The Hyundai i30 struggled to reach 110. That’s the speed limit in these parts. It smelled like a brand-new car; its fairy floss blue exterior was shiny, and its brakes were tight, but it drove like something that’d been around the block once or twice. It had eighty-thousand kilometres to its name, and more scratches on its back-end than the most decorated lady of the night. This Hyundai i30 was a slut, but I wouldn’t say that to her face. Not while I tried to navigate foreign terrain. I reckon at least one-hundred tourists had graced her seats. I brought protection for this journey, full comprehensive car insurance. A choice I didn’t regret as one Tasmanian local rode my ass over every hill and bend. The speed limit remained the same – one-ten. All I needed was a quoll or any other indigenous marsupial to hop its way onto the narrow-lained-highway and I’d be a goner. As well as the brawly ute driver behind me who made sure I couldn’t see anything else in my rear-view mirror. This is Tasmania. The seven-triple-o. This is the Devil’s Land, Van Diemen’s Land. An island at the bottom of the world.
The flight in from Brisbane took longer than expected and I wanted to make it to Port Arthur before nightfall. Accompanied by my newly wedded wife, Letitia, we hooned down the highway like a pair of people who knew where they were going. It was 2:45pm. The sun had little time remaining in the sky, but the darkened clouds were already making me second guess the clock. The sky stretched across an endless landscape, not broken by high-rises and shopping malls, but accompanied by shimmering lakes and large, looming trees. The sun became a strobe light in the corner of my eye as we flew down the narrow road; the trees encapsulated our view left and right, only giving enough light for the sun to peak through. It flickered and flickered. Then it was gone. Hidden behind another cloud.
We were somewhere near Sorell when we saw our last grocery store. We were somewhere near Taranna when we saw our last car. In my mind I thought Port Arthur was a bustling community. A final frontier at the bottom of the world. Or at least a small town with a couple shops, maybe a butcher, a newsagent, and streets where you must slow down for pedestrians. It’s not. Wooden houses lined the highway as we moved from suburb to suburb, climbing lower into the globe. Smoke swirled out of each chimney warning of the cold that awaited us outside our blue Hyundai. We passed the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo. We passed quaint B&Bs nestled amongst devilish trees with signs that read ‘B&B and Real Convict Museum’. We didn’t stop, not for anything. We continued down the highway, further into the devil’s lair. Demented trees twisted and contorted their way on either side of the road like something out of a Tim Burton movie, equally beautiful and terrifying. The sun couldn’t peak through the thick layer of wood shading the roads.
I needed to get to our accommodation before we lost anymore sunlight. And the trees had begun to feel as if they were moving closer to the road. A sign read NRMA Port Arthur Holiday Park. We pulled in, I grabbed the keys. I asked where the closest Woolies or Coles are. The receptionist smiled.
“The closest Woolies is an hour and a half away.” I sighed. “But there’s a small IGA down the road if you want the basics.”
That’ll do, I thought. We unloaded our gear into our two-bedroom cabin, poked our heads around the spacious rooms, noticing the spa bath and well equipped electric fire place in the corner. This’ll do nicely. Tall trees shaded our veranda, beyond them the water lapped upon the shore of Stewarts Bay. I flicked the flames on to warm the cabin up and headed back onto the highway. We need food.
The IGA was small. As if we stepped back in time fifteen years and wandered into one of those independent grocers who had the balls to set his own ridiculous prices. Five dollars for a packet of Doritos. Fuck that. We loaded up on snacks and grabbed a bottle of Tasmanian red. We didn’t worry about anything for dinner, we were booked in for an After Dark Package at the Port Arthur Historic Site, a stone’s throw and a quoll’s jump down the road from the Holiday Park. We were going for the infamous Port Arthur Ghost Tour, accompanied by a nice Tassie meal at the 1820 Restaurant.
The sun was barely noticeable as we pulled off the highway and back into the Holiday Park. The hauntingly tall trees blocked the remainder of the sunlight, no street lights to aid wandering drivers. This is where the Devils come out to play. Just give it a few more hours.
