It's been an educational week or so. We arrived in Melbourne after another thankfully smooth crossing on the ferry from Tasmania. We were now heading north to Sydney where the truck has an appointment for its annual service which would allow us time to enjoy the city. On the way however we had a lot to see that would give us an insight into both Australian history and culture. Whilst Alisha and Lucy had been studying this during their schooling for the last few months, they would now get to see some of it close up. First up was Sovereign Hill in Ballarat on the site of one of the big gold rushes in Victoria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Here an old gold town had been built showing life in the nineteenth century. I was a bit worried that it would be a gold town Disneyland and whilst there were aspects of that, it set out to explain how life was like in the old gold towns and was done very well. Alisha and Lucy absolutely loved it. They got to see how boiled sweets and candles were made. They saw real gold been poured into an ingot and they wondered around all the old buildings. We even went down an old recreated mining area. Well I did. Alisha and Lucy got about one minute in and decided they weren't going any further into the dark. Whilst there the girls thoroughly enjoyed he whole experience there were three things in particular they loved. The first was going back to school. They attended a short lesson at school recreating how a school would be in the nineteenth century in the gold town. They especially loved having to write with an ink pen dipped in ink. The teacher explained that this was how people wrote back then. Hang on a minute I thought. When I was 9 or 10 I had an ink well on my desk and we were given ink pens to dip into the ink wells just like Alisha and Lucy had been shown. I know I am getting on a bit but I thought, hey I am not that old! Gilly says she never had this so it must have all changed by the time she was at school (but that was a good few years later). The second thing they loved was getting dressed up in old costumes to have their photo taken in Sepia print. Alisha had been saving up her pocket money for weeks so they could look like proper little Victorian girls. Lastly they loved panning for their own gold. It was a hot day so it was the perfect end to the day looking for gold in the river. And they did find some very fine specks. Certainly not enough to get rich on or to spark another gold rush though. From Ballarat we headed to the banks of the Murray River and spent a pleasant evening camped by its side. We were here to visit Echuca which at one time was the third biggest port in Australia and the centre of the paddle steamer shipping trade. Wool, timber and other things were transported down the river to Echuca from where they were sent by rail to Melbourne and then shipped across the world. For about 30 years in the late nineteenth century the port was a key part of getting goods from the interior of Australia to England. Then the railways were expanded and in no time at all the port fell into disuse. Part of the port has now been restored and we went on a tour around it. With it been a port it was a lively place in the nineteenth century with lots going on and plenty of pubs to service the dock workers. The best part of the tour was going through the underground tunnel at one of the pubs that was used by patrons to escape through when the police raided after closing time. A number of the paddle steamers have been lovingly restored so we also took a short ride down the river on one. It was a longish drive to our next spot so we first spent a night at a lovely spot near a small river before camping on the edge of Wagga Wagga for a night. From there it was a shortish drive to the capital of Australia, Canberra. Canberra is a city that was designed to be the capital so there is lots of green spaces and wide avenues. Whilst it is a pleasant enough looking city the main reason we were here is that it has some of the best museums in Australia. As it was a holiday weekend it was easy to drive into the city and on the first day we were able to park almost right outside the Parliament Building. Here we took a tour to see the Australian Parliament. Whilst it is in a very modern building many of the trappings are very similar to the British Parliament even down to the colours of the seats where the House of Representatives are green like the English House of Commons and the Senate seats are red like the House of Lords. After that we headed to the museums and art galleries. We visited the National Gallery to see some wonderful aboriginal art as well as the National Portrait Galley. Whilst we have been studying a lot of Australian history I have to admit I had not heard of a lot of the people in the pictures in the Portrait Gallery, although Nicole Kidman seemed familiar. We also took the kids to the science museum which they loved as they could press lots of buttons, do experiments and lots of other things. They even had a 6m drop where you hung from a bar and just let go. The curvature of the slide softened the blow and you quickly slid to a stop. On seeing this Lucy decided she had to have a go. Whilst lots of kids were pausing at the top it did not take long for Lucy to grab the bar, hang down and then let herself go. Unfortunately the picture does not do it justice. One museum deserves a special mention, The National War Memorial. It was excellent with fantastic exhibits on both the First and Second World Wars as well as Afghanistan and other recent conflicts. As with most of the museums we visited there was an area for kids to interact in. So Alisha and Lucy donned costumes and sat in a helicopter and a submarine. But this museum had a very serious side too. It really brought home the horrors of war as well as the individual stories of some of the participants. The courtyard of remembrance was particularly powerful as it contained the name of each person who has died in the many conflicts in which Australian troops have fought. Also there was nowhere we could effectively camp and all the formal campgrounds were full. So for the first time in Australia we had to make do stopping in a rest area at the side of the road. Not the best place but we weren't the only ones. Whilst the road was busy it quietened down after dark. We were awoken though about 1am by some idiot driving around the parking area in what looked like a motorised chair! It made a hell of a racket but not as much at the thunderstorm that struck shortly afterwards! It had all cleared by the next morning so we went on a rather damp hike along the cliffs before heading to a camping area by a river. This was much better, a lovely spot and with lots of wombats for company. In hindsight it would have been better to spend a couple of days here. Still it's now time to head into Sydney. We are due a rest after all that history and culture.
