If one is to go out in Tassie without a warm jacket, scarf and mittens, then Heaven help you. It is an art I still need to perfect - Tasmania is renowned for is crisp, frosty mornings and days in the Winter where no sign of sun appears, but it is also known for its aggressive sunlit days where your skin melts off the bone after thirty seconds outside. Sometimes, Tasmania can have both these things in one day. Plus rain. And hail. And snow.

It is because of these conflicting weather events, in conjunction with the almost total assurance that it will drop below zero at one point, that going outside during this time can feel like an ordeal. Buses with fluorescent lights and central heating feel like a welcome yet brief respite before being turned over to the harsh conditions once your journey is over. This climatic period can begin as early as March and end as late as November, hence the strong recommendation that one begin to invest in stylish yet practical, comfortable and warm outerwear. In Sydney, I wore short sleeves and cutoff pants as early as July. A totally unfeasible exercise in Australia’s southernmost state.

After months upon months of battling the elements (when I was regularly KO’d), I finally get to to visit the behemoth. The Pride of Tasmania. MONA.

The museum stands with remarkable self-assurance on the Derwent River. It’s picturesque in its haphazard yet perfectly contemporary architecture. And it is while walking through its twisting corridors that MONA’s reputed lack of sense suddenly begins to make sense.

A pool of petrol. Waterfalls with droplets spelling seemingly random words. Walkways of flashing lights that could readily induce seizures. All bizarre and wankerish - yet scarily accurate - representations of my state of mind over the past year.

And indeed it is over this past year that I have learned that Tasmania is a beautiful place that needs appreciation from the right people. And I am not the right person.

Whether you’re a cashed-up Boomer who’s grown tired of the city life or a young couple looking for a quiet place to raise a family, Tassie offers much. It offers a relaxed lifestyle, spectacular natural views and myriad opportunities for sustainable living (just ask all the folks who’ve moved down Cygnet way).

However, to my 25-year-old heart and mind, Tassie offers little. While UTAS offers some promise of a community for like-minded young people, there is almost no opportunity for meaningful employment, significantly reduced access to amenities, less people on your psychological wavelength (as Tasmania has the highest median age in the country due to it being a popular retirement destination) and a rental market which is rapidly gaining a reputation as the worst rental market in Australia.

Plus I kind of miss the sound of airplanes in the night. It feels too eerily quiet without them.

See you real soon, Sydney. it’s been far too long.