We were booked in for a 6:30 ghost tour, dinner would follow. The lights on the road were only those illuminating the Historic Site sign, and those beaming from the front of the Hyundai. After navigating the entrance maze to the Historic Site, we entered the lobby. Tour groups lined outside the gift shop while a group of school students finished their dinner at the Café. I hadn’t seen this many people since leaving the plane five hours prior. It was a welcome sight. At least now Teish and I knew we weren’t the only ones in Port Arthur. We jumped on the back of a line of people, assuming they were waiting for the ghost tour. The average age of the group was close to retirement. We were travelling Tasmania during the off-peak season, after all.
Our tour guide paced back and forth with a black leather trench coat and black Akubra to match. Her name was Susan. She held a gas lantern in her hand. She looked like a female Van Helsing, but I don’t think that was the vibe she was going for. She led our group outside into the night air. The three-degree chill stunned the elderly, as if Death itself was waiting at the door. For the next hour and a half, we trekked through the historic site of Port Arthur. Aided by a handful of gas lanterns, we gazed upon darkened buildings, a church with a bloody history, the most haunted house in Oz, and an apparent haunted insane asylum. Our tour guide did her best to add emotion and terror to her stories, but it came off as a tired act. I stood towards the back of the group trying to figure out what the fuck we were looking at. The buildings were black blobs, barely undisguisable with the little light lit around us. The tour did get substantially creepier as it continued, though my chills barely reached a terrified state. I was hungry, and I was counting down the minutes until I would be nestling a glass of wine.
It was obvious that majority of the tour group had been at the site all day, and understood the buildings they were looking at. Teish and I, on the other hand, were just here for the ghosts. Maybe a quick history lesson too. But we soon realised that without a visible object, our tour guide’s stories of the buildings were merely just stories. The realism was lost on us. And the ghosts didn’t come out to play.
For entrée I ordered the soup of the day, which was a tomato soup accompanied with sourdough and cultured butter. Teish ordered the tempura king oyster mushrooms with wasabi leaf pesto. My main was handmade beetroot and ricotta ravioli with spinach, sage burnt butter and walnut crumble. Teish, parmesan and pine nut crumbed Marion Bay chicken with panzanella salad.
The soup was rich and smooth, like expensive silk. It warmed me with each spoonful and each dunk of my sourdough into the vibrantly red soup. The acidity of the tomatoes did become tiresome towards the end of the dish, though it was a humbling start to the meal. From the bite of Teish’s food I managed to sneak, it was a balanced combination of textures and flavours, and I wish I ordered it.
I washed the acidic film out of my mouth with a swig of my wine, the Beautiful Isle Red Delicious from Legana, a wine made in the northern lands of Tasmania, outside Launceston. In between courses, our waitress informed us of the produce and products that many Tassie restaurants have in common. We were told we’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant, bar or café that didn’t stock or use Tasmanian produce; an admirable aspect to Tasmanian food culture.
I scanned my main as it was placed in front of me. I accessed the number of ravioli on my plate, a crucial element to any ravioli dish is the quantity. I was pleased, I had ten yellow pasta pillows nestled amongst a heavy dosage of walnut crumble and burnt butter. The thin pasta veneer exposed a light pink colour inside, the beetroot filling. I took a bite. And another. I added a fork-full of the crumble. I could taste the butter, a lot of it. A nuttiness crept along my tastebuds. Whether that was the walnut or more of the butter, I don’t know. But the beetroot was non-existent in my mouth. The sweet bitterness of the beetroot had been overshadowed by the pool of liquid butter the ravioli had been sitting in. I continued to eat, but not out of love for the dish. I was just fucking hungry. Luckily, we had paid for the package online, Teish and I made a b-line for the exit once we finished and didn’t lock eyes with the chef or waitress.
I navigated our way along the blackened highway. I kept an eye out for any unsuspecting marsupials and dodged potholes on the drive up to the Holiday Park. The warmth of the fireplace escaped as we opened the door to the cabin. I poured myself a glass of wine bought earlier in the day. I collapsed on the couch as Teish began the spa bath. The fire radiated and danced along the glass encapsulating it. The red wine warmed me further. This is living at the bottom of the world.
To be continued.