Port Arthur, at the bottom of Tasmania, has a grim history. A place where they sent the worst sort of convicts; those that committed crimes after being transported; and those convicts they couldn't be put to work, including sadly, boys as young as 11. Despite its painful past, it is an absolutely stunningly beautiful natural area. The Tasman Peninsula's connection to the rest of the island is only a few 100m wide, the reason it was chosen as a penitentiary. It is covered in lush forests, logging possibilities was another attraction for the authorities, and sandy beaches. Often the weather is wild and stormy even in the summer. I can imagine arriving there as a convict; a solider guarding them; or the soldiers's families that it would feel like you were trapped at the ends of the earth. Thankfully though we were blessed with beautiful blue skies and sunshine, so we could appreciate its beauty. The huge open air museum of the gaol was very interesting and well done, the girls particularly loved making peg dolls of the commandant's wife. From Port Arthur it was back on the road again into the western highlands, only stopping for some delicious oysters, cherries, peaches and apricots from the side of the road. We were making our way to the south end of Cradle Mountain-Lake Sinclair National Park. Although the mountains in Tasmania are not very high they are covered with thick bush and tall gum trees. The Lyell Highway wound through gorges with steep sides; at the bottom there was dense rainforest and at the tops view of mountain peaks. It was all stunning. We had a long afternoon hike at Lake Sinclair, stopping at the end to admire the views and climb the fallen trees. That night we free camped in the local pub's car park and, bizarrely considering we were in the middle of nowhere, had one of the best curries I've ever had. Quite how the Sri Lankan chief had ended up there, we never found out, but he seemed very happy about it. You can guess what happened next....... The following day we enjoyed the wild views all the way down to the coast. We passed hydro-electric dams and mining areas, even with these massive areas of human caused damage it seemed that the presence of people was just temporary, soon the forest would take it all back. Ocean Beach, near Strahan, was hot and windy. The roaring forties trade winds come blowing in here from across the oceans. It was hot enough for a quick dip in the freezing surf and a sandblasted play on the beach. That night our car park camping spot filled with people watching the setting sun. The next day we found one of the most beautiful campsites we've had for ages on the shores of Lake Macintosh. It was a tight squeeze crossing the dam wall but we found a sweet spot on a little promontory sticking out into the lake. The weather was changeable, sunny with squalls of horizontal rain but we tried to be outside as much as possible to take in the views. Cradle Mountain is one of Tasmania's most beautiful wild spots. It's understandably popular, so a shuttle bus takes people to see it at Dove Lake. The weather was glorious, so we decided to hike the 8 1/2km in, before circling the lake for a further 6km then getting the bus out. Walking through the button grass plains we got great views of the mountains. The blue-black lake had sandy white beaches and was surrounded by pristine alpine bush. We camped that night beside a stream running into a lake. Tasmania has a great network of free bush camps in lovely surroundings. Although they might not have any facilities, not that we need them anyway, they are far nicer than being squashed in with lots of other campers in a caravan park. The Walls of Jerusalem National Park is considered remote, even in this rather remote part of Tasmania. Our 6 hour hike started with a long 3 hour slog uphill to reach a plateau, where we were rewarded with hazy views of the "Walls" ahead. The girls have hiked wonderfully over the last few days, as regular readers of this blog will know, they will walk if they can talk. So we've had lots of stories, thankfully they are both prolific storytellers as well as enjoying hearing them. That night we parked next to another hydroelectric lake, filled with the skeletons of dead trees, alone on the rocky shore. On our last day in Tasmania we spent the morning searching for wild platypuses on a quiet stretch of river outside Letrobe. We glimpsed several in the water by looking for their ripples. Our ferry to the mainland had managed to come away from its moorings the previous week in a freak storm in Melbourne and swung round 90 degrees damaging its car ramp and the dock. Thankfully no one was hurt and they managed to fix it. Fortunately they got it running again albeit on a delayed timetable. We had a wonderful time in Tasmania, we could have done with at least another week to see more of it. We've also been blessed with some fantastic weather, which has made visiting its beaches and hiking wonderful.
