An uneasy calm after the storm

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 April, 1997, 12:00am

Ayear after the gun-toting madness of Martin Bryant, it remains impossible not to have exploration of Tasmania's pristine, inspiring east coast tempered by a lingering atmosphere of unease at the island's premier tourist drawcard, Port Arthur.

Perhaps this perception was the product of my over-sensitive imagination, on first visit to the imposing, well-preserved 19th-century penal settlement - thrown hideously into the world spotlight on April 28 last year when the disturbed, 29-year-old claimed 35 lives in a rampage.

But, standing amid the ruins of the main prison on an overcast and breezy day, a shiver went down my spine as I contemplated the unobtrusive rustle of the oak trees being eclipsed, out of the blue, by Bryant's claims to infamy at the Broad Arrow Cafe.

Even more eerie, in an environment already punctuated by the callous misdeeds of British prison masters many years before, was the experience of lunching in the 'prefab' building alongside the spot that was the epicentre of last year's horror.

Life, very slowly, is starting to return to normal for the local community - and, indeed, the deeply affected Tasmanian population of 470,000 - but signs of the tragedy are unavoidable throughout Port Arthur, and not just because of the simple and tasteful jetty-side cross in the shadow of the prison's stone walls bearing the names of the dead.

For one thing, there is literature all over the site advising tourists and journalists to be sensitive to the sorrow of the locals.

'There are a series of matters which are too painful for the members of the Port Arthur Historic Site to answer,' reads one pamphlet. 'If you have any specific inquiries, it is respectfully requested that you contact the Port Arthur Incident Recovery Centre; they have all these sensitive details discussed in a brochure.' Prickly subjects like gun law reform are also asked not to be raised.

According to the Recovery Centre, the healing process includes ongoing counselling and workplace rehabilitation 'involving staff in decision-making and allowing for each person to work through the tragedy at their own pace'.

A spokesman said the community had bonded and was showing 'great resilience and courage in overcoming the effects of the tragedy'.

More than 250,000 tourists visited the site annually before the massacre, although the tally nose-dived in the months immediately afterwards. Helped by a gradual return of Tasmanian visitors, who kept a respectful distance after the shootings, that figure should soon return to previous levels - or possibly be eclipsed as the site develops an additional poignancy.

It was a relief, in some ways, to leave the penal institution and examine some of the natural wonders of the Tasman Peninsula - about an hour's drive from the island's capital Hobart - which boasts not only Port Arthur but underrated natural sights like the Blowhole, where the Tasman Sea spits spray spectacularly through an erosion-formed tunnel in the rocks.

The water comes in surges every few seconds. This is one foamy tub you would prefer not to be in as you watch and listen from above to the roar of chunky pebbles rolling with the retreating surf.

From a nearby landmark, the Devil's Kitchen, a larger, deeper version of the Blowhole which is rather less visible, I ventured beyond the vantage point's perimeter fence towards the roaring Tasman Sea and, to my surprise, was rewarded for my mild boundary violation by one of the most spectacular cliff-side views I have seen; every bit as impressive, for instance, as some spots on the wild Transkei coast in South Africa.

The sea crashes on to jagged reefs, about 80 metres below your precarious perch, in a dazzling array of shades. In short spells amid the mesmerising turbulence, the water is clear enough for you to see moss on the submerged rocks and the to-ing and fro-ing of huge, tangled strings of seaweed.

On a previous visit to Tasmania I had travelled further up the coast past Coles Bay and Wineglass Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula where the sea breaks on to the virginal white sand of long, often-uninhabited beaches, and on to the breezy fishing town of St Helens, before cutting inland to Launceston.

But the focal point of the east coast remains Hobart, a city steeped in maritime tradition and with a nautical theme permeating many of its waterfront restaurants. Seafood is plentiful and deliciously fresh, with the local salmon giving Scotland and Norway's best a run for its money.

Visitors are unlikely to be let down by the oysters and rock lobster either - especially if washed down by one of the island's crisp rieslings. I am a little more reluctant to recommend some of Tasmania's young, rather oomph-lacking reds.

As cities go, Hobart has to be among the most laid-back ones you could experience anywhere. The population is about 250,000, and probably the only place you can be guaranteed to get that shoulder-to-shoulder feeling is Salamanca Market - and then only on a Saturday when half the city seems to be there for its 'big day'.

Locals and tourists rub shoulders amid the tightly bunched stalls, which offer everything from fresh vegetables - several Chinese stall-holders showed off the healthiest-looking greens I have seen - homemade biscuits and hot dogs to famed Tasmanian wood-carved items, jewellery, T-shirts, junk antiques and water-colour paintings.

You could have your fortune told, or an impromptu five-minute massage, or watch the ever-present 'wire man' jabber non-stop to himself beneath his 'Free East Timor' bicycle helmet while he shapes a range of contorted, mock furniture items.

Restored warehouses on Salamanca Place boast upmarket bookshops, antique shops and restaurants of a European, pavement cafe-type, while the tree-lined lawn opposite is a popular meeting point for many of Hobart's grunge-aficionado youths and students.

Tasmania, unfairly to some extent, has something of a 'Hicksville' reputation on mainland Australia, much of it to do with its lingering, state government laws against homosexuality. Local politicians are often at pains to point out that prosecutions, under this stubborn legislation, have not taken place for decades - which, of course, begs the question among gay lobbyists of why it remains on the statute books.

But old habits do, it seems, die hard in Tasmania. It was interesting to hear a radio debate featuring gay couples complaining of varied forms of hostility from proprietors at some of the many bed-and-breakfast establishments on the 'Holiday Isle'.

I'm not sure what our's would be like for gays, but the only 'hostility' we experienced at our serene, Victorian B'n'B in the city's Battery Point - A$50 (about HK$300) per person, per night, for a large room with generous sea views - was upon noticing the strict time stipulation for breakfast; it was a rather military-like 7.30am to 8.30am.

A remarkable feature of Hobart, nestled against both the banks of the sea and the 182-kilometre Derwent River which flows from the Central Highlands, is that the majority of the population appear to live in homes with enviable views of the water and widespread yachting activity.

But no view is as inspiring as that afforded from the summit of the flat-topped, 1,270-metre Mount Wellington, Hobart's imposing sentinel. It is snow-capped for at least half the year - generously from June to September when higher stretches of the road to the top are often unusable - and provides a stunning 360-degree panorama.

I made the mistake two years ago - it was the seemingly 'safe' month of December - of going up in shorts, and my viewing pleasure was necessarily short-lived as a biting breeze made its presence felt.

As long as you have ample all-seasons clothing, wherever you go on the island, the visitor, especially if from a smoggy Asian centre, cannot but be invigorated by the freshness of Tasmania's air. Blasts from the bowels of the Roaring Forties ensure that those bugs and germs with which we are all so familiar are usually kept well at bay.

The cherry on top for me, on both visits, was the presence of longtime friends in Hobart - friends with a well-equipped 10-metre yacht. Each time I have ended my trip with several blissful days at sea.

I do not mean challenging the violent waves that bash the chilly West Coast, or the monster swells south of the island, but the moderate-swelled, protected bays around Hobart which are rookie-friendly and ideal for recreational sailing.

Anchoring at dusk off Bruny Island and rowing ashore for a 'barbie' and several 'tinnies' of Cascade Bitter on a deserted, litter-free beach is the stuff of dreams; just one of the Tasmanian east coast's abundant natural pleasures.