As we looked down from the viewpoint over dramatic Wineglass Bay the walk and the hassle had all been worth it. The weather was perfect, the sea pure blue and the sand pristine white. We could see right across the bush to the other bay and the shape of the bay gave it its name. The beach is often listed in the top 10 beaches in the world and it was easy to see why. However this made it very popular and it's safe to say we shared our view with loads of other people who had made the climb. I suppose this was to be expected. January is summer holidays in Australia and peak season for Tasmania. We had not been able to park the truck at the start of the walk as the car park was heaving. Instead we had had to park 2.5kms away down the road adding 5kms to the walk. Still we could not avoid the holidays and had been a little bit prepared for them. I had checked the ferry sailings to Tasmania as soon as we had arrived in Australia and it was already heavily booked so as soon as the truck cleared all the formalities we had booked the ferry for a 2 week trip to Tasmania. We had thought 2 weeks should be enough, after all Tasmania is pretty small, but after a hectic first week we realise we could easily spend longer here. It was a 9 hour packed ferry ride from Melbourne to Devonport in Tasmania and even though it was a day sailing we were glad we had booked a cabin so we could have some peace and quiet. Fortunately the Bass Strait was relatively calm so we had a smooth sailing. Tasmania offers lots of free camping options so as it was evening when we arrived we headed straight for the nearest one, camping in a sports field. Not the most attractive option but it was quiet and convenient. So what to do next: food and wine, beaches, culture, bush walking, so many choices. We decided to head to the Tamar Valley an area famous for its wine and food. Tasmania has great fruit, seafood, cheese and many other delights and we were keen to try some of these. First though the kids wanted to see an animal Tasmania is famous for, the strange Platypus. As we thought we would be lucky to see them in the wild we headed to the nearby Platypus House where they are researching them and the only other monotreme found in Australia, the Echidna. Our search for food met with less success. It seems that good food stops turn up when you are not looking for them but hunting them out proved more difficult. Since that day we have stopped off at a number of food stalls along the road for fantastic cherries, apricots and oysters but we were not so lucky when hunting them out. The wine was easier to find so yet again we had to stop for a lovely wine tasting. Our limited space in the truck means we can only get about 12 bottles in at any one time and we were still a little full from the wineries we had visited near Melbourne. We did manage to squeeze a couple more bottles in though. From there we headed to the beach at the Bay of Fires. The water here is an amazing blue with beautiful sandy beaches between orange algae covered rocks. The sand is not powder soft but instead is like small crystals and so it sings as you walk along. When we arrived it had started drizzling. The weather in Tasmania can remind you of England! Also we could not get a spot by the beach but had to camp just behind it. The next day though things improved considerably. The sun was out and I found a spot on the top of a sand dune right on the beach. We spent a lovely day playing and walking on the beach and when the sun started to set we could retire to the truck and still enjoy the views. From the Bay of Fires it was a lovely drive down the coast to Freycinet National Park. It was here that we did our lovely walk to see Wineglass Bay. That evening we camped by the wild beach with the friendly local wildlife. It was time for a bit of culture so we headed to the state capital Hobart. The council in Hobart let motorhomes stay at their showground and this was very convenient for buses into town. Mind you it was pretty popular. While we were there I counted more than 100 vehicles. Thankfully it was a very large area. Nearby was the world famous MONA museum, the Museum for Old and New Art. The museum is set on a lovely site overlooking the Derwent estuary and is set in amongst vineyards with a boutique brewery in its grounds. It's an amazing building and there are lots of funky bars and cafes to enjoy. The art is very modern and so it depends on your taste. Gilly and I are not particular modern art fans. The main exhibition was a large exhibition by Gilbert and George, famous British artists. It was quite confrontational to say the least. The girls just thought it weird. I am not sure what they thought of the work entitled "72 C***s" (asterisks added by me) which was 72 plaster of paris moulds of ..... Well you get the picture. And if you needed a momento of this, the gift shop sold them as a soap. Still the museum was well worth a visit. The next morning we headed into central Hobart for the weekly Salamanca Market. This market is set against the restored dock warehouses and is a hive of activity. It has been going for over 40 years and sells some great food as well as arts and crafts. We enjoyed a lovely lunch getting various treats to eat. The scallop pie was fantastic especially finished off with pancakes, raspberries and ice cream. We were lucky in that while we were in Tasmania one of Gilly's old Moscow friends was also there. They have a lovely beach house about 50kms from Hobart in quiet Marion's Bay. They had plenty of space so could easily accommodate the truck. It was lovely catching up with Julie, Hamish and their daughter Sasha. After taking us boogie boarding at the nearby beach they cooked us a wonderful dinner of local Tasmanian oysters and lamb. Alisha, Lucy and Sasha decided to camp out for the night in a tent which meant Gilly and I were able to enjoy a very rare peaceful night alone in the truck. The next day we were all headed to the cricket. The Big Bash twenty twenty cricket has become a big hit in Australia and the cricket was a sell out in Hobart with a record crowd for the ground. With the big crowd we needed to arrive early and had to first sit roasting in the boiling sun. Fortunately as the game started the sun went behind the stadium roof and we were able to enjoy the exciting game in the shade. The game went down to the last ball but unfortunately the Hobart Hurricanes lost by one run to the Perth Scorchers. It was good to see though that the top scoring batsman on the day was an Englishman; still showing the Aussies how to play the game! Along with the cricket we got close up of a few Australian cricket stars from a few years ago. Can you name them? To finish our lovely stay with Julie, Hamish and Sasha we were rewarded with an amazing sunset. A lovely end to a wonderful varied first week in Tasmania.